To say that Noel Coward has had an effect on Tony Walton’s life would be an understatement.
The theater legend—the Tony- Academy Award- and Emmy-winner is a world renowned costume-, stage- and art-designer and director—who hails from England and now lives in Manhattan with his wife, Gen LeRoy, would not be alive today if not for Mr. Coward. His parents, Lancelot Walton and Dawn Drew Walton, both grew up in London suburbs a stone’s throw from the famous playwright, whose town, Teddington, was halfway between their two villages.
“My mom and dad grew up, literally, as the bread in the sandwich of Noel Coward,” Mr. Walton laughed during a telephone interview last Wednesday. Mr. Walton’s great-uncle, producer C. B. Cochran, produced all of Coward’s greatest theatrical hits. According to Mr. Walton, Mr. Cochran issued an invite to his nephew, Lancelot, to the final dress rehearsal of the play, “Bitter Sweet.”
“My father invited a girl he sort of had his eye on,” he said. “It was a wildly romantic musical.”
The pair began dating seriously. Later, they got engaged during the play’s run. The play’s most popular song, “I’ll See You Again,” was being performed when Lancelot Walton popped the question.
“He went on his knees and proposed to her in the box,” Mr. Walton reported. “Whenever they heard that song, he would take my mom’s right hand in his left and thrust his right fist in his mouth to stop his crying … I have a tremendous emotional stake in Noel Coward.”
For the man who said that he probably has “every book written about him and by him,” and whose very first show in New York was a production of Coward’s “Conversation Piece,” directing “Tonight at 8:30” at Guild Hall in East Hampton (or any of Coward’s other plays, of which he’s been involved in many) is a dream come true, he said.
“I jump at the chance. My very first theatrical foray in New York when I first came here in the 1950s, he supervised the whole production,” Mr. Walton reported of working with the playwright. “I’ve been very lucky and I’ve trickled along with Noel Coward since the first days. I’ve probably done 15 or 20 Noel Coward pieces between then and now.”
“I had only just passed the union exam in stage design,” he said of his first big job, where he had bitten off more than he could chew—taking on all three jobs of sets, costumes and lighting for the production.
“Noel Coward showed up and said ‘Young Tony, do we truly believe that the weather in the spring in Brighton in 1811 is as gloomy as we see it here?’”
Panicked, Mr. Walton phoned Orson Welles’s lighting designer, Abe Feder, whom he said was the “inventor of modern stage lighting.”
“I called him up and said, ‘I’m in trouble,’” Mr. Walton laughed.
“He was a little Damon Runyon guy, about 5 foot with a cigar in his mouth,” he recalled. “He said, ‘get me an 8-foot ladder,’ then he climbed up and fixed everything.”
“‘The weather seems to have improved considerably … let’s move on,’” Coward said upon seeing the corrected lighting, Mr. Walton reported.
“He was the kindest man in the world,” he said. “The gentlest man you could ever hope to meet. I’ve never forgotten the experience.”
The production at Guild Hall, which includes three of the 10 one-acts Coward wrote for “Tonight at 8:30,” stars Blythe Danner and Simon Jones. They will be joined on stage by Tuck Mulligan, Andrew Botsford, Gerard Doyle, Delphi Harrington, Tina Jones, James Lawson, Kate Mueth and Bobby Peterson for “Hands Across the Sea,” “Family Album” and “Red Peppers.”
The Tony- and Emmy Award-winning Ms. Danner, also an East Ender, performed select one-acts from the “Tonight” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2000. Mr. Jones, an English actor best known for his portrayal of Arthur Dent in the television and radio series of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in Britain, was the inspiration for Mr. Dent, according to “Hitchhiker’s” writer Douglas Adams.
The “Tonight” plays being staged at Guild Hall include “Hands Across the Sea,” a “sparkling play about upper-class cattiness,” said Mr. Walton; “Family Album,” a “pretty piece with lots of songs in it” and “Red Peppers,” “a very funny piece about entertainers,” he added.
“Noel Coward called them dear little after-dinner mints,” he said of the light one-acts. “For ‘Tonight’ we’re pretty much sticking with the desserts. It’s strictly entertainment, which is a bit out of fashion these days,” he laughed, “but I hope people will like them.” Noel Coward’s “Tonight at 8:30” opens at Guild Hall in East Hampton on Wednesday, July 17, and runs Tuesdays through Sundays through August 4. Tickets start at $40. Reservations are required. For tickets and additional information, call the box office at 324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.