Category Archives: Entertainment

Lisa Addario’s “Dear Dictator”

More than a dozen years ago, Lisa Addario and her husband/screenwriting partner Joe Syracuse had an idea. Saddam Hussein was in hiding. What if the Iraqi president showed up in suburbia?

The script became a Hollywood favorite. It made the “black list”: top executives’ favorite un-produced scripts.

For more than a decade, it remained unmade.

Meanwhile, Lisa — a 1986 Staples graduate — and Joe had plenty of success. They wrote “Parental Guidance,” starring Billy Crystal and Bette Midler; “Surf’s Up,” an animated penguin film, and “Amateur Night,” based on Joe’s real-life adventures driving hookers around Los Angeles, while Lisa was pregnant with their daughter.

Joe Syracuse and Lisa Addario.

A financier who loved “Amateur Night” wondered what happened to that Hussein script (at that point, called “Coup d’état”). When he heard “nothing,” he agreed to raise funds for it.

Which took another couple of years.

Finally, shooting was about to begin. But Anthony Hopkins’ schedule no longer worked. When he pulled out, so did a major financial backer.

Michael Caine replaced Hopkins. Then — at the very last minute — Maisie Williams dropped out too.

At last, the cast — including Katie Holmes and Odeya Rush — was ready. They and the crew assembled in Savannah.

It was a “brutal, grueling” shoot, Lisa says. But, she notes, “most indie movies have a back story.”

The Hollywood Reporter called it “fiercely funny social satire,” adding:

There’s not much humor to be found in contemporary world affairs. Clearly what’s needed is a pointed satire highlighting the inherent absurdity governing global politics today, and “Coup d’Etat” may just fit the bill.

At last, the film — now called “Dear Dictator” — is ready for release. It will play in 10 cities, beginning Friday, March 16. The New York venue is the IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue, at West Third Street).

Lisa says the long wait was well worth it. “Nothing ever turns out the way you expected,” she says. “But I think we have a great movie.”

She and Joe are now shopping “Scissor Happy.” It’s her take on growing up in the 1980s, with 3 sisters and a gay hairdresser father.

“People love that script too!” she says happily.

Hopefully, audiences won’t have to wait until 2030 to see it.

(Besides its theatrical release, “Dear Dictator” will be available for purchase on cable VOD, iTunes and Amazon beginning March 16.)

Friday Flashback #81

From the March on Washington and discussions of pay inequality to the #MeToo movement, women’s issues are hot topics of national debate.

Just as they were in the “women’s lib” days of 1975.

That year, “The Stepford Wives” — Ira Levin’s satirical novel about suburban men and their fawning, zombie-like, beautiful and big-breasted wives — was released as a full-length film.

Stepford Wives, in a Westport supermarket.

Though Levin said he based the book on Wilton — where he’d lived in the 1960s — the movie was shot largely in Westport.

And most Americans made little distinction between the 2 towns. “Stepford Wife” quickly became national shorthand for the vapid, monotonous lives of suburban housewives — and the shallow regard they’re held in by the men who marry them.

It still is.

Alert “06880” reader Billy Nistico unearthed a 2001 documentary on the making of “The Stepford Wives.” It focuses largely on the screenplay and casting, but shows a few scenes from the film — including one near the train station — plus interviews.

Director Bryan Forbes recalls that he and his wife — actress Nanette Newman — rented a house in Westport for nearly a year. Their children went to local schools; their daughter graduated from Staples High.

Bryan Forbes directing Katharine Ross, in Westport.

“I enjoyed it,” he said of his time in Westport. He chose to film here for our “white picket fences and manicured lawns.” All scenes were real; no sets were built.

Others in the documentary recall renting houses near each other, eating outdoors together, and enjoying the suburban life their film was about to skewer.

And, Forbes notes, the film was not anti-female. It was actually anti-male.

“Anyone who wants to change his wife by enlarging her breasts” is someone of the lowest order, he explains.

Click below, to see the 2001 documentary called “The Stepford Life.” Discussion of Westport begins around the 12:00 mark.

 

Remembering Patsy Englund

“06880” Mark Basile was surprised that the death in January of his longtime friend — and fellow actor — Patsy Englund did not receive any local notice. She was 93. Mark writes:

I knew and loved Patsy for 26 years. We met at the Theatre Actors Workshop. She was a very impressive woman.

Patsy Englund

Patsy’s mother, Mabel Albertson, played Darren’s mother on “Bewitched.” Her uncle was Jack Albertson, Academy Award-winning actor for “The Subject Was Roses.”

Patsy was raised in Beverly Hills by Mabel Englund and  her husband Ken. He was a screenwriter whose credits include “No No Nanette” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

At UCLA, Patsy was directed by Charlie Chaplin in a production of “Rain.” After college she went into the Broadway company of “Oklahoma!” She then did the London production, returning to New York to take over the role of Ado Annie. She also toured the US with that show.

Patsy was then cast in Katharine Hepburn’s Broadway production of “As You Like It.” That’s where she met Cloris Leachman — who married Patsy’s brother George.

Patsy Englund in “As You Like It.”

During the 1950s Patsy did dozens of live TV dramas, including “Playhouse 90” and “Studio One,” while continuing to perform on Broadway and in regional theater. She married Dunham Barney Lefferts. They had a son, Nick, who survives her.

For several years, the family rented a 1920s cottage on Norwalk Avenue in Westport. They then bought it, and Patsy lived there permanently from about 1962 to 2002.

She was visiting Nick when Hurricane Sandy destroyed the house. She moved back to California, and lived there until her death.

In the early 1960s — while living in Westport — Patsy performed in the groundbreaking political satire TV show “That Was the Week That Was,” with David Frost. She also starred on Broadway in “The Beauty Part,” with Larry Hagman.

Patsy Englund (2nd from left) in “The Beauty Part.” The show — which also starred Bert Lahr and Larry Hagman — opened during a newspaper strike. That cost the production valuable publicity.

Throughout the ’60s Patsy commuted to New York while acting on several long-running soap operas. She also worked at Long Wharf, the Manhattan Theatre Club — and the Westport Country Playhouse.

In the mid-’80s, Patsy helped Keir Dullea and his wife Susie Fuller form the Theatre Artists Workshop. Longtime members included Theodore Bikel, Morton DaCosta, David Rogers, Haila Stoddard, and Ring Lardner Jr.

They met once a week to workshop new plays, scenes and songs, to audition pieces, and get constructive critiques from peers. The Workshop was housed at Greens Farms Elementary School and the Westport Arts Center, before moving to Norwalk.

Patsy Englund with Jim Noble of “Benson” in rehearsal at the Theatre Arts Workshop.

Patsy performed many play readings — including benefits for the Westport Library, Westport Historical Society and Westport Woman’s Club — during her 55 years in Westport.

She loved Westport very much, and is one of the great Westporters who contributed so much to the artistic legacy of this town.

The Most Interesting Person In Westport Drinks Tea

In a town filled with world leaders in finance, entertainment and industries that don’t even have names, there is no shortage of candidates for The Most Interesting Person in Westport.

Today’s candidate is Jonathan Greenfield.

I can’t — in one blog post — do justice to the many things he’s done. But here’s a brief summary of his life (so far):

He dropped out of NYU, then found himself a member of Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires.

Without even an undergraduate degree, Greenfield was accepted into the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s avant-garde MFA program.

But he left.

His sister had been a child actor, and Greenfield himself had been on “Another World” before he was 5. So when an agent invited him to California, he went.

He drank coffee, hung out, picked up a camera, and started shooting: homeless people in LA, the beach at Venice.

During Operation Gatekeeper — President Clinton’s attempt to halt Mexican immigration — Greenfield talked his way into photographing what went on on both sides of the border, in San Diego and Arizona.

A 1990s-era border wall. (Photo/Jonathan Greenfield)

He also made money photographing actors, and doing other photography “stuff.” This phase of his life is not suitable for a family blog.

In New York, he started photographing for brands like Laura Ashley. He said “yes” to everything. No one knew how little experience he had.

Greenfield had grown up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Now he was drawn to Camden, the dangerous city a few miles — and many worlds — away.

He photographed it all, from churches to crack houses. He also made a documentary about Camden. That hooked him on filmmaking.

At the same time, Greenfield was freelancing for the New York Times. One of his photos showed Governor Christine Todd Whitman in a muskrat swamp.

He met a woman named Susanne. They applied to an elite master’s degree film program in Germany. Both were accepted.

He made documentaries for German TV, on subjects like drug addicts in rough neighborhoods, and homeless neo-Nazi transvestites.

Wherever he went, Jonathan Greenfield found interesting subjects. (Photo/Jonathan Greenfield)

A project filming German Jews serving in the Israeli Defense Forces during the 2nd Intifada was — among his many projects — one of the most memorable.

On an extended visit in New York, Greenfield met Iris Netzer. She got pregnant. He stuck by her side. That was the end of his European career.

Greenfield had a show in development with Animal Planet. It featured high-end dog groomers from Yonkers, working in Scarsdale. He got great footage, but it was never greenlit.

Greenfield and Iris had a 2nd child. then a 3rd. Fatherhood changed him dramatically.

His father — a doctor who gave up his practice to trade commodities — told him to give it a try.

Greenfield did. He did very well.

But he missed the adventure and excitement of filmmaking.

In 2015 he got a concussion playing ice hockey. He was drinking a lot of tea.

He had an epiphany: He should focus on tea.

Greenfield found the Tea Association of the USA. He learned as much as he could. He traveled to Seattle, to become a certified tea specialist.

Jonathan Greenfield, recently.

These days, Greenfield is branding a budding tea company. He teaches for the Specialty Tea Institute.

He also surfs year round in Rockaway Beach. And he’s training for a triathlon.

He no longer feels the need to travel the world. He’s put his camera down. He loves tea. He’s at every game or swim meet for his kids. He skateboards with his son.

He does the books, and assists with marketing and social media for Iris’ acupuncture practice — she’s got a thriving business in New York, and a new studio called Noa (specializing in women) on Franklin Street near the train station.

“I’m just trying to go moment to moment,” Greenfield says. “I’m living the stoke.”

There may be other, equally interesting people in Westport.

But I know there is no one else in the world with a story quite like Jonathan Greenfield’s.

“Abacus”: Academy Award Campaign Starts Here

Next month, the eyes of Westport will focus on Justin Paul. The 2003 Staples High School graduate/songwriting wunderkid could win his 2nd consecutive Academy Award — this time for best original song (“This Is Me,” from “The Greatest Showman”).

Most Westporters will not be as excited by the Best Documentary Feature category.

But most Westporters are not Erin Owens.

Erin Owens

She’s a high-ranking executive with PBS Distribution. Part of her job involves promoting Oscar nominees to the people who matter most: the 7,000 voters.

Right now she’s working on “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.”

And she’s doing it right here in Saugatuck.

“Abacus” tells the story of the tiny, family-owned Chinatown community bank that — because it was “small enough to jail, not too big to fail” — became the only financial institution to be prosecuted after the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.

Competition is tough. PBS’ “Abacus” goes up against 4 other documentaries. Two are distributed by Netflix. They spend a lot more money.

But Owens is happy to battle the big boys. (Interestingly, “Abacus” director Steve James also directed “Hoop Dreams,” a film about overcoming great odds.)

So she’s sending James to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco for promotional events. She’s also devising many other ways to make sure that the independent film’s compelling story gets in front of the folks who count.

Owens and her husband Mark Kirby moved to Westport 3 years ago. She worked with Long Shot Factory, a distribution and consulting company specializing in documentary ad and educational campaigns.

She particularly enjoyed her PBS projects. Last January, she began working full-time, in-house with them.

It’s a short walk from her home in Saugatuck to Westport Innovative Hub — the popular co-working space on Ketchum Street.

Owens’ 2 partners work remotely too — from Woodstock, New York and North Carolina. Together, they’re pushing “Abacus” as hard and far as they can.

This is not Owens’ first Academy Award race. She spearheaded “Waste Land” in 2010 and “Hell and Back Again” in 2011, and worked on 5 other campaigns.

Voting takes place February 20-27. The Oscars ceremony is March 4.

Justin Paul may grab the headlines the morning after.

But don’t count out “Abacus.”

(“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is available for free on Amazon Prime, and by clicking here.) 

Library Flexes Its Transformation

The Westport Library’s renovation project involves much more than a facelift.

It’s a Transformation — they capitalize the word — in which every interior space is reimagined and redesigned to respond to the ever-changing needs of 21st-century users.

One of the elements of the new facility is “flexibility.”

So — in the midst of the 18-month effort — officials are sponsoring “Flex.” The 5-day series of innovative programs offers a tantalizing taste of  just how flexible and creative the new library will be.

The Westport Library’s Transformation Project includes a “forum” on the main floor. As construction proceeds, that same Great Hall will be the site of several “Flex” events.

“Flex” brings together art, cinema, music, dance, food, authors and more. Some events are free; others are fundraisers to support the library.

All are worth checking out.

“Flex” begins on Wednesday, March 21 (12-3 p.m.). Jane Green — Westport’s own multi-million-selling author — hosts a celebrity lunch. Sam Kass — former Obama White House chef, senior policy advisor for nutrition, and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign executive director — will deliver a keynote address, and sign copies of his “Eat a Little Better” book. James Beard Award winner Elissa Altman emcees. (Tickets: $150)

That night (Wednesday, March 21, 7 p.m.), the Friedman Gallery in Bedford Square) is the site for Moth-style storytelling about rock ‘n’ roll. With Michael Friedman’s stunning photos as a backdrop, local residents Mark Naftalin, Crispin Cioe, Roger Kaufman, Wendy May, Bari Alyse Rudin, Cassie St. Onge, Rusty Ford and others will talk about their amazing experiences in the music world. Full disclosure: I’m emceeing, and will toss in a tale or two myself. (Tickets: $50)

Michael Friedman in his pop-up gallery. His photo shows Levon Helm, drummer for The Band.

Four events are planned for Thursday, March 22. At 9 and 10 a.m., the Great Hall is the site of 2 dance-a-thon classes led by Jose Ozuna, an actor, dancer and Ailey Extension instructor. Prizes will be supplied by Athleta, Soleil Toile and Faces Beautiful. (Free)

At 1 and 3 p.m., the Great Hall transforms into a theater. Matinee movies feature Westport’s own Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. (Tickets $25)

The Great Hall changes again, for a 7 p.m. food lovers’ Q-and-A with internationally known food writer Ruth Reichl, and a celebrity panel including local chef/restaurateur Bill Taibe, sustainability expert Annie Farrell and “entertainologist” Lulu Powers. (Tickets: $75)

The day ends at the Whelk, with a 9 p.m. dinner with Reichl and guests. (Tickets: $500)

Bill Taibe serves up octopus and squid at The Whelk. He’ll be joined by Ruth Reichl as part of the Westport Library’s “Flex” programming.

Friday, March 23 is “unplugged” — a day of relaxing with author readings and live music in the Great Hall. Area writers include Alisyn Camerota, Fiona Davis, Nina Sankovitch, Lynne Constantine, Catherine Onyemelukwe, Carole Schweid and Suzanne Krauss. Among the local musicians (3:15 to 8 p.m.): Brian Dolzani, Twice Around, the Mike Cusato Band, Ethan Walmark, and Suzy Bessett and Rob Morton. (Suggested donation: $25)

The Great Hall transforms yet again on Saturday, March 24. This time it’s a performance and party space. A gala evening of food, dancing and fun stars Chevy Chevis and her band, honoring local treasure Eartha Kitt. After dinner (7 to 9 p.m.) things heat up with a dance party (9 p.m. to 1 a.m.) featuring live music, a noted mixologist and a dessert extravaganza. (Tickets: $500 entire evening, $250 dance party only)

“Flex” ends on Sunday, March 25 with a family day (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.): arts and crafts, face painting, magic and more. Tech guru and Westport resident David Pogue kicks off the event, which includes story times with local authors Victoria Kann (“Pinkalicious”), Joshua Prince (“I Saw an Ant on the Railroad Tracks”), Tommy Greenwald and Lauren Tarshis, plus illustrator Tim Fite. Participants can also write a love letter to the library, with artist/storyteller Diego Romero and the Typing Machine. (Free)

David Pogue brings his creative mind to the Westport Library’s “Flex” family event.

“Flex: is curated by Westport Library creative director Moshe Aelyon. He’s a noted event planner and design expert.

Moshe is very talented.

And — like the event he has planned, at the library he serves — extremely flexible.

(For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here.)

Thanks, T. Hanks

On Friday, “06880” highlighted a great new Westport store. Tucked in behind Little Barn, Backspace is a spot where folks can admire and buy old typewriters — or pound out poetry, prose, even a thank-you note.

Readers flooded the comments section with praise for the concept.

One suggested that owner Karin Kessler contact Tom Hanks. In addition to his day job, he’s an avid typewriter collector.

Karin replied:

He does not give email address, only a physical one. Wants people to actually take the time to write a letter. I have typed him 4 letters so far. I think he will respond when he actually receives one – don’t know who passes along mail. In his movie “California Typewriters” he says he would respond if someone typed him a letter. We will see!

Cohl Katz — the popular local hairstylist who counts Tom Hanks (among many other A-listers) as a client — heard about Karin’s quest. Cohl suggested Instagram. (He’s @tomhanks — and, she says, he loves seeing photos of cool typewriters.)

Karin immediately posted a photo, with a link to the story.

And — just as immediately — Tom typed a letter in return.

Karin was thrilled to hear back. She promises to let us know if when he stops by her store.

I gotta say: I think it’s pretty cool that he read “06880” too.

“Phantom” Hits 30; Dodie Pettit Remembers Kevin Gray

“Phantom of the Opera” is the longest-running production in Broadway history.

The other day, the musical celebrated its 30th anniversary with a gala. The original cast was honored at curtain call, sharing the stage with current actors.

Among those taking a well-deserved bow: original company member Dodie Pettit.

It was a bittersweet moment. The longtime Westporter met her husband, Kevin Gray, during the show. He was the youngest actor to play the title role.

Gray — a 1976 Staples High School graduate, who learned his craft with Staples Players — died in 2013 of a heart attack. He was just 55.

Dodie Pettit, at the 30th anniversary gala.

Two years later, Pettit produced a tribute CD. She gathered over 170 Broadway singers, including 10 from the “Phantom” cast. Each had a personal connection to Kevin and Dodie.

Westport was well represented on the CD, by Terry Eldh, Adam Riegler, Paul McKibbins, and of course Pettit.

All proceeds go to scholarships in Kevin’s name, at his alma mater Duke University, and the University of Hartford’s Hartt School, where he taught (and where the Kevin Gray Foundation was organized by Westporters Peter Byrne and Jamie Wisser).

Pettit made sure to mention the CD, during gala interviews. After all, he was an integral part of the show’s amazing history.

And if “Phantom” runs 30 more years, Pettit will make sure that Kevin Gray is remembered then too.

The “Kevin Gray: Forever Always” CD is available for sale on iTunes, Amazon and by clicking here.

Dodie Pettit is interviewed in the video below:

 

“The High School That Rocked!” Rocks Rock Hall Of Fame

Ever since 1995, a video of Steve Tyler’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame speech has played on an endless loop in the Cleveland museum.

In 1966 his band — the Chain Reaction — opened for the Yardbirds. And that, Aerosmith’s leader said, inspired him to have a career in music.

That concert — along with others by the Doors, Cream, Rascals, Animals, Remains and Sly and the Family Stone — has become legendary. “The High School That Rocked!” — a documentary by Fred Cantor (Staples ’71, perhaps the only Westport teenager of that era who did not go to one of those concerts ) and Casey Denton (Staples ’14, who obviously was born way after that golden era) — pays homage to them. It was released last year, and earned high praise on the festival circuit.

Now it too has reached the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

On Saturday, February 17, the documentary will be screened — on its own loop — prior to the Tri-C High School Rock Off Final Exams. That’s the championship round of a competition for teenage groups. Prizes include cash, scholarships, and an invitation to play during this year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction week.

It’s all part of the Rock & Roll Hall’s 2018 film series. Other subjects explore rap, Lady Gaga, Nina Simone, Native Americans in popular music history, the music executive who signed Metallica and White Zombie, the Monkees, Prince and Hüsker Dü.

You may not get to Cleveland for the Staples concerts video. You may have missed it at its sold-out showings here in Westport.

But — in the words of Neil Young — “rock and roll can never die.”So click here to download “The High School That Rocked!”

Tell ’em Steve Tyler sent you.

ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME BONUS FEATUREClick below for the Steve Tyler video mentioned above.

Cabaret!

Broadway was dark last night. That’s a Monday tradition.

But a capacity crowd at Christ & Holy Trinity Church’s Branson Hall enjoyed an evening of entertainment as show-stopping as anything you’ll see in New York.

Tony Award-winning Kelli O’Hara and “A Bronx Tale” lead Adam Kaplan headlined an all-star cabaret. It was a fundraiser for Staples Orphenians, who travel to Australia this summer for performances and workshops.

Kelli O’Hara, at last night’s cabaret. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

O’Hara — a Westport resident — wowed the crowd with her operatic voice. She was full of praise for Staples’ stellar a cappella group, who she first heard perform last spring, at the Levitt Pavilion.

Standing in the church hall loft, the Orphenians — led by choral director Luke Rosenberg, down below — accompanied O’Hara on 2 compelling numbers.

Kaplan — a 2008 Staples graduate — recalled his days in the music and drama programs. At Elon University, he said, he talked so much about his high school that his friends joked there were 3 levels of performance: “Elon, Broadway, and at the top, Staples.”

Adam Kaplan (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

The cabaret also featured Staples grads Clay Singer and Caroline Didelot, and solos by 9 Orphenians.

(Click here for the Orphenians’ GoFundMe page.)