A Secret Passion
For Tony-award-winner Eugene Lee, theatrical set design and wooden boats to tongue and groove.
By Elaine Lembo
Photography by Billy Black
The mind of Eugene Lee works in intricate ways, which helps to explain how the Tony-award-winning set designer approaches his trade. He seeks to immerse all your senses in the experience of live theater. If he’s successful—and he is extremely successful—you forget about everything else and are completely enveloped in the now.
Men of the sea know well the pull of the present moment, and it should come as no surprise that Lee is one of their ilk. For this man, whose name is most associated with “Saturday Night Live” and “Wicked,” television and theater are work. His secret passion: owning and restoring wooden boats.
“You know, I’ve never met a stagehand who didn’t love boating,” Lee says. “If that’s not a sign from the universe that I’ve chosen the perfect profession and hobby, I don’t know what is.”
At current count, Lee’s wooden boat fleet, scattered throughout southern New England, totals about 10. It’s a number in flux but includes a Concordia 31, a pair of Laurent Giles-designed Vertue sloops, a couple of Herreshoff 12½s (Captain Kidd and Jerry Todd), a Herreshoff Buzzards Bay 15, a Beetle Cat, a Pete Culler lapstrake yawl and a Pulsifer Hampton launch.
Owning all these boats, studying their past, restoring them, paying their yard bills and spending lots of money to have others take care of them—let alone sailing them—makes no sense. That’s why he does it.
“Wooden boats are just nice,” Lee says. “A little varnish is not a bad thing. It’s good to restore a 12½ perfectly. It will last another 50 years.”
The 77-year-old Lee, whose career spans more than 40 years, better resembles a reclusive Yankee shipwright than a denizen of the Great White Way. Round, clear eyeglasses frame a dreamy expression topped by a balding head of gray hair. Red, white and blue suspenders hold up rugged khakis over his thin frame. Worn-out Top-Siders complete the picture.
And yet, Lee doesn’t hide in the wings. Whether advising Steve Martin and Edie Brickell on the musical “Bright Star” or showing off a scale model of the miniature Manhattan skyline he created for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” he’s still in the thick of Midtown A-list entertainment. He’s hardly a dilettante but is, instead, a very social beast, like any good yacht club member (New York, in his case).
The creative juices that fuel his passion for theater and television are the same that feed his passion for wooden boats and just about any other object that comes into his life and takes hold of him—like his 1957 Volkswagen Beetle (license plate: SNL) or his 1965 Land Rover (license plate: Sea Dog), both of which are restored. There’s plenty of room for them and more on the grounds of his Georgian Revival home and studio in Providence, Rhode Island, from whence he commutes into New York City weekly.
Set foot inside Lee’s house and work space, and you may feel like you’re heeling. Wedged into every square foot are eclectic collections, among them miniature barnyard animals, model skyscrapers, old typewriters, fans, framed prints, wooden stacking toys, T-squares, salt and pepper shakers, oars, vintage wooden rulers, giant clothespins, at least one life-size stuffed bear, walking canes and canisters of pencils.
The home he shares with his wife, Brooke, contains enough ephemera for a half-dozen antiques shops and flea markets, as well as the domestic trappings of a titan of the theater and his gardening other half. Surrounded by all this stuff, and with the score of “Bright Star” playing on the stereo, it’s understandable that Lee can be momentarily distracted from nautical pursuits.
“Ah, the boats, the dreaded boats,” he teases, seated in an easy chair. “I don’t know if I even want to talk about boats.”
For insight into Lee’s eccentricities, a visitor need only look to titles like “Jerry Todd, Pirate” or “Jerry Todd and the Oak Island Treasure,” both by Lee’s grandfather, Edward Edson Lee, author of children’s books under the pen name Leo Edwards.
“Ronald Reagan said my grandfather’s books were his favorite growing up,” Lee says.
Lee and his twin brother, Tom, spent carefree summers full of DIY projects, shooting sun sights with a sextant, dreaming of living aboard, sailing, rowing and whipping up magic tricks with their parents at his father’s cottage called Hi-Lee near Lake Ripley, Wisconsin. “Jerry Todd, my Herreshoff 12½, was named after a character in my grandfather’s books,” Lee says. “Named after my father, actually.”
There was always lots of hustle and bustle around Lake Ripley, which is where Ole Evinrude tested out his great invention, the outboard motor.
“We always had a lot of extra boats,” Lee says. “Lots of kayaks, canoes and homemade boats. All kinds of things like that. You could just pop down to the lake and get anything you wanted for excitement.”
Summer also gave the boys time to read books by globe-trotting sailors Eric and Susan Hiscock. They sent Lee’s imagination soaring beyond the lake, to the challenges of bluewater voyaging.
“I was always interested in Vertues because the Hiscocks sailed Wanderer III, a 30-foot Vertue, around the world many times,” he recalls. “I read about all their travels.”
Years passed, the boys grew, and while Tom got a commission to West Point, Eugene was drawn to sketchpads, isometric drawings and the “really fantastic theater” at his high school. “We went in opposite directions,” he says, adding, “Tom has boats, too. He’s as crazy, and possibly more crazy, than me. His boats are all plastic. I know. Heresy, right?”
Lee’s restless aspirations saw him through a peripatetic educational path. It included stints at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and the Art Institute of Chicago. He received BFA degrees from Carnegie Tech and the Art Institute Of Chicago. He went to the Yale School of Drama, where he received his Master of Fine Arts. He downplays his top-flight professional credits and awards (he was admitted to the Theater Hall of Fame in 2006), which are too numerous to list. For him, life’s pretty much as it’s always been.
“I’m just doing now what I was doing in high school, to be honest,” Lee says. “It hasn’t changed. A lot of the technology of the theater comes from sailing ships. The systems that were used in the theater to fly things involved counterweights and blocks and falls. All that’s right out of how the mechanics of theater used to be done.
“Set designers like me, we know a little bit about a lot of things,” he adds. “We know a little bit about engineering, but we’re not engineers. We do things architects might do, but we’re not architects. It’s a funny profession.”
On the second floor of his carriage house is another sanctuary of collectibles. Bikes, bistro chairs and pendant lamps are suspended from the ceiling. Surrounded by wooden rolltop desks, filing cabinets, a draftsman’s table and stacks of shallow drawers, Lee’s in his element.
“So this is more like what I do,” he says, spreading out drafting paper that contains the storyboard from “Wicked.” “It’s like cartoons. You can make it look like anything. Here’s Glinda, arriving in a bubble machine.”
Suddenly, his attention flutters away from Broadway to a canister of pencils, sharpened graphite tips up. He pulls one out. He holds up a foam board model of a house he’s building in the woods of northern Maine, so he can be located near a pencil-factory project he says he’s planning with a friend.
A pencil factory?
He and a buddy found a consultant in high-end pencils along the lines of the celebrated Blackwing writing instrument. Lee figured he would need to find a place to stay, and so hired an architect for the house, which will be passive solar.
“I’m told by the consultant that maybe we’ll be making pencils by the end of the year,” Lee says. “Who knows? None of this makes any sense.”
Yet once you get to know even just a little about Lee, it does.
“I’m going back to my youth in Maine,” he says. “There’s a nice little pond there, like a little lake. The boats I have won’t fit into this scheme. I need something smaller, more appropriate for the location.”
And maybe, no fixed location at all.
“I’d live on a boat in a second,” he says. “I’d live on a boat right now.”