I Pulitzer-prize winning playwright and Key West resident Tennessee Williams once said of his chosen home, “I work everywhere, but I work best here.” In celebration of Williams’ life, his writing and his enduring connection to Key West, Key West Art & Historical Society presents the “Tennessee Williams Birthday Celebration,” a month-long series of arts and cultural events taking place through April 1 at multiple Key West venues.
Williams first visited Key West in 1941, moved to the island in 1949 and remained a resident here for the next 34 years. During his time here, he completed “Summer and Smoke” and wrote “Night of the Iguana,” among other works. The Academy Award–winning film adaptation of his play “The Rose Tattoo,” was filmed on the island in 1954.
The 2019 celebration marks the artist’s 108th birthday. In recognition of Williams’ patronage and devotion to the Monroe County Library in Key West, this year’s celebration theme is “The Library.”
“Tennessee loved books,” explains Dennis Beaver, curator of the Tennessee Williams Museum. “He had a library card and was instrumental in raising money in 1974 for the library’s new right wing, which was constructed to house the Florida Keys archives and an auditorium. In fact, in 1975, he did two sold out one-man performances at the Waterfront Playhouse to raise money.”
It is thanks to Beaver’s diligent curatorial efforts that the Tennessee Williams Museum houses a comprehensive collection of Tennessee Williams memorabilia.
“I initially got into learning about his history because not only was he a Key West resident, but he is considered one of the most prolific playwrights in the literary world,” Beaver says. “He is studied and taught more than any other writer in the U.S. (if you don’t count Shakespeare).
“And he was way ahead of his time, writing about rape, incest and child abuse way before those subjects were considered orthodox. I wanted to see this iconic writer get the recognition he deserved, especially because he chose to live in Key West over anywhere else. He could have gone to New Orleans or New York, but he didn’t, and that’s important to the island’s cultural history.”
Beaver says Williams eschewed other more stimulating locales because he “wanted to swim every day and he wanted to get away to a place where he could write. He used to say that he bought a house ‘at the edge of the end of the world.’ At the time, his house on Duncan Street was quite literally at the end of the road — there were no other houses between him and the ocean. And this will make you laugh: He paid $20,000 for his home in 1949 and he was outraged because he believed he had been taken advantage of.”
It is also thanks to Beaver that Key West has hosted this annual birthday soiree since 2011.
“Without advertising at all, we had more than 100 people attend,” he says. “We were floored at the reception the first year, and the event has only grown in the years since.”
The schedule this year includes a kick-off celebration, plein air painting, poetry and short story writing contests, lectures, museum tours, film showings, live theater and a birthday party complete with cake and bubbly to honor the life and accomplishments of the man whose rise to stardom began with “The Glass Menagerie” and continued with “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and other dramatic masterpieces.
Literary and visual artists can channel Williams’ creativity while competing for cash prizes and acclaim by entering the Tennessee Williams Plein Air Painting Contest, which takes place in downtown Key West on Saturday, March 16, and/or the poetry and short-story writing contests.
Poets were invited to submit one poem of no more than 30 lines about Williams. Writers from around the globe have entered their short stories of 1,500-4,000 words about Williams, each to include reference to the 2019 theme of “The Library.”
Winners will be selected by blind-judging via a panel of published writers and poets, with $200 awarded for first place and $100 for second place in each contest, along with an opportunity to read from their submissions at the Tennessee Williams Birthday reception on Wednesday, March 27, at the Tennessee Williams Museum (513 Truman Ave.).
All winning submissions are also entered into the museum’s permanent collection. “Bathroom walls are notorious for poetry and ours are no different,” Beaver laughs.
On Thursday, March 14, from noon to 1 p.m. at the Custom House Museum, theater director, dramaturge and opera librettist Stephen Kitsakos presents a Lunchtime Lecture illuminating Williams’ later one-act plays. Tickets for “Tennessee Williams: Eroticism & Experimentation” are $5. Seating is limited and early registration advised.
On Friday, March 15, from 7-9 p.m. at the Key West Theater, guests can raise a glass to the literary giant with acclaimed mixologist and cocktail columnist Philip Greene, co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans.
During his spirited presentation titled “An Evening with Tennessee Williams,” Greene will mix and share recipes of Williams’ favorite drinks and the folklore behind them along with preferred selections enjoyed by the writer’s friends F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ian Fleming, Raymond Chandler, Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway.
Other birthday celebration events include curator-led tours of the award-winning Tennessee Williams Museum (the largest collection of Tennessee Williams memorabilia available in the world). Naturally, the museum focuses on the playwright’s Key West years. Highlights include personal photographs, first-edition plays and books, video footage and rare memorabilia.
Beaver will lead special tours on Friday, March 8 and 22.
Key West’s Tropic Cinema (416 Eaton St.) is remembering Williams by showing one of his films every Monday during March.
Of the 32 “essential” dramatic works the Pulitzer-prize-winning Tennessee Williams wrote, 16 have received the Hollywood treatment, adapted into blockbuster films helmed by directors like Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet and Joseph Mankiewicz and starring the likes of Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Wyman, Katherine Hepburn, Kirk Douglas, Karl Malden, Marlon Brandon, Christopher Walken, Jessica Tandy and Vanessa Redgrave.
The most well-known screen adaptation, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” opened in theaters in 1951 and was the first to be shown at the Tropic on
March 4. Adapted from his
Pulitzer Prizewinning 1947 play of the same name and starring
Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden (each of whom took home an Oscar) and Marlon Brando, the film reveals the story of Southern belle Blanche Dubois who, after encountering a series of personal losses, leaves her aristocratic background seeking refuge with her sister and brother-in-law in a dilapidated New Orleans tenement.
On March 11 from 6:30-8:30 p.m., the Tropic will screen the 1954 film “The Rose Tattoo,” filmed in Key West and adapted from the play of the same name and starring Burt Lancaster and Oscar-winner Anna Magnani. In addition to the adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway play, the film provides a unique opportunity to view Key West as it appeared during the mid-50s. Its local premiere was held at the San Carlos Institute in 1956.
On March 18, the Tropic will feature “Boom,” a British drama starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Noël Coward, adapted from Williams’ play “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.” Flora “Sissy” Goforth (Taylor) is a terminally ill woman living with a coterie of servants in a large mansion on a secluded island. Into her life comes a mysterious man (played by Taylor’s then-husband Burton). The Mediterranean scenery is spectacular.
The last film, “Sweet Bird of Youth,” will show on March 25. A a drama based on the Williams’ play by the same name, it stars Paul Newman, Golden Globe winner Geraldine Page, Shirley Knight, Madeleine Sherwood and Ed Begley, who won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
“Sweet Bird of Youth” tells the story of a gigolo and drifter who returns to his hometown as the companion of a faded movie star he hopes can help him break into the movies.
To add its own flair to the festivities, The Studios of Key West will host performances of two of Williams’ one-act plays, “The Kingdom of Earth” and “Lifeboat Drill,” on March 31 and April 1.
“No, this isn’t some April Fools’ joke,” Dennis quips. “Tennessee Williams did actually write a comedy or two.”
On March 27, the Tennessee Williams Museum will host Williams’ official birthday party. (And before you can correct us, yes, we know his birthday is actually March 26, but any celebration is a good celebration, no matter how timely.) The bash kicks off at 5:30 p.m. and will include contest award presentations, bubbly beverages and birthday cake.
Beaver believes Williams’ accessibility is what makes his plays so timeless.
“He writes about real families and the real America,” he says.
“His works are real-time capsules of life in America at the time he was writing.
“And technically, he wrote everything in Key West, just not all of it.”
Tickets for all film screenings are available exclusively at Tropic Cinema or online at www.tropiccinema.com.
The monthlong birthday celebration is sponsored in part by Community Foundation of the Florida Keys, Neal Ruchman and Melissa Jean McDaniel and Bert Whitt. ¦