How this garish coat ended up making cameos in every Chelsea Players show in Norwich for 20 years
If you’ve watched any of the plays that Chelsea Players have staged over the past two decades, you’ve no doubt noticed a certain scene-stealer: a hilariously tacky 1970s red plaid jacket.
Ever since the Norwich-based theater group started performing in the United Congregational Church Hall, this memorable piece of clothing has made an appearance in every show — more than 40, all told.
In its more modest moments, it was hanging in a closet and was rolled up on a shelf. For “The Wake of Jamey Foster,” the mannequin inside the coffin onstage wore the coat.
Sometimes, it took on a more front-and-center role. For last fall’s “One Slight Hitch,” Dustin Chuff, playing the offbeat ex-boyfriend of a young woman who was about to get married, donned the jacket and superhero boxer shorts.
“It’s like Alfred Hitchcock doing cameos in all of his movies,” says Ken Lamothe, who is a founding member, board member and treasurer for Chelsea Players.
The coat first made its way to the Chelsea Players stage for “Mama Drama” in 1999. The comic drama focused on motherhood, and each of the five moms had a dream sequence. One of them dreamt about doing a corny standup comedy set. Lamothe, who was directing the show, brought in Ed Weingart, a drummer, to provide the requisite rimshots for the bad jokes.
“For some reason, it was this divine inspiration, I guess, I thought he deserved to be in a red plaid polyester jacket,” says Lamothe, who pulled the jacket from his own closet.
A number of the actors joked about the coat, and someone said it could become a tradition for all of Chelsea Players’ productions.
And, lo, a comic ritual was born.
Faye Ringel, who is directing Chelsea Player’s upcoming show, “Marjorie Prime,” says, “Community theater groups are like families — they have their in-jokes and traditions — and for Chelsea Players, it’s the red plaid jacket.”
Bought at … Caldor?
Lamothe actually wore the jacket (with bow ties, no less) circa 1975 to work, when he was a teacher at Norwich Free Academy.
“I think back on that, and I’m surprised that my students didn’t call somebody and have me carted away,” he says, adding that he usually dressed “much tweedier” at school.
Lamothe is typically hilarious as he discusses the jacket.
“Talk about a fashion violation!” he says. “I remember the ’70s as being the heyday of double-knit polyester — well, believe me, this is an exemplar of the heyday of double-knit polyester.”
Where did he buy it? He laughs and says, “Vality, maybe? Or perhaps Caldor, the finest in men’s fashions.”
What amount did he spend on it? “Oh, God, I hope it was very, very small.”
And, yup, he still had the jacket more than two decades after he first bought it.
“Obviously, I can’t get rid of anything,” he says.
When it’s serious business
At times, it can be a challenge to find a place for the jacket, especially with more sober-minded dramas.
One time, Lamothe recalls, “I think, like, two square inches of the bottom of it was peeking out of something, which is kind of cheating.”
Chelsea Players’ next show is, in fact, a serious play, “Marjorie Prime” by Jordan Harrison. In the piece, which is set later in the 21st century, an 86-year-old woman is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and spends her time talking to a hologram of her late husband. Marjorie and her daughter and son-in-law provide information to the hologram/AI about their history. This all prompts the family members to wrestle with their own past.
For this drama, whose run starts March 29, the iconic red plaid jacket will hang on a coat rack.
“It is more difficult to find a place for the red plaid jacket in a serious drama — especially one set in the future!" says Ringel. "But even though the characters in ‘Marjorie Prime’ are living in the middle of the 21st century, they have a ‘retro sensibility.’ Jon, the husband, writes with a pen in a notebook. Nobody uses a phone. They prize their old furniture — including the antique coat tree where the jacket will hang. Having an old jacket on the coat tree is just part of the way they hang on to the past, even in the future.”
Ringel notes that stage manager Sara Conahye said that the red plaid jacket is a link to Chelsea Players’ history. Ringel and Conahye each were part of Chelsea Players early in the group’s life, missed some time and then came back — and, Ringel says, “That jacket is still there!”
If you go
What: Chelsea Players' production of the drama "Marjorie Prime"
Where: United Congregational Church Hall, 87 Broadway, Norwich
When: 7:30 p.m. March 29 and April 6, 3 p.m. March 31 and April 7
Tickets: $10 in advance and for seniors, $12 at the door
For reservations: Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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The cast is expansive, consisting of 26 students. Another 20 to 30 teens are working behind the scenes.