Thanks For The Memories

The other day, alert “06880” reader Wendy Crowther stumbled on a website called PittsburghDiary.com.  (Don’t ask — I sure didn’t.)

Part of the site contained compelling stories about growing up in Westport during the 1940s and ’50s.  They were lovingly written by someone named T. Comden.

“They say you can’t go home again,” she began.

But I have always been able to call up the images of the hometown of my childhood by merely closing my eyes.  I’d go home in my mind.

I lived there from 1940 to 1962 and once I was old enough, and pedaled safe enough, was allowed free range through my neighborhood, and then Saugatuck and finally downtown and beyond.  My bike was a clumsy street bike, and I stood on the pedals and panted my way up the “steep steep hills” as I remembered them!

The original Staples High School, on Riverside Avenue — a photo from T. Comden’s website.

My husband and I moved away from town as he followed his educational opportunities and then his career.  We returned for visits to my family and his…and we watched the changes and photographed them with each visit.

T. Comden recalls the YMCA as “our crown jewel.”  She was not a member — she was, after all, a girl — but she did attend Miss Comer’s dance class in the 2nd floor ballroom.

Aah, Miss Comers.  She was elegant, in velvet gown, and her sister, Miss Elsie, played the piano on the stage.  We were her students, in prom finery, and we learned to foxtrot and waltz, to samba and tango, to jitterbug.

Miss Comer polished Westport’s young elite.  We learned the etiquette of formal dances with dance cards, bows and curtsies. Unfortunately, none of it stuck.

(My husband) Larry remembers going across the street to the Tally Ho for Cokes while waiting for his parents to pick him up; I remember dinner parties there preceding our dance lessons.  I remember the excitement of climbing the Y steps in the early evening, in my long gown and white gloves, and feeling so grown-up and sophisticated!

Next to the Y was the firehouse.  (Vestiges remain.  A fireman’s pole in what is now the Weeks Pavilion leads from the upstairs cardio center to the downstairs weight machines.)

T. Comden says:

Besides the small corps of firemen, there were also volunteers.  In the days before emergency radio communications, the location of fires was blown on a whistle at the fire station in a 3-numeral code, which could be heard all over town.

We knew the numbers for our immediate neighborhood by heart and had a complete list tacked to the cellar door so that we could look them up as we heard them.  If a neighborhood number was called, we’d be off chasing the fire on our bikes. I remember several grass fires — oh! the excitement.

One fire we did not see happened at night: a truck burning on the Post Road.  It was carrying a load of rubber cement.  When the firemen opened the back of the truck it exploded, killing several firemen.

It was well discussed around our dinner table.  My father knew the firemen.  After that, fires did not seem as exciting or attractive.

The fire whistle was put to another use.  It blew every afternoon at 5 p.m., signaling to the town’s children that it was time to go home.

She writes about the Fine Arts Theatre, Main Street — and Willowbrook Cemetery.

Larry grew up on Maplewood Avenue, which is just beyond the cemetery.  The cemetery was his playground.  The area where our plot is today was his ballfield back then.

Larry and his friends often took their dates up to the cemetery, and always, one would “hang” from one of the trees or leap out from behind a tombstone, scaring the girl into her date’s arms.  It was better (and cheaper) than a scary movie!

One large tombstone, “Julia,”was horizontal and soaked up the sun all day.  In the evening it reflected the warmth, and was a favorite rendezvous point in the cemetery.

A photo — from T. Comden’s website — of the house that once stood at the top of Burying Hill Beach.

T.  Comden also describes the Saugatuck River (“an open sewer and all the awful offal flowed down to the Sound with each outgoing tide”), Staples High School (on Riverside Avenue), the railroad station, Saugatuck, the Gault gravel pit (now the Gault neighborhood off Imperial Avenue), the beaches and Longshore (back in the day, a private country club).

Wendy Crowther spent a lot of time wandering around T. Comden’s site.  A Westport native herself, she loved the memories.

When she was done, Wendy clicked the “e-mail me” link to say “thanks.”

Quickly, she heard back — from Larry.

He told Wendy that his wife, T. Comden — “Tippi” — died October 10th.

Yet — thanks to Tippi Comden’s wonderful words, and the enormous, random reach of the internet — both she, and the Westport of her long-ago youth, live on.

29 responses to “Thanks For The Memories

  1. Tippi and Larry were great contributors to my Staples Alumni website when it was still active. Tippi even sent me a picture from a school prank at Staples (when it was still on Riverside Ave).

    http://evan.sysdude.com/prank/

    She clearly had a lot of love for her time in Westport. She seemed like a wonderful woman.

  2. Incredible… Having heard stories about decades-ago Westport from my relatives, it’s wonderful to read more about it.

  3. Dale Eyerly Colson

    What a wonderful walk back in time! My family moved to Westport in 1954 and I still live in the house I moved into when I was 9 in the Compo Beach area. The cannons, Cedar Point (my dad owned and raced an Atlantic), Longshore, Saugatuck School, Bedford Jr. High, Staples ( I still know the words to the alma maters of each!), Miss Comer’s… yes, I remember it well.

  4. Nancy Powers Conklin asked me to post this comment for her:

    I have been fascinated by the memories these stories have brought to the surface of my brain. The story really resonated with me, especially about the fire.

    My father and his brother were both volunteer firefighters. They both were called to this fire on Post Road West during a rainy and thunder-struck night. My father was burned very badly and was taken to Norwalk Hospital not expected to make it through the night. When he awakened the next day a priest was standing over him giving him last rites. My father’s first words, after waking up and seeing the priest were, “I am not Catholic and I am NOT going to die!”

    It took him over three long, hot months in the hospital, after numerous skin grafts, to recover enough to go home and complete his recovery. My uncle lost part of his ear and also had numerous skin grafts to repair the fire damage.

    Injuries to my father from that fire were the turning point in his decision to marry my mother. He had been in the service for two years during World War II and survived without a scratch. He felt that if he could survive the war and come home and almost die, he shouldn’t wait around and my parents decided to get married.

    I remember my father speaking of the fire chief, who lost his life in that explosion. And, an outcome of that fire/explosion was that after that, all trucks had to be labeled on the outside, if they were carrying combustible materials.

    While these volunteers were in the hospital, Babe Ruth was play playing golf at Longshore. Someone down there told him about the fire and the guys in the hospital who had survived. Babe Ruth was asked to go visit them. He did and signed baseballs for each one as they had their pictures taken with the baseball legend. Babe Ruth died about a year later.

    • Nice to hear from Nancy Powers. We grew up down the street from her and Diana. Her late father George “Nook” Powers was one of Staples’ greatest athletes. Excelled at every sport–I’m thinking late ’30s or early ’40s. Mr. Powers held the Staples high jump record well into the 1960s when it was broken by a Norwegian exchange student. He also refereed Staples basketball and football for many years–while you were at Staples, Dan .

      I remember Nancy’s late Uncle Chick Powers too. He brought that Babe Ruth autographed baseball to the Sportsmen’s Dinner the night he was one of the honorees.
      Tom Allen is correct that one of the firemen who died in that explosion
      was a Dunnigan but I think the Chief who died was Dennert.
      Chief Dennert’s great grandson played soccer for Coach Woog this year: Will Meinke.
      I very much enjoy these stories. I think Tom Allen, Nany Conklin, the Dude, Dale Colson and the others who post here ought to be be locked in a room at the Historical Society with a tape recorder until they run out of their 1950 recollections
      I’d love to know what Mrs. Comden’s maiden name was. Does Wendy Crowther know?

      • Linda Gramatky Smith

        I went to Tippi Comden’s website (yes, Wendy, how did you find PittsburghDiary.com?) and there are lots of additional stories. And there is a lovely photo of Larry & Tippy Katz Comden (their family tree is listed) at her grandmother’s birthday party. I believe from Evan’s post that she was in the class of `54 and Larry was in `52.

        These stories are so special, as are the ones about the firefighters as well. I believe that Chick Powers was the man who painted my parents’ home several times, a great guy (or was it his brother?).

        I emailed Larry too to say how sorry I am to hear about Tippi’s death a month ago. Don’t you wish we could have told her how much we loved her stories?

  5. Hi Evan! Dale, you’ve written about Ms. Comer’s previously and wonderfully. I happily avoided Ms. Comer’s but was dragooned into 6th grade dance class at Saugatuck anyway. You’ve also written about the Saugapops, a group of Saugatuck El. dads, including mine, yours and Mr. Michel, who organized and staffed their giant clambake at Compo every summer, another former great Westport institution that always deserves a mention in reminicinces. We moved to Westport from NYC in the early 50s so I have no memory of the terrible Post Road accident whose aftermath Nancy describes so eloquently, but heard about it for years as it became part of the town’s collective memory. Mrs. Dunnigan, my Saugatuck 6th grade teacher — you remember Mrs. D, Dale — lost her husband in that fire. I think he was the fire chief. I loved the story about Babe Ruth. I’d forgotten about that. When Babe was struggling with cancer one of his young doctors was Dr. Robbins, who lived off of S. Compo Rd. across from Longshore. The story was that Babe asked Dr. Robbins to build a ballfield in his backyard for his and the neighborhood kids (son Kirk ’65 was a year ahead of me). He did so, as a memorial to Babe, even though his children didn’t care for baseball. It was a gorgeous backyard ballfield bordered by Wrigley Field-like hedges. Kudos to Tippi ’55, RIP. She and I exchanged memory-drenched emails via Evan’s old site. A great lady.

  6. The Dude Abides

    Fascinating stuff for anyone who grew up here. The one tidbit of nostalgia that struck me was Ms. Comer’s dance class. Unlike my fortunate buddy Tommy Allen (above), I was condemned to attendance. I believe it was for 12 year olds and boys were commanded to where a suit/tie with white gloves. The young ladies were equally adorned. We had a series of instructional dance sessions over several months followed by a formal dance complete with dance cards, bowing and curtsying after each dance and taught to formally ask a lady for a dance. Ms. Comer, seemingly ancient in 1960, run a tight ship and sat up on the stage with a ever watchful eye. I heard she lived into her 90’s, still teaching dance in Florida. I gotta tell you, I hated it but to this day, I still stand when a women enters a room or approaches a table and when given the rare chance, I still ask a lady for a dance! No white gloves, however, ever.

  7. Interesting reading. And sorry to hear that she had just passed away. She was a talented writer.

  8. Thanks Dan, for posting this wonderful post-Thanksgiving nostalgia.
    What a treat. A picture of Main Street in the 40s is indelibly printed in my mind.

  9. The Dude Abides

    A final note on Old Staples. By 1942, Old Staples had been relegated to an annex according to the yearbook of my old friend Joey Karmanosky. Staples II (then Bedford Junior High and now Saugatuck Elementary) had been built to a graduation class of 94 students. By 1961, when I arrived for 7th grade, it was a dark dingy depressing place with shop classes on the first floor, language on the second and history on the third. It was centered by an old stairway that reminded one much of walking up the steps of the Bates house in “Psycho.” If you had a history course there, you were usually out of breath and scared s&*#@ by the time you got the third floor.

  10. Eric Buchroeder

    My sister had attended Miss Comer’s nine years earlier but when I was forced at gunpoint by my mother to attend in ’63 it had become Miss Mary Field (MF to her friends) Sadtler’s (Miss Comer had retired that year) but there was still Miss Elsie her long-term accompanist to carry the torch forward. I remember going to a screening interview (kind of a softball routine because the proprietors were friends of the family) but as I recall, my mother sweated that I wouldn’t get in and I sweated that I would. I am not aware of anyone who were not beckoned to haute couture and Dan, if you could locate somebody in your vast historical database who was rejected by Mesdames Comer et Sadtler they might have an even more interesting story to tell than those of us who attended. Two years of Friday night hell!!!! I was never able to look at the YMCA in quite the same way again and whatever ballroom skills I learned there were so buried by my PTSD that I took remedial lessons 23 years later in prep for my wedding reception (I married a spiritual soul mate of Miss Comer’s and am still trying to toe the line). There was, however for me a silver lining behind those white gloves; I was suffering from multiple warts on my hands at the time, was embarrassed by them and the white gloves that were dreaded by so many young men provided a source of sanctuary pour moi.

  11. The Dude Abides

    Great stuff! As you will note above (1st entry) that I had a similar experience with Ms. Comer’s. I don’t remember a selection process nor it being as long as two years but I will yield to your younger memory. I do remember that they had an initial “party” before the actual lessons began. My mother decided to send me in a red blazer! Thankfully, my buddy, Brian Hitt, wore a madras jacket. Of course, every other boy was in a suit already. Well, I thought Ms. Comer was going to bust a vein in her temple. She was a sweet lady (I assume) but she wore all this makeup and tons of jewelry (cheap, my mother assured me). On our departure, she cornered Brian and myself: “Boys,” she said. “I really like these jackets of yours but if I see them again, you will not be in this class.” We seriously considering that might be our complete exodus but our mothers prevailed.

  12. Eric Buchroeder

    Dude,
    The first suit I ever owned was a heavy charcoal gray flannel purchased to enable my attendance at the Friday night chamber of horrors. I already owned madras, camel’s hair and blue blazers but there was never any question of wearing them. They were OK for church every Sunday but Miss Comer’s was a higher order of religion than church (at least as far as my mother was concerned.

  13. The Dude Abides

    Eric: Indeed, my mother truly believed that Ms. Comer could convert her hellion goofball son into a gentleman. Whoops!

  14. Dale Eyerly Colson

    Oh yes, Miss Comer required dark suits and white gloves for the “young gentlemen,” which may have been intended to avoid sweaty palm prints on the backs of the “young ladies'” frilly party dresses. During my own Miss Comer’s incarceration, it was common that parents would stay, as a sort of “peanut gallery” to watch the proceedings ~shudder. But, I have to say that, thanks to Miss Comer, I can still do a mean merangue and a not-too-tacky tango ~ sadly, I seldom have a need for either one.

  15. Larry Comden sent this along, about his late wife:

    Tippi was a terrific and prolific writer about things she knew best.

    Tippi was born Priscilla Rounds. She was class of ’52 and I was ’54 at Staples. While there’s a plot in Willowbrook with a stone, neither of us planned to be buried there. We were going to write on the tombstone “We couldn’t afford to live here.” But thought that was an expensive joke.

    Pittsburgh is our home for the last 43 years and both of us blossomed there. However, I credit growing up in Westport (especially Staples) as vital to our success.

    BTW, most boys hated Miss Comer’s class.

  16. The Dude Abides

    Wonderful story especially about Willowbrook. I have learned in the past several years that Pittsburgh is really a great place to live. In the Oakland area, it is very much a diverse mixture of the college folk and the native city dwellers. A very engaging city and long departed from its “steel city” image of grime and black smoke. Even has water in three rivers. Not major comparisons to Westport but apparently enough for both to remember very well their hometown. Nice story.

  17. Dale Eyerly Colson

    What a lovely note from Larry. Yes, all of us who grew up in Westport benefitted from that and will carry a piece of it with us always. The Willowbrook story is wonderful and an absolutely priceless (no pun intended) commentary on how Westport has “progressed” as the years have gone by.

  18. I don’t know who could forget Miss Comer’s? Quite honestly, I still can’t remember how my mother managed to get me to even try on a dark blue suit and, of all things, black dress shoes. Just like that, though, we were at the clothing store next to the side door of the “Y” to be “fitted,” a process that included, as always, my mother’s obligatory tug at the waist to make sure there was “room to grow.”
    This whole thing was a nightmare. It had come up suddenly – dancing lessons at the “Y”? What for? No one else is doing that … well, at least no one had mentioned it and I wasn’t about to say anything. But, as far as my mother was concerned, there was no discussion on this one – none – it was going to happen. So it was interesting to climb those stairs to the second floor on that first Friday evening to find the majority of my friends standing there dressed as I was, white gloves and all with a distinct “oh, boy” look on their face. It definitely was going to happen.
    When all was said and done, though, the Lindy dance ended up coming in handy, as did the cha-cha, and probably the box step, but even though I had completely mastered quick-quick-slow and “the dip,” I’m not sure I ever danced the Foxtrot again – at least not on purpose.
    The highlight of the evening for me was the opening event that followed the bowing and curtsying through the “receiving line” which found the girls seated on one side of the floor with the boys on the other. That was the scene of the great power walk (i.e. just barely not running) event by the boys trying to get across that floor to the most favored partners. That seemed to better satisfy my athletic and competitive needs!
    Anyone remember the name of that clothing store on Main Street? Talking 1950’s.

    • Tracey’s Men Shop was on Main street, same side of the street as Kleins,
      around that time.

  19. The Dude Abides

    Paul Zabin’s?????

    • Paul Zabin’s was on the Post Road, at the annex to Colonial Green across from Saugatuck Congregational Church. Believe it or not, as of a couple of years ago Paul Zabin was working at Men’s Wearhouse, next to Boccanfuso’s on the Post Road heading to Fairfield.

  20. Have to laugh. I went to Google and found it in an 06880 piece from last Feb. Fairly certain that it was Shilepsky’s.

  21. The Dude Abides

    Confirmation from a fellow classmate who now lives in North Carolina.
    It was Shilepski’s which apparently had an xray machine to see if your shoes fit. Any problems with your toes, Bill????? Shilepski’s was out by ’62 when the Shoe Bazaar replaced it. Stood next to Country Gal. This guy is very good.

  22. Miss Comer’s: I too recall also the foot race across the floor..Coach Hall should have done scouting there for the team. I remember also her makeup, bling and world’s strongest perfume. Two years later I recall we were in the same dance hall in at a BJHS dance and doing “The Twist”… sans gloves, no Miss Elsie. Unfortunate incident with the BJHS art teacher who was chaperoning.

    Fire Chief Dennert… I have vague memories of the incident, but the name rings a bell. Late 50’s I had a paper route on Kings Highway North. Bridgeport Post would wholesale the daily (M-F) paper to me for 3 cents, I retailed for 5 cents so I’d make ten cents a week per customer. A fine mark up indeed! With I’m guessing perhaps 20 customers at best, I’d net $2 per week if they all paid on time. The “big money” was in tips… ten to twenty five cents per week. At the end of the route I had to ride my “Rollfast” bike up to the top of a hill. There was (to me at that age) an elderly couple there “The Dennert’s” who always produced the biggest tip every week. Mrs. Dennert also passed out a variety of cookies and cupcakes whenever she baked which was frequent. Possibly they were the Chief’s parents? I couldn’t say. I saved their stop for last as I could usually count on 4 things.
    One, I’d have fewer papers in the basket to pedal up the hill. Two, if it was “collection day” I’d get a good tip, Three..there was usually a baked good to enjoy and Four…it was downhill all the way home!

  23. Ah, Miss Comer’s. Tippi (Rounds) Comden first saw me as a cotillion partner with her younger sister Nancy (both Staples ’54) I vaguely knew who Tippi was but was definitely startled into noticing her one day in the guidance office. She was looking at University of Hawaii catalog and my imagination had her beautiful body swaying in a grass skirt. Wow! Later that year we worked together on the play “Years Ago”. I was lighting and she was sound. It all started there and 5 years later we were married. BTW, Miss Comer was no more effective in teaching me to dance than the Westport School of Music was in teaching me the piano. Much later we took an Elderhostel trip to Lafayette, Louisiana. Instructors tried to teach us the Cajun waltz an two step. About as successful as Miss Comer’ efforts. The joke in our family was that dancing was a vertical expression of horizontal desire.

  24. The Dude Abides

    There was no greater evidence than the 50th Anniversary dance at Longshore to illustrate that we Boomer generation men have no idea how to dance, present company excluded.

  25. Since these comments involved “family”, I guess I should add a couple of comments. The Dennert family on Old Hill Rd. mentioned by Steve Simon included Emil & Mary Dennert along with their daughter Mary Anne and her brother Albert. Mary Anne and I started dating in 53 and this year celebrated 53 years of wedded bliss. The Fire Chief was Frank Dennert, her father’s brother. He and his wife Alma lived next door. Mary Dennert was one of the better cooks and bakers in the State for sure. My bride followed in her footsteps and our daughter Lori is always at home in the kitchen. Will Meinke is my Grandson.
    Chick Powers was a good friend and in his later years a hard worker for the Westport PAL. He was a painter by trade and very good at his craft. Another person seriously injured in that fire was John Saviano who went on to become a member of the Westport Police Department and retired as a Lieutenant. He told me the Babe Ruth story came about when the Babe showed up for a scheduled game of golf and inquired as to why his regular caddy (John Saviano) wasn’t there. When he heard about the fire, he cancelled the golf game picked up a supply of balls and headed for Norwalk hospital .