Tag Archives: “Rally ‘Round the Flag”

Enjoying A Max Shulman Revival

Back in the day, Westporter Max Shulman was a bestselling author. He also achieved success on Broadway — writing the book for the Tony-nominated “How Now, Dow Jones” — and in Hollywood, with many screenplays.

Max Shulman - How Now Dow JonesLike many authors who achieved fame more than a half century ago, Shulman’s books went out of print. Then, last month, Open Road Media made his works available once again, as e-books.  

In addition, the complete run of the hit TV show “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” — based on Shulman’s short stories — is now available on DVD.

“06880” contributor Fred Cantor recently reached asked Max’s son Dan — a Staples High School 1962 grad, now a prominent antitrust attorney in Minneapolis — for his recollections about growing up in Westport in the 1950s as the son of a celebrated writer. Here is Fred’s report:

Max Shulman moved his family to Westport in 1948, when Dan was 4. Max, the son of Russian immigrants, had grown up poor in St. Paul, Minnesota. He came east because the publishing industry was based in New York. Dan says Max considered this “a dream come true…a nice house in the country.” In 1950, Westport’s population was just 12,000.

Shulman was soon immersed in a community of fellow writers, and others who made their living in the arts.

Max Shulman at work.

Max Shulman at work.

Among his Westport friends were actor David Wayne and writers Jerome Weidman (the 1960 Pulitzer Prize co-winner for drama), Jean Stafford (a Pulitzer winner for fiction), Rod Serling and Peter De Vries.

Fairfielder Robert Penn Warren came over to the house too.

Dan was not star-struck seeing such famous people hanging out with his dad. He viewed them as “just family friends.”

But Dan recalls that it was “a big deal” when, at 10, he traveled with his family to Boston for the pre-Broadway run of a play his dad co-authored, “The Tender Trap.” Dan was thrilled to have dinner with the play’s co-star, Robert Preston. A year after the play reached Broadway, it was made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds.

While a number of Westport dads commuted to New York in the 1950s, Max Shulman had a much shorter commute: to a 2nd-floor office in the Sherwood Building on State Street (the Post Road), next to the Westport Bank & Trust building (now Patagonia). The office door had frosted glass, with “Max Shulman” painted on it.  It looked just like Sam Spade’s door in ‘The Maltese Falcon.”

Shulman used an Underwood typewriter, and was “a very meticulous writer. If he wrote 5 pages, that would have been a very good day.” He spent considerable time editing and rewriting.

Rally Round the Flag - 2

As part of that process in creating “Rally Round the Flag, Boys!” — the book set in Westport that led to the movie that led to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward moving here — there was even a role for Dan. He read chapters aloud, so his father could hear how it sounded.

At age 13, he excitedly watched the book rise on The New York Times bestseller list.

Max Shulman’s writing was not done solely for publishers. In the 1950s, the Y held an annual father-son banquet. Each year Max wrote a comedy routine for Dan and his brother Bud to perform and sing. Here’s a sample:

A child should be polite.
His manners should be sweet.
A child should help old ladies
When they try to cross the street.
Especially a lady whose leg is in a cast,
‘Cause when you snatch her purse away,
She cannot run so fast.

You can’t keep a good humorist down.

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.