Category Archives: Arts

Pedro Da Silva’s Legacy

Two years ago — as a Central High School sophomore — Pedro Da Silva heard an announcement about Open Choice.

“I think I was the only one who listened,” he says, referring to the lottery that brings Bridgeport students to Westport.

Though he was in Central’s magnet school program, Pedro wanted more. “It was a tough environment to learn in,” he explains.

He was accepted. Even before his 1st day as a Staples High School junior, he noticed a difference.

Staples sealWhile registering for classes, guidance counselor Deb Slocum  “ran over the entire building, looking for an AP US History textbook for me,” Pedro says. “She went to such a huge extent to help.”

When school began, he noticed a great academic difference. He had to drop a couple of AP and Honors classes. Even so, he struggled to keep up.

“In Contemporary World Issues they were talking about the Ottoman Empire,” Pedro recalls. “I had no idea what that was.”

He wrote down everything that was unfamiliar. At home each night, he researched what he did not know.

The first month was tough. Fortunately, Pedro found his new classmates very friendly. “I thought they might be snobby,” he says. “But everyone was so nice. I noticed the atmosphere immediately. It’s so warm and inviting. Mr. Dodig (the principal) has built such an accepting school.”

Joining Staples Players and Choir helped too. “At Staples you’re not judged for liking the arts,” he says with relief.

Pedro Da Silva, standing proudly at Staples.

Pedro Da Silva, standing proudly at Staples.

Pedro acted in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and last year’s One-Act Festival. Next month, he’s directing a One-Act. In the winter he’s on the swim team. He’s vice president of the St. Jude’s Charity Club.

Now — as he prepares to graduate in June — Pedro wants to do one more thing.

He wants to leave a legacy.

Through a college application Facebook group, he met a boy in Kansas. “He lives in an area like Fairfield County, where some communities are much more affluent than others,” Pedro says. His friend created an inter-district student government. Each school sends 2 representatives. They meet monthly, sharing ideas about connecting their schools while breaking down barriers and social stereotypes.

Pedro would love to do the same thing with Westport, Fairfield and Bridgeport.

“Stereotypes are not real,” he notes. “There are really nice people everywhere.”

Central HSWhen Pedro announced he was leaving Central, his Bridgeport friends warned him that Westport kids could be snobs. Staples students have their own ideas about Bridgeport students.

“We’re all just teenagers going through the same issues,” Pedro says. “We should be able to advocate together, and learn from each other.”

Pedro has already made a start. He’s brought Central friends here, to see Players shows. Now, he’s talking to Dodig and the Student Assembly to move his idea forward.

Meanwhile, he’s waiting to hear back from colleges. And he’s gearing up for his senior internship, at the Southwest Regional Mental Health Board in Norwalk.

Pedro will leave Staples with many good friends, wonderful memories, and an important lesson.

“No matter who you are, or what your background is, you can excel,” he says. “At Staples, I’ve been able to set my sights high, and learn how to accomplish as much as I can.”

40 Years, 40 Photos Of Sherwood Island

Larry Silver is well known for his iconic Longshore shots.

But the very talented Westport photographer has spent countless hours a couple of miles away at Sherwood Island too. That’s Westport’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind beach.

Tomorrow (Friday, March 27), the Westport Library introduces “Sherwood Island, 1975-2015″: more than 40 of Silver’s images, from the past 40 years.

"Woman With Boombox" -- Larry Silver, 1980.

“Woman With Boombox” — Larry Silver, 1980.

The photos show the changing styles of visitors to Connecticut’s 1st state park — and its timelessness. The shots — in black and white, and digital color; in every season, all over the park — are classics.

One of the library photos — “Sunset at Sherwood Island State Park” — is included in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art’s permanent collection.

"Man Barbecuing Next to Black and White Umbrella" -- Larry Silver, 2014.

“Man Barbecuing Next to Black and White Umbrella” — Larry Silver, 2014.

Every Westporter knows where the library is. Not everyone knows Sherwood Island — the overlooked gem right on our coast.

After Larry Silver’s exhibit, no one can forget it.

"Couple Photographing Children in Water" -- Larry Silver, 2014.

“Couple Photographing Children in Water” — Larry Silver, 2014.

Real Pugsley Pumps Up Coleytown’s “Addams Family”

What do you do after you’ve acted in 2 huge New York musicals: “The Addams Family” and “Shrek”?

You help middle school kids put on those same shows.

And — if you’re Adam Riegler, in Westport — that’s hardly a comedown.

Adam Riegler (right) in "The Addams Family." (Photo/Joan Marcus for Broadway.com)

Adam Riegler (right) in “The Addams Family.” (Photo/Joan Marcus for Broadway.com)

Riegler’s the Staples High School junior who — while still at Saugatuck El — played young Shrek, then followed up as Pugsley (he did online schooling and tutoring in lieu of Bedford Middle).

It was a fantastic experience. But Broadway roles for teenagers are rare, so Riegler is now a normal 11th grader.

He’s known Ben Frimmer — the director of Coleytown Company — for years. Last year, when “Shrek: The Musical” became available for schools, Frimmer asked Adam to help.

The duo clicked. So this year, as Frimmer prepared for “Addams Family,” the partnership was a natural.

Riegler’s official title is “associate director.” He helps run rehearsals, and works with individual actors.

A pair of Pugsleys: Adam Riegler (right) works with Coleytown's Oscar Hechter.

A pair of Pugsleys: Adam Riegler (right) works with Coleytown’s Oscar Hechter. (Photo/Kerry Foley)

Oscar Hechter — Coleytown’s Pugsley — is a 6th grader. “That’s young!” marvels 5-years-older Riegler. “I’m helping him bring out his character. Like, his song at the end of Act I — it’s really emotional, but in a comic way. We talk about how to do that.”

“Addams Family” includes several scenes with fathers and daughters. “These kids have no experience with being old,” Riegler notes. “Mr. Frimmer and I are working on making it natural — not ‘acting.'”

The middle schoolers have heard that Riegler was on Broadway, but most of them don’t really understand how impressive that is. One boy did — and said he was glad not to have known that before his audition.

The best educations work both ways. Riegler says he is learning too: how to work with children, with actors in general, and how to be a director.

Riegler is keeping busy in other ways too. He’s going for film and TV auditions, hoping for his next big role.

This weekend though, he’ll be in the Coleytown auditorium, as proud as any parent in the house.

(Two other Staples students are working on the Coleytown show: Johnny Donovan is assistant director, while Jane Schutte is assisting with choreography. “The Addams Family” is performed this Thursday, Friday and Saturday [March 27, 28 and 29, 7 p.m.], at Coleytown Middle School. For tickets and more information, click on http://www.showtix4u.com [search for “Westport”], or call 203-341-1666.)

Coleytown Company's "Addams Family" cast includes (clockwise from left): Anella Lefebvre (Morticia), Georgia Wright (Gomez), Maggie Foley (Wednesday) and Oscar Hechter (Pugsley).

Coleytown Company’s “Addams Family” cast includes (clockwise from left): Anella Lefebvre (Morticia), Georgia Wright (Gomez), Maggie Foley (Wednesday) and Oscar Hechter (Pugsley). (Photo/Kerry Foley)

Remembering Walt Reed

Walt Reed’s death last week, at 97, marks the end of one more link to Westport’s arts colony past.

Reed — a leading illustrator, art historian and author of books on illustration and illustrators, including fellow Westporter Harold von Schmidt — founded the Illustration House gallery here in 1974. One of the 1st of its kind, the company is now headquartered in New York.

Walt Reed, in his Westport studio.

Walt Reed, in his Westport studio.

“Walt was a wonderful, quiet, sweet, mild man who taught us all a lot about the early Westport illustrators,” says Eve Potts, who worked closely with him on a number of projects.

“Walt was always willing to share his knowledge, always helpful no matter how small or large the task you asked him to help with.”

James Gurney says: “Genial, good-natured and enthusiastic, he almost single-handedly pioneered illustration history as a field of research. He legitimized original illustration artwork as a category for collectors.”

One of Walt Reed's books on the history of illustration.

One of Walt Reed’s books on the history of illustration.

Reed was born in Texas. He went to art school at Pratt. During World War II he was a conscientious objector, working instead in the Dakotas for the government. After the war, he aided in European reconstruction efforts.

In the 1950s Reed was an instructor at Westport-based Famous Artists School. In 2012, the Norman Rockwell Museum honored him with its 1st-ever Distinguished Scholar Award.

The last time Potts saw Reed was at the opening of a Westport Historical Society exhibit on stamps produced by Westport artists.

He was part of that group. In 1976, he’d created a series of 50 stamps depicting state flags, to honor the American bicentennial.

(For an in-depth story on Walt Reed’s influence on the art world, click here.)

Finding America’s Best Folk Art, Right Here At Home

You’d expect one of the world’s most extensive collections of American folk art carvings to be housed in a museum — the Wadsworth Atheneum perhaps, or the Smithsonian.

It’s not.

Bob Levine shows off a wood carving of General Custer.

Bob Levine shows off a wood carving of General Custer.

But you’d never guess that this amazing array of pieces — 800 wood carvings, of everyone from Pocahontas and Knute Rockne to Charles Lindbergh and Hillary Clinton — is right here in Westport.

In a private home. Whose owners have twice converted garage space into warm, artifact-filled rooms, now overflowing with American historical figures, events and icons.

Anne and Bob Levine married in 1987. She’s a 1964 Staples graduate; he’s a Brooklyn native who’s lived here since 1969.

A month after their wedding, they went to a Westport Arts Center exhibit on folk art. They knew  nothing about the subject. But Bob — who in addition to being a neurologist, author, former owner of Anacapri restaurant and marathon runner, was a woodcarver in his youth — and his wife were intrigued.

They bought a couple of inexpensive pieces. Then they added a few more items. Soon they were going to antique shows and auctions, and scouring eBay, building — without even realizing it – a world-class collection.

Today it spills through every room of their unpretentious home. From the outside, you’d never know it’s there. Once you step inside, it’s everywhere.

A visitor to the Levines' home is greeted by an array of Uncle Sams.

A visitor to the Levines’ home is greeted by an array of Uncle Sams.

The first thing you see is a collection of Uncle Sams, in every imaginable pose. A World War I piece shows Kaiser Wilhelm bowing at Sam’s feet.

One room contains perhaps America’s largest collection of whirligigs, along with frontier pieces. But the crown jewel is a fantastically detailed diorama of Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet, bought at a Christie’s auction. Each member is individually carved. An electric chandelier shines overhead.

President Roosevelt -- and each of his cabinet members -- is carved in exquisite detail.

President Roosevelt — and each of his cabinet members — is carved in exquisite detail.

Most of the folk artists are self-taught. Few are well known. Most are dead. Woodcarving is a dying art, Levine says.

He and Anne show me John and Abigail Adams, Henry Clay, Sitting Bull. There are lots of Lincolns: Abe as a young man, as president, wearing classical garb. Nearby are Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, George Armstrong Custer.

“These are beautiful works of art,” Bob says. “But most of them were done just as a hobby, to give as gifts, or keep as decorations in the home.”

Each has a story. He shows off a carving of a Japanese soldier, surrendering in World War II. It was done by a disabled American soldier, as therapy. The piece rests atop a wooden box — where the soldier kept his medal.

There is great detail too in this carving of Pocahontas and John Smith.

There is great detail too in this carving of Pocahontas and John Smith.

In another room, Levine points to a carving of Ronald Reagan. It was created by a woman — a rarity in a male-dominated field — from Tennessee. In 2008, the Levines called her to commission a carving of President-elect Obama. They learned the artist — a full-time hairdresser — was semi-illiterate. She needed help sending it by mail.

The Levines commissioned another piece: a carving of the flag-raising in New York, after 9/11. That artist was losing his vision to macular degeneration. It was the last work he ever did.

The couple do not know every artist in their collection. Many are anonymous. But they know the story behind each piece — where they found this Thomas Edison, why there are so many carvings of show girls, how come William McKinley was so popular back in the day.

The Levines love their whirligigs -- movable wind toys.

The Levines love their whirligigs — movable wind toys.

There is hardly any room left in the Levines’ home for new works. Which is why Bob (who in retirement runs the neurology clinic at Norwalk Hospital, serves with Americares, and is writing 2 more books) and Anne (who after retiring from her job managing an architectural office volunteers for the Westport Historical Society, Westport Schools Permanent Arts Collection and Norwalk Hospital) are now giving away some of their precious collection.

It will go to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, for a show next year.

That’s the oldest public art museum in America. However, Bob says, it has almost no folk art.

No wonder. The best collection in the country is 60 miles away, right here in Bob and Anne Levine’s Westport home.

Anne Levine stands with a life-size carving of Uncle Sam.

Anne Levine stands with a life-size carving of Uncle Sam.

Tess Meisel’s “Love Begins”

The death of Tess Meisel — a 12-year-old Coleytown Middle School musician, actor, environmentalist and fun-loving girl — in a 2011 Maine motor vehicle accident rocked all who knew her. Her friends vowed never to forget her.

Fellow Coleytown Company actor Vig Namasivayam — now a Staples junior — grew close to Tess’ mother, Suzanne Tanner. She’s a composer of musical biographies. During a 2013 visit, they got the idea of making a musical celebrating Tess’ life.

Suzanne wrote the music and lyrics. She asked Vig to direct it.

He was hesitant at first. But it grew into an amazing story, with a great cast. Vig now calls it “my pride and joy.”

where the love begins“Where the Love Begins” is a mother’s tender memoir of the child-rearing years, from birth on. Suzanne will be onstage, at the piano, reflecting on a turbulent but profoundly poignant period in her life, by being a narrator of sorts.

She hopes the show will inspire others  to cherish time with their loved ones, and offer perspective on what is truly important in life: family, friendship and faith in the beyond.

The show will be performed in the Staples auditorium on August 21, 22 and 23. All proceeds go to the Tess Meisel Scholarship Fund — helping students who share Tess’ passions for the environment, musical theater and poetry — and other related charities.

But to give away money, Vig and his friends first have to raise funds — for costumes, sets, lights and auditorium rental and a special program, filled with Tess’ poetry.

The 1st benefit for the show is Saturday, April 11 at Toquet Hall. Cast members will perform songs from “Where the Love Begins.” Members of Wreckers in Tune and the band C4S will also play.

Tess Meisel

Tess Meisel

A number of Staples students are acting and doing tech work. Samantha Galvao, who was in the car crash with Tess, is technical director. Others are doing lighting, stage managing and choreography. Suzanne — Tess’ mom — will help instruct the actors and musicians.

She and Vig are honoring Tess’ commitment to environmentalism by using recycled items and making ecologically responsible choices.

It’s pretty clear that the love that began for Tess continues long after her death.

[For tickets to the Toquet Hall benefit via Facebook, click here. There is also a “GoFundMe” site for donations — click here to help.]

Eric Burns: A Very Moving Story

Alert “06880” reader Eric Burns — prolific author, Fox News Watch media analyst for the network and Entertainment Tonight commentator and former Westporter — writes:

I moved to Ridgefield after my divorce because I wanted to get away from everything and everybody.

Bad idea.

I felt isolated. I drove into Westport 2 or 3 times a week, to Trader Joe’s, Christie’s Service Station, Five Guys, Acqua, Baker Graphics, Barnes and Noble, the Library — all of them places with which I am familiar, all of them places that I missed.

I spent a lot of money on gas, a lot of time on the road. Finally, I decided I had to move back.

Eric Burns...

Eric Burns…

But because I have about 2,300 books, I found no place in Westport that could accommodate them in a single room. So, next best thing. I moved to Norwalk, where my daughter and her fiance live — and, I hope, close to where my son will live when he finishes grad school.

I started preparing for the move a month before the van was due, filling 10 small boxes a day. I numbered them carefully, and carried them from my upstairs library into the garage. I am certain that, single-handedly, and not especially well-muscled, I moved at least a ton of product.

I lined up the boxes perfectly, in numerical order. I told the movers that when they unloaded the books into my new library, they needed to do just 2 things.  First, put the boxes on the floor in chronological order in front of the shelves.  Second, set down the boxes so I could see the numbers on them.

Because of the way I had prepared the boxes for loading on the van, it should have been an easy task for 4 men.

The ending of the story should be obvious.  My new library — a furnished basement on Linden Street — now contains 287 boxes of books in no particular order. Most are without the number showing. Some are upside down, others broken apart with books scattered into other boxes.

...surrounded by boxes...

…surrounded by random boxes…

Yesterday I found box #1. Now I have to go through 286 boxes to find number 2.  It could take an hour — to find one box. One box scattered senselessly in a pile of 286 boxes, which might just as well have been thrown on the floor from the top of the steps.

It took the 4 men from the moving company an hour and a half to wreak their havoc. Because of a bad back, and the fact that I am but one person, it will take me a week or more to find the right boxes, and fill the bookcases in their proper order. Even spreading the work out over that much time, I still expect sharp, stabbing pains in my back.

I am not young. Nor am I a professional mover.

I emailed the company to complain. They offered to clean up the mess. All I had to do was kick in an additional $119. I declined the offer. I had, I said, already paid my bill.

...and empty shelves.

…and empty shelves.

I love the feel of a book, the look of it, the scent of it — even, on occasion, the heft of it.  Now, for the first time, I find myself thinking longingly of a Kindle.

Do you remember the old TV show “All My Sons”? Not very funny, but pleasant enough, and successful in its time. Do you know the moving company All My Sons? Forget it.

Yet even with the shoddy work of some of All My Sons’ sons, I’m happy to be back near Westport. On May 21 I will speak at the Westport Library about my next book, 1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar.

By that time my library will be intact. I will not say a word about the moving company that made the author roar, nor the amount of time it took me to find my copy of the book, a needle in the haystack of 2,300 such items.

A Memorable Staples-Broadway Connection

Staples Players is in the midst of another this-is-like-Broadway run. “Sweeney Todd” wowed audiences last weekend. Tickets may sell out soon for this weekend’s final shows.

Audience members awed by the teenagers’ performances say to themselves, “If only I had enough talent to get on stage…”

Rondi Charleston at 19 -- the year she auditioned for "Sweeney Todd."

Rondi Charleston at 19 — the year she auditioned for “Sweeney Todd.”

One Westporter does more than just think it. She remembers vividly the day 36 years ago when she auditioned for that very show.

In 1979, Rondi Charleston was a 2nd-year student in Juilliard’s drama department. She was called to audition as an ingenue in the original production of “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway.

Charleston sang for the casting director. The next day she was called back to sing for director Hal Prince, in a big, historic theater.

Prince liked what he heard. She was called back again. This time, Stephen Sondheim was there.

Charleston was not nervous. “I was young and naive,” she laughs.

Charleston made it to one of 3 finalists. Eventually the role — Johanna, a classic Sondheim ingenue — went to someone a bit older and more seasoned.

Rondi Charleston and Emma Ruchefsky.

Rondi Charleston and Emma Ruchefsky.

Charleston is enjoying watching the current Staples Johanna — and not just because she almost played it herself.

One of the double-cast roles is Emma Ruchefsky — Charleston’s daughter.

“Life has come full circle,” the former actor says. “I couldn’t be happier or more thrilled that she is getting the chance to put her stamp on this role. I have so much respect for the work that all these kids do!”

Congrats to Emma, and Rondi — a “stage mother” everyone can love.

(Staples Players performs “Sweeney Todd” this Friday and Saturday, March 20 and 21. For tickets and more information, click on StaplesPlayers.com.)

Johanna (Emma Ruchefsky) and Anthony Hope (Jack Baylis). (Photo/Kerry Long)

Johanna (Emma Ruchefsky) and Anthony Hope (Jack Baylis). (Photo/Kerry Long)

 

David Qiu Gives A Little Love

When David Qiu heard that the White House was sponsoring a Student Film Festival — and the theme was the impact of service, and giving back — he realized he had a perfect setting. Staples High School places a great emphasis on those 2 ideals.

David — now a junior — created a 3-minute video. It’s entirely student done. Filmed all at Staples, it’s filled with scenes of small, random acts of kindness. Each one leads to another.

Julie Kempner adds great vocals to a “Give a Little Love” cover, backed by Phil Foisie (guitar), Ivan Feder (drums), Nate Fanning (cello), and — on piano — David Qiu himself.

There were over 1500 entries in the Film Festival. David’s earned honorable mention.

Soon, it will be posted on the WhiteHouse.gov website.

But you can watch it right now, below:

(If your browser does not take you directly to YouTube, click here.)

Remembering Bob Genualdi

Robert Genualdi — known to generations of Westporters as Staples’ superb orchestra conductor, who went on to further careers and renown as headmaster at Fairfield High School, then director of the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestras — died yesterday morning in Bridgeport. He was 84.

Genualdi was part of Staples’ legendary 1960s music department, teaching and leading with John Ohanian, George Weigle (who turned 87 on Friday) and John Hanulik. A string bass player, he received degrees from the University of Miami, Northwestern and Bridgeport. He played under the baton of Arthur Fiedler.

Robert Genualdi

Robert Genualdi

Genualdi’s love for music led him to play in symphonies and chamber music ensembles; judge competitions in many states; conduct at festivals; and compose several music compositions, and 2 works for full orchestras.

Genualdi moved into administration, serving as Staples’ vice principal in 1971-72, then acting principal twice (1972-73, and 1975).

In 2004, I interviewed Genualdi for my book, Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education. He said:

When I came to Staples in 1960 I had already spent 8 years teaching in northwestern Illinois, so I was not a novice. But Staples was by far the biggest school I had ever worked in.

It was such an exciting place, in many ways. The students were bright and ready to learn. There was a decent amount of diversity, with old-line Westporters and people who had recently moved in from other places.

And then – the icing on the cake for me – there were the arts. You had parents who were professional musicians, artists and actors, and they were so involved in making Staples a place that supported the arts. It was a very exciting time for me.

The campus was volatile, in a largely positive way. There was something wonderful about the way people interacted with each other. And the teachers very much cared about students, and the school.

Bob Genualdi, doing what he loved at Staples in 1970.

Bob Genualdi, doing what he loved at Staples in 1970.

I had terrific opportunities there, in the classroom and then as an administrator. (Assistant superintendent of schools) Frank Graff got me out of the classroom. I’d been the Westport Education Association president, and he berated me – kindly. He said if I really wanted change to happen, I could do it from the inside. It was easy to criticize from the outside, but he wanted me inside.

When I was acting principal, there was a lot going on: modernization, a reduction in staff because of declining enrollment, and the Staples Governing Board was being challenged by the Board of Education for taking too much power. I was in the middle on a lot of those issues.

It was a special school – a wonderful, unique place. It started with the staff, then the students, and of course the community. And not just parents of kids in the school – you had alumni, and people like Alan Parsell and Ed Mitchell. Plenty of people had a lot of pride in Staples, because it was the only high school in town.

Robert Genualdi, from the 1976 Andrew Warde High School yearbook.

Robert Genualdi, from the 1976 Andrew Warde High School yearbook.

After Staples, Genualdi became a high school administrator in Fairfield. The 1976 Andrew Warde yearbook called him a “truly sincere, honest, and open human being (with) a real concern for others.”

His 3rd career was as music director and conductor of the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestras. He spent more than 25 years there, before retiring in 2007.

With his wife, violist Dorothy Straub, Genualdi helped organize and produce the national Jenny Lind Competition, for years a staple of Bridgeport’s Barnum Festival.

Funeral arrangements will be announced Monday, by the Spear-Miller Funeral Home in Fairfield.