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(Photo: John Videler, Courtesy of Peter Cadoux Architects)

Featured Article

The Real Story - and Stories - of the Levitt Pavilion

Courtesy of Friends of Levitt Pavilion, Inc.

Article by Robin Moyer Chung

Photography by Courtesty of Friends of Levitt

Originally published in Westport Lifestyle

In the early 1970’s, Westport officials decided to replace a town dump on Jesup Green with an outdoor stage.

Summer residents and arts advocates Mortimer and Mimi Levitt donated $25,000 - over $150K in today’s money - to become the largest private donors to the initiative. To their surprise and delight, the town named the outdoor shell the Levitt Pavilion.

Before meeting Mimi, Mortimer had already amassed millions with a string of custom retail stores, The Custom Shop. According to Mimi, “[Mortimer] was quite a character, a real original. He never cared what other people did. He did things his way.” He also had a penchant for one-man shows and military bands. The board? Not so much.

While the Levitts went on to found The Levitt Foundation, providing free music to towns across the country, Westport’s Pavilion chose to focus on performing arts of all genres. Quietly and amicably, they cut ties with Mimi and Mortimer.

In 1995, the Pavilion created the paid, full-time position of Executive Director for Freda Welsh, a former Board Chair and adviser since 1980. Freda is credited with making the Pavilion a preeminent outdoor performance site.

2008 saw a spectacular new Pavilion designed by Westport's Peter Cadoux. Of note, Freda threw the match on the old stage to initiate its demolition.

Today, Freda, with her daughter and assistant Carleigh, is the power behind the Levitt. Although Carleigh is quick to point out they could never achieve what they do - an average of 50-60 nights of free access to the arts and 10 paid concerts and performances every summer - without an “incredible” board, professional technicians, seasonal staff, and volunteers. “I would never want it to seem like it’s just my mom and me,” she insists.

Throughout its 49 years, countless talent has rocked the stage: Meatloaf, Cyndi Lauper, Pat Benatar, Frankie Valli and, of course, Westporter Michael Bolton and Westoner José Feliciano.

And with great talent come great stories:

Willie Nelson and Special Guest

At the 1999 Gala, Willie Nelson was rocking the stage to a starstruck audience. Toward the end of the show, a man with a guitar clambered onto the stage. “You could see a wave of recognition ripple through the audience - row after row - and it was extra-special - kind of mind-blowing really,” exclaims Carleigh.

The man was Keith Richards, who explained to the audience he had always wanted to play with Willie, and was finally getting his chance.

(Carleigh’s note: “If you’re reading, Keith, it's time to visit the new Epstein Stage at the Levitt Pavilion and enjoy the views!”)

Little Richard and Chuck Berry

The 2002 Gala’s stars were Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Throughout their careers they maintained a friendly rivalry, each claiming to be the “real” founder of rock n’roll.

Little Richard played first. And played. And played. Freda finally had to assure Chuck that his frenemy would wrap soon. Eventually, Little Richard stopped and gave Chuck the stage, but folks contend that his extra-long set was “perhaps on purpose.”

The Gipsy Kings

Flamenco guitarists The Gipsy Kings were “amazing and indefatigable.”

Before the show, guests enjoyed a dinner and “lots of wine” donated by a local restaurant. Suddenly, the Kings burst in and delighted the diners and eatery owners with a special performance.

Then they went on to perform a “sensational” full-length show in the Pavilion, though Mortimer infamously insisted that concert-goers sit down and stop dancing so they wouldn’t ruin the grass.

Jesse Terry

In 2014, a scheduled artist was unable to make an appearance due to flight delays. Scurrying to find a replacement, they were able to book singer-songwriter and grand prize winner of the 2007 John Lennon Songwriting contest, Jesse Terry. Solo, he took the stage beneath a striking full moon and enraptured the audience.

He recently published a children’s book, If I Were the Moon, based on one of his most requested songs. Says Carleigh, “We’d like to think our full moon show was part of the inspiration.”

The Beach Boys

Before the Pavilion was updated in 2014, the old pavilion lawn was notorious for becoming a mud bath following heavy rain.

In July 2000, The Beach Boys pulled up in their tour bus after one such deluge. Their manager poked out his head, surveyed the expansive mud, exclaimed “What the $@&!?,” and told the Boys to stay on the bus; they were clearly in the wrong place.

They weren’t, obviously, and eventually got off the bus to rock a spectacular show, and came back five years later for another sold-out performance.

Rhiannon Giddens

For Rhiannon - folk musician, MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient, Grammy winner, co-founder of supergroup Our Native Daughters, and most recently Pulitzer Prize winner - our Pavilion was the first stop on her inaugural tour in 2019. As such, it’s featured in a documentary on the Smithsonian Channel. ParamountPlus.com

Right now, Levitt Pavilion is in the thick of its free programming and concerts, including: three-time Grammy winner (including “Best New Artist”) singer-songwriter Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers (July 1), Twiddle (“Known for jaw-dropping live performances, the group has repeatedly sold out some of the most legendary venues in the world” - July 21 and 22), and Billboard Chart hitmaker and rockstar Daryl Hall, heralded as one of the "best soul-singers of his generation” (August 24).

Go to LevittPavilion.com to see all of the incredible performances.

  • Willie and Keith jamming.
  • Willie and Keith jamming.
  • Keith Richards surprising Willie Nelson onstage.
  • Keith Richards
  • Willie Nelson at the 1999 Gala.
  • Freda Welsh with Andy Williams at the 1986 Gala.
  • Cyndi Lauper performing in 2022.
  • Chuck Berry and Carleigh Welsh at the 2002 Gala.
  • Beach Boys being escorted through a crowd of 2500+ to get to the stage, escorted by Westport PD.
  • Beach Boys being escorted through a crowd of 2500+ to get to the stage, escorted by Westport PD.
  • Beach boys at the 2005 Gala.
  • (Photo: John Videler, Courtesy of Peter Cadoux Architects)
  • (Photo: John Videler, Courtesy of Peter Cadoux Architects)
  • Twiddle concert - and there'll be another one in July! (Photo: Dave DeCrescente)

LevittPavilion.com

CadouxAIA.com