Category Archives: Entertainment

You Can Be A Star. Well, Your House Can, Anyway.

Sure, jobs are fleeing Connecticut like fans at a Bengals game. It seems the only work left here is in a hedge fund, consulting or (who knows?) perhaps Nordstrom, when the new Norwalk mall opens (whenever).

But there is one growth industry in the Land of Steady Habits: TV and movies.

Specifically, renting out your house (or organization) for a television or film shoot.

The state Office of Film, TV & Digital Media — part of the Department of Economic and Community Activity — acts as a liaison between production companies, towns, local crews and vendors.

Part of its function is to help find appropriate locations for TV networks, movie studios and commercial producers. In other words: If you need a nice suburban home, bustling city, beach, farm, railroad station or other scene for your show, film or ad, they’ll find it for you.

Scene from a movie recently filmed in Connecticut. No, there was never a “New York and New Orleans” railroad.

Presumably, they can also find a crumbling highway, dilapidated apartment or abandoned corporate headquarters too.

Locally, a variety of sites have told the office they’re eager to be used. Saugatuck Congregational Church, the Saugatuck senior housing complex, Westport Museum for History & Culture (nee Westport Historical Society), Westport Little League and Sherwood Island State Park have all chimed in.

So has Main Street (probably the Downtown Merchants Association) and the Saugatuck River (no clue).

A number of homeowners also offered their houses for filming. Styles range from Colonial and contemporary to shingle cottage and (somewhat immodestly, but hey, it’s the movies) “Perfect New England Home.”

The self-described “Perfect New England home.”

According to a recent New York Times story, compensation ranges from $1,500 to $50,000 for use of a home. At least, those are city prices.

Westport is no stranger to filming. “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” “The Swimmer,” “The Stepford Wives” — all were shot, in part, right here.

So was “Manny’s Orphans” — Sean Cunningham’s unforgettable film about a hapless soccer team.

Hey, it was unforgettable to me. I was in it.

I have no idea how much Greens Farms Academy was paid for the use of their facilities.

But whatever Sean paid, it was worth it. We had a food fight of epic proportions right there in their beautiful, staid library.

And if that story doesn’t want to make you offer your home or business to the movies, nothing will.

(Click here for a direct link to the state of Connecticut’s “Locations” page. Hat tip: Fred Cantor)

Billie Eilish: The “06880” Connection

You may not have heard of Billie Eilish.

But your teen or tween certainly has.

The 18-year-old is a pop sensation. In 2017 her first EP, “Don’t Smile At Me,” hit the Top 15 in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. This year’s album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” contined Billboard Top 40 singles, including the #1 “Bad Guy.” She is the first — and so far only — artist born in the 2000s to record an American #1 single. Billie already has 8 gold and 4 platinum singles.

She lives in LA with her brother Finneas — a frequent collaborator — and her mother and father.

So why is the entertainer — whose full name is Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell “0688o”-worthy?

Because “O’Connell” comes from her father. Patrick O’Connell — who grew up at the top of Compo Hill — is a 1975 Staples High School graduate. He was an active member of Staples Players, best known for his role of John in “The Crucible.”

Billie Eilish and her father, Patrick O’Connell.

Patrick went on to Juilliard, and a career as an actor. He’s appeared in “Iron Man,” “The West Wing” and “Baskets.”

So even though you have not heard of the teen sensation until this moment, casually tell your kid, “You know Billie Eilish’s dad is from Westport, right?”

Your cool factor will rise exponentially.

(Hat tip: David Roth)

Theater Lovers: Play With Your Food — And Stephen Schwartz

In the mile-a-minute, can’t-stop-for-a-second world that is Westport today, Play With Your Food stands out.

For nearly 20 years, a lunchtime program — the deliciously named Play With Your Food — has combined a gourmet lunch, professional readings of intriguing plays, and stimulating post-performance discussion.

It’s fun, low-key, under the radar.

But when the season kicks off this year, a very big Broadway name will share the bill.

Stephen Schwartz — the multi-Grammy, Oscar and Tony winning composer (“Wicked,” “Pippin,” “Godspell”) — will entertain at “A Moveable Feast of Theater 2.0.” The benefit supports the not-for-profit Play With Your Food.

Stephen Schwartz

In addition to Schwartz’s cabaret performance (for sponsor ticket holders only), 4 one-act plays will take place throughout a private Westport home. There’s also food from AMG Catering, and cocktails from Tito’s Vodka.

Schwartz does not do these things lightly. But he’s a longtime friend of Play With Your Food artistic director Carole Schweid. They met early in their carers, when she appeared in the national tour of “Pippin.”

Stacie Lewis

Later, Schweid realized that Westport-based actress Stacie Lewis — a Play With Your Food fan favorite — had starred as Glinda in the Chicago production of “Wicked.”

Lewis is part of the “Moveable Feast” cast too. She’ll be joined by 9 other Play With Your Food actors, who will perform those comic short plays in “site-specific surroundings” throughout the house.

The full Play With Your Food season opens January 7, and runs through April. Live lunchtime performances are planned for Toquet Hall, Fairfield Theatre Company, the Greenwich Arts Council and Rye Arts Center.

Lunches — catered by local restaurants — are followed by 1-act scripted plays performed by professional actors. Many are recognizable from TV, film or theater. The talkback includes the cast and director — sometimes even the playwright.

It’s a great series. Scoring Stephen Schwartz for the gala fundraiser is just icing on the cake.

(“A Moveable Feast 2.0” is set for Sunday, October 20. The location will be revealed to ticket holders only. The sponsor ticket cabaret with Stephen Schwartz begins at 3 p.m.; the main theater event starts at 4. For tickets and more information, click here or call 203-293-8729.)

Library Fundraiser Really Mixes It Up

The Westport Library rocks!

That’s true literally — who can forget the concerts that followed Booked for the Evening events with Patti Smith and Nile Rodgers?

It’s true figuratively too. The transformed library — with its wide-open spaces, versatile stage and state-of-the-art video screen — is a fantastic venue for a dance party.

Which is exactly what happens on Saturday, October 12.

The Forum is the site of the 1st-ever Mix-It-Up Tour fundraiser. Waza — a great cover band fronted by Westporter Marty Jaramillo — will make it seem like rock legends are right there in the house library.

American Idol finalist Drew Angus — a 2007 Staples High School grad — and DJ Mo share the bill too.

A rock ‘n’ roll-inspired silent auction features works by artists Irene Penny, Stephen Goldstein, Kerry Heftman and Mark Rich.

Cocktails and bites are courtesy of Marcia Selden Catering.

When the library’s Transformation Project was underway, director Bill Harmer promised the new, versatile space would be used in creative ways no one had yet imagined.

The Mix-It-Up Tour dance party is one of those crazy-but-cool concepts that very few libraries would even think about.

In Westport, it’s just one more reason our library rocks.

(Click here for tickets, and more information.)

Lachat Lets Loose

Sure, you weren’t invited to Keith Richards’ daughter’s wedding.

Neither was I.

But us peons can still hang out there. Or at least at Lachat Town Farm, the site of the biggest event in Weston since, um, ever.

Lachat is a grassroots, volunteer-run initiative. It began when officials decided to tear down a 1770s homestead that had been deeded to the town by dairy farmer Leon Lachat.

But a group of citizens had a vision: turn the beautiful 40-acre site back into a farm.

Friends of Lachat raised enough money to restore the farmhouse. It opened in 2016.

Since then, Lachat Town Farm has become a local gathering place. A 50-plot community garden was built. A grant paid for a greenhouse. A large dairy barn was also restored.

Once a month in summer, an early evening farmer’s market with live music, children’s crafts and food trucks draws a crowd. Music in the Meadow concerts feature a variety of performances. In the winter, there’s a Fireside Concert series. Adult and children’s programs range from tai chi to pickle making.

Lachat Town Farm

It’s all done without tax dollars. The Farm is self-funded through programs, donations, grants and fundraisers.

Lachat’s major annual fundraiser is this Saturday (October 5, 4 to 8 p.m.). All ages are invited to a country barbecue and hoedown. Renowned square dance caller Eric Hollman will be accompanied by the Flying Fingers Jug Band.

The ticket price includes dinner from Odeen’s Barbecue of Ridgefield, plus wine and beer. There are no tickets at the door; click here for reservations.

NOTE: Keith Richards’ family donated $15,000 to Lachat, after the wedding. It was a great gift — but hardly enough to keep the farm operating.

Saturday’s event is great — and important.

Wild horses shouldn’t drag you away.

Photo Challenge #248

Fall is here. The Levitt Pavilion is dark.

But for dozens of nights this summer — like every other one — the Levitt lit up Westport with free concerts.

The lights above the stage were last week’s Photo Challenge (click here to see). A couple of readers guessed the Staples High School auditorium or Westport Library — but nearly everyone else nailed it. The Levitt Pavilion has tons of fans.

Congratulations to Matt Murray, Fred Rubin, Andrew O’Brien, Jack Backiel, Les Dinkin, Jay Tormey,. Seth Braunstein, Martin Gitlin, Rich Stein, Bobbie Herman, James Weisz, Seth Goltzer, Darcy Sledge, Jonathan McClure and Joelle Malec– you lit up the answers!

Amy Schneider snapped this week’s Photo Challenge. If you know where in Westport you’d find this, click “Comments” below.

And if you know who this guy is, we’d love to find out!

(Photo/Amy Schneider)

Billy Senia: A Tale Of Two Talents

Among the many things that separate Trader Joe’s from other grocery stores, its relentlessly upbeat, smilingly chatty and genuinely helpful employees are at the top of any list.

Billy Senia is one of the many Trader Joe’s folks whom Westporters love. Whether dishing out samples, checking out customers or answering questions, he’s always got a smile, a kind word and a joke.

Few people know that this is only one of his gigs. Billy is also a longtime, well respected and very talented video editor, advertising writer and director. He’s traveled the world, won countless awards, and worked with clients like Michael Jackson, MC Hammer and Aretha Franklin.

And he loves both jobs: creative and culinary.

Billy Senia

Billy moved to Westport 26 years ago from Manhattan. He and his wife were paying $40,000 a year for their 2 young children to “finger paint in pretentious schools.”

He was already successful, making commercials and music videos. Working with top agencies like BBDO, McCann Erickson, Greg and J. Walter Thompson, he cut spots for clients like Bulova, Sears, Club Med and Disney.

Through relatives and colleagues, he heard that Westport was a magnet for creative people. They moved here, and he has not been disappointed.

Twenty years ago, Billy opened his own one-stop shop: Ice Pic Edit. He commuted to Chelsea, and built a home studio here. He was innovative, turning his laptop into a “Maserati” that he took everywhere.

But the advertising and video business evolved. Now everyone does everything — shooting, editing, graphics, sound. “It’s all solo,” he laments. “There’s no team.”

Billy is all about teamwork. So 4 years ago, he applied for a job at Trader Joe’s. He loved the company’s “spirit, positivism, food, giving back philosophy and focus on people.”

He thrives on making a customer’s day brighter, with a smile or quip (or extra sample). Working at the store — his main priority — gives him energy that feeds his creative side.

Not long ago, he joined forces with Dave Fiore. They’d worked together when Fiore was chief creative officer at Catapult in Westport. Their new company is called Massiv.

One of their first projects is “Union-Built Matters.” It’s a tribute to construction unions, and sounds an alarm against developers who cut corners by using cheaper labor.

Billy is a union man through and through. “My compassionate side is to help people,” he says. “This is not a sexy subject. But it’s very important.”

He and Dave are using social media, to get the word out that “union-built matters.”

Now it’s on to new projects.

And to serving up whatever samples Trader Joe’s offers today.

Friday Flashback #161

Much has been written about Staples High School’s rich rock concert history (you know — little acts like the Doors, Cream, Byrds …)

Mark Smollin wrote a book about it. Fred Cantor followed with a movie.

But for a few months in 1967, another Westport venue booked some of the biggest bands of the day too.

The Nines Club was the brainchild of Lester Lanin. Somehow, the nationally known orchestra leader heard about an abandoned skating rink on the Post Road, next to a mini-golf course and driving range (today, the site of Lansdowne condominiums).

He converted it into a “discotheque.” There were 3 stages; when one act finished, the next immediately began.

Among the groups that played at the Nines Club: ? and the Mysterians (“96 Tears”), the Left Banke (“Walk Away Renee”), Youngbloods (“Get Together”),  Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Vanilla Fudge, Blues Magoos, Blues Project and Vagrants (with guitarist Leslie West).

An early advertisement for the Nines Club. Despite the promises, it was not a “country club without membership dues.” There was no ice skating either.

I don’t know how Lester Lanin got the idea to open a dance club in Westport. I don’t know why it lasted less than a year (though targeting the less-than-lucrative teenage market may have played a part).

I remember it only vaguely. I was in Long Lots Junior High at the time. Some friends and I were hired to help “build” it, though our contribution consisted of a few days of moving sheetrock and cinder blocks.

We were excited though: We were promised that — in return for our “work” — we would get free admission to the Nines Club.

It never happened. It’s easy to stiff 8th graders.

But I did hear ads for all those great bands on WMCA.

Morning Movies: There’s A Club For That

It’s tough owning a movie theater. Among many other pressures, you depend on brief windows of time for nearly all your revenue.

For patrons, time is tight too. Besides evenings, it’s hard to sneak away for a couple of hours to see a film.

Which is why theater owners and movie-goers alike love the Morning Movie Club.

The premise is simple: Organizers rent an entire theater. Once a month from October through May, promptly at 10 a.m., club members have their choice of any film being shown on that theater’s screens. There are no previews; you’re in and out. As the credits roll you head back to carpooling, the office or your other daily responsibilities.

The Morning Movie Club came to Fairfield County thanks to Kerry Anderson and Michelle Howe. The women heard of a similar effort in New Jersey, and figured it would be perfect for this area.

Kerry Anderson (left) and Michelle Howe.

Kerry’s background is in banking; she also served as director of Swim Across America. When her first son was born she stepped out of the workforce. But she wanted to engage her mind, in the limited hours she had.

Kerry and Michelle proposed a Morning Movie Club to their local Bowtie theater in Greenwich. That’s the same company the New Jersey club used; the owners knew the formula worked.

The Greenwich Bowtie has 3 screens. It’s an “arts theater,” so the films are targeted to adults.

Last year, the Morning Movie Club expanded to a 4-screen Wilton Bowtie. It’s a “family theater,” meaning many of the offerings were “kid-friendly.”

Too kid-friendly, in fact. Which is why this year, the Morning Movie Club has moved its Wilton chapter to Westport.

Well, Kerry calls it Westport. They use the Bowtie in Norwalk — just over the border on Route 1, which in our neighboring town is called Westport Avenue.

It’s a great venue. There are 6 screens; the seats are very comfortable, and there’s a full concession stand. (Including a bar. Kerry notes drily, “I hope our folks don’t use it at 10 a.m.”)

It really is a “club.” A yearly membership costs $100, for 8 movies. Non-members are not allowed in to the morning movies.

Organizers also partner with local businesses, offering amenities like discounts. In Westport that includes Shoes & More, Aux Delices and Green & Tonic.

A photo from the Morning Movie Club website.

Morning Movie Club members include stay-at-home parents, and those with paying jobs. There are also retirees, like Kerry’s father. He’s in his 80s; he doesn’t like to drive at night, so the show time — and lunch after, with friends — is perfect.

“The idea is so simple. You slow down, and take 2 hours for yourself, to see a film,” Kerry says. “You may be better in the office, or as a mom, afterward.”

It’s all pretty clear. In fact, the only question mark is which movie to see.

Theater managers make purchasing decisions on Mondays, Kerry says. As soon as they do, she and Michelle send an email with that month’s options to all members. They add preview links to all films on that theater’s screens.

Which is great. Because there are no previews at the morning movies themselves.

That in itself is worth the subscription price.

(For more information on the Morning Movie Club, click here.)

Movie Theater Downtown: It’s Remarkable!

The Westport Public Schools do a wonderful job providing opportunities to students with disabilities.

But at age 21, they age out. Meanwhile, the state has cut funding for day programs for adults with disabilities.

A group of parents has a goal: increase employment for area men and women with physical and intellectual disabilities.

The result: a remarkable idea.

The parents were inspired by the Prospector Theater in Ridgefield. It shows first-run films; 65% of employees are people with disabilities.

Meanwhile, a different group of Westporters worked for years, trying to open a theater downtown. They had a name — Westport Cinema Initiative — but no building and little funding.

Stacie Curran and Marina Derman — longtime Westporters with sons with disabilities — met with Doug Tirola. As a Staples High School graduate, current resident and president of documentary producer 4th Row Films, he was perfectly positioned to help.

The 2 groups merged. Now they’re poised to bring a theater to Westport. It will train and employ people with disabilities.

And — in a brilliant homage to Westport’s history and arts heritage — it will be called the Remarkable Theater.

The name — as Tirola, Curran, Derman and thousands of others know — honors the Remarkable Book Shop. That’s the longtime, beloved and still-mourned store at the corner of Main Street and Parker Harding Plaza (now the still-closed Talbots).

Curran came up with the brilliant name. Mark Kramer and Wendy Kramer Posner — whose mother Esther owned the shop — are “thrilled, honored and completely supportive,” says Derman.

“It’s a reminder of a time when downtown was homey, friendly, warm and fun,” Curran adds. “And people with disabilities are remarkable.”

Remarkably too, today is National Arthouse Theater Day. That’s exactly the type of theater the Remarkable will be.

Tirola calls it a “state-of-the-art, independent arthouse theater.” It will show independent and older films. Think of New York’s Film Forum, he says.

You’ll still go to a multiplex for the latest “Star Wars” sequel. But the Remarkable will be the place to go for many intriguing films. On Veterans Day, for example, it might screen a series of historical movies. If a famous director dies, it’s flexible enough to quickly mount a tribute.

Among the Westporters working on the Remarkable Theater project: Front (from left): Joanna Borner, Marina Derman, Deirdre Teed, Stacie Curran. Rear: Doug Tirola, Kristin Ehrlich, Angie Wormser, State Representative Jonathan Steinberg, Diane Johnson.

The theater will be a venue for talkbacks too. Other groups — particularly schools — will be invited to use the space.

Tirola, Curran, Derman and others have already secured a $50,000 grant from the state Department of Developmental Services. Funds will pay for equipment and movie screenings.

Pop-up screenings could begin before the theater opens. Organizers hope to break ground 2 years from now.

As for where it will be: They’d love a downtown site. They’ve begun talking with landlords, looking for options.

After several years, there’s real movement for a movie theater in Westport. The curtain is rising on this remarkable story.

(For more information — or to help — click here, or email marina@remarkabletheater.org).