Category Archives: People

Duck! It’s 25 Years Of Karaoke

In 1992, Leigh Henry tried to sell Pete Aitkin a karaoke jukebox.

The Black Duck owner said no.

But he asked Leigh — a 1968 Staples High School grad, with a long and varied music career — if he’d host a karaoke show instead.

Leigh said yes.

Which is why — a quarter century later — the Duck is celebrating 25 years as Westport’s go-to karaoke restaurant/bar.

Leigh is a storied figure in Fairfield County. While still a Staples student, his band — Mandrake Root — opened for the Doors, and Sly and the Family Stone.

Leigh spent 15 years organizing shows, then booked music for clubs and private events. For 3 decades his band Celebration has played weddings and parties. He’s the vocalist in another group — the Leigh Henry Band — and also DJs.

In the early ’90s Leigh was selling karaoke machines, like those in Asia where people pay to sing. But Aitkin thought that if the Duck sponsored karaoke, there should be a host.

Before the opening show, Leigh wondered if anyone would come. He still recalls the first person — a woman named Maureen. She sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

At that moment, Black Duck karaoke took off.

Black Duck karaoke, in the early days.

“Tuesday nights were wall to wall,” Leigh says. He added Mondays too, for 23 years.

Leigh’s karaoke fans like older music — classics. Not a lot of hip hop. The 3 all-time favorites, Leigh thinks, are “Livin’ on a Prayer,” “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Sweet Caroline.”

The Duck itself plays a huge role in Tuesday karaoke’s long success.

“The vibe is completely comfortable,” Leigh notes. “It’s a great equalizer. There are no pretensions. Bikers, tech guys, yuppies — everyone leaves their attitude at the door, and mucks in together.”

Just another Tuesday at the Duck.

The layout helps too. “There’s a bar where people sit safely. They can engage or not,” Leigh observes. “You can sit at tables. The place is small enough to be intimate, but large enough so there’s a lot of energy.”

Mike “Wolfie” Connors — the popular bartender from Day 1 to 2015 — also played a big role, Leigh says.

Five years ago, the Duck celebrated 20 years of karaoke with a party — and a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society.

Westport’s favorite karaoke spot.

For this 25th, Leigh upped the ante.

Tuesday, June 13 and 20 are “Applause for the Cause” nights. They’re like Relays for Life — except people sing to raise money, rather than walk.

The 1st night is “Only a Pay-Per-Tune”: donate $25 to sing a song.

The 2nd evening is a “Sing-a-thon.” Team leaders who raise $500 earn a 3-tune mini-set. They can perform themselves, or offer their slot to friends.

Leigh’s goal is $10,000 for the American Cancer Society.

Good times never seemed so good.

(To become a team leader, sign up for a song or make a contribution, click here. For more information, email lh@leighhenrymusic.com) 

Brett is one of many Black Duck karaoke stars.

Westport’s Amazing World War II Families

It may be an American record.

During World War II, 8 of the 12 Cuseo sons left Saugatuck, to enlist in the armed forces.

Fortunately, only one — James — was killed.

The Cuseo family in the 1940s. Daughter Mildred is missing.  Father James and mother Lucy are in the middle.. (Photo courtesy of Woody Klein’s book “Westport, Connecticut.”)

But when the Cuseos’ mother, Lucy, died in 1943, her daughter said it was due to her “broken heart.”

Lucy was buried here with military honors. American Legion members served as pallbearers.

The Cuseos’ contributions to World War II were astonishing. But in terms of sacrifice, none made more than the Wassell family.

Four sons enlisted. All were pilots. Three were killed in action — all within 15 months of each other.

Charles P. “Pete” Wassell

Before the war, Harry — the oldest — helped design fighter planes in Stratford. He, his brother Bud and other Westport men started the Westport Defense Unit, to teach marksmanship.

He enlisted in the Army Air Force after Pearl Harbor. A 2nd lieutenant, he died in Iceland in 1943 while ferrying aircraft to the European Theater.

Frank L. “Bud” Wassell Jr.

Like Harry, Bud left college because of the Depression. The 2 sons worked with their father, Lloyd, in starting the Wassell Organization on Sylvan Road. A very successful businessman, he had worked as personal assistant to George Westinghouse, founder of Westinghouse Electric.

The company invented and sold production control equipment, becoming instrumental in expediting the efficiency of defense contractors. A 1st lieutenant flight commander, Bud was killed in 1943 in a midair collision, while a flight instructor in Florida.

Harry B. Wassell

Pete — a 1940 Staples High School graduate — left Middlebury College to train as a pilot in the Civil Air Patrol. He transferred to the Army Air Force, and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant navigator.

He served in the China/ Burma/India Theater, and died in 1944 after his B-24 aircraft was hit by antiaircraft fire while attacking a Japanese cruiser.

The 4th son — George — was a member of Staples’ Class of 1943. But he left high school in 1942, to enlist as an aviation cadet. Appointed a B-17 aircraft commander at the age of 18, he was recalled from overseas duty when his 3rd brother Pete was killed. He served as a B-17 pilot instructor through the war’s end.

George Wassell with his parents, Lloyd and Georgene, by the Westport train station on Railroad Place in 1943 or ’44.

George turned down a full engineering scholarship to Cornell in order to join his father in the Wassell Organization.

Pete left behind a child, born 2 months after his death. Harry had a daughter, Patty, who still lives in Westport. George married Betsy Schuyler in 1945. They raised 6 children in Westport.

George and Betsy Wassell at Longshore, not long after the war.

When Lloyd moved his family to Westport before the war, he and his wife Georgene bought several acres of land on Mayflower Parkway. He built a large house (by 1930s standards), and planned to give building lots to his 6 kids: the 4 boys, and daughters Pat and Betty.

World War II sabotaged all that. But George and Pat did build homes there after the war. George added a pool, 3-hole golf course and tree house. The property became a great attraction for lots of cousins, and tons of neighborhood kids.

Longtime Westporter Jono Walker — George’s nephew — remembers those times fondly.

“The Wassells never dwelled on their tragic history,” he says. “At least none of us kids ever felt it. The house was constantly filled with great joy and life.”

As for George and Betsy: They moved to New Hampshire in 1974. He died in 2010, age 85. She is now 89, and lives in Maine.

The Wassell brothers’ 2 sisters are still alive. Betty is 98, in Florida, and Pat is 89, in Colorado.

The brothers and their parents are all buried at Willowbrook Cemetery.

(Hat tips: Eric Buchroeder, Jono Walker and Bud Wassell)

Daniel Lanzilotta’s Trashy Art

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Which means there are tons of treasures downtown.

Take, for example, the little green (and non-biodegradable) plastic stirrers you get with your Starbucks coffee.

Daniel Lanzilotta says they cause havoc when they get into storm drains, and the nearby Saugatuck River.

So he makes them into sculptures.

That’s just one way he turns “street debris” into art. He’s got many other pieces — and they’re on view right now in the Westport Library Riverwalk (lower level) display case. Fittingly, it’s just a few steps from Starbucks.

Daniel Lanzilottsa wears one of his creations.

On Wednesday, May 31 (6:15 p.m., McManus Room) the library hosts a reception for Lanzilotta. He’ll give a talk on environmental issues at 7 p.m., followed by a discussion with Earthplace representatives.

The topic: How Westport can address and remedy some of the issues raised in his talk.

Lanzilotta is the right man for the job. An artist, environmentalist and chef, he’s seen this town from many different angles.

As a member of Celebrate Westport, he helped create the Farmers’ Market with Michel Nischan. Lanzilotta also helped design First Night Westport’s “Trashin’ Fashion” program for kids.

 

“My work brings consciousness into the waste stream,” Lanzilotta says.

In downtown Westport, he finds all the inspiration he needs.

(For more information, click here.)

“Night On The River” Is For The Birds

After 21 years, nearly everyone in town has a birdhouse.

For more than 2 decades, residents enjoyed a Birdhouse Auction. The idea was creative, fun — and totally Westport.

Local artists created amazing, unique and very cool birdhouses. They were showcased in Main Street store windows, kicked off by a springtime “stroll.” Then — as the highlight of a fun party — people bid to buy them.

All funds went to Project Return, the North Compo Road group home for girls and young women undergoing difficult times.

This special lenticular birdhouse was created by Miggs Burroughs.

But according to Jeff Wieser — CEO of Homes With Hope, the Westport housing organization that oversees Project Return — the effective shelf life of a fundraiser for most non-profits is 7 to 10 years.

The Birdhouse Auction took a tremendous amount of time and effort, by a dedicated core of volunteers. They asked a lot of very generous and talented and local artists.

And — as noted above — you can fit only so many birdhouses in your back yard.

Last year marked the final Birdhouse Auction. But Project Return needs as much support as ever.

Fortunately, a group of volunteers has created a new fundraising event. It’s a summer party with cocktails, dinner and dancing at the Saugatuck Rowing Club. Called “Night on the River,” it’s set for Saturday, June 3.

Vineyard Vines’ Main Street window — with white outfits specially for the “Summer Nights” gala.

Wieser is particularly pleased that a “great group of younger people” has taken over the planning.

“The next generation is getting involved in Westport volunteerism,” he says. “They’ve got a new canvas of creativity.”

But they’re keeping some of that old Main Street stroll flavor.

Because the dress code for “Night on the River” is “strictly summer white,” organizers are asking downtown merchants — most of whom own clothing stores — to feature white clothes in their windows.

In addition, Amis restaurant created a special “Summer Nights” cocktail. It drew raves at its recent debut.

“Hopefully this is the start of a whole new tradition,” Wieser says.

Hopefully too the birds won’t notice there are no new feeders this year.

(Click here for more information on — and tickets to — “Night on the River.”)

Famed Westport Family Graves Vandalized

The Coley family has been in Westport a long time. Anyone who has heard of “Coleytown” knows the name.

Bill Coley has not lived in Westport since 1968. But — like other “06880” readers — he took time on Mother’s Day to visit his family plot. Here’s what he found:

My wife and I were in town on Sunday. We decided to visit Coley Cemetery on Weston Road, just over the Westport border. (It was known as Norfield Cemetery before being transferred to the town of Weston by Norfield Congregational Church, about 20 years ago.)

This is where my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great- grandmother are all buried, along with several older generations whose tombstones are now so weathered as to be unreadable.

When we arrived, we discovered that 6 to 8 gravestones in our plot and an adjoining one had been knocked over. Several were broken, including my great- grandmother, Abbie A. (Gray) Coley.

A few of the vandalized graves in Coley Cemetery.

Although Abbie died 70 years before I was born, I have always felt a special affinity toward her and her husband, my great-grandfather Horace Coley. He was a farmer and teacher in Westport in the mid- to late 1800s.

Seeing her stone knocked over and broken in half hit me in a way I never would have imagined. Even as I write this 4 days later, I am still very emotionally affected by it.

Our plot is at the back of the cemetery, so the vandals would have been virtually invisible to anyone driving by on Weston Road. We reported the damage to the Weston Police, who are investigating.

I remember this happening once before when I was growing up, but I was still shocked by what I saw. It is obviously the work of teenagers with too much time on their hands.

I know it’s unlikely, but if anyone has heard anything about this incident, please contact the Weston Police. The case number is 17-4298.

Abbie (Gray) Coley’s tombstone, before the vandalism.

Arts Campus On Baron’s South? P&Z Draws The Line.

The Westport Arts Center is a wonderful, vibrant place.

It’s also wholly inadequate.

Essentially one long room on Riverside Avenue — with a spectacular view of the Saugatuck River — it functions as a small studio and gallery. But it can host only one meeting, lecture, concert, class or exhibit at a time.

Given Westport’s long arts heritage — and the interest of so many Westporters, from senior citizens to kids, in art in all its forms — it’s no wonder the WAC has sought more suitable digs.

Last fall, town representatives approached the organization. Would the WAC be interested in preserving and using Golden Shadows — the main building on the southeast corner of 23-acre Baron’s South (named for the perfume developed by its previous owner, Baron Walter Langer von Langendorff) — for exhibits and performances?

Golden Shadows. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The town soon came back with a new question: Would the WAC like to take over the other 3 long-neglected buildings there too?

Meanwhile, a group of veteran, well-respected local artists and photographers — including Leonard Everett Fisher, Ann Chernow, Miggs Burroughs, Niki Ketchman and Larry Silver — had been meeting regularly to discuss their own idea.

These “deans” of the Westport arts scene wanted a dedicated museum-type space to preserve the town’s artistic legacy.

And at the same time, folks like Burroughs, Westport arts curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz, RTM moderator Eileen Lavigne Flug and the Westport Historical  Society’s Bob Mitchell were seeking ways to involve the WAC more fully with other arts organizations in town.

The result was a public/private partnership to create a “community arts campus” at Baron’s South.

As presented last night by 3rd Selectman Helen Garten, at a Planning & Zoning Commission pre-application meeting, there would be 3 phases:

  1. The Westport Arts Center would lease and restore Golden Shadows, retaining most of its decorative interior, for use as offices, classrooms and gallery space.
  2. The WAC would lease and restore the  Tudor revival guest house at 70 Compo Road South as additional gallery space.
  3. They would lease the 2 units at 52 and 52B Compo Road South, for use as artists’ residences.

The house next door to Golden Shadows. The plan would have leased it to artists.

“Leasing all 4 buildings to a single user is the best way to ensure minimal impact on the public open space and surrounding neighborhood,” Garten said.

“Instead of 4 separate buildings, each accessed by its own roadway and each with its own use, there will be a single integrated property.” It would function much as the baron’s estate did, decades ago.

However, P&Z members gave the arts campus plan a frosty reception last night. A pre-app meeting is intended to give applicants a sense of what the zoning board feels about a plan. Commissioners insisted that the concept is too intense for the “light use” zoning of Baron’s South. It’s zoned as “passive recreational open space.”

Arts advocates were unsure last night what their next step will be.

Back to the drawing board they go.

A view into Golden Shadows’ central parlor shows a chandelier and handsome circular staircase. (Photo/Wendy Crowther)

The town currently owns 72 Compo Road South, on the eastern edge of Baron’s South. This was planned to be gallery space.

Calling All WWII Vets

More than 70 years ago, you served your country.

Later this month, Westport honors you.

If you’re a World War II veteran who would like to participate in this year’s Memorial Day parade, please call Ted Diamond: 203-227-7680 or 203-216-5609.

You can walk or ride. Your uniform may or may not fit. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is that you are there!

Ted Diamond and his wife Carol, on Veterans Green before the 2014 Memorial Day ceremony. Ted — now 99, and the 2007 grand marshal — flew 50 missions during World War II.

Town Mill Rate Set: 0% Increase

Westport’s mill rate is set.

It’s exactly the same as last year.

The Board of Finance voted unanimously last night to keep the town’s mill rate at 16.86, for fiscal year 2017-18. The board did express concern about the possibility of a mid-year “supplemental assessment,” depending upon state finances.

The total town budget is $204,240,189.

First Selectman Jim Marpe said:

I am proud of our department heads for working diligently to control costs and improve efficiencies, while at the same time maintaining and enhancing our infrastructure. We have been able to absorb the fully restored school budget through the efforts of all town departments. We continue to reform our pension and health programs as we continue to fully fund our obligations and aggressively pay down debt.

Our community is united to ensure that Westport continues to be a highly desirable place to live – for our youth, young families, and seniors. In addition to fully supporting our world-class schools, this year’s budget includes enhancements to downtown, the beaches, and the senior center. Our grand list continues to grow and enables us to mitigate property tax increases, reflecting the confidence residents and businesses have in investing in Westport.

Board of Finance chairman Brian Stern commended “the hard work and commitment of the town’s department heads and professionals. While not raising property taxes, we will also be able to retain reserves at 11%, at the high end of our policy range and consistent with the town’s Aaa rating.”

“Catch A Lift” Catches Westport’s Spirit

“06880” is a little late to this story.

But it’s never too late to celebrate our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Or the people who help them.

Catch a Lift is a national non-profit dedicated to the physical and mental recovery of post-9/11 combat-wounded military personnel. The organization provides gym memberships and home equipment, fitness programs and motivational peer support.

Last weekend — thanks to the tireless efforts of Mental Grit Fitness owner/trainer Andy Berman; Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas and his entire department; Westporter and CAL board member Adam Vengrow, and the support of Joyride, Crossfit Revel and Achieve Fitness — 16 veterans came to town.

And then they went to town, with workouts, training and plenty of camaraderie.

A special shoutout goes to Daniel Slow. The Weston High School basketball player raised over $5,000 for Catch a Lift, thanks to pledges for every point he scored.

Photographer Matthew Paskert captured much of the action from last weekend’s “Westport for Warriors” weekend. If his images inspire you to learn more about Catch a Lift, click here.

(Photos/Matthew Paskert)

A Farmers’ Market Tale

Today, the Westport Farmers’ Market begins its 12th season.

Its growth — from tentative beginnings in the Westport Country Playhouse parking lot, to a vibrant, beloved and very popular Imperial Avenue Thursday tradition — is remarkable.

A typical scene at the Westport Farmers’ Market.

Every shopper, farmer and vendor has their own story about what the Market means to them.

But none is more remarkable than this.

Each week, the Bridgeport Rescue Mission selects men to pick up extra food. They bring the produce, bread and more back to the center, where chefs make meals. They also offer recipes to folks who pick up the food that’s not cooked.

The honor to be selected to gather the goods is reserved for men who are winning their battles against alcohol or drug addiction.

Two helpers from the Bridgeport Rescue Mission pick up produce at the Westport Farmers’ Market. (Photo courtesy of CTBites.com)

“These guys are great,” says WFM director Lori Cochran-Dougall. “We get to know them well. They’re so supportive of our staff and the vendors. They stay, they help us break down the tents, they do so much for us.”

Last year, one man came every Thursday. He was excited about graduating from the Rescue Mission. But he worried he might not find a job.

At the end of the market season last November, he still did not have one. Cochran contacted a few area restaurants.

One hired him. But she didn’t know it …

… until a couple of weeks ago, when she and her husband went out for dinner at a Barcelona group restaurant.

The man approached her. He told her he was working there.

He added that he goes to church every Sunday. He has his own apartment.

And he got married.

Joyfully, he showed her pictures of his new life.

As Cochran left, the restaurant manager pulled her aside.

“All he keeps saying,” the manager said, “is that the Farmers’ Market gave him hope things would work out.”