Actor Lithgow revisits Akron roots

By Mary Beth Breckenridge
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Actor John Lithgow, who lived in Akron for two years, walks along Birch Allee at Stan Hywet Hall where his family used to live as he revisits places from his Akron past. Lithgow is back in Akron for the first time in 52 years. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal)

John Lithgow craned his neck as the car carrying him pulled through the gates of Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens.

“Oh, my God, there it is!” he said as he spotted the brick Tudor mansion looming over the grounds.

His head swiveled as he drank in the view.

“God, this is incredible. … It looks exactly the same and completely different,” he said. “It’s so much smaller.”

Lithgow, the stage and screen actor, hadn’t seen the historical estate since 1961 — or any of Akron, for that matter. As a teenager, he had lived at Stan Hywet with his family for two years while his father, Arthur, served as the estate’s first executive director.

Thursday, John Lithgow came back.

In town for an appearance at the University of Akron, he spent part of the day visiting a few of the spots that had shaped his young life.

Stan Hywet was his first stop, and his delight was palpable.

With a cluster of eager administrators in tow, he started with a tour of the second floor of the Carriage House, an office area that was once his family’s apartment. He pointed out where the dining table and the record player once stood. He dipped into what was once his bedroom, surprising employee Jana Modarelli at her desk.

“I’m so confused,” he joked with the staff. “What are you doing here?”

Then it was on to the Manor House, where his father had staged Shakespeare productions and where he and his siblings had roamed freely.

As he strolled from room to room, the memories flowed.

In the Music Room, he remembered a performance by the Budapest String Quartet and his father’s reading of A Christmas Carol on the room’s small stage. In the office of F.A. Seiberling, the rubber magnate who built Stan Hywet, he recalled how a friend of his father’s would photograph actors in front of the fireplace. In the newly restored gymnasium, he remembered an old wood floor so spongy with decay it would give an inch or two underfoot, and the ankle he twisted badly when he fell off a climbing rope.

He paused in the Great Hall to point out a portrait of Franklin Seiberling, one of F.A.’s sons. The younger Seiberling, like his sister Irene Seiberling Harrison, lived on the estate during the Lithgows’ time there.

Irene was “a feisty old lady” who lived in the Gate Lodge, he recalled. Franklin, who lived in the tower of the Manor House, “kept on wandering down and tripping off the security system.”

As Lithgow poked his head into rooms and pointed out artifacts he remembered, he alternated between laughter and quiet wonder. His most emotional response, however, came when he stepped onto the lawn behind the house.

“Oh … my … God,” he said, pausing between each word. He walked onto the grass and stopped, gazing at the terrace that had served as the stage for the first season of his father’s Akron Shakespeare Festival, a stage on which Lithgow spoke his first lines.

He pulled out his phone and called his older brother, Dave.

“I’m standing on the croquet court, looking at the back terrace of Stan Hywet Hall,” he reported gleefully. “I’ve seen everything. I saw the little library when Jerry Hornbein took all those photographs.”

Everything’s the same, he told his brother, “except everything’s about 2 feet shorter.”

10th-grade memories

As Lithgow approached Buchtel High School, he hoped to see some remnants of the place where he had spent his 10th-grade year.

He knew the old school was being demolished, but he thought he might find at least a shell, perhaps some physical reminder of the classroom where his love of art had once been nurtured.

Instead, he found a landscape of dirt mounds and puddles, edged by a chain link fence.

The loss seemed to sting. He snapped a few pictures through the fence and reminisced as he passed the football field, but his mood seemed subdued as he ventured into the new building that now houses Buchtel Community Learning Center, a combined middle and high school.

Then he spotted a pair of griffins.

The statues of the school’s mascot, once displayed outside the old building and now in the high school lobby, sent Lithgow into a rendition of the school’s fight song.

His spirits lifted further when 12th-grader Cashmere Roberts spotted him. “Lord Farquaad!” she exclaimed, a reference to the role he voiced in the animated Shrek movies.

Although the environment was unfamiliar, Lithgow found himself immersed in memories. He remembered how Buchtel students were derisively called “Cake Eaters” by other kids who saw them as privileged. He gazed at the championship banners in the gym, recalling a friend named Bill Pittenger who ran cross country and how Lithgow had “just about died” trying to keep up with the cross country runners in a Turkey Day Run. And when Assistant Principal Norma James launched into the alma mater, he did his best to sing along.

“For we, your children staunch and true,” she sang, “pledge lifelong loyalty …

“To you,” he joined in gamely, his index finger pointed toward the sky.

In the library, a 1961 yearbook was waiting, prompting a round of reminiscing with middle school librarian and 1966 Buchtel graduate Cheryle Franklin.

Lithgow pointed out a photo of his older sister, Robin, and found himself in his homeroom picture. (“There I am. Skinny. Flat top.”) He picked out his friend Irv Korman in a group photo. He paged through the faculty section, remembering a Latin teacher named Helen Pfahl who was jokingly called “the Pfahl of Rome” and a gym teacher he referred to as “Cap’n Dave Appleby.”

He paused on the photo of Fran Robinson, the art teacher who figured so prominently in his early aspirations to become an artist.

“The best teacher I ever had,” he said.

As he left the school, he recalled attending a prom at Old Trail School with Ruthie Hornbein, the daughter of the family friend who’d snapped the actors’ pictures at Stan Hywet. The other boys all wore white coats and black ties, he said. He wore his brother’s black sharkskin suit.

“This is definitely an archeological mission,” he said with a smile.

Ohio Theatre gone

Nothing remains of the Ohio Theatre on the southern edge of Cuyahoga Falls, only an empty lot with the neglected remnants of a parking lot.

But it was there that a young John Lithgow first experienced the intoxicating sound of an audience responding to his lines with laughter.

“This is it,” he said as he stood on the crumbling asphalt. “This was the beginning of my professional career.”

“Oh, God,” he added with a chuckle.

Fifty-two years earlier, Arthur Lithgow was producing plays on that spot, after being ousted as director of Stan Hywet and moving his Akron Shakespeare Festival to the Ohio Theatre. John Lithgow, then fresh out of 10th grade, spent most of that summer in the lighting booth. But he got the opportunity to take a turn onstage as the Beefeater, a minor but colorful character in George Bernard Shaw’s The Dark Lady of the Sonnets.

Lithgow didn’t fully understand his lines and unwittingly played the role with the befuddlement it was meant to have. And even though he didn’t understand why the audience laughed so hard, he reveled in the response.

“I’m pretty sure this is exactly the spot,” he said Thursday, holding his hands out wide. He gazed toward the distance through his sunglasses, but he was seeing a decrepit theater where a young actor’s passion started taking root.

Was he feeling a sense of loss? he was asked.

No, he said. Theater is ephemeral. The experience, he explained, lasts only as long as a performance.

“I’m in the business of obsolescence,” he said.

And still, the memories remain.

Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or mbrecken@thebeaconjournal.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.


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