Windham Life and Times – May 11, 2018

Bette Davis and Chick Austin

Bette Davis greets fans at the Windham Playhouse

SHE ATTENDS WINDHAM PLAYHOUSE IN 1948

In 1948, Bette Davis agreed to attend one of Chick Austin’s performances at the Windham Playhouse.  You might wonder, as I did,  how Austin and Davis had formed their friendship. In Magician of the Modern, Eugene Gaddis details their relationship. “When Chick Austin arrived in Los Angeles, he was Paul Byk’s guest in one of the poolside cottages at the Garden of Allah, the former residence of the Russian actress and silent film star Alla Nazimova. It had become a popular resort hotel for writers like Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Christopher Isherwood, and W.H. Auden, along with artists, musicians, and movies stars. In 1943 Hollywood and New York were the two most stimulating places to be for anyone involved in the arts, and the Garden was a prime location for a meeting place. Chick already had friends in the film world—John Houseman, Virgil Thomson, Ruth Ford, Tonio Selwart, and George Balanchine among them—and Helen’s brother-in-law Willie Graff was in the movies. Chic soon had a large circle of acquaintances. Bette Davis, with her New England background, developed and immediate rapport with him…Chick soon bought a house on Miller Drive in the Hollywood hills overlooking the city, where he could throw his own parties. ‘It was always an event if you went to Chick’s.’ Angela Lansbury remembered, He always had an incredible mixture of people.’ He reverted to his premarital habit of using every dish in the house and never cleaning up. When a friend asked him how he coped with the mess he replied, ‘Oh, Bette Davis comes in once a week and does dishes…” In 1946, Austin was appointed head of the Ringling Museum in Sarasota Florida. “After a brief stop in Hartford, he dashed back to Hollywood to give a birthday party for Bette Davis. When he found out that one of the actors from ‘Tis Pity, Paul Geissler, was planning to visit a friend in Mexico, he invited Geissler to accompany him to Hollywood first to help with the party. Chick decided that nothing less than a total redecoration of the house would do. He borrowed paintings, furniture, and silver from Adolf Loewi to create the perfect setting for his guest of honor, and the  party was one of his most dazzling.” In 1948, Ruth Ford’s brother Charlie with Pavel Tchelitchew, Bette Davis, Tonio Selwart, and his wife Isa visited Chick in Sarasota.

“He was now more of a celebrity in the museum world than ever, but as soon as Bette Davis told him she would attend the opening of Laura  at the Windham Playhouse that summer, he became once again the starstruck movie fan. He rushed to Boston to buy designer clothes for the leading lady and went all out on the set. At the last moment, Chick’s idol sent word that she could not come after all, but would attend the opening of the next play, Voice of the Turtle. Chick was so determined to impress her that, two days before Voice of the Turtle started rehearsal, he announced that he was bringing a professional company from New York to perform it. The summer actors were incensed, but when Miss Davis did appear, radiating charm, they all sat at her feet at Chick’s party in Uncle John’s.”

Despite Austin’s flamboyant and extravagant lifestyle, his true love was his theater and home in Windham.  He is buried on the Cemetery on the Hill.

 

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