Category Archives: Arts

Remembering Gorham Island

Wednesday’s “06880” story on the death of Sidney Kramer included a few lines about his founding of Save Westport Now. The impetus for Westport’s 3rd political party was the construction of a 40,000-square foot glass office building on Gorham Island, diagonally across Parker Harding Plaza from Kramer’s Remarkable Book Shop.

Reader Kathleen Burke was reminded of a beautiful watercolor postcard. Artist Walter Dubois Richards created it, as part of the campaign to save the Victorian house that sat on Gorham Island.

Whether all you know of that spot is the bile-green office — or if you fondly remember the old home there — you’ll appreciate Richards’ painting:

Gorham Island - Walter Dubois Richards

Here’s another view, of unknown origin:

Gorham Island house

Noted artist Al Willmott painted this view of Gorham Island and downtown:

Gorham Island by Don Willmott

As did famed “Little Toot” artist Hardie Gramatky:

Gorham Island by Hardie Gramatky

Here’s the view today:

Gorham Island office

We can’t get that house back. But it wasn’t because Sidney Kramer didn’t try.

Candlelight Concert Rings In The Holiday Season

Tonight’s Candlelight Concert — the 1st show of the 2-day, 74th annual gift to the town from the Staples High School music department — wowed a packed auditorium.

Hundreds of singers and musicians performed sophisticated pieces with aplomb. They threw in a PDQ Bach number, and the world premiere of a global warming-themed production number by Don Rickenbach.

And, of course, the timeless “Sing We Noel” processional, and rousing “Hallelujah Chorus” finale, serve as fitting bookends for one of Westport’s favorite events of the year.

"Now let hosannas ring..." (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

“Now let hosannas ring…” (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

The chorus and chorale, with accompanist Dr. Robert Kwan. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

The chorus and chorale, with accompanist Dr. Robert Kwan. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

The a cappella choir, directed by Luke Rosenberg. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

The a cappella choir, directed by Luke Rosenberg. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Adele Valovich leads the symphonic orchestra.

Adele Valovich leads the symphonic orchestra. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Nick Mariconda and the symphonic band. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Nick Mariconda and the symphonic band. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

There was a lot going on during the clever production number. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

A lot went on during the clever production number. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

At the end of the "Hallelujah Chorus," the audience was invited to return next year -- when the Candlelight Concerts celebrates its 75th anniversary. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

At the end of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the audience was invited to return next year — when the Candlelight Concerts celebrates its 75th anniversary. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

 

 

 

Give Westport For The Holidays

You might not be able to give a 15,000-square foot, 4-car garage McMansion for Christmas.*

But you can still give a gift that screams “06880” (the town, not the blog).

The Westport Historical Society’s Remarkable Gift Shop — yes, it’s a clever homage to the late, much-loved book store — is filled with Westportiana.

There are books, including “Westport: A Special Place” (fantastic photos, compiled by Eve Potts); “Stars in Our Eyes” (Tom DeLong’s tribute to our arts heritage), and — my favorite — “Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education” (Dan Woog’s superb book on the history of his alma mater).

WHS gifts 1 - Larry Untermeyer

Some of the many gifts available at the Westport Historical Society. The best are the ones that say “06880.” (Photo/Larry Untermeyer)

There are also maps; clever jigsaw puzzles of New Yorker covers depicting iconic Westport scenes; Christmas tree ornaments with Compo themes, and ties, caps, aprons, quilts, totes, pillows, sports bags, flannel pajama pants, t-shirts and sweatshirts — all with Westport (or “06880”) logos.

“06880” — the blog, not the town — is not for sale. But at the Historical Society, Westport sure is.

(The Remarkable Gift Shop is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays, and 12-4 p.m. Saturdays. The Westport Historical Society is located at 25 Avery Place; the phone number is 203-222-1424. Click on the WHS website for more information.)

*Besides, it would be tough to fit under the tree.

A wide collection of books on sale at the WHS. The history of Staples is near the top, on the right. (Photo/Larry Untermeyer)

A wide collection of books on sale at the WHS. The history of Staples is near the top, on the right. (Photo/Larry Untermeyer)

Remembering Sidney Kramer

Sidney Kramer would have been 100 years old on January 21.

He didn’t make it. He died earlier today, 64 years after moving to Westport.

But that’s one of the few things he did not accomplish in a long, productive and well-lived life.

Sidney Kramer

Sidney Kramer

Sidney Kramer was a major player in the publishing world. An attorney, literary agent and co-founder of Bantam Books — the original paperback house, founded during World War II when newsprint was scarce — he was better known locally as the owner of The Remarkable Bookshop.

For more than 30 years the pink building on the corner of Main Street and Parker Harding Plaza was beloved for its floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with new releases, poetry, cookbooks, obscure volumes and funky gifts; its cozy rooms, well-worn couches and sloping floors, and the encyclopedic knowledge of everyone who worked there.

Sidney’s wife Esther managed the store. She died in April 2011, at 93.

Remarkable made national headlines in 1978 when it refused to sell Richard Nixon’s biography because — in Kramer’s words — “we thought he was a rascal.” The store owner noted that it was not a freedom of speech issue. He even walked patrons down the street to Klein’s, which sold the book.

In 2001 — in recognition of the service Remarkable Book Shop provided — Sidney and Esther Kramer received Westport’s Arts Award.

The much-loved Remarkable Book Shop

The much-loved Remarkable Book Shop

But Remarkable — whose perfect name, serendipitously, includes “Kramer” spelled backwards — was not Sidney Kramer’s major contribution to Westport.

In 1981 he helped found Save Westport Now. Originally organized to prevent an enormous office building from replacing a century-old Victorian house on Gorham Island — diagonally across the parking lot from Remarkable —  Save Westport Now soon evolved into a 3rd political party.

It lost the Gorham Island war. But it won a battle along the way: The green-tinted office was originally planned to be much higher than it is now.

For the next 3 decades, Kramer and other activists monitored the Planning and Zoning Commission. They were particularly involved in issues like parking and the height of new buildings.

Save Westport Now said:

Mr. Kramer was never reticent in voicing his opinions about the manner in which over-reaching development would damage the character of his town. His analyses were not only respected, but often resulted in better outcomes. Although he relied on the members of his organization to help fulfill the SWN mission it was he, well into his 90s, who stood at Town Hall and spoke. And we all listened, learned and benefited.

Save Westport Now

Kramer was born in the Bronx in 1915. His parents emigrated to the US from Vilna and Minsk, in the 1890s. After graduating from NYU and Brooklyn Law School, Kramer served as counsel, accountant and eventually part owner of Penguin Books.

After Bantam he worked with other publishing companies, and was president of New American Library. In 1961 he founded Mews Books Ltd., a literary agency representing authors like Richard Scarry and Hardie Gramatky.

Sidney Kramer is survived by his son Mark of Newton, Massachusetts, the founding director of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard University and the author of many works of narrative non-fiction; his daughter Wendy Posner of Chicago; 4 grandchildren — and a very grateful Westport.

A memorial service is set for Saturday, January 24 (11:30 a.m., Westport Library). It’s 3 days after what would have been his 100th birthday.

 

 

The Orphenians’ Gift Box

The Orphenians are entering their busy season. Staples’ elite a cappella group is in  high demand during the holidays.

But they’re also looking ahead to spring. In March, they’ve been invited to San Francisco. They’re one of 10 schools — and the only one from the East Coast — to participate in Chanticleer’s National Youth Choral Festival.

It’s an expensive undertaking. To raise funds, they’re bringing a giant music box to their performances. Donations are gratefully accepted.

The box was there last night, for Chanticleer’s performance at Christ & Holy Trinity Church.

The Orphenians, and their gift music box.

The Orphenians, and their gift music box.

It will be out this weekend too, at the Candlelight Concert. If you’d like to help, drop cash or checks (made out to “Staples Music,” with “Orphenians” in the memo line) into the box.

Donations can also be sent to Luke Rosenberg, c/o Staples High School, 70 North Avenue, Westport, CT 06880.

Getting In The Candlelight Mood

Staples’ 74th Candlelight Concert is more than a week away. But the orchestra, choirs and bands are hard at work, rehearsing for the high school’s annual gift to the town.

Ever wonder what it’s like to be part of the “Hallelujah Chorus”? Here’s an up-close-and-personal view, from backstage behind the string section.

Hallelujah!

 

Fred Cantor’s Timeless Westport

As an alert “06880” reader, Fred Cantor has seen comments on every side of every debate about the changing nature of Westport.

As someone who came to Westport in 1963, Fred has seen many of those changes himself.

An accomplished attorney, film and play producer and writer, Fred has spent years taking photos around town. Recently, he asked Staples grad Casey Denton to help create a video of those shots.

Fred’s goal was simple. He wanted to document his belief that the essence of Westport’s beauty and small-town New England character — which his family discovered upon moving here over 5 decades ago — remains alive and well.

The video opens with long-ago Westport scenes. There are photos of mom-and-pop stores, the kind that filled Main Street back in the day. Obviously, that’s changed.

But most of the photos are from the recent past — many taken within the past year. And, Fred notes, they are “timeless Westport scenes.” Churches, barns, the Saugatuck bridge, the Minuteman and Doughboy statues, the Mill Pond and cannons — we are surrounded by wonderful history and spectacular beauty.

Fred knows that family businesses are very much with us. From long-time establishments (Oscar’s, Mario’s) to relative newcomers (Elvira’s, Saugatuck Sweets), there are more here than we realize.

Finally, Fred wanted to show that institutions like the Library, Westport Country Playhouse and Levitt Pavilion have been significantly upgraded over the years. The entire community benefits, Fred says, from “the strong commitment to the arts that existed when my parents brought us here over 50 years ago.”

Fred knows this is the perspective of just one near-native. But, he says — as health problems limit how far he can go from home — he is glad he can notice and appreciate more than ever what is right around all of us.

 

Remembering Chou Chou Merrill

Chou Chou Merrill hadn’t lived in Westport for decades. But today, countless Westporters mourn her death.

The Staples Class of 1970 grad died suddenly in her sleep Saturday night. She was 62 years old.

Thanks to Facebook, thousands of people knew and loved Chou Chou. She created, administered or was an avid contributor to a variety of online communities: “You Know You’re from Westport, CT If …” “Exit 18 – Westport CT Residents and Ex-Residents.” “Save Westport CT From Itself!”

The indomitable Chou Chou Merrill.

The indomitable Chou Chou Merrill.

Not long ago, she founded another group: “Westport CT Artists and Craftsmen.” It was a site for local creative folks to display their works.

That was no casual interest. Her father, Jason Raum, owned an operated “Jewels by Jason” on Main Street for many years. It was upstairs in the handsome stone building next to what is now Tavern on Main, across from Oscar’s.

That Westport connection meant a lot to Chou Chou. So did many other connections. She reveled in her childhood and youth here — the memories she shared, the friendships she nurtured, the opportunities she was given.

Her mother-in-law was Bette Davis. She seldom mentioned it. But not long ago, without saying whose it was, she posted a photo of the actress’ home on Crooked Mile Road. Chou Chou admired it not because of who owned it, but because of how lovely it looked.

As a board member of the Bette Davis Foundation, Chou Chou awarded scholarships to aspiring actors, and other talented students in the entertainment industry.

A couple of days before she died, Chou Chou Merrill (4th from left, black outfit) joined classmates and other longtime Westport friends at Mario's. It was the perfect spot to celebrate "old" Westport, and she highlighted the event on Facebook.

A couple of days before she died, Chou Chou Merrill (4th from left, black outfit) joined classmates and other longtime friends at Mario’s. It was the perfect spot to celebrate “old” Westport, and she highlighted the event on Facebook.

Chou Chou made her mark on her adopted hometown — Brookline, Massachusetts — too. She was a successful real estate broker there, and served on the Town Meeting (the equivalent of our RTM) for over 25 years. She was past co-president of the League of Women Voters Brookline, a member of the Flag Day Parade committee, and a contributor to Little League, the Senior Center, Library and Brookline Community Fund.

Today, many Facebook pages are filled with tributes to Chou Chou. Geoffrey Glaser wrote: “She inspired so much thought with her postings…. She was the glue that held Old Westport together…. She created conversation that introduced us to new friends and reintroduced us to old friends.”

Thanks to Chou Chou Merrill, Westport lives on in words and pictures. Thanks to Facebook — and her thousands of friends and admirers —  she will continue to live too.

Thankful For…

The snowstorm predicted for Thanksgiving fizzled out. The days since Wednesday have been gorgeous.

Betsy P. Kahn captured this morning’s sunrise at Old Mill Beach. What a wonderful way to keep this holiday weekend going so well.

Old Mill sunrise - Betsy P Kahn

Alisan Porter Knows “Who We Are”

It’s been quite a year for Alisan Porter.

The 1999 Staples graduate — who also played Curly Sue in the movie of the same name, and performed on Broadway in “Footloose” and “A Chorus Line” — gave birth to her 2nd child, talked openly about her sobriety, and has just released her 1st solo album in 6 years.

After many years recording and performing with her band The Canyons, she felt the need to explore musically on her own. She spent time in Nashville writing, and — with friend and fellow Staples grad Drew McKeon — went into the studio. He co-wrote, co-produced and played on the album, called “Who We Are.”

Ali Porter

“We basically sat in her kitchen in California with a guitar and a laptop and started writing a song,” he says, recalling the project’s genesis. “Twenty minutes later we had a demo for a tune.”

They went out and got all-star musicians, veterans of bands for Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Eric Clapton.

In a People magazine story written by yet another Staples grad — Jennifer Garcia — Porter describes her work as a recording artist, mother of 2 (ages 2 1/2 and 6 months), and blogger (“The Lil’ Mamas” is a no-holds-barred, tell-all, not-your- grandmother’s look at motherhood).

“Motherhood always comes first,” she says. “But I knew I wasn’t going to be a good mother if I didn’t continue to do what I love! Music is a part of me and I had to express myself, especially now that I’m a mom. That inspired a lot of the album. My own growing up and watching my children do the same.”

That’s happening in California now. But you can’t take the Westport out of Curly Sue Alison Porter.