Editor's note: The one and only Julie Harris passed away at her Chatham home on Saturday. She was 87. Ms. Harris was an incredibly talented award-winning star of screen and stage with strong ties to the local theater community. The following is a letter from WHAT's artistic director Dan Lombardo about Ms. Harris's character and what she meant to the Outer Cape theater.
by Dan Lombardo
For all of us at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater the passing of Julie Harris is profoundly sad. As with the passing of others whose lives touched millions, we’ll remember exactly where we were when we heard the news. Last night during intermission at the theater, I was beckoned into the bridge that connects the WHAT offices to the Julie Harris Stage. We sometimes call it The Bridge of Sighs, for it recalls the famous bridge in Venice.
My thoughts went back to one of the most joyous nights in the history of this company – the night Julie Harris dedicated the Julie Harris Stage. On June 23, 2007, with a standing–room-only audience, I had the honor of escorting Ms. Harris into the theater. We sat her in the center of the front row. Having suffered a stroke in 2001, we asked if, after the speeches, she would simply stand to accept the cheers that would undoubtedly follow. When the time came, WHAT staff members brought two dozen red roses to her seat. She stood – then leapt onto the stage. Her face beaming, she kissed the palm of her hand, knelt down and slapped the deck of the Julie Harris Stage. A stage was born.
Julie Harris, sometimes called “the first lady of American theater,” had been one of WHAT’s most avid supporters. In her words:
I’ve been going to WHAT since I first moved to Chatham. My first production was American Buffalo , a thrilling experience, and I have had many, many more every season at WHAT. Great theater has the power to transform the way we see, the way we feel, and WHAT performs wonderfully stimulating, challenging theater.
In 1991, Julie performed for WHAT for the first time, opposite George Grizzard, in a one-night performance of Love Letters.
In 2000, Julie agreed to be the Honorary Chair of a new WHAT board of directors. She agreed, to our astonishment, to also star in our production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane. This was the first production Carol Green, WHAT Board President, (2000 – 2010) saw, as she recalls in this statement:
All of us at WHAT will remember Julie Harris for her constant presence and encouragement of the work of our theater. In 2000, she graced our stage, appearing in Martin McDonaugh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, with Stephen Russell, and directed by Jeff Zinn. Extra performances were graciously added to accommodate the long lines waiting for the chance to see this extraordinary show.
Since the opening of our new theater in 2007, and until her recent decline, Julie attended every production at this beautiful new venue, named in her honor. She always sat in the center of the first row, and after the curtain, asked the actors to remain to talk to her. It was a time each will remember and always treasure.
We at WHAT will always honor Julie Harris' memory.
Both Julie Harris and Carol Green were here in hardhats to break ground for the Julie Harris Stage on August 20, 2006. In the spring of 2007, Julie put her hardhat on again for a tour of the nearly completed Julie Harris Stage. As a souvenir she picked up a short length of cable, and waving it over the stage saying “A magic wand,” and taking it with her. Inspired by this I asked if she might have a bit of theater memorabilia she would like to contribute to the time capsule we would bury in front of the theater. A week later she called me to her home to pick up two items: The wood and silver cross and beads she wore in the role of Joan of Arc in The Lark on Broadway in 1955-6, for which she won a Tony, and a leather bound volume of Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part II, in which she performed in Britain in the 1940s.
Julie Harris’ most famous role was, arguably, her Tony-winning portrayal of Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst on Broadway in 1976. My memories of Julie go back to the 1980s, when I was curator of the Emily Dickinson collection in Amherst. Julie and I appeared in the same documentary on the poet, and I will always think of these two legendary American women as sisters.
Emily Dickinson’s words about the death of her mother seem somehow appropriate for Julie Harris, the spiritual mother of WHAT, as well:
The dear Mother that could not walk, has flown. It never occurred to us that she had not Limbs, she had Wings—-and she soared from us unexpectedly as a summoned Bird—-
It was fitting that the news of Julie’s passing came to WHAT during a sold out performance on the Julie Harris Stage, one that ended with everyone in the theater on their feet cheering.
We’ll dim the lights in your honor, Julie, then burn brightly in celebration of your life and art!
This letter was originally sent to WHAT supporters.