“I tell people, ‘When I die, I either want to be in bed, with all of my family around, saying farewell, or I want to lie down in the aisle and look up at the ceiling at Mortensen Hall at the Bushnell,'” said Alan Schwartz of Avon. “That, to me, is one of the most beautiful, beautiful venues I have ever been in, and my dear, I have been around.”
Schwartz, a former theater professor, director and actor, was first introduced to the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in the 1940s. He worked there as an usher with close friend and future famed director, actor and comedian Charles Nelson Reilly, who grew up in Hartford.
Like many, Schwartz fell in love with the theater and is one of the more than 200 people who are helping the Bushnell — which opened on Jan. 30, 1930 — celebrate its 80th anniversary season.
To do so, the theater solicited memories as part of its “Tell Us Your Story” campaign. The submissions told various stories: of a 10-year-old boy receiving a subscription to the Travel Series from his grandmother; of a husband and wife meeting during a performance of “Wicked”; of a woman accidentally running into President John F. Kennedy after his speech at the Bushnell Memorial in 1961.
Those who shared their stories — which may be used in Bushnell publications, on its website or in displays throughout the building — were invited to an anniversary celebration Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. It included a free concert by the Ensign Darling Vocal Fellows and a backstage tour.
Schwartz was looking forward to celebrating the place where he and Reilly spent a great deal of time.
“The Bushnell, on an artistic level, is not only Hartford, but it’s what Hartford ought to be and should ascribe to be,” he said a few days before the event. “It’s every blessed thing that the arts were meant to be.”
There, Schwartz witnessed what he calls magical performances (he sometimes worked as an extra), everything from “Showboat,” “Faust” and “Aida” to magician Harry Blackstone to the Shrine Circus, complete with elephants and horses.
“What the Bushnell did for me was it planted a flame in my identity. It was the flame of appreciation for the beauty of the arts,” he said.
Rosemarie Swiatkiewicz from Wethersfield first visited the Bushnell as a child to see an opera with her school. It wasn’t until 1980 that she returned for a show hosted by Sammy Davis Jr. for the Greater Hartford Open.
In 1987, she and a friend became season ticket holders.
“We both love Broadway,” she said. “We get to see some fabulous shows with first-class talent, and it’s right in your backyard.”
It was at the Bushnell that she saw “Guys and Dolls,” starring Lorna Luft, Judy Garland’s daughter.
“Just before the curtain went up, they brought in Liza Minnelli. She came in and sat a couple of rows in front of me to see her sister perform,” Swiatkiewicz said. “I thought, ‘I really do have good seats.'”
For Marilda Gandara, former member of the Bushnell Board of Trustees, the Bushnell holds sentimental value.
Though she visits the theater often (last weekend, she and her husband went to see “Hair”), it was in 2000 that her fondest memory occurred.
At the time, her father had cancer. Gandara took him and her mother — both of whom had migrated with her from Cuba in the 1960s — to see “Ragtime.”
She found the story line particularly moving, about a Latvian Jewish immigrant named Tateh who had moved to America with his young daughter.
“I knew this was the last time I would be there with my father because he was already close to dying,” she says. “It was such a powerful experience to be there with him, to see this play, where this man just takes the little girl by the hand, and they plunge into life in America.”
Tateh and his little girl experienced the difficulties of adjusting to live in a new country, much like Gandara’s family.
“To me, it was so incredibly moving to be watching this. It really felt like it was my dad and me up on stage,” Gandara said. “I’ve never forgotten it. I was grateful to the Bushnell for providing the place where this magical experience happened for me and my dad just before he went away.”
Published in Hartford Courant