Calendar Close-up: How the Levitt Pavilion went from Westport’s landfill to a concert venue

The Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts, located on the banks of the Saugatuck River in Westport, presents over 50 nights of free entertainment.

The Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts, located on the banks of the Saugatuck River in Westport, presents over 50 nights of free entertainment.

Mike Horyczun / For Hearst Connecticut Media

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. But in Westport, there are 50 nights of free entertainment.

The Levitt Pavilion is the place, and a more perfect outdoor venue would be hard to find. Perched on a promontory by the Saugatuck River, just a few yards from downtown, the professional stage and sloping lawn is the site of an astonishing calendar of evening shows.

It’s also the site of the former town dump. More on that later.

From early June through late August, the slate is full. Rock and country musicians; folk duos and jazz trios; military and indie bands; children’s performers and comedians - all have their star turn, one after another. It’s like the old “Ed Sullivan Show,” without the commercials and Topo Gigio. (Though the little Italian mouse may have been booked at some point in the past 40-plus years too.)

After nearly five decades, many Westporters take the Levitt Pavilion for granted. Other towns, like Fairfield, have their own outdoor summer entertainment series. But for newcomers and longtime residents alike, and the many visitors who come from out of town, the Levitt tale is one worth telling.

Mortimer Levitt made a fortune selling individually tailored suits to men with unusual builds like his (he had a small neck and large shoulders). He built Custom Shop Shirtmakers into a national brand, with 70 branches in high-end malls. His prices were high, but his customers - celebrities, business executives, political figures - did not care.

His wife Mimi was a force of nature. Born in Vienna to a musical family, she and her mother emigrated to the U.S. when World War II began. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Pomona College; fluent in five languages, then returned to Europe to translate at the Nuremberg trials.

She met Mortimer at a Manhattan gallery opening. They married in 1948. As his business thrived, they embraced philanthropy. The Levitts supported youth music programs, performing arts organizations and educational institutions. They nurtured young musicians’ careers, hosting salons at their Manhattan brownstone.

In 1963 - when they also had a home in Greens Farms - they established the Mortimer Levitt Foundation. (Her name was added later.) It focused on empowering communities to transform underused public spaces into welcoming destinations through the power of free, live music. Today, it supports concerts in 26 towns and cities.

But the first Levitt Pavilion was in Westport.

Calling the former town dump “underused”is a compliment. A landfill next to Jesup Green, within sight of the police station, made the edge of an otherwise lively downtown both unsightly and smelly.

The Levitts’ gift of $25,000 jump-started a drive to turn the space into something far more attractive and useful. They also pledged help for annual operating expenses.

It took a while for the Levitt to find its legs. Programming was initially spotty. The stage was bare bones, the lawn scraggly, and mosquitoes still considered it their home.

Over the years though, the Levitt grew - financially, artistically and aesthetically. A major renovation several years ago added a modern stage, with killer lighting and state-of-the-art sound. The lawn was regraded and replanted; a handsome new entryway provides a gathering place, plus bathrooms and a concession stand (both somehow omitted from the original design).

In addition to the free shows, annual fundraisers bring big names like Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, John Fogerty, Smokey Robinson, Buckwheat Zydeco, America and Orleans to Westport. A new “Stars on Tour” benefit series includes younger acts like Michael Franti & Spearhead (last weekend) and later this summer, Hiss Golden Messenger, Twiddle and Allison Russell.

There were bumps along the way. Mortimer Levitt’s close attention to detail led to his 1966 firing as artistic director by the board. (He had been given the job “in gratitude” three years earlier, the New York Times reported in his obituary. But there had been more than a dozen managing directors since 1981 alone, and “some members objected to his insistence that Perry Como recordings be played between classical music sets.”)

Still, the Levitt name was synonymous with Westport’s summer series. After Mortimer died in 2005 (at 98 years old), Mimi became president of the Levitt Foundation. Well into her 90s, she was a frequent Levitt Pavilion attendee - including some of the loudest rock shows.

Mimi Levitt died in 2019. She was 97.

The couple’s daughter Liz Levitt Hirsch now serves as Levitt Foundation board president; her brother Peter Levitt is a member. They oversee outdoor series from coast to coast, and actual pavilions in Arlington, Texas; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Denver; Dayton, Ohio; Los Angeles, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

It all started here almost 50 years ago, on a literal Westport riverside dump.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer. His new column ‘Calendar Close-up’ appears each Friday and dives into one of the upcoming community events in Westport. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.