Category Archives: Looking back

When The Music Died

Sally’s Place — the last record store in Westport — closed 2 years ago. It marked the end of an era, for devoted fans like Keith Richards and all the rest of us regular Joes.

Once upon a time, record stores were stacked up here like 45s on a spindle.* Sally bought her beloved store after she left Klein’s. At one point, there were not 1 but 2 Sam Goody’ses within shouting distance of each other on the Post Road, a musical version of today’s nail spas or banks.**

The Record Hunter occupied space next to Remarkable Book Shop — the now-forlorn corner of Main Street abandoned by Talbots. Jay  Flaxman oversaw that store, allowing teenagers like me to hang out, discover Richie Havens and Phil Ochs, and very occasionally even buy something.

Long before my time there was Melody House. A Main Street fixture, it apparently featured “listening booths” that were quite the rage in the doo-wop days.

Jean Rabin

Jean Rabin

Overlooked in most memories is Record & Tape of Westport. Clunkily named, and a bit removed from downtown — located in Compo Shopping Center, where either Planet Pizza or the Verizon store is today — this was simply one more spot to buy (duh) records and tapes.

But it too was a great place, and a labor of love. Owner Jean Rabin presided joyfully over its narrow aisles. She knew each customer’s likes, and enjoyed recommending (in her gentle Southern accent) new artists based on those preferences. If you didn’t like something, she gave a full refund — no questions asked.

It must have been hard, running an independent record store in a town filled with others (and a couple of chains), but she never complained. She loved music, she loved the diverse group of customers who shopped there, and she loved Westport.

Though she lived in Trumbull, she spent time here even after closing her shop. This past summer, I saw her at Compo. We talked about many things — including music.

Jean Rabin died last week. She was 79 years old.

Years from now, I can’t imagine anyone writing such a fond remembrance of Pandora, Spotify or iTunes.

(Visitation is tomorrow [Thursday, October 8], 6-8 p.m. at Spear-Miller Funeral Home, 39 S. Benson Road, Fairfield. A memorial service is set for 1 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9, at  Greens Farms Congregational Church. Donations may be made in Jean’s honor to the American Heart Association or Susan G. Komen for the Cure.)

*Kids: Ask your parents.

** Clever reference: One of the stores is actually, today, Patriot Bank.

Kevin O’Brien Remembers Needle Park

I’m often surprised how far this “06880” blog reaches. Approximately 1/3 of our readers are former Westporters, living all around the globe. Most have fond memories of growing up here. Otherwise, they would not be interested in what happens here today.

Of course, everyone has a story. It’s important to remember that not all of them are wonderful and rosy.

The other day, I got an astonishing email. I don’t know Kevin O’Brien. Yet his tale — which he allowed me to share — is like nothing I’ve heard before.

But — at least as much as everyone else’s — it needs to be told.


I lived in Westport 45 years ago. After dropping out of Staples High School, my sister kicked me out of her house.

I was a hippie type. I slept in Needle Park [the former hangout — now a concrete plaza — on the northwest corner of Main Street and the Post Road, across from the old YMCA Bedford Building], on a bench in the snow.

A kind young policeman sometimes checked on me to make sure I hadn’t frozen to death. I had just turned 17.

"Needle Park," circa 1970.

“Needle Park,” circa 1970.

Across from Needle Park was a diner. Early in the morning, rolls were delivered. If I hadn’t eaten in a while, I’d pilfer one.

I sometimes panhandled for change at Needle Park. If I got 25 cents I’d get a huge slice at Westport Pizzeria. When I wasn’t lucky I used kitchen packets and hot water to make “tomato soup.”

I was 6-1, 140 pounds. I often went days without eating.

I volunteered at the telephone hotline crisis intervention center in the Y basement. Seasonally, I worked directing parking at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Kevin O'Brien celebrating Christmas in Westport, 1970.

Kevin O’Brien (center) celebrates Christmas in Westport, 1970.

We had a group of mainly homeless friends we called The Family. I miss friends like Susan Burke and her sister Sarah, and Helen “Cricket” Wooten, none of whom I’ve seen since then.

Two other friends were Dee Dee and Marie. They occasionally used heroin, which was everywhere in Westport. I would like to find either of them.

For a while we rented the upstairs and attic at 35 Post Road West, across the foot of Wright Street.

We sometimes hung out at Devil’s Den, and imagined the dragon/troll that lived under the bridge.

There were seemingly a lot of aimless, homeless kids back then. Celebs like Paul Newman and many more never stopped or tried to help any of them. I never understood that. They were all very charitable, just not in their own hometown where kids really needed help.

As tough as life could be, especially in winter, I loved Westport and have many fond memories. I guess it’s the difference between experiencing all that at age 17 and 18, rather than age 62.

I’m brokenhearted to see what happened to Needle Park (on Google Maps street view). I’m glad the pizzeria is still there, even at a different spot. On a visit in the ’80s I left notes written on paper plates for lost friends on the wall behind the counter, but never heard from anyone.

Kevin O'Brien, in the Navy.

Kevin O’Brien, in the Navy.

Eventually I left Westport and returned to Florida. A few years later I enlisted in the Navy. After 10 years of senior enlisted service I was given a meritorious commission as an officer.

I retired from the Navy in 1998, was elected to city council, and became vice president/director of operations for an international corporation in Georgia. I later retired for good, and moved to North Carolina.

I’m planning a visit to Westport in a couple of weeks, on the way back from a road trip through New England. Having developed some serious health issues, this is a bucket list trip for me. Westport is a chief stop. God bless Westport.

I guess I’m living proof that a homeless, aimless kid living on the street in Westport can turn out okay.

Annie Keefe, Arthur Miller And Marilyn

Westport Country Playhouse associate artist Annie Keefe has had a legendary life in theater.

Before coming here, she spent more than 20 years at Long Wharf. In 1994 she worked on the world premiere of “Broken Glass” — a riveting story of Kristallnacht and Jewish identity. Playwright Arthur Miller was there for most rehearsals.

Annie Keefe and Arthur Miller. (Photo/T. Charles Erickson)

Annie Keefe and Arthur Miller. (Photo/T. Charles Erickson)

Keefe recalls:

The material was fascinating, dense and complex, and we were the first people to explore it. It was thrilling to watch the actors, along with Arthur, tease out the plot and build the characters. It was a complicated and difficult birthing process.  Director John Tillinger and Arthur were longtime friends, and there were post-rehearsal conversations I wish I had had the sense to focus on. But there were production notes to be sent and schedules to be made and things in the rehearsal hall to reset for the next day.

On Wednesday (October 6), the curtain goes up on the Playhouse production of “Broken Glass.” Keefe looks forward to artistic director Mark Lamos’ interpretation.

She’s also thinking about Arthur Miller. The legendary playwright’s connections with the Playhouse — and this area — are strong.

This will be the 6th Miller production at the Playhouse. “Death of a Salesman” was 1st, in 1966. “The Price,” “All My Sons” (twice) and “The Archbishop’s Ceiling” followed.

In the late 1950s, Miller lived here with his then-wife, Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.

A few years ago, Daniel Brown wrote about the couple for the arts journal AEQAI.

One morning, when he was 12, he saw Miller and Monroe at Weston Market. She wore blue jeans and sunglasses. A babushka covered her head. Brown wanted an autograph; his mother said no, she deserved privacy. He could, however, say “Good morning, Mrs. Miller.”

She replied, “Hello, little boy.” But she looked unspeakably sad.

Brown left the store with his mother.

“Mom,” he asked, “why did Marilyn Monroe look so sad? Doesn’t she have everything she wants? And who is that old guy she’s with?”

(For more recollections from Keefe, click here for the Westport Country Playhouse blog. For information on “Broken Glass,” click here. For Daniel Brown’s full recollection of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, click here. For Mark Lamos’ thoughts on Miller, click the YouTube video below.)

(Hat tip: Ann Sheffer)

Downshifting Back In Time

They’re in their 70s now. But the men and women of Staples’ Class of 1960 who gathered today retain the youthful spirit — and rebelliously optimistic nature — of their heady, wonderful high school days.

The setting was the Westport Library. That seems a bit incongruous, for this was a reunion of Downshifters. That’s the hot rod club that flourished here in the 1950s and ’60s.


But the Downshifters were not hoodlums. One was president of his class; another became a liberal political activist.

The Downshifters had a court system. Anyone caught peeling out of the Staples parking lot had to deal with the club’s discipline. Cops who nabbed members for speeding let the group handle it.

They offered public service safety checks at Famous Artists School — founder Albert Dorne was a big Downshifters supporter — and had a car show in the police station parking lot.

The YMCA provided meeting space. At one banquet, a clergyman gave an invocation.

Parents Magazine named the Downshifters one of the 14 outstanding youth groups in the country. (“There must have been a father in town who worked for them,” someone quipped.)

Still, they were high school kids. Which is to say: no angels.

Mike James, with part of his video presentation.

Mike James, with part of his video presentation.

Mike James and Charlie Taylor led today’s event. It drew 30 or so former Downshifters, girlfriends and others (including Gordon Hall, a social studies teacher at the time who still lives in town).

Mike interspersed a history of the club with some social observations. “We were way ahead in both cool and cars,” he said. “But we built our cars. They weren’t given to us, like the rich kids.”

He described the role that music — especially jazz and rock ‘n’ roll — played in his and his friends’ teenage lives.

And what lives they were. Mike Katz sold tickets to anyone who wanted to watch him drive his 1948 Chevy off a cliff. (Principal Stan Lorenzen put a quick stop to that.)

They haunted La Joie’s junkyard in Norwalk, and another in Danbury. They traveled to drag strips in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine.

One member skipped school to attend a car show in New Jersey. When he forged an excuse note, vice principal Tommy Thompson nailed him: He’d spelled his mother’s name wrong.

A magazine story on the Downshifters.

A magazine story on the Downshifters. The “radical rod” shown was Eliot Willauer’s. It was a ’32 Ford.

The Downshifters made growing up in Westport memorable — and those memories remain, 55 years later. Soon after Charlie Taylor moved to Westport from rural Kentucky, he went hunting. A state policeman saw him sauntering down the Sherwood Island with a rifle, and put a quick end to that.

Charlie’s introduction to Staples as a sophomore might have been rough. He fancied himself James Dean, in a non-James Dean town. But Lance Gurney took Charlie under his wing, and introduced him to the Downshifters. His life here was forever changed.

The Downshifters and their friends sifted through all those memories today. It was a wonderful morning.

xxx former Downshifters gathered at the Westport Library today.

11 former Downshifters gathered at the Westport Library today. Mike James is 2nd from left; Charlie Taylor is on the far right.

When it was over, a former hot rodder asked if all the stories would be on “06880.” “I don’t want my grandchildren to know all this,” he half-joked.

Don’t worry. His grandkids don’t want him to know everything they’re up to as teenagers today either.

Then again, let’s hope they’re making their own adolescent, funny-then-and-funnier now, life-on-the-edge memories. Which — if they’re lucky — they’ll share with their still-good friends at their own 55th reunion, which comes up sooner than they’ll realize in 2070.



Well-known fact: Michael Douglas was a teenager in Westport.

Less well-known: He was a member of the Downshifters hot rod club.

Virtually unknown, unless you grew up in Westport in the late 1950s and early ’60s: Westport had a hot rod club.

Meetings were held at the Y.  Members brought their girlfriends — but they sat outside.

Inside, there were formal presentations on cars — carburetors, brake systems, that sort of thing. Dues were collected, officers elected and minutes recorded.

Michael douglas 2

But the Downshifters were not a book club or sewing circle. They found spots around town to race (like “the asphalt near Mahackeno” — presumably, now the entrance to the Y). They “had something to do” with the Dover Drag Strip, just across the state line in Dutchess County.

The Downshifters are now receiving Social Security. The gears they shift are probably automatic.

But the club lives on in the memories of all its members (and their girlfriends, who sat outside).

Charlie Taylor, today.

Charlie Taylor, today.

As part of this weekend’s Staples High School’s Class of 1960 reunion, Charlie Taylor and Mike James will talk about the Downshifters. They’ll show photos and memorabilia, and discuss the possibility of a movie about the group. (Michael Douglas, anyone?)

Charlie and Mike are great storytellers. (They also have intriguing, non-hot-rod back stories. Charlie is a noted Nashville musician, while Mike was a prominent political activist.)

On Saturday though, they’ll concentrate on their Downshifter days. Those engines provided the soundtrack for some of the best times of their lives.

(The Downshifters talk is this Saturday, September 19, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m., in the Westport Library 2nd floor seminar room. It’s free, and open to the public.)


Remembering Colin McKenna

The death last week of Rev. Colin McKenna on the train tracks of his native Westport shook his many friends and admirers. 

David Pettee graduated from Staples High School in 1981, the same year Colin graduated from Fairfield Prep. David is now a Florida-based software developer. He sends along this tribute to his friend:

Many of us who grew up with Colin McKenna in Westport are shocked and reeling from the public tragedy that took him from us last week. Colin and I grew up off South Compo Road, across from Longshore, during the 1970s. We went to Saugatuck Elementary (at that time on Bridge Street) and Bedford Junior High (on Riverside Avenue).

Colin McKenna in Ireland, in 1981.

Colin McKenna in Ireland, in 1981.

He was a swimmer, skier, soccer player and neighborhood pal to everyone on Compo Parkway and Round Pond Road. We had so much fun “hacking around” our neighborhood during the summer months. Too many laughs and neighborhood pranks, which went on day and night, to list.

All the kids in the neighborhood took turns riding his homemade go-kart. It was powered by an old lawn mower engine that we kept running, providing hours of fun. In the winter there were snow ball fights and outdoor hockey, day and night, on a frozen Round Pond

I spoke to Colin last July. For those in and around Westport who are wondering what happened and why, there are no easy answers. He died of a difficult brain disorder, a painful and dark reminder of someone who tried to overcome a psychological disorder.

He was well-meaning in his Catholic ministry, and reached out to hundreds in ways that only a priest can. As a former Westporter, I want to acknowledge Colin’s life and the many great memories he made for us.

At the same time, I want to thank all the first responders — Westport Police, Fire and EMS — who tried to save his life.  In addition, thanks to the MTA and its employees, who handled this tragedy with dignity and also tried to save him.

I will remember Colin for a very long time.

Bridge Street Bridge: A Bit Of Background

The recent flurry of posts about the Bridge Street (William Cribari) Bridge prompted Kathie Motes Bennewitz to check in.

The town arts curator writes:

The recent Westport Historical Society exhibit, “Saugatuck@ Work,” addressed the Saugatuck bridge. This original drawing of the bridge (July, 1884) is from the WHS archives:

Bridge Street bridge - original drawing

The WHS exhibit included this information:

The Saugatuck River Bridge carries Route 136 over the Saugatuck River in Westport today. The bridge, built in 1884 and designed by the Union Bridge Company of Buffalo, is the oldest surviving movable bridge in Connecticut and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The movable bridge allows waterborne traffic to easily pass, which was crucial to the area’s maritime economy at the time it was built.

The bridge consists of a 144-foot-long fixed approach span on the eastern side, and a hand-cranked movable span. Both spans are pin-connected Pratt through truss designs made of wrought iron.

In the mid-1980s there was a successful 2-year battle to save and restore this Westport landmark. The battle began when Federal and state officials determined that the 100-year-old structure had rotting floor beams, and steel decking, trusses and girders had fallen into disrepair. Their plan was to build a new bridge, 3 lanes wide and with a higher vertical clearance, with no posted weight restrictions.

The Bridge Street Bridge. (Photo/Library of Congress)

The Bridge Street Bridge. (Photo/Library of Congress)

This bridge was never without political controversy. The bridge’s present location was the historic crossing point, as established in 1746 when the Disbrow ferry was established to carry traffic over the Saugatuck River.

However, local merchants and financiers, such as the Jesup family and Horace Staples, built a substantial infrastructure of maritime, financial and commercial facilities upriver at Westport center, and blocked this bridge’s realization for decades. They wanted to force the flow of traffic from Fairfield, Greens Farms and Compo uptown, crossing the river there to reach the depot and wharves to the west.

Yet in the early 1880s, when the needs of overland transport demanded a new bridge in Saugatuck Village, there was little question but that the bridge would have to be built to accommodate the passage of vessels destined not only for Saugatuck itself, but also for the larger port upstream at Westport center.

A detail of the Bridge Street Bridge, from Robert Lambdin's Saugatuck mural.

A detail of the Bridge Street Bridge, from Robert Lambdin’s Saugatuck mural.

Horace Staples admitted late in life that it was the mistake of his life in having the bridge built where it was now [downtown] instead of at Ferry Lane, where the road builders that proposed and where the ferry had been established.

Ironically, the onion trade declined drastically soon after the bridge was opened, rendering moot the reason for erecting the swing bridge rather than a cheaper and less troublesome fixed crossing.

(Kathie adds: The Library of Congress has Historic American Buildings Survey, Engineering Record, Landscapes Survey photographs online. Click here to view.)

Small Car Company Leaves Big Legacy

It was called the Small Car Company. But for several years in the late 1960s, the Westport dealership sold more Volkswagens than any other in the US.

The Small Car Company was a Post Road West landmark from the ’60s through the early ’80s. We know it today as Dragone Classic Motorcars.

Dragone — kitty-corner from Kings Highway Elementary School — sells antiques like a 1924 Marmon, 1941 Graham and 1970 Mercedes.

VWBut this Saturday (September 19, 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m.), it will be site of an informal, non-judged car show featuring classic Volkswagens, Porsches, Dune Buggies and other air-cooled vehicles. The free show is open to all car owners and air-cooled fans. If you’ve got memorabilia, bring it along.

The Small Car Company lives on — and not just this one Saturday. The show is sponsored by For several years, this informal group of vintage VW and Porsche owners has gotten together to share their passion, trade information, and host driving rallies. is the brainchild of Westporters Dave Abelow and Tom Truitt. They thank George and Manny Dragone for supporting the upcoming event — and honoring the dealership that, in its own way, once sold “classic” cars too.

(For more information, email

Small Car company

A Bridge Too Narrow?

The Bridge Street (aka William Cribari) Bridge is getting ready for the big time.

This summer, surveyors were all over the 131-year-old, much-loved, unique, narrow, creaky and decaying structure. State authorities have marked it for improvements — though exactly what that entails, and when, is unclear.

At the same time, a move is underway to designate it as historic. Such a designation would limit the kinds of improvements that could be made.

Hand-cranking open the Bridge Street (William Cribari) Bridge.

Hand-cranking open the Bridge Street (William Cribari) Bridge.

The debate will continue — with, no doubt, more public attention and input than it’s received so far.

Whatever happens, this much is sure: It will cost more than the $26,700 the town spent to build it in 1884.

The bridge it replaced was just 13 years old. But it had already been eaten away by shipworms.

The Bridge Street bridge, open for Saugatuck River navigation.

The Bridge Street bridge, open for Saugatuck River navigation.

Improving Compo Beach, For Nearly 90 Years

In some ways, Compo Beach has changed little since the 1920s.

The sand is nicer. There’s a new jetty. But really, you can’t do too much to a beach.

In many ways, the neighborhood looks the same too. Homes line Soundview Drive, and fill the side streets. They’ve been winterized, modernized and raised to escape hurricanes and floods, but they’ve never lost that great beach vibe.

And after nearly 100 years, a Lane is once again in charge of the Compo Beach Improvement Association.

Back in the day, Joe Lane lived on Soundview. The CBIA was formed in 1928, and he was president. The organization took care of the beach, put floats in the water, and provided lifeguards. It also threw great parties.

In the 1950s, rafts off Compo Beach were a great attraction.

In the 1950s, rafts off Compo Beach were a great attraction. But look at those rocks!

Toni Cunningham succeeded Joe, and served for decades as CBIA president. She’s nearing 100 now, and still lives on Soundview. (Her daughter, Gail Cunningham Coen, and Gail’s husband Terry were longtime active CBIA members. Last year, they sold their Soundview home a few doors from Toni, and moved south.)

Three years ago, the torch was passed from Toni to Skip Lane. He’s Joe’s grandson. His father, Paul Lane, is the now retired, much-admired former Staples football coach who (of course) still lives in his own Soundview Drive home.

These days, the CBIA’s main job is taking care of the plantings along Soundview, monitoring issues like traffic and signs.

Skip Lane

Skip Lane

But Skip hopes to broaden the group’s impact. He’s getting more neighbors involved — including those on Minuteman and Bluewater Hill Roads, and around the corner on Hillspoint — and is looking at new projects, like how to add sand to the beach, and remove rocks.

“The beach is fantastic,” Skip says. “But it needs a little TLC.”

Skip now lives on Roosevelt Avenue, off Compo Beach Road.

“Even when I was growing up, I thought the beach could be better,” he says. “Little things like the parking lot bugged me. As much as everyone loves it, it can be polished.”

He is happy to see an influx of young families into the area. “There’s a group of them with little kids. They have parties at the end of Fairfield Avenue nearly every night,” he notes. “That’s the way it used to be. And the way it should be.”

Meanwhile, the Compo Beach Improvement Association is planning a party of its own. With summer renters gone — and some former residents coming back just for this event — the CBIA holds its annual barbecue this Sunday, at the Ned Dimes Marina.

There will be food and drinks. And plenty of back-in-the-day stories from Paul Lane and Toni Cunningham, who knew the beach then and still love it now.

A large wooden bathhouse once stood at Compo Beach. Today this is the site of the playground. The 2-story pavilion (right) is now only 1.

A large wooden bathhouse once stood at Compo; walkways led to the beach. Today this is the site of the playground. The 2-story pavilion (right) is now only 1.