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Helping a kid from the ’60s bring down the dressing room at the Shubert Theater

My 11th grade English teacher, Mr. Topitzer, did something special for me that no other English teacher at Hamden High School, 10 miles from Yale and New Haven, could have done.

He taught me how to crash the star’s dressing room at the Shubert Theater in New Haven at 247 College St. and get the star’s autograph. He knew I was in drama club and was a little star struck.

He gave me secret directions to the dressing room, which at the Shubert was not backstage but was actually two feet from a row of seats near the stage, behind a velvet curtain the size of a door, under a box.


It looked like this curtain would cover up an 8 foot window. It actually covered a tiny hallway and all you had to do was part the curtain and step inside.

Who would have thought that the star’s wardrobe would be hidden from view, especially at the famous Shubert Theatre, which is a rehearsal space for world premieres?

Once I was in the tiny hallway behind the velvet curtain, there would be a wooden door, according to Mr. Topitzer, who told me, “Just knock and ask to speak to the star.”

As it turned out, the dressing room was tiny, too, and the minute the door opened a crack, the star was right in front of your face as they removed their makeup.

How did Mr. Topitzer know all this? And how did he know I would love to destroy the star’s wardrobe? He was 28 and a new teacher. I was 16 and a high school junior.

I never asked him about his theatrical sincerity, but his obituary 50 years later in 2010 says: “After retiring in 1992, Neil Topitzer played with several theater companies in the New Haven area and also studied acting at the New School and HB studios in New York.”

Mr. Topitzer’s instructions worked like a charm. If the star was female, I always brought a rose as an offering. It didn’t hurt that I was 16 years old, 6’1″, wore a suit and tie, and also had a baby face.

Actress Carol Burnett, then 27, gave me a kiss as I presented her with the rose. Tallulah Bankhead, who was 60, brushed me off with a baritone voice of “Bless you dahling, bless you.” When she signed my program, she asked, “How do you spell your name, Dahling?” I started with “Keane,” and she interrupted, “I can’t get on with the last name, Dahling,” so I backed off to “Paul.”

It was a glorious bankhead break that was worth my embarrassment.

John Voigt – or maybe it was Troy Donahue – seemed unfazed by my sober innocence. And I can’t even remember who was in The Seasons.

I duly reported all of this to Mr. Topitzer, who was impressed that his instructions worked so easily.

Another tip he gave me was that he told me that playwright Thornton Wilder used to hang out at The Olde Heidelberg Restaurant on Chapel Street in New Haven.

To be honest, I didn’t know who Thornton Wilder was, but I was impressed that Mr. Topitzer did.

I was there from 1962 to 1975 and never saw Thornton Wilder. Mr. Topitzer struck here.

Finally, in 1975, after 13 years of waiting, I was sitting in The Olde Heidelberg and who should come in there if not Thornton Wilder himself sitting alone in his favorite round booth.

My friend and I asked to be seated with him and surprised him that he cheerfully said yes.

I was then a member of the Hamden Bicentennial Commission and later exchanged two letters with Mr Wilder, who also lived in our town of Hamden.

Then he died on December 7, 1975 at the age of 78.

I persuaded Hamden’s Bicentennial Commission, Wilder’s partner, Miss Isabel Wilder, who was then 75, to express her condolences and politely ask her to donate the desk and furniture from her brother’s study to the Bicentennial Commission for a permanent display .

Wilder had won three Pulitzer Prizes for The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942).

Today, in 2022, Thornton Wilder’s study is on display at Hamden’s Miller Memorial Library, thanks to our request from Miss Wilder.

Miss Wilder and I became friends for 20 years until she died in 1995 at the age of 95. She was interested in my career, and when my mother died in 1985, leaving my father to be a widower at 72, Miss Wilder wrote me a candid counseling letter dated 10/8/1986, almost like a surrogate grandmother:

“I’m going to talk about turkey… You shouldn’t waste a minute showing him what you can do as a son AND FIND OUT AND AGREE BETWEEN WHAT HE EXPECTS FROM YOU…” (their hats.)

Miss Wilder helped me six years later in 1992, when she was 92 herself, through the death of my father.

Without Mr. Topitzer (and he will always be “Mr.” to me) I would not have such vivid memories of New Haven’s Shubert Theater. And I would not have had the 20-year friendship with Miss Wilder, who became literary executor of her brother’s estate and published several of his works after his death.

Thank you Mr Topitzer. Thank you for being the unpaid tutor of a drama tutorial offered only to me and for putting so much effort into encouraging my interest in theatre.

Paul Keane is a retired English teacher from Vermont who grew up in New Haven and Hamden.

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