The Home of American Brilliance
By RITA PAPAZIAN
Author Alice Walker wrote about the tree of her childhood in her prose poem, "O, Landscape of My Youth." And just last month, residents, poets and writers gathered at the Robert Frost farm, now a national historic landmark, in Derry, N.H., as a 200-year-old maple tree was felled.
Like Walker, the old maple had played a role in Frost's creativity, including his classic "Tree at My Window," in which he notes, "Your head so much concerned with outer/Mine with inner, weather." Last June, forestry experts determined maple was in danger of threatening the Frost home. As the tree fell, several artisans collected limbs and pieces to recreate new work, such as walking sticks, foot stools and other furniture. The base of the tree will be used as a planter.
Just as that old maple figured prominently in Frost's poems, here in Fairfield another old tree, probably twice as old as the Frost tree, stands tall, a reminder of a grand period in time in the life of one of this country's most prolific Broadway musical composers Richard Rodgers.
The oak tree still stands majestically as the centerpiece of the front lawn that is part of the 2-plus-acre site, considerably less than the original land when Richard and Dorothy Rodgers bought the property in 1941 and resided there with their two daughters, Mary and Linda. Both women have lived successful, productive lives, and each is the mother of a successful composer. Mary Rodgers Guettel's son is Adam Guettel, who wrote the Tony Award-winning musical "Light In The Piazza." Linda Rodgers Emory's son is Peter Melnick, an accomplished composer of musical scores for television and movies.
Today, the Rodgers family's first of three Fairfield homes, a 1900 traditional white colonial, just north of the Merritt Parkway, is listed for sale with Sue Wittekind, a William Raveis Real Estate broker, for $1.3 million.
Recently in telephone interviews, the Rodgers sisters reminisced about their early childhood years at the house. And, yes, the sisters were glad to hear that the tree, which their father had described as "a massive oak with a ninety-foot spread" and which the family thought was "the most magnificent tree" they had ever seen, was still alive.
It even may be alive with the sound of music. After all, Guettel, author (Freaky Friday), screenwriter and Broadway composer ("Once Upon A Mattress"), said her father and his co-writer, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, would sit under the tree and map plans for "Oklahoma" and other musicals.
"It was very quiet; they were discussing, not composing," recalled Guettel, who moved into the house in 1941, when she was 9 years old. Her sister was 4 years younger. At the time, the couple had been feeling "cramped" living in the city. That year, the couple was also taking care of a young girl, the daughter of a British friend, who wanted to get the child away from the war strife in England.
Both sisters grew up hearing their father compose on the piano, but both expressed surprise that they would often hear their father play the classics, such as Brahms. While living in the Black Rock Turnpike house, Rodgers decided to take classical piano lessons, which Guettel believes greatly contributed to his varied musical approach evident in his musical scores.
Like her father, Emory also took piano lessons and became an accomplished pianist. She recalled times that her father would call her into the living room to accompany him on one of his compositions and he would become very impatient if she didn't play her part just at the right moment. She and her sister recalled their father as a very serious, at times, distant, stern man who would often isolate himself in his work at home.
However, the sisters recalled there was plenty of time for play. During the early 1940s, the game of croquet was popular and a "very serious" game at that. Richard and Dorothy enjoyed entertaining their friends, especially bringing out the mallets, balls and wickets to challenge their friends. The seriousness with which the Rodgers couple and friends took to the game was like watching a game of chess, Guettel said.
Before the friends would assemble on the back lawn, she remembered her parents giving her $5 to pull up all the crabgrass. "I thought that was a lot of money," she said.
"I loved that house so," Emory said. "I could tell you where every window is in the house."
She said moving to the house was such a wonderful experience after living in the city. "I was able to run outside without someone holding my hand or go to the park. I just ran down the hill. We had lots of woods and a brook."
Emory, who has collaborated with her sister for a children's revue for Mary Martin plus other children's songs, recalled her decision to run away from the house one time when she was very young. "I ran down the hill, into the woods and near the brook, and no one came looking for me. No one missed me," she said.
She also remembered that the family raised chickens on the property during the war. And she has unpleasant memories of one of the family's employees chopping off a chicken's head.
The composer had written that the Black Rock Turnpike house was "more functional than attractive, but suitably large enough for the kids to romp around in."
The house has 15 rooms with five bedrooms, including a master suite on the second floor and au pair suite on the third. Also, the house includes five fireplaces and three staircases to the second floor and is chock-full of nooks and crannies that provide imaginative settings for child's play.
Emory remembered when her sister and the British girl, Zoe, with whom her sister stayed in touch into adulthood, went out onto a roof. The children wrapped a cow's skull, which they had found in the woods, with a white sheet, shone a light on the skull and simultaneously rang a bell to startle the children's nurse sleeping nearby. Emory said it was one of the children's best playful moments.
There is a darker side to memories living in Fairfield. Guettel recalled the anti-Semitism the family experienced during their stay in town. The family was not permitted to become members of the private clubs. Also, she felt like an outsider at the private school she and her sister attended. During recess on the playground no one would play with her.
"I would slavishly do their homework. It took me a long time to figure it out," she said. "It was an ugly eye-opener for us children."
School life was creative arts. In an article about the houses of Broadway legends published in Architectural Digest in November 1995, Stephen Citron wrote, "Dorothy Rodgers transported all the antique furnishings from their Manhattan apartment to offset the casual furniture she had bought for the country."
Dorothy's creative talents were evident as soon as a guest stepped into the small foyer. Here, she "shellacked the floors and speckled them with paint drops flicked from a brush, a style she called stippling," Citron wrote.
Guettel said her mother called her floor painting her own "Jackson Pollock."
A black Steinway piano filled an entire corner of the living room. Citron said Richard Rodgers, whose career spanned six decades, needed no studio in the Fairfield house. He could write music with conversation going on around him.
The family lived in the house until 1945 and then moved back to New York City into a hotel. Guettel, who has five children and sits on the board of the Juilliard School, where she served for seven years as its chairman, and is a director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, said it was difficult to get an apartment at the time. She attended a private boarding school in Rowayton where she again experienced anti-Semitism. Her sister enrolled in a school in the city.
In his autobiography Musical Stages, Richard Rodgers, who composed more than 900 published songs and 40 Broadway musicals, wrote: " Between 1945 and 1949, we divided our time between our city apartment and our country house on Black Rock Turnpike. Soon after South Pacific opened, however, we sold the house and moved to Rockmeadow, a Colonial house with grey shingles and imposing white chimneys situated on about forty acres in Southport, Connecticut."
He had shared the news of
the move to Southport in a letter to his friend, "South Pacific" director Joshua Logan: "Our big news and excitement is that we have decided to stay in Fairfield and have just concluded the purchase of a place about three miles from our present house. It's a slightly smaller house than the one we have now but it has a swimming pool and tennis court and over 21 quite beautiful acres of land. We're really delighted and additionally happy that we decided to stay in Connecticut rather than move to Long Island."
The family lived at Rockmead-ow until the couple felt the house was too much work for them, and in 1965, they decided to build a contemporary home on Congress Street, the planning and building of which Dorothy Rodgers, a decorator and entrepreneur and inventor of the Jonny Mop, chronicled in her book The House in My Head, published in 1967.
Richard Rodgers died in December 1979 at age 77. After his death, the family sold the Congress Street home. Dorothy died in 1992 at age 83.
Citron wrote that "'Oklahoma!' has the scent of fresh air about
it, and perhaps it is not too farfetched to assume that some of what one
finds in Rodgers' score for this American masterpiece and its successor,
'Carousel,' was inhaled under that massive oak at Black Rock."