Category Archives: Entertainment

Never Too Busy To Give Back To The Arts

You know the saying: “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”

It’s hard to find someone busier than a new mom with a full-time job. And planning a huge event — like the annual fundraiser for the Westport Arts Center — is almost another full job in itself.

Yet Caitlin Burke and Kristen Briner are doing just that.

It says a lot about them — and just as much about the importance of the arts to our entire town.

The theme of this year’s event (Saturday, April 26, Cranbury Park in Norwalk) is “WONDERland – A Mad Art Party.” Both women are well versed in the “wonder” of Westport arts.

WAC

Kristen came here as a little girl to visit her godparents. She started her business — the very creative Madison/Mott digital marketing agency — here 20 years later, with 1991 Staples grad Luke Scott. Serving local businesses like Gault Energy and Wish List, along with international clients, the company has a hip, funky vibe that is the 21st-century version of Westport’s arts heritage, dating back over a century.

“Westport has always been a breeding ground for artists of all genres,” Kristen says. She joined the WAC board because of the organization’s commitment to connect Westport and surrounding areas to the arts — and the energy with which staff and members do so.

Caitlin Burke (left) and Kristen Briner.

Caitlin Burke (left) and Kristen Briner.

Caitlin — a 1996 Staples alum, whose parents Bud and Sharon Frey also graduated from Staples — returned here in 2007. She’s the new director of marketing for Norwalk-based ICR.

As a youngster, Caitlin did not know much about the Westport Arts Center (she played field hockey, and served on her class committee). But, she quickly learned as a new homeowner, “it’s a lot more than just a gallery.” Caitlin has been impressed with the WAC’s outreach to urban schools, veterans (through Homes for the Brave), the elderly and Smilow Cancer Center.

Both women look forward to sharing the “wonder” of the Westport Arts Center — and Westport’s arts history — with their young sons. (Very young. Caitlin’s is 8 months old; Kristen’s is just 2 months.)

WAC“WONDERland” follows in the tradition of unique WAC fundraisers like the Warhol Ball and Art Noir. (Each time there’s a new venue, too.) This year, guests will “sip, savor and seek” as they “discover the unexpected” with a trip through the looking glass, and down the rabbit hole.

The evening includes a performance by Juilliard trained opera singer and 1993 Staples graduate Lucia Palmieri.

“The Westport Arts Center is a manifestation of everything that makes Westport such a wonderful, magical, music- and art-filled place to live,” Lucia says.

“WAC programs are not only educational, entertaining and fun, they are an integral outlet for artists in almost every medium. I am honored to be part of this evening.”

“Yes, it’s challenging to organize all this as working moms of little kids,” Caitlin says. “But it’s a great way to meet amazing people, and do some good. The WAC gives back in many ways, and this is one way we can help.”

It takes a busy person (or 2) to get a big job done. Many Westporters are busy people, with not enough time to attend every worthy cause.

This one, though, is well worth checking out.

(“WONDERland – A Mad Art Party” includes a 5:30 p.m. reception and dinner for Ann Sheffer, the WAC’s “Queen of the Arts” [$500 per ticket] and an 8 p.m. Friends of the Arts part [$225 per ticket]. For more information, click here.)

Westport’s “Tall Mountain” Towers Over Chinese Music Scene

You may never have heard of Clay Garner. But hundreds of millions of Chinese have. They adore him.

Well, they adore 高山. That’s Clay’s stage name. Pronounced Gaoshan, it means “Tall Mountain” (though he’s hardly Yao Ming).

Clay Garner -- aka "Tall Mountain."

Clay Garner — aka “Tall Mountain.”

Like Justin Bieber here, Clay is a huge pop star in China. Unlike the Canadian heartthrob/thug though, Clay — a lifelong Westporter who graduated last spring from Greens Farms Academy — records and uploads all his own songs and videos.

Unlike Bieber, Clay’s career is totally at the whim of a government halfway around the world.

And of course, Clay does not get into regular alcohol-infused legal difficulties. After captaining GFA’s soccer team for 2 years, he is now a freshman at Stanford University.

Clay walks around Westport unnoticed, but in China his face, voice and guitar are easily recognized. Singing his own songs — a combination of traditional styles, R&B and pop – in both English and Mandarin, he’s all over the Chinese versions of YouTube and Facebook.

He has a gigantic following on Weibo — the Chinese Twitter — and appears regularly on Beijing TV, China Radio International, Youku.com and 56.com. He has been to China 5 times, though one trip was just 48 hours long. (He had to get back to school.)

Not bad for an 18-year-old American who, when he began, could not find the “upload” button on Chinese YouTube.

Clay Garner, on Beijing TV.

Clay Garner, on Beijing TV.

Clay’s unusual path to fame began nearly 5 years ago, when he took his 1st Mandarin class at GFA. (He already spoke Spanish.) He liked the sound of Chinese pop — “sad love songs and ballads,” he says, not unlike the Carpenters’ music — and soon was writing his own tunes.

The next step was recording them, in his grandmother’s attic. He did all the arrangements, production and editing himself. Then came — why not? – uploading them for the enormous Chinese audience.

Clay Garner, at work.

At work.

But the government blocks many sites, so China’s version of the internet is quite different from the rest of the world’s. Clay had to figure it all out on his own.

Three years ago, he had a small group of followers. They left comments saying his Chinese was good, and he should keep going.

One day in 2012, a video received “thousands and thousands of views.” He was — literally — an overnight sensation. He still does not know what caused that song, at that moment, to go viral.

His channel has now been viewed 50 million times. Hundreds of millions may have seen him on CCTV — the country’s major network. “I have no way of knowing,” Clay says.

“It’s the oddest fame I know of. I don’t feel famous, but millions and millions of people know me.”

Clay Garner, aka Gaoshan.

Gaoshan.

With strict government control of websites, and no Chinese iTunes — though piracy is rampant — Clay makes no money from his music. He does it strictly for fun. “It’s my contribution to international relations,” he says.

He thinks it’s important for Chinese people to see an American trying to learn their culture. For years, it’s been the other way around.

Seeing firsthand the power of social media, he’s become interested in using it to promote openness and political movements. While the Chinese government encourages Clay’s work — it’s a validation of their culture — he realizes he could been regarded as their puppet.

Once, in China, he was made to sing “Red Song” — a communist anthem. He vowed never to do that again.

“Chinese entertainers are not taken seriously,” he says. “Someone wrote somewhere that I sing ‘harmless love songs.’ I want to do more than that.”

Clay Garner, on a previous trip to China.

Clay Garner, on a previous trip to China.

At the same time, he knows, officials could “cut me off in a second. All my videos, all my views could be deleted in an instant. I’d have no access to my fans, to the internet, to anything. I’m walking a fine line.”

This summer, Clay hopes to make his 6th trip to China. There’s a new indie scene there, which he’d like to be part of.

Millions of Chinese would love to see 高山 return.

Millions of Americans could not care less.

(Click here for Clay’s English-language website. Click here for an interview with Clay on CCTV, the Chinese national television network.)

ADD AUDIO LINK FROM WEBSITE

Brean Cunningham’s “Dogs On the Inside”

Brean Cunningham has been around movies all his life.

His uncle, Westport native Sean Cunningham, directed “Friday the 13th,” “Spring Break,” and “Manny’s Orphans” (the greatest soccer movie ever, starring a young Dan Woog as the referee).

After graduating from Georgetown University, Brean — who in his younger days played “every sport” at the Westport Y, and worked at Carvel — assisted his uncle when Cunningham produced the 2009 remake of “The Last House on the Left.” Brean later worked with Sean, on the development side of filmmaking.

But when Brean decided to do his own film, it wasn’t a thriller. It wasn’t a coming-of-age comedy. It wasn’t even the greatest soccer movie ever.

Brean wanted to make a difference.

Brean Cunningham

Brean Cunningham

In 2011 he co-founded Expect Miracles Productions, to “tell stories people can believe in.” He traveled to Africa for a web advocacy video about the positive effects of combating neglected tropical diseases in Ghana. He was a field producer on a documentary about Churchill, Manitoba (“The Polar Bear Capital of the World”), and the people who live there.

The 1st documentary he directed and produced, “Expect Miracles,” spotlighted the impact of volunteers in Appalachia.

Brean is very excited about his latest project. “Dogs on the Inside” explores the partnership between a Massachusetts prison and a dog shelter. Inmates train rescue dogs, who are then given to new families.

Brean Cunningham, at work in the Massachusetts prison.

Brean Cunningham, at work in the Massachusetts prison.

Both the dogs and inmates gain new leases on life. Both suffer from trust issues. As bonds deepen, prisoners — about to re-enter society — discover a new capacity for love and empathy.

It’s a powerful film. Like any documentary maker, Brean had to navigate a thicket of challenges, from obtaining permission to film, to making sure they had the right people and dogs to tell this compelling story.

Brean - Dogs posterBrean was allowed only 3 days inside the prison. He and his crew filmed the day the dogs arrived; a day in the middle of the program, and the day the dogs left with their new families. Everywhere Brean and the crew went, prison officials hovered over their shoulders.

Brean was impressed both by the prisoners’ warmth, and prison officials’ genuine desire that the inmates succeed. He was devastated, though, by what he saw in Mississippi, where the abused dogs came from.

Post-production took time. Nashville musician Sam Gay scored the film, and in late December it was done.

Brean and his co-director — Fairfield native Doug Seirup — have submitted it to festivals. It premieres at the Boston International Film Festival on April 14, with others to follow. Of course, Brean is looking for a local venue too.

Brean loves sports, so his next venture may be “a great sports story.”

Go for it. Though it will be hard to beat “Manny’s Orphans.”

If the trailer for “Dogs on the Inside” does not open in your browser, click here.

Adam Riegler: Shrek, The Assistant Director

When most middle schools put on a show — let’s say, “Shrek the Musical” — it looks like a middle school “Shrek.”

Coleytown Company’s production will not be like most middle schools.

For one thing, this is Westport. We do things — particularly arts and kids things — in high-powered ways.

For another, director Ben Frimmer has got Shrek helping “Shrek.”

The real Shrek.

That’s Adam Riegler. A Staples sophomore, he spent nearly a year playing Young Shrek.

On Broadway.

Adam Riegler, aka Young Shrek.

Adam Riegler, aka Young Shrek.

Adam has plenty of other credits: a role in “David Copperfield” at the Westport Country Playhouse (directed by Joanne Woodward). Pugsley in “The Addams Family” (alongside Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth and Brooke Shields). A role in the film “The Way, Way Back.” He just returned from South By Southwest, and the premiere of his latest film “Premature.”

But right now, Adam is playing a new role: assistant director.

He brings a deep knowledge of “Shrek” to Coleytown. For a year before its December, 2008 opening Adam was involved in its workshops. He saw what it takes to get a show off the ground. He dealt with writers and directors, and worked with accomplished professionals.

He performed in “Shrek”‘s out-of-town tryouts, then made his Broadway debut. All along, he watched and learned.

“It’s got awesome music. It’s very funny, for kids and adults alike,” he says of the show. (Now that he’s older, he understands more of the jokes.)

Adam Riegler, un-Shrekked.

Adam Riegler, un-Shrekked.

At Coleytown, he helps Frimmer with directing ideas, like scene blocking. He also gives notes and tips to the young actors. “Ben is an amazing director,” Adam says. “But I can help, because I’ve seen so many versions of ‘Shrek.’”

Adam calls the young actors “very talented. They’ve got excellent voices, and great attitudes. They really are working hard at being team players too.”

Are the Coleytown Company actors impressed with his Broadway resume?

“I’d say excited, rather than impressed,” Adam answers. “They’re happy I can help.”

Adam, meanwhile, enjoys being on the other side of the stage. This is his first experience as a director, and he likes the ability to “be creative, change things, and see immediate results.”

So what’s his next role?

He may take Staples Players director David Roth’s directing course in the fall.

(“Shrek The Musical” will be performed at Coleytown Middle School on Thursday and Friday, April 3 and 4, at 7 p.m., and Saturday, April 5 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Click here for tickets; use the search term “Westport”.)

Autism Speaks — And Ethan Rocks

Two years ago, “06880″ profiled Ethan Walmark. The 6-year-old — on the autism spectrum, as a very high-functioning child — played and sang “Piano Man” in a YouTube video. It went viral (over 1.5 million views), and Ethan was an international star.

A lot has happened since.

Billy Joel called Ethan’s intro “better than mine.” Ethan performed live on the “Today Show.” He was 1 of only 14 people worldwide – and the youngest — to receive a “Genius of Autism” award. (Then he won it again.) The Huffington Post named him 1 of 20 “Child Prodigies.”

He helped Yoko Ono flip the switch to light the Empire State Building blue for World Autism Awareness Day. Ethan looked her in the eye and said, “Imagine a world without autism!”

Meeting Ethan before a concert, John Mayer said, “Hey, I know you! You’re the internet sensation!”

Ethan’s performance of “Eminence Front” brought down the house — at a Who show.

Clearly, Ethan rocks.

He’s got plenty of talent, for sure. And — after his parents enrolled him in Fairfield’s School of Rock — Ethan’s cognition, social abilities and musicality soared.

Now, Ethan — the resident “rock star” of Kings Highway Elementary School –brings his international talents to his home town.

This Saturday (March 22, 6:30 p.m.), 2 bands — Clueless and Pearl — perform at Toquet Hall. All musicians play at the School of Rock. All are from Westport and Fairfield.

Ethan — now 8 — is the youngest participant. By 5 years.

School of Rock logo

The bands play music by Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Black Crowes, Santana and more. Many of the songs relate in some way to people on the autism spectrum.

Last November, the School of Rock house band drummer asked Ethan’s mother, Allison Ziering Walmark, if Ethan could join them in the concert.

“School of  Rock fosters an atmosphere of acceptance and respect, regardless of musical ability,” she says. “Ethan truly considers his bandmates his friends, and vice versa. The mere concept of friendship can be so foreign to people on the autism spectrum.”

A few days later, the band sent Allison another email: They wanted the concert to be a benefit for Autism Speaks.

If that doesn’t make your heart sing, nothing will.

Autism Speaks

“Avenue Q”: Players Prep For Puppet Premiere

When Staples Players produced “A Chorus Line” last year, they knew the choreography would be challenging.

Puppets for “Avenue Q,” by contrast, seemed like child’s play.

But preparations for the spring production — set for next Friday, Saturday and Sunday (March 21, 22 and 23) — proved surprisingly tough.

“Learning how to make the puppets be alive is a lot harder than it looks,” says director David Roth. “They breathe. They have tics. Wherever the human holding the puppet looks, the puppet has to look too. Wherever the puppet moves, the human has to follow. It takes an incredible amount of practice.”

Emily Ressler, Will Haskell and their puppets. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Emily Ressler, Will Haskell and their puppets. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Practice makes perfect. Thanks to Roth and co-director Kerry Long; master puppeteers Rick Lyon (who conceived and designed the puppets for the Tony Award-winning show) and Pam Arciero (who portrays Grundgetta on “Sesame Street”) — and the long, hard work of the high school actors — when the curtain rises, Players will add one more remarkable talent to their amazing 56-year-long history of theatrical accomplishments.

Roth says that the puppet-wielding Players are not the only ones to gain an appreciation of the difficulty of this craft. “Kerry and I realize more than ever before how tough this is,” Roth says. “It’s been great to watch the kids rise to the challenge. Every day, the puppets become more and more believable.”

Players (from left) Bryan Gannon, Will Haskell, Maddy Rozynek, Emily Ressler and Cara McNiff prepare their puppetry. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Players (from left) Bryan Gannon, Will Haskell, Maddy Rozynek, Emily Ressler and Cara McNiff prepare their puppetry. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Learning puppetry was not the only challenge. The winter’s long series of snow days and early dismissals — normally cause for teenage joy — sent shivers down the cast and crew’s spines. Players lost 10 rehearsals — 8 of them involving puppet education — to weather. Add in February vacation, and it’s been very tough sledding.

But the show must go on. Players will — as always — be ready.

Audiences will love “Avenue Q,” Roth predicts. It’s not the R- (X?-)rated Broadway version. This “School Edition” dispenses with 4-letter words. “It’s got all the themes and words you’d find in a PG film or on prime time TV,” the director says.

Nearby, a puppet nods his head.

(“Avenue Q” will be presented on Friday, March 21 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 22 at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, March 23 at 3 p.m. Click here for more information, and to order tickets.)

(If the YouTube trailer above does not open in your browser, click here.)

Lupita, Micaela And Oscar

John Travolta had difficulty pronouncing the not-very-tough name “Idina Menzel” during Sunday’s Oscars.

But Lupita Nyong’o had no problem giving a shout-out to Micaela Erlanger while accepting her award for Best Supporting Actress.

The newly crowned star earned raves not just for her performance in “12 Years a Slave,” but for her blue Prada dress. She said it recalled her native Kenya, and was inspired by “champagne bubbles.”

Micaela Erlanger

Micaela Erlanger

It was also inspired by Micaela. The 2003 Staples graduate is Lupita’s stylist.

Before Sunday, she was already one of Hollywood’s hottest names, with clients like Michelle Dockery, Martha Plimpton and Winona Ryder.

Thanks to the Oscar broadcast, she’s truly on fire.

After Staples, Micaela earned a BA in design and management at Parsons The New School for Design. She spent 6 years as senior stylist and assistant to Annabel Tollman, which helped jump-start her career.

Her website says:

The hallmark of Micaela’s work is her meticulous attention to detail and a keen focus on the client’s needs and objectives. With a love for all things beautiful and alluring, coupled with an appreciation of the whimsical, Micaela brings a versatile and fresh approach to styling.

John Travolta couldn’t say it better himself.

People magazine called Micaela Erlanger the "sartorial secret weapon of rising stars Michelle Dockery and Lupita Nyong'o."

People magazine called Micaela Erlanger the “sartorial secret weapon of rising stars Michelle Dockery and Lupita Nyong’o.”

The Remains Live

Chip Damiani’s death yesterday — from a massive cerebral hemorrhage, at age 69 — was the final drum roll for the Remains.

For a generation that loved them in the 1960s — and for new listeners, born long after the half-Westport band toured with the Beatles and broke up — Chip’s death was devastating.

But — thanks to 1969 Staples grad Ray Flanigan, who shot these videos last June, when the Remains rocked Brooklyn’s Bell House — one of America’s greatest rock ‘n’ bands will never die.

They opened the set with “Hang On Sloopy.” It starts slowly, then takes off like a runaway train:

Here’s part of the Yardbirds’ classic,”I’m a Man.”

And, for good measure, “All Day and All of the Night.”

Bonus feature: Click here for Fran Fried’s very long, but tremendously insightful, piece on the Remains and their place in rock history.

Remains Drummer Chip Damiani Dies

Chip Damiani — whose pounding drums helped drive the Remains to cult status in the 1960s, and who still played as energetically 5 decades later — died today, of a massive brain hemorrhage.

The Remains — who besides Chip included Staples grads Barry Tashian and Bill Briggs, plus Vern Miller — had been preparing for a special show in Fairfield in April. It was scheduled for the end of the Fairfield Museum and History Center‘s current exhibit saluting area musical legends.

In January, Chip Damiani attended the Fairfield History Museum's opening reception for its rock 'n' roll exhibit. He posed in front of posters of his legendary band, the Reamins.

In January, Chip Damiani attended the Fairfield Museum and History Center’s opening reception for its rock ‘n’ roll exhibit. He posed in front of photos of his legendary band, the Reamins. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

The Remains were — quite simply — America’s best rock band.  Ever.

Jon Landau said they were “how you told a stranger about rock ‘n’ roll.”

Rock journalist Mark Kemp said if they had stayed together, “we might today be calling them — and not the Stones — the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.”

Unfortunately, they broke up – right after touring America with the Beatles, a bit after performing on “Ed  Sullivan” and “Hullabaloo.” 

It took them decades to get back together. When they did, they picked up right where they left off. In fact, they were better than ever.

Chip Damiani, doing what he loved most.

Chip Damiani, doing what he loved most.

I was fortunate enough to be in Gail and Terry Coen’s Westport basement studio the 1st time they rehearsed for a European reunion tour, a decade or so ago. It was one of the most magical moments of my life. And no one was happier to be back than Chip.

The Remains got together regularly after that. They were the subject of an off-Broadway show (“All Good Things”) and a documentary (“America’s Lost Band”).

They all had separate lives, of course — hey, they’re in their mid-60s. Barry has had a long career as a musician in Nashville. Bill is a luxury automobile dealer. Vern is a high school music teacher. Chip was a roofer.

But at heart, Chip was a drummer. He played regularly with any band he could find. And every summer, he was at Gail and Terry’s 4th of July party on Soundview Drive. The food and fireworks were fun. But the highlight of the night — for Chip, and anyone fortunate enough to listen — was the midnight jam session that followed, down in the basement. As his bandmate Barry Tashian marveled, “He still played like a teenager.”

“All good things don’t have to end,” the Remains sang.

For Chip Damiani, the life he loved ended far, far too soon.

Remembering Peter Keane

Peter Keane died earlier this month, a few days short of his 104th birthday.

That’s remarkable — unless you’re part of his family.

His older sister, Helen Faith Keane Reichert — a resident of Westport and New York — died 2 years ago, a few weeks before turning 110.

Irving Kahn — Peter’s older brother (who never changed his family name) — is 108. He’s still chairman of Kahn Brothers, a New York investment firm.

Peter’s sister Lee died 2 years ago, shortly before her 102nd birthday.

Back in the day, Peter studied ornithology at Cornell University. He graduated in 1932.

Peter Keane

Peter Keane

He became a photographer, working as an assistant cameraman in Hollywood when both he and Technicolor were young. He was on the set of “The Wizard of Oz” when Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow,” and watched the burning of Atlanta in “Gone With the Wind.”

Peter told his wife Elisabeth that 2 pipes were used for the fire scenes. One was filled with fuel, the other with water. When a burn scene was to be shot, the fuel line was turned on and the fire set. When action was stopped, the water line was opened.

Peter also accompanied Margaret Bourke-White, when she took her iconic photos of the Chrysler Building gargoyles. He shot his own photos there too — but later gave them away.

While working for photographer Nickolas Muray, Peter was asked to take a head shot for a young woman on her way to Hollywood. Again, Peter did not save the photos of the budding actress — a woman named Lucille Ball.

During World War II Peter served in the Pacific, as a captain in director Frank Capra’s Army Signal Corps.

He returned to New York to work in the field of video technology, with companies like Sony and HBO. He was a Life Fellow of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.

Peter is survived by his wife Elisabeth, brother Irving, children Karin and Marc, and 2 grandchildren. His 1st wife, Lucille Fouillet, predeceased him.

Contributions in Peter’s name may be made to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, NY 14850; click here to donate online.