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John Lithgow to share stories from Akron years

4/11/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

Actor John Lithgow, who lived on the grounds of Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens as a youth when his father was the director there, will return to Akron for the first time in more than 50 years for an appearance at E.J. Thomas Hall April 18.
Photo courtesy of E.J. Thomas Hall
DOWNTOWN AKRON — Before he was Lord Farquaad, Dr. Dick Solomon and the Trinity Killer, John Lithgow was a Buchtel Griffin.

The prolific actor, who has been nominated for back-to-back Academy Awards and won five Emmys and two Tonys, spent two formative years of his life in West Akron, and he’ll be in town for the first time since then for an appearance at The University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall April 18 at 7:30 p.m.

“I’m very giddy about it,” Lithgow said in a phone interview. “I have a friend who’s ready to take me around to some of the significant places.”

Chief among those places is Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, where Lithgow and his family lived in the Carriage House for two years while his father worked there as director.

“It was amazing, “ Lithgow said of that experience, which was when he was a young teenager. “It was like ‘The Secret Garden’; We had the whole place to ourselves.”

The estate of Goodyear Tire & Rubber founder Frank Seiberling had only been donated to a nonprofit foundation a few years before the Lithgow family’s arrival there, and Lithgow recalls it as a period of transition at the property. He remembers parts of the grounds being “completely overgrown.”

“There was a 6-inch-diameter tree growing in the middle of the tennis court,” he recalled. “It was like an archeological dig. The only things left from the glory days were two wretched old swans.”

Lithgow’s father, Arthur, had been hired to develop a Shakespeare festival at Stan Hywet.

“It was a big success, but they chose not to allow it the second year, so he did it at an old movie theater in Cuyahoga Falls,” Lithgow said, adding that he hopes to visit the site of the theater when he’s in town.

While living in Akron, Lithgow attended school at Simon Perkins Middle School and Buchtel High School for a year each before moving. He said he had a great experience at the schools and even today is still impressed by the arts education he received there.

“I was absolutely determined to become an artist, and I had the most incredible art instructor in the Akron Public Schools (APS) system, Fran Robinson,” he said. “Both in ninth and 10th grade my days began with two full periods of art class, every single school day of the week.”

When his family moved to Princeton, N.J., he said his art instruction there was not as good.

“I had to commute into New York City for art classes,” he said.

When told that APS today features special programs in middle school and high school for the visual and performing arts, Lithgow said he’s not surprised.

“I was so amazed at the energy of the arts community in Akron,” he said.

While he loved the visual arts, Lithgow ended up following his parents’ footsteps into theater. He first gained attention on Broadway in 1973 and has returned several times during his career, most recently in “The Columnist,” written by Pulitzer-Prize winning writer David Auburn (whose parents, Mark and Sandy Auburn, live in Fairlawn).

Lithgow was nominated for Academy Awards for his performances in “Terms of Endearment” and “The World According to Garp.” He’s also made his mark on television, winning three Emmys for his role on “Third Rock From the Sun,” another for a part on Steven Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” and his fifth and most recent for his turn as Arthur Mitchell, known as The Trinity Killer, on Showtime’s “Dexter.”

When Lithgow speaks in Akron, he’ll be sharing some of his Akron memories and also talk on “The Power of Storytelling.”

“My parents, either consciously or unconsciously, created a real sense of imagination and creativity in us four kids,” he said. “A lot of it came from storytelling.”

And it’s an area he’s ventured into, as well, as the author of several children’s books as well as recordings.

“Children are a fantastic audience,” said Lithgow, who is father to three grown children and a grandfather of two. “They’re extremely honest and extremely unedited. You can send them on such a journey; they are so easy to fool.

“I remember Christopher Reeve once saying, ‘If it makes me feel good, I do it,’” Lithgow adds. “It makes me feel so good to entertain children.”

Tickets for Lithgow’s appearance — which is part of The University of Akron’s Forum Series at E.J. Thomas Hall and is sponsored by UA’s Mary Schiller Myers Lecture Series — are $10 for general admission; $8 for UA faculty, staff and senior citizens; and $6 for UA students. E.J. Thomas Hall is located at 198 Hill St. For more information, call 330-972-7570 or go to uaevents.com.

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