Category Archives: Arts

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.”

The Immigrant Experience Comes Home

As Americans debate a slew of important items, immigration stands at the top of any list.

Here in Westport, we’re far removed from our southern border. The Wall is an abstraction — not a reality — to most of us.

But — for one reason or another — the immigrant experience resonates with nearly every Westporter.

This month, several events shine historical, artistic, literary and nuanced lights on a variety of immigration stories.

On Friday, January 18 (6 to 8 p.m.), Saugatuck Congregational Church opens an intriguing exhibit.

“Art Across Borders” features the work of 18 area artists, from Guatemala, Uruguay, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. All migrated to the US. Each will share his or her own story, through art. The bold, emotional exhibit is curated by Rene Soto, owner of a gallery with the same name in South Norwalk.

One of the pieces on display at the Saugatuck Church — by Jose Munoz, from Guatelama.

“Lots of people come to the US — and to this area — for better lives,” says Saugatuck Church Arts Committee member Priscilla Long. “And many of those people express themselves through art.”

Saugatuck Church has long been concerned with social justice. This show is a natural outgrowth of that commitment. The exhibit will remain up for a month. Click here or call 203-227-1261 for more information.

The following week, a different house of worship offers a different program, on a different immigrant experience.

In June 0f 1939, over 900 Jewish refugees escaping Nazi terror on the SS St. Louis were within sight of Florida. Heartbreakingly, they were denied safe haven by Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Canada also refused entry.

Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis.

The captain returned the ship to Europe, where countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK and France accepted some refugees. Many, however, were later caught in Nazi roundups of Jews in occupied countries. Historians estimate that a quarter died in death camps during World War II

Three passengers who survived — Judith Steel, Sonja Geismar and Eva Wiener — will be in Westport on Thursday, January 24. At 7 p.m., Chabad on Newtown Turnpike will screen “Complicit” — a film about the SS St. Louis’ ill-fated journey. The trio will participate in a post-film Q-and-A, led by its creator/producer Robert Krakow.

Click here for more information. Tickets are $25 for adults, $18 for students.

Meanwhile, all month long — and into February — the Westport Library sponsors WestportREADS. This year’s book is Exit West. Novelist Mohsin Hamid follows 2 refugees who — against all odds — find life and love while fleeing civil war.

WestportREADS activities include book discussions, a conversation with migration experts, art exploration, world dance instruction, storytelling, music, genealogy research, and a presentation by a Syrian refugee family sponsored by members of the Westport community.

Click here for a complete calendar, and full details.

Staples Players’ Marvel-ous Pilot

In 2017, Staples Players produced “Newsies.” It was a pilot for Disney. The mammoth entertainment company wanted to see what a high school production of that long-running Broadway show would look like.

They liked what they saw. (As did night after night of sold-out audiences, of course.)

Disney executives were so pleased, in fact, that they approached Players directors David Roth and Kerry Long with another idea:

How about piloting 2 new plays? Both are part of a new collaborative series between Disney and Marvel Comics. Written by established playwrights, they use Marvel characters as teenagers dealing with typical teen problems.

Which is how this weekend, the Staples High School Black Box theater is the site of world premieres of 2 very exciting shows.

(From left): Erin Lynch, Macey Lavoie, Derrick Adelkopf, Sammy Gutharz and Tobey Patton in “Peter Parker and the Kid Who Flew.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

“Peter Parker and the Kid Who Flew” is about teenage suicide. “Hammered” — by Tony Award-winning actor Christian Borle — focuses on sibling rivalry and competition.

The plays are a stretch for Roth and Kerry — and their young actors.

The timing did not fit in with Players’ traditional schedule. So Roth is using the pilot as a project for his Theater 3 (advanced acting) class.

Disney and Marvel representatives — and possibly a playwright or two — will be on hand. They want to see what works well (and what doesn’t).

Daisy Brackett and Josh Havemann in “Hammered.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

“We usually do plays that have been produced many times,” Roth notes. “It’s interesting — for me, Kerry and the kids — to get them while they’re still going through the process of being written.”

After beginning the project, Roth received a completely revised version of the “Peter Parker” script. A number of changes had been made, on the advice of experts on teen suicide.

The 2 pilots are full productions, complete with lighting, sound and costumes. They’ll be presented this Friday (January 11, 7:30 p.m.) and Saturday (January 12, 3 and 7:30 p.m.). Click here for tickets, and more information.

(NOTE: No children under 10 will be admitted. Parental guidance is suggested; material is appropriate for middle school audiences and above.)

Friday Flashback #123

The other day, town arts curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz moved a Westport Public Art Collection painting from the Parks & Recreation office to Town Hall.

“Up by Daybreak Nursery” — done by noted Westport artist Howard Munce in 1989 — showed the weird Weston Road/Easton Road/Main Street intersection, near Merritt Parkway Exit 42.

On the back, Kathie noticed a few interesting things:


The note on the left — written by Howard in December of 1999 — said:

In 1989 I came upon this scene and quickly went home for my camera.

The locale is at the convergence of Rt. 136 and Rt. 57 — just opposite the Daybreak Nursery.

When former 1st Selectman Bill Seiden saw it he said “Worst traffic situation in town.” Many agree.

Since this painting was done, the nursery has built and planted a mound on the small island that separate the two roads. Also, the Merritt Parkway entrance has been redesigned, causing greater complication at the corner.

Happy motoring. Howard Munce.

Equally fascinating were these “Street Beat” interviews from the December 2, 1999 Minuteman newspaper. The question was: “Which is the most dangerous intersection in Westport?”

On the left, Jim Izzo — owner of Crossroads Ace Hardware — described nearby Main Street and Canal Road. “There is an accident every 2 weeks or so, some kind of fender-bender or something,” he said.

Sid Goldstein nominated Wilton Road and Kings Highway North, because of its narrow turning lane onto Wilton (since improved), and “drivers stop too close to the yellow line on Route 33 heading south” (still an issue).

Nancy Roberts of Wilton said it was the very intersection that Munce had painted: “The merge is laid out so that it confuses people, and not everyone stops properly.”

Todd Woodard — a Tacos or What? employee — thought it was Post Road East, where Roseville and Hillspoint Roads were not aligned properly. Plus, he said, the “big dip” on Roseville makes it hard for visibility. Also the two restaurants’ driveways are poorly placed within the intersection.”

Finally, Chris Cullen — who worked in marketing — pointed to North Compo and the Post Road. “They should make a right turn lane” on North Compo, he said, “because traffic gets backed up very easily.”

Those comments were made 20 years ago. Many are still relevant today.

And probably will be in 2039, too.

“Sing Daily!” Again — All Year Long

A year ago New Year’s Day, Suzanne Sherman Propp embarked on an ambitious project.

The Greens Farms Elementary School music teacher started “Sing Daily!” Each morning she posted a song on her website — and emailed it to subscribers.

Every genre was represented. Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Pete Townshend, the Indigo Girls, Billy Joel, Joan Baez — and a few of Suzanne’s original tunes too.

It was a labor of love for the 1981 Staples graduate and former Orphenian who went on to earn an MBA at Columbia University, then worked in the music industry for more than a decade before beginning her second career in education.

But “Sing Daily!” is a labor. Suzanne spends 3 to 4 hours every Sunday picking songs for the coming week. She strives for a blend of styles. She wants to set just the right mood. And of course she celebrates holidays, birthdays, anniversaries — you know, the soundtrack of our lives.

Suzanne Sherman Propp

(Because she also posts lyrics to each song, she’s meticulous about finding them online without typos. “I was an English major,” she explains.)

Suzanne ended the year with over 1,600 subscribers (and many more who are entertained on social media without subscribing.)

Which has motivated her to keep “Sing Daily!” going for Year Two.

When she began a year ago, Suzanne’s goal was to have “enough positivity and feedback to make a few people happy.”

Some days, no one comments.

But most days at least one person reacts. Just one “thank you” or email saying “my dad sang that song all the time!” makes her work “totally worth it,” Suzanne says.

The clever “Sing Daily!” logo was created by Nan Richards.

She also hears nearly every morning from her mother. The indefatigable 79-year-old Ruth Sherman will text “I love Doris Day!” or say something pithy about a lyric.

A BBC producer in London sends frequent comments too. With the time difference, they’re the first things Suzanne wakes up to.

Once, a friend of hers and a friend of her husband Peter Propp randomly met in South Carolina. A song came up in conversation. Both realized they heard it through “Sing Daily!”

That feedback keeps Suzanne going. So do notes from former Staples teachers Dave Harrison and Gerry Kuroghlian, and principal Kaye May — all of whom were instrumental in helping her switch careers.

“Sing Daily!” has succeeded without any kind of business plan. Suzanne does not sign anyone up. They find her organically — often through word (or song) of mouth.

Speaking of no business plan: Suzanne not only does not make money from her project, she actually loses it. She pays web hosting fees and subscriber software herself.

As 2018 ended, Suzanne was not sure whether to continue the project. The 3 to 4 hours she spends every Sunday are precious time away from her family.

Suzanne Sherman Propp and Peter Propp, ukeleles in hand.

But her husband encouraged her to keep going. “You love it!” he pointed out.

So “Sing Daily!” will entertain subscribers — and other music-lovers — for another year.

It will surprise them too.

As it did me.

On my birthday, Suzanne chose a song with a soccer theme. It was a wonderful, amazing gift.

The same one she delivers to all of us every morning, 365 more days this year.

Click here for the “Sing Daily!” website. You can also follow on Facebook, Instagram (@singdailydotcom) and Twitter (@singdailydotcom). 

(“Waka Waka” by Shakira was the official song of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. This was Suzanne Sherman Propp’s Song of the Day on my birthday.)

Giant Typewriter Eraser: The Sequel

This morning, “06880” reported that the 19-foot, 10,000-pound typewriter eraser sculpture that’s entertained Beachside Avenue drivers and joggers for more than 20 years has relocated to Florida.

The story quickly made its way south. This afternoon, a spokesman for Norton Museum of Art — its new West Palm Beach home — emailed a photo of the installation.

(Photo/Rachel Richardson)

And hey! I learned something else:

It’s sitting in Heyman Plaza.

Artists’ rendering by foster + partners.

The area outside the museum honors Sam and Ronnie Heyman. She’s a Norton trustee.

And — this is no coincidence — they’re the Beachside Avenue couple who donated the massive, quirky Claes Oldenburg/Coosje van Bruggen sculpture to the museum.

I guess like many Westporters, “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” is a snowbird at heart.

Gone: One 19-Foot, 10,000-Pound Typewriter Eraser

For years, one of the attractions of Beachside Avenue — besides the beautiful homes, enormous lawns and sweeping views of Long Island Sound — has been a quirky sculpture of a typewriter eraser.

The work — “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” by noted sculptors Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen — stands 19 feet, 3 inches tall, and weighs 10,300 pounds. Enormous blue bristles project from a tilting red wheel.

It was commissioned in the late 1990s by Westporters Sam and Ronnie Heyman. It’s a limited edition piece. Others are in Seattle, Las Vegas, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

The Heymans went to California to see their artwork fabricated. It traveled cross-country in a flatbed truck, before being installed — very trickily, atop a subterranean 12-foot concrete base — on the couple’s front lawn.

“Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” — just the thing for your lawn.

For two decades “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” amused, entertained and enthralled everyone who drove or jogged by.

Now it’s gone.

But it will be unveiled next month in a new location: the outdoor entrance plaza to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.

That’s fitting. The museum will feature an exhibition of Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s work. Much of it focuses on office equipment — including typewriters and erasers.

In fact, the Heymans’ sculpture proved an inspiration for the exhibit. Ronnie Heyman is a Norton trustee.

In 2012, Greens Farms resident Seth Schachter’s son stood in front of the Beachside Avenue fence — with the eraser sculpture in the background.

Plenty of people enjoyed the enormous eraser on Beachside Avenue.

But many, many more will see it in its next home, outside a museum in Florida.

The big question is: How many visitors actually know what a typewriter eraser was?

(Hat tip: Seth Schachter. He spotted an article about the sculpture in the Wall Street Journal. Click here to read the full story.)

What’s Your Immigrant Story?

Unless you’re an original Pequot*, every Westporter is an immigrant.

Each of us has a story about how our family got to this country.

Tomorrow — and twice more next month — you can tell yours.

As part of this year’s WestportREADS — the selection is Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, an award-winning novel about 2 refugees who find life and love on the run — the Westport Library and Westport Historical Society are collaborating on an exhibit.

“Liberty to Set Down: Immigrants and Migrants in Westport, Connecticut” will be displayed at the WHS from January 23 to June 30.

But to do that, they need us to provide stories, pictures and artifacts.

They’ll be collected — and images and physical objects can be scanned — tomorrow (Thursday, December 27) from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Historical Society on Avery Place.

The other dates are Saturday, January 12 (11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Westport Library) and Wednesday, January 16 (10 a.m. to noon, Senior Center).

Everyone has a story. Don’t miss this opportunity to share yours!

* And even then, you came from Siberia.

Hallelujah! Enjoy Today’s Holiday Gift.

Santa has his elves. The Staples High School music department has Jim Honeycutt.

Though he retired in 2016, the video production teacher returned this month to coordinate video coverage of the Candlelight Concert.

Now — with help from Mike Phillis, Kevin Maxwell and 6 mics hung around the auditorium — Candlelight fans around the globe can enjoy the 78th annual show.

Highlights include the traditional “Welcome Yule” and “Sing We Noel” processional, in slightly different staging; a superb orchestral arrangement of “Stille Nacht”; a lovely vocal version of “O Tannenbaum”; a clever original production number, and of course the finale: the “Hallelujah Chorus,” complete with hundreds of musicians and many alumni.

Merry Christmas! Unwrap this gift carefully. It’s precious!

Emma Cataldo: Thriller Tackles Anti-Semitism

Emma Cataldo’s parents and grandparents encouraged her to get involved with photography, and other arts.

She got a camcorder, and began making short films in her backyard. With her camera, she took photos at favorite spots: Longshore, Burying Hill beach, the Saugatuck River.

Emma was just 8 years old.

As a freshman at Staples High School, she was assigned to TV Production class. She was one of only 3 girls — and hated it.

But her parents encouraged her to stick with it. She ended up loving the class so much — and Narrative Film too — that the Media Lab became her second home.

Teachers Mike Zito and Jim Honeycutt Emma encouraged her strongly. She spent several semesters doing independent studies in cinematography and screenwriting.

Zito inspired Emma to enter film competitions, beginning as a sophomore. She placed well at the state level.

Honeycutt gave her the chance to film school and community events, as well as commercials and short films for local businesses. She built a strong portfolio. Here’s a director’s reel from high school:

She also discovered a passion for post-production work. Emma hopes to pursue that as a career.

Emma’s mentors encouraged her to apply to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts — a film school with a 5% acceptance rate.

She got in. Now — entering 2nd semester of her junior year — she is double majoring in cinema and media studies, and film and TV production.

Emma has worked on student films, and interned in post-production at NBC Universal’s Syfy and E! Networks, during school years and summers.

At USC she has established herself primarily as an editor and colorist. Recently, her friend Evan Siegel — director and co-writer of “Ivver” — pitched that film to her.

Emma Cataldo, doing what she loves.

A psychological thriller about the horrors of anti-Semitism, “Ivver” is close to Siegel’s heart: He faced prejudice and hatred growing up Jewish in Texas.

Emma grew up in a Christian family. But, she says, she learned a great deal of Jewish history in middle and high school.

At Staples she took classes like “Mythology and Bible Studies,” which included the Old and New Testaments. She was exposed to Jewish culture through talks by Holocaust survivors, and books like Elie Wiesel’s “Night.”

Many friends were Jewish too.

After the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings this fall, Emma knew this was a project she wanted to take on.

The story follows a high school history teacher who suddenly faces the aggressive prejudice of his students and colleagues, once they find out he is Jewish.

Like Emma, many of the team working on the film are not Jewish. Still, she says, it resonates with all of them.

“When it comes to social issues, we believe the most important thing we can do is start productive conversations,” Emma says.

“Anti-Semitism is still around. Yet for some reason it is often left out of the conversation about social reform.”

With a diverse crew from many backgrounds, they hope to raise awareness of the continuing threat of anti-Semitism around the globe.

She calls the film “heartbreaking. But the message needs to be heard at a time like this.”

Emma and her fellow students have assembled a strong cast and crew. They’ve scouted locations. Now all they need is funding.

This is the time of year when we’re all asked to contribute to many worthy causes. This sure is one of them. Emma hopes you’ll check out the video below — and if you can, click this link to contribute.