Category Archives: Arts

Ryan Lester: Arts Honoree’s Career Began Here

These days, Westport is a town of hedge funds (and their managers), ginormous new houses (even as the housing market for them slows) and a TV show featuring our 2nd fattest housewife.

You may think we’ve strayed from our artists’ colony roots.

But you would be wrong.

Tomorrow (Sunday, October 23, 2 p.m., Town Hall), the Westport Arts Advisory Committee presents its 4th TEA Talk.

tea-talkThe acronym stands for Thinkers Educators Artists. The program features remarks on our town’s arts heritage, and a panel including author/lyricist Tom Greenwald, writer/radio commentator Jessica Bram, multimedia artist Sooo-Z Mastropietro, artist/photographer Miggs Burroughs, musician Frederic Chiu, and composer Ryan Lester.

Ryan epitomizes Westport’s arts past, present and future. A 2007 Staples High School grad, he receives the Horizon Award at tomorrow’s event. It’s given annually to a Westport artist under the age of 32, who shows “extraordinary accomplishment and potential.”

It’s a great honor, and Ryan is flying in from Los Angeles to receive it. That’s his home now, where he composes music for film, TV, video games and the concert stage.


Ryan Lester

For the past 6 years, Ryan has composed for “The Daily Show.” NBC Universal recently asked him to score their animated sitcom “Mystery Island.” He’s worked as an orchestrator and synth on the NBC thriller “Crossbones,” the feature film “Barely Lethal” and Discovery Channel’s “Harley and the Davidsons.” Ryan is currently scoring “Confessions of a Boxman,” for early 2017 release.

He studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the Royal College of Music in London, and the Juilliard School.

But Ryan’s path to a musical career began in 4th grade, when Long Lots Elementary School teacher Betsy Tucker introduced him to the recorder and steel drums. At age 10, he began writing music.

The next year, Frank Coppola encouraged him to play trombone. Then came middle school jazz bands with James Forgey and Gregg Winters. Both teachers stoked his enthusiasm for that unique art form.

Important Staples influences also included Candi Innaco, Nick Mariconda, Adele Valovich and Alice Lipson. “Westport was a ridiculously great place to grow up, musically,” Ryan says.


Staples Players’ pit orchestra exposed him to a whole different side of music. A decade later, he says he draws on that experience for much of his work. In fact, he notes, “Westport schools were a lot more influential on what I do now than college.”

“I always knew I wanted to compose,” Ryan adds. “I just didn’t know if I could make it a career.”

He certainly has. And tomorrow — back home — Ryan Lester will be honored at what is still the start of his musical career.

His horizon is limitless.

(Tomorrow’s TEA Talk is free. A reception follows at the Westport Historical Society. For more information, click here.)

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76 Trombones, 5 Musicians, 2 Posters, 1 Painting

Exactly 70 years ago today — on October 19, 1946 — the Saturday Evening Post cover showed 5 high school band musicians.

As many “06880” readers know, Westport artist Stevan Dohanos used 5 Staples High School students as models. Seven decades later the painting hangs in Town Hall, right outside the first selectman’s office.

Westport illustrator Stevan Dohanos' 1946 Saturday Evening Post cover.

Westport illustrator Stevan Dohanos’ 1946 Saturday Evening Post cover.

In 2001, David Roth was in his 2nd year as director of Staples Players. To promote their production of “The Music Man,” Roth asked graphic arts teacher Alan Dodd to recreate the iconic artwork — this time using 5 actors from the upcoming show.

There’s one girl in the painting. Roth chose Samantha Marpe to pose. In “The Music Man,” Samantha played Zaneeta — River City’s mayor’s daughter. In an amazing coincidence, Samantha’s father — Jim Marpe — is now Westport’s first selectman (mayor).

The 2001 poster is also on the wall, next to Marpe’s office. Every day at work, he sees his daughter’s image.

Staples Players' 2001 poster.

Staples Players’ 2001 poster…

Fifteen years later, Players is once again staging “The Music Man.” Once again, Roth is using Dohanos’ painting as inspiration for the publicity poster.

There are some differences between the 2001 and 2016 versions, of course. Dodd has retired; this year’s photo was taken by co-director Kerry Long, and created by graphic arts instructor Carla Eichler.

A decade and a half after the first poster, she’s able to do much more with special effects. For example, in Dohanos’ original painting the football team was reflected in the sousaphone. That was tough to recreate in 2001, so the reflection showed only the 5 musicians.

This time, Eichler reflected Jacob Leaf — who plays Harold Hill, the “music man” — in the sousaphone.

...and the 2016 version.

…and the 2016 version.

Speaking of which: simply finding a brass sousaphone for Long to photograph was a herculean task. These days, they’re all fiberglass.

Roth put out a townwide call. Finally, he found one. It’s owned by Shari Levy. In another great coincidence, her son Jon was part of the quartet in the 2001 production. She lent it to Roth for the photo shoot — and the show.

Across America, people know “The Music Man” for its 76 trombones.

In Westport, it’s all about Stevan Dohanos — and David Roth’s — 5 musicians.

That’s no shipoopi.

(Staples Players present “The Music Man” on Friday and Saturday, November 11, 12, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, November 13 and Saturday, November 19 at 3 p.m. Tickets go on sale this weekend at


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Nobel Laureate’s Former Manager Looks Back

Michael Friedman has done a lot in his 72 years.

The 1961 Staples graduate managed Todd Rundgren. He did publicity for the Dave Clark 5 and Herman’s Hermits. He dated Linda Eastman.

And — for a few years in the late 1960s and early ’70s — he helped manage Bob Dylan.

You know: the newest Nobel Prize in Literature laureate.

Michael Friedman in his Weston home.

Michael Friedman in his Weston home.

Friedman — a longtime music lover and current Weston resident whose recollections of the early rock ‘n’ roll days in Westport I chronicled last April (he was Bo Diddley’s drummer at the YMCA, for example) — was just 24 years old when he joined Albert Grossman’s New York office.

It had been a 1-man operation, managing — besides Dylan, and the Band — Janis Joplin, Peter Paul & Mary, Richie Havens, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Odessa.

Friedman was hired on as Grossman’s assistant — and partner.

With Dylan back in the news last week, I asked Friedman for some insights into the singer/songwriter/poet/Nobel Prize honoree.

“What do you add to the conversation about Bob Dylan that hasn’t already been examined under a microscope?” Friedman wondered.

Bob Dylan and Albert Grossman.

Bob Dylan and Albert Grossman.

He thinks, though, that it’s hard to imagine Dylan achieving all that he did without Grossman. They were “alter egos,” Friedman says.

Friedman’s work with Dylan came mainly in the office, and Dylan’s home/studio in Woodstock, New York — not on the road. But the manager saw many facets of his client.

Decades later, he remains a huge fan.

“If anything, I’m surprised that people are surprised” at the Nobel news, Friedman says.

“His lyrics and music go far beyond anything any American has achieved,” he notes.

“He’s so influential. He gave everyone — the Beatles, Paul Simon, you name it — permission to write in a way that had never been done before. The body of work he’s responsible for laid the groundwork in a fearless, extraordinary way.”

That “Nashville Skyline” album remains one of Friedman’s favorites. It was light, simple — and very country-influenced. That, Friedman says, epitomizes Dylan.


Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” cover.

“He did not care what anyone thought, or about celebrity or fame. He was booed off the stage at Newport for going electric, when he was the spokesman for folk music. He was the anti-war spokesman, and he went country. He did what he wanted..”

But Dylan was certainly no dilettante. When Friedman asked him about his writing “process,” Dylan said: “I get up in the morning. I go to my ‘office.’ I write songs. Then I go home.”

After nearly 60 years in the business — and countless honors — Bob Dylan has received an enormous honor, for his great body of work.

“I really admire him,” his former manager said. “And I’m really proud of him.”

[UPDATE] Mourning Noah Witke

Earlier today, the New York Daily News added details to its story on the death of Noah Witke. The Staples High School Class of 2009 graduate was a talented actor, and a beloved friend to many.

The paper said:

The 25-year-old actor who died after falling from the roof of his Harlem building had forgotten his keys at work and was trying to climb onto the fire escape to get in when he lost his balance and fell, police said on Monday.

Noah Witke had gone out to a party for the closing of the New York Film Festival with fellow actors and co-workers Saturday night, but forgot his keys and bag at Lincoln Center, where he was working for the cinematic celebration, police and friends said.

Noah Witke (Photo/Kerry Long)

Noah Witke (Photo/Kerry Long)

Witnesses told investigators Witke left a bar after having a few drinks around 4 a.m., police said.

Unable to get into his W. 134th St. apartment near Amsterdam Ave., Witke went up to his roof and apparently tried to gain access to his home via the fire escape, police said. Tragically, he lost his footing while lowering himself down from the roof and fell from the five-story building around 5:10 a.m., police said.

The Daily News story includes quotes from colleagues and directors — including Staples Players mentor David Roth. Click here for the full article.

Noah Witke and Brittany Uomoleale,, the lead roles in Staples Players' "Romeo and Juliet." (Photo/Kerry Long)

Noah Witke and Brittany Uomoleale,, the lead roles in Staples Players’ “Romeo and Juliet.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

(Hat tip: Dee Chapman)

Remembering Noah Witke

Noah Witke — the very talented Staples Players actor who thrilled audiences as Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet,” and starred in other productions including “The Laramie Project,” “The Diary of Anne Frank”  and “Twelve Angry Men” — died yesterday.

Noah Witke and Brittany Uomoleale, star-crossed lovers in "Romeo and Juliet." (Photo/Kerry Long)

Noah Witke and Brittany Uomoleale, star-crossed lovers in “Romeo and Juliet.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

A member of Staples High School’s Class of 2009, the Juilliard graduate was 25 years old. He was working with a theater company at the time of his death.

According to the New York Daily News, Noah was intoxicated when he fell off the roof of his 5-story Harlem apartment building at 5:10 a.m.

Noah Witke (Photo/Kerry Long)

Noah Witke (Photo/Kerry Long)

Staples Players director David Roth said, “(Co-director) Kerry Long and I were very close to him. Noah was not only a really good actor — he was also a kind, gentle spirit.

“He was so thoughtful of other people. He was a teaching assistant in Theatre I for 2 years, and was so great with one of our special needs kids. He partnered with him in a scene, one-on-one.

“Noah would have been a really good acting teacher. We are devastated by his loss.”

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

Noah Witke in one of several ensemble roles in "The Laramie Project." (Photo/Kerry Long)

Noah Witke in one of several ensemble roles in “The Laramie Project.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

Saugatuck Church’s Pipe Organ: Not A Pipe Dream

The Thanksgiving week fire of 2011 devastated Saugatuck Congregational Church.

But it did not destroy that venerable downtown institution.

View looking into choir room

The aftermath of the November 20, 2011 Saugatuck Congregational Church fire. This is the view looking into the choir room.

Congregants, clergy and friends helped the church rebuild. Three years later, services were once again held in the historic building.

Yet the restoration was not complete.

Lost in the blaze were the entire 100-year-old music library, 5 pianos, a harpsichord and the pipe organ.

Firefighters cut a hole in the roof above the pipe organ. The heat from the blaze metled some pipes, and burned others. Water and asbestos poured onto the organ.

Firefighters cut a hole in the roof above the pipe organ. The heat from the blaze metled some pipes, and burned others. Water and asbestos poured onto the organ.

Though there’s finally a new Steinway in the sanctuary — itself now an acoustic marvel — the pipe organ has not been replaced.

But just wait till you hear what’s in the works.

A parishioner came up with a very substantial matching grant. Fundraising is almost done.

Meanwhile, an organ committee spent 3 years talking with and listening to a number of companies. Last summer, they signed a contract with Klais Orgelbau. The German organ builder’s headquarters are in Bonn — just down the street from Beethoven’s home.

Philipp Klais is a 4th generation organ builder. He’s worked around the world — including, a few years ago, at First Church Congregational in Fairfield

While there, he’d have dinner in Westport. Whenever he passed Saugatuck Congregational, he admired its beauty. It was, he thought, the quintessential American church.

Saugatuck Congregational Church, in all its splendor.

Saugatuck Congregational Church, in all its splendor.

When Dr. Heather Hamilton — Saugatuck’s director of music — called Klais, he could hardly believe the connection.

He flew to Connecticut. Standing by the burned-out church in a snowstorm, he told Hamilton and committee member John Walsh he’d be honored to help.

“He was like a kid in a candy store,” Hamilton recalls. “He said he wanted to make the organ an educational tool for the community.”

Saugatuck’s new organ chamber will include plexiglass. Music lovers — including students — will be able to see all the levers and bellows as they work. The organ utilizes age-old technology, but it will be the first time Klais has ever built one this way.

Pipe organs are complex instruments.

Pipe organs are complex instruments.

“An instrument of this kind sitting in the middle of Westport will be incredible,” Hamilton says.

She emphasizes that although the 2-manual, 26-rank pipe organ will be housed in Saugatuck Church, it really belongs to the entire town. Unitarian Church minister of music Ed Thompson is nearly as excited as Hamilton.

So is Mark Mathias. The Saugatuck Church member is a founder of the Mini Maker Faire, and an advocate of all things both artsy and techy.

Of course, building a pipe organ like this takes time. It won’t be installed until 2019.

In 2011 the Saugatuck Congregational Church organ was covered with soot and water. But music still rested on its rack. (Saugatuck Church fire photos by Heather Hamilton)

In 2011 the Saugatuck Congregational Church organ was covered with soot and water. But music still rested on its rack. (Saugatuck Church fire photos by Heather Hamilton)

Plus, the organ coffers are about $100,000 short. That’s not stopping Klais — he’s a true believer — but it’s why the Saugatuck Church is sponsoring a few fundraising concerts.

The next one is this Sunday (October 16, 3 p.m., with Carol Goodman; $25 suggested donation). On Friday, November 18, it’s “Music From Manhattan.”

Saugatuck Congregational Church has a rich history. It’s seen a lot in its 186 years, in its current location and the earlier one, just across the Post Road.

But its new pipe organ will be a story for the ages.

Westport Community Theatre Welcomes Kids, Worries About Future

For nearly a century, the Westport Country Playhouse has stood proudly as one of the nation’s leading regional theaters.

For many decades too, Staples Players has pushed the boundaries of what high school actors can do.

Since 1956, the Westport Community Theatre has quietly served as our town’s “other” stage.

Low-key, little-publicized and itinerant until 1978, the WCT produces 5 mainstage shows a year, plus readings and workshops. Its productions draw small but devoted audiences to its spare, intimate auditorium in the basement of Town Hall.


Now — as town officials examine whether to reclaim that space — one woman is reaching out to a demographic the WCT has long ignored: kids.

Cindy Hartog studied film and television at NYU, then got a degree from the Neighborhood Playhouse conservatory. But she realized she preferred teaching to acting, and after earning a master’s in educational theater from NYU, Cindy organized drama workshops for children and teens.

She married Mark Hartog — best known locally as deputy director of Westport EMS, but also a community theater guy. Cindy worked in the Temple Israel nursery school for over a decade, taught cooking to kids, then a couple of years ago created the WCT Juniors program.

In less than 2 years it’s grown to encompass a 12-week program of performance skills, theater games, improv and scene work, as well as weekend master classes in improv.

A Westport Community Theatre improv class, directed by Heather DeLude.

A Westport Community Theatre improv class, directed by Heather DeLude.

Unlike other theater programs, these are not performance-based. The goal is to teach confidence, public speaking and performance skills, along with scene-writing and technical expertise.

Cindy’s Juniors classes draw youngsters from 6 to 16. On Friday afternoons they warm up together, then split into 3 age-appropriate groups for voice work and other activities. They come together at the end for improv and games.

The older kids are not involved in their own high school theater programs. One, for example, attends Hopkins; 2 are home-schooled.

Cindy notes, “They find a place here, and end up making great contributions.”

Cindy Hartog

Cindy Hartog

She believes in the power of theater to change lives — whether youngsters perform a play onstage or not.

Cindy’s program “tries to help kids become better people,” she says. “We want them to be well-rounded, confident and happy.”

Yet as she uses theater to prepare youngsters for life, she worries about the future of the Westport Community Theatre. Town officials are studying how space is used in Town Hall. When its yearly lease is up, the WCT — which before 1978 bounced between Westport, Weston and Fairfield — may be forced to find a new home.

It’s a search many Westporters are oblivious to.

“We put up lawn signs,” Cindy says of the WCT’s publicity for its mainstage shows.

“We have a banner on Main Street. We march in the Memorial Day parade. But a lot of people still don’t know about us.”

Interested in learning more? Click here. For info on the Juniors program, click here

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Rob Carlson: From Westport To Benefit Street, And Back

In a society that celebrates specialization, Rob Carlson is a generalist.

He’s a singer-songwriter. A corporate entertainer. An author. And a lot more.

Rob Carlson

Rob Carlson

For over 50 years — even before his 1966 graduation from Staples High School — Carlson has entertained generations of fans. He’s funny and fun. He’s got a wicked eye for the absurd, and a Robin Williams-like talent for picking out a wide range of targets.

Staples played a seminal role in Carlson’s musical career. As president of Orphenians, he helped organize the elite a cappella group’s 1st-ever trip (to the Virgin Islands).

He played trombone (“a useless instrument”), but discovered guitar (“you can actually play chords”). His folk band — the Triumvirate — opened for some of the famous rock bands like the Beau Brummels and Remains who played at Staples.

At Brown University — where he majored in American Civilization — Carlson was part of a burgeoning music scene. His most famous band — Benefit Street — included Staples classmate Josh Barrett. They earned New England renown.

In 1973 Carlson joined another former Staples classmate, Jon Gailmor, in a folk duo. Their Polydor debut album — “Peaceable Kingdom” — is still considered a classic by all who heard it.

But before hitting the big time, the 2 went their separate ways. Carlson headed back to the Virgin Islands, where he fell in love with Caribbean music.

Back in this area, he had a 10-year run playing local spots like  Grassroots and the Tin Whistle.

When his son was born — and Grassroots closed — Carlson got a steady gig running an independent production company. As “Ramblin’ Bob,” he wrote and produced a weekly tune in the style and voice of Bob Dylan, about whatever was happening in the news. The delivery was dead-on.

Christine Lavin heard Carlson in Portland, Maine, and gave his career a boost. He formed the Modern Man trio, which perfected send-ups of songs by the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry and many others. After 15 years, Modern Man played its last gig in October.

Carlson describes his music — reluctantly, because he dislikes categorizing it — as “folk/rock/Americana.” It includes elements of show tunes, R&B, Caribbean — you name it.

He’s “pretty much acoustic. I like the sound of wood.”

Benefit Street has now been reconstituted — with former Westporter Beth Bradley. This month they play the Grange in Greenfield Hill. On November 12, they and Beth Bradley will be at the Westport Unitarian Church’s Voices Cafe.

Palatine Ship - Rob CarlsonBefitting an American Civilization major, Carlson spent 30 years — “on and off,” he clarifies — researching and writing “Palatine Ship,” about the legend of an 18th-century vessel lost near Block Island.

But it’s music for which Carlson is best known. His audience, he says, is “mostly boomers. Every generation is fixated on the music it liked between the ages of 13 and 25. That’s pretty much what you like for the rest of your life.”

It’s a life Rob Carlson has known — and embraced — for over half a century. Westporters have long loved his distinctive voice.

It’s a good thing he gave up that useless trombone.

(For Rob Carlson’s website, click here.) 

Monica Lewinsky In Westport: More Than Just Words

When I heard that Monica Lewinsky will speak in Westport on October 6 — as part of the Westport Arts Center’s bullying exhibition — my first thought was: “Huh?”

But that’s the whole idea. For nearly 20 years, she’s been defined by what happened between her and the President of the United States.

Lewinsky is no longer a 24-year-old intern. She’s a 42-year-old woman who spent 10 years in self-imposed silence (several of them outside the country).

Now she’s speaking out. She talks about a subject she knows too well: internet shaming.

Lewinsky has tried to move beyond her image as the young woman in a stained dress. She’s now a social activist, contributing editor to Vanity Fair — and ambassador to

Lewinsky has first-hand knowledge of the “culture of humiliation.” She is an expert at the effects of cyberbullies.  Anyone — and everyone — can become, like her, a target of the digital playground.

Her 2015 TED Talk — “The Price of Shame” — has been viewed millions of times. In it, she describes losing her reputation instantly — and globally — via the internet. “Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop,” she says.

In Westport, Lewinsky will build on themes underlying the Arts Center’s exhibit. It examines the topic of bullying within a broad cultural context that considers how perceived imbalances of social, physical — or political — power can be abused to marginalize others.

Sadly, it seems just as relevant in 2016 as it was in 1998.

(Monica Lewinsky’s talk at the Westport Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 6 includes a panel discussion. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here or call 203-222-7070.)


Remembering Gene Bayliss

Since the 1960s, Staples Players has earned renown for its Broadway-style productions.

The directors and technical advisors deserve plenty of credit. But so do the choreographers.

Beginning in the 1960s, Players have been blessed with choreographers with actual Broadway experience. One of those was Gene Bayliss.

Gene Bayliss

Gene Bayliss

Bayliss — who died last week at 89 — had a storied life. A Birmingham, Alabama native, he starred in many shows at Northwestern University. He was head cheerleader there too, and when the football team traveled to California for the 1949 Rose Bowl, Gene made national headlines by cartwheeling off the train in a raccoon coat and straw hat.

In 1996 — for the school’s 2nd Rose Bowl appearance — he provided an encore at the alumni dinner.

In New York City, Gene — who combined “graceful, creative movement with articulate, expressive speech and leadership” — earned praise as a director and choreographer. He danced in commercials and on live TV, and worked with Dinah Shore, Dave Garroway, and pageants like Miss USA and Miss Universe.

Gene created the staging for the show-stopping “Telephone Hour” and “Lot of Livin” numbers in “Bye Bye Birdie.” He served as associate choreographer for “Carnival,” and recreated those shows (and many others) for over 150 regional and international tours.

He also produced product launches and corporate meetings for Fortune 500 companies.

Gene Bayliss choreographed the Miss Universe pageant in 1977. Here he acts as a stand-in for the winner during rehearsal.. He's crowned by the reigning Miss Universe Rina Messinger, as host Bob Barker looks on.

Gene Bayliss choreographed the Miss Universe pageant in 1977. Here he acts as a stand-in for the winner during rehearsal.. He’s crowned by the reigning Miss Universe Rina Messinger, as host Bob Barker looks on.

But it was Gene’s work with Staples High School that brought him his most local renown. Working with Players directors Craig Matheson and Al Pia, he brought Broadway to the high school stage (including a few signature acts from “Carnival”).

Every Christmas for years, Staples’ Candlelight Concert featured a new production number that he created and choreographed specially for the choir.

Those were his ways of giving something back to the worlds of theater and music he loved so much. (He was also happy to do something for the school his 6 children attended.)

Former Players and choir members recall his avid interest in their careers — and his care and concern for them as teenagers too.

Gene was vice president of the Connecticut Ballet School, and an active parishioner at both the Church of the Assumption and St. John’s in Weston.

A funeral mass is set for tomorrow (Monday, September 19, 11 a.m.) at Assumption Church. Interment with military honors follows in Assumption Cemetery.

Donations in Gene’s memory may be made to the Lambs Foundation, which supports America’s theater legacy. For Gene Bayliss’ full obituary, click here.