Tag Archives: Downshifters

Friday Flashback #362

Michael James graduated from Staples High School in 1960.

He co-founded and ran Chicago’s Heartland Café for 36 years. He is now working on a book about it: “Hot Grits & Politics.”

Michael has published 3 books of his photos: “Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.” He teaches a course called “Activists and Activism Since 1960″ at DePaul University; hosts the weekly Live from the Heartland Show, is active in politics (past president of Chicago’s 49th Ward Democratic Party), and as a member of SAG/AFTRA is currently on strike. He plans a visit to his beloved hometown of Westport this fall.  

He posts and writes about his photos on Instagram (@michaelgaylordjamesphotography). Many of his photos can be seen at michaelgaylordjames.com.    

This reminisce is from “Pictures from the Long Haul.”

I’m back home in Connecticut, an original colony—the “Nutmeg State” turned “Constitution State.” I grew up with constant reminders of the Revolutionary War. On Red Coat Road we played “fight the British” near where real Red Coats marched to burn hat factories in Danbury.

Westport is where I learned to love America, where we played in fields, in woods, and on the shores of the Saugatuck River and Long Island Sound. It’s where in the late 1940’s we hiked along the Wilton Road singing “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on; glory, glory hallelujah.”  And my town really supported the new United Nations.

My teen-dream romance comes rapidly undone one night at the beginning of the summer. That was it; young love, over and done. I spend the summer in pain, a shredded heart — “one mizzable bastard,” to use one of my dad’s favorite expressions.

Life goes on. I have a job at the YMCA’s Camp Mahackeno. It’s where artist Harold Von Schmidt — in full Indian regalia — taught us about the Sioux. The camp’s Rotary Pavilion became the Downshifters Hot Rod Club garage during off camp months, and we were there — and upset — when the Russians and their Sputnik machine beat us into space.

A young trumpeter, I was a Mahackeno bugle boy, blowing reveille in the morning before the Pledge of Allegiance. In the afternoon I blew taps while our beloved flag was lowered. At Camp Mahackeno I suffered major yellow-jacket abuse while trying to save the bees from a clean-up brigade with a forceful hose.

Pledging allegiance, Camp Mahackeno.

There I earned my Minnow, Fish, Flying Fish, Shark and Porpoise badges, and grew up through the ranks: a Papoose, Hiawatha, Brave, Sachem, and CIT (counselor in training).

Camp Mahackeno waterfront. In the distance in the Saugatuck River: the famed “Moby Dick.”

Now I was a counselor and unit leader. We marched our tribe through the woods to my family home on the Wilton Road. My mom Florence fixed lemonade and sandwiches.  Mom (Dad didn’t allow me to call her Ma) also gave me an illustrated kid’s book with stories of Bre’r Rabbit and his adventures. I read them to campers during rest periods.

Kids being kids, at Mahackeno.

I loved Uncle Remus, the storyteller. He took a lot of hits for being an “Uncle Tom” during the Black Power years. It’s hard today to find a copy of the Disney film Song of the South. In my mind he was kind and wise, a cool old dude. I am glad I saw that flick. Bre’r Rabbit was definitely cool!

I head to Rhode Island. Not to Charlestown and the drag races of my high school years, but this time to the Newport Jazz Festival. I’m with high school chum Don Law and his dad, a C&W producer with Columbia Records.

We party late into the night with Nigerian drums-of-fire-guy Babatunde Olatunji and jazz great Horace Silver. In 1963 the cultural activities committee at Lake Forest College will bring Olatunji, his drummers, and wild Haitian (and gay) dancers to campus during Africa Week. And Silver’s Sunday school teacher in Norwalk turns out to be the mother of my adopted brother, body builder Jim Arden.

I look forward to heading west and back to school. I do it via a run south to Birmingham with fellow Downshifter John Willoughby. On a late summer night we hit Bristol, Virginia and Bristol, Tennessee, and I swear the Bristol Stomp was on the radio. The tune is about a dance in another Bristol (Pennsylvania), and was being played nationwide.

The Downsifters were Michael James’ hot rod club. This photo was taken in the back yard of his Wilton Road home.

Willoughby’s mom nourishes me for a day. Then I don my sport jacket and hitchhike, mostly up US 41, back to college. Near Pulaski, Kentucky I get a short ride in a beat up car with a group of juiced up folks, both white and black. They’re having a fun time.

I am crammed into the back seat, surrounded by heat, wind, and people drinking — a scary-reckless-ride. I do accept a hit of whiskey from their pint. A feeling of relief engulfs me when the ride is over and I get to stick out my thumb again.

(To read more of Michael James’ writings, click here.)

Michael James, today.

Mahackeno Memories

In 1958 Charlie Taylor, his parents, and younger siblings John and Fran moved to Westport from rural western Kentucky.

Charlie Taylor, in the 1959 Staples yearbook.

It was a culture shock for the Staples High School sophomore. He found friends on the football team and Downshifters hot rod club, and retains a fondness for the town.

Though long removed from here — he’s had successful dual careers with Vanderbilt University and as a Nashville singer/songwriter — he is an avid “0688o” reader.

This summer, Charlie’s thoughts turn to Mahackeno. Today’s it’s a thriving co-ed day camp, on the grounds of the Westport Weston Family YMCA.

Back in the day — when the Y was downtown — it was an equally beloved boys-only camp, in the woods off Wilton Road. Charlie writes:

Ah, Camp Mahackeno!


I was a counselor in training there when I was 15. Bruce Jamison was the director. He had come to Westport from a Y in Massachusetts, and was probably in his late 20’s with a young family. He was an early advisor to the Downshifters as well, along with football and track coach Paul Lane. 


Summers were spectacular, with canoe trips full of 6-year-old campers out on the Saugatuck River, and swimming lessons.


Swimming in the Saugatuck River.

All-night campouts were a highlight of the summer for the kids. I remember my first romantic adventures that summer with an older counselor, and my first beer party. (The names are redacted to protect the innocent.) 


I remember folk songs around the campfire by Steve Yollen, and in the mornings campers in a circle around the flag saying the Pledge of Allegiance. 



Pledge of Allegiance, at Camp Mahackeno.

Eventually my dad hired Bruce to work for the nascent American Cancer Society. He had a brilliant career there, before starting his own fundraising consulting career in Denver. 


Westport artist Stephan Dohanos used Camp Mahackeno — and campers there — for this Saturday Evening Post cover.

Camp Mahackeno was the winter headquarters for the Downshifters. It was well equipped, with acetylene torches for metal work. I remember a chain hoist rigged for engine removal/installations as well. Maybe it was attached to a tripod of metal poles.


A magazine story on the Downshifters.

There was a lot of camaraderie there. A radio helped us stay abreast of the newest hits of the day on the night shift from WINS, WABC, Murray the K and Alan Freed. 


The Downshifters at Camp Mahackeno, with a Model A Ford.

Westport was a hidden gem back then. It was close to New York, but just far away enough to have its own pristine identity.


Put another way: It was a million miles away from my home town of Mayfield, Kentucky (or what’s left of it now, after a tornado almost totally ripped it off the map in December, 2021; this week, it endured extreme flooding).


To move from rural Kentucky in 1958, and then grow up in Westport, were two radically different experiences. I’m lucky I was able to experience those two different worlds as a teenager. 


When I went back to visit my friends in Mayfield during high school, people thought I was making up stories about Staples and the Downshifters, the beach, the hot rods, and of course access to theaters in New York.


Not to mention Paul Newman sightings, working for the Bedford estate on Beachside Avenue, lifeguarding at Compo, Burying Hill and the rest.


Westport shaped me into who I have become. I’ll be forever grateful to my dad for having the vision to move our family there. 

Roundup: VersoFest, Tax Holiday, Downshifters …


Yesterday — the middle of the Westport Library’s 3-day VersoFest — included a keynote speech by Michael Jai White.

The actor/writer/producer/martial artist/former Westport personal trainer described his upbringing in Bridgeport, his career in the movie industry, and his quest to bring a full-scale, state-of-the-art, employing-hundreds studio and production facility to Connecticut.

“I was not put on this earth to make a billion dollars,” he told the crowd. “I’m here to share a billion dollars.”

Michael Jai White (Photo/Dan Woog)

Another highlight from yesterday: the announcement that Tammy Winser is the winner of the contest to design a cover for Verso Studios’ new record label

It’s the first label for any library, anywhere in the country. Music will be produced at the Westport Library’s high-tech studio.

Tammy’s work was chosen from dozens of entries. Here it is:

Meanwhile, all the album covers entered in the contest were shown on the Library’s big screen, prior to the big reveal:

(Photo/Dan Woog)


Yesterday was also the Rotary Day of Service.

Westport’s Sunrise Club gathered (in early morning hail) at grungy I-95 Exit 17.

Sixteen members (and 3 spouses) collected 17 large bags of trash, along the roadside and ramps. Their haul included liquor bottles, masks, bumpers — and a passport. Westport’s Parks & Recreation Department hauled it away.

Numerous passing drivers honked, and gave thumb’s-up. Now all they have to do is stop tossing liquor bottles, masks and passports out their windows.

Sunrise Rotary members Bruce Fritz and Paul Keblish clean up Charles Street …

… while Maria Fraioli snags a stray bumper.


Last month, the state General Assembly suspended Connecticut’s 25-cent gas tax. They also added a second “Sales Tax-Free Week” to the annual summer holiday.

The spring “Sales Tax-Free Week” begins today (Sunday, April 10). It runs through Saturday (April 16).

This week, sales of clothing and footwear costing less than $100 will not be subject to sales tax.


Westporters were out in force yesterday, taking advantage of the nice weather to beautify their land.

Among them: a woman at the historic Jesup Road property just west of the police station.

(Photo/Robin Myers)


In the 1950s and early ’60s, the Downshifters were Westport’s premier hot rod club.

The club is long gone. So are hot rods. And the members are getting up in age.

But the ones who are still around have a new project: varsity jackets.

They’re ordering those sharp-looking jackets, complete with logo. And you don’t have to be a former member to order one.

Contact Morgan Smith for details: aeronaca33@gmail.com. The deadline is April 15.

So you’ve got to hurry. But don’t speed.

Downshifters jacket.


Staples High School Class of 1971 graduate Bonnie Erickson offers today’s “Westport … Naturally” treat.

She spotted this beauty in the Saugatuck River, near the Library Riverwalk:

(Photo/Bonnie Erickson)


And finally … the Westport Library’s VersoFest ends tonight, with what is sure to be a kick-ass performance by Selwyn Birchwood. If you haven’t yet heard of the rising blues artist — you will. Click here for more information, and tickets.

Remembering Beau James

Beau James — member of a noted Westport family; an avid Downshifter; house manager of the Westport Country Playhouse and a longtime area resident — died April 10 at his Weston home after a brave battle with cancer. He was 75.

Born Hal Wells James in New York City on December 22, 1943, he was later called Beau James, the nickname given to colorful New York mayor Jimmy Walker. It stuck.

Beau was the middle child of Hal and Florence James of Wilton Road, who moved to Westport in 1948.

Beau James, Staples High School Class of 1961.

He graduated from Staples High School in 1961. His activities included the 4-H Club, raising bantam chickens and pigeons, and cars. He loved the  Downshifters, a club devoted to building hot rods and driving safety.

He was also a member of the Staples football team, Staples Players and the Hi-Y Club.

He and a group of friends — the Jolly Jazzbos — frequented the Apollo Theater in Harlem for rhythm ‘n’ blues as often as possible.

Beau spent a gap year before college taking Advanced Placement courses at Staples and working at Kerrigan’s Auto Body Shop.

At Lake Forest College Beau majored in art history and arts management. He was managing director for the Ravinia Festival outside of Chicago, and later became house manager for the Westport Country Playhouse.

He worked as an assistant to his father Hal, co-producer of the original Tony Award-winning musical Man of La Mancha. Beau produced the melodrama The Drunkard off Broadway. He enjoyed a long membership in The Players Club in New York, founded by noted 19th-century Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth.

Beau (center) with his brother Michael, mother  Florence, sister Melody and father Hal.

Beau was enrolled in the first masters program for theater/arts administration at NYU when he was drafted during the Vietnam War. Upon return he married Jane. They moved to Vermont and had 2 daughters. He returned to his childhood love of farming.

In 1978 he moved to New York and entered the toy industry. He was vice president of sales and marketing at International Playthings, a New Jersey distributor of prestigious European toy brands. He later married Caren, and had 2 more children.

Beau’s illustrious career in the toy business spanned 40 years. From 2016 until his death he was managing director of KidSource, a Maryland distribution company offering high-quality European products to specialty retailers in North America.

Beau James

He also distributed Sasha dolls, and worked at Madame Alexander, Goetz (the original manufacturing company of the American Girl doll), and Corolle.

Throughout his career Beau was a proponent of the power of play and the value of the partnership between manufacturers and specialty retailers in bringing high-quality, well-designed and developmentally appropriate playthings to children everywhere.

Shortly before his death, Beau was presented with the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association.

In addition to his father, Beau was mentored by Levon West (one of America’s foremost artists of etching), aka Ivan Dmitri, a pioneer in color photography, and the recognition of photography as an art medium. Beau often credited West with teaching him the importance of presentation and details.

Beau was the consummate host.  Having grown up in a home that always welcomed friends and made room for more, Beau hosted business and family gatherings, as well as many Staples alumni reunions for the classes of 1961, 1962 (his post-grad year), and his brother’s class of 1960.

Beau was renowned for his warmth, hospitality, wit, generosity of spirit, and an ability to listen and forge abiding friendship. He loved people, travel (especially France), museums, theater, architecture and opera.

Beau is survived by his children Jessica and her husband Chris Davenport, and their children of Aspen, Colorado; Ashley James of Brooklyn, and her children; Brooke and Travis James,  both of New York City; his brother Michael of Chicago; his sister Melody of Westport, and numerous nieces and nephews.

A memorial celebration of Beau James’ life will be held this Sunday (May 5, 12:30 p.m.) at the Jane Hotel Ballroom in New York City. For further information, email BrookeLJames@gmail.com. The family requests that no flowers be sent to the service.

Downshifting Back In Time

They’re in their 70s now. But the men and women of Staples’ Class of 1960 who gathered today retain the youthful spirit — and rebelliously optimistic nature — of their heady, wonderful high school days.

The setting was the Westport Library. That seems a bit incongruous, for this was a reunion of Downshifters. That’s the hot rod club that flourished here in the 1950s and ’60s.


But the Downshifters were not hoodlums. One was president of his class; another became a liberal political activist.

The Downshifters had a court system. Anyone caught peeling out of the Staples parking lot had to deal with the club’s discipline. Cops who nabbed members for speeding let the group handle it.

They offered public service safety checks at Famous Artists School — founder Albert Dorne was a big Downshifters supporter — and had a car show in the police station parking lot.

The YMCA provided meeting space. At one banquet, a clergyman gave an invocation.

Parents Magazine named the Downshifters one of the 14 outstanding youth groups in the country. (“There must have been a father in town who worked for them,” someone quipped.)

Still, they were high school kids. Which is to say: no angels.

Mike James, with part of his video presentation.

Mike James, with part of his video presentation.

Mike James and Charlie Taylor led today’s event. It drew 30 or so former Downshifters, girlfriends and others (including Gordon Hall, a social studies teacher at the time who still lives in town).

Mike interspersed a history of the club with some social observations. “We were way ahead in both cool and cars,” he said. “But we built our cars. They weren’t given to us, like the rich kids.”

He described the role that music — especially jazz and rock ‘n’ roll — played in his and his friends’ teenage lives.

And what lives they were. Mike Katz sold tickets to anyone who wanted to watch him drive his 1948 Chevy off a cliff. (Principal Stan Lorenzen put a quick stop to that.)

They haunted La Joie’s junkyard in Norwalk, and another in Danbury. They traveled to drag strips in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine.

One member skipped school to attend a car show in New Jersey. When he forged an excuse note, vice principal Tommy Thompson nailed him: He’d spelled his mother’s name wrong.

A magazine story on the Downshifters.

A magazine story on the Downshifters. The “radical rod” shown was Eliot Willauer’s. It was a ’32 Ford.

The Downshifters made growing up in Westport memorable — and those memories remain, 55 years later. Soon after Charlie Taylor moved to Westport from rural Kentucky, he went hunting. A state policeman saw him sauntering down the Sherwood Island with a rifle, and put a quick end to that.

Charlie’s introduction to Staples as a sophomore might have been rough. He fancied himself James Dean, in a non-James Dean town. But Lance Gurney took Charlie under his wing, and introduced him to the Downshifters. His life here was forever changed.

The Downshifters and their friends sifted through all those memories today. It was a wonderful morning.

xxx former Downshifters gathered at the Westport Library today.

11 former Downshifters gathered at the Westport Library today. Mike James is 2nd from left; Charlie Taylor is on the far right.

When it was over, a former hot rodder asked if all the stories would be on “06880.” “I don’t want my grandchildren to know all this,” he half-joked.

Don’t worry. His grandkids don’t want him to know everything they’re up to as teenagers today either.

Then again, let’s hope they’re making their own adolescent, funny-then-and-funnier now, life-on-the-edge memories. Which — if they’re lucky — they’ll share with their still-good friends at their own 55th reunion, which comes up sooner than they’ll realize in 2070.



Well-known fact: Michael Douglas was a teenager in Westport.

Less well-known: He was a member of the Downshifters hot rod club.

Virtually unknown, unless you grew up in Westport in the late 1950s and early ’60s: Westport had a hot rod club.

Meetings were held at the Y.  Members brought their girlfriends — but they sat outside.

Inside, there were formal presentations on cars — carburetors, brake systems, that sort of thing. Dues were collected, officers elected and minutes recorded.

Michael douglas 2

But the Downshifters were not a book club or sewing circle. They found spots around town to race (like “the asphalt near Mahackeno” — presumably, now the entrance to the Y). They “had something to do” with the Dover Drag Strip, just across the state line in Dutchess County.

The Downshifters are now receiving Social Security. The gears they shift are probably automatic.

But the club lives on in the memories of all its members (and their girlfriends, who sat outside).

Charlie Taylor, today.

Charlie Taylor, today.

As part of this weekend’s Staples High School’s Class of 1960 reunion, Charlie Taylor and Mike James will talk about the Downshifters. They’ll show photos and memorabilia, and discuss the possibility of a movie about the group. (Michael Douglas, anyone?)

Charlie and Mike are great storytellers. (They also have intriguing, non-hot-rod back stories. Charlie is a noted Nashville musician, while Mike was a prominent political activist.)

On Saturday though, they’ll concentrate on their Downshifter days. Those engines provided the soundtrack for some of the best times of their lives.

(The Downshifters talk is this Saturday, September 19, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m., in the Westport Library 2nd floor seminar room. It’s free, and open to the public.)


Downshifting With Michael Douglas

Westporters who grew up here in the late 1950s and early ’60s remember Michael Douglas. The son of actor Kirk Douglas did not go to Staples — he’s a Choate grad — but he was friends with many who did.

He’s been gone for decades. Does he remember Westport at all?

Apparently. Check out a recent post on his personal Facebook page:

Michael douglas 2

The Downshifters were legends. To read more about them, click here.

To learn more about Michael Douglas, join Netflix.

(Hat tip: Bill Banks)

Word On The Street (And We Do Mean “Street”) …

… is that Michael Douglas is making a movie about Westport.

An unconfirmed source says that the famed actor/producer’s new project looks back on his teenage days here. It will focus on his beloved Downshifters — the club that met at the Y to talk about, learn about, work on (and sometimes race) cars.

American Graffiti: Eat your heart out.

In 2013 -- while filming "And So It Goes" in Bridgeport -- Michael Douglas drove Westporter Bill Scheffler's Mercedes.

In 2013 — while filming “And So It Goes” in Bridgeport — Michael Douglas drove Westporter Bill Scheffler’s Mercedes.

Doc Anderson And The Downshifters

It’s been more than 40 years, and James “Doc” Anderson now lives all the way across the country.

But when Doc’s mother sent him a recent “Woog’s World” column, his mind double-clutched back to Westport, high school, and especially his passion:  cars.

The story his mom sent was about Charlie Taylor — a Staples grad with a long career in music — but this line caught Doc’s eye:

(Charlie) joined the Downshifters, a hot rod club whose members included Mike Douglas (now known as “Michael” — yes, that one).

Doc was a Downshifter too.  He emailed me from his Seattle home, and asked me to call.  He picked up the phone, and immediately described that very formative time in his life.

Not much beats a 1960 'Vette.

Doc graduated from Staples in 1967.  By then the Downshifters had died — victim of both a changing Westport and changing auto industry.  Doc and president Flip Webb put their club jackets up for sale.  Doc joined the Drag Masters — a smaller, younger club outside of Westport.

“The Drag Masters had a club car everyone worked on,” Doc recalls.  “By that time, kids in Westport no longer worked on their own cars.  Everyone drove their parents’ cars.  It was when Westport started becoming a rock-star community.  With affluence came less interest in cars.”

Plus, Doc notes, cars themselves became more specialized.  It got harder and harder for teenagers to work on them.

But even in its dying days the Downshifters — a huge part of Staples life in the 1950s — meant a lot to Doc.

Meetings were held at the Y, he says.  Members brought their girlfriends — but they sat outside.

Inside, there were formal presentations on cars.  Doc made one on carburetors; a friend talked about brake systems.  Dues were collected, officers elected and minutes recorded.

The Downshifters “had something to do” with the Dover Drag Strip, just across the state line in Dutchess County.

And Doc remembers Corky Cookman running his dragster on “the asphalt near Mahackeno” — presumably, what’s now Sunny Lane.  (Presumably too the statute of limitations has long since expired.)

Doc went on to Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia.  He spent more than 6 years as a Navy pilot and instructor, then became a commercial pilot for over 2 decades with Wien and Alaska Airlines.

He’s now in his 2nd year of retirement.  He sails a catamaran in Washington waters, and says life is good.

But can anything ever compare to the hot rod days of high school — even if those days were spent as one of the last Downshifters in the rapidly changing suburban town of Westport?