Category Archives: Media

Westport Arts Center Eyes Martha Stewart Move

The Westport Arts Center may be on the move.

To a few feet over the Norwalk border.

The gallery — which also sponsors educational outreach, talks, music concerts and films, in its Riverside Avenue home and other venues — has hired Sellars Lathrop Architects to possibly convert Martha Stewart’s former TV studio into the WAC’s new home.

The address is 19 Newtown Turnpike, Westport. But the 3-story building is in Norwalk.

Sellars Lathrop has invited neighbors to an informal meeting tomorrow (Wednesday, December 19). It’s an early step in the process.

The former Martha Stewart TV studio on Newtown Turnpike.

The Westport Arts Center has a long history. When Greens Farms Elementary School was closed, the WAC moved in. Artists and sculptors rented studios in former classrooms, and the gymnasium was used for exhibits.

The town eventually reclaimed GFS for education. After being homeless for several years, the WAC eventually landed at 51 Riverside Avenue. The long, narrow space works as a gallery, and has a killer view of the Saugatuck River.

But there is little room for other programming — and none at all for working artists.

Westport Arts Center, 51 Riverside Avenue.

The Newtown Avenue project is not a done deal. Sellars Lathrop must make an application to Norwalk’s Planning & Zoning department. Westport officials will be involved too, because the entrance to the property is here.

“It’s no secret we’ve been looking for space for the better part of 3 years,” says Amanda Innes, executive director of the WAC.

“We’ve looked at many places in Westport. Some are near downtown. But this is a great property. There are 110 parking spaces. It’s nearly 10 times the size of where we are now.”

Riverside Avenue — which is rented by the WAC, as the Martha Stewart property would be — is just 3,400 square feet.

“We’re part of the whole fabric of Westport,” Innes notes. The Martha Stewart studio “is still Westport to us. In order to grow, this is the best space for all of us — hands down.”

Techno Claus Comes To Town. Wait — He Already Lives Here!

One of the highlights of the holiday season — far better than fruitcake, much less stressful than holiday parties — is Techno Claus.

That’s “CBS Sunday Morning”‘s annual present to viewers. “Santa” — who for some reason has a New York-ish accent — offers viewers a whimsically rhyming musical look into some of the season’s more intriguing high-ish tech items.

It doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that Techno Claus is really David Pogue.

His clever patter and fun piano playing are no surprise. The nationally known tech writer/journalist/author/TV star majored in music at Yale, then spent his first 10 years after graduation working in New York, with a theatrical agency, and as a conductor and arranger on Broadway.

Pogue is also a longtime Westporter. Yesterday’s gift to viewers had a decidedly local flavor.

Nearly all of the scenes were filmed at his house: inside, in front and out back.

The only other locale was Granola Bar. That was for a segment on a reusable straw. Okay, it’s not exactly high tech — but it is important.

Click below to see Pogue’s Santa’s take on a speaker with scents; a spy camera for pets (it dispenses treats too); a keyboard for phones, and a wallet with tracker.

Ho ho ho!

Once Again, Jose Feliciano Strikes Gold

I seldom listen to WEBE 108.

It’s playing holiday music now though, so it’s on my pre-sets. I have this ridiculous false hope that one day I’ll hear an actual Christmas carol — Luciano Pavarotti belting out “O Holy Night,” say — instead of the squintillionth rendition of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

Yet last week, what to my wondering ears did appear but a yuletide song I had never heard before.

It was a Christmas miracle.

This was no longer background music, as I waited impatiently behind an idiot driver who did not know that since 1979, it has been legal in Connecticut to make a right turn on red. This time, I listened closely to the song.

The voice was familiar.

It was Jose Feliciano’s.

When the fresh, beautiful song ended, Danny Lyons said he had just played a  “world premiere.”

I had to know more.

I called Jose at his Weston home. He was off on tour somewhere. Hey, this is prime Feliz Navidad season.

But his wonderful wife Susan was happy to tell me the fascinating back story.

It begins 50 years ago, when Rick Jarrard was a staff producer for RCA Records in Los Angeles. He convinced Jose to record “Light My Fire.”

Jose Feliciano and Rick Jarrard

The young singer/guitarist was dubious. It had been a hit for the Doors less than a year before. What could he add?

Plenty, it turned out. It reached #3 in the US, and #1 in the UK, Canada and Brazil.

The duo collaborated on 6 best-selling albums, including one in 1970 of Christmas songs. It was filled with classics like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night.”

Rick asked Jose to write an original song too. He didn’t think he could.

But he’d just gotten a cuatro — a Puerto Rican stringed instrument. He thought back to his childhood on the island.

So — in the middle of July — Jose wrote “Feliz Navidad.” It’s become one of the best-selling Christmas songs of all time.

A few years ago, Rick wrote “On This Christmas Night.” Jose recorded it in his Weston studio. It’s beautiful, inspirational and sing-along-ish. But it was never released, so Rick just put it on Spotify.

He and Jose basically forgot about it.

Somehow though, the creators and producers of “Hamilton” found it.

And chose it — out of hundreds of contenders — to be their curtain call finale during this holiday season.

Soon, their interpretation will be released on a CD — with music from other Broadway, off-Broadway and traveling productions — called “Carols for a Cure, Volume 20” to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

When they heard the news last month, Jose and Susan were thrilled — not for themselves, but for their longtime friend and collaborator Rick. Susan said she cried for 3 days, with joy.

Then — just before Thanksgiving — Jose did a “Countdown to Christmas Music” promotion for WEBE 108. Susan told program director/midday DJ Danny Lyons how “On This Christmas Night” had dropped from the sky, into “Hamilton” and Equity’s AIDS benefit.

Danny listened to the song. He called it “providential.” His minister’s sermon had just noted that most Christmas songs today completely miss the meaning of Christmas.

Which is how Danny came to play “On This Christmas Night” that day last week. The fact that I heard it on its world radio premiere was — well, providential.

Danny told Jose he’d pass the song on to his programming colleagues around the country. Which means it may join “Feliz Navidad” as another great holiday contribution to the world, from our neighbor Jose Feliciano.

Of course — this being the holiday season — Jose is in great demand.

He’s playing all over the world this month: Palm Springs, New York, England, Vienna (with the Boys’ Choir) and the Vatican (for — of course! — the Pope’s Christmas program).

But Jose always has time for us. He returns home December 23. The next night, he offers his annual gift of music at Assumption Church’s Christmas Eve mass.

Feliz Navidad indeed. And muchas gracias, Jose Feliciano!

(Click here, then scroll down to hear “On This Christmas Night.” The Broadway Cares CD can be bought after shows. It will be available after Christmas on iTunes.)

What? No Famous Weavers School?!

A recent issue of the New Yorker offers looks backward.

There’s a tribute to founder Harold  Ross, followed by many old stories and cartoons.

Karl Decker — the longtime, legendary and now retired Staples High School English instructor — is a devoted New Yorker fan. The magazine sent him scurrying to his cellar, where he keeps his back copies.

All the way back to the 1930s.

Karl Decker, with his 1934 New Yorker.

He picked one — June 23, 1934 — and settled down to read.

There was a long article about Franklin Roosevelt; a cartoon by Peter Arno — and 500 words of “precious whimsy” by Parke Cummings.

In the summer of 1960, Karl and Parke — a famous author and humorist — worked together at Famous Writers School.

Al Dorne — one of the founders of the Famous Writers, Artists and Photographer Schools — was always looking for ideas to add to those 3 “schools” (all correspondence-based, and headquartered on Wilton Road).

An advertisement from the 1950s.

Parke and Karl had already submitted proposals for a Famous Sculptors School (which required a railroad spur, to ship in granite) and Famous Dancers School (huge pads on which students would ink their bare feet, then step out the moves on big rolls of paper).

Their latest idea: Famous Weavers School. The preface read: “The School will provide each student with 4 English Shropshire sheep, a shepherdess, and …”

Dorne told them he’d have to consult with Ed Mitchell before they went any further.

“Inexplicably, our workloads increased markedly after that,” Karl reports.

Main Street, Bleecker Street, And The Future Of Retail

A year and a half ago, the New York Times said Bleecker Street “looks like a Rust Belt city.”

On 5 blocks from Christopher Street to Bank Street, more than a dozen storefronts sat empty.

“Where textured-leather totes and cashmere scarves once beckoned to passers-by,” the paper reported, “the windows are now covered with brown construction paper, with ‘For Lease’ signs and directives to ‘Please visit us at our other locations.'”

This past Tuesday, the Times changed its tune.

A headline trumpeted “The Return of Bleecker Street.”

Eighteen months after its obituary, that same 5-block stretch of the West Village is “full of cool, vibrant people doing interesting things.”

What changed?

“Big-name luxury labels” are gone. Their storefronts are now filled with “young, digitally native brands….a well-curated mix of small brands with big ideas.” Many are run by women.

Hill House Home on Bleecker Street shows that a bit of creativity can produce wonders — and entice shoppers. (Photo/Stefania Curto for New York Times)

The sudden switch was no accident. Brookfield Properties bought 4 properties with 7 storefronts last April — “after exorbitant rents and a dearth of shoppers had driven out most of the businesses.” The new owners “immediately set to work rethinking the landscape.”

A creative strategy firm helped plan short-term leases — and revenue sharing.

Nell Diamond — the founder of bedding and bath retailer Hill House Home, an early arrival — did not believe retail was dead.

Bad retail is dead,” she clarified.

Bleecker Street’s new stores have become destinations — and community centers. They offer hot cocoa, and host podcasts, educational events and book club meetings. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand held a book signing at Lingua Franca, which sells cashmere sweaters hand-stitched with political slogans.

So why is “06880” highlighting a story about 10012?

Because some of the descriptions about last year’s Bleecker Street resonate with this year’s Main Street.

There are some great, fun stores downtown. You can lose yourself — and find nearly every gift you need — at Savvy + Grace, and The Brownstone. Bedford Square is filled with shops like Savannah Bee Company. Serena & Lily has brought new energy and creativity too.

Serena & Lily draws crowds of shoppers, just off Main Street.

But there are too many “windows covered with brown construction paper.” Landlords still hold out for sky-high rents, and refuse to consider options like short-term leases and revenue sharing.

I know, I know. Apples and oranges. Westport is not New York. Main Street will never have the foot traffic of Bleecker Street.

But we don’t need all those empty storefronts either.

If Greenwich Village can find a way out of its retail doldrums, our village can too.

(Click here for the full New York Times story. Hat tip: Michelle Sinclair Colman)

JJ Skutnik: A “Rising” Star

You may have seen the short film. People dance together behind a screen; their X-ray silhouettes are projected on it. When they emerge from behind, the audience sees who they really are.

The skeletons turn into human beings. Each group is unique. There are 2 women; 2 men with a baby; 2 little girls, one with Down syndrome; a Muslim and a Jew.

The video — first posted in 2015 — went viral. It’s been seen nearly 170 million times.

You may know that the film is part of a broader “Love Has No Labels” campaign. Another project includes “We Are America.” Professional wrestler/rapper/actor John Cena offers fascinating statistics about our country. Describing our numbers — by gender, race, religion, physical ability, age and sexual orientation — he notes, “Labels don’t devalue us. They help define us.”

That video has been viewed nearly 100 million times.

You may have seen last year’s video. Filmed at football’s Pro Bowl in Orlando, it turns the usual stadium Kiss Cam — focusing mostly on young, straight, white couples — on its head.

This Kiss Cam zeroes in on older couples of all ages. On same-sex couples. On a young kid with a developmental disability kissing his friend.

You may even know that all these videos are sponsored — pro bono — by the Ad Council. The goal is to fight “implicit bias” — the attitudes and stereotypes that affect our thoughts, actions and decisions, often subconsciously.

But what you probably don’t know is that a Staples graduate has been working with the Ad Council on these projects.

And that he played a huge role in the newest launch: a very impressive long-form video that asks, why does it take disaster to bring us all together?

JJ Skutnik

The Westport native is JJ Skutnik. A state champion volleyball player, he graduated in 2005. At James Madison University he majored in corporate communications (and played volleyball). He focused on the design aspect of marketing and film, and turned an internship at Story Worldwide in South Norwalk into a full-time job.

He moved on to R/GA, the international ad agency that produces the Ad Council’s “Love Has No Labels” campaign.

Skutnik is particularly excited about “Rising.” Far longer than the other videos — nearly 10 minutes — and directed by David Nutter (“Game of Thrones”), it dramatically and emotionally shows that in times of great stress, labels don’t matter.

Skutnik’s role was lead producer. He worked with the high-end crew — all of whom donated their time — on the Warner Brothers’ Burbank, California set. He also helped with post-production, music scoring (with the Los Angeles Philharmonic), the website and launch.

The video launched earlier this month. Showtime features it on demand, and throughout the day. Clear Channel is promoting it with billboards; Google and Facebook have donated ad space. It too has gone viral.

“Rising” shows how people pull together during a flood. But, Skutnik notes, the same thing happens during other crises — like the current wildfires.

“We don’t need to drop our biases only during disasters,” he says. “We should do it all the time.”

Thanks to JJ Skutnik, R/GA and the Ad Council’s efforts, maybe we will.

Whoopi Goldberg, Trevor Noah And “06880”: The Sequel

I’m usually pretty good at predicting which “06880” stories will draw the most attention.

Those honoring Westporters who die get forwarded often.

Pieces about zoning and land use — proposed teardowns of beloved landmarks, changes at the beach, etc. — get posted on social media (earning plenty of eyeballs).

And stories on dogs are catnip for readers.

But some reactions amaze me.

Whoopi Goldberg

Last Saturday morning, I posted a quick news flash. Trevor Noah — the headliner at the next day’s Anti-Defamation League of Connecticut “Voices: A Show of Unity” fundraiser — had just canceled, due to bruised vocal chords. His replacement was another huge name: Whoopi Goldberg.

It was the kind of story I do when can: getting the word out for a worthy cause, and hopefully selling a few tickets.

Page views were normal for a Saturday. But on Sunday morning, they spiked 10-fold. Well before noon, that ADL story had the most hits of anything I’ve published since I started “06880,” nearly a decade ago.

By Sunday evening, views were orders of magnitude higher still.

But people were not just reading the story. They were commenting too.

They were not from Westport. There were new, unfamiliar names.

And the comments were not typical “06880” ones. This was not a back-and-forth about the greed and short-sightedness of downtown landlords vs. the gauzy sentimentality of oldtimers.

It was not a debate about Connecticut’s fiscal health, or where to put a beach bathroom.

Trevor Noah

The comments about Whoopi Goldberg (and Trevor Noah) were nasty. They were vile. They were racist.

I don’t know how these people found the story. I assume it was posted on a website somewhere that draws readers who are unfamiliar with “06880” and Westport.

But they’re very familiar with spewing vitriol online. This is not, I’m sure, the first time these readers reacted to a news story about black entertainers.

I disabled commenting on the story. I took down some of the most odious ones.

I left others up. I wanted “06880” readers to see what’s out there, beyond the Westport bubble.

And to realize that the work of the ADL — and all the rest of us — combating hate, bigotry and ignorance must continue.


Here’s the good news. Avid “06880” reader/1987 Staples High School graduate Janette Kinnally writes:

I went to the ADL event. I thought Whoopi was intelligent, insightful and knew her history in this country (which, she noted, is really lacking in education today).

She recounted many events throughout the years. She said “let’s not make the same mistakes in the past” — especially when it comes to creating a dictator and encouraging white nationalism.

Whoopi was thoughtful in her responses, and funny when she responded to Westport’s own Alisyn Camerota. She and CNN (where Alisyn works) were targeted by the bomber 2 weeks ago.

Whoopi offered some great advice. We live in scary times, she said, but there is hope for the future.

We can make change, by taking action. We can’t just stand on the sideline and watch.

Whoopi said: We need more people to stand up, and have their voices heard. We the people should be in control of our country — not white nationalist men!

Ian Manheimer And Our “Dopesick Nation”

The last time “06880” checked in with Ian Manheimer, he was channeling Robert F. Kennedy.

Ian Manheimer

Manheimer — a 2001 Staples grad, communications and English major at Tulane who works at Charity Buzz, raising funds for dozens of non-profits — has long been committed to social justice.

He founded RFK Young Leaders, a program that inspires young people to work on issues like farm workers’ rights.

Recently, Manheimer turned his focus to the opioid epidemic. He calls it “some of the most important work I’ve ever done.”

Through relatives in Florida, the activist learned of the $1 billion “drug rehabilitation industry.” Centered in Palm Beach County, it seems to involve “just about everyone,” Manheimer says.

For example, dentists own and run rehabilitation clinics. But, Manheimer explains, that’s a euphemism for a “fraudulent funnel that cycles addicts in and out.” The goal is to keep patients addicted, so clinic owners can “bilk the insurance industry.”

These are “serial scammers, following a long South Florida tradition. The industry is filled with gangsters. There’s a real criminal element there.”

Manheimer showed up at one rehabilitation center with a camera. The manager pulled out a gun, and chased him off the property.

Ian Manheimer prepares for a shot.

Manheimer’s brother Jaime worked in unscripted TV. One of his high school classmates explained more about the industry to them.

“Junkie hunters” — also known as “body brokers” — form the marketing arm. They look for “down and out people,” Manheimer says. The hunters offer Xboxes and other goods, to get drug users to enroll in a rehab program.

“They actually auction these guys off to the highest bidder,” Manheimer notes.

Manheimer and his brother developed a television show, exploring and explaining what was happening. They optioned it to a production company.

News media began focusing on the drug rehabilitation industry. Florida officials clamped down a bit.

So Manheimer shifted focus. His new show — “Dope Sick Nation” — looked at how recovering addicts could receive quality care.

Viceland — Vice’s cable network — bought 10 episodes. They air Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Rather than serving an expose, the show is human interest.

Recovering addicts Frankie Holmes and Allie Severino offer crisis intervention services to drug addicts, as they move into treatment.  They are featured in “Dopesick Nation.”

Each episode features 2 people — without insurance — in crisis. As they seek quality care, “Dopesick Nation” tells their stories.

Manheimer is passionate about the opioid crisis. The mortality rate is far higher than AIDS or breast cancer, he says. It’s bankrupting communities.

And — with the rising popularity of synthetic drugs like fentanyl — it’s getting worse.

“It’s the biggest public health crisis since the Spanish flu” exactly 100 years ago, he notes.

Like his hero RFK, Manheimer is drawn to big questions about humanity.

“This is a spiritual issue,” he says of the opioid epidemic.

“Why is it happening here? Why now? Why are millions of people attracted to a drug with such a high risk of overdosing and dying? Why are users clustered, and why are they predominantly where they are?”

He does not know the answer.

No one does.

But thanks to Ian Manheimer’s “Dopesick Nation,” viewers around the country are now motivated to think about them.

(Click here for all Viceland episodes.)

Trevor Noah Is Out Tomorrow. But Whoopi Goldberg In In!

Trevor Noah was the highly anticipated featured star at tomorrow’s Anti-Defamation League “Voices: A Show of Unity” fund-raiser and community celebration. (Sunday, November 11, 5 p.m., Klein Auditorium, Bridgeport; click here for more details.)

But the “Daily Show” host bruised his vocal chords. He canceled all performances until Monday.

The ADL is used to dealing swiftly with crises. True to form, they scoured the country and found a fantastic replacement: Whoopi Goldberg.

The actress/comedian/author/television host will fill in.

The show will go on. And it will be a great one.

(A few tickets remain. Click here to purchase.)

Whoopi Goldberg

Honoring Our Vets: Y’s Men Who Were There

In 2002, Bruce Allen and Jack Schwartz contacted Jim Honeycutt.

Members of the very active, wide-ranging Y’s Men retirees’ group, they asked the Staples High School media instructor for help with a project.

Both had served in the military during World War II. They wanted to produce a video, filled with memories and reflections of 18 WWII combat veterans. Already, the ranks of service members from that war were thinnning.

His father was in the navy. Honeycutt was happy to help.

Plaques, memorials and a statue fill Westport’s Veterans Green, across from Town Hall.

As he interviewed the nearly 2 dozen veterans, Honeycutt was stunned. One man had waved at a low-flying airplane. The pilot waved back. Then he torpedoed a battleship in Pearl Harbor.

Schwartz himself bombed Japan, at the same time an atomic bomb was dropped to the north. He saw the sky filled with colors.

“The stories are so important to remember,” Honeycutt says.

So earlier this year — now retired from teaching — he took the DVD, re-edited it, and uploaded the finished product to his personal YouTube channel.

There’s almost 3 hours of content. As Veterans Day approaches, Honeycutt invites “06880” readers to honor all who served America by hearing their stories. Just click below.