Photographic artist Elizabeth Opalenik lived here from 1979 to 1992, when she married and moved to California. She returns often to visit friends from those years, and calls them “the best ‘family’ I ever had.”
She loves sitting on Nick Visconti’s porch looking at Old Mill Beach. He and Mark Koffman were partners in Ships, the legendary downtown restaurant where Tiffany is today.
Mark died earlier this month in Vermont, after a long illness. Elizabeth writes:
With the Valentine’s Day passing of Mark Koffman, a generous heart has been extinguished.
I remember Mark as a creative, gregarious entrepreneur. He started Mark’s Place East in Westport. It began as a teen club, and was being transformed into a discotheque when, looking for adventure, I answered its help wanted ad.
Like so many others, my life was changed by being in Mark’s orbit. We remained friends for over 50 years.
We built a plexiglass dance floor pulsing with colored lights, and hung strands of beaded glass that you passed through to lounge on overstuffed pillows on carpeted riser steps. Disco was the rage, and nightly you could see the lights pulsing through the second floor arched windows overlooking Main Street.
The crowds were mesmerized by a very good local band, The Repairs. I can attest to how busy the club was by the number of drink chips we counted late into the night after closing, while letting the iguana that lived in a large glass tank roam freely.
This was usually followed by Mark taking any staff still awake out for 3 a.m. breakfast somewhere.
Mark had energy and ideas, that was for sure. The place was magical and lively.
Later, Mark morphed it into a jazz club featuring many big name New York bands (including Weston’s own Don Elliott on vibraphone).
When Mark’s Place East closed it became another jazz club, Rosebud’s.
Mark then bought what was to become the Ships restaurant. In his most persuasive manner he dragged me kicking and screaming from Rosebuds, to behind his bar.
I thought Mark was crazy. At that time the smoke-filled bar was rather seedy with local “ bar patrons” holding score cards in the Main Street window, rating any woman who walked by.
Still, Mark was a visionary. With the help of friends he created “The Ships,” which became legendary in Westport.
So did those windows. For Mark also believed in helping others — like Westporter John Huminski.
Mark and Ships; manager Nick Visconti trained with John. A regular, he was to compete in swimming and weightlifting at the 1982 United Cerebral Palsy Games in Denmark.
By then Mark had built a ski house in Vermont. That’s where John (and many others) learned to ski. They swam and trained with weights at the YMCA. Ships created a special drink, with a fundraising campaign utilizing the varied clientele that frequented the restaurant.
For months, the window showed photos of John with firefighters, postal workers, Tauck Tours personnel and area celebrities like James Naughton, Linda Blair and Paul Newman.
The goal was to raise funds for John’s uniforms and airfare. Children held car washes, and contributed their earnings.
The campaign was so successful it bought most of the team uniforms. UCP invited me as the photographer to document the games in Rhode Island and then Denmark. Mark, in his continued generosity, cleared me a space in his Ludlow Road home, so I could build a darkroom.
At both restaurants, Mark’s interest in food meant research. More than once I watched him astound a waiter by ordering nearly everything on the menu. He wanted to taste what the competition was serving.
From fondue to his own creations, Mark’s customers benefited from that research. He also turned it into a catering business for Ships, exhausting and exhilarating all involved.
Ships was the late night after-the-movies place to be. It was a team effort, but there was no doubt: Mark controlled it.
So many late nights come to mind. Did anyone ever sleep during those years?
With Mark’s Place East I remember the dancing. With Ships I remember the catered parties, laughter and conversations.
Mark — always an enigma — greeted customers at the bar, high top tables or booths as they swooned over the lobster seafood bisque, devoured a STOMP sandwich or enjoyed the cheesecake. He was probably dressed in running shorts.
Mark catered parties that were over the top. Balloons and flowers were everywhere; often late night, they were then dropped off at a hospital children’s or cancer ward.
Reception halls were transformed into fairy tale ski slopes for a bar mitzvah. Lawn weddings were elegantly set and served from beautiful copper pots.
Ship’s was often decorated for holidays. I remember a menorah in those Main Street windows, with a Christmas tree hanging upside down from the bar ceiling, “Poseidon Adventure”-style, while a massive Santa and sleigh lit the restaurant roof.
When Mark left Westport he settled in Vermont with his wife Sandra, where they ran Vermont.com. His children Adam, Emet and Baruch, and Adam’s fiancée Chrissy Fredette, were by Mark and Sandra’s side during his extended illness.
Mark lived long enough to meet Adam and Chrissy’s child Goldie — his only grandchild — born in December. Emet’s partner Kyle Turner was part of the family team helping care for Mark this past year too.
You will be missed, Mark. You were a child at heart, and you shared your heart with all.
(Hat tip: Miggs Burroughs)