Category Archives: Entertainment

Roger Kaufman’s Stax Of Smithsonian Wax

Race relations — the gulf between black and white — have been a defining feature of American history ever since our founding. Today, much of our politics is viewed through a racial lens.

The arts have sometimes imitated our troubled legacy. Sometimes they’ve countered it.

More than 50 years ago, for example, Steve Cropper was part of a vibrant Memphis music scene. As a white guitarist with Booker T. & the MGs — Stax Records’ house band — he backed black artists like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and Carla Thomas. Cropper also produced many of their records.

Roger Kaufman is a longtime Westport musician. He’s old school — Old School Music is also the name of his music events production company —  and he’s long been fascinated by that era when black and white artists played together, at a time and in a city convulsed by civil rights conflicts.

Steve Cropper (left) and Roger Kaufman.

Steve Cropper (left) and Roger Kaufman.

Kaufman knows Cropper — a Blues Brothers founder, ranked 39th on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists ever. He also knows John Hasse, curator of American music at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Kaufman convinced Cropper that Americans need to know the story of Stax, and that important era in our musical history. He urged his friend to donate the Fender Telecaster guitar he played on “Dock of the Bay.”

The guitar Steve Cropper played on "Dock of the Bay" is headed to the Smithsonian -- thanks to Roger Kaufman.

The guitar Steve Cropper played on “Dock of the Bay” is now in the Smithsonian — thanks to Roger Kaufman.

Today (Thursday, December 1) there’s a special ceremony at the Smithsonian. Using their original instruments, Cropper’s band will play “Green Onions,” “Midnight Hour,” “Soul Man” — and “Dock of the Bay,” which he co-wrote with Redding.

Tomorrow Cropper’s guitar goes on exhibit, in the museum’s American Jazz and Blues section.  On February 1 it moves to the highly trafficked American Stories area, adjacent to Judy Garland’s ruby red slippers from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Kaufman will be there today. So will Booker T. Jones, Sam Moore, Eddie Floyd, and members of the Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas and Isaac Hayes families.

Roger Kaufman won’t perform. But he’s played a crucial role in bringing this great story of black and white music to the broad museum-going public.

“After 50 years of striving for peace, equality, human and civil rights, let’s keep the faith and enjoy the music,” he says.

Amen.

 

First Press For First Night

Lots of local organizations ask for coverage on “06880.” They want me to promote their events, fundraisers and what-not.

First Night is different. I’ve never received a personal email or call from anyone associated with Westport’s annual ring-in-the-new-year festival. Some years they don’t even send a press release.

So I’m doing their job for them. Here’s what’s going down December 31.

This is First Night Westport’s 22nd year. It’s one of only 2 First Night celebrations left in Connecticut (the other is in Hartford).

Municipal and corporate donations have slumped. In fact, they’re waaaay down.

But a small corps of volunteers slogs on. They sign musical acts, magicians and ice carvers; arrange carriage rides, bonfires and fireworks; find venues, design buttons and sell tickets — all so families can enjoy a fun, alcohol-free New Year’s Eve.

Then they spend days staring at weather reports, praying a blizzard or deep freeze won’t scuttle their work.

It works. Last year’s turnout set a record.

John Videler's drone captures the First Night fireworks over Westport.

John Videler’s drone captures the First Night fireworks over Westport.

This year, over 25 performances take place at 10 sites. Chris Coogan returns, as do the Washboard Slims, and Dennis the Train Man. There’s comedy, drama, dancing, and music from rock to Broadway.

Buttons go on sale Friday (December 2) at the Library, Town Hall, Westport Historical Society, Saugatuck Sweets, Trader Joe’s and Weston Hardware, or online here. They’re $10 each ($15 after December 15),  and allow entry for everything. Children under 2 are free.

Fun fact: Button prices have remained the same since the 1st First Night, back in the (ahem) Clinton administration. Take that, Cablevision!

For some reason — perhaps their own low-key approach to publicity-seeking — First Night flies under the radar.

Like the fireworks they shoot off in the frigid sky, First Night should soar.

(First Night depends on volunteers — to make the event happen, and to fund it all. To help, click here or email chair Barbara Pearson-Rac: bpr1946@yahoo.com. She’d especially like to hear from potential sponsors!)

first-night-button

 

Final Bell Tolls For 17 Soundview Drive

“06880” has chronicled the history of 17 Soundview Drive.

One of the most recognizable homes on the beach exit road, it played an important role in Westport’s musical history.

Today, the nearly 100-year-old house played its final chord. Paul Ehrismann was there. He took this photo, and posted it on Facebook:

17-soundview-drive-paul-ehrisman

(Photo/Copyright Paul Ehrismann)

I knew the old owners. They are good friends.

I know the new ones too. They are also friends. They respected the property — and its history. But they could not find a way to save it.

They’ll do right by the home that replaces it. It will fit in well with its neighbors, and the neighborhood.

In the 1920s the voices of Enrico Caruso, Maria Callas, Robert Merrill and others soared from the living room radio and onto the beach, thrilling neighbors and passersby.

Decades later, Meat Loaf played his next single on the roof deck. No one on the beach could see him there — but they heard him. At the end, everyone applauded.

The house is gone. But those musical memories — and countless others — will remain, long after the final notes have been played.

Remembering Al Brodax

Al Brodax died last week, at 90. The longtime Westporter led quite a life.

He enlisted in the Army in 1943, at at age 17. Wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, he was awarded the Purple Heart. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin, then joined the William Morris Agency where he worked on “Your Show of Shows.

Al Brodax (Photo/Carol King)

Al Brodax (Photo/Carol King)

Brodax wrote and produced more than 500 episodes of “Popeye,” “Krazy Kat,” “Barney Google” and “The Beatles” cartoon series.

His greatest fame came as producer and co-writer of “Yellow Submarine.” It won more than 30 awards, including the New York Film Critics Circle in 1969. Brodax later became the animation supervisor for ABC, then a consultant for Marvel Comics.

In 2012 — before his appearance at a Westport Youth Film Festival event — I wrote this piece for “06880”:

More than 45 years after it supposedly happened, whether the Beatles actually visited Murray the K* at his Bluewater Hill home is up for debate.

But no one can deny that without Westporter Al Brodax, “Yellow Submarine” would never have left the dock.

In the late 1960s, Brodax was head of King Features’ motion picture/TV division. He pitched the idea of a full-length film based on the song of the same name to the Beatles. (I’m sure he knew someone who knew someone who…)

Yellow Submarine movieThe Beatles agreed to provide music for the animated film. (It was also a way to fulfill their contractual obligation to United Artists.)

With Brodax serving as co-writer and producer, “Yellow Submarine” was released to critical acclaim in 1968. The next year, it won the New York Film Critics Circle Award.

(Full disclosure: I always thought “Yellow Submarine” was the worst song in the entire Beatles discography. I had no desire to see the film, then or now.)

Brodax went on to produce, write and direct several Emmy-winning TV shows, including “Make a Wish” and “Animals, Animals, Animals.”

In 2004 he wrote “Up Periscope Yellow: The Making of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.” 

Given my antipathy toward the song, I have not read it. Nor do I plan to.

However, I am sure Al Brodax’s death is being mourned by Beatles fans everywhere.

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*Murray the K was a famous DJ.**

**DJ as in “radio disc jockey,” not “someone who plays music at proms, weddings and bar mitzvahs.”

Downtown Merchants Kick It Up A Notch

You may have noticed the signage downtown. Perhaps you saw the hanging baskets, the holiday snowflakes or the Christmas tree near Starbucks.

westport-dmaAll are part of recent initiatives by the Westport Downtown Merchants Association. Since welcoming new president Randy Herbertson this summer — and installing a fresh team including a marketing manager and events coordinator — the sometimes active, occasionally moribund, often ill-defined group has worked hard to make its mark on Main Street and nearby.

“We’re here to be the merchants’ advocate,” Herbertson — whose fulltime gig is running a Church Street multimidia design and promotion firm, The Visual Brand — says.

“We’re taking ourselves up a notch.”

The WDMA has addressed nagging issues like the Parker Harding dumpster — long a pig sty — with new enclosures and daily maintenance.

The organization has spoken with the Public Works and Parks & Recreation departments to ensure clear lines of responsibility for downtown upkeep.

Merchants are responsible for keeping their sidewalks clean. The WMDA is making sure they do it well.

Merchants are responsible for keeping their sidewalks clean. The WMDA is making sure they do it well.

Some of that sounds mundane. But small stuff pays off big time, in areas like public perception.

The WDMA has vowed to protect the new sidewalks. Each merchant is in charge of keeping them clean, but “everyone has different standards,” Herbertson notes. His group is working on a collaborative plan.

The Downtown Merchants Association may be best known for event sponsorship. Moving forward, Herbertson says, “We’ll try to focus on what matters most to merchants.”

The popular carriage rides, Santa visits and singing groups will continue this holiday season, for example. But the WMDA will offer gift wrapping and craft activities for children.

Plus this: valet parking.

It began on Friday, and continues every Saturday and Sunday through Christmas (plus Friday, December 23). The valet station is at the corner of Main and Elm Streets. Cost is $5 per car (plus optional tip).

Last year, horse-drawn carriages clomped throughout downtown.

Last year, horse-drawn carriages clomped throughout downtown.

The Fine Arts Festival may be relocated. The Blues, Views & BBQ Fest will be “better than ever,” Herbertson says.

A Fashion and Beauty Week is in the works. 80% of downtown merchants are involved in those fields, he explains.

The WMDA has just launched a new website. It offers more information on stores promotions and hours, along with a robust calendar.

Meanwhile, the merchants’ group is already looking ahead to next year. In 2017, Herbertson promises, the new trees on and around Main Street will be mature enough to decorate.

Broadcasting Christmas

Yesterday’s “06880” looked back at Cynthia Gibb. In 1986, she played fellow Westporter Jean Donovan in the 1986 movie “Salvador” about the rape and murder of 4 Catholic lay missionaries.

Today’s “06880” looks at her latest project.

Tonight at 8, the Hallmark Channel airs “Broadcasting Christmas.” The film stars Gibb — and fellow Westporter Melissa Joan Hart. (Dean Cain — “Superman” — plays a love interest.)

“Broadcasting Christmas” — about the search for a TV host in the days before a holiday telethon — is set partly in Westport.

But you won’t know it when you see it. Shooting took place in Fairfield, Bridgeport and Stamford.

The film crew stayed in Norwalk. Westport did not benefit at all from the millions of dollars spent making a film about our town.

And to all a good night…

Westport's Melissa Joan Hart and Dean Cain, in "Broadcasting Christmas."

Westport’s Melissa Joan Hart and Dean Cain, in “Broadcasting Christmas.”

 

[UPDATE] Cynthia Gibb Remembers Jean Donovan And “Salvador”

It was the worst audition of Cynthia Gibb’s career.

Just a few years after graduating with Staples High School’s Class of 1981, the actress — already known for her “Search for Tomorrow” and “Fame” TV roles — was searching for a movie project.

Her agent found a part in “Salvador.” Written by Oliver Stone — who would direct it too, as his 1st major film — the story was based on real-life political struggles in El Salvador.

The casting director gave Gibb the wrong material. She and star James Woods were, she says, “literally not on the same page.” She went home sobbing, horrified at having done so badly.

Cynthia Gibb

Cynthia Gibb

Her agent convinced her to go back. She got the role — and learned a great lesson about recovering from bad experiences. Gibb uses that incident today, back home in Westport. A voice and dance coach, she tells students not to be flustered by a bad performance (or audition).

But there’s much more about Westport to this story.

Gibb’s “Salvador” role was based on the real-life Jean Donovan. She was one of 4 lay missionaries beaten, raped, and murdered in 1980 by Salvadoran military men.

Donovan was also a Westporter. She attended Westport schools, and graduated from Staples in 1971 — exactly 10 years before Gibb.

Gibb did plenty of research — in leftist publications, because there was little in the mainstream press — to understand Donovan’s character. But she had no idea they shared the same hometown until midway through filming in Mexico, when Stone learned that Gibb was from Westport.

That spurred her even more. She became fascinated with the woman whose story — unknown to many, even here — she was telling.

salvador Gibb — who is not Catholic — dove into the kind of work the missionaries did. She learned Spanish, which Donovan had done before heading to El Salvador.

And Gibb read even more political writing. “I wanted to be as informed about US policy in Central America as Jean was,” Gibb says. “And I wanted to be as passionate about Third World countries.”

The film was released in 1986. In Los Angeles, Gibb honored Donovan and her fellow nuns, by volunteering for Central American organizations.

She was invited to El Salvador for 5 days. She met the handsome and charming right-wing military man in charge of death squads. She also saw dirt huts, and the church where an archbishop was gunned down.

“That film changed my life,” Gibb says. “I’d never been politically active before.”

Her career continued, mostly on TV.  She married, had 3 children and divorced. Gradually, “Salvador” faded from her mind.

Jean Donovan

Jean Donovan

After she moved back to Westport, however, she met John Suggs. The RTM member has dedicated years to keeping Donovan’s memory alive. He says that in progressive Catholic social justice networks, “Jean Donovan is considered a saint.”

Suggs is particularly active this time of year. The anniversary of Donovan’s death is December 2.

Gibb will be thinking of Donovan too. Years after the movie was released, the actress spotted a small story in the New York Times. It described the declassification of documents relating Central America during the Reagan years. Sure enough, the US provided financial assistance to death squads that were responsible for the rape and murder of the 4 women, and others, during the Carter and Reagan administrations.

“There were horrific people doing horrific things, with our backing,” Gibb says.

“Jean Donovan and those women were there to help people. Her death was so useless.”

Perhaps now is the time for Donovan to be remembered in Westport. Suggs is raising $3,600 for a plaque honoring her, to be hung either at Staples or Town Hall. Click here to donate.

Gibb is helping.


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Justin Paul, His Best Friend, And The New York Times

“06880” has covered the career of Justin Paul extensively. All of us in Westport are intensely proud of the Broadway songwriter, who — with his musical partner Benj Pasek — has been called the next Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Now the New York Times has taken note too.

A long — loooong — cover story in this coming Sunday’s Theater section by Michael Paulson is headlined “What It’s Like to Make It in Showbiz With Your Best Friend.”

Justin Paul (right) and Benj Pasek.

Justin Paul (right) and Benj Pasek.

It begins:

They met at 18, the worst dancers in a college ballet class, and sought refuge in a basement practice room, taking a first stab at songwriting with a tune about adolescents playing hooky and footsie at a suburban diner.

They went viral before going viral was a thing — their undergraduate years coincided with the birth of Facebook, and the first song cycle Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote, called “Edges,” was discovered, shared and performed by musical theater majors around the country.

Now, at the age of 31, after a decade of being touted as promising, up-and-coming, and ones-to-watch, Pasek and Paul have arrived.

Ben Pasek (left) and Justin Paul, deep into their

Ben Pasek (left) and Justin Paul a few years ago, deep into their “24-Hour Musical.” (Photo by Kerry Long)

There are ample shoutouts to Westport:

They are, on the surface, quite different from each other. Mr. Paul, who lives in Harlem, is a churchgoing Christian from Westport, Conn.; straight; married; and the father of a 7-month-old daughter. Mr. Pasek, who grew up in Ardmore, Pa., and now lives on the Upper West Side, is gay, Jewish and single.

But they both began as little boys who loved to sing.

Mr. Paul, a talented pianist, started early. At age 3, he was singing gospel music with his father, a pastor, in church. Later, he sang and danced at senior centers with Music Theater of Connecticut; and then, at Staples High School, he performed in “Into the Woods,” conducted the orchestra in “Hello, Dolly!” and spent his free time poring over Broadway “fake books,” which help pianists master melodies.

There’s much more, of course. For the full story — and photos — click here.

(Hat tip: Tommy Greenwald)

Legendary Painting Restored; Prints On Sale Now

In the fall of 1946, Westport artist Stevan Dohanos invited 5 students from the 40-member Staples High School band — led by John Ohanian — to be models. Dohanos was creating a Saturday Evening Post cover, and needed musicians.

The quintet — Ed Capasse, Bob Nash, Evelyn Bennett, Steve Sefsik and Robert Barker — came to his studio. He paid them $30 each — over $400 today — to sit still for 30 minutes, as if playing their brass instruments. The cover ran on October 19, 1946.

Ed Capasse was in the upper left of StevanDohanos' painting. He went on to become a noted Westport lawyer. Here's his yearbook photo and writeup.

Ed Capasse was in the upper left of Stevan Dohanos’ painting. He went on to become a noted Westport lawyer. Here’s his yearbook photo and writeup.

In 2001, Staples Players director David Roth selected “The Music Man” as a mainstage production. His promotional poster was a takeoff on Dohanos’ iconic painting. Cast members Jonathan Adler, Trey Skinner, Samantha Marpe, Steven Fuertes and Hayden Moskowitz modeled.

Staples Players' 2001 poster.

Staples Players’ 2001 poster.

This year, “The Music Man” returns. So does the poster. This time Julien Zeman, Tucker Ewing, Maggie Foley, Nick Rossi and Colin McKechnie sat for a photo. (You can see Jacob Leaf — who plays Harold Hill — in the sousaphone reflection.)

...and the 2016 version.

…and the 2016 version.

Now – in honor of the upcoming performances of “The Music Man” — Dohanos’ painting is back in a position of honor.

In 1946, the artist donated the original to the Westport schools. For decades it hung in the Staples band room. Later it could be seen in the principal’s office, then outside the first selectman’s office in Town Hall.

Now a treasured masterpiece of the Westport Public Art Collections Committee, in 2014 the organization raised funds to have the painting conserved and returned to full brilliance.

Westport illustrator Stevan Dohanos' 1946 Saturday Evening Post cover.

Westport illustrator Stevan Dohanos’ 1946 Saturday Evening Post cover.

Yesterday, it was unveiled and hung in its new position of honor: the Staples auditorium lobby. On hand were Players co-directors Roth and Kerry Long; First Selectman Marpe (whose daughter posed for the 2001 poster), and principal James D’Amico.

“Music Man” audiences this weekend and next will enjoy the restored painting (along with the other posters). So will theatergoers for years to come.

“The Music Man” posters in the Staples lobby.

But now anyone can enjoy the painting in their own home. Recently, Art Collections Committee members found a trove of prints that Ann Sheffer made for a fundraiser in the late 1980s.

They’re on sale again, as a fundraiser for 3 worthy organizations: Friends of Westport Public Art Collections, Collections, Staples Music Parents Association and the Westport Historical Society.

Sales take place at “Music Man” performances this weekend and next, as well as online. Just click here to own a piece of Westport (and musical) history.

(“The Music Man” performances are Friday and Saturday, November 11, 12, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m., with 3 p.m. matinees on Sunday, November 13 and Saturday, November 19. Click here for tickets. They’re also available 30 minutes prior to the performance in the Staples High School lobby, as available.)

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“Music Man” Tootles Into Town

Some people want Hillary. Others want Trump.

Everyone wants “The Music Man.”

This fall — with our nation so divided — Staples Players co-directors David Roth and Kerry Long are staging what Roth calls “the classic American musical.”

The show — which debuted on Broadway in 1957 — “hearkens back to a simpler time. At its heart, this is really about community.”

River City is a town filled with discord, riven by dysfunctional relationships. The school board, for example, bickers about everything — even whose watch is right.

Through music, the town becomes whole. “Professor” Harold Hill turns the school board into a barbershop quartet. When they’re together, they produce beautiful harmonies.

The RIver City quartet: ax Herman (Staples, ’19), Christopher Hoile (Staples, ’18), Tobey Patton (Staples, ’20) and Oliver Smith (Staples, ’17).

The RIver City quartet: Max Herman, Christopher Hoile, Tobey Patton and Oliver Smith. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Music changes everyone in town — including Harold himself.

“Like many people in theater, Kerry and I believe this is the perfect musical,” Roth says. “It’s a fantastic blend of story, comedy, music, dance, drama and romance. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

This is not Players’ first production of “The Music Man.” In 2001 — less than 2 months after 9/11 — Roth staged it as one of his early Staples shows.

Then, as now, fear and dread filled the country. Fifteen years ago, “The Music Man” lifted Westport’s spirits. Roth calls the musical “a love letter to Americana,” and hopes it does the same now.

Staples PlayersWhen the show opens next Friday (November 11) — and runs through the following weekend — audiences will see what may be Roth and Long’s largest and most stunning set ever. Former Player Reid Thompson — who earned an MFA in set design from the Yale School of Drama — has created a stage that conveys an enormous sense of community.

“The town is present in every scene,” Roth says. “It’s a sprawling Iowa landscape.”

There are other differences between this production, and the post-9/11 one. New choreographers Christopher Myers and Rachel MacIsaac have put their own stamp on the dance routines.

In keeping with the sweeping show, the cast is huge. Jacob Leaf — who thrilled audiences as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” — is Harold Hill. Zoe Mezoff  enjoys her 1st big lead, as Marian the Librarian. They’re joined by 62 other Stapleites, and 8 more from elementary and middle school.

Jacob Leaf as Harold Hill, and Zoe Mezoff as Marian the Librarian. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Jacob Leaf as Harold Hill, and Zoe Mezoff as Marian the Librarian. (Photo/Kerry Long)

“The Music Man” is a celebration of community. It’s set in River City. But all of us here will feel the communal spirit too.

Just look around the lobby. There — in a place of honor — hangs Westport artist Stevan Dohanos’ original Saturday Evening Post cover.

Published in 1946, it shows 5 band members all looking away, in mid-toot. The models were all Staples students.

Dohanos’ work had nothing to do with “The Music Man.” But Roth and Long have used it as the poster for the show.

...and the 2016 version.

That’s the kind of thing that brings a town together, and fills it with pride.

Harold Hill: Eat your heart out!

(“The Music Man” performances are Friday and Saturday, November 11, 12, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m., with 3 p.m. matinees on Sunday, November 13 and Saturday, November 19. Click here for tickets. They’re also available at a “pop- up box office” at the Westport YMCA on Saturday, November 5 (9-11 a.m.), or 30 minutes prior to the performance in the Staples High School lobby, as available.)

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Click here for “06880+”: The easy way to publicize upcoming events, sell items, find or advertise your service, ask questions, etc. It’s the “06880” community bulletin board!