Pics Of The Day #698

“Curtains” — Staples Players’ murder mystery musical — wowed audiences this weekend. The choreography, sets, pit orchestra — all were (as usual) astonishingly professional, entertaining and fun.

The show continues next Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and this Sunday and next Saturday at 3 p.m. But when you see it, you’ll never get a view like this. Brandon Malin is a member of the lighting crew. He took these photos last night, from the catwalk.

Spot operators (from left) Maria Saravia, Michael Lederer and Charlie Norman. (Photos/Brandon Malin)

And here are a couple of shots of the cast:

Nick Rossi, as Lieutenant Frank Cioffi 

There’s plenty of dancing in “Curtains” (Photos/Kerry Long)

 

Town-wide Music Festival Wows Crowd

Westport’s Town-wide Music Festival is one of those fly-under-the-radar events.

Unless you’ve got a kid in it, chances are you won’t go. Or even hear of it.

But last week’s performance — with 5 Staples High School choral groups (including Orphenians), plus the Bedford and Coleytown Middle School 7th and 8th grade choral ensembles — deserves to be heard.

All music was written by guest conductor Jim Papoulis. At the end, all 300 students sang together. It was quite impressive.

Fortunately, former Staples Media Lab guru Jim Honeycutt taped the entire show. And uploaded it YouTube, for “06880” readers to enjoy at your leisure.

 

Cocktails For A Pancreatic Cancer Cure

Jen Greely moved to Westport 6 years ago. She met fellow artist Binnie Birstein and was captivated.

“She was quite a character,” Jen says. “She never minced words. But she always gave great feedback to me and other artists.”

Binnie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017. Jen and fellow members of the Artists Collective of Westport became her caregivers.

“She never spent a single night alone,” Jen says. “We were there 24/7. When her kids came, we gave respite to them too.”

Binnie Birstein with her work, at the Westport Arts Center. (Photo/Jen Greely)

Binnie died this past May. As Jen talked about her mentor, and her experience as a caregiver, with other Saugatuck Elementary School moms, she learned how many people have lost loved ones to pancreatic cancer.

One of those Westporters is Jessica Newshel. A decade ago, her world was thrown into a tailspin as her 50-year-old uncle — healthy, active, the father of 3 — battled the disease.

Jessica Newshel (Bottom left) in 2001, with her uncle Jeffrey Rosenzweig (top right), cousin Steven Rosenzweig and aunt Lizanne Rosenzweig.

He died 6 weeks before Jessica, her relatives and friends walked in a Lustgarten Foundation fundraiser. The organization is the largest private funder of pancreatic cancer research.

Jessica’s family — who also lost their matriarch to pancreatic cancer — provided a large challenge grant to Lustgarten. They also organized several large race events in Westchester, raising over $500,000.

Now Jen, Jessica and fellow Westporter Natalie Kroft have teamed up for their next event. And it’s right here, in their hometown.

“Cocktails for a Cure” — set for Thursday, April 4 (7 p.m., Westport Country Playhouse barn) — includes drinks, light bites from Bartaco, treats and live music.

Jen, Jessica and Natalie all have personal connections to pancreatic cancer. They are doing all they can to raise awareness around the importance of testing, early diagnosis, and research.

They do it for their loved ones. And for all of us.

(Click here for tickets and more information on the April 4 “Cocktails for a Cure.”)

Memorial Fund, Tribute Concert Honor Charlie Karp

Charlie Karp’s death last week stunned and saddened music lovers throughout Fairfield County. The guitarist/songwriter/teacher/mentor — a free spirit who left Staples High School at 16 to play and record with Buddy Miles, then led a rollicking, music-filled life that included stints with great area bands like White Chocolate and Slo Leak — succumbed to liver cancer. He was 65.

But friends and admirers are making sure his name and legacy live on.

A Charlie Karp Memorial Fund has been established to benefit a promising young area musician every year. In addition to funds, it’s been augmented by generous donations of recording studio time by Carriage House Recording Studios of Stamford and Horizon Recording Studios of West Haven.

Tax-deductible checks made payable to Fairfield County’s Community Foundation (put “Charlie Karp Memorial Fund” in the memo) can be sent to Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, 40 Richards Avenue, Norwalk, CT 06854.

Donations may also be made online at www.CharlieKarp.com. Follow instructions under the donation tab.

In addition, arrangements are being made for a memorial concert at the Levitt Pavilion this summer. Nationally recognized and local musicians are already committed. Details will be announced soon..

Other events honoring are being planned too. For more on Charlie Karp, click here.

(Hat tip: Genie Schomer)

How Westport Community Gardens Grow

Louis Weinberg has no idea how he became chair of the Westport Community Gardens.

It may have been in 2004. He lived near the new site — Long Lots School — and wanted a plot to grow vegetables and wildflowers.

He attended a meeting. He got the plot. And walked away as chair.

Transforming the rough land into a viable community garden was, he jokes, “a hard row to hoe.” And he does mean “hard”: The ground was as forgiving as concrete.

But for the 30 or so pioneer gardeners, it truly was a labor of love.

Taking a quick break at the Westport Community Gardens.

The old adage “first year it sleeps, second year it creeps, third year it leaps” held true.

The third year brought improved soil, earthworms, successful plantings and smiling faces.

It also brought additional interest. Membership tripled, to 90. Garden plots were halved to accommodate the newcomers.

WCG petitioned the town to expand. In 2010 they doubled their physical space, constructed a new fence, and welcomed nearly 100 community members to the gardens.

The Community Gardens did not just appear one day, Weinberg emphasizes. It grew out of the dedication and hard work of its members and supporters.

Those members range from families with little children to folks in their 80s. They grow fruit, vegetables, flowers, herbs and grasses, in all kinds of designs and configurations.

Westport Community Gardens is a true community.

“WCG is a beautiful place. It’s magical at times, and challenging as well,” Weinberg says.

“Perhaps the dichotomy of the Gardens is what we find so appealing. It is so much work, and brings us so much pleasure. Every year, intertwined so closely, are our many successes and failures. Nothing comes easy.”

Including its early growth. But former selectmen Gordon Joseloff and Shelly Kassen supported the initial effort. Parks & Rec, Public Works and the public schools have all contributed to the growth.

Kowalsky Brothers offered machinery, labor and expertise. Belta’s Farm donated compost. Gault contributed sand; Daybreak Nurseries supplied soil; A&J’s Market gave a picnic table, and Gilbertie’s Herb Gardens provided plants.

A “small fortune” was donated by Green Village Initiative. Chef Michel Nischan and his Wholesome Wave Foundation wrote a substantial check. The New England Grassroots Environmental Fund came through with a generous grant. Anthropologie held a fundraiser.

“The rewards we receive from working the land are many,” Weinberg notes. They include “time with family and friends. Time alone. Fresh food. Beautiful flowers. And the opportunity to slow down, create, experiment, sense, share and commune.”

A bit of bounty.

The site also offers quiet, calm space before and after gardening. The common space features a pergola, picnic table, shade from grape vines, a bocce court and Adirondack chairs.

There’s also a milkweed garden, wildflower garden — and Westport Community Gardens is a designated monarch butterfly way station.

Most members never leave. But moves, medical issues and other factors cause a small turnover in membership every year.

So — if you’re interested in a plot — this is your chance. Click here, then click on the “Sign Up” tab.

Work hard. Enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Who knows? One day you too may become chair of the Westport Community Gardens.

Pic Of The Day #697

Newman Poses Preserve (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

Restaurant Health Inspections: The Sequel

This morning’s “06880” story about Julian’s — the Post Road restaurant that received its first-ever failing grade from a state Health Department trainee, then lost customers when the score was disclosed to the media (despite passing with a high score on its re-inspection) — generated plenty of reaction.

Readers wrote, relieved that one of their favorite restaurants was not suddenly gross. Others commented on their own experiences working in restaurants.

A Westport owner sent me a detailed reply. He asked not to be identified, but said he spoke for many colleagues. He wrote:

This is so interesting. I thought I was going crazy.

An inspector who was just hired by the town paid us 3 visits in 2 weeks. A little excessive, I thought.

No hands — but gloves required?

She deducted points for a broken tile in the customer seating area. How is that a health violation? Until then, I thought the craziest thing I had heard before from a health inspector was to use gloves to make an espresso (there’s no hand and food contact when making an espresso).

I have said for years that all health inspectors should, by law, have worked in restaurant kitchens for at least 6 months, so they understand the pressures. Some of the regulations make no sense, and they can’t explain them.

Just last week we were told we could not cook whole turkeys, porchetta and roast beef because our kitchen is not “equipped” for that. She told us to buy pre-cooked crap meat. Mind you, we have a type 4 license, which allows us to cook whatever we want.

When taking over our space we added more modern ovens and a lot of refrigeration in order to get that type 4 license. When we asked the inspector why we couldn’t cook the meats, and how to comply with regulation — meats that made us known among our customers — she didn’t know how or why.

The other thing that bothers me is that the health department has been unwilling to explain things through the phone or email, so we can quickly fix or adapt. They are requiring these long, in-person meetings.

Even with all of this going on, our lowest grade was 85.

Fortunately, I recently had a lengthy and productive conversation with Jeff Andrews, the health district’s chief sanitarian. We were able to find solutions for the “problems” they encountered.

I’m relieved to know that this was not a targeted attack on us. Please let Mike Sayyed of Julian’s know that we thank him for speaking out. This business is tough. Most of us operators are honest, and want to make sure all health regulations are met in our places. Crazy inspectors make our life very hard.

Friday Flashback #133

As the Library races toward the June 23 grand opening of its Transformation Project — a full-throated, very cool reimagining of the space — this is a good time to remind Westporters that the current location between the Levitt Pavilion and Taylor Place is not its original home.

It was built in 1908, on the corner of the Post Road (then called State Street) and Main Street. Its original name was the Morris K. Jesup Memorial Library. He died just 4 months before its dedication, after donating both the land and $5,000 for construction.

The original library still stands, though an addition built just to the west hides its grandeur.

It included a very quiet reading room.

An addition in the 1950s — around the time Parker Harding Plaza was built — accommodated the booming demands of post-war Westport.

(Photo courtesy of Paul Ehrismann)

The “new” library may not have worked particularly well at its current site — the former town dump — where it moved in 1986.

But the third time’s the charm. The “new new” one will blow you away.

Morris Jesup would be very proud.

Run Over To Fleet Feet

A new store has opened in Sconset Square. You can drive to its grand opening tomorrow.

Better yet, you can run.

Fleet Feet is family owned and operated — part of a network of specialty running, walking and fitness stores across the country. Owners Dave and Lynn Wright have been (duh) runners for decades. She is recreational; he’s more competitive, running every distance up to marathons (including Boston, New York and Chicago).

Lynn and Dave Wright

They have 2 grown children, and 4 grandchildren — some of whom already run.

Dave worked in retail technology his entire career. After earning his MBA 5 years ago, he began looking for his own business. Everyone always says “do what you love,” so…

From their base in western Massachusetts, they began exploring options. Fleet Feet — which had a store in Longmeadow, where they lived — seemed like a perfect fit.

Two years ago the Wrights began looking for markets in this area with a similar feel to Longmeadow.

But the place had to be more than a good business location. It had to feel like home.

“No cookie-cutter shopping centers,” Dave says. “We wanted a place that felt local and connected to the community.”

After spending a day at Compo Beach in August, they rode their bikes around town. Then they walked Main Street.

Till then, they’d only driven through here, on I-95 or the Merritt. Suddenly, Westport was on their short list.

They discovered Sconset Square accidentally, after searching online for smaller retail spaces. They came down on a beautiful late summer day, and instantly knew it was right.

The small, funky shopping center was just starting a face-lift project. It was affordable, and large enough for the Wrights’ plans.

They loved the landlord. The lease negotiation was short and easy.

Four months later, they opened. Runners have embraced them — even during the coldest days of winter.

“We are excited to see how many people we can help through walking, running and living a healthy lifestyle,” Wright says.

Tomorrow’s grand opening “runs” from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. There’s music, and a fun run/walk (3- or 5-mile routes) at 9 a.m.

Check out the running footwear, apparel and accessories. Learn about injury prevention products, and walk/run programs for every ability.

Oh, yeah: Jr. Deli’s food truck will be there. Whether you’ve run a few miles or driven over, there will be plenty to eat.

Fleet Feet is filled with running gear, and accessories.

Health Inspector Gives Low Grades — And Gets Them

Mike Sayyed spent 11 years building his business.

Julian’s Brick Oven Pizza thrived — first in Saugatuck, then on Post Road East near Maple Avenue. There’s a Julian’s in Monroe too.

His restaurants are clean. His food is very good.

Then — in November — a young health inspector came. She spent nearly 3 hours in his Westport kitchen.

She took a point off here for a cup in the wrong place, a point off there for another petty infraction. She kept finding obscure violations. It all added up to a failing grade of 64.

Julian’s had never failed before. Their grades had always been 89, 91 — high.

(Photo/Seth Schachter)

“She was just born when I got into the business,” says Sayyed, who is proud of his cleanliness and adherence to health codes. “I started in this business as a line cook. I run everything today. I serve good food, and make people happy. My customers are doctors, lawyers, professionals.

“I’m educated about inspections. I care about them. I’m not a franchisee who hires teenagers who cough on gloves.”

He asked the inspector how to improve. “She didn’t know. It was unbelievable,” he says.

Sayyed got a 95 on his re-inspection. But that came after his score was released to the media, and reported in the news. The stories were quickly passed around on social media.

Julian’s was not alone. Several other Westport restaurants received their first-ever failing grades.

All suffered heavily from losses of business.

“It sounded like I’m poisoning customers. Now the families, the regulars — they’re not coming in,” Sayyed says.

I called Jeffrey Andrews, chief sanitarian for the Westport Weston Health District.

He explained that the young inspector who failed Julian’s and several other restaurants had been undergoing training for the state Department of Health.

“When the state is involved, and the inspectors are being graded themselves, they can downgrade a restaurant for every little thing,” he acknowledged.

That’s why, he says, she took “much longer” than usual, and was “much more involved.”

Andrews notes that every restaurant with a failing grade was re-evaluated. All received much higher — and well above passing — scores.

But by then the damage to Julian’s — and several other popular Westport dining spots — had already been done.