Category Archives: Looking back

Roundup: Crosswalks, Branches, Lanternflies …

Connecticut’s Department of Transportation begins work next year on several local crosswalks — including the notorious “worst intersection in the state” (Routes 1 and 33, aka Post Road West, Riverside Avenue and Wilton Road).

The DOT will also work on:

  • Route 33 (Wilton Road) at Merritt Parkway Connector and Spring Hill Road
  • Route 57 (Weston Road) at Broad Street and Good Hill Road (Weston)
  • Route 33 (Saugatuck Avenue) at I-95 southbound ramps
  • Route 1 (Post Road East) at Playhouse Square Shopping Center
  • Route 1 (Post Road West) at Sylvan Road
  • Route 1 (Post Road East) at Turkey Hill Roads North and South
  • Sherwood Island Connector at Greens Farms Road and Post Road East.

The good news: Upgrades include countdown pedestrian indicators, accessible pedestrian push buttons, and “concurrent pedestrian phasing.”

The bad news: There are no actual traffic, sightline or other improvements.

The timetable: Design plans are expected to be completed in February, with advertising for construction in April.

So don’t expect to cross at the green quite yet.

Upgrades (of a sort) are coming here (“soon”).

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Speaking of the Post Road: Pam Kesselman sends along this photo of dead branches towering over Compo Road South, near the Route 1 intersection:

(Photo/Pam Kesselman)

She worries that they could fall on a driver or pedestrian, and hopes the town takes notice.

Tree maintenance there is (I believe) the responsibility of the state (state roads) or the owner of Compo Acres Shopping Center.

At any rate, Pam is not the first “06880” reader to have noticed these dead branches recently.

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Last week, when Y’s Men acting gardening chair Chuck Greenlee learned that a spotted lanternfly was spotted at the Westport Community Gardens, he did 2 things.

He sent a photo to “06880”:

Spotted lanternfly (Photo/JP Montillier)

And he reported it to the state’s Agricultural Experiment Station (reportSLF@ct.gov).

They quickly replied: “Thank you for your inquiry concerning spotted lanternfly. The insect you have photographed is indeed a SLF. Your town is already known to be infested. For tips on dealing with SLF, please click here. Should you find any more insects, please kill them immediately with any means at your disposal. Thank you again for your interest.”

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Speaking of the environment: Tickets are on sale now for Earthplace’s famed Woodside Bash fundraiser. It’s October 1 (7 p.m.), under the stars and beside a firepit.

Though it’s adults-only, kids are welcome the following day (October 2, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.), for the also-annual Fall Festival. Earthplace buzzes with a corn pool, obstacle course, climbing wall, food trucks and more. Click here for tickets.

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Last week’s story on Ed Capasse’s star turn as a Staples High School marching band member/Saturday Evening Post cover model cast a new light on Stevan Dohanos’ famous 1946 painting.

Ed Capasse is in the upper left.

It used to be sold at the Westport Historical Society. Now it’s available only online.

But — as former Westporter/longtime Oregonian/avid “06880” reader Robert Gerrity discovered — there are plenty of places to purchase it. Among them:

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Speaking of posters: Yesterday’s music memories from Woodstock — the “lotta freaks!” festival that ended 53 years ago (!) today — brought an email from longtime Westporter Matt Murray.

Plus this photo:

Matt explains:

“This is an original. I worked for the guys who started and funded the concert (Joel Roseman and the late John Roberts). They were partners in the NYC recording studio, Mediasound.

“I was an assistant engineer and gopher (go for this, go for that). Another guy and I saw a stack of these in their office. We asked if we could have a few. Sure!

“Still have ’em, 47 years later.”

Matt adds: “For the studio’s Christmas party, leftover Woodstock tickets were used as bar chits. Being youthful, I used mine for drinks. The bartender tore them in half. A fellow worker thought better of that idea, and hung on to his tickets. Smart person.”

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Today’s Entitled Parking post comes from already-narrow Railroad Place:

(Photo/Karen Kramer)

No, that’s not a parking space. And it never was, even back in the day when that very cool Camaro rolled off the line.

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August is usually a very green month in Westport (though the summer-long lack of rain makes it a bit browner than usual).

Soon, we’ll be awash in a gorgeous palette of leaf-changing colors.

Meanwhile, there’s this beautiful “Westport … Naturally” display, spotted by Fred Cantor on Hillspoint Road:

(Photo/Fred Cantor)

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And finally … August 17, 1969 marked the final day of Woodstock. Among the performers then:

Crosby Stills Nash & Young played that day too. This song later became an anthem for the event:

New Residents Will Change Westport. For Good?

Westport is changing.

Since the start of the pandemic, hundreds of new residents have poured into town.

Some are singles, renting apartments springing up in the past few years on the Post Road and in Saugatuck.

Some are older folks, moving to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

But most are young: men and women in their 30s and early 40s, with kids in elementary school, preschool, day care or utero.

The influx of newcomers has put Westport at an inflection point. The new arrivals will make their mark on our community. Their influence will be felt for decades to come.

It’s happened before. In the 1950s and ’60s — the post-war, baby boom years — thousands of families descended on Westport. They turned a relatively prosperous, somewhat quiet town into a more affluent, very lively one.

The men and women who came here from all parts of the country — many transferred by companies like IBM and Procter & Gamble — jumped into civic activities. They ran for office, ran PTAs, ran Little League teams, ran around making their mark on the town.

They crossed the political spectrum, and often crossed swords. All cared passionately about making this place their home.

With help from the “Connecticut Yankees” and Saugatuck residents who had been here for years they built schools, stores, a synagogue. They bought Longshore. They brought creativity, energy and passion to every project they undertook.

In 1959, a developer wanted to buy the failing Longshore Country Club, and build 180 homes on the land. In just 19 days, the town bought it as a municipal club.

Some left soon, transferred by their company to somewhere else in America. Some stayed. A few are still here.

The newcomers of the 2020s are the same age as those who preceded them, all those years ago. They come now for a different reason: he pandemic. This time, nearly all are from Manhattan and Brooklym.

But they come with the same hopes and dreams my parents had. They want space. They want opportunities for their kids. They want a community, not just a town.

And they want to get involved, to make those dreams come true.

I am excited and energized by this wave of new Westporters. They have chosen this place for the right reasons — even if they can’t always put those reasons into words.

“It feels different than other towns,” they say over and over. “I don’t know — there’s just something about it …”

They appreciate the schools. They admire the beach. They discover the Library, the Levitt, the Playhouse. They explore the nooks and crannies that those of us who have lived here for years take for granted.

Part of the Children’s Playground at the Leonard Schine Preserve — one more often-overlooked jewel in Westport’s crown.

They want to know our history. They want to know how we got to be who and what we are. And they want to take what is here, and make it even better.

There will be battles over what that means, for sure. The Westport that the Connecticut Yankees and tight-knit Saugatuck neighbors loved — in their own, different ways — at times clashed with the changes the newcomers brought.

It will be the same in the years ahead. Our new neighbors look with fresh eyes at everything from downtown and Compo to the way we run meetings, and how we trim trees.

Westport will change. It’s inevitable. It always has, and it always should.

I won’t agree with all the changes. No one ever does.

But hey, this is not “my” town. It’s “our” town.

The next generation is ready to lead. The fathers work from home, at least part of the week; they spend more time in the community than my parents’ and peers did.

Mothers have always been the backbone of our volunteers. They were always intelligent leaders; today’s moms bring the added experience of years in the professional workplace.

I know I have described yesterday and today in broad, simplistic terms. Many other factors will determine the future of Westport — who moves into all the new apartments, for example, and the social and political trends whipsawing our entire nation.

But the bottom line is clear (to me, anyway): A new generation is here. They came for a community, and they’re eager to get involved in it. They’re making their mark already — and will continue to do so — in many important ways.

The future is not in good hands.

It’s in great ones.

Past generations had the Ice Cream Parlor. The current one has Saugatuck Sweets. Memories are made at both places.

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Ed Capasse’s Band

News of Ed Capasse’s death this week brought tributes from many quarters.

In his 91 years, the lifelong Westporter touched many lives. He was a Board of Finance chair, an active volunteer with the Westport Weston Family Y and Assumption Church, and a scrupulously fair, generous attorney.

He made his mark locally, for sure. But for one week in 1946, Ed’s face was seen in nearly every American home.

A few weeks earlier, Westport artist Stevan Dohanos invited 5 students from the 40-member Staples High School band to model for a Saturday Evening Post cover. He wanted to show a marching band.

The 5 musicians posed individually in Dohanos’ home studio. Each one earned $30 — $400, in today’s money — to sit still for a half hour, while pretending to play brass instruments.

What made the cover special was that every band member looked not straight ahead, at the director, but off to the side — where the football game was taking place. That action was reflected in the tuba.

Ed Capasse was on the top left, playing his trumpet.

The Saturday Evening Post — for which Dohanos drew 125 covers — was one of the most popular magazines in America. That October 19, 1946 issue, smack in the middle of football season, ended up in millions of homes.

Years later, Donahos donated the oil painting to what is now the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collections. For decades, it hung in the Staples band room. Then it moved to the principal’s office.

Former 1st Selectman Jim Marpe — a big Stevan Dohanos fan — commandeered it for his office. Later, it hung elsewhere in Town Hall.

Today it awaits a new location.

The work — called “The Band Played On” — gained new attention in 2001, when Staples Players staged “Music Man.” The poster showed 5 current actors, mimicking the painting.

Staples Players’ 2001 poster …

Fifteen years later, Players reprised the musical. Directors David Roth and Kerry Long redid the poster too.

… and the 2016 version.

Two years earlier, WestPAC had raised funds to restore the painting to its full brilliance. It was displayed proudly in the Staples auditorium, throughout the play’s run.

In 2016, theater-goers admired Stevan Dohanos’ painting in the Staples High School lobby.

For over three-quarters of a century, Dohanos’ work has been a part of Westport history.

Trumpet player Ed Capasse is gone now. But his — and Dohanos’ — band plays on.

Ed Capasse, in the 1948 Staples High School yearbook.

(Hat tip: Kathleen Motes Bennewitz) 

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Roundup: Mill Pond Fence, Betty Lou Cummings, Jackopierce …

Pristine views of Sherwood Mill Pond are back!

Fencing has been removed from the pedestrian pathway leading from the Old Mill parking lot to Compo Cove.

It was installed in December 2020, during water monitoring tests.

Signs warning against jumping into the pond near the tidal gates remain.

But the decades-old ritual — a rite of passage for many Westporters — still goes strong. (Hat tip: Oliver Radwan)

Fencing has been removed from Sherwood Mill Pond. The black poles remain. (Photo/Dan Woog)

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Have you heard about Westport’s scavenger hunt?

Hidden around town are 18 pieces of art, all inspired by town monuments, buildings and more that are part of the bicentennial quilt.

It’s part of a display in the Westport Museum of History & Culture. The show — in conjunction with MoCA Westport and CAMP Gallery — features textiles and other quilt-inspired artifacts. The hunt runs through August 20. Click here for details. (Hat tip: Dave Matlow)

1st Selectwoman and Police Chief Foti Koskinas hunt for clues. (Photo/Dave Matlow)

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Happy 88th birthday to former 2nd Selectwoman, Apple Festival founder and organizer, super-involved and multi-tasked civic volunteer, and all-around wonder woman Betty Lou Cummings!

She celebrated yesterday with her husband Tom. Not pictured below: all her tens of thousands of Westport fans.

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When Cary Pierce was a student at Staples High School, he got his first big break.

Hall & Oates failed to appear for a 1985 concert at Longshore — to be fair, they never signed a contract — so Cary’s band, Pseudo Blue, entertained instead. (Click here to read all about that strange day in Westport history.)

Cary went on to graduate from Staples in 1987. He kept playing guitar, and singing.

For nearly 35 years, Cary and his Southern Methodist University classmate Jack O’Neill have fronted Jackopierce. The band has shared stages with Dave Matthews, Counting Crows, Sheryl Crow, Lyle Lovett, Matchbox Twenty and Widespread Panic. They’ve performed in clubs and at colleges across America — and before 500,000 people at the Texas Motor Speedway.

Next Monday (August 15, 6 p.m.), Jackopierce comes to Milestone restaurant in Georgetown. The venue is small, so tickets will go quickly. Click here to purchase, and for more information.

No word on whether Hall & Oates will sit in too.

Jackopierce: Cary Pierce (right) and Jack O’Neill.

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Michael Scott crushed it.

The Staples High School Class of 2011 graduate — and star on the Wreckers state championship team — finished Juneau’s Ironman Alaska yesterday in an astonishing 10 hours, 18 minutes and 48 seconds.

He ignored stunning views to swim 2.4 miles in Auke Lake in 36:33. He biked 112 miles along the Glacier Highway in 5:49.09. Then he ran 26.2 miles through the lush Mendenhall Valley rainforest in 3:29:42.

That was good (great!) for 23rd place, out of 733 competitors — and 3rd out of 36, in his men’s age 25-29 age group.

Congratulations, Mikey. Now take a well=deserved rest!

Michael Scott

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Lifelong Westporter Anthony Gilbertie died last week, from complications of Parkinson’s. He was 84.

He was the 5th member of the Gilbertie family to serve on the RTM.

Anthony was devoted to Assumption Church, where he was a cantor for 13 years. Most recently, he was a US Postal Service carrier in Weston. Anthony enjoyed history, current events and the New York Yankees.

He was predeceased by all his siblings: John Jr, Mario, Linda Gilbertie-Bullard and Michael, and baby siblings Thomas and Gloria.

He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Diane Taylor-Gilbertie; children, Tom (Anne). Peter (Dee) and Nancy Gilbertie-Loshuk, and grandchildren Griffin Gilbertie, William Gilbertie, Thomas Gilbertie, Christopher Gilbertie and Jack Loshuk.

Anthony’s wake will be held Friday (August 12, 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Harding Funeral Home). A Mass of Christian Burial will follow there at 11 a.m., followed by burial at Assumption Cemetery on Greens Farms Road. The family asks that all attendees wear masks, as some family members are immunocompromised.

In lieu of flowers, donation may be made to Assumption Church or The Parkinson’s Foundation.

Anthony Gilbertie

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Longtime Westporter Jeanne Wylie Crist died last week. She was 99 years old.

Jeanne married her Albany high school sweetheart, Robert “Mike” Crist in 1947 after working with the Naval Department in New York City. Two sons were born there before they moved to Westport, where Karen was born in 1956.

They lived in Westport for nearly 50 years before moving to Lenox, Massachusetts to be close to their daughter in 2011, when Mike’s health faltered.

They were members of Saugatuck Congregational Church, loved walking Compo Beach and cherished many friends. In retirement they purchased a cottage on Lake Bomoseen in Vermont, where Mike had enjoyed his childhood. Jeanne and Mike also traveled extensively throughout North America, Europe and Asia.

Jeanne was preceded by Mike in 2011, and their son, Robert “Lee” Crist in 1983 and Jeffrey Crist in 2017. She is survived by her daughter Karen (Matthew Miller), grandchildren Chas (Ashley), Geoffrey (Michelle) and Kaylee Wylie,  and great-grandchildren Charley, Nuala, Declan, Wylie and Penelope.

A graveside service will be held at Evergreen Cemetery in Westport, where she will be interred with her beloved Mike and 2 sons. To share memories and stories click here,

Jeanne Wylie Crist

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Tracy Porosoff thinks this dramatic photo shows a wasp beetle eating a cicada at the Compo Beach baseball fence.

Whatever it is, it’s a perfect way to start off our “Westport … Naturally” week.

(Photo/Tracy Porosoff)

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And finally … speaking of Jackopierce (as we were above): Here’s a little preview of their Milestene show:

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Roundup: Ted Diamond, Twiddle, Epstein …

In the days following Ted Diamond’s death at 105, Westporters have shared memories of the World War II hero, former 2nd Selectman and 67-year Westport friend and neighbor.

Scott Smith shares something else: a pair of videos.

In 2010, Smith chaired the town’s 50th-anniversary celebration of the purchase of Longshore. As part of the event, he conducted a series of interviews with longtime residents.

In this clip, Diamond describes how he and 1st Selectwoman Jacqueline Heneage worked to save the Inn at Longshore:

Smith also interviewed Diamond and Victor DeMaria about their Longshore memories:

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Speaking of videos: A capacity crowd welcomed Twiddle last weekend, for a 2-day Levitt Pavilion festival.

They were not disappointed. The Vermont-based jam band put on great shows.

And Twiddle was not disappointed with Westport.

Yesterday on Facebook they said: “Still thinking about how incredible last weekend was at Levitt Pavilion in Westport, CT. So much love for everyone who came out and joined us. See you tonight in Wisconsin for Phlowfest.”

They also uploaded a fantastic video of their shows to social media. Their videographer captured the music, the audience, and some killer drone footage too.

We’re not quite Woodstock or Newport. But it makes us look pretty damn close. Click here to see.

Screen shot from the Levitt Pavilion Twiddle Festival.

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Speaking of the Levitt Pavilion: There are many things to worry about in Westport.

Having a concert stage named for a convicted sex offender and disgraced financier is not one of them.

At 9 p.m. last night, I got an email from a worried Westporter. She said: “This stage name for Levitt Pavilion is a disgrace for Westport. Can you investigate? Just trying to enjoy a nice night at Levitt Pavillon. My visitors are very concerned about my home. EPSTEIN?”

It’s okay.

The handsome stage was named — and dedicated — in 2015. It honors Geri and David Epstein, in recognition of their $500,000 gift during the renovation of the outdoor entertainment center.

Relax. Chill. Enjoy the show!

Tens of thousands of people enjoy the Levitt Pavilion every year. I Before last night, I don’t think anyone thought the stage was named for Jeffrey Epstein. (Photo/JC Martin)

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“Westport … Naturally” has featured ospreys on the Post Road by Fresh Market, and at Longshore, Sherwood Mill Pond and Burying Hill Beach.

There’s osprey on Cockenoe Island too. Carl McNair snapped this photo of the much-less-noticed raptor:

(Photo/Carl McNair)

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And finally … on this date in 1789, the US established the Department of War.

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Classical Music World Watches Westport

From August 11 to 13, the eyes of the piano world will be on Westport.

Will we notice?

After a 2-year COVID absence, the Heida Hermanns International Piano Competition returns. The winner — one of the top young pianists on the planet — will earn $10,000. The other 3 finalists receive $2,500 each.

The 4 finalists (clockwise from upper left): Nathan Cheung, Katherine Benson, Artem Kuznetsov, Aaron Kurz.

The musicians will compete at MoCA, on the Hamburg Steinway “D” piano that once graced the Carnegie Hall stage. Sandwiched around the performances and awards ceremony are master classes at the Westport Library, plus a lecture on Nathaniel Dett — the pioneering yet long-forgotten Black composer whose work will be featured in the competition.

The international event has a strong local flavor, too. Staples High School 1983 (and Yale University and King’s College Cambridge) graduate Alexander Platt serves as artistic director. Longtime resident, internationally renowned pianist (and 1986 Hermanns winner) Frederic Chiu chairs the jury.

This is Big Time. So how come you haven’t heard of it?

You should have. The Heida Hermanns Competition is 50 years old. It alternates every other year, between pianists and vocalists. Both events draw enormous attention, in the classical music world.

The venue and sponsors have changed. It bounced for years between the Westport Arts Center’s various homes, and Town Hall. Now, MoCA has taken the reins. Hopefully, they can give it the press it deserves.

The public needs to learn a bit about its namesake, too.

Born in Germany in 1906, Heida Hermanns studied with some of Europe’s top musicians. She debuted with the Berlin Philharmonic at 18, then toured Euroope.

She married Artur Holde, a noted music critic and author. In 1936, with Nazi power on the rise, they emigrated to the US.

Hermanns made her debut at New York’s Town Hall in 1942. She gave annual recitals by composers outside the mainstream repertory, and performed often with John Corigliano. (The New York Philharmonic concertmaster lived in Westport. He’s buried in Assumption Cemetery.)

Heida Hermanns and John Corigliano (father of today’s composer).

A few years later, Hermanns and her husband moved here. The couple liked the town’s “eclectic, liberal, creative, artistic” reputation, Platt says. They quickly became involved in its cultural life.

She recorded frequently with Ruth Steinkraus Cohen (the musician and UN activist, for whom the Post Road bridge is named).

Hermanns and Holde formed Friends of Music and Performers of Connecticut (now called the Connecticut Alliance for Music). She also supported the Levitt Pavilion. When the Westport Arts Center was built in the 1980s, she underwrote the Artur Holde Concer tHall.

Hermanns died in 1995. But her support of young musicians lives on.

Musicians like Chiu and Platt are paying it forward. One way is by carrying on Hermanns’ legacy of highlighting overlooked musicians.

Nathaniel Dett

Artistic director Platt first learned of composer, organist, pianist, choral director and music professor Nathaniel Dett while in college. Platt is thrilled to program Dett’s music. Each finalist will include some of his work, as part of their recital.

“This will be the greatest Heida Hermanns Piano Competition ever.”

MoCA executive director Ruth Mannes, her staff and board are fully behind the event. The 3 American and 1 Russian competitors have a packed schedule — and should draw packed houses.

They should certainly enjoy conducting master classes at the Library, and playing at MoCA. As for the piano itself: there’s nothing better than that Steinway.

“It’s exactly what Heida would have played on in Vienna,” Platt says. “It will be like she’s back here with us.”

(Click here for tickets and more information on the Heida Hermanns International Piano Competition.)

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Alexander Platt conducts the Minnesota Philharmonic.

The Last Movie Stars

“The Last Movie Stars” is a fascinating 6-part documentary on HBO Max.

Beginning Thursday (July 21), stream, it documents Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s decades-long careers — and partnerships, as spouses and actors.  

Ethan Hawkes is the director. Paul and Joanne’s youngest daughter, Clea, recommended him for the job.

He had great material to work with: transcripts from 1991 interviews Newman commissioned, with fellow actors, directors, even his first wife. He wanted a record to show that his life had not been charmed; that not everything came easily.

The interviews were taped. But Newman later destroyed the tapes at “the dump” — presumably, the one right here in Westport.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, on what looks like their Westport property (Photo/Dennis Jackson, courtesy of “CBS This Morning”

I learned all that, and much more, from a 10-minute preview today on “CBS Sunday Morning.” Ben Mankiewicz gives viewers a thorough look into the series. It includes mentions of the couple’s professional and personal difficulties, and Newman’s drinking,

But it also mentions their astonishing philanthropy (they gave away between $800 million and $1 billion, Clea estimates), and their deep love for each other. It grew even stronger after Woodward’s dementia diagnosis and — 10 days later — Newman’s own, of terminal cancer.

For decades, people here thought of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward not as Hollywood stars, but as Westport neighbors.

“The Last Movie Stars” will show the rest of the country why we were so glad they were here. (Click below for the “CBS Sunday Morning” story. Hat tip: Dennis Jackson)

Remembering Sheila Murphy Foster — And Her Post Office

In 2011, the post office moved from its spacious, classical and long-time home downtown (now Design Within Reach, for all who have moved here since).

Just before relocating to cramped, parking-impaired Playhouse Square, I wrote: 

When the post office moves into its new Playhouse Square digs a few months from now, it will likely be without fanfare.

They’re downsizing, after all; you don’t cut a ribbon at some spare, utilitarian space.

It’s a far cry from 1936, when Westport’s shining “new” post office opened on (appropriately) the Post Road.

Sheila Murphy Foster remembers that ceremony like it was yesterday. She should: She cut the ribbon.

Sheila Murphy Foster

Sheila was back in town the other day. She’s lived in Florida since graduating from Staples in 1948 — but she’s 82 years young, and still loves Westport.

Her roots are deep. Her own mother Mary is a Staples grad — in fact, Sheila says, Mary helped develop the school lunch program, and came up with the name “Inklings” for the school newspaper.

Sheila’s father John commuted to New York City for his job as an accountant with American Standard. He had 3 children, and when his wife got sick he needed a job closer to Westport.

John Murphy was active in Democratic politics — locally and nationally — and knew Postmaster General James Farley. Soon, President Roosevelt appointed Murphy as Westport’s postmaster.

“It was a plum job,” Sheila says.

The job was even better because a new post office was about to be dedicated. The WPA project replaced what Sheila calls a “ratty building” across the street.

“It was the middle of the Depression,” she recalls. “Things were bad. Having the government build a new building was good. Thank heaven for the WPA.”

So one day in 1936, 7-year-old Sheila stood on the broad steps of the “magnificent edifice” and cut the ceremonial ribbon. Well, she tried to — the oversized scissors were too big, so her father the postmaster finished the job.

Sheila Murphy and her father, cutting the post office ribbon.

He had a lot to do besides pose for photos. Mail was delivered twice a day back then. Westporters — many of whom did not have telephones —  communicated with friends by mailing postcards back and forth, one delivery following the next.

The Westport Post Office, in 2011. Trees now obscure the front of the WPA-era building.

John lived only a couple of more years. He died very young — as did his wife.  From age 9 on, Sheila was raised by her aunt.

Sheila remembers her Imperial Avenue home — near the intersection with Bridge Street — as a wonderful former onion barn. There was sledding in winter, and playing on a nearby 10-acre estate. Owner Rose O’Neill had already earned fame as the creator of the Kewpie doll.

In town, Sheila took dance lessons at what is now Toquet Hall.

Though she stayed in Florida after college, Sheila returned regularly to Westport — with her 3 sons.

Sheila Murphy Foster outside the Postmaster’s office. It probably looked the same when her father had the job.

On her most recent visit, she stopped by the post office she dedicated 75 years ago.

How did she feel when she heard the building has been sold — taking with it three-quarters of a century of Westport history?

“I felt bad,” she says. “It still looks like a beautiful building.

“But it’s old,” she admits. “Maybe it’s too expensive to renovate.”

The clerks — and postmaster — may move to Playhouse Square. But one thing will never change, Sheila Murphy insists.

“It’s always been my post office.”

Sheila Murphy Foster died peacefully Monday evening at her Miami home, surrounded by her family. She was 92 years old.

Sheila Murphy Foster

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Muddy Brook Project: A Bridge Too Far?

More than 4 years ago, I published a story by Wendy Crowther.

The preservation-minded Westporter described the history of 19 Craftsman-style stone bridges, built over Willow, Muddy and Deadman brooks, at the dawn of the automobile age.

The Cross Highway bridge. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

A century later, 9 remained. They’d survived hurricanes, road reconstruction projects, and collisions with decades of distracted drivers.

Wendy noted:

Today we pass over these bridges daily. Yet few of us notice their rustic presence. Their stone walls (“parapets,” in bridge lingo) were designed to convey the sense of a park-like setting — an aesthetic popular at the time.

Most blend seamlessly into the roadside landscape, often appearing to be mere continuations of Westport’s many fieldstone walls. They are simple, folkloric, and historically important.

And she added: “They are at risk.”

Evergreen Avenue (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

She and fellow Westport Preservation Alliance colleague Morley Boyd were particularly concerned about the Kings Highway North Bridge over Willow Brook.

Its enormous stone foundation perhaps dated back to the original “King’s Highway,” built in 1763 to carry mail between New York and Boston.

Large stones in the abutments beneath the Kings Highway North Bridge: Remnants of a much earlier bridge? (Photo: Wendy Crowther)

Wendy and Morley asked the town’s Historic District Commission to list all 9 remaining bridges on the National Register. She said:

We feel that these very special bridges possess the integrity of location, design, setting, materials and workmanship to qualify for this distinguished honor.

On a more visceral level, the preservation of these bridges will allow us to appreciate the human craftsmanship that went into building them.  By picturing the crew of local men who lifted each stone by hand and mortared them in place, we’ll not just notice these bridges — we will feel them.

Nearly half a decade later, they’re still pushing the HDC to act.

That Kings Highway North stone bridge has already been lost.

The one on Greens Farms Road over Muddy Brook may be next. The Flood & Erosion Control Board voted recently to prioritize its replacement.

The Greens Farms Road bridge over Muddy Brook (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

Its historic past was not part of the discussion.

That’s a shame, Wendy and Morley say.

“Of the few remaining circa 1910 stone bridges still remaining in Westport, this is the most beautiful due to its length, its gentle bend, and its setting,” Morley notes.

“Perhaps if the board members had known this, they might have asked different questions, and perhaps some may have changed the way they voted.”

Wendy adds, “Having advocated for their preservation for years, I know that there are ways to deal with or divert flood waters through adjacent culverts without having to replace the bridge in its entirety.

“There are guidelines and engineering publications on how this can be done without ruining the dimensions and historic integrity of the existing bridge.

“These problems can be mitigated without destroying this beautiful bridge. Let’s please insist on seeking alternate solutions to replacement.”

Westport Country Playhouse: 91 Years Young Today

On June 29, 1931, the curtain rose for the first time at the Westport Country Playhouse.

It ushered in a new chapter in town history — and the theater world nationally.

By 1930, Lawrence Langner and his wife Armina Marshall had achieved remarkable success as theater producers. The Theatre Guild — which Langner co-founded — had become perhaps the most prolific and influential producer on Broadway, and the leading producer of touring productions throughout the country.

Residents of Weston, the Langners wanted to establish a resident acting company, and experiment with new plays and reinterpretations of classics. But it had to be away from the spotlight of New York.

In the winter of 1930 they saw an old barn in an apple orchard near downtown Westport. The town was already popular with Broadway’s theatrical community.

It was exactly what they were looking for. They bought the property, with an assessed value of $14,000.

The 1930 barn.

Cleon Throckmorton — a respected Broadway set designer who had also designed the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts — was hired to transform the 1835 tannery into a theater.

The first production — “The Streets of New York” — opened 91 years ago today.

It was called Woodland Theatre. On opening day, Langner changed the name, to Country Playhouse.

The Westport Playhouse has seen countless highlights since then. Among them:

1933: “Present Laughter” is directed by Antoinette Perry. The Tony Awards are now named for her.

1935: Langner purchases 3.5 more acres, at $2,000 an acre, to expand the facilities. Extensions to the theater and construction of a scene shop and offices cost $25,000; a refreshment stand is $225.

1939: An unknown Gene Kelly dances in a musical revue. with a pair of new composers/performers named Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

1940: Oklahoma!” was never performed on the Playhouse stage, yet it plays a critical role in its genesis. A 1940 production of Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs incorporates turn-of-the-century folk songs, and a square dance scene. Langner invites Fairfield resident Richard Rodgers to see a performance. Three years later the Theatre Guild produces Oklahoma! on Broadway.

An early audience outside the Playhouse.

1941: Tallulah Bankhead adds drama to Her Cardboard Lover by taking her bows carrying a lion cub in her arms. It’s such a hit, she does it every night.

1941: Lee Strasberg directs Tyrone Power in Liliom, which later becomes Carousel on Broadway. Power is ready to open at the Playhouse when Daryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, demands he return to Hollywood to re-shoot movie scenes. Playhouse attorney Kenneth Bradley invokes a 300-year-old Connecticut blue law to keep Power here.

1942-45: For 4 seasons during World War II, when gas rationing prevents audiences from getting to the theater, there are no productions. The next season closure occurs 75 years later, during COVID..

1946: Just before Olivia de Havilland takes the stage on opening night of What Every Woman Knows, she marries novelist and journalist Marcus Goodrich at Langner’s Weston home.

1946: The apprentice system begins. Over the years, summer interns include Stephen Sondheim (1950) and Tammy Grimes (1954). Today the Playhouse hosts the Woodward Internship Program, a national program for emerging theater professionals. It is named for longtime Playhouse supporter Joanne Woodward.

Stephen Sondheim (crouching, top of photo), during his 1950 apprenticeship. The photo was taken at the Jolly Fisherman restaurant. Also in the photo: future film director Frank Perry (front row, left) and Richard Rodgers’ daughter Mary (2nd row, 4th from left).

1949: Helen Hayes performs with her 19-year-old daughter, Mary MacArthur, in Good Housekeeping. Mary becomes ill the day after closing, and dies of polio one week later.

1951: A world premiere comedy by Noël Coward, Island Fling, stars Claudette Colbert. Post-performance visitors to Colbert’s dressing room include Marlene Dietrich, Danny Kaye, Richard Rodgers and Otto Preminger.

 1952: Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who had achieved great success with Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon, struggle to create a musical from Shaw’s Pygmalion. Lerner sees it on the Playhouse stage. Four years later My Fair Lady becomes a smash on Broadway.

1954: ApprenticeTammy Grimes is fired from the box office in her first week because she is unable to make correct change. She is transferred backstage, where she irons actor Richard Kiley’s pants.

1954: A restaurant is built adjacent to the Playhouse: Players Tavern.

The iconic red Westport Country Playhouse.

1954: Christopher Plummer makes his American stage debut in Home Is the Hero. Years later, he joins the Playhouse board of trustees.

1955: The Empress includes apprentice Sally Jessy. She later earns fame as talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael.

1956: The big concern every day is how much ice to order. The theater is cooled by fans blowing over ice. Vintage posters in the lobby boast, “Air-cooled.”

Westport Country Playhouse in 1960 (Photo courtesy of Paul Ehrismann)

1957: Eartha Kitt stars in Mrs. Patterson, a Tony-nominated role she originated on Broadway. Fifty years later, now a Weston resident, she returns to the Playhouse stage in All About Us, a new musical by Kander and Ebb opening the 2007 season.

1958: Hugh O’Brian, popular star of television’s “Wyatt Earp,” causes a box office frenzy as the leading man in Picnic. It is a vivid illustration of the new power of television.

1958: Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy star in Triple Play.

1960: With a film career still in the future, Jane Fonda, age 23, stars in No Concern of Mine. Her father, Henry, had appeared in The Virginian at the Playhouse in 1937, the year his daughter was born.

1964: 18-year-old Liza Minnelli receives her Equity card, appearing with Elliott Gould in The Fantasticks. On opening night, according to a Playhouse brochure, “the rather gawky teenager…received a standing ovation.”

1969: Butterflies Are Free premieres with Blythe Danner and Keir Dullea. The comedy transfers to Broadway where it runs over 3 years, earning Danner a Tony Award. The  play — one of 36 that made the leap from Westport to Broadway — is reprised as a reading for the Playhouse’s 80th anniversary in 2010, with its original stars –Danner as the mother, Dullea as the evening’s host.

1973: The Connecticut Theatre Foundation is created to operate the Playhouse as a not-for-profit.

1974: In his playbill letter for Hair, Jim McKenzie, executive producer, says, “Open your mind, open your heart and prepare for the theatrical experience of a lifetime.”

1977: Absent Friends, a Playhouse co-production plan with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, opens in Washington, following its Westport run. On the same evening, The Master Builder opens in Westport, following its engagement in DC.

1978: A fall and winter film and play series begins with the movie Gone with the Wind, plus a big barbecue hosted by Colonel Sanders himself.

1981: Eva Le Gallienne makes her last appearance at the Playhouse 45 seasons after her first, with many roles in between. Today, the Playhouse’s Green Room is named in her honor, and contains memorabilia from her career.

The green room. Think of all the legendary names that have passed through there.

1985: Philip Langner, son of founders Lawrence Langner and Armine Marshall, receives an offer of $1.2 million for the Playhouse property from Playhouse Square, the adjacent shopping center. The Connecticut Theatre Foundation, current lessee, has a right to match the offer. The Playhouse Limited Partnership, a group of 27 ardent theater supporters, is formed to purchase the property.

1985: A fall season includes A Bill of Divorcement starring Christopher Walken and Katharine Houghton, who recreates the role in which her aunt, Katharine Hepburn, made her film debut in 1932. Hepburn is in the audience.

1987: The Playhouse makes a major change: from producing 12 plays in 12 weeks to producing 6 in 12. Subscriptions spike. Seeing a show every other week is more convenient to many than committing to a weekly schedule.

1989: With the Playhouse in arrears on its mortgage and taxes, and facing major expenses to meet fire and safety codes, it asks local developer Ceruzzi Mack Properties to make good the debt, assume the mortgage, and renovate and lease back the theater for $1 a year, in return for property ownership and construction of commercial rental space on the Playhouse campus. The Planning & Zoning Commission turns down the application.

1990: The Playhouse is entered on the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places.

1991: 30-year-old Aaron Sorkin visits the Playhouse to see a production of his play A Few Good Men.

1999: Groucho: A Life in Revue is taped at the Playhouse for PBS.

2000: A campaign begins to renovate the Playhouse, and transition from summer stock to a year-round theater. Connecticut Theatre Foundation becomes owner of the Playhouse and adjacent restaurant. Contributions, bolstered by a $5 million state grant from the State of Connecticut, help reach the $30.6 million goal by the end of 2005.

The Westport Country Playhouse teoday.

2000: A 2-week run of Ancestral Voices by A. R. Gurney features a different stellar cast each week. Among them: Jane Curtin, Neil Patrick Harris, Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, Paul Rudd, Swoosie Kurtz, James Naughton.

2001: Joanne Woodward is named artistic director. She directs 3 plays and appears in several productions, including Love Letters with Paul Newman, and a Script in Hand reading of Arsenic and Old Lace with Christopher Walken. Newman also appears in Ancestral Voices, Trumbo, and a revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which transfers to Broadway.

2002: Gene Wilder stars in Don’t Make Me Laugh. It’s his 4th appearance at the Playhouse, but first in a feature role. He performed here with Walter Pidgeon, Helen Hayes, and Carol Channing, “but nobody knew who I was then.”

2002: The Playhouse’s 2002 production of Our Town transfers to Broadway for a limited run, playing to full houses. The play airs on Showtime and PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre.” Newman receives Tony and Emmy Award nominations for his performance as Stage Manager.

Local residents Jim Naughton, Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, at the Westport Country Playhouse in 2002.

2003: During a regional power outage, the Playhouse is in the middle of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons with Richard Dreyfuss and Jill Clayburgh. Most actors live in New York and cannot travel to Westport. The performance is canceled.  However, Dreyfuss is in Westport. He drives to the theater and shakes hands with whoever arrives.

2003 and 2004: Fundraising galas support the Playhouse’s planned renovation with performances by Carole King, Robin Williams, Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Harry Connick, Jr. hosted by Brian Williams.

2005: May 23, 2005 marks the re-opening of Westport Country Playhouse and its 75th anniversary season, following a major multi-million dollar renovation.

2005: The Lucille Lortel Foundation awards a $2 million grant to establish The Lucille Lortel White Barn Center at the Playhouse.

2006: Paul Newman and Chef Michel Nischan open the Dressing Room restaurant next door.

2006: Stephen Sondheim returns to the Playhouse for the first time since his 1950 apprenticeship. He is saluted on the Playhouse stage with performances by Laura Benanti, Kristin Chenoweth, Barbara Cook, and Patti LuPone.

2006: James Earl Jones appears as Thurgood Marshall in the world premiere of Thurgood. He later joins the Playhouse board of trustees. 

2008: The popular Script in Hand play reading series begins.

2009: Stephen Sondheim presents a tribute to Mary Rodgers Guettel at the annual gala, An Enchanted Evening: The Music of Richard Rodgers. Sondheim and Rodgers Guettel are former Playhouse apprentices.

2021: During its 90th anniversary — and the pandemic, the Playhouse pivots to an all-virtual season. It’s available on-demand, with captions in Spanish.

After 91 years, the view has changed little. (Photo/Robert Benson)

(Like the Westport Country Playhouse, “06880” relies on contributions for support. Please click here to help.)