Category Archives: Entertainment

Westport’s Cartoon History: What A Laugh

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

Except when it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bud Sagendorf, and his most well-known character.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Westport Cinema Initiative Adds Partner, Adopts New Mission

Westport Cinema Initiative — the organization dedicated to bringing a movie theater back to town — has added “contagious new energy.”

That’s their phrase, in an announcement made moments ago. The energy comes in the form of “enthusiastic new board members who are passionate advocates for people with disabilities.”

The group — Creating Acceptance through Purposeful Employment (CAPE) — has pursued an employment model similar to the Prospector Theater in Ridgefield. That’s the non-profit, first-run movie house that’s enjoyed great success hiring and training people with disabilities.

WCI and CAPE are now officially merged. The combined organization has an amended mission: “A non-profit movie theater acting as a cultural and community hub, providing training and purposeful employment to adults with disabilities.”

The new board is “more dedicated than ever to building a theater in Westport” — with “an additional focus on employment and inclusion in town.”

Members of the new board are Joanna Borner. Stacie Curran, Marina Derman, Cornelia Fortier, Diane Johnson, Diane Kwong-Shah, Larry Perlstein, Jeffrey Peterson, Lee Rawiszer, Jonathan Steinberg, Deirdre Teed, Douglas Tirola
and Michelle Vitulich. Founding director Sandy Lefkowitz will serve on the professional advisory committee.

Middle School Actors Get Star Treatment

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

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

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

Osterhaus made the connection. Yesterday, the magic happened.

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

Gavin Lee talked about his craft …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rizzuto’s: Rock Of Saugatuck

For decades, Manero’s drew steak lovers to Riverside Avenue, at the foot of Bridge Street.

When it closed, a succession of other restaurants followed quickly. There was John Harvard’s, Conti’s, and probably a couple more I forget.

Rizzuto’s has been there for 10 years now. It’s a Westport favorite: warm, welcoming, lively, packed, always serving great Italian and seafood.

Rizzuto’s has survived an economic downturn, the rebuilding of Saugatuck, and the continuing debate about the Cribari Bridge.

It’s not going anywhere. In fact, owner Bill Rizzuto recently gave his place — the 3rd in his small chain — the strongest endorsement: He moved to Westport.

Like many restaurant owners, he has an intriguing back story. A Long Island native, he attended NYU for chemistry. To help pay for tuition, he worked at the midtown Hilton.

There, he fell in love with the hospitality industry.

Bill Rizzuto

The man who hired him offered Rizzuto a job in Las Vegas. At 26, he headed west.

He quickly worked his way to food and beverage manager at the MGM Grand — at the time, the 2nd largest hotel complex in the world.

Rizzuto sat at the casino with Frank Sinatra (“really friendly and generous”). He was in Dean Martin’s suite (“he changed a lot after his son died”). He met Rodney Dangerfield (“definitely funny”), Sammy Davis Jr. and Pee Wee Herman.

He managed 1,500 employees — some old enough to be his grandfather. He learned how to treat people respectfully, how to organize a business, and that there is “life west of New Jersey.”

But he wanted to run his own property. A friend was opening the Dolphin Hotel in Florida. “I went from adult Disney World to the real Disney World,” Rizzuto laughs.

He was handed 12 restaurants, a set of blueprints, and told, “Make it happen.”

It became “the most rewarding part of my career,” Rizzuto says.

Next came 15 years with Hyatt — “the greatest company ever.” He worked in New York, Greenwich and San Francisco.

Bill Rizzuto and his daughter welcomed former President Jimmy Carter to the Hyatt in San Francisco.

But Rizzuto — who had moved 10 times while growing up — did not want that for his young kids. One day, he says, “a brick fell on my head. I said to myself, ‘why are you working for the greatest company in the world, with a car and an expense account, when you can open your own restaurant?!'”

He relocated back East, and opened his first Rizzuto’s in … Bethel.

“I knew a lot about hospitality. I didn’t know jack about real estate,” Rizzuto says.

He earned $3,000 that first year. But he persevered. The Bethel location is now thriving.

In 2008, he opened his second restaurant in West Hartford. The recession took a toll — and opened up an opportunity here.

Rizzuto had always wanted to be in lower Fairfield County. In good times, nothing was available. Yet in 2009, commercial space opened up. Rizzuto examined plenty of properties. When he heard Conti’s was closing, he realized the site was perfect.

A rare shot: The Rizzuto’s bar without a crowd.

The restaurant was an instant hit. It’s survived so long, he says, because “we never tried to be who we were not. It’s good to learn from new trends, but you can’t over-adapt.”

Rizzuto’s recipe for success is “really good, fresh Italian food,” and offering diners a wide range of choices for preparation and sauces.

Over the years Rizzuto’s added more fish and vegetables — the owner is a Westport Farmer’s Market regular — plus an oyster bar. Four years ago they introduced a Lobster Shack. Twice a week, trucks deliver fresh lobsters straight from the Stonington wharf.

Along the way, Rizzuto fell in love with the town.

“Westport is a great place,” he says. “There’s a lot of affluence, but people wear blue jeans. They’re very down to earth, friendly and generous. They really enjoy their community. There’s a very welcoming feel.”

Last year, he moved his family here from West Hartford. That’s another great community, he says. But real estate taxes were “insane.”

He and his wife Lisa are “enthralled” by Westport. “We’ll go to the beach in a blizzard, and walk around.” Rizzuto is an avid fisherman, so the proximity to water is a joy.

Outdoor dining at Rizzuto’s.  The Lobster Shack is next door.

Saugatuck’s restaurant scene is far more crowded than 10 years ago. Rizzuto is not only unconcerned — he welcomes the competition.

“Trust me, it’s good,” he says. “More places make Saugatuck more of a destination. People like clusters.”

He gives big props to town officials, who “go out of their way to be helpful to restaurant, retail and other business establishments.”

And, he notes, “we have a huge parking lot. That helps.”

Bill Rizzuto is a hands-on restaurateur. “I love food and people. My favorite thing is hanging out in the kitchen, and walking through the dining room. It’s just like my old hospitality days.”

Of course, Westport is not Las Vegas. He’s not hanging out with the Rat Pack.

Somehow, this is even more fun.

(On Saturday, March 2 — from 6 p.m. till midnight — Bill Rizzuto gives back to the community. An “Ice Bar” bash, sponsored by Tito’s Homemade Vodka and featuring live music, is a fundraiser for the Levitt Pavilion. Admission is free.) 

James Chantler Brown: The Art Of Everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art of Everyone is actually Art “for” Everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

Ta-da! A finished work.

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

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

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

James Chantler Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Hat tip: Dwain Schenck)

Friday Flashback #129

Last week’s Friday Flashback — showing a snowy Post Road sidewalk from 1993, with the Fine Arts Theatre prominently featured — sent alert “06880” reader/ amateur historian Fred Cantor scurrying down the internet wormhole.

He found Cinema Treasures, a website devoted to 51,000 movie theaters from around the world. (“Because you’re tired of watching movies on your laptop,” the tagline says.)

There’s a page devoted to “Fine Arts 1 and 2” — though the photos show only the original theatre (now Restoration Hardware), long before it was subdivided into a pair of cinemas. (Later offspring included Fine Arts 3 in the back — now Matsu Sushi restaurant — and Fine Arts 4 down the block, across Bay Street from Design Within Reach.)

One image is from 1939. It shows the theatre entrance, flanked by an unnamed restaurant and Vogel Electrical Service.

Other photos show Fine Arts after a major 1940 renovation. Here’s the exterior. It looks like the neighboring businesses are gone.

Here’s the new, modern interior:

But the money shots are these 2. They show the Art Deco lounge.

Cinema Treasures is right. The Fine Arts was definitely better than watching movies on your laptop.

More Grammy News

I knew there would be more than one Westport connection to last night’s Grammy Awards.

In addition to Daniel Tashian’s part in Kasey Musgraves’ Album of the Year, Staples High School grad Justin Paul picked up his 2nd Grammy. He and his songwriting partner Benj Pasek were honored for “The Greatest Showman” — named Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media.

Pasek and Paul are great showmen — and songwriters — for sure. They will pick up many more Grammys (and other honors) for years to come.

Justin Paul (left), Benj Pasek and their Grammys.

 

And The Grammy For Album Of The Year Goes To…

… Kacey Musgraves, for “Golden Hour.”

But there — standing right next to the country music star last night, at the 61st annual awards in Los Angeles — was Daniel Tashian.

He shared in the award — twice. He’s one of the album’s 3 producers — and one of 3 songwriters too. He shares both credits with Musgraves and Ian Fitchuk.

Daniel also played multiple instruments and provided background vocals. Previously, both the Country Music Association and Apple Music named “Golden Hour” Album of the Year.

Daniel Tashian and Kacey Musgraves, at last night’s Grammy Awards.

The “06880” connection: Tashian is the son of Barry and Holly Tashian. Both are Staples graduates.

Their names are familiar to Westporters. Barry fronted the Remains, the legendary band that toured with the Beatles. He went on to play guitar with the Flying Burrito Brothers and Emmy Lou Harris, among many others.

A longtime resident of Nashville, he carved out a rewarding performing, recording and songwriting career alongside his wife, the former Holly Kimball. She’s got a beautiful voice. Together, they’ve performed all over the world.

Neither the Remains, nor Barry and Holly Tashian, won a Grammy — though they sure should have.

But they’re just as proud today as if they’d won a dozen themselves.

(Do you know of any other Westport/Grammy connections? Click “Comments” below. Hat tips: Marc Bailin and Fred Cantor)

The Sun Comes Out On “Annie” Actors

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

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

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

Among that group: Westporters Brenna Connolly and Jackie Peterson.

Jackie Peterson and Brenna Connolly in “Annie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Staples, The Day The Music Died

On February 3, 1959, Charlie Taylor was a Staples High School sophomore (and a budding songwriter).

Exactly 60 years later, he remembers that day with stunning clarity. Charlie writes:

That Tuesday morning dawned bright, sunny and very cold in Westport. I was 15 years old, standing outside the cafeteria in the smoking area, chatting with friends.

Buddy Holly

Someone ran up and told us they heard a news flash about a plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa.

American rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and JP “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed when their chartered Beechcraft Bonanza plane crashed in a cornfield a few minutes after takeoff from Mason City.

We were speechless.

I think I felt a kindred spirit with Buddy. We were both Texas natives.

The mood at Staples was muted for the rest of the week. We all followed the news broadcasts about the crash, and Buddy’s sad funeral in Lubbock. It was, as Don McLean later sang, truly The Day the Music Died.

Suddenly, we realized we were mortal. Buddy Holly was 22 years old — and Ritchie Valens, just 17.

Charlie Taylor, in the 1959 Staples yearbook.

We collected their records. We danced and made out to their songs.

Music was important to us. Bo Diddley played a number of dance shows in Westport, at venues like the YMCA. My ’61 classmate Mike Borchetta booked him, when Mike was still at Staples.

When I moved from rural Kentucky to Westport, I was washed in the blood of rockabilly and blues from Nashville and Memphis.

Then I got bathed in doo wop on WINS and WABC. My rockabilly roots collided with my new Westport friends’ jazz, folk an doo wop sensibilities.

At Staples we had the CanTeen every Friday or Saturday night. Sturdy and the Stereos, Dick Grass and the Hoppers, Barry Tashian and Mike Friedman’s Schemers, and bands Bobby Lindsey fronted were our weekly entertainment.

When those bands played songs like “Please Dear” or “Mr. John Law,” a dancing, sweaty fever seized us teens. We fogged up the windows of the cafeteria!

Sixty years later, I have to wonder what songs Buddy Holly would have written had he lived.

As fate (or luck) would have it, I met and was mentored by Buddy’s manager, Hi Pockets Duncan, in San Angelo, Texas in 1968. Hi Pockets played a recording of mine on his radio station, then told me to go to Los Angeles to develop my craft.

I moved to LA on August 15, 1970 — driving my black 1959 Chevy.

I still think about that day at Staples, exactly 60 years ago today.

Charlie Taylor has spent the last 3 decades in Tennessee. He’s recorded with, written with and for, jammed with and learned from the likes of Gram Parsons, Minnie Pearl, Chet Atkins, Barbara Mandrell, Rick Nelson and Barry Tashian. 

Four years ago he wrote and recorded this tribute to Buddy Holly. He uploaded it to YouTube on February 3, 2015.