Category Archives: Entertainment

Beatles Came Out And Played With Young Westporter

The Beatles may or may not have visited famed disc jockey Murray the K at his Westport home in the 1960s. No evidence exists that they did, though several folks who grew up here then insist it’s true.

But — 50 years after the release of the ground-breaking “White Album” — one fact is not in dispute: One of the songs was written about a Westporter.

In 1963, 15-year-old Prudence Farrow was living in Los Angeles. Her father — director John Farrow — died suddenly.

So Prudence’s mother, Maureen O’Sullivan — an actress, then starring in a Broadway show — brought Prudence, her older sister Mia and other siblings to New York.

Maureen O’Sullivan and John Farrow with their children in 1950. From left: Mia, Patrick, Maureen, John holding Stephanie, Prudence and Johnny. Michael is in front.

But Maureen thought it would be best for Prudence and the other kids to live outside the city. She rented a house in Westport, with a cook/caretaker.

The 157 Easton Road house was well known: It was owned by Leopold Godowsky Jr. — a concert violinist and photographer who helped develop Kodacolor and Ektachrome — and his wife Frankie Gershwin, George and Ira’s younger sister who was a noted painter and singer.

It was a beautiful house: 7 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms on 2.75 acres, with a boathouse, indoor pool, 2 bars, a wine-tasting room, guest quarters, tennis court, waterfalls, walking paths, and stone bridges. The Aspetuck River flows through the back yard.

There was a lot of room to play. In her memoir, Prudence describes hiking in the woods, canoeing and skating on the pond, and playing with neighborhood kids.

157 Easton Road

But apparently the caretaker did little taking care of her charges. “We briefly saw Sue for a few minutes daily” when she drove them to the bus stop, Prudence writes. But when her brother Johnny got his license — and a Porsche convertible — she rode with him the short distance up North Avenue to Staples.

Prudence calls the school “impersonal and empty.” She told a guidance counselor she was not interested in college, so he put her in classes like “typing, homemaking, art, sewing, home economics and general math.”

However, she adds, “School was irrelevant. I couldn’t figure out the purpose of going. I thought I knew everything.”

She quickly learned Staples’ social structure, which include “creeps” (now called nerds), “High Y’s” (today’s jocks) and “greasers.” She was a “beatnik.”

Prudence writes: “They seemed so much more interesting than the others. They loved good music, art and philosophy, and I learned a lot about these disciplines from them. But overall, they were self-destructive, spoiled, and using way too many drugs.”

Prudence’s house — with the caretaker not taking much care — became the hangout. It was the place to go, on weekends, evenings, even during school. People helped themselves to food and sofas. There was always plenty of alcohol and drugs.

It was in Westport that Prudence was first exposed to Eastern thought. Her friend Tom — “a quiet soul, very sensitive” — inspired her to read Siddhartha. She thought that Buddhist principles encompassed “the most beautiful, simple, universal and most profound philosophy of life.”

She no longer drank, but continued using drugs and taking pills. The parties continued. Finally, in late spring of 1964, the police told her mother that “we could no longer remain in Connecticut unattended.” Maureen took her brood back to New York.

But the actress soon departed on a national tour. Prudence and her siblings were once again left with a caretaker — this time in a Manhattan apartment. She dropped out of a private school, and got even more deeply into drugs.

Finally — after a bad experience with LSD — Prudence found Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and his Rishikesh ashram in the Himalayan foothills. She studied transcendental meditation.

In early 1968, the Beatles were there too. John Lennon and George Harrison were assigned to be her “team buddies.” They too had experimented with acid before learning about TM.

2 images of Prudence Farrow — including in India, with Ringo Starr.

Deep in meditation, Farrow refused to leave her bungalow. The 2 Beatles tried to coax her out.

And while they were at it, Lennon wrote a song. It began:

Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It’s beautiful and so are you
Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?

Though Harrison told her about the song, she did not think much of it. And she did not hear it until the “White Album” came out.

When she did, she was “flattered.” She was also glad it was not a negative song about Rishikesh, like Lennon’s “Sexy Sadie” and “Bungalow Bill.”

Prudence had another brush with fame. In 1981 she was near the end of a 3-year affair with New York real estate heir Robert Durst, when suddenly his wife went missing.

Prudence taught TM for several decades. One of her pupils was comedian Andy Kaufman.

She went on to earn a BA, MA and Ph.D. from the University of California, majoring in Asian studies.

She worked in theater and film — including as a production assistant on The Muppets Take Manhattan. 

Using her married name — Prudence Bruns — she has written magazine stories on Asia, world religions and healthy living. She published her memoir (Dear Prudence: The Story Behind the Song) in 2015.

Prudence Bruns today.

And in 2012 she established the non-profit Dear Prudence Foundation. It raised funds for a documentary film about an Indian festival.

There is no record that the Beatles ever visited Westport. And there’s no reason to believe Prudence Farrow ever returned here, after moving in 1964.

But the song imploring her to open up her eyes and smile — well, that’s one more great example of where Westport meets the world.

FUN FACT: Mia Farrow has her own claim to fame: In 1966, when she was 21 and Frank Sinatra was 50, they spent time on his yacht, anchored off Compo Beach. Their marriage lasted 2 years.

(Click here for more information on Prudence Farrow’s memoir, Dear Prudence: The Story Behind The Song. Hat tip: Fred Cantor.)

Mark Groth’s Amazing “Budy” Story

If you saw “Curtains” last month — or any other Staples Players production over the past 6 decades — you were awed by the acting, dancing, sets and lighting.

But back in the day, Staples Stage and Technical Staff was separate from Players’ actors. SSTS had their own director, officers, traditions — even their own t-shirts.

Mark Groth was a proud SSTS member. He was president in 1968, the culmination of a 3-year career in which he helped construct a set with moving turntables, another that jutted out into the audience, and multimedia projectors for the original show “War and Pieces,” which ended being part of a cultural exchange program with the USSR.

Staples Stage and Technical Staff member Al Frank working backstage, from the 1967 yearbook.

Groth had 2 wonderful mentors at Staples. Both were faculty directors of SSTS.

Steve Gilbert was “brilliant,” Groth says. “He led us places we’d never even thought of. He let us come up with ideas, and do lighting, sound and staging that was way beyond high school.”

When Gilbert was on sabbatical, Don Budy took over. He was a Staples art teacher — his first job after graduating from college in his native Colorado. He was quieter than Gilbert, but equally as talented and inspirational.

Groth learned well. He and fellow SSTS member Steve Katz did all the lighting for the legendary concerts — the Doors, Cream, Yardbirds, Animals — on the Staples stage.

Don Budy (1967 Staples High School yearbook photo)

Gilbert and Budy’s influences were profound. Groth headed to Rockford College in Illinois — attracted primarily by their state-of-their-art, $12 million theater.

He majored in technical theater (and in New York one Thanksgiving break, did the lights for a Hell’s Angels-sponsored Grateful Dead concert).

Groth spent 3 1/2 years with the Army’s 101st Airborne, and the next 40 at the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s department of psychiatry. Groth videotaped residents’ sessions through a one-way mirror, as part of their training. It was a fascinating career.

Meanwhile, when his son was in high school Groth attended their production of “West Side Story.”

“It was terrible,” he says. He offered to help the director.

For the next 10 years, he volunteered for 20 shows. Then, after he protested the administration’s censorship of one play, he was told the school’s drama program was “going in another direction.”

A month later, Kella Manfredi — whom Groth had worked with 10 years earlier — called. With a master’s in theater education, she was now the theater director at Bear Creek High School in Englewood. Would he be interested in helping?

Sure! So, for the past 10 years, Groth has worked with a high school theater program that sounds like “the Staples Players of Colorado.” They’ve done “Cabaret,” “26 Pebbles” (about the Sandy Hook massacre), and just closed “Be More Chill” (they got the license when it was still off-Broadway).

The great set for Bear Creek High School’s production of “Grease.”

Which brings us back to SSTS.

Thirty years ago, Groth’s grade-school daughter performed in a concert at Cherry Creek High School. As he set up his tripod to videotape, a staff member came over.

They looked at each other.

“Mark Groth?!” the man said.

“Don Budy?!” Groth replied.

They rekindled their friendship. Budy — now a professional sculptor, in addition to working with Cherry Creek — comes to as many of Groth’s shows as he can.

He was there a few days ago, at “Be More Chill.” More than 50 years after they first met, Budy still supports his old student.

Don Budy (left) and Mark Groth, after Bear Creek High School’s “Be More Chill.”

Groth enjoyed his academic job, and loves working with high school students. He started with a professional-type troupe at Staples, and he’s with a similar one now in Colorado.

There’s only one difference. At Bear Creek, his tech crew remains separate from the actors.

“We’re like Ninjas,” Groth says proudly. “I tell them: ‘Be swift. Be silent. Be invisible.'”

And — as Steve Gilbert and Don Budy taught Mark Groth all those years ago: Be great.

 

“Concerts and Cocktails” Come To The River

Chris Coogan, Suzanne Sheridan and Mark Krueger are 3 very talented people.

Chris Coogan

Chris and Suzanne — both Westporters — have been musical buddies for 20 years.

Mark lives in Branford, and has an art studio in Wallingford. But he wanted to start a gallery here. He asked his friend Suzanne to help him figure out the ins and outs of our town’s cultural life.

She was happy to help. He opened X.po.zur Gallery at 263 Riverside Avenue a year ago. His out-of-the-box exhibits have gained notice and praise.

Mark’s passion is bringing community together around art in all forms — including music and photography.

Suzanne is a noted photographer, as well as musician. Her recent X.po.zur photo show “The Wisdom Goddess Project” — featuring remarkable women — was a huge hit. (It’s now at the Weston Senior Center.)

As the gallery hummed — and she thought about Mark’s community-building concept — Suzanne came up with a new idea: concerts and cocktails on the river.

She loved the chance of collaborating with Chris to headline a jazz show.

This Thursday (April 11, 6 to 8 p.m.) she’ll perform American songbook standards. She’ll be joined by John Mobilio and Greg DeTroy.

On Thursday, May 9, Chris and Ben Dean play gypsy jazz.

It takes place in an art gallery, on the river. There’s wine and hors d’oeuvres.

“Sounds” like Mark knew what he was doing when he asked Suzanne to help him understand Westport’s cultural bones.

(For tickets and more information, click here.)

 

Leslie Orofino Shines

What do Lady Gaga, Peggy Lee and Leslie Orofino have in common?

All are tremendously talented, very fierce women.

And on April 12 and 26 actress/singer Leslie brings her show “Shine” to BJ Ryan’s Magnolia Room in Norwalk, highlighting the music and lives of Lady and Peggy.

As well as 2 other fabulous entertainers, Alberta Hunter and Dorothy Fields.

Leslie Orofino

The 4 women had very different styles. Leslie romps through them all: Broadway, blues, jazz, contemporary. You name it, she sings it.

“Shine” was inspired by Leslie’s mother, Mary McGuire. She recently died — after 96 wonderful years — but always told Leslie and her 3 siblings: “When things get tough … women get stronger!”

And how. In World War II, Leslie’s father spent months as a German prisoner. Mary wrote to him — every day. When he finally came home, they enjoyed 60 years of love.

Leslie is drawn to these remarkable women’s lives and music because they too overcame major obstacles. Lady Gaga faced mental illness; Peggy Lee, physical and mental abuse; Alberta Hunter, racism, and Dorothy Fields, Broadway sexism.

All found strength. All became stars who shined.

On April 12 and 26, Leslie Orofino shines her brilliant light on them.

(Click here for tickets and more information.)

Ramblin’ Jack Xerxes

I know a lot about Westport’s musical history.

I was there when the Doors, Cream, Yardbirds and many other bands played at Staples.

I remember when Johnny Winter lived here, and hung out at Players Tavern. And of course, REO Speedwagon wrote “157 Riverside Avenue” about their former home across from what is now Saugatuck Elementary School.

But I had no idea Ramblin’ Jack Elliott spent time here too.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

He had a profound influence on generations of musicians. Arlo Guthrie says that because he was young when his father died, he learned Woody’s songs and performing style from Ramblin’ Jack.

Jack’s interpretations of Woody Guthrie’s songs made a great impact on a young Bob Dylan. Jack later appeared in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review concert tour. He also influenced Phil Ochs.

Peter Barlow not only remembers Ramblin’ Jack’s Westport days — he was an important part of them. Peter writes:

Ramblin’ Jack came a lot to Westport in the late 1940s and early ’50s. He saw his friends Ric von Schmidt, Bill Frey, Bob Keedy, several others I can’t remember, and me. We were all in our late teens.

We knew him as Xerxes. He had no other name and no explanation, though if pressed he was Jack Elliott.

His real name was Elliot Adnapoz. He lived in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. His father was a surgeon. I met his parents there. They were constantly worried about Elliot, and somehow thought I was a good influence (!).

He met my parents too. I brought Xerxes over to my house one evening. He played and sang a song for my father, who was very impressed.

He played guitar and sang incessantly. I never knew there were so many verses to those folk songs.

Xerxes had 2 other interests: rodeo and sailing ships. It was the ships that connected us to each other.

In 1969, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott sailed to Westport with Pete Seeger, on Seeger’s new 106-foot sloop Clearwater. Seeger performed in Westport, though Ramblin’ Jack stayed on board. The morning after the concert, Peter Barlow took this photo — with Ramblin’ Jack on the 20-foot bowsprit — in the pouring rain. (Photo copyright Peter Barlow)

I didn’t see Xerxes for a long time after those years. He became very successful, without compromising or going commercial. He’s still performing concerts.

Although Jack Elliott rambled many places — including Westport — that’s not how he got his name. Apparently, it came from his tendency to tell long, drawn-out stories.

Folk singer Odetta claimed her mother gave him the nickname, saying, “Oh, Jack Elliott, yeah, he can sure ramble on!”

Remembering Randy Brody

Randy Brody — a multi-talented Westporter known best for his drumming circles, particularly for older people, and those with chronic diseases and special needs — died suddenly yesterday. Last September, I posted this story on him.

Work brought Randy Brody to Westport from Brooklyn 40 years ago. The job did not work out, but he stayed.

He did animation and special effects for films. He also wrote, and traveled the world. In his free time, he played drums. More than 25 years ago, he began leading drumming circles in South Norwalk.

Randy Brody

His circles grew to 25 people. No matter what kind of day he or anyone else had, at the end of a drum circle everyone felt good.

When Randy realized that technical writing was not for him, he turned his attention more seriously to drumming. He took classes in music therapy, studied improvisation and music teaching, and improved as a hand drummer.

As he delved into African, Middle Eastern and Brazilian percussion, he thought to himself: “This is why I’m on this planet.”

In 2001 — around the time he turned 50 — Randy left the corporate world.

His first drum circle gig was at The Marvin, a senior residence in Norwalk. He set up in the living room. Within a few minutes, everyone was having a great time. “Even people having trouble walking were drumming and dancing,” Randy recalls.

The director asked when Randy was coming back — and what he charged. He had never thought about either question.

Randy walked into senior centers like Westport’s, and assisted living facilities like the Greens at Cannondale. He had no appointments, but was welcomed in.

No one else was doing anything like it. Within a year or two, he was known as The Drum Guy. He was in demand from New Jersey to Massachusetts.

Randy Brody with adults…

Next, Randy organized drum circles for young adults with special needs.

“I experienced the healing power of drumming. It was therapeutic for them — and me,” he says. “I’d never had that sense of fulfillment in any job. Now I never have a bad day at work.”

Group drumming creates high energy and builds community, Randy says. It reduces cortisol (stress hormone) levels.

It helps people with chronic diseases. One person told him, “For an hour, I forget I’m fighting cancer.”

He’s heard a nurse say of an Alzheimer’s patient, “He can’t do anything.” Five minutes later, the same person is drumming — and smiling.

Randy also does one-on-one sessions with autistic children. Sometimes the entire family joins in.

… and a younger drummer.

These days, his main work is with Abilis. Several times a months, he leads drum circles for the Greenwich-based special needs non-profit.

“It’s so rewarding, sitting in a circle playing hand drums,” he notes. “There’s such a connection between the group, the therapists, social workers and me. They’ve become my family.”

Some autistic youngsters can’t speak, or express themselves. But, Randy says, they relate to drums. And when they see him coming, they smile.

Every drum circle is different. But each time, Randy leaves with a full heart.

In the last few years, Randy has had his own medical issues. But he brings his drums to the hospital. Even after surgery, he plays.

It helps with pain management. The doctors think it’s helpful for recovery.

And, Randy smiles, “All the nurses start dancing.”

(Hat tip: Amy Ancel)

Relishing The Best Burgers In Town

The burgers have been eaten. Over 1,000 votes have been cast.

Now, the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce announces the winners of its Great Westport Burger Contest.

The envelope please…

Best Classic Burger: Viva Zapata

Best Cheeseburger: Match Burger Lobster

Best Gourmet Burger: Match Burger Lobster

Match Burger Lobster was one of two double winners. From left: Matthew Mandell, director of the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce; restaurant owner Matt Storch, and Ira Bloom of Berchem Moses, contest sponsor.

Best Veggie Burger: Little Barn

Best Non-beef Burger (fish, turkey, lamb…): Little Barn

Best Fast Food Burger: Shake Shack

Best Slider: Dunville’s

Honorable Mention: Rothbard and Parker Mansion

Vegans: Eat your hearts out!

—————-

In more Westport Weston Chamber news, the 5th Supper & Soul event takes place on Saturday (April 6).

One $75 ticket buys 3 great entertainment elements: a 3-course dinner at 6 p.m., a concert with Head for the Hills, and happy hour prices for drinks after the show.

Participating restaurants are 190 Main, Amis, Jesup Hall, Rothbard Ale + Larder, Spotted Horse, Tavern on Main and Wafu. All are located within a couple of blocks of Seabury Center, where the concert takes place.

Head for the Hills has been together for 15 years. They mix rock, folk, R&B and bluegrass. Mandell says, “If you like Mumford & Sons, you’ll love this band.” (Check out the video below — you’ll agree!)

Click here for tickets. A limited number of concert-only tickets are available too.

Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page Return To Westport For Levitt Fundraiser

Back in the day, Jimmy Page played at Staples High School. He had just replaced Eric Clapton, when the Yardbirds made their first-ever American appearance in Westport.

Clapton made it to the Staples stage a few months later, playing with Cream. It was one more in the now-legendary late-1960s series of concerts here in town.

Both musicians — now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — are still touring. And they’ll be the latest in the list of special artists (including Willie Nelson, Roberta Flack, John Fogerty and many more) who have played at the Levitt Pavilion’s annual fundraiser. This year’s concert is set for Sunday, June 30.

The Clapton and Page concert — called “Cream of the Yardbirds” — came about because of another collaboration.

Dick Sandhaus and Paul Gambaccini were Staples students who managed to book fantastic acts (also including the Doors and Rascals) for the Staples stage.

Both have gone on to noted careers. Sandhaus produced much larger concerts, and now works in the fields of technology and marketing. Gambaccini became one of England’s most famous music critics and personalities.

Several months ago, they reminisced about their teenage concert-promoting days. Both regretted never seeing Clapton and Page play together at Staples. With their connections, they realized, they could make it happen — over 50 years later.

Now they have.

Tickets are not yet on sale. To be placed on an email list for notification when they do, click here.

For Coleytown Company, The Show Must Go On. And Boy, Did It!

First, Coleytown Middle School’s Company lost their stage.

Then they lost their lead.

But the show must go on. This weekend, it did.

Big time.

With great cooperation from Bedford — where Westport’s 2 middle schools now share space, following the closure of CMS last fall due to mold — Coleytown Company was deep in rehearsals for “42nd Street.”

Andrew Maskoff (tie) with (front row, left to right) Drew Andrade, Melody Stanger, Anna Diorio. Rear: Lucy Docktor, Jordyn Goldshore, Kathryn Asiel and Demitra Pantzos. (Photo/Colleen Coffey)

On Tuesday, director Ben Frimmer learned that Andrew Maskoff — the 6th grade lead — had to go on vocal rest. He could not talk or sing until the show.

Frimmer was determined to get him on stage. In the meantime, he needed a fill-in for rehearsals — and the possibility that Andrew could not perform at all.

There were 3 possibilities.  Frimmer could recruit his son Jonah — a 7th grader in Weston who has done 3 Equity productions. He could go on himself. Or he could ask a Staples High student to step in.

Frimmer chose the third. He called Staples Players director David Roth, who suggested Max Herman. The senior had just completed a fantastic run in “Curtains.”

Frimmer knew Max well. They’d worked together on 3 CMS shows.

The director called him at 1 p.m. An hour later, Max was at Bedford rehearsing.

He rehearsed all week — including following behind Andrew, who walked him through the blocking.

Andrew Maskoff (center) helps Max Herman with his blocking. (Photo/Colleen Coffey)

Andrew went on Friday night. But it was clear that 2 more shows would be too much. Max took the stage Saturday, so Andrew could close out the run on Sunday.

“I have never seen a student make as mature a decision as Andrew,” Frimmer says.

Having survived Saturday night, the cast was excited yesterday to have everyone back on stage.

Suddenly — just 30 minutes before the curtain rose — another supporting lead was struck with a migraine.

Staples freshman Nina Driscoll — another Coleytown Company alum who had served as assistant director — immediately offered to step in.

In just half an hour Frimmer and his assistants ran her through her songs and dances, and highlighted her script. Ten minutes before showtime, she announced she was off book — she knew the script — and was ready to go.

Nina Driscoll (3rd from left) with (from left) Sacha Maidique, Callum Madigan and Maggie Teed.

That’s show business.

And that’s why Westport loves Ben Frimmer, Staples Players — and especially Coleytown Company.

(Hat tips: Tami Benanav and Nick Sadler)

Drew Andrade dances, accompanied by (from left) Eliza Walmark, Rima Ferrer, Emma Schorr. Cece Dioyka, Drew Andrade, Ava Chun, Kathryn Asiel, Keelagh Breslin. (Photo/Colleen Coffey)

“42nd Street” dancers (from left) Vivian Shamie, Kathryn Asiel and Demitra Pantzos. (Photo/Colleen Coffey)

Former Staples Track Star Now Runs Universal

Westport is 3,000 miles from LA. We’re more tuned in to who’s up and down on Wall Street than in Hollywood.

So the news that Peter Cramer is the new president of Universal Pictures Studios won’t mean much to “06880” readers.

Unless they realize that — back in the day — Peter Cramer was always called Packy.

Peter “Packy” Cramer

The 1985 Staples High School graduate was a track star and soccer player. He’s been with Universal since 2005, most recently as president of production. In that role the studio achieved record results, including the most profitable year in its history (2014), and the highest grossing domestic and worldwide box office totals of any studio ever (2015).

He led the launch of the Pitch Perfect, Ride Along, Purge, Ted and Neighbors franchises. He also oversaw the highest grossing film in Universal’s history (Jurassic World), and recent hits like Get Out, Lucy, Safe House, Unbroken, Identity Thief, The Visit and Mamma Mia Here We Go Again.

As senior executive vice president of production, he oversaw American Gangster and Ford/Nixon.

Before Universal he worked at New Regency Productions, Daybreak Productions and HBO Films. He started his career at Creative Artists.

Packy — er, Peter — graduated from Harvard University. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their 2 sons.