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Tri-Valley Hero: Eugene O'Neill Foundation, fostering the arts

Arts & Culture honor goes to nonprofit that supports Tao House, late playwright's homestead in Danville hills

The Tao House, former Danville home of playwright Eugene O’Neill and wife Carlotta Monterey, is the centerpiece of the historic site supported by the Eugene O’Neill Foundation, recipient of the 2018 Tri-Valley Heroes award for Arts & Culture.

The Eugene O'Neill Foundation, Tao House, keeps the arts alive at this Tri-Valley treasure.

The playwright's former home in the Danville hills is maintained by the National Park Service, but the Eugene O'Neill Foundation is responsible for the artistic programming, run by volunteers enamored of O'Neill and his written word.

"Its mission is to promote the legacy of Eugene O'Neill, the only American playwright to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature as well as the only one to have been awarded as many as four Pulitzer Prizes," foundation president Dan McGovern said.

O'Neill and his wife Carlotta Monterey built and lived in Tao House from 1937-44, where O'Neill wrote some of his most important works including "Long Day's Journey into Night," "The Iceman Cometh" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten."

The Eugene O'Neill Foundation presents the annual Eugene O'Neill Festival in Danville each fall; it holds 10-day writing and acting workshops for high school students in the summertime; and it runs an Artist in Residence program that has hosted drama department heads from prestigious universities.

This year's festival went international after McGovern attended the Eugene O'Neill Society International Conference in Galway, Ireland, in July 2017, where he met Sean Reidy, former CEO of the JFK Trust in Ireland.

"Sean confided to me that he had long wanted to start a Eugene O'Neill Festival in New Ross in honor of James O'Neill (Eugene's father, who immigrated to America)," McGovern said. "He asked if I -- and the Eugene O'Neill Foundation -- could help, and I agreed to do so."

Danville and New Ross joined in presenting "One Festival, Two Countries," which began in Danville on Aug. 31 and continued in New Ross from Oct. 11-14.

"Sean and I were co-chairs," McGovern said. "Danville Mayor Newell Arnerich and Vice Mayor Robert Storer led a delegation of Danville Town Council members to New Ross, Ireland, for the O'Neill Festival there, and their counterparts came to Danville for the festival here."

About 35 local folks traveled to New Ross, McGovern said, plus the Danville cast of O'Neill's play "Hughie" went to Ireland to present the play.

"We have succeeded in engaging the town of Danville, the council and the Arts Commission, in ways we have not before," McGovern noted.

Former foundation president Linda Best remembers when the Eugene O'Neill National Monument Association was formed in 1968 by Thalia Brewer, Darlene Blair and Lois Sizoo.

"The threat had been that (Tao House) could be purchased and torn down," Best recalled. "It became clear something had to be done to preserve it."

Best also gives credit to Travis Bogard, a professor of dramatic arts at UC Berkeley and author of "Contour in Time," the authoritative analysis of O'Neill's works.

"He brought Katharine Hepburn up to the house and asked her, 'What shall we do with this?'" Best remembered. "She said, 'You should preserve the tranquility, the peace, the creative atmosphere that allowed O'Neill to write his plays.'"

"That prompted us to establish the Artist in Residence program in this creative atmosphere that inspired O'Neill," Best added. "We are very excited that we can fulfill that part of the vision."

In 1971, Tao House was placed on the list of U.S. National Historic Landmarks, and the Eugene O'Neill Foundation was established in 1974. Around the same time the East Bay Regional Park District purchased the 1,018-acre property now known as Las Trampas Wilderness, with an option on the 14-acre parcel that included Tao House.

"East Bay Parks protected it while we raised the money to purchase it," Best explained.

Actors Jason Robards Jr. and Jack Dodson appeared in benefit performances of O'Neill's play, "Hughie," which raised $70,000. Then-Assemblyman Dan Boatwright and then-State Sen. John Nejedly also worked to get funds appropriated by the state.

Best remembered going into the house shortly after its purchase.

"There had been a renter so it was still in pretty good shape but the owners had built a piece that jutted out from the front of the house," she said.

The layout of the Tao House was restored according to the original blueprints, and the Park Service worked to recreate the interior, using photographs from a 1943 Life magazine article on O'Neill.

"The Park Service has been an incredible partner," said Best, who still serves on the foundation's advisory board.

In January, the Eugene O'Neill Foundation will present a staged reading of "The Good God Brown" at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley in downtown Danville. For more information on this and other activities, visit www.eugeneoneill.org.

"We are always eager to recruit both new board members and volunteers, people who might like to help with particular programs," McGovern said.

Hero FYI

* In 1980, the National Park Service signed an agreement to do restoration and building and grounds operations at Tao House, while the Eugene O'Neill Foundation is responsible for artistic programming.

* The foundation raised funds to restore O'Neill's study, dressing room and bedroom, work that began in 1982.

* The Tao House opened to the public in 1985, and actress Helen Hayes was a guest of honor.

* Shuttle buses take visitors from the Museum of the San Ramon Valley to the Tao House, which is on a private road. For more information, go to www.nps.gov/euon.

* The 19th-century barn, which the O'Neills saved when building Tao House, now serves as a theater. The 1941 refrigerator was found stored in the barn and is back in the kitchen.

* The Tao House grounds include a fenced in grave with marker for the O'Neill's beloved Dalmatian, Blemie.

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