Category Archives: Entertainment

Michael Barrett’s “Shoshana”

Authors are always told: “Write what you know.”

So why does Michael Barrett‘s 1st novel involve neo-Nazis protecting a Treblinka guard, now resettled in the US; a beautiful Mossad agent, and a professor named Morris?

Because — in one way or another — they’re all part of Barrett’s very intriguing life.

Michael Barrett (right) and friend.

Michael Barrett (right) and friend.

After graduating from Fairfield University as an English major, he spent 23 years with the Westport Police Department. He served as a detective, worked on the auto theft task force, and was a sketch artist who helped colleagues around the state nab rape and homicide suspects.

Barrett retired in 2000. He now owns a security firm, and consults with businesses like Mitchells. He also paints portraits, and plays jazz sax and flute.

The ex-cop was a longtime friend of the late Fairfield philosophy professor Morris Grossman. Barrett has always been interested in the Holocaust, and — though he’s not Jewish — he learned a lot of Jewish history from Grossman.

Including Treblinka. The detective spent years researching that Nazi extermination camp.

ShoshanaHis debut novel is Shoshana. Its intricate plot includes — in addition to “Morris” and Treblinka — a cop named Artie. He’s an accomplished portrait painter, who becomes a police composite artist.

The book is set in “Westcove,” Connecticut. Clearly, Michael Barrett has written about what he knows.

The book jacket says, “Artie confronts issues of morality, revenge, and the meaning of Jewish suffering through the ages.”

Just another day in the life of an ex-Westport cop.

(For more information, or to order Shoshana, click here.)

Redding Roadhouse Blues

Nearly 2 years ago, “06880” meandered north — up Route 53, past Devil’s Den  and the Saugatuck Reservoir — for a story on the Redding Roadhouse.

Staples grads Colleen Cook Stonbely and Wirt Cook were 2 of the 4 new owners. The others were Wirt’s wife Karen, and Colleen’s husband Ted (who would have been a Stapleite, had he not been shipped off to the Gunnery).

The proud owners of the Redding Roadhouse (from left): Ted Stonbely, Colleen Cook Stonbely, Karen Cook and Wirt Cook.

The proud owners of the Redding Roadhouse (from left): Ted Stonbely, Colleen Cook Stonbely, Karen Cook and Wirt Cook.

The quartet had big plans. The place definitely rocked, with music from local favorites (and owners’ friends) Dylan Connor, Mark Mollica and Merritt Jacob. 

But this Saturday night (May 14) marks the end of the Roadhouse. Today, the owners announced that they have been unsuccessful in negotiating a lease with their landlords.

“The unfortunate results,” the Roadhouse team wrote, “are the closure of a small business, the demise of an iconic restaurant and Redding landmark, and, most importantly, the loss of 30 jobs.”

The Redding Roadhouse

The Redding Roadhouse

The owners worked closely with the community, partnering with the Mark Twain Library, local schools and other organizations. They raised money for good causes, and bought from local farms and artisan businesses.

They’ll open at 4 p.m. for the rest of the week for a less-than-happy Happy Hour. When they close, remaining inventory will be donated to the Connecticut Food Bank and other area pantries.

Westport’s Dylan Connor plays his final gig on Saturday.

It’s a sad day for Redding, the Roadhouse — and the 4 great owners. But you can’t keep good young folks down. They’ll be heard from again.

Selfishly, I hope their next venture is right here in their hometown.

 

 

Wrecker Radio Rocks 40 Years

In 1972, WWPT-FM — located on the Staples High School campus — became an official radio station.

Last weekend, WWPT snagged 8 honors — including 3 gold medals, and a bronze as the 3rd best high school station in the country — at the annual Drury Awards for Excellence ceremony in Chicago.

WWPT_logoA lot has happened in those 40-plus years. And this Saturday, WWPT celebrates over 4 decades as “Wrecker Radio” — providing music, live sports, talk shows, and public affairs.

From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., 90.3 will play music, interview former staff members about their good times at the station, and air 2 live concerts.

But the station’s history goes back even further than the Nixon era. In 1959 Staples student Stu Soroka and his friends rigged a 100 megawatt milliwatt AM transmitter. They called it “The Radio Voice of Westport’s Youth.” Soroka went on to become a noted WOR-TV meteorologist.

In the summer of 1961, the original WWPT operated from a studio donated by the YMCA. A “news room” at the Town Crier headquarters around the corner was manned by a young Gordon Joseloff.

WWPT at beach

Teenagers listen — presumably to WWPT — at Compo Beach in 1961.

Just 100 megawatts — 1/10 of a watt — it was heard basically only at Compo Beach (at 1160 AM). Yet it also managed to reach Long Island. An article in the New York Times brought FCC attention, and a mid-summer shutdown.

Joseloff went on to become a Moscow correspondent for CBS News — and later, Westport’s 1st selectman.

In 1969, Keith Satter and other students involved with WMMM — Westport’s local station — started a 640 AM station at Staples. It was believed to be the 1st ever for a Connecticut high school. The broadcast could be heard throughout campus and, in the summer, at Compo Beach.

Their call letters were WSRB, for Staples Radio Broadcasting. (Or, perhaps, Sherman R. Betts, the Board of Ed business manager who signed the necessary documents.)

In the early ’70s Clif Mills, Carmine Moffa and former WICC chief engineer Ralph Winquist helped prepare an application for a 300-watt station at 90.3 FM. The antenna was located at the former Nike Site on Bayberry Lane, near the current Rolnick Observatory. The rest is broadcasting history.

In 2011, DJ Sixsmith, Eric Gallanty and Michael Nussbaum helped WWPT-FM win national acclaim. (Photo/Inklings)

In 2011, DJ Sixsmith, Eric Gallanty and Michael Nussbaum helped WWPT-FM win national acclaim. (Photo/Inklings)

Much went on in those days. The studios that moved from a former underground storage closet, to a legit place near the main office, to some very well-equipped digs today in the Media Lab.

As with any high school endeavor, there are countless stories to be told by those who enjoyed — and survived — those years. You can hear the less X-rated ones — along with plenty of great music — this Saturday at 90.3.

Or just click here.

Kudos to the Drury Award winners: 

  • 1st place: Hannah Foley and Arin Meyers, best newscast; Justin Gallanty, best public affairs program; Jim Honeycutt’s audio class and David Roth’s theater class, best radio drama.
  • 2nd place:  Jim Honeycutt’s audio class and David Roth’s theater class, 2nd best radio drama; Justin Gallanty and Aaron Hendel, 2nd best sports play by play; Adam Dulsky and Aaron Hendel, 2nd best sports play by play.
  • 3rd place: WWPT-FM, 3rd best station in the country (advisor, Mike Zito); Marla Friedson, 3rd best public affairs program.

John Drury Award

 

 

 

A Historic Hanging Beneath The Playhouse Stage

Bert Lahr, Dorothy Gish, Paul Robeson, Helen Hayes, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neal, Alan Alda, Cicely Tyson, Richard Thomas, Jane Powell, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward — they’re just a dozen of the hundreds of actors who have appeared at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Their publicity shots hang proudly outside the dressing rooms nestled snugly below that fabled stage. Preparing for their roles, today’s performers are reminded of the 8 decades of stars who came before them.

A few of the photos, though, have no names. Taken in the early days of the Playhouse — just a few years after Lawrence Langner turned an old red barn into one of America’s premier summer theaters — they show men and women whose names have been lost to history. Today, it takes tremendous sleuthing — or luck — to put a name to a 1930s face.

A while back, Playhouse technical director John Mosele was intrigued by the photo of a mustached man, hanging in the “unlabeled” collection.

The intriguing photo.

The intriguing photo.

Mosele carefully peeled the picture from its backing, revealing the partial name “ndsmann.”‘

Soaking the photo to remove more glue, it seemed to read “Hinton B__dsmann.”

A Google search led to “Emil Bundesmann” — on a Spanish website.

Further searching brought up an article about Anthony Mann. His birth name was Emil Anton Bundsmann.

Ta da!

Anton Bundsman — yes, that’s the 3rd way his last name was spelled — was a member of the original repertory company at the Playhouse. He appeared in the very 1st production — The Streets of New York — and also served as its stage manager.

After staging 3 plays in New York, Bundsman was hired by David O. Selznick as a casting director. In that role, he supervised screen tests for Gone with the Wind.

Anthony Mann

Anthony Mann

Later — under the name Anthony Mann — he directed films for Paramount and RKO, and many classic westerns for MGM. His final films included Cimarron with Glenn Ford, and the epics El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. (He withdrew from Spartacus, after quarreling with former Westporter Kirk Douglas.)

Just think: such an accomplished actor/director as Anton Bundsman/Anthony Mann hung in such obscurity, for so long, on the walls of the theater where he got his start.

And wonder too who else lurks, forgotten and undiscovered, underneath that very historic stage.

(Hat tip to Westport Country Playhouse company manager Bruce Miller for much of this fascinating information.)

 

 

Mia Gentile Plays “Forbidden Broadway”

Mia Gentile‘s resume includes impressive credits: Off-Broadway and regional shows; 4 years at the prestigious Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music; many awards and honors.

But things get really interesting when she lists “Special Skills”: dialects (Cockney, Scottish, Irish, Spanish, French, German); improvisational singing (jazz scat and gospel solo), and diva imitations (“i.e., Celine Dion”).

Mia Gentile

Mia Gentile

The 2007 Staples grad doesn’t even mention her role in a racy parody of a popular novel, called “Fifty Shades of F****d Up.” Or her star turn in a Stanley Steemer parody video that went viral. Mia sang that repellent jingle over and over and over again — each time in a different genre.

All of that is great training for her latest gig. Mia is one of 2 female cast members in Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging.

Right now, the show is busy adding razor-sharp send-ups of Pippin, Kinky Boots, Les Miz and Matilda, to last year’s favorites like Wicked and The Book of Mormon. Honing its edges, it opens officially on Sunday (May 4) at the Davenport Theatre on 45th Street.

It’s the type of show where Mia can play several African American roles — Diana Ross, anyone? — and land on the right side of hilarious.

Acting on a New York stage requires plenty of talent, energy, flexibility and commitment. But Forbidden Broadway‘s demands are tougher than most.

In this "Sound of Music Live on NBC" sketch, Mia plays Audra MacDonald, (right), while Carter Calvert is Carrie Underwood).

In this “Sound of Music Live on NBC” sketch, Mia plays Audra MacDonald, (right), while Carter Calvert is Carrie Underwood.

“Vocally, I’m all over the map,” Mia says. Each scene, she plays someone new. She not only has to act and sing — she’s got to act and sing like other singers and actors. She has to do it convincingly, and also with humor.

But not too much. This is parody, not slapstick.

“Vocally I’m all over the map,” Mia says. “Every number is a new costume, really a new show.”

During a manic schedule of rehearsals and preview performances, she’s learned a lot about comedy.

“You can’t prepare too much,” Mia says. “You don’t know what’s funny until you’re in front of a live audience. I just have to trust the material, and find out what works as we go along.”

Of course, Mia has prepared plenty for this role. Her career began in Westport, and Music Theater of Connecticut. She credits voice teacher Kevin Connors, Staples choral director Alice Lipson, Staples Players directors David Roth and Kerry Long, and choreographer Joanne Kahn for much of her success.

This "Cabaret Revival" sketch includes Carter Calvert as Liza Minelli, Mia Gentile as Michelle Williams playing Sally Bowles, and Scott Foster as Alan Cumming (the MC).

This “Cabaret Revival” sketch includes Carter Calvert as Liza Minelli, Mia Gentile as Michelle Williams playing Sally Bowles, and Scott Foster as Alan Cumming (the MC).

“The Staples shows were so rich, complex, stimulating, challenging and fun,” Mia says. Yet each was different. For example, Urinetown was “stylized comedy”; The Mystery of Edwin Drood taught her about improv.

At CC-M, many classmates came from performing arts schools. They could not believe Mia had gone to a public high school.

Still, nothing could have prepared the Westporter for the demands of Forbidden Broadway. Pausing in a rare free moment between yoga class and one of her 8 weekly performances (plus rehearsals), Mia says, “This show is very alive right now. We’re getting ready for Tony season, and our opening run.”

That’s no joke.

Clive Davis In Westport: From Janis And Springsteen To Lorde

After  nearly 6 decades in the music business, there’s little that surprises Clive Davis.

Yet when the 6-time Grammy winner, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and discoverer/promoter of megastars ranging from Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston and Jennifer Hudson sits down for a public conversation with Rolling Stone‘s Anthony DeCurtis, Davis never knows what he’ll be asked.

Clive Davis - The Soundtrack of My Life hcThe 2 men co-authored The Soundtrack of My Life, a memoir about Davis’ long, astonishing life in the music business. They’ve done the Q-and-A format a few times before, and it’s always fascinating.

Westporters get their chance to see it this Friday, May 2 (7:30 p.m., Bedford Middle School auditorium) — for free. It’s part of the Westport Library’s Malloy Lecture in the Arts series.

Davis has plenty to talk about. An orphan who earned a full scholarship at New York University and went on to Harvard Law School, he rocketed from general counsel at Columbia Records to presidency of the company.

He discovered Joplin at Monterey Pop. He’s worked with Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Arrowsmith, Alicia Keyes, Simon & Garfunkel, Miles Davis, Rod Stewart and Kelly Clarkson. His influence has extended from Columbia Records to Arista, J and now Sony Music.

Recently, I pretended I was DeCurtis. I asked Davis a few questions, like how he’s managed to stay fresh in a career that’s spanned Janis Joplin in the 1960s, and American Idol stars like Hudson today.

“I love the industry, or else I wouldn’t still do this,” he said. “Music is a natural passion for me.” At the same time he’s combing through tapes and videos of old Whitney Houston, he’s excited about signing The Voice’s 18-year-old Avery Wilson.

Davis still mourns the premature death of Houston. He is proud of discovering the crossover artist — who sold over 200 million records worldwide — and helping her develop her natural creativity.

Janis Joplin had a piece of Clive Davis' heart.

Janis Joplin had a piece of Clive Davis’ heart.

Joplin’s career also ended far too soon, Davis said. In just a couple of years, he took her from “Piece of My Heart” to “Me and Bobby McGee.” He regrets never knowing what “that voice and unique talent” could have accomplished had she not died at 27.

Davis was on hand at the beginning of Springsteen’s career, too. The executive “stood back in awe” as the Boss honed his performance skills. Ever the businessman, Davis is now in awe of Springsteen’s “great concert grosses.”

Of course, no music industry mogul — not even a Hall of Fame honoree — is infallible. Davis passed on signing John Cougar Mellencamp, believing him to sound too much like Springsteen.

Davis always called that a big mistake — until Mellencamp told him he was right. “I auditioned for you way too early,” Mellencamp said. “At that time I was very heavily influenced by Bruce. Rest easy.”

Davis is 82 now, but his finger on the pulse of popular music remains strong. He called electronic dance music “not the healthiest trend,” because it has slowed the development of strong voices and held down albums sales.

Clive Davis

Clive Davis

But — pointing to artists like 17-year-old Lorde — he looks forward to the pendulum swinging back.

“I think there are individual artists out there with something to say. We have to make sure the next Dylan or Springsteen will be heard — and with albums, not singles. I think there’s great promise for that.”

Clive Davis will discuss all that — and more — in Westport on Friday. He’ll have interesting answers to Anthony DeCurtis’ provocative questions — whatever they may be.

(Clive Davis’ Malloy Lecture on May 2 is free — but registration is required. Click here for your seat.)

Junior The Wonder Dog Ready For TV Debut

If your Saturday morning routine involves planting the kids in front of TV cartoons, this weekend you might consider a different show.

At 11 a.m. tune in to “Born to Explore,” the ABC series that explores intriguing stories around the world. Then stop what you’re doing, sit down and watch it yourself.

This Saturday’s show features Junior, a very inspiring dog.

With Westport tags.

Junior the Wonder Dog.

Junior the Wonder Dog.

Junior was abused, before being rescued by the Connecticut Humane Society, then adopted by Westporters Jim and Laura Pendergast.

Three years ago, at the couple’s summer home in Maine, Junior suffered a stroke. His rear legs were paralyzed.

The Pendergasts committed to water and physical therapy, plus acupuncture, twice a week.

Yet Junior was slow to heal. So the couple purchased a wheelchair.

“We trained him little by little. He really fought us at first and would cry and cry and cry, but with treats and sheer determination, we got him to be able to walk with it,” Laura Pendergast told the Scarborough Leader.

 Today Junior runs on the beach, plays with other dogs, even swims.

Junior romps with the Pendergasts.

Junior romps with the Pendergasts.

“It’s an inspirational story about him not giving up on himself. He really got himself in a situation where he can live a happy and free life,” Laura Pendergast said.

The show was filmed last summer in Maine.

“A lot of people who regularly walk their dogs know Junior, but it seems like we always run into someone who doesn’t know him and who want to ask questions and meet him,” Jim says. “He is a real rock star.”

On Saturday, he — and the Pendergasts — rock a national audience.

 

Putting The “Sound” In 17 Soundview Drive

Ginger Baker sent a drum set to the house. Peter Frampton lounged on the front deck. Carly Simon wanted to buy it.

Those are just a few of the musical memories associated with 17 Soundview Drive. It’s one of the most handsome homes lining the Compo exit road, drawing admiring glances from walkers and sunbathers for its beachside gracefulness.

If only they knew the musical history hidden throughout the property.

17 Soundview Drive.

17 Soundview Drive.

It was built — like the rest of the neighborhood — as a summer house in 1918. One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s students designed it, ensuring harmony with the beach environment.

Francis Bosco — current owner Gail Cunningham Coen’s grandfather — bought it in 1928. A Sicilian immigrant and lover of opera, he tuned in every Saturday to NBC Radio’s live Met broadcasts. For years the voices of Enrico Caruso, Maria Callas, Robert Merrill and others soared from the living room, under the awnings and onto the beach, thrilling neighbors and passersby.

In 1982 Gail and her husband Terry Coen bought the house. She’s a musician and music teacher; he’s a songwriter and music promoter. Over the past 32 years they’ve lavished love on it. It was one of the 1st Compo homes to be raised, to protect against storms. It’s been beautifully renovated inside. The Coens also added a secluded rooftop deck, and flower and vegetable gardens.

You can see the water from nearly every room in the house. This is the living room.

You can see the water from nearly every room in the house. This is the living room.

But the professionally designed, fully soundproofed music studio is what really rocks.

It — and the chance to hang out privately, yet in the middle of all the beach action — has made 17 Soundview a home away from home for 3 decades of musical royalty.

Ginger Baker spent many evenings talking about the birth of British rock, touring with Eric Clapton, and his childhood in England during World War II. He also recited some very bawdy limericks. In return, he gave Ludwig drums to Soundview Studios.

Ginger Baker, and his drums. (Photo/Wikipedia)

Ginger Baker, and his drums. (Photo/Wikipedia)

Peter Frampton brought his young family. They loved the warm summer breeze, and being able to sit anonymously just a few feet from the hubbub of a beach afternoon.

One summer day, Carly Simon said she was thinking of buying a beach house. #17 was her favorite, because it reminded her so much of Martha’s Vineyard.

Meat Loaf played Sunday morning softball at Compo. After, he headed to the Coens’. One day, he played his next single on the roof deck. No one on the beach could see he was there — but they heard him. At the end, everyone applauded.

The Remains reunited for the 1st time in decades in the studio. (Full disclosure: I was there. It was one of the most magical moments of my life.)

Eric von Schmidt loved to sing by the fireplace, and joined jam sessions in the studio. One day, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott rambled over with him.

Other regulars included Jimi Hendrix’s bass player Noel Redding; Corky Laing and Leslie West of Mountain; former Buddy Miles Express front man Charlie Karp; Eric Schenkman of the Spin Doctors, and guitarist/producer/songwriter Danny Kortchmar.

17 Soundview - roof deck

The rooftop deck is a great place to watch fireworks. It’s also where Meat Loaf played his next single, to the unknowing delight of a Compo Beach crowd.

Some of those musicians — and plenty other great ones, though less known — were guests at the Coens’ annual July 4th fireworks parties. The food and drinks were fantastic, capped off by watching the passing parade on Soundview.

But the real action happened when the fireworks ended. Everyone piled into the studio, and jammed till the sun came up.

From Caruso to the Spin Doctors, 17 Soundview Drive has seen it all. If only those walls could talk (or sing).

It’s on the market now, ready for the next gig. For Westport’s sake, I hope the new owners understand the home’s history. I hope they realize how the place has sheltered so many artists, and helped their creative spirits grow.

And though Brian Wilson was one of the few musicians not to hang out at 17 Soundview Drive — well, I don’t think he did — I hope whoever buys this beautiful, wondrous property will “get” its longtime, way cool and very good vibrations.

(Interested in buying the house? Click here for details.)
 
 

 

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