Frank Wicks might be the first person in the history of the U.S. Army to stay in longer than he had to because of theatre. He was discharged and spent one more week in the service to finish a play he was working on at his base in Virginia, certainly unusual duty for a member of the armed forces.
“They didn’t know what to do with us after the Bay of Pigs, so I moved out of the real barracks into a small prop room at the Essayons Theatre, painted my cot yellow, hooked up a phone, set up a bar, and painted a rug on the floor,” Wicks wrote in an e-mail. “Every morning I’d go to the light booth and bring up a sunrise on the cyc and have my morning coffee.”
Jon Jory, one of Long Wharf Theatre’s founders, and Frank Wicks served together in the military at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a period when the country was anticipating the lead up to war. Once the immediate global concern passed, Jory and Wicks were among those at Fort Belvoir whose charge was to put on plays to entertain the soldiers and residents living near the base. “We were great friends. We had a lot of laughs together,” Wicks said.
Wicks was one of a group of young, hungry theatre artists later tapped by Jon Jory and Harlan Kleiman to come to Clinton to start a new theatre, an organization that was Long Wharf Theatre’s direct ancestor. While the common Long Wharf Theatre creation story is that it was founded in 1965 thanks to the efforts of a couple of inspired Yalies and forward thinking community members who believed that New Haven deserved a first class regional theatre, the earliest germ of the idea was more personal than civic minded.
The first iteration of what would become Long Wharf Theatre was founded by a group of young friends cutting their teeth in the theatre world. The company Jory put together for the first season (and only season) of the Clinton Playhouse were primarily comprised of people he knew, like Wicks, from the service, friends from New York, and Yale classmates. A youthful, slightly chaotic energy permeated the entire enterprise. “It was a wonderful time. We were all 23, 24, 25 years old,” said Wicks, an actor, director, and stage manager who worked on Long Wharf’s first two seasons.
Jory, upon discharge from the military, attended the Yale School of Drama, where he met Harlan Kleiman, a mature 21-year-old who would handle the business and promotional end of the efforts in Clinton, and become Long Wharf Theatre’s first managing director. “Harlan got the money. He was a wiz kid,” Wicks said. “He was a magnet. People were just drawn to him.”
Clinton had a long history of summer stock prior to the arrival of Jory’s troupe in 1964, hosting a company run by a New York City producer for a couple of decades. Thanks to Kleiman’s promotional skills and Jory’s talented set of friends, the group was able to build on the goodwill left by the previous company. “We all had so much confidence. The world was ahead of us,” Wicks said.
Taking residence in the New England-picturesque, brick Clinton Town Hall, Jory and Kleiman produced eight shows in eight weeks that summer, paying the actors about $100 a week. “We were thrilled,” Wicks said. The group routinely filled the 600 seat auditorium with fare like Becket, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Night of the Iguana, The Boyfriend, A Thurber Carnival, Present Laughter, and The Hostage.
The success of the first summer encouraged Kleiman and Jory to approach New Haven’s leading lights to support their theatrical ambitions. “We all said ‘let’s come back again next summer. Then it was late fall and Harlan and Jon found the Long Wharf Theatre space (in the Food Terminal). Then we all got involved again,” Wicks recalled.
Wicks described the Clinton company members as a group intoxicated with the theatre, and brimming with their own potential. They were a group of friends setting out to do something that’s almost completely impossible – making a living in the arts. “I’ve lost touch with a lot of them, but I think about them a lot,” Wicks said of his early compatriots.