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When the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center holds its annual gala on July 20, it will add to the list of past honorees - who have included actors and O'Neill boosters Dina Merrill and Charles S. "Roc" Dutton - a new one: the Hendel family.
The Hendels been involved, in various ways, almost since the O'Neill began in 1964. It was back in the early 1970s that Rita Hendel began serving as a board member, and her husband, Myron, likewise has supported the theater center enthusiastically. In 2002, the duo, who live in Waterford, became honorary trustees.
Their son, Stephen, has loved going to shows at the O'Neill since he was young, and he is now a Broadway producer himself - as is his wife, Norwich native Ruth (nee Goldberg) Hendel. Both are on the O'Neill board, with Stephen serving as treasurer and Ruth as vice-chair.
O'Neill Executive Director Preston Whiteway says, "There's no family that has done more for our success than the Hendel family. I hope there always will be Hendels on the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center board, forever and ever."
He talked, for instance, about how much Rita Hendel helped with the community outreach efforts in expanding awareness of the center's National Theater Institute (NTI) college program. He mentioned how Myron was helpful in making sure the O'Neill had heating oil. (As the O'Neill gala announcement states, the Hendels' business interests have ranged from furniture to fuel-oil delivery, retail gasoline and propane.)
Whiteway noted that, a half-dozen years ago, when the O'Neill was in tougher financial shape, Stephen and Ruth Hendel put up money to hire an additional recruiter for the NTI program, resulting in triple the applications and double the enrollment. Whiteway says that "put us on the path to the financial success that we're currently enjoying."
Whiteway says he is incredibly grateful for "their ability to see a specific need the O'Neill has and be willing to step up and provide the solution."
The Hendels were selected to be the focus of the annual O'Neill gala, which will include cocktails and silent auction at 6 p.m., followed by dinner and the evening's program.
Whiteway says, "It'll be fun to toast and celebrate them after all they've done to support us, to - in a small but I hope meaningful way - say how grateful we are ... and to show the community and our artists how much they have changed the O'Neill for the better."
The family's connection to the center began when friend Marilyn Glassman suggested to O'Neill founder George White that he talk to Rita about being on the board.
"It really changed my life ..." Rita Hendel says. "It just opened a new world."
She was on the New London Board of Education at the time she was approached by the O'Neill, but, afterward, she - and Myron - got involved in an array of organizations. She served on the state Board of Education. She was a founding member of Summer Music, and Myron was a founding trustee of the Community Foundation. They both became involved with the Lyman Allyn Art Museum and supported everything from the Garde Arts Center to Lawrence & Memorial Hospital.
She says she doesn't know if all that would have happened if she hadn't been on the O'Neill board, where she remained a trustee for 25 years.
She says there was just something she loved about the O'Neill - and continues to love, to this day.
"The art community views art in new ways, and the O'Neill is on the cusp of looking and finding new ways of expressing how people feel and think today. I think that's very exciting," she says. "... It's an exciting place if you're interested in ideas and what's going on in the world."
Myron Hendel likewise says the O'Neill is a wonderful asset to the region, adding, "It's enriched the lives of those who have availed themselves of the opportuntiy to go and see and hear."
The O'Neill has cast its spell, too, on the next generation of Hendels. Stephen recalls going to the center and seeing shows under the center's iconic copper beeches and in the amphitheater, in a beautiful, bucolic setting - and it was all happening a mere five minutes from his family's house.
"It was pretty amazing to have a place that, in the summer, was sort of the locus of American theater ... all those August Wilson plays taking place here, Lloyd Richards being the artistic director and being at every single show ..." he says. "I remember when George White, who is also a very charismatic and gracious person, brought Wole Soyinka's Nigerian troop to the O'Neill in 1970, I think, or 1973, and they premiered one of Wole Soyinka's great plays."
When Stephen and Ruth were first dating, they often met at the O'Neill to watch performances. They still spend time in Waterford during the summer and see staged readings there.
Eventually, Ruth became involved with producing shows in New York (she thinks her time at the O'Neill helped develop her taste in shows). O'Neill chair Tom Viertel asked her to be on the board, and Stephen followed.
Stephen Hendel has become involved in the creative side of theater, too, co-conceiving the musical "Fela!," which was on Broadway in 2009 and nominated for a Best Musical Tony.
Whiteway says Stephen and Ruth Hendel, with shows like "Fela!," "are committed to pushing their art form forward. ... So they take the mission of the O'Neill to push the American theater forward quite seriously and are full, true believers of the mission and the work here at the O'Neill."
IF YOU GO
What: Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's Summer Gala honoring the Hendel family
When: July 20, starting with cocktails and silent auction at 6 p.m., then dinner and program
Where: The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford
Tickets: Start at $175
Contact: (860) 443-5378, ext. 285, theoneill.org
The next stage
As producers, Stephen and Ruth Hendel are busy scouting out their next projects - including one that was developed at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.
The Hendels are working on "Open Road" by Paul Scott Goodman, which was staged at the O'Neill's Cabaret & Performance Conference four years ago in a slightly different form. Ruth says it's a "beautiful musical" about storyteller Stanley Robertson.
It's not the first time the Hendels have taken on a work that had been at the O'Neill.
"When I saw 'In the Heights,' I loved it and I wanted to get involved," Ruth says. "I was associate producer on that. With 'Avenue Q,' I saw that here (at the O'Neill) , and I was an investor."
She describes both pieces as being "full of heart, really different."
The Hendels are also heading out soon to The Old Globe in San Diego, where their show "The Last Goodbye" is onstage; it melds "Romeo and Juliet" with Jeff Buckley's music.
Other projects are "The Borscht Belt Musical" and a stage version of the movie "Monsoon Wedding," which they are working on with Mira Nair, who wrote and directed the 2001 film. And Stephen Hendel just travelled to Moscow to meet with the director of "Hipsters," a Russian movie musical that they want to make into a stage musical.