Category Archives: Arts

Chris Coogan’s “B Minor Blessing”

Chris Coogan is getting married.

Fairfield County’s favorite jazz and gospel composer/pianist/singer/ teacher/choir director/producer ties the knot in June with Marion Howard. She’s got her own artistic background.

Marion Howard and Chris Coogan.

But that’s not what this story is about.

As Chris was thinking about his impending step-fatherhood, Marion was reading to him from a recently discovered memoir. “U Bernátū” describes the lives of her Jewish ancestors from Osek, a tiny village in Bohemia (today it’s the Czech Republic).

Marion had discovered a link to that heritage through an English-language Radio Prague story. Her uncommon family name Wedeles was noted in the story as “Wels.” She realized the piece was about her own ancestors.

In a beautiful passage mixing heartbreak and joy, the narrator describes how his mother prepared luggage for her 2 children, before they emigrated to America in the late 1850s. She knew she would likely never see them again. Her 14-year-old son was leaving to be spared from enforced conscription, as happened to many Jewish peasants.

The mother stuffs baked goods into the luggage, then fills even tinier spaces with dried fruit. Her children’s journey will be long; she does what she can to help them make it, with food and love.

The Wedeles family: Marion Howard’s ancestors.

At the same time, Chris was writing a new composition. He chose B minor, because of the key’s mystical and meditative qualities. It ends in D major, signalizing the realization of hope for the next generation. Marion’s relatives’ losses — not everyone made it out of Bohemia alive — and triumphs live forever now, in Chris’ “B Minor Blessing.”

One stunning moment — the children are loaded onto an oxcart to carry them to the train bound for Bremen; the mother runs after them shouting prayers and blessings, following behind until it disappears from view — is reflected in the music.

Marion and Chris learned from the “U Bernátū” memoir that the ship was lost at sea for months. The passengers’ food was cut to 1/4 rations. Many became weak, and illness spread. But because of the mother’s loving foresight, the dried food kept her children fed and well.

The “B Minor Blessing” starts with one female solo voice — the mother — singing an Aaronic blessing in Hebrew. The choir then follows. The music swells to a piano solo by Chris; it represents the overseas journey.

The final verse is in English. It’s quiet and reflective — much like a prayer for the now-distant family, sung in the language of their new lives.

The Fairfield County Chorale presents the world premiere of “B Minor Blessing” this Saturday (March 9, 7:30 p.m., Norwalk Concert Hall). It’s part of the evening’s “journey through time and across the globe.” Chris will accompany the chorale on piano.

The other day, he shared his new piece’s back story with the Chorale. They connected on a personal level. Nearly everyone, Marion says, has a similar tale of brave immigrant ancestors who boarded boats, mules or planes — or arrived somewhere on foot.

Everyone does have a family story. As Chris Coogan and Marion Howard prepare to merge theirs, they’ve collaborated on a new story — told in music — for all of us to hear, think about, and appreciate.

(The Norwalk Concert Hall is at 125 East Avenue. Tickets to the March 9 Fairfield County Chorale performance are $30 in advance, $5 for students, and $35 at the venue. Click here to purchase, and for more information.)

Westport’s Cartoon History: What A Laugh

Westport’s heritage as an artists’ colony is no laughing matter.

Except when it is.

In addition to attracting some of the most famous portrait artists and commercial illustrators in the country, Westport was a haven for cartoonists.

“Popeye,” “Little Orphan Annie,” “Superman” — they and many of America’s most famous comic strips and books were drawn right here.

Westporter Curt Swan drew the “Superman” comics for many years. This illustration is part of the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection.

The mid-20th century was America’s  golden age of cartooning. Now it’s memorialized in a show at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich. “Masterpieces from the Museum of Cartoon Art” — the current exhibition — features more than 100 original works, including strips, newspaper panels, comic books and animation.

There’s an early editorial cartoon by Thomas Nast, a New Yorker gag by Peter Arno, and classic “Peanuts” and “Doonesbury” drawings. Special programs include a panel tribute to “The Golden Age of Cartooning in Connecticut” (Thursday, March 7).

Wherever you turn in the Bruce Museum show, it’s hard to escape Westport.

Curator Brian Walker — former director of the Museum of Cartoon Art, and son of Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey”) — grew up in Greenwich. But he knows Westport well.

His father was part of a large group of cartoonist friends. Many lived here. This is where their professional meetings (and parties) took place.

Bud Sagendorf (“Popeye”), Curt Swan (“Superman”), Stan Drake (“The Heart of Juliet Jones,” “Blondie”), Mel Casson (“Boomer”), Leonard Starr (“Little Orphan Annie”), John Prentice (“Rip Kirby”), Jack Tippit (“Amy”), Bill Yates (King Features comic strip editor) are just a few of the important Westport cartoon names.

They came here, Brian Walker says, for several reasons.

Westport was close enough to New York City to go in when they had to. But Connecticut had no state income tax.

Cartoonists work alone, in their studios. But they liked having like-minded professionals nearby.

Bud Sagendorf, and his most well-known character.

Max’s Art Supplies on the Post Road welcomed cartoonists. They’d buy pens, pencils and paper — and hang around to talk.

The coffee shop and Mario’s — both directly across from the railroad station — drew them in too. They’d work right up to deadline, head to Saugatuck, hand their work to a courier to be delivered to a New York editor, then sit around and tell stories.

The Connecticut chapter of the National Cartoonists Society — the largest chapter in the country — met for years at Cobb’s Mill Inn and the Red Barn.

In the heyday of Westport’s cartoon era, they had a bowling league. An annual golf tournament too.

Over the years, the world of cartooning changed. Today, it’s all about “animation.”

That’s no joke. But for several decades — not that long ago — Westport was where much of America’s laughter began.

(Click here for more information on the Bruce Museum exhibit, “Masterpieces from the Museum of Cartoon Art.” Click here for more information on Brian Walker’s March 7 panel discussion. 

Middle School Actors Get Star Treatment

Coleytown Middle School students have lost their auditorium. But Coleytown Company — the school’s drama troupe — has not lost a step. In true theatrical fashion, the show must go on.

This spring’s production is “42nd Street.” Guest stars include Amiee Turner (who was in the original show) and Megan Osterhaus (who played Mary Poppins opposite Gavin Lee’s Bert on Broadway).

Coleytown Company director Ben Frimmer — who saw Lee in “Mary Poppins,” “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “The Grinch” — realized he’d be a great guest artist, to work with his middle school actors.

Osterhaus made the connection. Yesterday, the magic happened.

And — because the two middle schools are now one — Frimmer invited the Bedford acting troupe too. Over 140 students from both schools had a blast.

Gavin Lee talked about his craft …

Many students seemed familiar with “Mary Poppins.” But they were gaga over the SpongeBob credit.

Lee passed out lyrics to that show’s opening song, and described the back story of the musical. Then he taught the words — and the intention behind them — to the song “Bikini Bottom Day.”

After the kids belted them out, Lee taught the choreography. Students spilled off the stage, onto the extension built for “42nd Street,” and into the aisles.

They took turns dancing and singing. They cheered each other on. They loved it.

… and then worked closely with the Coleytown and Bedford Middle School youngsters.

Lee then discussed characters. Volunteers read a few scenes with the actor.

Next, he asked a group of “42nd Street” tappers to show him the opening number. He gave important feedback on performance and precision. They all listened intently.

The workshop ended with a Q-and-A. It might still be going, if Frimmer had not finally called a halt.

The young Coleytown and Bedford actors enjoyed the fun, educational afternoon.

They also enjoyed being one group. Two is indeed “company.”

Happy Birthday, Marian Anderson!

Marian Anderson was born 119 years ago today. The vibrant, ground-breaking contralto is remembered still for historic acts like her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, and for inspiring young black singers like Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman. Next year, she will appear — along with Eleanor Roosevelt — on the back of the redesigned US $5 bill.

Suzanne Sherman Propp remembers Marian Anderson for another reason. In 1973, Suzanne was a 3rd grader at Bedford Elementary School (now Town Hall). A staff member wrote a play about the famous singer — and cast Suzanne in that role. Then she invited Marian Anderson to come.

It’s an amazing story. And here to tell it is Suzanne Sherman Propp:

The playwright, Realand Uddyback, was a teacher at Bedford Elementary. Art teacher Ed Clarke did the sets, and music teacher Judy Miller Wheeler was the music director.

Besides asking me to play a young Marian Anderson, Mrs. Uddyback cast a black student, Robin Spencer, in the role of Marian’s white teacher.

Kids asked Mrs. Uddyback if they were going to paint my face with black make-up, and Robin’s with white make-up. She adamantly replied, “Of course not! I chose the best actresses to play the roles. The color of their skin does not matter.  That’s the whole point!”

I sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” plus several songs written just for the play. One was “I like vanilla, it’s just like me: Plain when you see it, but, oh what it can be.” I think I still have the script.

Mrs. Uddyback boldly invited Marian Anderson, who was living in Danbury at the time, to see the play. To this day I cannot believe she actually showed up.

Here’s a photo of me, Robin and Marian Anderson. Also in the photo, at top left, is Cindy Gibb. She graduated with me from Staples in 1981, and went on to an acting career in “Fame” and “Search for Tomorrow.” She’s now a vocal coach in Westport.

Today, Suzanne Sherman Propp is a music teacher at Greens Farms Elementary School. Every morning, she posts a very popular “Sing Daily! Song of the Day.”

Today’s is special: A clip of Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused permission for her to sing to an integrated audience in their Constitution Hall. Click here to see and hear!

It’s a thoughtful birthday honor for a true American hero. And a very fitting end to Black History Month.

Marian Anderson (2nd from left) applauding Suzanne Sherman Propp’s performance. With her are (from left) her friend Elizabeth Hughes; Ruth Steinkraus Cohen, president of the Westport-Weston Arts Council; Bridgeport schools superintendent Howard Rosenstein, and James Curiale, Bridgeport school aide in charge of Project Concern at Bedford Elementary School.

Ed Vebell, Austin Briggs, And A Wonderful Studio With Northern Light

In 1953, Ed Vebell was starting to make a name as an artist. He’d spent World War II as an illustrator/reporter for Stars and Stripes. He stayed in Europe a while, covering the Nuremberg trials and drawing 18-year-old Grace Kelly.

Now he, his wife Elsa Cerra and their 3-year-old daughter Vicki lived in New York. He hung out at the Society of Illustrators, eating and schmoozing with well-known artists.

One day, he spotted a bulletin board notice of a house for sale. He knew nothing about the town — Westport, Connecticut — but it had an artist’s studio with a large north light window.

That was huge: No shadows or highlights on the canvas or drawing board.

The artist’s studio.

The seller was Austin Briggs. A renowned illustrator — he drew “Flash Gordon,” worked for Reader’s Digest and the Saturday Evening Post, and was later elected to the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame — that was enough to assure Ed that he was making the right move for himself and his family.

He bought the house, for $29,000 — sight unseen.

When Ed arrived for the first time, he looked down the end of Roosevelt Road. Something blue caught his eye. What was it?

“That’s Long Island Sound, sir,” the broker replied.

Okay, he thought. That’s nice.

Ed Vebell wrote his memoirs — and illustrated the cover.

The house served Ed and his growing family well. Working in that wonderful studio — enjoying the large north light window — he contributed to Time, Reader’s Digest and other publications. Specializing in military art, he drew uniforms from around the world for encyclopedias and paperback publishers. He worked for MBI too, illustrating the history of America from Leif Erikson through the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, and every war up to Vietnam.

Ed designed US stamps too — some with military themes. The studio was strewn with uniforms, helmets and boots. There was not even enough space for Wild Bill Hickok’s hat. So Ed stashed it in the bathtub.

Last February — less than 2 weeks after appearing at a Westport Historical Society show honoring his long career — Ed Vebell died peacefully, at home. He was 96.

It’s taken his daughters a year to clear out the house, and auction his collections.

But now the home — 9 Quentin Road — is on the market.

Ed Vebell’s home, 9 Quentin Road,

Audra Vebell says she and her sisters hope to find someone with “an appreciation of the history and special nature of this house.”

It really is special. For nearly a century, not one but two of America’s most famed illustrators lived and worked there.

In fact, just before he sold it to Ed, Austin signed his name in the garage concrete. It’s still there.

So history — and the spirit of 2 of Westport’s most prominent citizens — still remain.

When it comes to Ed Vebell and Austin Briggs, there must be something in the water.

(Click here for the real estate listing.)

James Chantler Brown: The Art Of Everyone

More than a century after the first painters moved here, Westport remains an artists’ community.

Famous Artists’ School is long gone. But we have a thriving Arts Center, a rapidly growing Artists Collective, and the spectacular Westport Public Art Collection.

Frederic Chiu and Jeanine Esposito sponsor frequent Beechwood Arts Salons. Galleries dot the Post Road and Riverside Avenue. We have a townwide arts curator!

Many Westporters work in related fields. They’re artists’ agents, attorneys and PR professionals.

And don’t forget James Chantler Brown. He co-founded Art of Everyone.

If you’ve ever attended a corporate team-building event, the Lollapalooza music festival or NBC’s “The Voice” press junket, you may have seen Brown’s project in action. You may even have participated yourself.

If you haven’t, here’s what you’ve missed.

Art of Everyone is an audience participation experience. You don’t have to be Picasso. In fact, your most recent creation might date back to 3rd grade art class.

Art of Everyone is actually Art “for” Everyone.

You just pick up a paint stick. You face a large canvas. Then you follow the lead of an “artist conductor.”

He or she stands behind the canvas. Using a laser pointer (and strong communication skills), the conductor shows where to paint. You follow the lead. Suddenly — and with great fun — you, your co-workers, friends or perfect strangers have created a work of art.

An artist conductor with a laser pointer (left) leads a budding artist.

Art of Everyone is customizable. It scales from small, intimate private gatherings to large meetings, with multiple canvases. “Artist conductors” specialize in various forms of art, including portrait, abstract, landscape and still life.

It’s fun. It’s entertaining. And it’s all thanks to Brad Noble, the mastermind behind the ideas of guiding with a laser over the shoulder, and the technique of pushing paint through the canvas from one side to the other. He and Brown combined the ideas, and created laser guided painting.

Ta-da! A finished work.

Brown’s been a Westporter since 2005. The Portland, Maine native’s mother was an artist. At 13 he was captivated by magic. He taught himself himself tricks. He became a comic magician, eventually headlining comedy clubs, lecturing at industry events and visiting 38 countries as a cruise ship attraction.

He consulted for “Arrested Development,” and for Steve Martin’s The Great Flydini.

Brown applied his talents to live events. He also developed multi-million dollar advertising platforms for AOL, Huffington Post, YouTube, Google, Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures.

James Chantler Brown

His wife works for NBC. When she was transferred from Los Angeles to New York, the family — which by then included 2 girls — looked all over the tri-state region. They settled on Westport, in large part for the schools.

Brown never regretted the choice. “It’s amazing. We love it,” he says of the town. “It’s great for families. I love being on the water. I like the seasons.”

One daughter is now a tennis player at Union College. The other is a junior at Staples High.

Along the way, he and branding colleague Shawn Olsen batted around a couple of ideas for a business. One was teaching people how to draw by using a laser pointed over their shoulder.  The other involved artists standing behind a canvas, and bleeding their paintings through from behind.

Eventually they combined the two concepts into what became Art of Everyone. They formed an LLC, and marketed it to event planners. In 2017 it took off.

Inexperienced artists have discovered Art of Everyone’s magic at conventions, the World Business Forum at Lincoln Center, private parties — any place a client wants to give attendees, customers or friends a unique experience. (For “The Voice,” judges judged their own portraits.)

“Some people are hesitant,” Brown notes. “But most of them like to try. And when they step back from the canvas, they love seeing what they’ve created. They also say it’s an escape from whatever else is going on around them. It’s almost therapeutic.”

Think back to that 3rd grade art project. It was fun, right?

“Every child is an artist,” Brown says. “We help grown-ups remain artists.”

(Hat tip: Dwain Schenck)

Pic Of The Day #672

The Westport Arts Center is hosting an exhibition of photos by famed Staples graduate Spencer Platt. It runs through March 2. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Beachside Eraser Installed In West Palm Beach

Last month, “06880” reported that “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X” — Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen’s 19-foot, 10,300-pound sculpture of, yes, a typewriter eraser — was gone, after 20 years, from its Beachside Avenue lawn.

Its new home would be the Norton Museum of Art, in West Palm Beach, Florida.

It’s now fully installed. If you’re in the area — and, given today’s weather, who wouldn’t want to be? — you can see it, tilting proudly on the front plaza. Sam and Ronnie Heyman — who commissioned the piece in the late 1990s — donated it to the Norton.

(Photo copyright Nigel Young for Foster + Partners)

The work welcomes visitors to a completely renovated museum. And the new Norton — sparkling in the sun — came about thanks in large part because of 2 Westporters.

Ronnie Heyman is a Norton trustee.

And Gil Maurer  — who brought in architect Foster + Partners, and saw the renovation through from start to finish — has lived here since the 1950s.

He and his wife Ann — equally passionate about the arts — own a winter home in Palm Beach.

The new Norton is a game-changer for the arts scene in Florida. We should all visit it, and enjoy the Heymans’ and Maurers’ efforts.

In fact, today would be a great day to go!

(For an in-depth story on the new Norton Museum, click here. Hat tip: Meredith Hutchison.)

Happy Galentine’s Day!

Everyone knows Thursday is Valentine’s Day.*

Some people know that the day before — Wednesday, February 13 — is Galentine’s Day. (The spinoff from a 2010 “Parks and Recreation” TV show has since become a day for “ladies celebrating ladies.”**)

To help women celebrate their always-there-for-you friends — and honor all the special friends she’s made during more than 15 years in Westport — Bonnie Marcus is throwing an open house at her private design studio.

From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, she’s giving away beautiful, personally created Valentine’s (and Galentine’s) Day cards — plus custom-designed chocolates and sparkling lemonade.

A few of Bonnie Marcus’ many cards.

It’s a perfect way to pick up something for a friend who needs a pick-me-up (particularly if she does not have a Valentine).

The Bonnie Marcus Collection is at 5 Riverside Avenue. Look for the pink and red balloons next to Arezzo restaurant.

And if you don’t, this is your warning. Stop reading immediately, and buy flowers AND chocolate.

** Don’t believe me? It’s right there on Wikipedia.

The Sun Comes Out On “Annie” Actors

Since opening night in 1931, Broadway actors have starred on the Westport Country Playhouse stage. Their talent (and famous names) have contributed to the magic of the long-running theater.

The current production is no exception. Many members of the large cast of “Annie” boast Broadway credits. (Sunny — who played Sandy in the 2012 production — revives her canine career here too.)

Joining them are 45 young members of Broadway Method Academy. For them, “Annie” is the latest — or in some cases, first– production that they hope leads them to their own Broadway shows.

Among that group: Westporters Brenna Connolly and Jackie Peterson.

Jackie Peterson and Brenna Connolly in “Annie.”

BMA offers training in acting, singing and dancing. Its Fairfield facility — including a 130-seat black box theater — is designed to feel like a New York boutique studio.

BMA serves as the resident conservatory of the Playhouse. Brenna (a freshman at Staples High School) and Bedford Middle School 8th grader Jackie are excited to be on the storied stage.

They’ve learned a lot about professional theater. Rehearsals began last month. During tech week, they were at the theater from 4:30 to 10 p.m. every day.

But the cast and crew have been welcoming. Brenna and Jackie are all in.

“Annie” is a great opportunity for friends and family members to see them perform. It’s a popular show, in a historic theater.

And it’s only an hour from what may be the Broadway Method Academy actors’ ultimate destination: Broadway.

(“Annie” is performed this weekend and next, at 1:30 and 7 p.m. Click here for exact performances and tickets.)