Remembering Mark Koffman

Photographic artist Elizabeth Opalenik lived here from 1979 to 1992, when she married and moved to California. She returns often to visit friends from those years, and calls them “the best ‘family’ I ever had.”

She loves sitting on Nick Visconti’s  porch looking at Old Mill Beach. He and Mark Koffman were partners in Ships, the legendary downtown restaurant where Tiffany is today.

Mark died earlier this month in Vermont, after a long illness. Elizabeth writes:

With the Valentine’s Day passing of Mark Koffman, a generous heart has been extinguished.

I remember Mark as a creative, gregarious entrepreneur. He started Mark’s Place East in Westport. It began as a teen club, and was being transformed into a discotheque when, looking for adventure, I answered its help wanted ad.

Like so many others, my life was changed by being in Mark’s orbit. We remained friends for over 50 years.​​

We built a plexiglass dance floor pulsing with colored  lights, and hung strands of beaded glass that you passed through to lounge on overstuffed pillows on carpeted riser steps. Disco was the rage, and nightly you could see the lights pulsing through the second floor arched windows overlooking Main Street.

Hanging out at Mark’s Place …

The crowds were mesmerized by a very good local band, The Repairs. I can attest to how busy the club was by the number of drink chips we counted late into the night after closing, while letting the iguana that lived in a large glass tank roam freely.

This was usually followed by Mark taking any staff still awake out for 3 a.m.  breakfast somewhere.

Mark had energy and ideas, that was for sure. The place was magical and lively.

… and playing there. (Photos courtesy of Rufus Eakin)

Later, Mark morphed it into a jazz club featuring many big name New York bands (including Weston’s own Don Elliott on vibraphone).

When Mark’s Place East closed it became another jazz club, Rosebud’s.

Mark then bought what was to become the Ships restaurant. In his most persuasive manner he dragged me kicking and screaming from Rosebuds, to behind his bar.  

I thought Mark was crazy. At that time the smoke-filled bar was rather seedy with local “ bar patrons” holding score cards in the Main Street window, rating any woman who walked by.  

Still, Mark was a visionary. With the help of friends he created “The Ships,” which became legendary in Westport.

In 1983 Al Willmot painted Ships restaurant, in the heart of downtown.

So did those windows. For Mark also believed in helping others — like Westporter John Huminski.​

​Mark and Ships; manager Nick Visconti trained with John. A regular, he was to compete in swimming and weightlifting at the 1982 United Cerebral Palsy Games in Denmark.

By then Mark had built a ski house in Vermont. That’s where John (and many others) learned to ski. They swam and trained with weights at the YMCA. Ships created a special drink, with a fundraising campaign utilizing the varied clientele that frequented the restaurant.

For months, the window showed photos of John with firefighters, postal workers, Tauck Tours personnel and area celebrities like James Naughton, Linda Blair and Paul Newman.

The goal was to raise funds for John’s uniforms and airfare. Children held car washes, and contributed their earnings.

The campaign was so successful it bought most of the team uniforms. UCP invited me as the photographer to document the games in Rhode Island and then Denmark. Mark, in his continued generosity, cleared me a space in his Ludlow Road home, so I could build a darkroom.​

Mark Koffman (right) working out with John Huminski.

​At both restaurants, Mark’s interest in food meant research. More than once I watched him astound a waiter by ordering nearly everything on the menu. He wanted to taste what the competition was serving.

From fondue to his own creations, Mark’s customers benefited from that research. He also turned it into a catering business for Ships, exhausting and exhilarating all involved.

Ships was the late night after-the-movies place to be.​ It was a team effort, but there was no doubt: Mark controlled it.

So many late nights come to mind. Did anyone ever sleep during those years?​​

With Mark’s Place East I remember the dancing. With Ships I remember the catered parties, laughter and conversations.

Mark — always an enigma — greeted customers at the bar, high top tables or booths as they swooned over the lobster seafood bisque, devoured a STOMP sandwich or enjoyed the cheesecake. He was probably dressed in running shorts.

A crowd on Main Street waits to get into The Ships. (Photo courtesy of Paul Ehrismann)

Mark catered parties that were over the top. Balloons and flowers were everywhere; often late night, they were then dropped off at a hospital children’s or cancer ward.

Reception halls were transformed into fairy tale ski slopes for a bar mitzvah.  Lawn weddings were  elegantly set and served from beautiful copper pots.

Ship’s was often decorated for holidays.  I remember a menorah in those Main Street windows, with a Christmas tree hanging upside down from the bar ceiling, “Poseidon Adventure”-style, while a massive Santa and sleigh lit the restaurant roof.

When Mark left Westport he settled in Vermont with his wife Sandra, where they ran His children Adam, Emet and Baruch, and Adam’s fiancée Chrissy Fredette, were by Mark and Sandra’s side during his extended illness. ​​​​

Mark lived long enough to meet Adam and Chrissy’s child Goldie — his only grandchild — born in December. Emet’s partner Kyle Turner was part of the family team helping care for Mark this past year too.

​You will be missed, Mark. You were a child at heart, and you shared your heart with all.​​

(Hat tip: Miggs Burroughs)

13 responses to “Remembering Mark Koffman

  1. Sorry for the loss of your friend.

    Former longtime Staples teacher Jim Honeycutt was a guitar player in The Repairs which had a record deal with, I believe, Motown.

  2. Quite the guy. I did landscaping for both he and his mother. Left his Mark on Westport.

  3. I came to Westport in the early 70’s as a 20-something, so I was a bit late to the party…but I remember Ships as being the best Westport bar I was ever at…to me it seemed it had the right vibe for everything…quintessential Westport. The irony of the juxtaposition with Tiffany’s now in Ship’s former location says so much…no disrespect meant for Tiffany’s…but hey…
    Mark musta had it goin’ on…

  4. I grew up with Mark. We attended Hebrew School at Rodeoh Sholom in Bridgeport. So I saw him three times a week from ages seven to thirteen. He was famous in class because every week we were asked to give charity to ” Karinomee”. While most classmates gave Nicole and dimes , Mark always pulled out ones and fives. Always. Mark and I reconnected many years later and were always happy to see each other . He loved the fact that I was a musician. I went to two or three fantastic outdoor Sunday afternoon parties at his house. There were hundreds of people, lots of food , balloons and music
    I took my mother and we had a great time. I was so disappointed when Mark stopped having those parties. He was the closest person to PT Barnum I ever knew.

  5. Linda Montecalvo

    I also came to the party later in the Mark era but got to experience some of the Ships happenings. I got to know him more later on when he was revisiting his Jewish life with our mutual friend & mentor Iz Stein and we connected often with long talks. What a guy, what a force! One in a million! A huge heart and well -everything was huge with Mark – but he cared about people from a very deep place and just all-in cared about the things he held dear. Nothing more fun than listening to Elizabeth tell Mark stories and here we are – in tribute to Mark and a life so completely well lived.

  6. Victoria Miller

    Such a wonderful story for the “Old Timers” of Westport. Ships was one of a kind and really captured the heart of what Westport was about. Although I did not know Mark personally, after reading your article, I wish I did!!!!

  7. With Mark, once a friend, always a friend.
    Even after moving to Vermont, he spent most of his Thanksgivings with our family, like a member of our family.
    Generous to a fault, if he had something that you needed, he gave it.
    We will miss his unexpected appearances at our house when he was on a quick trip to NYC.

  8. Ships was always a favorite when we moved here in ’76. Rosebud’s was always a favorite as was Don Eliot. We saw Ramsey Lewis there. Downtown was a destination back then. Movie on Friday night followed by Ships was one routine.
    I didn’t know Mark but his memory is a gift. Thank you.
    Pat Porio

  9. Michael Calise

    All true when Westport Center Was the place it will never be again!

  10. What were the years Mark’s Place was open? Since it was a disco, I’m guessing late 70’s when I was away at college – explaining why I don’t remember it. I do remember Ships, of course, previously known as The Ship’s Lantern when it catered to an older crowd. My last two years at Staples conveniently coincided with the lowering of CT’s drinking age to 18 in 1973. I helped a number of classmates celebrate their birthdays there.

  11. Julie Frischstein

    Omg!!! This article is so amazing. I remember it all. Uncle Mark was truly an amazing person! I will miss you dearly!

  12. I am going to go back to the time Mark lived in Bridgeport with his parents, Clara & Henry. My parents were friends with his parents and we would drive from The Bronx to Bridgeport. This was in the mid 50’s. We would play Monopoly with Jaynie & Roz, daughters of Hennie & Roy. Mark had a knack of finding a way to amass the most properties and money. Losing was not fun, but I now look back fondly at those times.
    Jumping ahead several years, I remember my children going skiing with Uncle Mark in Vermont when they were appx 10 &13. They still remember it fondly to this day. They are now 47 & 50.
    I remember Mark showing up at my sons Bar Mitzvoh and hiring the entertainer we had for a party he was planning the following weekend.
    I remember the 13th birthday party Mark had for his dog. My son Marc won a white mouse he named snowy.
    My wife Grace and I remember Mark visiting us in Arizona about 5 or 6 years ago, as he drove around the country visiting friends. The visit was short, but we had a wonderful time reminiscing. Looking back, maybe it was Mark’s farewell tour. Love you my friend.

  13. Wow, what a wonderful retrospect into the life of a larger-than-life man. Mark was a great guy and terrific friend. He will be missed and remembered in our house, always. Paul & Dana.