Category Archives: Entertainment

When Comics Were King

Over the years, Westport has been known nationally for a few things.

During the Civil War, our onions helped Northern troops stave off illness. In the ’70s and ’80s we were awash in marketing companies.

And for a longer period of time — the 1950s through ’90s — we were part of “the comic strip capital of the world.”

Vanity Fair’s September issue explores that funny period in our history. Writer Cullen Murphy — whose father was one of those illustrious illustrators — looks at all of Fairfield County as the world capital. It was

where most of the country’s comic-strip artists, gag cartoonists, and magazine illustrators chose to make their home. The group must have numbered 100 or more, and it constituted an all-embracing subculture …. In the conventional telling, the milieu of Wilton and Westport, Greenwich and Darien, was the natural habitat of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit — and I was certainly aware of the commuters who took the train into Manhattan every morning from my own hometown of Cos Cob. But, for me, those salarymen with their briefcases seemed like outlandish outliers.

Murphy cites Westport’s “large cluster” of cartoonists Bud Sagendorf (“Popeye”), Leonard Starr (“On Stage,” “Little Orphan Annie”), Dick Wingert (“Hubert”), Stan Drake (“The Heart of Juliet Jones,” “Blondie”), Jack Tippit (“Amy”), John Prentice (“Rip Kirby”) and Mel Casson (“Mixed Singles/Boomer”).

Bernie Fuchs’ famous studio. It was demolished earlier this year.

Murphy’s father compared Bernie Fuchs to Degas. The writer adds: “Fuchs’s career was all the more remarkable because he had lost 3 fingers on his drawing hand in an accident when he was a teenager.”

Murphy does not mention Curt Swan (“Superman”). I’m sure he’s missed others.

From the 2002 book “Curt Swan: a Life in Comics”

Murphy offers a few reasons why this area attracted so many illustrators: lack of a state income tax; affordable homes, and of course the presence of other artists.

It was solitary work — which is why so many Fairfield County illustrators got together in groups, here and on Wednesdays when they brought their art to their editors in the city. They talked about their work. They also ate and drank.

Murphy notes:

One defining reality about the cartoonists was that although their characters —Beetle Bailey, Snoopy, Prince Valiant, Blondie — were known worldwide, they themselves passed through life more or less anonymously. Unlike actors or sports figures or reality-TV stars, they were never stopped on the street. They didn’t have a “gal” to protect them or “people” to speak for them.

Semi-domesticated, they depended heavily on their families, especially wives, who in many ways held the entire enterprise together, from basic finances to rudimentary social cues…. Life was interrupted mainly by mundane chores. More than a few collectors have bought original comic strips and found notations like “prescription ready” or “diapers, bologna, Chesterfields” in the margins.

Bud Sagendorf, and his most well-known character.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. Murphy writes:

The concentration of cartoon talent in Fairfield County was a product of special circumstances, and those circumstances have disappeared. Newspaper comic strips are not the force they were, and few magazines still publish gag cartoons.

The New York City newspaper strike of 1962–63 led to the demise of the Hearst flagship, the New York Journal-American, whose funny pages were the best in the country. Making it there was like opening at the Roxy. Now it was gone.

New York remains the center of the publishing industry, but the railroad is no longer a lifeline: the Internet has meant that artists can send their work from anywhere. Connecticut has a state income tax now, though that’s not what has made Fairfield County unaffordable — Wall Street is responsible for that.

Westport, of course, is now a financial capital — both as headquarters to the world’s largest hedge fund, and home to many financial executives.

I wonder what kind of cartoon Bud Sagendorf, Stan Drake, Mel Casson or any of the others would draw about that.

(Click here to read the entire Vanity Fair story. Hat tips: Doug Bonnell and Paul Delano)

From comics to capitalism: Westport is now home to Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund.

This One Day At Bass Camp…

She’s Sooo-z Mastropietro.

And her story is as intriguing as her name.

A Westporter for 12 years, she’s a visual artist and classical bassist. She’s played with the American Chamber Orchestra and Civic Orchestra of New Haven. She was on the Saratoga Performing Arts Center stage as a teen, toured Europe, and — while pregnant with her 1st of 3 children — made a quick stop at Carnegie Hall.

A few days ago, she was contacted by a bass-playing friend. Extras were needed for “Mozart in the Jungle,” season 4.

Sooo-z Mastropietro

A couple of days later — after filling out pages of tax forms, signing agreements and harnessing her mane into a braid that did not interfere with the rest of the musicians — Sooo-z was ready to rock.

“Malcolm McDowell is a very cool cat,” she reports. “He clearly enjoyed hanging by the basses. And Bernadette Peters is gorgeous. She patted my bass case.”

But that did not distract Sooo-z from another passion: Bass Camp. A day-long intensive session at the Quick Center on August 28, it’s all about bass trios, quartets and (hopefully) a master class with Brian Torff.

“The bass is often misunderstood and under-heard,” she notes. “This gives us an opportunity to celebrate this great beast, without pressure.”

Sooo-z wasn’t sure her idea would fly. But Danielle Merlis — who runs a Cello Camp — was supportive.

She connected Sooo-z with Jeff Zimmerman, another Westport bass player (and a specialist in the relationship between music and physical health).

It turns out that they both grew up in the same New York town. They went to the same high school — and had the same music teacher, 10 years apart.

“Small world, big instrument!” she says.

(For information on Sooo-z’s Bass Camp, call 203-454-4010.)

Sooo-z Mastropietro, on the set of “Mozart in the Jungle.”

“High School That Rocked” Plans An Encore

It’s always fun to discover a “sleeper” film hit.

But it’s never fun to get turned away.

The Westport Cinema Initiative and Westport Historical Society were stunned last month, when the Town Hall auditorium proved too small for the throngs that wanted to see “The High School That Rocked!”

That’s the documentary chronicling the amazing period in the 1960s when bands like the Doors, Cream, Yardbirds and Rascals played at Staples High School.

Ginger Baker, Cream’s drummer, at Staples. (Photo copyright Jeremy Ross)

So the WCI and WHS are doing what any good promoters should: They’ve added another showing.

The film will be screened again on Saturday, August 26 (5 p.m., Westport Historical Society). A talkback follows, with the movie’s producer Fred Cantor, and filmmaker Doug Tirola. Both are Westport residents.

There’s limited space, so tickets must be ordered in advance (click here for the direct link). The cost is $10 — and includes free popcorn.

That’s a great bargain — even if it is $7.50 more than it cost to see those great concerts, back when Staples High School really rocked.

Pic Of The Day #99

Waiting in the Staples High School auditorium lobby for last weekend’s production of “Working.” The painting is “Birth of the Blues” — one of 7 in a series by Staples grad, and noted artist/musician Eric von Schmidt. (Photo copyright Lynn U. Miller)

All-Star Cast Raises Voices For ADL

Fairfield County is a microcosm of our country. People of every race, ethnicity and religion — and with every imaginable political view — live within minutes of each other.

But we all live in strictly defined towns and cities. We hardly ever mix — let alone listen to each other.

For over 100 years, the Anti-Defamation League has used its strong voice to build mutual respect among communities.

On Sunday, September 10 — thanks to the leadership of ADL’s Connecticut director Steve Ginsburg, a Westport resident — the organization will use many voices to bring area residents together in a celebration of similarities and differences.

“Voices: A Concert for Unity” will inspire its Levitt Pavilion audience through music, dance, video and spoken word. The list of performers is very impressive.

Emcee Paul Shaffer — of David Letterman fame – will introduce the red-hot Plain White T’s, and national artists Suzanne Vega, Garland Jeffreys and Napoleon da Legend.

Plain White T’s

They’ll be joined by Westporters who have earned national notice: Alisan Porter (winner of “The Voice”), “Newsies” star Adam Kaplan, Michael Bolton’s drummer Drew McKeon, and Justin Honigstein (lead singer of Honeystone). The Staples High School 2016-17 Orphenians will sing too.

Also onstage: Bridgeport’s ABCD, Neighborhood Studios and Pivot Ministries Choir; Weston’s Chris Coogan and the Good News Choir, and Fairfield’s Double Up Dance Studio and FRANK (School of Rock).

Westport’s own Alisan Porter. with “The Voice” trophy.

Artistic director Sarah Green is one of the Founders of Kool to be Kind, and the director of the wildly successful Slam Jam held earlier this year at the Westport Country Playhouse.That broad array of talent is matched by a variety of partners. ADL is working with more than 40 non-profits across the area.

They’re reaching out too to religious groups, universities, local and state law enforcement agencies, and government officials across the political spectrum — though this is a non-political event.

The outpouring of support from national and local celebrities, businesses, volunteers and the host town of Westport is greater than for any previous local ADL event, organizers say.

Sponsors are still being sought, to enable community partners to attend free of charge — and help fund ADL’s programs to fight bias, bigotry and bullying of all kinds.

ADL has been a powerful voice in an important fight. They’ve assembled other powerful voices for September 10. Now you can add yours, too.

(For tickets to “Voices: A Concert for Unity,” click here. To learn more about sponsorships click here, or contact Terry Sidera by email [tsidera@adl.org] or phone [203-780-0209]).

Ringo’s Hair

For the sold-out crowd in the Town Hall auditorium last weekend, Fred Cantor’s documentary “The High School That Rocked!” combined Woodstock and class reunions with a trip down memory lane.

Men with far less — but grayer — hair than in the mid-’60s, and women wearing not granny but actual glasses smiled, laughed and clapped as the true story of how the Doors, Sly & the Family Stone, Rascals, Cream and Yardbirds played at Staples High School was told by folks who Really Were There.

There were plenty of anecdotes. Two Westport girls baked a cake for the Rascals; another touched Jim Morrison’s face.

Ed Baer

And then there was the tale told by Ed Baer. A former WMCA radio “Good Guy” and longtime Westporter, he spoke on camera about the astonishing effect the Beatles had on everyone at the time. The example he used was a contest his station sponsored. The grand prize: a locket of Ringo Starr’s hair.

The audience smiled knowingly.

But one woman could not believe her ears.

Leslie Schine graduated from Staples in 1971 — Cantor’s year. But in 1964 she was 11 years old.

And she won the same contest Ed Baer described in the film.

A Bridgeport Post news story shows 11-year-old Leslie Schine clutching her Beatles album.

At a reception after the showing, she mentioned the astonishing coincidence. And, she said, she had not even entered the contest. She did not know who sent in her name.

A 1964 story in the Bridgeport Post suggested it was a colleague of her father’s. Leonard Schine was a noted local attorney, and a former Westport Town Court judge.

The lock of hair — clipped from Ringo’s head on the Beatles’ 1st US tour — arrived at Leslie’s Bayberry Lane home, along with a photo of the Beatles cutting his hair; an affidavit signed by Ringo; a letter from WMCA, and a fan club postcard signed by all the Beatles (except John).

More than 50 years later, Leslie Schine mimics her previous pose. Here, she holds a photo she was sent by WMCA, showing “the Good Guys” cutting Ringo’s hair. (Photo/Carlotta Grenier Schaller)   

When Leslie told this story last weekend, she thought she still had it “somewhere.”

Sure enough, the next day — in just 15 minutes — she found it in her attic.

Along with the documentation.

“I seem to remember bringing it to Coleytown Elementary, and handing out single strands to friends,” Leslie says.

It’s amazing. Of all the anecdotes Ed Baer could have told, that’s the one he chose.

And of all 300 people in the auditorium last weekend, one of them was Leslie Schine.

Ed Baer was there too. Unfortunately, neither he nor Leslie knew of the coincidence, so they did not meet.

Still, it’s an astonishing story.

Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Pic Of The Day #90

The Reunion Band rocked the packed Levitt Pavilion last night. Comprised entirely of graduates of Staples High School’s Class of 1971, its members have played and recorded with — among many others — Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Miles, Van Morrison, Smokey Robinson and Orleans. (Photo copyright Ted Horowitz)

Justin Miller: Master Of Harmony

Justin Miller has a storied career as a music director. The 2001 Staples High School graduate — and noted Orphenian — graduated with degrees in music education (vocal) and performance (conducting) from Chapman University. In his 1st job, he led the Westminster Chorus to a Choir of the World championship in 2010.

In 2010 he succeeded his own teacher, Alice Lipson, as choral director at Staples. Simultaneously, he directed the Big Apple Chorus. He left both in 2012.

Justin Miller

Miller’s roots were always in barbershop. His father, John Miller, won 2 international championships, singing with Grandma’s Boys in 1979, and New Tradition in ’85.

Justin attended his 1st Barbershop Harmony Society convention at the age of 2 (with his dad, duh).

At 18, Miller joined the Masters of Harmony. As a singer, he won gold medals at BHS international competitions, in 2002, ’05 and ’08.

Now Miller — whose full-time gig is director of choral music at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, California — is back with the Masters of Harmony.

Not as a singer. In 2012 he was named chorus director.

Two years later he led them to a 2nd-place finish at the international convention in Las Vegas.

This year, Miller’s men — 140 strong — won it all. Click the video below, and you’ll see why.

In another great testimony to the barbershop world, Justin’s father traveled back and forth between Connecticut and California so he could sing with Masters of Harmony, under his son’s tutelage.

In an emotional coda to the competition, Justin was able to hand a gold medal to his father and fellow international barbershop champion, John Miller.

The entire chorus erupted in — not song, but applause.

Justin Miller gives his gold medal to his father, John. And the barbershop crowd goes wild.

Unsung Hero #6

This Saturday at 4 p.m., when the Westport Cinema Initiative screens “The High School That Rocked!” Fred Cantor will sit contentedly in the Town Hall auditorium.

Few in the audience will know that the ever-smiling Westporter came up with the idea for a film about 6 major bands — you may have heard of the Doors? — that played at Staples High School in the mid-1960s.

Cantor then produced the intriguing film. He tracked down archival photos, arranged interviews and found funding.

Fred Cantor, at the opening of the Westport Historical Society’s “The High School That Rocked!” exhibit. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

After the talkback that follows the showing, Cantor will head across the street to the Westport Historical Society for a cocktail hour. Guests will enjoy the “High School That Rocked!” exhibit — inspired, and curated in part, by Cantor.

At 8 p.m. Saturday, Cantor will sit on the Levitt Pavilion grass. He’ll watch with satisfaction as an all-star cast of Staples High School 1971 classmates — Charlie Karp, Brian Keane and Michael Mugrage, all of whom played and recorded with the biggest names in entertainment — join several other very talented ’71 classmates for one of the best shows of summer.

Cantor masterminded that event too.

He won’t get much credit for any of this. But he won’t mind. It’s just his way of contributing to the life, joy and history of the town he’s called home since he was 10 years old.

Cantor moved to Easton Road with his family from Fresh Meadows, Queens. (He loves that place too — and wrote a book about the middle class families that thrived there after World War II.)

While serving as a public interest lawyer in New York City, he and his wife Debbie Silberstein bought a 2nd home on Drumlin Road. They now live there full-time. True to his volunteer — and community-minded — form, Cantor is active in his road association, and a great neighbor to all in need.

Fred Cantor, in the Staples High School 1971 yearbook.

His selfless ways are legion. Several years ago, a Staples freshman soccer player with a single mother had no transportation after practice and games. Every day, Cantor — a former soccer star at Staples and Yale — drove him home.

Twenty years ago Cantor combined his passions for soccer, writing and history with a book, “The Autumn of Our Lives.” He followed the Staples team for an entire season, and told a compelling story of the changes — and similarities — between 2 teams, 25 years apart.

Cantor has done more than perhaps anyone in the world to keep the Remains’ memory alive. The Westport band that opened the Beatles’ 1966 tour — and that was, Jon Landau said, “how you told a stranger about rock ‘n’ roll” — has been memorialized in an off-Broadway play (“All Good Things“) and documentary film (“America’s Lost Band“).

Cantor came up with the idea for both. And made sure that both got made.

Always, he stayed out of the limelight.

These days you can often find Cantor at the Westport Library. He’s researching some element of Westport history.

Often, that research — or simple inspiration — leads to an “06880” story idea.

You may not have known the enormous impact Fred Cantor has had on this blog. Or this town.

Now that he’s this week’s Unsung Hero, you do.

(Know of an unsung hero we should celebrate? Email details to dwoog@optonline.net)

Staples Players’ Summer Musical “Working”: A Perfect Day Off For Audiences

When the school year ends, David Roth and Kerry Long don’t stop working.

After directing Staples Players’ 2 mainstage productions and a host of Black Box Theater shows, they turn their attention to the very popular summer musical.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the directors’ summer show. For the hard-working, very creative Roth and Long — and the equally hard-working and very talented Staples Players cast and crew — the selection is appropriate:

“Working.”

On July 20, 21 and 22, more than 50 students — from recent alumni to rising freshmen — will stage the sprawling, toe-tapping adaptation of Studs Terkel’s 1972 book. Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Godspell,” “Pippin”), James Taylor and Lin-Manuel Miranda contributed the music.

Using real words of actual people, the production takes an intimate look at the struggles and joys of a variety of Americans: factory workers, millworkers, project managers, cleaning ladies, masons, stay-at-home moms. Using a style similar to “A Chorus Line,” “Working” weaves together the stories of nearly 40 laborers over the course of one workday.

Rising freshman Samantha Webster and Staples 2016 grad Samantha Chachra rehearse Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “A Very Good Day.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

It’s a fascinating show, and it resonates for many reasons.

For one, it’s timely. As America debates all aspects of work — lost mining jobs, jobs moved overseas, how to prepare for jobs that don’t yet exist, gender stereotypes and roles, you name it — Miranda’s latest revision is compellingly relevant. As much as we talk about work, we seldom explore the meaning we get from whatever we do.

For another, Roth has wanted to direct the show since he was 16. He was a junior at Staples, and applied to present it as a studio production. Al Pia chose a senior’s project instead.

More than 30 years later, Roth gets his chance to work on “Working.”

For a third, it’s a musical that engages the 55 actors and 20 tech members. Freed from the pressures of schoolwork, they’re spending this summer totally devoted to something they love.

Summer shows draw together a wider range of ages than school-year productions. During the month of rehearsals and set construction they form strong bonds — essential to an ensemble work like “Working.”

Younger ones learn what it means to be a Staples Player. Older ones mentor them.

Christian Melhuish graduated last year, and is studying musical theater at Temple University. June graduate Jacob Leaf is headed to Northwestern. Both have roles onstage, and help Roth and Long as acting coaches.

Rising junior Antonio Antonelli, with alum Christian Melhuish in Staples Players’ production of “Working.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

For hours every day since school ended, dozens of teenagers have been hard at work. Their job: producing a show that seems effortless, while offering insights, inspiration, and tons of entertainment.

They’ve done it all for free. After all, they’re Staples Players.

But if they were getting paid, everyone would deserve a huge raise.

(“Working” will be performed Thursday, July 20; Friday, July 21 and Saturday, July 22 at 7:30 p.m., with a 3 p.m. matinee on Saturday, July 22, in the Staples High School auditorium. Click here for tickets. Tickets may also be available at the door 30 minutes prior to each show.)