One of my favorite New Year’s traditions is the SyFy channel’s “Twilight Zone” marathon.
It airs December 31 and January 1 — one great, thought-provoking, stand-the-test-of-time episode after another.
Rod Serling began writing and introducing his stories while he lived in Westport — right down the street from my family, in fact, on High Point Road.
Some were influenced by this suburban, post-war town. And “A Stop at Willoughby” — with a train conductor calling out to a time traveler, “Next stop: Westport!” — is on tomorrow (Thursday, December 31) at 9:20 p.m. Click here for the full schedule.
Congratulations to The Cottage and Kawa Ni — and their owners, Brian Lewis and Bill Taibe respectively. Both are included in Connecticut Magazine’s list of the Top 15 restaurants in the state.
That means our town includes more than 13% of all the best restaurants!
Did you miss last night’s full Full Cold Moon?
Wendy Crowther sure didn’t.
And finally … influential bluegrass and new acoustic singer/guitarist Tony Rice died Saturday in North Carolina. He was 69.
Alert “06880” reader/amateur historian Fred Cantor has a knack for finding obscure but fascinating Westport vignettes in newspaper and magazine archives.
This week’s gem is a New York Times story from September 9, 1956. Headlined “Westport Reviews New Home Numbers,” it says that — “prodded by irate residents who are loathe [sic] to adopt an urban street numbering system” — the Representative Town Meeting voted to “reconsider the $4,500 building address program recently adopted by town officials.”
Seems like Westporters “vociferously” objected to a plan to number (or re-number — it’s not clear from the story) houses on streets. Residents clearly did not want “any change in their rural flavor to something resembling urban impersonality.”
Postal officials had contended that “the lack of proper street numbers and mix-ups resulting from similar names and inaccurate numbering were making efficient deliveries increasingly difficult.”
That’s all we know from the Times story. Whatever street numbers we had — and have now — apparently work fine.
I had no way to illustrate that story. Fred helpfully sent along a Saturday Evening Post cover from May 1944. Westport artist Stevan Dohanos used a local model — and local scenes — for his illustration.
But Fred was not done. He went hunting in the Westport Library for old town directories.
The Price & Lee 1957 edition showed that homes and businesses on at least some major streets had assigned numbers. Streets like High Point — just being developed at that point — did not.*
What was more remarkable to Fred was the personal information included in the directories. They included professions of the income earners, spouses’ names, and those of older children. Presidents of companies, domestic employees — they were all there.
In 2019, the notion of privacy is all over the news (including the New York Times). We call this the “Information Age.” But more than 60 years ago, there was plenty of personal information available to all.
Just very few street numbers.
*My parents moved there in 1956. Their mailing address at that point was “Lot 12 East, High Point Road.”
Carl Addison Swanson is many things. He’s a Staples graduate. A lawyer who spent decades in Texas, before returning to Westport several years ago. A frequent contributor to the “06880” comments section.
He’s also an author. His Hush McCormick series has done enormously well, thanks to social media marketing.
But in his latest book, Carl steps away from the “boat bum adventure” genre.
Double Parked in the Twilight Zone: Summer of 1960 is set in Westport. The protagonist, Justin Carmichael — and yes, that’s the name of a 1988 Staples grad, though the similarity ends there — graduates from Bedford Elementary School during that 1960 year.
Suffice it to say, Justin has a very interesting summer.
Carl is a Bedford El grad. (It’s now Town Hall. Carl remembers it well — including the basement, where the Westport Community Theater has replaced civil defense drills of yore.)
“Reaching 65 years of age in February made me aware that I suddenly wanted to talk about my life some more,” Carl says. His return to Westport sparked many memories, some of which he mines in Twilight Zone. (Note the subtle homage to Rod Serling, who lived in Westport when Carl was at Bedford.)
So is this book autobiographical?
Carl Addison Swanson
“In a sense, all writing is about your life and experiences,” he says. “The summer of 1960 was particularly intereseting to me, because a lot happened.”
For instance, Carl started playing golf at Longshore. His Little League team went to the town championship. He went steady with a girl for the first time.
“A lot of fun stuff,” he says.
Though Carl has a satirical streak, this is hardly satire. It is, he says, “a critique on the town back then, through my eyes.”
Westport was a great place to grow up, Carl says — “especially back in the ‘Wonder Years’ of the 1950s and ’60s. There was plenty to do, and a lot more freedom to do so.”
But there were not, he says, “as many adult eyes around as there are today.”
So why the title?
“I was pretty much of a goofball back then,” Carl says. “I got into a lot of trouble.
“I was also scared to death to walk by the Famous Artists School for fear of Rod Serling coming out. It was a terrifying television show.”
When you handicap the top three and adjust for short Hollywood attention spans, that’s practically saying “The Twilight Zone” is in a dimension all its own — far beyond the No. 1 spot….Submitted for your approval: the real winner of the Writers Guild poll.
It’s a stirring testament to the heroic influence of Rod Serling that, almost 54 years after “The Twilight Zone” debuted, so many television writers cite him and his “wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination” as inspirations. They couldn’t have better role models.
“The Twilight Zone” was a series with a social conscience and it was fantasy television that believed there was intelligent life on the other side of the television screen. It would be difficult to find a writer on any current fantasy, horror or science-fiction series who doesn’t count himself or herself as a proud descendant of the creator, host and principal writer of “The Twilight Zone.”
Westport has other connections to the Top 101:
In the final season of “I Love Lucy” — the #12 series –the Ricardos and Mertzes moved to Westport. (Hilarity of course ensued — click here.)
Lucy Ricardo reads a poster to Ethel Mertz in “Westport.” It says: “Yankee Doodle Day Celebration — Statue Dedication at Jessup (sic) Green.”
1985 Staples grad Paul Lieberstein is an “Office” (#50) writer/producer/actor (Toby Flenderson).
Rod Serling pops up again at #65, as a “Playhouse 90” writer.
Longtime resident Jack Klugman starred for a long time as Oscar Madison on “The Odd Couple” (#78).
I’m sure I’ve missed plenty more. I’m not looking for something as tangential as the fact that “All in the Family’s” (#4) Jean Stapleton’s cousin is Westport artist Alberta Cifolelli.
But click here for the full list. And if you’ve got a good Top 101/Westport connection, hit “Comments.”
Near the corner of North Avenue and Easton Road — right by Coleytown Elementary School — stands this little wisp of Westport weirdness:
In “A Stop at Willoughby” — one of Rod Serling’s most famous “Twilight Zone” episodes ever — a New York advertising executive on the train home to Westport finds himself transported to an idyllic town called Willoughby. In the year 1888.
This sign reminds me of that. Perhaps if I stand there long enough, a diesel-powered Mercedes minnybus will lumber by.
I’ll climb on board, ride it all over town, and suddenly it will be the 1970s all over again.
The 1950s: McCarthyism. The Cold War. Nike Sites, fallout shelters and elementary school “duck and cover” drills.
Those were the days!
Well, yeah. In many ways they were — especially around here. We had a real-live Main Street, with actual grocery stores, hardware stores, and merchants who knew your name. Kids romped in the woods free from parental worries.
And Westport was growing rapidly. Every day, it seemed, another family moved in. Many were arts-types: novelists, TV writers, playwrights, admen. They were drawn by the town’s reputations as an “artists’ colony” — and as each one arrived, more followed.
Starting this Sunday (January 29), you can revisit those days. The Westport Historical Society presents 2 exhibits looking back on that golden/scary era.
“Next Stop: Westport, The Inspiration for 1950’s TV & Film Writers” takes its title from “A Stop at Willoughby,” one of “Twilight Zone”‘s most memorable episodes. In it, an ad executive on his way home to suburban Westport repeatedly finds himself in a pastoral town called Willoughby — in 1888.
Westport’s role in “The Twilight Zone” was no coincidence. Rod Serling wrote the episode when he lived in Westport.
It was quite a time. There were so many creative types, says Linda Gramatky Smith — the daughter of “Little Toot” creator Hardie Gramatky — that there were regular writer-vs.-artist basketball and softball games.
The Historical Society exhibit features all that, and more — like Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, which was set here (the subsequent movie, starring Gregory Peck, was filmed here), and the final year of “I Love Lucy,” when the Ricardos and Mertzes move to town.
Video of a different kind will be shown at the WHS too. “The Cold War in Our Backyard” — a fascinating, chilling (and at times laughable) film compilation by Lisa Seidenberg, including everything from instructions on removing radiation from food to the still-frightening “Twilight Zone” episode on barbarism in a fallout shelter — will play in a continuous loop. (You can also click here to see it.)
Nearby, images and artifacts will recreate the fears that filled that “golden” era.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens wrote.
He didn’t live in Westport.
But so many other famous writers did. Starting Sunday, the Westport Historical Society shares their stories with the world.
(The exhibit’s opening reception is this Sunday, January 29, 3-5 p.m. Click here for more information, or call 203-222-1424.)
In the late 1950s, Rod Serling and his family lived on High Point Road. My family and I lived a few doors away. I’m not sure how many Playhouse 90 and Twilight Zone stories he wrote here — but he certainly used Westport as the inspiration for at least one of the latter episodes, “Last Stop: Willoughby.”
Subtitled “I was devastated after my dad, Rod Serling, died. But then I found relief in another dimension,” it begins:
The last time I saw my father, he was lying in a hospital bed in a room with bright green and yellow walls, inappropriate colors intended to console the sick, the dying. As he slept, curled beneath a sheet, I watched him breathe, willing him to, his face still tan against that pillow so white.
And as I sat looking at him, I thought of how, when I was small, I would wake in my room beside my flowered wallpaper and listen for his footsteps down the hall, comfortable in their familiarity, secure in the insular world of my childhood, knowing without question or doubt that when I followed those sounds, I would always find him.
When he first got sick, I wiped his forehead dry until he became too ill and I could do nothing, and on the eighth floor of Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., my father died. He was just 50 years old, I barely 20.
Rod and Anne Serling, shortly before his death.
Anne goes on to describe the last night before her father’s open heart surgery — in 1975, it was a new procedure — and his death from a heart attack the next day.
“We are so sorry. He’s gone,” a doctor told Anne, her mother and sister.
Gone? Gone where?
That’s the thing about euphemisms. They never speak the truth. They leave all sorts of questions and dangling expectations. “Gone” would imply my father might return, or he’d just momentarily slipped away. Around the corner. Off to the nearest store. Gone might mean there would be footsteps to follow, tracks in the snow, a place to set at the table for later.
Gone would not necessarily mean “never coming back.”
Anne tries to cope with the death. Rod Serling was a famous public figure — but he was also her father.
Sitting at his desk, I listened to his Sinatra tapes, looking at notes, letters, photographs. I found cigarettes he’d hidden after he’d “quit.” An interview where he’d said, “All I want on my grave stone is, ‘He left friends.’”
I tried to watch a “Twilight Zone.” I listened to his opening narration, but it was terse and somber and his image in black-and-white was not the man I knew.
Grieving, Anne writes, “is not tidy, not organized or easy, but after it slams you, it has nowhere else to go. Understanding this can take years, can take its toll, can excise you off the planet, and it did for me.”
Finally a therapist told her that, to achieve closure, she needed to visit her father’s grave.
It took 2 years, but finally she went. For a while, she could not find it. Suddenly, there it was. Anne saw
his name, his birth date, the date of his death, WWII paratrooper; a small American flag.
In that instant came the finality and inconsolability I’d feared, but I stayed awhile, surrounded by silence, looking again at his name and the flag and then I saw it: a piece of masking tape attached to the stick of the flag and those three words from his interview: “He left friends.”
Though Rod Serling was Jewish, the family celebrated Christmas at the High Point Road home.
Later that summer, Anne began watching reruns of “The Twilight Zone” — more to see him than the actual show. One — “In Praise of Pip” — was filmed at an amusement park Rod often took his girls to.
When the show was over, she listened to the sounds of the Ithaca lake she and her father both loved. She was “still haunted by the void, by the reality of this empty space, and yet, those past 30 minutes spent watching his showbrought a reconnection with him in a most unexpected way.”
In the episode’s closing narration, she had watched her father say,
The ties of flesh are deep and strong, the capacity to love is a vital, rich and all-consuming function of the human animal, and you can find nobility and sacrifice and love wherever you might seek it out — down the block, in the heart, or in “The Twilight Zone.”
Anne concludes: “I found it in a darkened room on a summer afternoon. Something invisible, inaudible and, until then, quite mistakenly presumed gone.”
On “Bewitched,” Samantha’s family lived in a typical suburban town: Westport. In development, the title was even “The Witch of Westport.”
Some of TV’s most famous personalities — Harry Reasoner, Phil Donahue, Jim Nantz — lived in Westport.
And some of the most famous Westporters — like former Governor John Davis Lodge — appeared on television as early as 1937 (the BBC, in England).
Those facts — and many, many more — form the basis for TV Neighbors: Westport and Weston Television Personalities, a new book by Tom DeLong.
The research was intriguing — a natural follow-up to “Stars in Our Eyes,” DeLong’s much-acclaimed earlier volume on the many actors and actresses who lived in Westport and Weston.
Using material amassed for a 2003 Westport Historical Society exhibition on Westport’s relationship with television, DeLong went to work. His notes were mostly done, the chapters all outlined — when suddenly last July DeLong suffered a stroke and died.
His good friend Wally Woods — who had worked with DeLong on WHS exhibits since 1997 — and Woods’ wife Denise vowed to finish the book for DeLong.
The Woodses dove into crates and boxes of files and photos. They deciphered DeLong’s notes to himself. They organized the material.
Tom DeLong (left), Wally Woods, and vintage televisions at the Westport Historical Society's 2003 exhibit.
Wally wrote; Denise scanned photos. Together, they indexed hundreds of personalities.
The result has just been published — a handsome and intriguing tribute to our town’s television history, and a memorial to its late author. Woods is proud to have completed it, and devastated that he had to.
The book includes every television category that Westporters have contributed to: dramas, comedies, soaps, sports, sitcoms, variety shows, quiz shows and more.
Lodge — and people like Victor Keppler (future founder of the Famous Photographers School, but in 1947 host of Dumont’s “Photographic Horizons” show), and actress Eva Le Gallienne (who did live classic plays on TV) — are featured in a special “Pioneers” chapter.
The book is filled with big names and little tidbits. For example, in the 1940s stage actress Dorothy Bryce was Arlene Francis’ television hand model.
Lucy Ricardo reads a poster to Ethel Mertz in "Westport." It says: "Yankee Doodle Day Celebration -- Statue Dedication at Jessup (sic) Green."
In “I Love Lucy”‘s final season, the Ricardos and Mertzes “moved” from New York to Westport. In one memorable episode Lucy destroyed the Minuteman statue, right before the “Yankee Doodle Day” celebration.
As for “Bewitched,” Elizabeth Montgomery and her family lived at “1164 Morning Glory Circle” in Westport. If that sounds like a pseudo-local address with a California house number — hey, the series was filmed on a Hollywood lot.
Famous names cascade off the pages: newscasters Doug Edwards, Pauline Frederick, Robert Hager, John MacVane, John Siegenthaler — and Gordon Joseloff.
Sportscasters Win Elliot, Sal Marchiano, Jim McKay and Brent Musburger.
Actors and actresses better know for movies and Broadway — Bette Davis, Michael Douglas, Mia Farrow, June Havoc, James Naughton, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward — also appeared in key roles during TV’s dramatic heyday.
And who can forget Rod Serling? He wrote the seminal “Patterns” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” dramas while living on High Point Road — and some of the best-remembered “Twilight Zone” episodes too. Westport worked its way into more than one of those stories.
Westport today is filled with big TV screens. A 55-inch screen is the new normal; 108-inch, 150-inch, even more ginormous sets are not rare.
Back in the day, Westport was filled with big TV stars. Thanks to Wally and Denise Woods, Tom DeLong has lived long enough to honor them.
(The Westport Historical Society will host a book event on Thursday, August 4 [5-7 p.m.], and is selling TV Neighbors for $22 their Remarkable Gift Shop. It’s also available for $19.95, plus $5 shipping for the 1st book and $1 for each additional book, from BearManor Media, PO Box 1129, Duncan, OK 73534; tel. 580-252-3547; email email@example.com)
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