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A Man of Vision, Flair & Magic

New Play Looks At Legendary Wadsworth Director Chick Austin And His Wife, Helen

By FRANK RIZZO, Courant Staff Writer

October 14, 2007

Come enter another world. One that is filled with art, life and magic. A world where Hartford is a simmering, shimmering destination city, attracting artists, the intelligentsia and those who seek the first, the new and the next.

At the center of it all is the Wadsworth Atheneum and its personal beacon to the world, A. Everett "Chick" Austin, the charismatic, flamboyant director who reigned from 1927 to 1944. Austin, with his enthusiastic embrace of classic and modern tastes, turned the museum into a progressive presence in the international art world, despite pressures from steady-habit Connecticut Yankees resistant to change and the strange and worried about the bottom line.

It is a world being brought to life on stage in David Grimm's "Chick, the Great Osram," which is in previews and opens Friday at Hartford Stage, which commissioned the work.

Grimm got together recently with Eugene R. Gaddis, Austin's biographer and curator and archivist of Hartford's Austin House, which once was the home of Chick and Helen Austin and is now owned and operated by the museum.

The 130 Scarborough St. house is a perfect reflection - and metaphor - of Austin's bold and beautiful aesthetic.

"It's a house of illusion," says Gaddis, whose 2001 book was titled "Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America." "It's more about bringing your imagination to life."

Indeed, at first glance, the facade of the home has the classic lines of a formal white Italian villa. But there's something not quite right, not quite real about it. The house is only 18 feet deep, almost as if it were a Hollywood set. Packed between the front and back walls is a surrounding work of art

Downstairs is a lavish dining room, a swoony setting of grand taste that makes you feel you're a Renaissance Man embarking on a gondola trip. Upstairs, you become Modern Man, faced with the shock of the new, a setting with glistening surfaces, clean lines and the freshness of the 20th century. Yet both worlds exist as celebrations of themselves in a home occupied by a man who had many contrasting, paradoxical passions that he indulged extravagantly.

Out back, the veranda overlooks the spacious lawn and the Park River. Grimm the playwright and Gaddis the biographer sit to consider the couple whose presence is still being felt.

"Up until two years ago, I had never heard of Chick Austin," says Grimm, whose last play at Hartford Stage was the verse comedy set in the swank world of the 1930s, "The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue." He's also had play readings at Hartford Stage such as "The Savages of Hartford," "Once in Elysium" and an earlier version of "Chick," presented last fall in the Wadsworth Atheneum's legendary theater, home to some of Austin's greatest triumphs, including "Four Saints in Three Acts," an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson.

Austin was the wunderkind who at age 26 took over the oldest museum in America in 1927 and brought it into the 20th century, embracing modernism while honoring the past. With a connoisseur's eye and the confidence of a large acquisition fund, Austin went on a breathtaking buying spree, enhancing and expanding the museum's already distinguished collection. During his 17-year tenure, he turned the museum - and by extension Hartford - into a center of international art as it embraced not only art but music, theater and dance.

"People from all over the country - and the world - came to Hartford," says Grimm, referring to the exhibits, concerts and parties Austin presented with taste and flair. "Think of people [around the country] saying, `We're going to Hartford next weekend.' The response now might be, `Are you insane?' I don't mean that as an insult - but seriously. But Chick really did put Hartford on the cultural map in a massive way."

Austin was also a larger-than-life character perfect for the stage, says Grimm, who turns 42 this week.

"He had boundless energ, and the artistic impulse just oozed out of him," says Grimm, pointing to Austin's mesmerizing effect on board members, the press and the public. "He's such an exciting character, it's a bit daunting to try to capture him on stage."

He was a man of many faces - and costumes. One of them is the source of the play's title, referring to the character of the Great Osram, the shaman Austin became as he performed magic shows to raise money for the museum's education programs.

The sorcerer persona seems right for Austin, dazzling with charm and sophistication, a wizard who could make worries about deficits disappear, who could juggle multiple projects without missing a beat, who could pull an exhibit together at the last minute like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat.

But eventually he lost the magic - at least as far as the Atheneum was concerned, as it weathered the Depression and World War II. Austin also became distracted by offstage voices: the call to distant places, a fondness for amateur theatrics, his own sexual explorations.

"It became difficult during the war," says Gaddis. "The world was changing, and the museum's activities needed to be curtailed. They felt they couldn't spend a lot of money on programs, and at the same time Chick was very frustrated and upset. He knew exactly what kind of extraordinary art and architecture was in danger of being destroyed in Europe, and he knew that artists themselves were in great jeopardy."

Board members increasingly became less enchanted with Austin, looked ever closer at his spending and became disgruntled at his absences and dalliances. When he finished a sabbatical in 1944, he was asked to resign.

After the war, he faced a different modern world, one that would not include Hartford - until his last days, when he returned home to Scarborough Street to die in 1957. He was 56.

"It does make me think about how the creative impulse can be expressed in many ways," says Grimm, who found much to identify with in Austin.

"The smoking part is just superficial," he says, lighting up another cigarette. "I also loved his resistance to authority, his love of art and his endless exploration of what art is.

"There was a luxuriance about him and his world, a sensual, extravagant beauty that is so much fun to live in. He was a museum director, but he was also an artist, and he put that artistic talent into his own life. And for him, art was not only important, it was vital."

Grimm's research, which included poring over Gaddis' definitive biography, was massive, he says. Grimm's previous work includes plays based on historical literary figures Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Christopher Marlowe and Dorothy Parker.

"You absorb it all, but then you have to make your own thing out of it," he says. "I want to capture that essence, but one needs to take certain dramatic liberties. I'm presenting the characters as I see them."

Grimm says he was not tempted to analyze Austin, whether it be his family background (a smothering mother, a distant father) or his sexuality (Austin had several male relationships in what could be described as an "open marriage").

"I'm completely bored by psychological theater," says Grimm. "I have no interest in it whatsoever, because that, to me, is looking for answers as opposed to looking at what are the good questions. An answer is a period at the end of a sentence, and a question leaves room for thought."

Grimm says he was particularly interested in the Austins' marriage. His play is a two-character work made up of alternating monologues by Chick, played by Robert Sella, and Helen, played by Enid Graham. Sella and Graham are husband and wife.

"How does an artist function in an everyday relationship, in a marriage?" says Grimm. "How does one marry and live with an artist, because artists are changeable, chameleons? They're easily bored. They move on from one thing to another, and a relationship needs a certain amount of continuity and attention. Artists can sometimes forget about other people's feelings, or not even be aware of them, and that can cause pain. But the one thing I did discover was that Chick and Helen loved each other enormously, and it was almost a subterranean hum, a primal love that ran through their lives together."

"I think David has captured the relationship between Helen and Chick in a very beautiful, sensitive and moving way," says Gaddis, who adds that, as someone "who knew and was very fond of Helen Austin, the play is having a powerful effect on me.

"But I also think one shouldn't expect that this is a documentary," he says. "David has done what all artists do: They compress reality and use their own sensibilities to create - in music you would call it a rhapsody or a fantasia, in this case on the theme of Helen and Chick. But it's its own work of art."

"CHICK, THE GREAT OSRAM" continues at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St. through Nov. 11. Opening night is Friday. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., with matinees on selected Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2. Tickets are $23 to $64. Tickets and information: 860-527-5151, www.hartfordstage.org.A free afternoon discussion with Austin biographer Eugene R. Gaddis will be held Nov. 4 in the theater after the matinee.

"The Theatre of Chick Austin," an exhibition of photos, illustrations, costume designs and other artifacts representing Austin's love of the stage, is on display at Hartford Stage through Nov. 11.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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