The Cold War’s Hot Exhibit

The 1950s: McCarthyism. The Cold War. Nike Sites, fallout shelters and elementary school “duck and cover” drills.

Those were the days!

Well, yeah. In many ways they were — especially around here. We had a real-live Main Street, with actual grocery stores, hardware stores, and merchants who knew your name. Kids romped in the woods free from parental worries.

And Westport was growing rapidly. Every day, it seemed, another family moved in. Many were arts-types: novelists, TV writers, playwrights, admen. They were drawn by the town’s reputations as an “artists’ colony” — and as each one arrived, more followed.

Starting this Sunday (January 29), you can revisit those days. The Westport Historical Society presents 2 exhibits looking back on that golden/scary era.

“Next Stop: Westport, The Inspiration for 1950’s TV & Film Writers” takes its title from “A Stop at Willoughby,” one of “Twilight Zone”‘s most memorable episodes. In it, an ad executive on his way home to suburban Westport repeatedly finds himself in a pastoral town called Willoughby — in 1888.

Westport’s role in “The Twilight Zone” was no coincidence. Rod Serling wrote the episode when he lived in Westport.

Fellow residents included novelist Max Shulman, whose Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! satirized life in a suburban town when the Army selects it for a missile base. (Which actually happened here; the subsequent film led Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to move to Westport.)

It was quite a time. There were so many creative types, says Linda Gramatky Smith — the daughter of “Little Toot” creator Hardie Gramatky — that there were regular writer-vs.-artist basketball and softball games.

The Historical Society exhibit features all that, and more — like Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, which was set here (the subsequent movie, starring Gregory Peck, was filmed here), and the final year of “I Love Lucy,” when the Ricardos and Mertzes move to town.

Video of a different kind will be shown at the WHS too. “The Cold War in Our Backyard” — a fascinating, chilling (and at times laughable) film compilation by Lisa Seidenberg, including everything from instructions on removing radiation from food to the still-frightening “Twilight Zone” episode on barbarism in a fallout shelter — will play in a continuous loop. (You can also click here to see it.)

Nearby, images and artifacts will recreate the fears that filled that “golden” era.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens wrote.

He didn’t live in Westport.

But so many other famous writers did. Starting Sunday, the Westport Historical Society shares their stories with the world.

(The exhibit’s opening reception is this Sunday, January 29, 3-5 p.m. Click here for more information, or call 203-222-1424.)

20 responses to “The Cold War’s Hot Exhibit

  1. Very interesting topic. Westport stopped being a growing community in 1970 when the population peaked. Like most of Connecticut, the population of Westport has not grown since then according to the US census; of course, over much of that period I have notice a growing number of Florida license plates in town for slightly less than six months per year. Funny how that happens.

  2. Jane Nordli Jessep

    Just wondering if there are any folks out there whose parents might have been in the “Coleytown Capers”? My family moved here in the summer of 1953, I was 5 but with a late birthday in the autumn I could attend the first grade. Coleytown was almost finished being built and I spent lots of hours with my new best friend knocking around the building site. Yes, those were the days when parents shooed you out the door and just trusted you’d be okay. They had lived through a lot including their own freedom laced childhoods and then the Depression and the War, sending us outside to play was easy to do.

    Anyway, all the happy, shiny faced parents in their new happy and shiny elementary school decided to put on a show, and the talent pool was considerable; writers, ad men, directors, singers, dancers and artists. The Capers lasted for a good many years, though I think the general consensus was that the first two years were the best. As I recall the first year of the show was 1954. My mother who had been a big band singer sang a wonderful ballad written by one of those talented people you mentioned in your piece, one of those arty types. It was called “The Girl in the Picture” and was about life for a commuter and his wife. The final line of the song says it all “He works all day in the city so we can live in the country, and spend all our time apart.” It was a gorgeous song.

    • Jane Nordli Jessep

      It might have ended with this phrase, “and spend all our time alone.” The song was written and sung a long time ago and my mother is no longer around to tell me what the correct words are.

      • Jane, we were pleased to work with your Mom in the early days of Westport Community Theatre. A gracious and good-humored lady.
        At one time I had several notes and typed scripts from “the Capers”, long gone after several moves. I think Sonny Fox was involved in ’53.

    • My family moved to Westport in 1955 and left at the end of 1957. We lived on a dirt road called Abbott’s Lane, just off Cross Highway. I was in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades at Coleytown; my teachers were Mrs. Middlebrook, Mrs. Resko and Mrs. Walker.

      Seth Beim, my best friend, died around 7 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, March 2, 1957 when the gray 1951 Chevrolet convertible he was riding in with his father, Jerold, skidded on ice on Cross Highway and crashed down an embankment. Both were killed. The Westport Herald and Town Crier headlined the story, “Death Takes No Holiday”.

      My parents were participants in the first three seasons of the Coleytown Capers, 1955, 1956 and 1957. I have a 2-record album entitled, “Coleytown Capers ’57 – Original Cast Album” which commemorated the 1957 show.

  3. Ann Bacharach

    One of the other influential groups of commuters who lived in Westport during that period were TV news writers, reporters, editors, producers, directors, etc. I remember any number of Dads who did not come home for days because they were covering the Kennedy assassination.

  4. The Dude Abides

    The Cold War certainly had an affect on us kids who lived here in the 1950’s. We had “civil defense’ drills when we would hide under the desks at school where every kid knew that we were dead meat anyhow being so close to NYC. Fallout shelters were almost a badge of courage and of great interest to us elementary kids. News spread when a kid’s family would get one and off we would go to investigate. Interesting comment of Ms. Jessep: I also moved here in the summer of 1953 and attended Coleytown Elementary that fall. Did not know it was brand new. I still dispute the reason for the Newmans moving here. Ms. Woodward co-starred with David Wayne in “Three Faces of Eve” and he lived adjacent to Coleytown Elementary. The Newmans bought old farmhouse and barn next door off North after visiting the Waynes numerous times. Timmy Wayne was my best friend, dying prematurely in 1986.

    • Why doesn’t someone find out from Joanne why she and Paul decided to move here, and how they first really learned about Westport? I went to Coleytown but I don’t remember hearing or knowing about David Wayne’s house–maybe that was before my time here (1963). I do remember Paul and Joanne’s original home on Coleytown Road. (And Paul lived not far from me in my prior hometown, Fresh Meadows, Queens, during his first marriage.)

      And I have a vivid recollection of a helicopter hovering over the football field at Coleytown Jr High one summer when we were playing pickup soccer. The helicopter finally slowly descended, so we had to stop the game momentarily. Out stepped Paul, who was very apologetic. He apparently was commuting from a movie shoot.

      • The Dude Abides

        I was at Coleytown from ’53-58 (redistricted to Bedford Elementary for 6th grade). David Wayne’s house was directly across from where Coleytown Middle School is now. Wayne lived here for decades. His son Timmy and I as well as Jeff Mullin used to go to the Newmans and swim after school. The Newmans lived directly behind the Waynes (across the street from where Jo Anne lives now). Woodward starred with Wayne in “Three Faces of Eve” in ’57 and then with Newman in “Rally Around the Flag Pole” in ’58. I would guess they moved here in ’57 but I know they were close to the Waynes for they let us whippsnappers swim there.

      • I was there, playing in that pickup soccer game too. Paul Newman stepped out of his helicopter, looked at us, said, “Sorry, boys,” and walked home. The helicopter lifted off, and we resumed our game.

  5. This exhibit has sparked so much energy at WHS! People light up when you mention the movies and especially “I Love Lucy”. So many of us growing up in the 60’s remember fondly how we laughed out loud with all of Lucy’s antics. When Tracy Sugarman was visiting here recently, his memories of bringing up his family during this period as very special. There was a strong bond among all the writers and their shared experiences. What better way to start a conversation than with an exhibition that triggers so many terrific memories that we can talk about with our neighbors. So tell your friends and have an old fashioned belly laugh on us!

  6. Hey Dan -thanks for the nice comments about my video – it’s definitely meant to be amusing! Your article “When the Cold War came to Town” was really helpful in researching the exhibit. By the way, I heard there is a fallout shelter somewhere on Easton Road – anyone know about this?

    • Lisa, I grew up on Easton Road and went to the Coleytown schools and never heard about this, although my family came to town in 1963 and I suppose this would have been built well before then. There were very few expensive homes on Easton Road back then. If something were built, my guess it would have been under the house that I think belonged to Governor Lodge.

    • The Dude Abides

      There is one on Darbrook off North Compo.

    • As a Coleytown El kid back in the day. I remember thinking there were so many bomb shelters. And that’s because there was one on Easton Road. I think it was a shelter in the ground rather than one built in a home and there was a huge pile of dirt on the property. I can’t remember which house but it was on the left going toward the school and it was closer to the parkway bridge than the school. I don’t remember them teaching us survival skills like getting under our desks. As a realtor, I can’t remember ever encountering one.

      • The Dude Abides

        Surprisingly (?), there were not that many fallout shelters in town. It was like a unveiling when one was actually built and we kids were on top of it. But I am surprised you do not remember the civil defense drills. We had them sporadically but maybe twice a month. You first hid under your desk and/or went to the basement of the school. Bedford Elementary had an ole boiler room that we assembled. This would be 1960.

    • Which house belonged to Lodge?

  7. I just recalled a great story about Max Shulman (stimulated by just playing ping pong at the YMCA in a room where I attended Ms. Comer’s dance class). Peter Shulman was in my class at Bedford Elementary and I went to his birthday party at their house off Wilton Road. It was one of the few houses with a swimming pool back then. Max was front/center and announced that if “anyone peed in the pool during the party, the water would turn red as a result.” He was dead serious. We thought. About half way through the party, the entire pool turned red and we all went out scurrying from the pool. Max stood there laughing as he had put some kind of delayed red dye in there to fool us all!! Great fun and memories!!

  8. As I clearly recall, air raid drills occurred regularly at Greens Farms Elementary: “Crawl under your desk, grab hold of your rear end and kiss it good-bye.” It really happened. Also discussions and instructions from teachers as to the importance of showering to remove “fallout” (whatever the hell that is, the predecessor of Radon, conceived to sell stuff through paranoia). No wonder we kids couldn’t sleep at night! Worrying about what was going into “your permanent record” at school, keeping up with the Joneses and knowing you were sandwiched in between Bridgeport, Hartford, New London and NYC where all the weapons were either made, paid for or stored. No wonder everyone turned to booze, sex and drugs (probably the only good thing to say about the 50’s.)