MERIDEN — Just hours before Warren M. Stephan was recently hospitalized, the 91-year-old city native was painting backdrops at the Almira F. Stephan Memorial Playhouse for the Castle Craig Players’ upcoming production of “Dial M for Murder.“
When he visited the hospital, Mark Laucella said Stephan asked for paper and pencil so he could sketch a set design.
“It was amazing to me,” said Laucella, a member of the Castle Craig Players, a community theater group Stephan founded, for the past eight years.
Stephan, a performer and longtime advocate for the arts, died Sunday at Apple Rehab Coccomo of complications from a recent fall.
This past spring, the Castle Craig Players performed “South Pacific,” Stephan’s favorite show.
“We did that show for Warren,” said Kevin Scarpati, who played Lt. Joe Cable. Scarpati recalled the advice Stephan gave him for singing, “Younger than Springtime,” in which Cable professes his love.
“He told me, ‘you’ve got to speak to her,’” Scarpati said.
Stephan instructed Scarpati to sing to a step stool on one knee until he sang the song with meaning. Eventually, Scarpati got it right.
“He said, ‘from that point on that’s how we gotta do it,’” Scarpati said.
Every Castle Craig show over the past 21 years was Stephan’s vision brought to life, Scarpati said. Besides directing, Stephan developed sets and worked on costumes and lighting.
During rehearsals, his constructive criticism was treasured by the cast, Scarpati said.
“It meant a lot coming from him,” he said.
Born in 1922, Stephan discovered an interest in the arts after playing a role in an elementary school play. The entertainer went on to do recordings with RCA Victor in the early 1950s. Singles included “Can’t Seem to Laugh Anymore” and “Try on This Ryan.” Stephan also toured with Al Gentile, performed at the Oakdale Theater in Wallingford, hosted a weekly radio show called “The Melody Merchant,” and sang in the First Congregational Church choir.
Before becoming an insurance agent for Phoenix Mutual of Hartford, Stephan owned and operated Kandy Kettle on Hanover Street in the 1950s.
“He actually met my mother that way,” said Melanie Del Sole, one of Stephan’s four daughters, who has been a part of Castle Craig Plays since its inception.
Del Sole said her mother Almira, “dolled herself up,” before walking into Stephan’s store. She had heard his songs on the radio and was excited to meet him. They formed a relationship, went to shows together and fell in love.
“Since then they always made candy,” Del Sole said. According to newspaper clippings, Kandy Kettle was destroyed by fire in 1957, but the tradition of making candy never stopped.
In the Stephan’s family basement, a candy kitchen was set up, Del Sole said. Growing up, she said, candy canes, peanut brittle and fudge were made from scratch.
Even last Christmas, Stephan’s son-in-laws helped make his famous fudge, a treat Stephan passed out to Castle Craig members, friends and City Hall staff.
Stephan also had a brief stint as a cruise ship director on the Carla C, said Del Sole. He was an entertainer on a ship and while the job helped further his performance career, it was too much of a sacrifice to be away from his young family, Del Sole said.
Instead, Stephan had a successful career as an insurance agent and spent his nights performing in night clubs, Del Sole said. As his daughters grew older, they performed with him, often at charity events. Without warning, the family would pick up the girls from school and go to the Newington Children’s Hospital to sing.
“It became a family affair,” Del Sole said.
During the 1970s, Stephan, a registered Republican, ran unsuccessfully for political office several times. He ran in 1976 and 1978 for state senate and ran for mayor in 1977.
“He had a strong commitment to the community,” Del Sole said. “He loved Meriden dearly.”
Scarpati, a city councilor, said he would often get to rehearsals early and chat with Stephan. He was impressed with Stephan’s knowledge of local politics.
Growing up around community theater, Stephan acted in local shows but always asked, “why can’t we do this in Meriden,” said Del Sole, who also agreed with him. Twenty-one years ago, he called up his friends, many from the First Congregational Church and made it happen. The former YWCA allowed the group to use space for shows and rehearsals, until the city agreed to give Stephan the location on West Main Street, across from the police/court complex.
Stephan was inducted into the Meriden Hall of Fame in 2001 and was honored with the Spirit of Meriden award last year. Del Sole said her father was honored and humbled by both.
Carolyn Daniels got involved with Castle Craig Players about five years ago. She auditioned for “Oklahoma,” and said Stephan became a mentor.
“Castle Craig was his life,” Daniels said.
Before every show began, the entire cast and crew would gather in a circle, holding hands. Stephan would give a pep talk and the group would squeeze each other’s hands, sending around positive energy, Daniels said. At the end, he would tell everyone the production is “another jewel in the crown.”
““It was a like a big family. He helped fostered that.” Daniels said. “He was a jewel in our crown.”