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Behind the Scene

As a Functional Designer, Westporter Bob Brannigan Quietly Polishes the Theater Experience

photograph by gus cantavero

Bob Brannigan takes the pencil and draws a side view of what was once called the New York State Theater (renamed the David H. Koch Theater in 2008). He explains that more than fifty years ago, he drew a similar sketch for Weston resident Lincoln Kirstein, one of the inspirations behind the building of Lincoln Center. They spoke about the proposed three-theater complex, which had yet to be built; Brannigan offered Kirstein some advice about how to build a better stage and provide more flexible flooring for the dancers of the City Ballet, which Kirstein and George Balanchine had founded in 1949. Kirstein was so impressed with Brannigan’s suggestions that he arranged a meeting between Brannigan and Philip Johnson, the renowned American architect who was busy designing the performance space. Brannigan was hired as a consultant. The rest, as the saying goes, is for the history books.

Lawrence Rockefeller, another formative planner, sent Brannigan to Europe for a twelve-city tour of famous theaters, including the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, and La Scala in Milan. Brannigan examined each theater carefully, conferred with their technical directors, and reported back to Rockefeller on how best to make the Lincoln Center theaters technically compatible with European theaters. Touring companies shouldn’t need to encounter technical incompatibilities when they took their shows across the Atlantic, and it was Brannigan’s job to insure a smooth transition between venues in the United States and Europe.

Brannigan and his wife, the former Broadway dancer Ann Deasy, have been Westport residents since 1953, shortly after they first visited Westporter Johnny Davis, an electrician for Broadway productions. “Westport was paradise to us,” Ann Brannigan says. “We were both from Pittsburgh, you know, and we loved all the water and being near it.” Bob and Ann were joining other actors and actresses in making the town their home. Many had already discovered it when they came out of New York City during the summer off season. Flo and Loretta Bellaire, two sisters, former Ziegfield Follies girls, also helped spread the word after they took up residence in tents above Old Mill Beach, on what had once been Harry Sherwood’s onion farm (Loretta Court, near Old Mill, is a reminder). It helped that actor Will Hare (Black Oak Conspiracy, 1977; The Electric Horseman, 1979; Eyes of Fire, 1983; Silent Night, Deadly Night, 1984; The Aviator, 1985)—a veteran of fifty years on stage, screen, and television—owned and operated a local grocery, now known as Positano’s Restaurant.

The walls of the Brannigans’ house are covered with autographed photos of the stars they have known and posters for many of the shows Bob has worked on during his sixty-year career in show business. One particularly zany head shot of Ed Wynn, whom he met when he was a boy back in the 1930s, stares goggle-eyed from above Bob’s drafting table. Al Capp’s signature is scrawled across a poster advertising the 1956 Broadway musical Li’l Abner. Other walls display vintage photos of famous American theaters, like Pittsburgh’s Nixon, which opened in 1902, and was the first theater Bob ever worked in.

At a fit and feisty eighty-two, the former WWII submariner willingly shares his experiences as a stagehand, a functional designer, and the impresario who brought the first Chinese touring company, the Shenyang Acrobats, to the United States for a tour of Boston, New York, Chicago and Washington. This was in the early 1970s, before the United States established formal relations with the People’s Republic, so it required the approval of the U.S. State Department, which offered the touring company U.S. government security protection.

Brannigan has built and rehabilitated at least sixty theaters worldwide, including in the United States: Avery Fisher Hall; New York State Theater, City Center, Carnegie Hall, Saratoga Performing Arts Center; The Palace and The Rich Forum in Stamford; Shubert Theater in New Haven; Art Park in Lewiston, New York; Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, Virginia; The Anchorage, Alaska, Performing Arts Center; and the old Heinz Theater in the Steel City. Brannigan has also performed his magic in other countries, working on theatrical rigging, master plans, lighting design and project supervision for the reconstruction of the National Opera Theater in Riga, Latvia, the Place des Arts in Montreal, the Performing Arts Center in Toluca, Mexico, and theaters in Ontario, and in New Brunswick, Canada.

Oh…and along the way, he invented the field of functional design.

Architects design the buildings theaters occupy, but actors, dancers and musicians have to be comfortable performing in them; technicians of all kinds have to work above, behind and under the performing spaces; and audiences, of course, have to enjoy spending time there. A functional designer steps in after the architect has finalized his or her plans for the outside of the building: then it is up to the functional designer to provide the building with a soul to make it more performer and audience friendly.

It takes a show-business insider to know what is useful and needed, and the Brannigan family has been managing stage productions for more than 100 years. Bob’s father, Robert Sr., and his uncles began their careers behind the stage at the Nixon Theater in Pittsburgh and went on to work in technical and support capacities for hundreds of touring companies. Bob and his siblings followed them into show business, and even worked with their dad on the musical Li’l Abner (his brother Bern later managed shows at Carnegie Hall). Bob’s cousin, Ray Brannigan, became a stage hand for Bob Hope’s famous U.S.O. shows during WWII, and Bob’s sister-in-law, Carol Brannigan, is currently theater manager at City Center.

Bob worked on forty-five major Broadway and touring productions as stage hand, electrician and lighting director, including: Picnic with Paul Newman; The Miracle Worker with Patty Duke; The Sound of Music, featuring Julie Andrews; and Brigadoon with his future wife, Ann Deasy, cast in the role of Bonnie Jean MacLaren.
It was Brannigan’s father who first introduced his son to fellow Pittsburgh native, Ann: the young dancer who would later become his wife. Bob and Ann’s paths crossed frequently as they worked in productions together, with Ann often dancing under the spotlight Bob was handling. They were married during the New York run of Three Wishes for Jamie at St. Malachi’s Actor’s Chapel, but had to spend their honeymoon in Wilmington, Delaware, after Bob had been called to work on another show that was opening a week before he expected.

The Brannigans lived in New York during the early 1950s. Ann switched from performing on Broadway to dancing on television shows, such as Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, The Jane Froman Show and Jack Haley. Bob continued to work backstage on Broadway but found he was sought after for production advice and experience.

Bob and Ann relocated to Westport in 1953 and eventually bought an artist colony cottage on Old Mill Beach for $5,000—a daring financial gamble, given the unpredictability of show-biz income. Brannigan was gone to New York most evenings, leaving neighbors to say: “Poor Ann Brannigan. Her husband seems to never have a job.” The truth was, he would take the 5:15 p.m. train out of Saugatuck Station and be back home by 12:30 a.m.—after all of his neighbors had gone to bed.

The couple raised three children in Westport and are now the proud grandparents of nine Westport schoolchildren, many of whom have participated in the performing-arts programs in the local schools. Ann and Bob fondly remember the Westport theater people they have known, including Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman (when Newman would see Brannigan on Main Street, he’d call out to him, “Hey! Bobby, baby!”). Other names spring to mind, such as Darren McGavin (Inherit the Wind, 1988; The Diamond Trap, 1988; Murphy Brown, 1989)and Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane in the Tarzan movies; Too Scared to Scream, 1985; Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986; Peggy Sue Got Married, 1986; and Stranded, 1987).

When Brannigan starts talking about theater design, you realize how important it is to him and how much he has contributed to the cultural triumphs of the American century. In 1962, he was named director of productions for the Seattle World’s Fair, responsible for all the events in the opera house, playhouse, arena and stadium, including the New York City Ballet, the Royal Theater of Sweden, and Circus Berlin. In 1963 he was asked by Lincoln Kirstein to be theater consultant to the board of directors, director of operations and the director for production for Lincoln Center—the three posts to be held simultaneously. Brannigan developed lifelong friendships with Kirstein, Lawrence Rockefeller, Philip Johnson, and the City Ballet’s cofounder, ballet master and one-time Weston resident George Balanchine (whom Brannigan recalls as the “warmest person”).

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, after Brannigan brought over the Shenyang Acrobats from China, he negotiated similar exchanges with troupes from France, Yugoslavia, Ireland, Greece, and Italy. He became the director for production at City Center in 1971, responsible for all events presented at the 55th Street Dance Theater and worked with the Dance Theater of Harlem, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, and the Joffrey Ballet in presenting their productions. He became president of Performing Arts International and presented Siamas, the National Folk Theater of Ireland, the National Theater of Greece, the Theater Gavella of Yugoslavia, and the Wushu Troupe of China in multicity tours.

Through his functional design company, Robert Brannigan Associates, founded in 1963, he still provides complete services in studying, planning and designing fine arts and television spaces. The firm specializes in working with eminent architects in reviewing, interpreting and suggesting functional adjustments to the architects’ often daring plans.

Brannigan comments that the majority of innovations in theater today deal with technological, electronic and computer-driven developments rather than with structural matters. The profession that he pioneered remains a “small field,” though still important.

Locally, Brannigan remains active, too. He serves on the board of directors for Bridgeport’s Klein Auditorium and on the board of the Clan Na Gael Players at the Fairfield Gaelic American Club, where he has helped present more than thirty productions. Clan Na Gael founding member and artistic director Peggy S. O’Leary says: “Bob is a modest man. He mentioned some theatre lighting experience on his club membership application, so I invited him to a board meeting. We needed help. Our lighting was simply clip-on work lights in coffee cans and our sets were made out of cardboard. Bob made some budget-friendly suggestions and assembled running lights from cast-off equipment, found some low-budget rentals for us, and entirely redesigned our performance space. He turned us into something we had only dreamed of being. Now we have permanent electrical pipes in the ceiling, a made-to-order stage extension, and up-to-date performance lights that change colors with the turn of a wheel.”

The help Brannigan offered has made Clan Na Gael something more than just another community theater, but to Brannigan, it’s also a labor of love for the profession he knows so well.