Tag Archives: Joanne Woodward

Unsung Hero #123


This one almost slipped by us.

Earlier this month, Nell Newman was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.

The ecologist, conservationist, biologist, organic farmer — and founder of Newman’s Own Organics, and the Nell Newman Foundation — joins a long list of amazing Nutmeg State women, including Helen Keller, Marian Anderson, Clair Boothe Luce, Ella Grasso and Katherine Hepburn.

Nell Newman

Her work in organic food was inspired by her youth in Westport. When she learned that her favorite bird — the peregrine falcon — was headed toward extinction because of the pesticide DDT, she began studying ecology.

In 2014 Nell received the prestigious Rachel Carson Award from The National Audubon Society, for her environmental leadership.

Westport is justly proud of Nell’s parents, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Both were active in a number of important causes, far beyond stage and screen.

We are proud now too that this Westport native is paying it forward. Congratulations, Nell, on your Hall of Fame honor!

(Hat tip: Kathie Motes Bennewitz)

Friday Flashback #72

The new tax bill signed by President Trump may devastate Newman’s Own Foundation. Since 1982, the Westport-based organization has donated $512 million to charities helping veterans, children with cancer, low-income students and many other causes. (Click here for the full story.)

That news reminds us of the actor/food and lemonade manufacturer/automobile racer’s enormous, longtime impact on our town.

From the time he moved to Coleytown in the late 1950s — attracted here by the movie “Rally Round the Flag, Boys!” — he and his wife Joanne Woodward — were good, giving neighbors.

From the Westport Historical Society and Westport Country Playhouse to speaking with middle school students about substance abuse, the couple did plenty for all of us.

Everyone who’s lived here a while has a Paul Newman or Joanne Woodward story.

But I’d sure like to know the one behind this photo, taken shortly after he moved around the corner from the elementary school:

(Photo courtesy of Dave Parnas via Facebook “Exit 18” page)

Joshua Bell Plays Westport — Again

Joshua Bell is the most famous violinist of our time. Wherever he plays — around the world — he attracts adoring, sold-out audiences.

Despite his grueling recording and performing schedule, Bell often finds time for Westport.

Joshua Bell

Joshua Bell

In 2012 Bell helped launch Beechwood Arts and Innovation, the Westport non-profit known for its creative, eclectic Arts Immersion Salons. Music, art, film, performance, food and technology — all come together in a stunning 1806 home owned by Frederic Chiu and Jeanine Esposito.

Bell — a longtime friend of Chiu, Beechwood’s co-founder and himself an internationally acclaimed pianist — kicked off the 1st year by donating an unforgettable concert of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

He was joined by Chiu, actor James Naughton of Weston, and 13-year-old theater student Rachel Rival. Afterwards, chef Raul Restrepo of the former River Café served an equally memorable dinner.

Several years earlier, Bell appeared with Chiu — with whom he has played for 35 years — at the sold-out Malloy lecture for the Westport Library. A few days later they performed at the Westport Country Playhouse with Audra McDonald, Glenn Close and Tony Bennett, honoring Westporter Joanne Woodward.

Jeanine Esposito, Frederic Chiu, Paul Newman and Joshua Bell, at an earlier appearance in Westport.

Jeanine Esposito, Frederic Chiu, Paul Newman and Joshua Bell, at an earlier appearance in Westport.

Next month, Bell returns to town. On Thursday, August 25 (8 p.m., United Methodist Church) — in the midst of his own vacation — he’ll give a “high 5” to Beechwood Arts & Innovation, for their 5th-year fundraiser. Chiu once again joins him on piano.

The event includes a VIP Meet-and-Greet, a conversation where they reminisce about their early days as aspiring musicians (with WQXR’s Elliot Forrest), and a celebration party at Beechwood Arts, across the street from the church.

Beechwood logoThough every seat at a fundraiser is important, Beechwood is reserving 40 seats for patrons to sponsor young music students from underserved communities. Local music non-profits Spread Music Now, Turnaround Arts, Intake, Neighborhood Studios and KEYS are helping fill those seats.

Students will sit close to the stage, and talk to Bell and Chiu during intermission. Their parents can share in the event — and all will leave with a CD.

“In our youth, both Joshua and I were deeply inspired seeing master musicians play live,” Chiu says. “Those experiences left impressions that lasted a lifetime.

“This inspires both of us to work with students. And it’s why at Beechwood we regularly include students alongside masters of their craft, in all of our events across music, art, film and performance.”

Bell and Chiu have been friends since meeting at music competitions in their native Indiana. They’ve toured together for nearly 40 years, in the U.S., Europe and South America.

Their friendship will be on display August 25. So will their world-class talents, their deep love of the arts, and their wonderful generosity to all.

(Tickets must be reserved in advance. For tickets or more information, click here or call 203-226-9462.)

On one visit to Westport, Joshua Bell played "Four Seasons." On tour with Frederic Chiu in Ecuador, Chiu stood on the winter side of the equator, and Bell on the summer side.

On one visit to Westport, Joshua Bell played “Four Seasons.” On tour with Frederic Chiu in Ecuador, Chiu stood on the winter side of the equator, and Bell on the summer side.

Now Starring At The Playhouse: Westport

One of the great perks of living here is the Westport Country Playhouse.

And one of the great perks of the Playhouse is the chance — once a year — to go behind the scenes.

Today was that day. The annual season kickoff party featured food, music, and a very cool opportunity to visit the dressing rooms, costume and set shops, and green room.

And — this is very, very cool — to stand on stage, gazing out at the historic house, just like Alan Alda, Tallulah Bankhead, Sid Caesar, Carol Channing, Richard Dreyfuss, Will Geer, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Uta Hagen, June Havoc, Helen Hayes, Hal Holbrook, James Earl Jones, Eartha Kitt, Bert Lahr, Gypsy Rose Lee, Hal March, Grouch Marx, Liza Minelli, Paul Newman, Ezio Pinza, Basil Rathbone, Gloria Swanson, Joanne Woodward and thousands of others have done right in Westport, for 85 exciting years.

Standing on the venerable stage is a rare treat.

Standing on the venerable stage is a rare treat.

Associate artist Annie Keefe explains the Playhouse's inner workings.

Associate artist Annie Keefe explains the Playhouse’s inner workings.

The green room isn't green. But just think of all the famous actors who have hung out here, waiting for their scenes. (The television shows a live feed of the play.)

The green room isn’t green. But just think of all the famous actors who have hung out here, waiting for their scenes. (The TV offers a live feed of the show.)

7-Sided Barn Holds Several Wonders

The Westport Historical Society has plenty of cool stuff tucked away in the attic and basement.

But its most amazing artifact may be hidden in plain sight: the 7-sided cobblestone barn.

Located right behind the Wheeler House headquarters, opposite Town Hall, it’s the only barn of its kind in the state. And its doors are always open.

The Westport Historical Society barn

The Westport Historical Society barn

When you wander in, the first thing you see is a 5-foot square historical diorama of downtown. Created for the Society by Tom Clough in 1999, it represents Westport in the mid- and late-19th centuries.

Clough calculated the size of buildings and other features from photos. When he actually measured Toquet Hall, he found his estimate was just one inch off.

A small detail of the Saugatuck River waterfront, from the WHS diorama.

A small detail of the Saugatuck River waterfront, from the WHS diorama.

The tallest object — the spire of Christ & Holy Trinity Church — is 4 inches high, on a 270:1 scale. The smallest are the minuscule spokes on a bicycle, leaning against the old library. (Where was that? Push a button on the display, and you’ll see it was on the corner of Post Road and Main Street, in the building that now houses Starbucks.)

The diorama also includes 50 and 60-foot sloops, which docked where Parker Harding Plaza now stands. (You didn’t know that parking lot was landfill? Ah, the things you’ll learn!)

A 20-minute narration describes Westport’s maritime commerce, including our staple crop (onions) and manufactured goods (tinsel ribbon cord, fringes, candlewicks, shoes, valises and buttons).

In true Westport fashion, the narrator is Joanne Woodward.

Upstairs, there’s an even larger display: the miniature train holiday scene that — every Christmas for decades — entertained Main Street shoppers from Swezey Jewelers’ front window.

Model railroad specialist Hank Teller fine-tuned the 4-track display. It includes small replicas of the Saugatuck Congregational Church, Saugatuck firehouse — and of course Swezey’s itself.

The barn has its own history. Built by blacksmith Farmin Patchin during the late 1840s or ’50s, it was in disrepair when the WHS bought the property in 1980.

It took 10 years to restore the structure, under the supervision of Leo Cirino. Stones were painstakingly removed and catalogued, then returned to their original positions as the walls were rebuilt.

There’s plenty to see at the Historical Society. Including an odd but intriguing 7-sided barn that most of us pass by often, without really seeing.

(For more information on the Westport Historical Society, click here or call 203-222-1424.)

Hail To The National Champions (Update: Videos Added)

Staples High School — home to best-in-the-US science researchers, writing contest winners and others — has 4 new national champs.

The track team’s distance medley relay team left everyone else in the dust, at yesterday’s New Balance Indoor National Championship at the New York City Armory. In the process, they blazed to a Connecticut state record.

National champs (from left): Henry Wynne, Walker Marsh, Jack Scott and Peter Elkind.

National champs (from left): Henry Wynne, Walker Marsh, Jack Scott and Peter Elkind.

Peter Elkind led off, racing 1200 meters in 3:11.3. Jack Scott took the baton, and blasted through 400 meters in 52.4. Both are juniors.

Senior Walker Marsh covered his 800 meter leg in a swift 1:56.4. Then University of Virginia-bound Henry Wynne — who earlier this year ran the fastest 1000 in the country — roared through 1600 meters in 4:06.9.

The relay team’s state-record 10:07.01 was a full 2.58 seconds faster than the runners-up, a squad from Quebec.

Congratulations to all the Staples foursome, and coaches Laddie Lawrence and Malcolm Watson.

Of course, this would not be a complete “06880” story without a fun factoid. So: lead runner Peter Elkind is the grandson of 2 Westporters who made their marks in an area far removed from the track. Perhaps you’ve heard of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward?

Click here for official race video (with narration)
Click here for official post-race interview
Click here for full race story
Click here for 2nd interview

(If  your browser does not load the YouTube video, click here)

Stephen Sondheim: 62 Years In Westport

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that the Westport Country Playhouse 2012 season opens tomorrow (Tuesday, May 1) with Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”

What you may not know is that the composer/lyricist’s connection to the Playhouse goes back more than 60 years. In fact, Sondheim may have longer ties to the Playhouse than just about anyone else on earth.

In the summer of 1950 — just after graduation from Williams College — a young Sondheim was one of a dozen Playhouse apprentices.

Stephen Sondheim (crouching, top of photo), during his 1950 apprenticeship. The photo was taken at the Jolly Fisherman restaurant. Also in the photo: future film director Frank Perry (front row, left) and Richard Rodgers' daughter Mary (2nd row, 4th from left).

According to a 2006  New York Times story,

He was 20 but not totally untested: he had written two shows in college, one of which was staged. He had won a composition prize that would help finance his further studies. And Oscar Hammerstein II, a neighbor from previous summers in Bucks County, Pa., had been giving him assignments in musical theater writing, critiquing the results without condescension.

Still, he had not moved many sets or called lighting cues from a booth and didn’t yet have the practical knowledge of stagecraft that would eventually inform his scores, helping to create the seamless style of works like “Company” and “Sweeney Todd” decades later. And if there’s one thing a summer theater apprenticeship can deliver on, among the many things it necessarily cannot, it’s the promise of plenty of time spent living the less glamorous life backstage.

An undated photo of the Westport Country Playhouse -- before the most recent renovation.

He applied to the Playhouse because it was near his father and stepmother’s home in Stamford. Perhaps more importantly, he said, “in those days (it was) the most prestigious summer theater in the country.”

One of the great things about his apprenticeship, he added, was that

you got to be an assistant stage manager on at least one show during the summer. I got to do it on a show called “My Fiddle’s Got Three Strings,” directed by no less than Lee Strasberg and starring Maureen Stapleton. It was my first taste of the Actors Studio. When the actors started reading, I couldn’t hear one word. You want to talk about mumbling.

Back then, Sondheim told the Times, there was a different show each week. Apprentices learned everything — from getting props and parking cars to selling Cokes and cleaning latrines.

Nothing was beneath anyone. “We were kids in the theater,” he said.

Stephen Sondheim today.

The occasion of that Times piece was a tribute to Sondheim. The Playhouse benefit was hosted by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

We think — rightly — of that wonderful couple as two of the Westport Country Playhouse’s most devoted benefactors.

But Stephen Sondheim was there nearly a decade before they moved to town.

Starting tomorrow, he’ll be there — in the form of “Into the Woods” — once again.

That’s a lot more than a little night music.

When The Cold War Came To Town

Recently the New York Times ran a story on the top-secret nuclear bomb shelter built for President Kennedy near his Palm Beach home.  These days, it’s a tourist attraction.

We could have had something similar, right here in Westport.

Instead we turned our Nike Site into a school.

At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. government developed a defense system.  Nikes were line-of-sight anti-aircraft missiles that would destroy incoming bombers.

In the 1950s Bridgeport — an important manufacturing city, with military production places like General Dynamics, Remington and Sikorsky — was presumed to be high on the Russians’ target list.  Nike missiles would defend it.

They had to be launched from a high elevation, not far from the city.  Westport seemed a perfect spot.

Nike missiles on display.

The town was rattled.  RTM member Ralph Sheffer was appointed chairman of the Nike Site Committee.

Meanwhile, Ralph recalled in a Westport Historical Society oral history, the Army sent in “their best PR people — handsome young captains” to calm things down.

Ralph visited Nike sites around the country.  He even called a former classmate — President Eisenhower’s press secretary — to ask for help.  He offered to set up a meeting with Ike.

“I decided it would be too presumptuous,” Ralph said.

The missiles were placed in silos on North Avenue.  They were to be set off from another point in Westport — one with direct sighting to the Nikes.  The tower had to be built on a higher elevation:  the Sheffer family’s 32-acre property on Cross Highway, from Bayberry to Sturges Highway.

Ralph’s father-in-law — “a loyal American citizen” — donated the property to the Army for $1.  He stipulated that if the Nike site was no longer used, it would revert to the town.

The Army built barracks on Bayberry Lane.  Ralph said he spent mornings “throwing beer cans back onto Army property.”  Other military personnel — those with families — lived on Wassell Lane.

A typical Nike site -- much like the North Avenue one. Missiles were usually buried underground.

Westport writer Max Shulman wrote about the Nike Site  — the town’s reaction, and how it dealt with frisky GIs — in Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!

In 1958, the book became a movie.  Paul Newman played the Ralph Sheffer character; Joanne Woodward was Ralph’s wife Betty.  The film introduced the Newmans to Westport.  They soon moved here — and never left.

“Of course,” Ralph said in his oral history, “by the time the Nike site was built and in place, it was outdated by new technology.”

In 1960, control was transferred from the U.S. Army to the National Guard.  Westport’s Nike Site closed 3 years later.

Rolnick Observatory -- the former Nike Site on Bayberry Lane -- in 1975.

The Bayberry Lane barracks became Westport/Weston Health District headquarters.  The control tower was turned into the Rolnick Observatory.

The North Avenue site has a more intriguing history.

For a decade, it lay abandoned.  Area children — including, ahem, me — have vivid memories of cavorting on the property.  The silos were open — well, we found a way to open them — and believe me, nothing beats the Cold War memory of clambering inside a missile silo.

In 1973 the Department of Health, Education and Welfare — which apparently had taken control — transferred the North Avenue land to the town.

According to the Norwalk Hour of October 1 that year, a ceremony was held.  Paul Newman called it “a great day for Westport.”  The Staples band played a couple of tunes, including — inexplicably — “On Wisconsin” and Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.”

First Selectman John Kemish said, “The land once needed for war will now be dedicated to the pursuit of peace.  The property will now be redeveloped by our Board of Education as a facility for our children.”

Well — not quite.

Though envisioned as a possible location for the Town School Office, a curriculum center, a maintenance garage and/or a repair area for Staples’ automotive classes, it languished.

In 1977-78, industrial arts teacher Ed Ljostad created a “Woodshop to Nike” class.  Eleven junior and senior boys began a planned 5-year renovation project there.

Their goal was to build bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, storage space, dorm rooms and a dining hall — a living environment that any Staples group could use.

They began removing walls, radiators, pipes and debris; the next step was plumbing and electrical work, a septic system, new windows and doors.

Project Adventure — a one-quarter gym option — installed a ropes course, high wire and 30-foot balance beam, to develop group cooperation.

But both projects petered out.  Generations of Stapleites recall the Nike Site as an abandoned, overgrown, unpatrolled area — the ideal spot for drinking, drugs and sex.  (“Hey, wanna see my silo?”)

You wouldn’t know any of that today.  The missiles are gone; so is any trace of the military.

Instead of Cold War civil preparedness — or teenage wasteland — the North Avenue Nike Site is pristine.

Few — if any — of the people there today know the history behind the property.

The property that today is Bedford Middle School.

The North Avenue Nike site today.

Dressing Room Gets A Dressing Down

Several area restaurants offer discounts of up to 20% to Westport Country Playhouse subscribers.

There is only 1 restriction — as very disappointed Westport resident Eileen Ogintz found out Saturday night.  Here’s her story:

Our mistake was not reading the fine print.

As  Westport  Country Playhouse subscribers, we’d  gotten a brochure with local restaurant discounts — a good marketing move, we thought, to encourage us to eat out  nearby  before attending a play.  All we needed was to show our tickets in order to get a 20 per cent discount at The Dressing Room, La Villa Trattoria,  Manolo,  Matsu,  Rizzuto’s, Tavern on Main or Thali.

In this economy,  local restaurants need our business, and we need to watch what we spend on dinners out.  This seems like a win-win.   We’d enjoyed dinner at Thali before the last Saturday evening performance we’d attended; this time we opted for The Dressing Room next door to The Playhouse — in part because our daughter and her boyfriend had given us a gift certificate there.

But we didn’t read the fine print that said the offer is only good at The Dressing Room Tuesday through Thursday.  None of the other restaurants impose such restrictions.   Our apologetic waiter indicated many weekend  Playhouse goers  are as surprised as we were to learn the discount they expected wouldn’t be honored.

The haughty restaurant manager wasn’t the least apologetic, though she did give us the 20 per cent off “this one time” when we complained, ominously adding she was going to “mark our profile” in their computer.  I didn’t know if I was supposed to be worried or why.

By that point,  I knew I didn’t want to return any time soon.  I even posted a message to that effect on Facebook, prompting a call from my son who wanted to know what had prompted my ire.

“We’re doing the Playhouse a big favor,”  the manager insisted as we left.

Frankly, I thought it was the Playhouse  doing the Dressing Room the favor.  The restaurant wouldn’t even be there without the Playhouse and the  original support of the Newmans,  I thought.  (Paul Newman’s name figures in some of the menu selections, in fact.)

And without  Paul Newman and especially Joanne Woodward,  of course, the  Westport Country Playhouse wouldn’t  be the wonderful community resource it is for all of us today.

On Saturday night, The Playhouse was full.  The Dressing Room wasn’t.

6 Degrees Of Playhouse Separation

Once upon a time, Richard Rodgers lived near the Westport Country Playhouse.  He saw “Green Grow the Lilacs” there; soon, that show turned into “Oklahoma!”  (You can read all about it in Westporter Max Wilk’s book “OK!  The Story of Oklahoma!“)

Richard Rodgers’ daughter, Mary Rodgers Guettel, became an apprentice at the Playhouse in 1950.  She later earned fame writing the music for “Once Upon a Mattress.”

James Naughton

James Naughton

Mary Rodgers’ son, Adam Guettel, wrote “Light in the Piazza.”  That musical starred Kelli O’Hara — whose father-in-law is noted actor Jim Naughton, our neighbor in Weston.

What’s the purpose of this “6 Degrees of Westport Country Playhouse Separation”?

All those folks — except of course Richard Rodgers, who is dead — will appear Monday at the Playhouse’s Gala 2009.  The evening includes a salute to Mary Rodgers Guettel.

Part of the proceeds will support the Joanne Woodward Intern and Apprentice Program — a fitting tribute to both the former Playhouse artistic director, and former apprentice Mary Rodgers.

One more “6 Degrees” note:  Stephen Sondheim, another 1950 apprentice, will be there to honor Mary Rodgers Guettel.

Kelli O'Hara

Kelli O'Hara

A musical performance — “An Enchanted Evening:  The Music of Richard Rodgers” — will feature Naughton, O’Hara, Steven Pasquale (who created the role of Fabrizio in — ta da! — Adam Guettel’s “Light in the Piazza,” and others.

Talk about a “community theater”!

(A cocktail reception and silent auction begins at 5:45 p.m., followed by the performance and tributes [7:30 p.m.] and dinner [9 p.m.].  Benefit tickets start at $500.  For tickets or more information, contact Kim Maresca, 203-227-5137, ext. 138; kmaresca@westportplayhouse.org.)