Remembering Kathryn Blumhardt

Kathryn “Kay” Blumhardt — a highly demanding but extremely well respected Staples High School English teacher from 1967 to 1995 — died last week, of ovarian cancer.

Tributes poured in on Facebook. Erin Buff Madden Collins — who was inspired to become an English teacher by her Staples instructors — calls her “tough as nails, very challenging, (and) a gift to all her students.”

Ann Belser says she became an English major because of Blumhardt, and an English teacher because of her colleague Joy Walker. And Audrey Wauchope became a writer thanks to Blumhardt, and the rest of the Staples English department.

Steven Uydess became a teacher too. He says:

Her office was in the book surplus closet, and she met with every student to talk about the kinds of books they enjoyed. After a few minutes of thoughtful listening, she pulled from the myriad boxes a half dozen books that she thought we might enjoy and gave them to us. I got “The Maltese Falcon,” “Last of the Mohicans” and “Catch-22,” among others.

I recall finding her so odd in some ways: her dramatic affect, her love for Walt Whitman (true love!), the way she could cut you down to size with but a meaningful stare. But she also taught me that to be an effective teacher you need passion, and that being your authentic self is how you connect with your students. Rest In Peace, and say hi to Walt for us!

Michelangelo Sosnowitz notes, “She scared the hell out of me. She was a tough and strict teacher but she was great. She also loved Marlon Brando, so I have to give her extra credit there.”

Kay Blumhardt, in the 1977 Staples High School yearbook …

Ian Atlas says, “We butted heads, memorably over whether I could sell chocolates for band before class (I may have been sent to the office over that one), but I learned to love Shakespeare in her classroom.”

Scott Cussimano calls her “tough but passionate.” He remembers a favorite saying of hers: “I’ll do anything for my students.”

Beth Wilson Matteson echoes those thoughts. She writes: “I loved her. I did my junior research paper on JS Bach. When I told her my church choir would be singing a Bach anthem, she drove to my church to hear me sing.”

Ursa Heilbron Mooney says, “She was tough, but we bonded over a mutual love for Sherlock Holmes (both the stories and the BBC production with Jeremy Brett). I had her freshman year, and her in-depth coverage of ‘The Odyssey’ was spectacular. And the eyebrows – the legendary eyebrows. She was great.”

… and in 1989.

Peter Danbury writes, “her enthusiasm for her subject could be intense. I loved the TV schedules she passed out every week, noting all the interesting things we might avail ourselves of amidst all the trash. She was so keen on us honoring with our attention what was valuable in the culture at large, and not wasting our time on the insipid and it was kind of wonderful. I‘m glad I ran into her in the late ’90s and could tell her how much I loved her Myth & Bible class.”

Ted Howes adds, “She was instrumental in my care for words. She loved Melville. She was tough, but I appreciate her a lot more now.”

Susan Huppi praises, “She definitely prepared us for college. I respect the work she put in. She helped me understand that teaching students is a tough but wonderful job. She expected we would always do our best.”

Former teacher Tod Kalif writes, “Kay Blumhardt was the ultimate old school English teacher. She earned the respect of every one of her colleagues, and demanded excellence from every one of her students.”

Jason Tillotson remembers her “clear as day: tough in class, a mysteriously stern exterior which kept you on your toes. But one-on-one in her cozy office closet she was warm, connective, and inspired curiosity by asking just the right questions. She introduced me to George Bernard Shaw beyond his work as a playwright, and into his life as a whole. It was a learning experience I won’t forget. I even saved the paper!”

And — in honor of one of the habits her teacher imparted — Mary Palmieri Gai says she read the Facebook post twice.

How Does Your Garden Go?

Westport’s 5 movie theaters are long gone. But for years, Westporters who dislike the corporate multiplexes in Norwalk and Fairfield — and/or who appreciate the diverse, non-blockbuster films those big boxes would never show — have headed to Garden Cinemas in Norwalk.

The theater is an important part of Norwalk’s cultural landscape. It’s brought life to the Wall Street neighborhood too, with Westporters and others discovering fun, funky nearby restaurants.

But Garden Cinemas may be living out its final scene. Norwalk officials may demolish the theater. The space would be used as a parking lot, to serve a nearby condominium development called Wall Street Place.

The full Norwalk Common Council votes on the plan tonight (Tuesday, July 23, 7:30 p.m., City Hall, 125 East Avenue, Room 231).

A number of Westporters attended last week’s Common Council Planning Committee meeting which okayed the demolition. Opponents of the parking lot plan hope for a large turnout tonight. They advise arriving by 7 p.m., to get into the room.

An online petition has been started, to help save the Garden Cinemas.

The Wall Street Neighborhood Association opposes demolition. They fear damage to “the core of our historic neighborhood,” and to the morale of “its growing community of artists, filmmakers, musicians and creative businesses.”

They’d like to see the Garden Cinemas operated as a non-profit community theater, or be included in the condo’s construction plan.

In addition to showing the type of movies the Garden Cinemas is known for, the community film center would offer after-school programs, with STEAM education in film production and technology; screening facilities; meeting rooms, and offices.

It would also show student films, and host local film festivals (Westport has searched for appropriate venues for this in the past).

Norwalk’s film industry is growing. Sono Studio and Factory Underground are nearby production facilities; the Wall Street Theater and George Washington Carver Foundation offer programming and community events.

For years, Westport has talked about bringing a theater back downtown. The city next door already has one.

For how much longer, though?

Stay tuned. The drama continues.

(Hat tips: Pam Karpen, Dennis Jackson, Elaine Wyden, Bill Kutik)

Pic Of The Day #826

Saugatuck Rowing Club sky, last night (Drone photo/Ward French)

If You Don’t Like The Way The Town Is Being Run, Read On!

Time to put up or shut up.

Or run for the RTM.

NOTE: You can also run if you love the way Westport is run.

Westporters interested in serving on the Representative Town Meeting — the 36-member legislative body that passes the town and education budgets; enacts ordinances (like the plastic bag ban), and reviews certain zoning changes, among other duties — can pick up an election petition beginning tomorrow (Tuesday, July 23, Town Clerk’s office in Town Hall).

Just get 25 signatures from residents of your district, by September 10. (That’s less than one a day.)

Bingo — you’re on the November 5 ballot.

You don’t even know your district map. The Town Clerk’s office tells you everything you need to know — including all registered voters in that district.

The RTM is non-partisan. Members serve 2-year terms.

For more information about this and other election matters, contact Town Clerk Patricia Strauss (203-341-1105; pstrauss@westportct.gov). For more on the RTM, click here.

Viva Viva’s!

Shortly after Viva Zapata opened, Paul Newman stopped in. He ordered a beer.

“Sorry,” the waiter said. “We don’t have a liquor license.”

The actor pulled out his checkbook. He signed his name, leaving the amount blank.

“Here,” he said. “Get one.”

That’s just one great story from the Mexican restaurant’s history. There are plenty more.

And why not? Viva’s — you don’t need to add the 2nd name — is a Westport icon. It’s been here for 50 years, making it the 2nd oldest restaurant in town. (Westport Pizzeria opened a few months earlier.)

It doesn’t get more classic than this.

Viva’s celebrates half a century serving enchiladas, fajitas and (of course) margaritas on Saturday, July 27. The full day of festivities includes the dedication of a Westport Historical Society plaque at 2 p.m.

That’s right: Viva’s is officially historic. Since 1969 it’s gone from a curiosity (a Mexican restaurant in Westport!), to the go-to place for celebrations (birthdays, reunions, especially the night before Thanksgiving), to a shrine. Countless relationships and marriages began at the bar, tables and patio (some probably ended there too). It’s gotten to the point where parents — and grandparents — share it-happened-at-Viva’s-bar stories.

Though it’s anchored Saugatuck seemingly forever, Viva’s actually started on the Post Road. Duke Merdinger — an actor (and onetime roommate of Dustin Hoffman) — already owned Tortilla Flats in New York. He figured a spot near the Westport Country Playhouse (today, the entrance to Playhouse Square shopping center) was fertile ground for a second restaurant.

Mexican cuisine was new to the area. Merdinger went to an unemployment line, and asked if anyone could cook Mexican food. A woman did; he hired her, and based his recipes on what she liked.

In 1969, Mexican food needed explanations.

The Post Road restaurant burned down soon after it opened. Merdinger moved Viva’s to a private residence on Riverside Avenue. It was built in 1870 by Rufus Wakeman, who ran a mattress and church pew cushion factory across the street (the current site of Parker Mansion).

Viva’s prices have changed. The menu really hasn’t.

In 1981, Norwalk native Bob O’Mahony was a waiter at the Inn at Longshore. The Viva’s crew came most Sundays, for brunch. Someone said they were short-staffed. O’Mahony took on some Viva’s shifts.

Eight years later, Merdinger sold half the business to him. Thirty years on, O’Mahony still owns it. His partners now are his wife Maryellen, her sister Ann Brady, and Ann’s husband Harry. The O’Mahonys’ son Sam, 27, is a bartender.

Bob and Maryellen O’Mahony, outside their restaurant.

The secret to their success, O’Mahony says, is “good food, good service, good atmosphere.”

“And margaritas,” his wife adds. (That’s how the couple met: at the bar, over that signature drink.)

Another secret: Don’t change what works.

A few years after buying Viva’s, the O’Mahonys made some renovations. When they were done, a customer said, “You didn’t do a thing!”

“Thank you,” the owner replied. “That’s what we wanted.”

A familiar scene, for 50 years.

But not changing doesn’t mean nothing happens.

Viva’s was the scene of a movie shoot (“Hello, I Must Be Going”). A few years earlier, a man with a chain saw carved his initials in the bar floor. That made national news.

Another time, a woman went into labor right at her table.

Every St. Patrick’s Day, Viva’s changed its name to Helen McNamara’s Pub. (It’s Merdinger’s mother’s maiden name.) They stopped that tradition because too many people thought the Mexican restaurant was replaced permanently by an Irish pub.

O’Mahony also recalls the night he saw 6 big guys with shirts off, in the patio. One stood on top of a table, screaming, “Who got the money?”

It was Drew Bledsoe. He had just been drafted, and was driving cross-country with his buddies.

He tried to pay his tab with his brand-new New England Patriots gold card. O’Mahony said, “Drew, we don’t take American Express.”

O’Mahony said if he took a picture with the waitress and signed his tab, he’d be good to go.

That photo — of Bledsoe holding up the waitress — and the signed check are still in O’Mahony’s office. “I’ve been a loyal Pats fan ever since,” he says.

The bar has hosted 5 decades’ worth of stories.

Robert Redford, Sigourney Weaver, Michael Bolton and Jose Feliciano are all fans. No one gives them a second look. They’re just part of the Viva’s vibe.

That laid-back atmosphere is what draws people back, year after year, decade after decade.

They know they’ll see the same faces — and not just friends. Many employees have been at Viva’s for a long time. Waiter Dan Dillaway and cooks Emil Rodriguez and Jorge Builles began working when Merdinger owned it.

“All roads lead back to Viva’s,” O’Mahony says proudly. Staff and customers may leave, but often return.

He can’t count the number of former Westporters who make it a point — whenever they’re back home — to show Viva Zapata off to their spouses and children. And now, grandchildren.

¡Felicidades! Viva’s: “06880” raises its margarita glass to you.

(Viva Zapata’s 50th anniversary party is Saturday July 27. Festivities include a DJ, bouncy house, t-shirts, and raffle for prizes like Yankees and Pat Benatar tickets. For more information, click here.)

Pic Of The Day #825

Tidal gate at Sherwood Mill Pond (Photo/Paul Delano)

Photo Challenge #238

At first glance, last week’s Photo Challenge was impossible.

Molly Alger’s shot showed some beautiful wineberries. They looked delicious — and it seemed they could be anywhere.

Lurking in the background, though, was a small part of a building.

It was easy to miss. But Andrew Colabella saw it — and recognized it as part of Golden Shadows, Baron Walter Langer von Langendorff’s 1950s-era “mansion.”

Today, we’d call it a “house.” It’s still there, on the now-town-owned property called Baron’s South.

Click here to see the photo. To see it in real life, use the South Compo Road entrance (or walk through from Imperial Avenue). Most people don’t know, but the park is open from dawn till dusk.

Here’s this week’s Photo Challenge. If you know where in Westport you’d see this, fire away!

(Photo/Lee Scharfstein)

Earthplace Plea: Feed Our Raptors!

On any list of Earthplace highlights, the birds of prey nest near the top.

Brought to the nature center off Stony Brook Road because of injury, they’re cared for and nursed back to health. Each year, thousands of visitors — including many youngsters — marvel at them up close, and appreciate how special each one is.

They can’t survive in the wild, but find sanctuary at the sanctuary.

Unfortunately, Earthplace’s longtime supplier of food is unable to continue donating. The non-profit must raise $14,000 to keep their rescued raptors fed.

Earthplace is personalizing its appeal:

  • $25 feeds Edgar, the raven, for 2 weeks
  • $50 feeds Ladybird, the horned owl, for 2 weeks
  • $100 feeds Talon, the red-tailed hawk, for 1 month
  • $250 feeds Chatty and Cerena, the bald eagles, for 1 month.

Of course, any amount helps. Click here for more information, and click here to contribute directly.

 

Earthplace owl.

Dari Herman Has A Head For Business

It’s a First World problem, sure.

You’re running, biking, playing tennis or soccer. Your headband keeps slipping off your head.

Or — if it stays on — it gives you a headache.

That’s the dilemma Dari Herman faced.

Dari Herman and friend.

A lawyer in New York, Washington and Boston, she worked in TV, and handled NBA player endorsements for a sports agency.

She also volunteered for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in Central Park, helping fundraising participants run half and full marathons.

But that pesky headband kept slipping off! There had to be a better way…

During lunch hour and on weekends, Dari headed to the Garment District. Through trial and error — and despite having no background in design or sewing — she finally created a no-slip, not-too-tight headband.

The secret: velvet lining, and an elastic outer piece.

Some of Sparkly Soul’s products.

Dari is a lawyer, so her next step was clear: filing for a patent. She got it.

She was not an entrepreneur. But she soon became one.

In 8 years, Sparkly Soul has grown big. The company produces all the Boston Marathon headbands for adidas, and the New York Marathon for New Balance.

 

Earlier this summer, they added a retail outlet.

In Westport.

A few years ago, Dari — who grew up in New York City — started looking for a place to expand. She and her husband (a Westchester chiropractor) wanted a place with a real community feel; somewhere they could get involved in daily life, and grow roots.

The Boston Marathon headband.

They looked all over: Boston, with its Marathon connection. Florida, where Dari provides headbands for runDisney races.

They weren’t sure where they’d end up. But, they told each other, “We’ll know it when we see it.”

“It” was Westport.

They looked at storefronts on Main Street. They ate at the Spotted Horse, and headed to Compo.

Everywhere in town, they felt the same vibe. “It’s beautiful,” Dari says. “But the people really make it. They’re as nice as the town. And there’s so much energy.”

She did notice empty storefronts. She does know that the future of retail is dicey.

But Dari is convinced that a company with roots in the community can thrive. “You have to have faith in your business, your product and yourself,” she says.

Dari and her husband moved to Westport 2 years ago. Sparkly Soul opened in early July — opposite (ironically) the now-closed Nike store.

Sparkly Soul’s new storefront.

Community response has borne out Dari’s faith. Word of mouth is strong. Customers love her headbands for men, women and kids. Sparkly Soul also sells sports and fashion accessories, and Westport-themed gear.

The Main Street space also includes her company office. Dari would like to bring her factory — now in New York — to this area too.

She wants Connecticut vendors too. Whatever helps our economy, she’s ready to try.

Westport-themed accessories, on display at Sparkly Soul.

Dari is a downtown booster. She’s attends merchants’ meetings, took part in the Sidewalk Sale, and looks forward to the Fine Arts Festival. She’s eager to host any kind of function in her store.

Dari is a runner (and triathlete) herself. She’s run 10 New York Marathons, and 2 in Boston.

In addition to feeling part of downtown, Dari has felt welcomed by Westport’s running community. She does the Roadrunner races every weekend, and made many friends through them.

If you see her on the road, just wave.

She’ll be the woman with the cool, fashionable — and no-slip — headband.

Pics Of The Day #824

Haskins Preserve, off Green Acre Lane (Photo/Tracy Porosoff)

Meanwhile, after the hottest day of the summer, things cooled off enough for an enjoyable evening at Compo. (Photo/Dan Woog)