2011-08-18 / Front Page

Set designer of ‘SNL’ speaks at society’s annual meeting

BY KEN SHANE


Eugene Lee and JHS President Linnea Petersen get together for a snapshot at Jamestown Historical Society’s annual meeting. Lee, who has a home on the island, is resident designer for Trinity Rep. 
PHOTO BY KEN SHANE Eugene Lee and JHS President Linnea Petersen get together for a snapshot at Jamestown Historical Society’s annual meeting. Lee, who has a home on the island, is resident designer for Trinity Rep. PHOTO BY KEN SHANE The Jamestown Historical Society held its annual meeting at the Jamestown Philomenian Library last week. The meeting began as business as usual: The minutes from the last annual meeting were read and approved, Linnea Petersen gave the annual president’s report, and then the nominating committee’s report was read, followed by the election of officers, and the election of new board members.

Each year the president, vice president, secretary and treasurer are elected at the meeting. Although nothing changed for this year in terms of the top officers, two new members of the organization’s board of directors will join two returning members.

Petersen’s report focused on a highly successful program called “Jamestown and the Silver Screen” that the historical society rolled out this year.

“We’re very pleased with our outreach effort for this past year,” Petersen said. “We started out thinking that the theme should be something about movies being made in Jamestown and then it just bloomed.”

Representatives from 13 nonprofit island organizations met monthly for the program from October until April, and planned 14 community events. The next event in the series will take place on Sept. 21, the anniversary of the Great Hurricane of 1938. That night a documentary about the storm made for the History Channel will be screened. The Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association will sponsor the screening.

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society and plans are already in the works to celebrate the event.

“Obviously we are planning to do a big windmill day in conjunction with that,” Petersen said. “A lot of things that we’re going to do have to do with the anniversary of the society. I think that there will be an exhibit in the museum. That is what I visualize that we’ll be focusing on.”

Petersen said that the primary reason the group was formed was to save the old Jamestown mill, which had ceased operation in the late 1800s. “It kind of sat there, and it was vandalized and it was an awful mess,” Petersen said. “In 1904 a group of interested people bought it and repaired the damage. In 1912 the Jamestown Historical Society was formed and the town turned over the mill to the society.”

The speaker for the evening was Eugene Lee, who has won three Tony Awards for his production design work on Broadway. He has also won an Emmy Award for his television work on “Saturday Night Live,” where he has worked for 37 years.

Lee, who has a home in Jamestown, is currently the resident designer for Trinity Rep in Providence. He has a Master of Fine Arts from the Yale Drama School and a bachelor’s degree from both the Art Institute of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon University. Currently he is an adjunct professor at Brown University and has three honorary Ph.Ds.

Lee won Tony Awards for his production design for Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” and the current Broadway smash musical “Wicked.” His other Broadway works include “Agnes of God,” “The Normal Heart” and “Alice In Wonderland.”

Lee has also won a Drama Desk Award for his work.

Lee, whose family arrived in Boston in 1635 before heading west to Wisconsin, provided a highly entertaining look at his years on the stage and in television. His presentation revolved around a slideshow that depicted a number of his designs along with photographs of people with whom he has worked. Many of these images will be included in a book called “The Adventures of Eugene Lee.” The book will be published in October. Lee also brought along several models for his set designs.

Lee has worked with many of the most prominent names in theater and television, including theatrical director Peter Brook, playwright Athol Fugard, producer Harold Prince, and television and film producer Lorne Michaels. He delighted the audience with his casual delivery of several stories about his adventures in show business.

One of these tales revolved around an uproarious meeting with Donald Trump high atop the tower that bears Trump’s name in New York City. The purpose of the meeting was to show Trump a model that Lee had constructed for a project related to Trump’s historic Mar-A-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla. Both Lee and his model were endlessly diverted by Trump’s insistence on pointing out his latest triumphs.

Lee is currently considering an offer to do the production design for a revival of “The Music Man” which is scheduled for the newly renovated Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Although by his own admission he hates that particular musical, he spoke about the offer as an illustration of the fact that he tries to maintain a balance between the artistic work that he loves, and the more commercial projects that pay the bills.

At the age of 72, Lee still has a variety of projects on his drawing board. At the top of his list these days is a Broadway-bound revival of the Tennessee Williams drama “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The new production will feature a black cast, and it will be directed by Emily Mann, who is well-known for her work at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J.

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