Fast Music

The recent death of Ed Baer — the Westport native, longtime resident and renowned, versatile radio DJ — got local folks thinking about the role of radio in our lives.

Inevitably, talk turned to Westport’s rich musical past.

Mike Fast has plenty of memories to share. Growing up in Bridgeport in the 1950s, he was one of many young boys fascinated by radio’s reach and power.

In 1957 he started hanging out at the WNAB studio downtown. Just 13 years old, he learned all he could about the business.

A couple of years later, at Harding High, he spent after-school hours at the station’s transmitter site. Mike had no formal training, but he learned how to build and design his own equipment.

Mike Fast, at WNAB’s Bridgeport studio.

At 17 — through his Westport friend Stuart Soroka — he discovered WMMM. The station’s studio was above Oscar’s, on Main Street. Mike’s interest in Westport was piqued.

“It seemed like everyone in town smiled, and wore new clothes,” he recalls.

In 1961 Mike, Stuart and a kid named Gordon Joseloff started a radio station at the YMCA. Their 1-watt transmitter — a couple of miles away, at Compo Beach — was hooked up to a phone line in their “studio.” It was an early “pirate” station — and it was called WWPT.

A July 1961 New York Times story on WWPT featured (from left) Gordon Joseloff, Jeff Berman and Stuart Soroka. As the caption notes, Mike Fast was missing from the photo.

Joseloff went on to become an international news correspondent with CBS — and later, first selectman of Westport. Today he runs WestportNow.com.

Mike’s Westport connection grew stronger. He, Dennis Jackson and Cliff Mills bought a turntable, and ran record hops at the new Staples High School on North Avenue.

A poster for dances at Staples High School. Perhaps Mike Fast’s shows cost a dime more than Dennis Jackson’s because they were 2 hours longer.

In 1962 Ed Baer — whom Mike had befriended back at WNAB — was working weekends at New York’s WMCA. Mike had very little experience, but when Ed set him up with an interview there, Mike talked his way into a job. (The key: Both his mother, and the mother of the engineer interviewing him, were from County Cork.)

Mike worked other jobs too: doing sound at the United Nations; at the National Radio and TV Center; at WHN. A stint at 1010 WINS lasted “about 10 minutes.” He played the wrong record, and legendary DJ Murray the K threw him out.

In 1965 the WMMM engineer retired. Mike talked his way into that job too, even though he knew little about transmitting equipment.

Around that time, Staples began bringing live bands to the auditorium. The school had no PA system, so the ever-resourceful Mike supplied groups like Cream and the Rascals with his own.

Ginger Baker, on the drums at Staples High School. (Photo copyright Jeremy Ross)

But Mike’s real love was live recording. He worked often with the Westport Country Playhouse, and the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford (which burned to the ground last Sunday).

After doing sound on the road with Edgar Winter’s White Trash, Mike produced and managed his own bands. They were booked all over New England.

But those gigs did not pay well. Mike got back into radio. He moved around: Atlanta, Los Angeles, Portland.

He returned east — and went back to WMMM. He was there when Donald J. Flamm bought the station, and turned it into WDJF (named for his own initials).

When the FCC changed rules — eliminating the need for radio stations to hire 1st-class engineers — Mike was fired. The same day, his wife told him she was pregnant with their first child.

But he always found work. Mike has spent his entire life in radio and sound.

Mike Fast

“It’s a different world today,” he notes. “Radio stations are not the creative factories they used to be. I consider myself lucky to have been there, in the golden age.”

WMCA, WINS, WMMM — none of them are the stations they once were. But Mike Fast worked at all of them.

And — thanks to Westporters like Ed Baer, Gordon Joseloff and Murray the K — he’s had a very memorable career.

(Hat tip: Dennis Jackson)

Pic Of The Day #639

A dog enjoys a Pupachino at the Starbucks near Carvel. It’s whipped cream in a cup (dry), or with a splash of aqua (wet). According to JP Vellotti — who was next in line, and snapped this photo — they’re free. For dogs. 

Guerilla Marketing, Private School Style

There’s a law against posting advertising on school property.

But a recent sign planted on Bedford Middle School turf was not offering yard work, computer repairs or even a sports camp.

It was put there by a private school, apparently to poach kids from public school.

(Photo/Naree Viner)

Not cool. And just wrong — on so many levels.

Unsung Heroes #83

The Westport PAL Rink at Longshore doesn’t get a lot of press.

But every winter for over 20 years — quietly, efficiently, and very, very joyfully — the outdoor skating center just a few feet from Long Island Sound has provided thousands of kids and adults of all abilities (and none) with hours of good fun, and a lifetime of memories.

It’s not easy keeping an ice rink going — especially one without a roof. There’s ice to groom (and remove snow from). There’s the weather — sometimes too cold, sometimes too warm.

There are schedules to make (and adhere to), lessons to give, parties to help out with, reckless teenagers and worried parents to tend to.

The Westport Rink at Longshore.

I can’t imagine how the PAL Rink staff does it. But they do — and they do it in a way that makes it all seem easy. They smile often, extend helping hands when needed, and create a warm environment on even the coldest nights.

So to longtime manager Tony Lantier and his loyal, hard-working and often-overlooked crew: Thank you! You are our deeply appreciated yet Unsung Heroes of the week.

Manager Tony Lantier, at his rink.

Mobil Self-Serve’s Sam Is Back!

When ExxonMobil closed its Westport location near Barnes & Noble in September, Sam Hiba promised his many customers he’d keep in touch.

Four months later, there’s good news. Sam — the popular, generous owner who brightened everyone’s day, while working tirelessly to support his 5 children and on behalf of refugees from his native Syria — is now a partner in the Global station right off I-95 westbound Exit 14 in Norwalk.

Global is Sam’s new gas station.

The address is 224 Connecticut Avenue.

You might want to take the back roads there, though. 95 may be gridlocked — jam-packed with all of Sam’s fans.

Sam Hiba, at the Mobil Self-Serve.

Jill Meyer Is Away For The Day

Fairfield County is filled with active, engaged senior citizens who love to go places: the theater, art galleries, museums and historical sites.

But they may not want — or be able — to navigate Grand Central or the streets of New York. And trains don’t go to places like Goodspeed Opera House.

So what can older folks do when they want to go away for the day?

They contact Away for the Day.

For the past 17 years, Jill Meyer has owned the company. She — well, buses she hires (and vans she drives) — takes area residents to New York, New Haven, Hartford, Boston and other interesting spots. They see Broadway shows, tour the Cloisters, enjoy boat rides, and do much, much more.

All they have to do is get to one of 5 pickup spots, from Stratford to Greenwich. The Westport meet-up is the I-95 Sherwood Island commuter lot.

Jill Meyer, during an Away for the Day lunch.

Meyer brings a varied background to her service. After moving to Westport in 1965 she taught English at Staples High School. She was mentored by “wonderful” instructors like Tony Arciola and Karl Decker.

Raising 3 children — Ben, Alexandra and Nicholas — brought her out of the classroom. She tutored for many years, then returned to the school system working with the gifted program (and its very gifted teacher, Annette Fournier).

Meyer also worked as an accountant for Nancy Strong’s fitness business; in children’s literature, and then for an eye care communications company.

When that firm moved out of the area, Meyer bought Away from the Day from its founder.

She was attracted by the opportunity to help seniors enjoy activities at a reasonable price. What she did not realize at the time was how important it was as a way for them to make new friends.

Away for the Day travels to the city …

Away for the Day attracts “intelligent, curious, well-educated, well-traveled and well-read” people, Meyer says. “They’re still curious about life and the world. They want to keep living. They don’t want to drive. But they love telling their grandchildren they’ve seen a show, or been to Hartford or Boston.”

Many are former teachers. Most are women.

“Occasionally we get men with their wives,” Meyer notes. “But my own husband finds it difficult to get on a bus with 50 women.”

(He did love “Jersey Boys.” And he just got back from what Meyer calls “a fantastic production of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.'”)

Away for the Day sponsors 2 or 3 trips a month. There are fewer in winter, due to weather.

… and the country.

Among the highlights starting in late February: “Sleeping Beauty” at Lincoln Center; the New Britain Museum of American Art; “Kiss Me, Kate” with Westport’s own Kelli O’Hara, and a historical tour of Providence.

Away for the Day occasionally goes away for 2 or 3 days — like an upcoming trip to Philadelphia and the Brandywine Valley.

For seniors who want to explore the world, the sky’s the limit.

Or at least anyplace Away for the Day can drive to.

(For more information, call 203-226-4310 or email jill@awayfortheday.net)

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“Fort Apache,” from across the Saugatuck River (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

Shakespeare’s Stratford And Westport: A Twice-Told Tale

Early Sunday morning, fire destroyed the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford.

News reports noted that the 1,500-seat venue — modeled after London’s Globe Theater — hosted performances by Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes and Christopher Walken.

When the theater thrived, its garden on the banks of the Housatonic River featured a garden with 81 species of plants mentioned in the Bard’s plays.

The American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, in its heyday.

Papers reported too that the idea for the theater came from Lawrence Langner. It was not his first rodeo. In 1930 — 25 years before developing the Stratford venue — the Weston resident turned an apple orchard and old tannery into the Westport Country Playhouse.

But Westport’s connection to the American Shakespeare Festival Theater runs far deeper than that.

In fact, our town was almost its home.

In 2014 I posted a story that began with a note from Ann Sheffer. The Westport civic volunteer and philanthropist — who had a particular fondness for the Playhouse, where she interned as a Staples High School student — had sent me an old clipping that told the fascinating back story of Stony Point. That’s the winding riverfront peninsula with an entrance directly off the train station parking lot, where Ann and her husband Bill Scheffler then lived.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Written in 1977, the Westport News piece by longtime resident Shirley Land described a New York banker, his wife and 2 daughters. They lived in a handsome Victorian mansion with “turrets and filigree curlicues.” The grounds included an enormous carriage house, gardener’s cottage, barn and hothouse.

It was the Cockeroft family’s country home, built around 1890. They traveled there by steam launch from New York City, tying up at a Stony Point boathouse.

After the daughters inherited the home, the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad purchased some of the land for a new train station. (The original one was on the other side of the river.)

The 2nd daughter bequeathed the estate to the Hospital for the  Crippled and Ruptured (whose name was later changed, mercifully, to the New York Hospital for Special Surgery).

But the property fell into disuse. Eventually the hospital sold Stony Point to real estate developers.

Which brings us to Shakespeare.

Around 1950 Langner, Lincoln Kirstein of Lincoln Center and arts patron Joseph Verner Reed had audacious plans. They wanted to build an American Shakespeare Theatre and Academy.

And they wanted it on Stony Point. Proximity to the train station was a major piece of the plan.

The price for all 21 acres: $200,000.

But, Land wrote, “the hand of fate and the town fathers combined to defeat the efforts of the theatre people.” Many residents objected. There were also concerns that it would draw audiences away from the Westport Country Playhouse. (Others argued that a Shakespeare Theatre would enhance the town’s reputation as an arts community.)

The theater was never built in Westport. It opened a few miles away –in the aptly named town of Stratford — in 1955.

It achieved moderate success there. But in 1982 the theater ran out of money (and backers). The state of Connecticut took ownership. It closed in 1985.

The garden turned into weeds. The theater grew moldy. The stage where renowned actors once performed the world’s greatest plays was taken over by raccoons.

The entrance to Stony Point.

The entrance to Stony Point.

Meanwhile, in 1956 Westporters Leo Nevas and Nat Greenberg, along with Hartford’s Louis Fox, bought the Stony Point property for residential development.

It’s now considered one of the town’s choicest addresses. A recent listing for one home there was $14 million.

That’s quite a story. We can only imagine what might have happened had Westporters decided to support — rather than oppose — the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Westport.

Then again, as a famous playwright once said: “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”

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Part of the Westport Library’s Transformation Project (Photo/Doris Ghitelman)

Susie Basler’s “Return” To Westport

Early in her working career, Susie Basler served as an Illinois parole and probation officer.

That served her well in what became her life’s work: volunteering for, then running Project Return, Westport’s well-respected group home for teenage girls and young women.

Basler — who has a master’s degree and is a licensed clinical social worker — enjoyed working with that population. They had issues that prevented them from living with their families — but Susie and her staff offered counseling, love (tough and soft), a chance for an education and, ultimately, a fresh start in life.

But about 3 years ago, the state stopped funding Project Return. Homes With Hope took it over. It’s now focused on supportive housing for homeless young women, 18-24 years old, providing individualized case management, and employment and educational resources.

Project Return, on North Compo Road.

Basler retired as executive director. But she was not ready to stop working. She spent a year as president of Westport Rotary. It was fulfilling and important.

Yet she missed helping young women grow.

“I’d gained knowledge and wisdom, and seen just about every behavior an adolescent could do,” she says.

Borrowing a friend’s office on Black Rock Turnpike, she worked with a woman whose daughter was troubled. Basler helped the mother appreciate her child’s strengths. Together they strengthened the relationship.

When her friend and fellow Rotarian Rick Benson bought 29 East Main Street — the former Temenos building — Basler saw an opportunity. She rented one of the offices, and is now seeing clients.

Susie Basler

Most are parents of teenage girls and young women.

“I love working with adolescents,” Basler says. “But I realize they may want someone younger and cooler than me. There are a gazillion therapists in Westport. But not a lot of them are working the parents. And parents are the ones who can have a huge impact on girls.”

She adds, “No one teaches us how to be a parent. We learn — good and bad — from the way we were parented.” One of her strengths, she says, is that she’s a non-judgmental listener.

“Knowing we are accepted and loved for who we are — that’s what heals and leads to growth,” Susie adds.

Her role with parents is to provide empathy; help them understand the needs of teenagers, while setting healthy boundaries; provide guidance in raising children in an affluent community, and reduce anxiety, while navigating blind spots and roadblocks.

“My passion has always been helping kids — especially those who are hurting,” Basler says.

“The best way I can do that today is by helping their parents understand and love them better, be better able to tolerate their feelings, and be less reactive to their behavior.

“I’m a good believer in people. I’m their best advocate. I partner with them in their efforts to become whole and succeed. This was what I was at Project Return, at my best.”

Susie Basler knows teenage girls. Now she’s helping parents get to know their own daughters a little bit better too.