Category Archives: History

Roundup: Vaccine, Beach, Tennis …

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Over 100 pharmacies will soon be administering COVID vaccines — and one of them is in Westport.

That’s Achorn Pharmacy, in the Playhouse Square shopping center.

Governor Ned Lamont’s office said the sites will open over “the next several days.”

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Lifeguards won’t be back at Compo Beach until Memorial Day. But right before Easter Weekend, crews were hard at work getting Compo Beach ready for the season.

(Photo/Patricia McMahon)

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For over 20 years, Joseph Oyebog has taught tennis all over Westport.

The former Cameroon Davis Cup player retains strong ties to his homeland. In 1999 he founded the Oyebog Tennis Academy. Westporters have been strong supporters of the project, which provides Cameroonian children with coaching, education and life values.

John McEnroe is a supporter too. He called his friend Yannick Noah. After the French star visited OTA in February, a video went viral.

But money is tight. The annual fundraiser at Intensity was canceled by COVID — for the second straight year.

Board members — many of whom live in Westport — are searching for a corporate sponsor, as well as donations of any amount. Click here to help.

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Up on Weston’s Kellogg Hill, Jolantha looks forward to Easter.

(Photo/Hans Wilhelm)

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And finally … on this day in 1964, Beatlemania had taken over America. The lads from Liverpool had the top 5 — five! — songs on Billboard’s Top 100. From #1 on down: “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Please Please Me.”

But that’s not all. The Beatles had 7 — seven! — other songs on the list: “I Saw Her Standing There” (#31), “From Me to You” (#41), “Do You Want to Know a Secret” (#46), “All My Loving” (#58), “You Can’t Do That” (#65), “Roll Over Beethoven” (#68) and “Thank You Girl” (#79).

Take that, Harry Styles!

Stations Of The Cross Honors Racial Justice

A few dozen Westporters celebrated Good Friday yesterday through a marking of the Stations of the Cross. The walk was a call to dismantle racism, and pursue racial justice.

“Give us eyes to see how the past has shaped the complex present,” said Rev. John Betit of Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

Participants stopped at several sites related to Black history in Westport. Christ & Holy Trinity, Saugatuck Congregational Church and the Westport Museum of History & Culture collaborated for the event.

After an initial prayer in the Christ & Holy Trinity courtyard, the group headed to the entrance of the church parking lot on Elm Street.

Rev. John Betis, at Christ & Holy Trinity Church: the first Station of the Cross. (Photo/Rev. Alison Patton)

They looked across at Bedford Square. In the 1940s, it was the back of a boarding house — accessible through an alley at 22 1/2 Main Street (later the entrance to Bobby Q’s) — that was the hub of a thriving Black community.

By 1949 though, it was considered a slum. The town would not grant permits for improvements. In December, residents asked the RTM to be considered for the affordable housing being built at Hales Court. They were denied.

In January 1950 — 8 days after a newspaper wondered what would happen if a fire broke out there — that is exactly what happened. Unable to obtain housing anywhere else in town, the Black community scattered — and disappeared forever.

Heading to the next Station of the Cross. (Photo courtesy of Christ & Holy Trinity Church)

The next station was the site of the former Ebenezer Coley general store, at the Main Street entrance to Parker Harding Plaza. The original outline of that saltbox building remains; it’s the former Remarkable Book Shop and (later) Talbots.

The river came up to the back of the store. Enslaved people loaded grain grown at the Coley farm onto ships bound for New York. There it was loaded onto larger ships, which sailed to the West Indies where it fed other enslaved Blacks.

The group then walked a few steps to the Museum of History & Culture. Ebenezer Coley’s son Michael owned the home at the corner of Avery Place and Myrtle Avenue. He managed the Coley store, and oversaw the enslaved people.

Bricks bear the names of over 240 enslaved and 20 free people of color, part of the parish of Greens Farms Congregational Church. They appear in the church log book as births, baptisms, marriages and deaths.

Owners brought their enslaved people into church for services, though they — and freemen — had to stand in the balcony above the sanctuary.

Bricks at the Westport Museum of History & Culture honor more than 200 Black men, women and children from the 18th and 19th centuries. (Photo/Rev. Alison Patton)

A short walk up Evergreen Avenue brought the group to the Saugatuck Church cemetery. Cyrus Brown — who, like many others affecte by racism and legal bias, went from being a landowner and farmer to a servant of the Gorham family — is buried there.

Brown’s relationship with the Gorhams was evidently strong. He is buried in the family’s plot, with a high quality headstone of his own.

A stop at Evergreen Cemetery. (Photo/Rev. Alison Patton)

After that final station, worshipers walked through the woods to the Saugatuck Church property. The labyrinth on the lawn provided space and time for  final Good Friday reflections.

Walking through the woods, to Saugatuck Church. (Photo/Rev. Alison Patton)

A final stop at Saugatuck Church. (Photo/Bob Mitchell)

(Historical background provided by the Westport Museum for History & Culture.)

Roundup: Operation Varsity Blues, Christopher Lloyd, Women’s Voices …

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Operation Varsity Blues” — the Netflix movie about the rich-and-famous college admissions scandal — has taken America by storm.

There’s a Westport angle. Thankfully, it has nothing to do with a parent pretending his or her child was a star water polo player, even if he or she cannot swim.

“Operation Varsity Blues” was written and edited by Jon Karmen. He’s the 2008 Staples High School graduate who made a huge name for himself there as half of “Rubydog” — a moviemaking duo who, working with media instructor Jim Honeycutt, made a number of way-beyond-high school videos back in the day. (Click here to see some of their pioneering work.)

Karmen is known too as the writer/director of “Fyre” (2019), a behind-the-scenes look at that infamous music festival.

“Varsity Blues” was #3 on Netflix’s Top 10 Most Watched Movies & TV Shows yesterday. But it wasn’t the only one with an “06880” connection. Jamie Mann’s “Country Comfort” checked in at #7. (Hat tip: Kerry Long)

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Speaking of Staples: More than 60 years after helping found Staples Players, Christopher Lloyd is still acting.

In 1958 he was a Staples High School student who wanted to do more than just act in a class play. He found a mentor in English teacher Craig Matheson. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lloyd went on to a career that includes “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Star Trek III,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and 2 “Addams Family” films.

At 82 years old, he’s got a new movie: “Senior Moment.” He stars with Jean Smart and William Shatner, who play a pair of older star-crossed lovers in an old-school romcom.

Lloyd talks about that project; his 5 wives — and growing up in Westport — in a wide-ranging Guardian interview. He was the youngest of 8 children, though the closest in age was 7 years older. Click here for the full interview. (Hat tip: Jeff Mitchell)’

Christopher Lloyd in “Senior Moment.”

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Speaking again of Staples: Staples history classes absolutely crushed the National History Day regional competition.

Their papers, documentaries and exhibits examined everything from the Daughters of the Confederacy and Queer Communications in the Age of Oppression to Crypto-Analysis in World War I, Cigarette Advertising and the Freedom Riders.

How dominant was Staples? 32 students placed. There were only 5 other winners in the entire region, from just 2 other schools.

Placing first were Ishan Prasad, Sabrina Paris, Maya Hruskar, Lilly Weisz, Srushti Karve, William Jin, Michael Nealon, Zachary Brody, Jeffrey Pogue, Jack Ginsburg, Preston Norris, Tyler Clark and Matthew Gatto.

Finishing second were Nikos Ninios, Franca Strandell, Camille Vynerib, Julet Tracey, Lily Klau, Olivia Stubbs, Hannah Fiarman, Franky Lockenour, James Dobin-Smith, Coco Laska, Karlie Saed and Sarp Gurdogan.

Taking third were Sebastian Miller, Analise Vega, Emma Porzio, Arda Ernamli, Hannah Conn, Samantha Paris and Ethan Cukier.

Their (superb) teachers are Drew Coyne, Nell-Ann Lynch, Cathy Schager and Kelly Zrenda.

Up next: state and (hopefully) national competition.

A US championship? That would be historic.

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Speaking once again of the arts: On Tuesday (March 30, 7 p.m.), the Westport Country Playhouse presents a world premiere of “New Works/New Voices.” These 4 new pieces — all written by community members — honor women who inspired them: Constance Baker Motley, Anne Bogart, Mary Freeman, Mary McLeod Bethune and Gloria Steinem.

Local storytellers and actors will bring to life these very personal, beautiful stories recorded on the WCP stage.

Viewers are invited to pay what they can. 50% of ticket sales and donations during the broadcast go to the Playhouse’s community partner, Women’s Mentoring Network, providing career, educational and personal resources for the economic empowerment of low-income women and their families.

Click here to register for “New Works/New Voices.”

The artists and storytellers who will bring 5 women’s stories to life.

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Westporter Rob Simmelkjaer was confirmed yesterday, by a bipartisan State Senate vote, as chair of the Connecticut Lottery.

It’s a volunteer — but quite active — role he’s served in since May. Area senators Will Haskell and Bob Duff spoke warmly on the media executive’s behalf.

Rob Simmelkjaer

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Update from Parks & Rec: The concession stand at Compo Beach will open in mid-April. Last year, during COVID, it opened late, and ran only from a trailer adjacent to the brick building.

The concession stand at Compo Beach will be open next month.

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MoCA Westport has added 5 members to its board of directors. Two are from Westport.

Jennifer Kanfer has served on the board of The Conservative Synagogue, including co-chair of the Social Action, Membership and Fundraising Committees. and with the Coleytown Elementary School PTA. She previously worked in healthcare communications for 14 years. She holds a BA in political science from the University of Michigan, an MPA in healthcare policy and administration from NYU, and an MBA in Finance from NYU’s Stern School.

Samantha Yanks is an award-winning editor with over 20 years experience in luxury fashion and lifestyle publishing. In 2018 she launched a social, digital and branding agency, Samantha Yanks Creative. She was most recently editor-in- chief of Gotham and Hamptons magazines. As senior accessories editor at O, she collaborated closely with Oprah Winfrey. Yanks has discussed fashion, beauty and lifestyle on “The Today Show” and “NBC Nightly News,” “New York Live,” “Good Day New York,” E!, the Martha Stewart and Howard Stern shows, and more. She graduated from Tulane University.

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‘Tis the season — for both holiday lights and daffodils.

(Photo/Tracy Porosoff)

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And finally … the great — and greatly underrated — Billy Stewart was born today, in 1937. He died in 1970, only 32 years old.

If you only have time to listen to one song, it’s “Summertime.” But everything he touched was a classic.

 

Fanne Foxe Dies. Yes, There’s A Westport Connection.

Back in the days when sex scandals could actually ruin a political career, Fanne Foxe was at the center of a doozy.

At 2 a.m. in October 1974, police pulled over a Lincoln Continental that was speeding, without headlights, near the Jefferson Memorial.

The Washington Post recalls:

A female passenger in an evening gown ran from the car, climbed the stone parapet along the Tidal Basin and — acting on what she later described as a frantic impulse — leaped headfirst into the frigid, inky water. Her splashdown would ripple into one of the capital’s most infamous sex scandals.

The woman, 38-year-old Annabel Battistella, was a plumage-shaking striptease dancer with the stage name Fanne Foxe. She was billed as “the Argentine Firecracker,” and patrons of the local burlesque circuit were captivated by her elaborate costumes — complete with five-foot-tall headdresses and tropical-colored ostrich and pheasant feathers — as well as the artfulness with which she removed them.

Fanne Foxe

On that particular night, after a boozy party at the Silver Slipper club, where she had performed, she got into a loud quarrel with her married lover….

With her plunge into the Tidal Basin, Ms. Battistella (later Annabel Montgomery), who died Feb. 10 at 84, secured her place in the annals of political scandal. Standing near the car — drunk and bleeding — was her paramour, 65-year-old Wilbur Mills, the gravelly voiced chairman of the tax-writing U.S. House Ways and Means Committee and a man esteemed as a pillar of Bible Belt rectitude and respectability.

Mills said that Foxe — a divorced mother of 3 who lived in the same luxury apartment complex as he in Arlington, Virginia — was a “family friend and a social companion of his wife, Clarine.”

Mills was re-elected to his 19th term a month later. But after an alcohol-fueled appearance with the Argentine Firecracker in Boston, he was removed as Ways and Means chairman, and treated for alcoholism.

“With his career in tatters and citing exhaustion, he left office in 1977 and became an advocate for recovering alcoholics until his death in 1992.”

Arkansas Democratic Congressman Wilbur Mills and Fanne Foxe.

As for Foxe — renamed the “Tidal Basin Bombshell” — she soon earned more than 5 times the $400 a week she made at the Silver Slipper. She acted in low-budget films, and an off-Broadway show called “Women Behind Bars.”

She gave up stripping after a December 1974 arrest in Florida, for public indecency. She was cleared of the charge.

So what’s the Westport connection?

The Post story says:

The next year, she was living with her children in Westport, Conn., in an eight-bedroom, seven-bath manse called Tally-Ho that needed constant upkeep. The only stripping she was doing, she told a reporter, involved. paint.

After marrying contractor/businessman Daniel Montgomery in 1980, Foxe moved to Florida. She earned a BA in communications from the University of Tampa in 1995, and two master’s degrees — in marine science and business administration — from the University of South Florida.

Foxe — then known as Annabel Montgomery — died in Clearwater, Florida this month. She was 84.

(Click here for the full Washington Post obituary. Hat tip: Marc Selverstone)

Photo Challenge #321

Last week’s Presidents Day Photo Challenge fooled some of our most historic-minded Westporters.

Sure, in 1775 George Washington stopped (and slept) at the Disbrow Tavern, the site of the present-day Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. He returned 5 years later.

A plaque marks the spot, by the elm tree where Church Lane meets Myrtle Avenue. But that’s not the marker that Kathie Motes Bennewitz’s image showed. (Click here to see.)

A similar plaque is partially hidden near the Christ & Holy Trinity (and Assumption Church) cemetery, on Kings Highway North. It’s across from the grassy area by Old Hill Road that, in Revolutionary times, served as a militia training and parade ground.

Elaine Marino, Bob Grant, Michael Calise and Morley Boyd all knew the correct location of this plaque.

Elaine also pointed out — to my great embarrassment — this was a previous Photo Challenge, in July 2018. (I really should read “06880,” right?)

During the Washington Bi-Centennial Celebration in 1932, the Compo Hill Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a bronze plaque at the base of the tree.

The plaque on Kings Highway does not indicate who placed it there.

The downtown plaque is more weather-beaten than its cemetery counterpart. It says: “George Washington stopped for refreshments at this tavern, June 28, 1775.” It also has the bicentennial dates: “1732-1932.”

That Disbrow Tavern visit — and the next — were not the only 2 times Washington stopped (and slept) here. As president, he spent the night of November 11, 1789 at Captain Ozias Marvin’s tavern, at what is now the north side of Post Road West, opposite Kings Highway South.

Sarah Marvin and her daughters cooked up a presidential feast: loaves of brown bread and pies, vegetables from their farm, huge roasts.

Yet Washington asked for only a bowl of bread and milk. To add insult to injury, he wrote in his diary: It was “not a good house, though the people of it were disposed to do all they could to accommodate me.”

No matter. For years thereafter, Marvin Tavern was known as the Washington Inn.

But enough about yesterday. Here is today’s Photo Challenge. if you know where in Westport you would see it, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Molly Alger)

 

Save The White Barn Theatre (Artifacts)!

The White Barn Theatre is rapidly fading from memory.

The small stage in a former horse barn on the Westport/Norwalk border was founded in 1947 by noted actress and theater producer Lucille Lortel. It premiered works by Eugene Ionesco, Athol Fugard and Edward Albee.

The White Barn Theatre, in earlier times.

Unlike the better-known Westport Country Playhouse — a launching pad for Broadway — the White Barn staged unusual and experimental plays. Lortel’s goal was to promote new playwrights, composers, actors, directors and designers, and help established artists develop new directions outside of commercial theater.

The theater closed in 2002, 3 years after her death at 97. As developers eyed the property — and, predictably, battled environmental- and preservation-minded neighbors — the theater itself deteriorated. It was demolished in July of 2017.

Lucille Lortel, outside her White Barn Theatre.

The Dillards are not anti-real estate. Nathan works in New York for Nest Seekers International, known for its hit Bravo show “Million Dollar Listing New York.” Gloria — who graduated from Weston High in 1992, when her last name was Ertlmaier — works for Keller Williams Luxury.

They’re also avid preservationists. The History Channel recently showcased their acquisition of the Hour Press building, built in the 1800s as a cigar factory.

Gloria and History Channel “American Pickers” star Mike Wolfe, at Norwalk’s Hour Press building.

The couple knows and loves the White Barn. When they heard recently that 15 luxury homes will be built on the site, the Dillards decided to reach out to the public. Their goal is to preserve as much of the theater’s history as possible, and pass it on to future generations. They’ve already got one of its 3 signs.

Yet they can’t do it alone. They’re looking for original items from the theater. They hope to purchase:

  • Original physical negatives and/or pictures of the White Barn Theatre (with the sign showing)
  • Original autographed photos of Lucille Lortel
  • An original photo from Lortel’s Emmy Award ceremony in 1988
  • An original photo from when Lortel was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1990, and received the rarely presented Actors’ Fund Medal
  • Original photos of these celebrities, at the White Barn Theatre: Marilyn Monroe, Peter Falk, Geoffrey Holder, Arthur Miller, Kevin Spacey, Rod Serling and others.

Marilyn Monroe signs the White Barn Theatre guest book.

Lortel donated many items to the Westport Library, before she died in 1999. There must be much more memorabilia still in private hands.

If you’ve got any items — or know who might — email nated40@yahoo.com.

And if anyone knows who made the original White Barn Theatre signs: The Dillards would love to know that too: nated40@yahoo.com.

Nathan Dillard, with the White Barn sign.

 

Roundup: Art, Dogs, More

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Valentine’s Day is over. But a “Share the Love” art is exhibit is on display for the next 2 weeks, at The Residence at Westport. The display highlights 18 professional and emerging local artists.

This Friday (February 19), The Residence hosts “Cocktails and Curating.” It’s an interactive, on-site reception where artists will share their stories, inspirations and highlights live, and to guests via Zoom. Senior Center members are particularly welcome.

The project was developed by Lisa Stretton, founder of RealArtRealArtists, an online directory through which users search for original art for sale by professional artists.

“Morning Walk,” displayed at The Residence at Westport. Artist Lisa Stretton was inspired by Compo Beach.

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The Westport Book Shop wasted no time becoming part of the arts community.

The used book store on Jesup Green opened earlier this month. Already, their first art exhibit — in what they call the Drew Friedman Art Place — is on display.  The show features photographic prints of artworks by renowned local assemblage artist Nina Bentley.

The exhibit is open during business hours: Thursdays and Fridays 3 to 6 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.

Miggs Burroughs is curating the Westport Book Shop exhibits. They’ll change monthly.

Nina Bentley, with photos of her art at the Westport Book Shop.

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Westport native Cathy Malkin moved back here in November, after 31 years in the Bay Area. Her sister Stefani Malkin Cohen now lives in New Rochelle.

Cathy is an animal communicator and animal Reiki practitioner. Stefani is a therapist, working with children and families.

Stefani developed a niche helping kids who are afraid of dogs (it works with adults too). That’s a real fear — and unlike spiders or snakes, it’s hard to avoid dogs.

“Overcoming Your Child’s Fear of Dogs” covers understanding dog behavior; how dogs communicate, and staying safe around dogs.

“We teach kids to look both ways before they cross the street, to not touch hot things and to stop, drop and roll in a fire,” Stefani says. “But parents rarely teach them how to interact safely and respectfully with dogs.”

Click here for more information, and to order Stefani’s book.

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The Westport Book Shop is serious about adhering to COVID limits on customers. Here’s the new guard:

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We missed a couple of great Valentine’s Day photos yesterday. So here’s to love — 24/7/365!

Saugatuck River (Photo/Lori Dodd)

Old Mill Beach (Photo/Les Dinkin)

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And finally … Happy Presidents Day!

Who knew that “Hail to the Chief” has words?

For all you history nerds (like me), here is the first time “Hail to the Chief” was played for every president from John F. Kennedy to Joe Biden …

… and the last, for every president funeral from Kennedy to George H.W. Bush:

Photo Challenge #320

Last week’s Photo Challenge’s honored Sigrid Schultz.

As the Chicago Tribune‘s Berlin bureau chief — the first female bureau chief of any major newspaper, anywhere — the pioneering reporter, social justice activist and longtime Westporter played a key role in exposing the growing Nazi threat during the lead-up to the war, and beyond.

A plaque memorializing her was unveiled last year, near her former residence. (Click here for the photo.) Where, the Challenge asked, was that?

The plaque is at Serena & Lily — the lifestyle store in the former Kemper Gunn House. It was moved across Elm Street in 2014, to make way for Bedford Square.

Schultz lived a bit behind the site of the present store, in what is now the Baldwin parking lot. Her home was demolished, to make way for cars.

Dick Lowenstein notes that in 2019 the RTM unanimously named the area “Sigrid Schultz Plaza,” though there is no signage to that effect.

Others who identified the site correctly were Fred Cantor, Linda V. Velez, Wendy Cusick, Wendy Schaefer and Judy Reid.

This week’s Photo Challenge is another plaque. It’s appropriate, because tomorrow is Presidents Day.

If you know where in Westport we honor our first president — and why there’s a Westport tie to him — click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Kathie Motes Bennewitz)

Roundup: IRS, MLK, WCP, More

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Congressman Jim Himes reminds residents of free tax filing resource,

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program offers federal and state tax help to people earning under $56,000 a year. VITA is largely virtual this year, but there are also some drop-off locations. Click here to learn more.

The Connecticut Department of Revenue Services provides free tax help over by phone. Call 860-297-5770 to schedule an online appointment.

The University of Connecticut School of Law offers federal and state tax assistance for low-income Connecticut residence by phone. Call 860-570-5165 to learn more or book an appointment.

Click here for links to more tax assistance.

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“King in the Wilderness” is an Emmy-winning HBO documentary about the last 3 days of Martin Luther King’s life. At the end of the 1960s, the Black Power movement saw the civil rights leader’s focus on nonviolence as a weakness, while President Lyndon Johnson believe his antiwar activism was dangerous. King himself was tormented by doubts about his philosophy and future.

The executive producer was Westporter Trey Ellis. He’s an award-winning novelist, Emmy and Peabody-winning filmmaker, playwright, professor of screenwriting in the Graduate School of Film at Columbia University, and contributor to The New Yorker, New York TimesWashington Post and NPR.

On Thursday, February 25 (7 p.m.), the Westport Library hosts a conversation between Ellis and TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey. Registrants can view the film for one week prior to the event. There is no charge; click here to register.

The program is part of Westport READS. This year’s them is “Towards a More Perfect Union: Confronting Racism.”

Trey Ellis

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The popular Westport Country Playhouse “Script in Hand” play-reading series returns Monday, February 22 (7 p.m.).

This time, audiences can hear the scripts in their own homes. The virtual performance is also available on demand any time, from noon February 23 through February 28.

This reading — “A Sherlock Carol” — should be particularly fun. It’s about a grown-up Tiny Tim, who asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate the death of Ebenezer Scrooge. Six actors take on the famed characters of Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. Click here for more information, and tickets.

In addition, the Playhouse presents a free virtual conversation about Thornton Wilder’s timeless “Our Town” — particularly as it applies to the 21st century.

It’s this Sunday (February 14, 3 p.m.), on the Playhouse website and YouTube channel (Westport Playhouse).

Participants include Howard Sherman, author of a new book about “Our Town”; Anne Keefe, associate artistic director with Joanne Woodward for the Playhouse’s 2002 production of “Our Town,” and Jake Robards, who appeared in that show. The host is Playhouse artistic director Mark Lamos.

In other WCP news, the Playhouse has announced the 13 members of its inaugural Youth Council. They include Staples High School students Henry Carson, Kate Davitt and Sophia Vellotti, plus Cessa Lewis, a Westporter who attends St. Luke’s School.

“A Sherlock Carol”

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Suzuki Music Schools’ Connecticut Guitar Festival returns for a 4th year on March 5 to 7 — virtually, of course. It’s all part of the Westport-based organization’s mission to make international artists accessible to everyone — for free.

For a list of events, click here. For an overview of the entire festival and artists, click here.

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And finally … pioneering jazz pianist Chick Corea died Tuesday in Florida, of cancer. He was 79.

 

 

Renowned Westport Art Collection Finds New Home

Quietly, creatively, and very efficiently, Bob and Anne Levine built one of the world’s most extensive collections of American folk art.

Through flea markets, antique shows, auctions and eBay, they amassed over 600 wood carvings — of everyone from Pocahontas and Knute Rockne to Charles Lindbergh and Hillary Clinton.

Remarkably, it was stored not in a museum, but in their Westport home. Every room — and 2 former garages — overflowed with American historical figures, events and icons.

A visitor to the Levines’ home is greeted by an array of Uncle Sams.

It was was their own personal museum.

Now — fittingly — they’ve donated their collection to an actual museum.

And not just any one. It’s Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, known for its collection of works by self-taught artists.

Anne and Bob married in 1987. She’s a 1964 Staples graduate; he’s a Brooklyn native who’s lived here since 1969.

A month after their wedding, they went to a Westport Arts Center exhibit on folk art. They knew  nothing about the subject. But Bob — who in addition to being a neurologist, Yale professor, author, former owner of Anacapri restaurant and marathon runner, was a woodcarver in his youth — and his wife were intrigued.

They bought a couple of inexpensive pieces. Then they added a few more items. Soon — without even realizing it – they had a world-class collection.

Bob Levine with a wood carving of General Custer.

Now, Bob says, “We’re old.” (He’s 81 — and as active as ever.) “If one of us dies, the other would have a major task getting rid of this.”

Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum would be a natural choice. But even though Bob and Anne were giving their collection away, the oldest continually operating public art museum in the US could not afford the insurance and transportation.  A friend of a friend introduced them to The High.

The museum will keep 114 pieces. They’ll sell the rest — and use the proceeds to build up the rest of the collection.

The couple is keeping 15 or so pieces (including 3 whirligigs) for their children to inherit. Regretfully, one of those works is not the fantastically detailed diorama of Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet, bought at a Christie’s auction. Each member is individually carved. An electric chandelier shines overhead.

It takes up one entire room in the Levines’ house.

President Roosevelt — and each cabinet member including Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first-ever female — is carved in exquisite detail.

“Auctioneers and other people we bought from have never seen anything like this collection,” Bob says. “It’s all wood. And it’s all dedicated to American history.”

As the couple scoured the country for items — learning plenty along the way — Bob says, “we got a lot of bargains. And we paid excessively for others.”

It was a wonderful experience, made better by sharing it together. Now, they’re sharing it with the High Museum — and the world.

Anne Levine stands with a life-size carving of Uncle Sam.

But that’s not all the Levines’ news. After cutting down on his medical practice, Bob began writing. He just published his 6th book.

The Uninformed Voter” examines how that cohort is responsible for the decline of American democracy. Bob also offers suggestions for improvement (for instance, ranked-choice voting and the revamping of primaries).

It’s earned great reviews, including Kirkus, Booklife and Sybil Steinberg, the former Publishers Weekly book review editor whose reading list is followed avidly by Westport Library patrons.

Bob is hardly slowing down. He’s finishing his next book — “An Epidemic of Privilege” — and then begins work on another (on “the joy and heartbreak of collecting”).

Robert Levine

Previous books include “Aging With Attitude: Growing Older With Dignity and Vitality” and “Aging Wisely: Strategies for Baby Boomers and Seniors.”

So how is Bob Levine aging?

During COVID, he stopped working with Americares. He no longer runs marathons (he’s done 9). His “jump shot is not what it used to be.”

But besides writing and overseeing the donation of his and his wife’s collection, he still sculpts wood. He’s always lookin for new projects.

“You can’t sit around waiting to die,” he says. “That kind of life is not much fun.”

The Levines will keep some of their whirligigs — movable wind toys.