Category Archives: Looking back

Roundup: Maine, Save Cockenoe Now, Melissa Joan Hart, More


Who doesn’t love Maine?

Tom Kretsch sure does. The longtime Westport photographer has just published “Touching Maine.” The hard-cover book’s 93 pages of images and text capture the essence of that special state: its water, rocks, fog, islands, structures, dinghies and abstract impressions.

A signed copy is $50. For $100, you’ll get a signed copy plus one of the 8×10 prints shown below. Email tom@peacefulplacesphoto.com, or call 203-644-4518.


Lindsay Shurman is searching for a holiday gift for her husband. And she needs “06880” readers’ help.

She wants to give him Walter Einsel’s iconic “Save Cockenoe Now” poster (below). Back in the 1960s, it was everywhere — and played a role in the town’s purchase of the island off Compo Beach, saving it from becoming a nuclear power plant (!).

A few are still floating around. But The Flat sold the one they had. And Lindsay just lost a Westport Auction bidding war.

“Any idea where I may find an original?” she asks.

“Maybe someone is willing to part with it for a price. Or a donation made in their name to a favorite cause. I could even settle for a reproduction. I just need an original to scan.

“Any help would be so appreciated. I’m obsessed with this poster, and gifting it to my husband this holiday season!”

If you’ve got a lead, email lindsay.shurman@gmail.com. And sssshhhh …  don’t tell her husband!


Melissa Joan Hart has been very busy lately.

The Westport resident produced, directed and starred in 3 new Lifetime holiday films.

“Feliz NaviDAD” — yes, the name of the classic song by Westonite Jose Feliciano — premiered Saturday. “Dear Christmas,” with James Priestley, airs this Friday (November 27, 8 p.m.). “Once Upon a Main Street” follows on Sunday (November 27, 8 p.m.). (Hat tip: Dick Lowenstein, via Connecticut Post)

Jason Priestley and Melissa Joan Hart, in “Dear Christmas.”


Distance education isn’t new to Taylor Harrington. The 2015 Staples High School graduate works at Akimbo, a company that creates online learning experiences.

The pandemic — as awful as it is — has created opportunities. Taylor and her team saw a chance to help young people looking to grow.

They created The Emerging Leaders Program, a free, 5-day online workshop for people ages 16-25,looking to make a difference in the world .

The first 2 sessions were powerful. The next is set for January 4-8. Young leaders — or anyone knowing one — can click here for details. Applications close December 1.

Taylor Harrington


And finally … back in 1961, teenagers were doing (supposedly) the “Bristol Stomp.” Len Barry, lead singer of the Dovells — the band with that hit — died earlier this month, at 78. Four years later, he had another smash with “1-2-3.”

Remembering Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson — longtime executive director of the Westport Weston Family YMCA, and the man who over 40 years brought it from a small institution into one of the town’s most robust organizations — died Wednesday on Cape Cod. He was 91.

Amy Sanborn passed along the sad news — and a very in-depth piece from the Westport Y blog, in 2014. The Y at that time was still downtown, where Bedford Square is now. The story said:

Matt Johnson came to our Y in 1952 as a fresh-faced college grad from upstate Connecticut. He started as a supervisor of the Y’s youth and adult physical programs, taking on more responsibility over the following 2 decades. In 1970 he was named executive director, a position he filled with great accomplishment until his retirement in 1989. The longtime Weston resident remains an active part of our Y family to this day….

It’s safe to say that no other Y staffer presided over more change at our Y over more years than Matt Johnson. Matt was instrumental in bringing sports and recreational opportunities to Weston youth, efforts that ultimately led to our Y serving all our Weston neighbors as the “Westport/Weston YMCA.”

Matt Johnson (standing) with (from left) YMCA president George Dammon, CBS News anchor (and Weston resident) Douglas Edwards, and 1st Selectman John Kemish.

Matt also oversaw the greatest development of our Y facility since its opening a half-century before: the construction of the Weeks Pavilion in the 1970s, which gave our Y its Stauffer Pool, racquet courts, men’s and women’s health centers, locker rooms and an indoor track ….

Matt then laid the groundwork for the next phase of our Y’s evolution at our downtown facility: the conversion of the town’s central firehouse into a 2-level Fitness Center that to this day boasts the original brass pole used by generations of local firefighters.

After recalling Matt’s encounters with guest speaker Jackie Robinson, and Westport actors Bette Davis and Paul Newman (an avid YMCA badminton player), the story continues:

When hot-rodding became popular, the Y rolled right along. As Matt recalls, “Bill Etch, who was a volunteer leader, had an interest in cars and with some friends formed a club called the ‘Downshifters,’ which met every Friday at the Y.”

“When the club became too big for the Y rooms, they began to meet at Camp Mahackeno, where they set up shop in the unheated pavilion. There were 30 or so young men in the club, including a young Michael Douglas, and they’d take apart cars, put ‘em back together and then participate in regional events with their cars.”

Matt and his late wife Fran raised their 4 children in Weston, and were instrumental in helping develop the community’s recreation programs and establishing Weston’s enduring connection to our Y ,…

As far back as the 1950s, Y leaders realized the need for more space to hold its many popular programs and activities, and shortly after Matt took the helm of the Y in 1970, he helped spur the most ambitious expansion of the Y to date.

The most critical need at the time was, simply, “more water.” As you can see from photos of the time, Staples High School swimmers used the 4-lane, 20-yard long Brophy Pool (then 4- to 10-feet deep) as their home pool. Imagine the scraped chins, or worse!

The original Brophy pool — used by Staples High School for practices and home swim meets.

Matt helped coach the Staples team, including a young swimmer named Bob Knoebel. Another swimmer, Mike Krein, was instrumental in forming the Y’s Water Rat swim team, holding practices both in the Brophy Pool and, during summers in the ‘60s, at Longshore Club Park. At the time Longshore’s pool was saltwater, flushed regularly, but evidently not often enough. The Y’s swim team name derives from the trespassing rodents the kids would sometimes encounter during their early-morning swims.

The Y’a voard and volunteer leaders set a 5-year goal that included building a new facility with a larger pool….

The addition of the Stauffer Pool and Weeks Pavilion in 1977 (named for the retired geologist who was a major donor) was followed by the conversion in 1984 of the town’s central firehouse into the Y’s fitness center.

Matt Johnson (center) at a 2011 Westport Y function, flanked by (from left) then trustee chair Pete Wolgast and Jim Marpe, past Y trustee chair and now Westport First Selectman,

Longtime Y member Larry Aasen, who has known Matt since 1963, says, “For Matt, it wasn’t just about running the Y; it’s about serving the community. And whether his task was raising money for an expansion or doing the dishes after a potluck dinner, you could always count on him.”

Indeed, Matt Johnson has played a major role in building up our Y over the past 60 years. But more than that, he’s left his mark as a community builder – of Westport, Weston and of all the separate communities of swimmers, gymnasts and program participants that make our Y all that it is today.

(Click here to make contributions in Matt Johnson’s name, to the Westport Weston Family YMCA.)

The upper gym at the Westport YMCA was named for Matt Johnson in 1999.

Our Doughboy

Today is Veterans Day.

We celebrate November 11 because — 102 years ago today — World War I ended. The armistice took effect at 11 a.m., on 11/11.

Twelve years later — on November 11, 1930 — we dedicated our doughboy statue.

That was 5 years after the town voted to erect a monument to soldiers in “The Great War.” According to Woody Klein’s history of Westport, the commission was offered to Laura Gardin Fraser.

Yet her design — showing a bronze relief figure of Victory — did not meet the committee’s approval.

Three years later the Veterans of Foreign War and American Legion raised $10,000. They commissioned J. Clinton Shepherd, an illustrator, sculptor — and pilot — to memorialize a soldier from “the war to end all wars.”

The doughboy statue. (Photo/Amy Schneider)

Six months after Westport’s first-ever Memorial Day parade, the Doughboy was dedicated. But it was not at Veterans Green, across from what is now Town Hall (and was then Bedford Elementary School).

The original site was the grassy median on on the Post Road 2 miles east — across from what is now Shearwater Coffee, near the foot of Long Lots Road.

A crowd of 3,000 turned out for the dedication of the 20-ton statue. Governor John H. Trumbull was there, along with hundreds of veterans, and 7 bands. Children pulled ropes to unveil the statue.

The doughboy was moved to its present location in 1986. A formal re-dedication ceremony was held on Memorial Day 1988.

Jackopierce: “Young & Free”

In 1985, almost 4,000 people crowded into Longshore. They were excited to hear Hall & Oates. The duo — known for smash hits like “She’s Gone,” “Rich Girl” and “Private Eyes” — were about to perform, as part of Westport’s 150th anniversary celebration.

Except no one told Hall & Oates. A local nanny — claiming to represent the group — scammed the town.

Fortunately, the crowd got a bit of music. A local band called Pseudo Blue stepped on stage. It was their first paying gig.

Not bad for a bunch of Staples High School students.

Cary Pierce, in the Staples HIgh School 1987 yearbook.

Cary Pierce remembers that day well. He and his good friend — fellow rising junior Doug Dryburgh — were in Pseudo Blue.

The band did not last beyond graduation. But in his first year of college, Cary met Jack O’Neill. They formed their own duo: Jackopierce.

They shared stages with Dave Matthews, Counting Crows, Sheryl Crow, Lyle Lovett, Matchbox Twenty and Widespread Panic. They performed in clubs and at colleges across America — and before 500,000 people at the Texas Motor Speedway.

Thirty years later, they’re still going strong. Jackopierce has just released a new single. “Young & Free (The 80s Song)” is an homage to growing up listening to Joan Jett, Joe Jackson, General Pub, Pretenders and Book of Love.

In fact, the song mentions 85 bands and singers — Flock, Till Tuesday, Talking Heads, Tears for Fears, Big Country, Devo, Smithereens. You name it, they’re there.

But it’s the first line that is of particular interest to “06880.”

Cary sings:

I remember lying on my bed
Borrowed guitar across my chest
Mean streets Westport, Connecticut
The New Wave running through my head

My sister dated drummer boy
Parents’ basement we made some noise
The Call, the stage, the lights, the girls
Who doesn’t want to rule the world?

Cary Pierce today. He has not changed much.

“Young and Free” channels Cary’s youth. For years, he and Jack have joked about growing up on the “mean” suburban streets. (Specifically Greens Farms, Cary notes.)

This might be the first time our town has been mentioned in a song since Pearl Bailey’s “I Caught Her in the Kitchen Playing Westport.”

Its influence on Cary is strong. It was here that he learned to play guitar and keyboard. At Staples, he and Dryburgh started an annual Band Bash that grew to include a dozen groups.

He listened to New Wave bands on WLIR. He watched the new sensation — MTV videos — at his friend Matt McClellan’s house.

Cary figured he’d go to a small New England college like Wesleyan. But, he says, “my guidance counselor had a better handle on my grades.” She suggested Southern Methodist University.

Cary had never been to Texas. But he fell in love with the Dallas school, and applied early decision. “It was the best decision I ever made,” he says.

He was involved in theater program and journalism. But his time there was most defined by his collaboration with Jack O’Neill, who he met in 1988, on one of his first days on campus.

They quickly learned covers of songs by the Eagles, Jimmy Buffett, John Denver and James Taylor. They played fraternity and sorority dances, then branched out to colleges across Texas and Oklahoma.

Fans who heard them told friends and siblings. Soon Jackopierce was driving 9 hours to play at the University of Kansas, and flying to gigs at the University of Michigan. They’d sell 100 CDs, which paid for the trip.

Jackopierce, on stage.

Jackopierce’s first record — independently done — sold 45,000 copies. An attorney in Nashville got them a contract.

The label connected them with T Bone Burnett. The legendary producer (Los Lobos, Gregg Allman, Roy Orbison) helped move them from “earnest frat boys” to appearances on Rosie O’Donnell and Conan O’Brien, and stories in Rolling Stone.

Their first album with Burnett sold 100,000.

So did the second. Not seeing any growth, Cary says, “the label yawned.”

Management talked Jackopierce into a farewell tour. Jack moved to New York. He and Cary did not speak for 5 years.

“It was my first divorce,” Cary says. “I didn’t see it coming. It was painful. I learned a lot.”

Five years later, he went through an actual divorce. He felt “completely broken.” But then — providentially — Jackopierce reunited.

That was 2002. They’ve been together ever since.

Jack O’Neill (left) and Cary Pierce.

Jackopierce has devoted — even rabid — fans. They’re all across the country. Most don’t know Westport.

But Cary does.

“I have no idea if people there will be offended” by the winking “mean streets” reference, he says. He hopes not. He still loves the town.

“I had no idea what I had back then. It’s an incredibly beautiful, very privileged place. I had an old 14-foot Boston Whaler. I’d go from Longshore to Peter’s Bridge, get a sandwich, then head to Cockenoe. It was la la land.”

“Young & Free” has been released in “a strange time,” Cary says. COVID has canceled live shows. He and Jack are marketing it the old-fashioned way: grassroots, by themselves.

They’ve contacted all 85 artists mentioned in the song: Depeche Mode, Billy Bragg, Hooters, Toto, Blondie, Men at Work…

Now all of Westport can enjoy Cary Pierce’s musical trip down memory lane too.

“Young and Free (The 80’s Song) is available on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Pandora and Amazon Music. Click here for links.)

Arrivederci, Joe Arcudi!

Joe Arcudi was the only one of 7 siblings born at Norwalk Hospital.

Joe Arcudi

He was the youngest. His brothers and sisters were all born at home. “Home” was Saugatuck: the corner of Railroad Place and Charles Street. There’s a big, blotchy office building now. But in the mid-20th century, Joe’s family lived there — right next to his father’s butcher shop.

Joe’s parents’ goal was for all 7 children to graduate from college.

After Staples High School (Class of 1960), Joe headed to Fairfield University. His parents’ wish came true.

In 1973 he opened Arcudi’s restaurant. For the next 21 years — and again from 2009 to 2012 — his “square pizza” drew diners of all ages and stations to the small spot next to Carvel. (Today it’s Aux Delices.)

For many years he ran the Little League and Babe Ruth programs in town.

And — oh, yeah — from 1993 to ’97, Joe Arcudi was Westport’s 1st selectman.

He always thought he’d live in his hometown forever. But with his 5 children scattered all over the country, he’s moving on October 16.

That’s right: Joe Arcudi is moving from Westport.

And how about this? His new home will be Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

His son — and 3 of his 8 grandchildren — are there. He’ll be centrally located for all his kids, who are scattered around the country.

Including Joe’s daughter. She and her 12-year-old live here.

So don’t worry. Joe Arcudi will be back in Westport, every couple of months.

The Post Road restaurant.

 

Remembering 9/11, And A Bicycle

No matter what else goes on this Friday, the shadow of a Tuesday weekday 19 years ago — September 11, 2001 — hangs over us all. 

That horrible day changed our lives forever. We know it now — and we sensed it then.

Here’s what I wrote 3 days later — September 14, 2001 — in my Westport News “Woog’s World” column.

It was a bit past noon on Tuesday, the Tuesday that will change all of our lives forever.

Fifty miles from Westport smoke billowed from what, just hours before, was the World Trade Center.

A number of Westporters once worked there. The twin towers were never particularly beautiful, but in their own way they were majestic. Whether driving past them on the New Jersey Turnpike, flying near them coming in to the airport, or taking out-of-town friends or relatives to the top, we took a certain amount of pride in them.

We’re Westporters, but in a way we’re also New Yorkers. The World Trade Center symbolized that, though we live in suburban Connecticut, we all feel in some way connected to the most exciting, glamorous, powerful city in the world.

And now that same city was under attack. From the largest McMansion to the most modest Westport home, men and women frantically tried to make contact with spouses, relatives and friends who work in downtown Manhattan.

The iconic 9/11 photo was taken by Westport’s Spencer Platt. He lived near the Twin Towers on that awful morning.

At Staples High School, teenagers who grew up thinking the worst thing that can happen is wearing the wrong shirt or shoes, were engaged in a similar quest.

Many of their fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers work in New York. Many others knew loved ones who were flying that morning, or in Washington, or somewhere else that might possibly become the next city under siege.

Meanwhile, on Whitney Street, a pretty young woman dressed in her best late-summer clothes rode a bicycle down the road.

It was, after all, a beautiful day. Along the East Coast there was not a cloud n the sky — not, that is, unless you count the clouds filled with flames, dust and debris erupting from the collapse of the World Trade Center.

It was a perfect day to ride a bicycle, unless of course you were terrified you had lost a loved one, were glued to a television set wherever you could find one, or were so overwhelmed by grief and rage and fright and confusion because you had no idea what was next for America that riding a bicycle was absolutely the furthest thing from your mind.

On the other hand, perhaps riding a bicycle was exactly the right reaction. Perhaps doing something so innocent, so routine, so life-affirming, was just was some of us should have been doing.

If tragedy teaches us anything, it is that human beings react to stress in a variety of ways. Who is to say that riding a bicycle is not the perfect way to tell Osama bin Laden, or whoever turns out to be responsible for these dastardly deeds, that America’s spirit will not be broken?

But I could not have ridden a bicycle down the road on Tuesday. I sat, transfixed, devouring the television coverage of events that, in their own way, may turn out to be as transforming for this world as Pearl Harbor was nearly 60 years earlier.

I could not bear to watch what I was seeing, but neither could I tear myself away. Each time I saw the gaping holes in those two towers, every time I saw those enormous symbols of strength and power and (even in these economically shaky times) American prosperity crumble in upon themselves like a silly disaster movie, the scene was more surreal than the previous time.

Life will be equally surreal for all of us for a long time to come.

I wondered, as I watched the video shots of the jet planes slam into the World Trade Center over and over and over again, what must have been going through each passenger’s mind.

Like many Westporters, I fly often. Like most I grumble about the delays and crowded planes, but like them too I feel a secret, unspoken thrill every time the sky is clear, the air is blue and the scenery terrific. Tuesday was that kind of day.

For the rest of my life, I suspect, flying will never be the same. And the increased security we will face at every airport, on each plane, is only part of what I fear.

So much remains to be sorted out. We will hear, in the days to come, of Westporters who have lost family members and friends in the World Trade Center. We will hear too of those who have lost their jobs when their companies collapsed, either directly or indirectly, as a result of the terrorism.

Sherwood Island State Park is the site of Connecticut’s official 9/11 Memorial.(Photo/David Squires)

We will drive along the New Jersey Turnpike, or stand on a particular street in Manhattan, perhaps even take out-of-town guests to gaze at the landmark we will come to call “the place the twin towers used to be.”

Our casual grocery store and soccer sideline conversations will be filled with stories: who was where when the terror first hit, and what happened in the hours after.

Our newspapers and airwaves will be clogged with experts trying to explain — though that will never be possible — what it all means for us, in the short term and long term, as individuals and a society.

Our world has already changed, in ways that will take years, if not decades, to understand. We are nowhere close to comprehending the meaning of all this.

The world will go on, of course. Our planet will continue to spin; men and women will continue to commute to New York, and pretty women in Westport will continue to ride bicycles down Whitney Street.

At the same time, sadly, none of that will ever be the same.

Remarkable Bookcycle Pedals On

Growing up in Appalachian southeastern Ohio, Christie Stanger vividly remembers the Bookmobile.

Stepping into a rehabbed school bus, she could borrow any book on board. The arrival of the Bookmobile was as exciting as the ice cream truck (and that’s saying something).

The Remarkable Bookcycle is Westport’s version of the Bookmobile. The brainchild of international best-selling author Jane Green, it’s a mobile version of a free library.

Jane Green and the Remarkable Bookcycle, at Savvy + Grace downtown.

Jane (or her husband Ian Warburg) pedal it from their Owenoke home to Compo Beach, and other spots in town. Anyone is free to take a book — or leave one. It’s a brilliant idea, made even more “remarkable” by its homage to Westport’s favorite lost store, the Remarkable Book Shop.

(Click here for the Bookcycle’s amazing back story. It includes the factoid that Jane asked noted artist Miggs Burroughs to paint the book store’s “dancing man” logo on the Bookcycle — without knowing that Miggs’ mother Esta had worked at the store, from the day it opened to when it closed.)

Like Jane, Christie now lives in Westport. Also like Jane, her love of books has never wavered. So when Jane Green announced she was looking for a custodian for the Remarkable Bookcycle for the coming year, while Jane, Ian and their family is in England, Christie immediately typed “ME!!!”

Other Westporters offered to help, in other ways. Ryan Peterson — who as a recent Staples graduate 2 years ago transformed Jane’s cargo tricycle into the Bookcycle — gave it a touch-up. Ethan Olmstead fixed the emergency brake. And a small band of librarians will restock its shelves.

Remarkable Bookcycle librarians (from left): Kate Parente, Christie Stanger, Sue Goldman, Margo Amgott and Jennie Lupinacci. (Photo/Jaime Bairaktaris)

As Westport rolls into autumn, the group is excited. They’ve got big plans, including creating a children’s Bookcycle from an old-fashioned tricycle owned by Christie’s mother-in-law.

Also ahead: a collaboration with the “People Politics Planet” downtown art show, set for early October.

You can follow the Bookcycle — including its stops around town — on Instagram (@remarkablebookcycle) and Facebook (@TheRemarkableBookcycle). For the next few weeks, it will be parked at Compo Beach.

Neither Christie nor Jane visited the Remarkable Book Shop. But — thanks to both women — Westport’s long love affair with books, in out-of-the-ordinary but way-cool settings — lives on.

Melody Stanger touches up The Remarkable Guy. (Photo/Christie Stanger)

The Day The KKK Came To Westport

The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor brought the issue of killings of unarmed Black people into our national consciousness.

It’s been happening for years though — and not just in “other” places.

In 1981, a Meriden, Connecticut policeman shot and killed a Black man suspected of shoplifting. Several dozen Ku Klux Klan members demonstrated at City Hall in support of the officer. A far larger crowd protested the KKK.

But the men in robes — representing a faction called the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — did not remain only in central Connecticut.

A year later, Chandra Niles Folsom was enjoying lunch at Soup’s On in Westport. The Staples High School graduate — a photojournalist who has been published internationally — looked up and saw several men with pointed hoods parading past on Main Street.

Oh my God! she thought. The KKK has come to Westport.

She grabbed her camera, and watched the group turn the corner to Parker Harding Plaza. She headed there the other way, to make sure she faced them as they marched by.

Outside Town Squire restaurant, they came toward her. They wore their intimidating white robes and hoods. But their faces were unmasked.

The KKK in 1982, at Parker Harding Plaza. (Photo copyright/Chandra Niles Folsom)

Chandra asked what they were doing. They strode silently past.

She was sure this was a big deal: The KKK was in town. No other journalists were there.

But, Chandra says, no newspapers or magazines wanted her photos.

In fact, one editor — someone she frequently wrote “society pages” for — said that if she published such a “controversial subject,” she’d be fired.

Chandra Niles Folsom

It took 20 years for Chandra’s photos to see the light of day. They eventually became part of a story she wrote called “Civil Rights and Wrongs,” with a Westport focus.

Her editor had to fight for its inclusion; the publisher said “nobody wants to see this at their cocktail parties.” The story ran — but Chandra says that’s the last time she was asked to write for them.

Chandra was happy to see the turnout for Westport’s recent Black Lives Matter protests.

“Everyone is talking now,” she says.

Unlike nearly 30 years ago, when the KKK marched in Westport.

And no one wanted to notice.

(For more history of the Ku Klux Klan in Connecticut, click here.)

Chandra Niles Folsom, at a Westport Black Lives Matter rally.

Westport Playhouse: A Look Back At 90 Seasons

Today should have been a red-letter day in Westport Country Playhouse history.

The former cow barn opened its doors — and ushered in a golden era of summer theater — on June 29, 1931. Ever since last year, the Playhouse had prepared for a landmark 90th season.

COVID canceled those plans. But “06880” — the blog and the town — can still celebrate.

The building is actually twice as old as the theater. It was built in 1835 by R&H Haight, as a tannery for hatters’ leathers. Apple trees grew nearby.

In 1860 Charles H. Kemper purchased the plant from Henry Haight’s widow.

Kemper tannery, 1860.

Twenty years later, he installed a steam-powered cider mill.

By the winter of 1930, the property — assessed at $14,000 — had been unused for several years. It was bought by Weston residents Lawrence Langner and his wife Armina Marshall Langner, co-founders of the Theatre Guild, a powerful producer of Broadway and touring productions.

The 1930 barn.

The Langners wanted a place to experiment with new plays, and reinterpret old ones. Westport was already home to actors, producers and directors.

On June 29, 1931, the Westport Country Playhouse opened. The very first play — The Streets of New York — starred Dorothy Gish. Its stage was built to Broadway specifications. Remarkably, that first show made it all the way there.

Westport Country Playhouse interior, 1933.

Bert Lahr, Eva LaGallienne, Paul Robeson, Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Henry Fonda, Tallulah Bankhead and Julie Harris were some of the many big names who appeared on the Playhouse stage.

The early days (Photo/Wells Studio)

The theater went dark for 4 years during World War II, due to gas rationing.

Thornton Wilder received his Equity card in 1946, so he could play the stage manager in his own hit, Our Town.

In the 1940s, the Playhouse began an apprentice program. The legendary list includes Stephen Sondheim, Frank Perry and Sally Jesse Raphael. The educational apprenticeship programs are still running.

An early shot of the Westport Country Playhouse.

Though Oklahoma! has never been performed at the theater, it played a key role in the legendary show’s history. In 1940, Richard Rodgers came from his Fairfield home for Green Grow the Lilacs. Three years later, he produced Oklahoma!, based on what he’d seen.

Roders also saw Gene Kelly that night at Lilacs, and a few months later gave him his big break: the lead in Pal Joey.

In 1959 the Langners turned operation of the Playhouse over to Jim McKenzie. Later named executive producer, he retired in 2000 after 41 years. His tenure was notable for many things — including his efforts in 1985 to purchase the theater and its property, thwarting a takeover by a shopping center complex.

Gloria Swanson arrives, 1961.

Appearing on stage during McKenzie’s time were stars like Alan Alda, Cicely Tyson, Richard Thomas, Jane Powell, Sandy Dennis, and Stiller and Meara.

A teenager earned her Equity card, and earned a standing ovation on opening night in The Fantasticks. Her name was Liza Minnelli.

Prior to renovation, the cramped lobby was filled with posters from past shows.

In 2000, artistic director Joanne Woodward joined an illustrious team including Anne Keefe, Alison Harris and Elisabeth Morten. They brought Gene Wilder, Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh and Jane Curtin to the stage.

Woodward’s husband — Paul Newman — also starred at the Playhouse, in the same role Thornton Wilder played 56 years earlier: stage manager, in Our Town. 

Like so many other Playhouse shows, it (with Newman) soon transferred to Broadway.

But the building — still basically a 170-year-old barn — was in physical disrepair.Woodward and company also renovated the Playhouse physically, and revitalized it artistically.

An 18-month, $30.6 million renovation project in 2003 and ’04 brought the Playhouse into the modern era. It closed in 2003 with a revival of its first show, The Streets of New York.

It reopened in 2005 — its 75th season. At Woodward’s suggestion, a piece of the original stage is still there. The Playhouse moved forward, while paying homage to its storied past.

Westport Country Playhouse, after renovation.

The next year saw the world premiere of Thurgood. Since then — under artistic directors Tazewell Thompson and now Mark Lamos — the Westport Country Playhouse has expanded both its scope and its season.

From a tryout and summer stock house focusing mostly on light, entertaining comedies, to its current April-through-November staging of powerful dramas, musicals and exploratory plays, the Westport Country Playhouse has played a key role in American theater.

Several years ago, Lamos noted, “What had a been a leaky, vermin-infested, un-weatherized — albeit beloved — converted barn became a state-of-the-art theater as fine as any in America.”

Like Broadway, the Westport Country Playhouse is closed during this, its 90th season.

But — as its long history shows — the old barn has weathered many ups, and  a few downs. The curtain will rise again next year.

The show must go on!

(Hat tip: Pat Blaufuss)

(Photo/Robert Benson)

Johnny Was: The Why Behind New Westport Store

Growing up, Rob Trauber spent only a couple of years in Westport.

But the town made enough of an impression on him that — more than 40 years later — he decided to open a new store here.

That’s significant. Trauber is not some fledgling shopkeeper. He’s the CEO of Johnny Was.

This Friday (July 3), the 56th store in the women’s California-inspired, women’s clothing and accessories chain debuts at 81 Main Street. It’s the first Johnny Was in Connecticut.

And Trauber’s 1970s youth has a lot to do with this location.

Rob Trauber

The former Kings Highway Elementary School student has fond memories of the riding his bike around town, and taking the minnybus to Longshore and Compo. He bought candy at Carmine’s smoke shop. He remembers those Jimmy Carter-era days as if they were yesterday.

Sure, Trauber’s family moved from Westport long ago. But he has retained his ties. Eight years ago, he built a house on Sturges. His brother-in-law lives here now, as does one of his best friends.

Johnny Was’ collections — one-of-a-kind kimonos, swimwear, denim jackets, pants, blouses and pajamas, along with jewelry, shoes and handbags — are in upscale places like Southampton, Boca Raton and Carmel.

Trauber has wanted to open in Westport. Yet until recently, he says, “rents were out of whack compared to volumes.”

Then a great space opened up, just past Lululemon. “It’s the right street, and the right area of the street,” he says.

Trauber lives now in San Marino. “It’s the closest thing in Los Angeles to Westport,” he says. “The people remind me of Westport.” There are even “East Coast trees,” like 100-foot oaks.

 

Though the retail world has shifted dramatically in recent years, Trauber — who worked for J. Crew when the Westport location was one of its top 5 in the nation — believes firmly in downtown.

The new home of Johnny Was. Opening day is next Friday.

“The irrelevant retailers are gone,” he says. “There’s a place for aspirational, luxury brands that have the feel of boutiques. Customers love to touch and feel things, try them on.”

His neighbors — like one of Anthropologie’s biggest stores, and Serena & Lily — are the types of places Johnny Was enjoys being near.

On his most recent trip “home,” Trauber drove by his old home near Cranbury Road. He put his daughters on a bench overlooking the pond he often skated on. Everything felt right.

Rob Trauber’s daughters Austin and Taylor, at his old Westport pond. They’re the same age now as he was then.

His California executives are not traveling now, due to COVID-19. So the Manhattan-based team (and Trauber’s brother-in-law) will represent him at the July 3 opening.

He’ll miss seeing the bright murals, tile floor, reclaimed wood tables and bronze hardware. But he promises to be here soon.

Until then, he’s doing one special thing for Westport.

When he rode his bike into town for candy, Trauber sometimes did not have enough money. Carmine let him buy it “on account,” or gave it to him free.

To pay homage, for a limited time Johnny Was will provide free vintage candy to customers.

The Westport location has not even opened. But already we’re way cooler than Southampton, Boca Raton and Carmel.

BONUS FACTOID: The name of the chain comes from an old Bob Marley song, “Johnny Was a Good Man.”