A Life: Thomas W. DeMille, 1938-2017; ‘His Greatest Skill Was That He Could Talk to Anybody’

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    Tom DeMille and Kennedy Caughell rehearse a scene in "Guys and Dolls" at the New London Barn Playhouse in New London, N.H., on July 5, 2011. (Rob Strong photograph) Rob Strong photograph

  • Tom and Wynne DeMille in Sunapee, N.H., in an early 1960s photograph. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/22/2018 12:28:42 AM
Modified: 1/22/2018 12:28:45 AM

New London — Had Tom DeMille lived long enough to attend the New Hampshire Theater Awards last weekend, he would be crowing more about the prizes that the New London Barn Playhouse’s actors and production team won than about his own lifetime-achievement award for 40-plus years of service to The Barn.

Just ask a few members of his families — from his blood relations to the scores of practitioners of the dramatic arts he adopted at the playhouse before he died of cancer last February at age 78.

“I think he would have been very proud and happy, but at the same time, he didn’t do anything for his own personal glory,” John DeMille, one of his two sons, said last week from his home in greater Boston. “He really did it because he loved it.”

Indeed, the former lawyer devoted most of his 13-year retirement to the legal, physical, emotional, artistic and long-term health of the playhouse, where his wife Winifred “Wynne” DeMille began volunteering during their then-Connecticut-based family’s summer vacations in the Lake Sunapee region in the early 1970s.

“The license plate on his car said ‘Tom & Wynne’ and hers said ‘Wynne & Tom,’ and you could always count on seeing one or the other parked in the Barn lot,” former artistic director Carol Dunne, who now runs Northern Stage in White River Junction, recalled recently. “He painted all the rooms. He repaired bathrooms and things. At the end of each production he changed the name of every show up on the marquee board outside.”

Inside, DeMille cheered or cajoled or consoled every member of a given summer’s company — from the interns known as “Barnies,” who each summer play small roles and toil over stage sets and costume changes, to the seasoned professionals who sometimes are brought in to headline productions. And in the offseason he kept up with the progress of all who stayed in the business, from shows at regional theaters to Broadway.

“The DeMilles would go anywhere to see Barnies perform,” Emmy-winning actor Gordon Clapp, the Norwich resident whose Barn appearances during DeMille’s tenure included Our Town and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, said last week. “They were stage parents to all of us.”

For much of the rest of his free time after retiring to New London full-time in 2003, DeMille, as chairman of the board of directors, oversaw the playhouse’s transition from the private ownership of Norman Leger, who died in 2006, to its current status as a non-profit.

“Tom was able to encourage Norm to take that step,” current board chairman and New London resident Steve Ensign said last week. “Norm was hoping that Tom would be the first person to step up and shepherd the barn’s life as a non-profit, capable of sustaining itself into the future.”

That shepherding included everything from raising money to eliminate deficits, refurbish seats and install air conditioning in the 1820s-vintage barn, to compiling the calendar for the coming season. He helped with auditions, wrote program notes and recruited artistic directors — Dunne in 2008, and current boss, Keith Coughlin, in 2015 — who would mold the Barnies and enthrall the audiences.

“He crystallized the Barn’s mission,” Dunne said. “Many people wanted to turn it into a more professional theater, with fewer interns. Tom knew that the power of the Barn was training emerging theater artists.”

A deferred dream of appearing onstage himself was part of the motivation for the Boston-born DeMille: After singing and acting in musicals from early childhood through college, he spent much of his spare time away from his legal career serving on the boards of cultural and historical organizations in Wethersfield, Conn., and restoring historic houses.

“My mom and dad liked to stay busy,” DeMille’s elder son Tom said. “They always had a project. He was determined to do his best at whatever it was, to do something for the town and for future generations. In the end, I think, after all those years taking on those kinds of things in Wethersfield, he saw that he had the necessary skills, and the desire and inclination to help the Barn’s transition to non-profit. … He once said to me that his greatest skill was that he could talk to anybody — whether it was a CEO or a plumber or whoever. He was proud of what he accomplished, but he didn’t feel like he was any better than the plumber or the guy who was filling up the oil tank.

“He had a way of putting people at ease.”

So Carol Dunne learned during her seven years as artistic director.

“In settings like this, sometimes board chairs can be intrusive, or just not trust artists,” Dunne said. “Tom and I only butted heads a couple of times. I felt an unbelievable amount of love for the work I was doing with him. I never felt any lack of trust because I was a woman — and a woman who had never run a theater before.”

In fact, Dunne later was the director who first brought DeMille from behind the scenes to the stage for a Barn production of Fiddler on the Roof.

“He played one of the townspeople,” Dunne said. “You could barely see him through the huge beard he was wearing, except during the dance numbers, when you’d see a huge smile on his face over that shaggy beard. Every winter after that he would say, ‘What are you doing next season? Have you got any good roles for an old guy?”

How old, DeMille’s successor as board chairman never knew “until I read his obituary,” Ensign said. “Tom never really showed his years. … The board was there to support him, but I don’t think we clearly understood all the things that he just took care of. His commitment ran very, very deep. He just did stuff. Stuff needed doing, and he did it.”

No wonder that the DeMilles never became snowbirds.

“People would ask them, ‘Why don’t you guys move to Florida?’” the junior Tom DeMille said. “’Or move to the Caribbean?’ My parents were too involved in the community to go to Florida. Community was the big thing.”

Especially the theater community.

“My favorite Tom DeMille performance was his turn (as executive Wally Womper) in How to Succeed in Business, a few months before he was diagnosed with cancer,” Gordon Clapp said. “There was no hint of what was around the corner. … He was Tom to a ‘T’ He had seen and loved the (Northern Stage) workshop of Trick or Treat in 2016, and he vowed to see the full production.”

In January of 2017, Tom and Winnie DeMille arrived at the Barrette Center for the Arts to see Dunne direct and Clapp star in New Hampshire playwright Jack Neary’s poignant family dramedy, Trick or Treat.

“He’d been missing our shows, but he finally felt he was well enough,” Dunne said. “He walked into the theater and said, ‘This is my temple.’”

It was that commitment to the arts that left DeMille’s theater familiy mourning — and celebrating — Tom DeMille at his Barn.

“After he passed, they immediately moved the lettering on the signboard outside the playhouse where they announce upcoming shows,” Steve Ensign said. “It said, ‘Thank you, Tommy D.’

“That sign stayed up there all winter.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.

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