Category Archives: Entertainment

Duck! It’s 25 Years Of Karaoke

In 1992, Leigh Henry tried to sell Pete Aitkin a karaoke jukebox.

The Black Duck owner said no.

But he asked Leigh — a 1968 Staples High School grad, with a long and varied music career — if he’d host a karaoke show instead.

Leigh said yes.

Which is why — a quarter century later — the Duck is celebrating 25 years as Westport’s go-to karaoke restaurant/bar.

Leigh is a storied figure in Fairfield County. While still a Staples student, his band — Mandrake Root — opened for the Doors, and Sly and the Family Stone.

Leigh spent 15 years organizing shows, then booked music for clubs and private events. For 3 decades his band Celebration has played weddings and parties. He’s the vocalist in another group — the Leigh Henry Band — and also DJs.

In the early ’90s Leigh was selling karaoke machines, like those in Asia where people pay to sing. But Aitkin thought that if the Duck sponsored karaoke, there should be a host.

Before the opening show, Leigh wondered if anyone would come. He still recalls the first person — a woman named Maureen. She sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

At that moment, Black Duck karaoke took off.

Black Duck karaoke, in the early days.

“Tuesday nights were wall to wall,” Leigh says. He added Mondays too, for 23 years.

Leigh’s karaoke fans like older music — classics. Not a lot of hip hop. The 3 all-time favorites, Leigh thinks, are “Livin’ on a Prayer,” “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Sweet Caroline.”

The Duck itself plays a huge role in Tuesday karaoke’s long success.

“The vibe is completely comfortable,” Leigh notes. “It’s a great equalizer. There are no pretensions. Bikers, tech guys, yuppies — everyone leaves their attitude at the door, and mucks in together.”

Just another Tuesday at the Duck.

The layout helps too. “There’s a bar where people sit safely. They can engage or not,” Leigh observes. “You can sit at tables. The place is small enough to be intimate, but large enough so there’s a lot of energy.”

Mike “Wolfie” Connors — the popular bartender from Day 1 to 2015 — also played a big role, Leigh says.

Five years ago, the Duck celebrated 20 years of karaoke with a party — and a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society.

Westport’s favorite karaoke spot.

For this 25th, Leigh upped the ante.

Tuesday, June 13 and 20 are “Applause for the Cause” nights. They’re like Relays for Life — except people sing to raise money, rather than walk.

The 1st night is “Only a Pay-Per-Tune”: donate $25 to sing a song.

The 2nd evening is a “Sing-a-thon.” Team leaders who raise $500 earn a 3-tune mini-set. They can perform themselves, or offer their slot to friends.

Leigh’s goal is $10,000 for the American Cancer Society.

Good times never seemed so good.

(To become a team leader, sign up for a song or make a contribution, click here. For more information, email lh@leighhenrymusic.com) 

Brett is one of many Black Duck karaoke stars.

“Night On The River” Is For The Birds

After 21 years, nearly everyone in town has a birdhouse.

For more than 2 decades, residents enjoyed a Birdhouse Auction. The idea was creative, fun — and totally Westport.

Local artists created amazing, unique and very cool birdhouses. They were showcased in Main Street store windows, kicked off by a springtime “stroll.” Then — as the highlight of a fun party — people bid to buy them.

All funds went to Project Return, the North Compo Road group home for girls and young women undergoing difficult times.

This special lenticular birdhouse was created by Miggs Burroughs.

But according to Jeff Wieser — CEO of Homes With Hope, the Westport housing organization that oversees Project Return — the effective shelf life of a fundraiser for most non-profits is 7 to 10 years.

The Birdhouse Auction took a tremendous amount of time and effort, by a dedicated core of volunteers. They asked a lot of very generous and talented and local artists.

And — as noted above — you can fit only so many birdhouses in your back yard.

Last year marked the final Birdhouse Auction. But Project Return needs as much support as ever.

Fortunately, a group of volunteers has created a new fundraising event. It’s a summer party with cocktails, dinner and dancing at the Saugatuck Rowing Club. Called “Night on the River,” it’s set for Saturday, June 3.

Vineyard Vines’ Main Street window — with white outfits specially for the “Summer Nights” gala.

Wieser is particularly pleased that a “great group of younger people” has taken over the planning.

“The next generation is getting involved in Westport volunteerism,” he says. “They’ve got a new canvas of creativity.”

But they’re keeping some of that old Main Street stroll flavor.

Because the dress code for “Night on the River” is “strictly summer white,” organizers are asking downtown merchants — most of whom own clothing stores — to feature white clothes in their windows.

In addition, Amis restaurant created a special “Summer Nights” cocktail. It drew raves at its recent debut.

“Hopefully this is the start of a whole new tradition,” Wieser says.

Hopefully too the birds won’t notice there are no new feeders this year.

(Click here for more information on — and tickets to — “Night on the River.”)

Stop The Presses! Staples Players’ Fall Production Is “Newsies”!

Just when you think Staples Players directors David Roth and Kerry Long have no more theatrical tricks up their sleeves — they stage a new one.

Every spring, they gather their cast and crew together to announce the following fall’s mainstage. It’s highly anticipated — but brief and straightforward.

A couple of weeks ago, Roth got an email from Disney Theatricals. The company handles all Disney productions — “Lion King,” “Mary Poppins” and “Newsies,” for example.

A few years ago, Roth and Long enjoyed the latter show on Broadway. As a recent production though, they never imagined it would be available.

Caley Beretta, as a Staples senior. (Photo/Kerry Long)

But Disney’s email — prompted by 2010 Staples grad Caley Beretta, who now works there as a creative development coordinator — posed an intriguing question: Would Players want to pilot a production of “Newsies”?

If so, the highly respected high school troupe would give Disney feedback on what worked well (and did not), and provide video and photos. Disney executives would see the show, and use Staples’ experience to revise their production. It will then be released to other amateur groups to stage, beginning in the fall of 2018.

The process for selecting a show usually takes much longer. But Roth and Long love “Newsies.”

‘”It’s a true story about the 1896 newsboys strike,” Roth notes. “It’s incredible how kids working together forced Joseph Pulitzer to not take advantage of them. It really is a show about kids. And it’s an ensemble show, which is great too.”

This being Staples Players, there’s a strong connection to the Broadway version. Adam Kaplan — Staples ’08 — played Morris Delancey and a newsboy (and understudied for lead Jack Kelly).

Adam Kaplan (left) and “Newsies” fans (called “fansies”).

Long had a great idea: Kaplan could announce the play to Players.

Last Friday morning, she contacted him. He quickly filmed a video, and sent it over.

That afternoon, Players gathered in the auditorium. Roth had said all day, “I am not announcing the show.”

Technically, he didn’t.

The video began. Kaplan insisted there was no specific reason he was chosen for the task. Meanwhile, he coyly showed his “Newsies” t-shirt, held up an album cover and walked over to a poster.

It was a clever performance — and the audience of actors quickly understood. They laughed and applauded. (Watch Players’ reactions in the upper left of the announcement video below.)

Soon — after this month’s “Peter and the Starcatcher” Black Box, and July’s production of “Working” — they’ll turn their attention to “Newsies.”

Roth and Long are already thinking ahead. They know they’ll integrate more girls into the show. “There were actually female newsboys back then,” Roth says.

And Kaplan will help in some way — with talks, workshops, whatever.

Those details will still be worked out. Like all shows, it’s a work in progress.

Stay tuned for more news.

(“Peter and the Starcatcher” will be performed May 25, 26, 27 and 28. Online tickets are sold out, but a limited number of standby seats may be available at the door, 20 minutes before curtain. Click here for show times.)

Pops! Goes The Concert

This morning’s post looked back on Friday’s Staples High School choral concert.

But there’s no rest for the music department. They’re already looking ahead.

Free tickets became available a few minutes ago for the 2nd annual Pops Concert at the Levitt Pavilion (Friday, June 9, 7 p.m.). Last year they were snapped up the day of the announcement. They’ll go even quicker this time. (Click here to get yours!)

The sun glinted off the Levitt Pavilion pavilion last year, as the jazz band played.

The event — modeled on the Boston Pops’ Esplanade series — was an instant smash in its debut. This year promises to be even more impressive.

In addition to performances of classical and contemporary music by Staples’ symphonic and chamber orchestras, jazz band and Orphenians, there’s pre-concert music from the Long Lots Elementary School steel drum band, Bedford Middle School jazz ensemble and various Staples chamber groups at 6 p.m.

Food trucks start serving at 5:30.

Once again, the great Jim Naughton will emcee.

Emcee — and Tony Award winner — Jim Naughton took a turn on the triangle.

The Pops Concert is the music department’s 2nd gift to the town. (The Candlelight Concert is the 1st.)

Of course, there are plenty of expenses associated with the townwide music programs. Every orchestra and band instrument must be moved from schools to the Levitt; union set-up costs money too. Donations are gratefully accepted!

The show is a wonderful kickoff for the Levitt season. The al fresco venue is perfect — and the music is even better.

Enjoy the show!

(The Pops Concert is just one of many end-of-school-year music activities. This Friday [May 19] is the Staples Cabaret. The Staples chamber orchestra performs with their Bedford and Coleytown Middle School counterparts on Wednesday, May 24 [Staples, 7 p.m.] The Staples and Bedford Middle School jazz concert is Monday, June 5 [Staples, 7 p.m.] And of course the middle and high school bands march in the Memorial Day parade [Monday, May 29].)

Friday Flashback #39

A year after it was published in 1955, “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” became a major motion picture.

Gregory Peck starred as Tom Rath. He and his wife Betsy (Jennifer Jones) live in a rundown house in Westport. They have 3 kids; he commutes to an unfulfilling job in New York. The title quickly became a ’50s metaphor — one that endures today.

Some of the movie was filmed in Westport. The most memorable scenes — still recalled here more than 60 years later — took place on Main Street, and at the train station.

These 2 shots show Peck as a typical commuter. Besides the lack of a platform — and the demise of the New Haven Railroad — what else has changed? Click “Comments” below.

[UPDATE WITH CORRECT DATE] Come To The (Staples) Cabaret

It’s not easy for the Staples High School music department to come up with new ideas.

But they keep doing it.

Last year they introduced a pops concert. This year they’ve added a cabaret — with alumni.

On Friday, May 19 (7:30 p.m.), 5 grads — all music or music theater majors — join 17 current Staples students on the Staples stage.

Alums include Tyler Jent (who graduated a few days ago from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music), Cara McNiff (Elon University), Jack Bowman (Penn State), Emma Ruchefsky (Berklee College of Music) and Julia Mandelbaum (Rider University).

Emma Ruchefsky (shown here with Jack Baylis) is a favorite with Staples music and theater audiences. (Photo/Kerry Long)

The cabaret is a fundraiser for the choral program. But it’s also a chance for the entire community to see the current vocal talent at Staples — and welcome home some very talented grads. To purchase tickets, click here.

Meanwhile, choral director Luke Rosenberg has put a new twist on the traditional spring concert (this Friday, May 12, 7:30 p.m., Staples auditorium). The show — which includes the Orphenians, a cappella choir, chorus and chorale — was completely student-driven.

Concept, theme, musical selections — all were chosen by students.

The title is “Arise: Songs to Sing Through the Day and Night.” The repertoire references different times of day, and all that those windows offer us.

Seems there’s always something new under the Staples music department sun.

Choral director Luke Rosenberg in action. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Raise Funds — And Upper-Body Strength — For Kids

Westporters know that every day is different at the Levitt Pavilion.

One night there’s a rock group. The next night, a military band. Then comes a comedian, followed by Klezmer musicians. It’s Ed Sullivan on steroids.

But on Sunday morning, June 4 (10:30 to 11:30), the Levitt stage will be taken over by regular people of all ages.

Doing push-ups.

It’s the 8th annual Push Against Cancer for Kids. Individually and in teams, everyone is invited to bang out as many push-ups as possible.

Last year’s Push Against Cancer drew a wide variety of ages and sizes …

The only catch: You have to be sponsored. Friends, family members, colleagues — all pledge money, based on how many push-ups you can do.

All proceeds go to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, the program for children facing severe medical challenges.

An anonymous donor will match all funds raised by everyone under 23 years old (up to $25,000).

… and both genders.

Paul Newman founded the Hole in the Wall Gang camp nearly 30 years ago. This year, Westport-based Newman’s Own Foundation is helping out.

The Westport and Danbury Police Departments are all in too.

Opening ceremonies begin at 10 a.m. A Hole in the Wall Gang camper, now in remission from cancer, will deliver an inspiring speech.

DJ Sean McKee — aka Big Daddy — will motivate the push-up participants. He has a great reason to help: He’s a 2-time cancer survivor.

Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas (5th from left) and his entire force are strong supporters of the Push Against Cancer.

Last year’s event drew over 400 people. They raised $79,000 for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.

Organizer Andy Berman’s goal this year is $100,000. The cost of a week at the camp is $2,500 — though all services are free to campers and their families. So Berman hopes to raise enough money for 40 kids.

How many push-ups will you contribute to the cause?

To register, or for more information, click here. Questions? Email andy@mentalgritfitness.com 

It’s A Dog’s World

Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Winslow Park has always been Westport’s 32-acre, right-near-downtown park. It’s big, beautiful, hilly, wooded and — let’s face it — dull.

Sure, dogs romp. Their owners walk, throw balls and socialize. It’s a wonderful place. But not much really happens.

Last year, the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce sponsored the 1st-ever Dog Festival there.

It was the greatest thing since flea collars.

The 2nd annual Westport Dog Festival is set for Sunday, May 7 (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.). I can already hear Fido and Spot pawing at your door.

Demonstrations include police dogs, emergency rescue dogs, guide dogs, hunting dogs, and and agility and training exhibitions.

Earth Animal offers prizes for best tail wagger, best dressed, best kisser, best trick, best lap dog over 50 pounds, and dog that looks most like its owner. Judges include some very important humans: Selectmen Jim Marpe, Avi Kaner and Helen Garten, and state legislators Toni Boucher, Gail Lavielle and Jonathan Steinberg.

There’s an obstacle course too. The winner gets a year’s supply of dog food.

Surrounding the main activities will be dozens of pet-related vendors, rescue/ adoption opportunities, vet seminars, caricaturists and giveaways, plus food trucks (for humans).

Choice Pet is the lead sponsor. TAILS — the local spay/neutering group — is again partnering with the Chamber.

There’s plenty of parking at the Westport Country Playhouse. Proceeds from the entrance fee ($10 per person, $25 for a family of 4) benefit non-profit organizations. Last year, the Chamber of Commerce donated $5,000 to deserving groups.

Dog owners can register for the competitions online, or at the festival. Click here for more information.

Arf!

Roger Wolfe’s small dog enjoyed last year’s large Dog Festival.

Hail To The Victors (And Justin Paul)

Saturday’s University of Michigan graduation ceremonies — coinciding with the 200th anniversary of the institution — caused a bit of controversy. Some students were disappointed there was no keynote speaker.

But everyone loved the entertainment.

Justin Paul — the Staples Class of 2003 alum — joined with songwriting partner (and fellow Michigan Bicentennial Alumni Award winner) Benj Pasek in a special musical performance.

The Oscar and Golden Globe Award winners — accompanied by UM School of Music Theater & Dance seniors — entertained the 10,758 graduates and many more family and friends with “Amaizing Blue Medley.” It included songs from the duo’s “La La Land” movie and “Dear Evan Hansen” Broadway smash, along with original references to UM.

(Earlier today, Pasek and Paul earned a Best Original Score Tony nomination, for “Hansen.”)

Click below for a video of the cold and windy but energetic event (which unfortunately omits the “Amaizing” pun in the graphics). Justin and Benj begin at the 2:30 mark.

Congrats to the UM graduates from Westport: Siri Andrews, Perri Cohen, Jonny Denowitz, Jen Dimitrief, Anna Fiolek, Louisa Freeman, Jason Hoving, Julia Kaner, DJ Petta, Rusty Schindler, Lily Seo and Bailey Valente.

(Hat tip: Westport 2nd selectman Avi Kaner — proud parent of 2017 University of Michigan grad Julia Kaner)

The view from the stage of the 109,000-seat stadium.

Ethan Walmark Nails The National Anthem — And Life

Singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” is tough under any circumstances.

It’s even harder in front of a crowd of 25,000. In a stadium, with background noise, delay from the sound system, and god knows what else as you stand all alone on the field.

It’s particularly difficult when you’re only 11 years old.

But Westport’s own Ethan Walmark aced it on Saturday. He brought a sellout Major League Soccer crowd to its feet at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey, powering through our national anthem like a pro.

Which he is.

Ethan’s band Clueless — formed by fellow School of Rock musicians — has opened 3 times for the all-female cover band Lez Zeppelin.

He’s been a Broadway “School of Rock” finalist. A lead performer in numerous theatrical productions.

In 2012 — when he was only 6 — a video of him playing and singing “Piano Man” went viral. It was viewed nearly 2 million times. Billy Joel himself said, “I like his intro better than mine. Maybe he could teach me a few things.”

Ethan is a hometown hero.

But he’s an international hero too. Every day, he demonstrates how much someone on the autism spectrum can accomplish.

Ethan began playing piano by ear when he was just 15 months old.

However, a preschool educator advised his parents, Michael and Allison, to take away his music. “You want him in your world, not his,” they were told.

Instead, they fostered his talents. They exposed him to as many musical experiences as they could. More than any other therapy, music positively transformed every aspect of Ethan’s existence.

In his young life, Ethan has been a 2-time (and youngest) recipient of the McCarron Foundation’s “Genius of Autism” Award.

He was named Autism Speaks’ 2012-13 “Volunteer of the Year.” On World Autism Awareness Day, he helped Yoko Ono light the Empire State Building.

Ethan Walmark and Yoko Ono. Channeling John Lennon, he told, her, “Imagine a world without autism.”

Ethan thrives in his Westport public school classroom. In the summer, he attends French Woods Festival for the Arts sleepaway camp.

Those are remarkable achievements. But I still don’t think anything can compare to nailing the world’s most difficult national anthem, in a stadium full of people who usually hear it mangled and maimed by professional musicians 5 times his age.

(Click here for a collection of YouTube videos starring Ethan Walmark. Click here for “06880”‘s story on Ethan’s “Piano Man” video. Hat tip: Westport 2nd selectman and Red Bulls season ticket holder Avi Kaner.)