Sunday, February 25, 2018

Samuel A. Coe: 
‘Mayor of Ridgebury’
Many men who lost an arm in battle might figure that’s enough public service. Not “Uncle Sam” Coe. The battle-worn veteran of the Civil War came to Ridgefield and led an unusually long life of helping his community in many ways — so much so, he was often called the “mayor of Ridgebury.”
“To say that he was much revered, respected and beloved in no way expresses how deeply the inhabitants of Ridgefield felt about Mr. Coe,” wrote The Ridgefield Press at his death in 1936. “His friends are legion, and they all mourn as one the passing of a true friend.”
Samuel Augustus Coe was born in 1843 in the Peach Lake section of North Salem, the son of Quakers whose ancestors helped settle that town  in the early 1700s. (His great-great-grandmother was said to be the first white child born in the Oblong, the 1.75-mile-wide by 50-mile-long slice of Connecticut ceded to New York in 1731.)
At the age of 19, he enlisted in the Union Army at Brewster, and became a member of the 6th Heavy Artillery, Company G, of New York Volunteers. 
“Mr. Coe saw hard service in the Maryland and Virginia campaigns,” The Press reported. “In different battles he was near death many times. Bullets struck his clothing, one burned his neck, another his cheek, and another cut a furrow through his hair, but no blood was drawn then. Later, he was wounded at the siege of Petersburg in May 1864 where he was under fire for 30 days.”
That wound at Petersburg caused the loss of part of his left arm, “thus depriving him of his dream of becoming a shoemaker.”
He was taken to New York City to recuperate under the care of the Sisters of Charity, an order of nuns founded by St. Elizabeth Seton (Ridgefield’s church named for her is just up the road from Coe’s Ridgebury farm). 
After the war, Coe married Susan Cable of North Salem and by around 1890 the couple had moved to Ridgebury, buying a 100-acre farm at the corner of Ridgebury Road. Their house on Old
Stagecoach Road had been built in 1782 by Captain Henry Whitney, whose son-in-law, David Hunt, established a Ridgebury-to-Norwalk stage line that left from the Whitney homestead at 2:30 in the morning. That house later became the home of Daniel and Louise McKeon, who called their spread Arigideen Farm. It’s now the equestrian Double H Farm, whose owner moved the enlarged Whitney/Coe/McKeon house to face Ridgebury Road at the corner of Old Stagecoach.
Coe became very active in his new community. He was a Ridgefield selectman for the eight years from 1894 to 1902, a state representative from 1911 to 1913, and a member of the Board of Assessors for 20 years. He served on the Board of Relief  — the elected agency that heard complaints that taxes were too high or unfairly levied — until he was 90 years old.  
He was a deacon of the Ridgebury Congregational Church for 35 years, and religiously passed the collection plate — a long-handled one — until a few years before his death. He retired from public service in 1933 and moved to Patterson, N.Y., to live with a friend. He died in 1936 at the age of 92.
“Mr. Coe retained the vigor of his youth for many years and in his declining years was a man of unusual vitality,” The Danbury News said at his death. “His eyesight and hearing remained as keen as when he was a boy and a month ago, he slapped his Ridgefield friends on the back as unceremoniously and with as much vim as he had done 20 years before.”
He was also sharp of mind, The News said. “He recalled the events of bygone days as clearly as if they had happened yesterday and kept in close touch with events of the modern world. On his last chat with friends in Ridgefield, he talked with heightened interest of the 1936 presidential election campaign. He was a Republican and expected to cast his 1936 vote for the GOP.”

He didn’t make it to the polls, however, dying in April. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Jeo Casagrande: 
The POW and His Mom
Jeo Casagrande’s life was one of extraordinary adventure, service and accomplishment. Starting out aiming to be an aircraft mechanic, Casagrande wound up piloting huge 10-engine nuclear-armed bombers. He also spent a year and a half as a German prisoner of war.
Jeo Joseph Casagrande was born in 1921 to Adolfo and Ulrica Marcucci Casagrande, longtime residents of Bryon Avenue.  His siblings included Pio, Rudolph, Peter, Yola and Columba Casagrande.
His given name was rather unusual; today only about  two babies in every million born are named Jeo. It led to some identity problems, especially in military reporting. His name often appears in official records as Leo Casagrande, and sometimes as Joe Casagrande. The American Air Museum in Britain uses both Leo and Joe, but never Jeo.
Casagrande attended Ridgefield schools and graduated from Ridgefield High School in 1939. That December he entered the U.S. Army; it was three months after war had begun in Europe but two years before the United States became involved.
His aim was to be an aircraft mechanic, but the Army saw different talents in the 18-year-old recruit. In the years that followed Casagrande worked his way up to become an  officer and a navigator aboard heavy bombers that flew in the European Theatre from bases in England.
On Jan. 11, 1944, he was on a bombing mission to Oschersleben in north-central Germany when his B-17 Flying Fortress was shot down by German fighters. Strangely, two days after his plane was lost, his parents received a cablegram from him, reporting he had been promoted from second to first lieutenant. About 10 days later, however, they learned he was missing in action.
There were reports Casagrande may have parachuted from the plane, giving the family hope. Then in March, a postcard arrived, dated Jan. 17, saying: “I am a prisoner of war in Germany. I am not injured in any way. Apply to your local Red Cross agent for all details. This is only a transit camp. I will write and give my return address from my next camp in a few days. Love to all, Jeo.” 
On Jan. 26, he wrote another card, not received in Ridgefield until May. “Dear Mom,” he
said, “Just finished a good game of cards and am about ready for bed. Sleep and food are both very plentiful. You must give the Red Cross $25 for me. They’re doing wonders over here…”
To cheer up his family, he added, “Believe me, when I get home, there won’t be a sad person around. Everyone must be cheerful and I myself will not have a grouchy day for the rest of my life.”
Casagrande spent the rest of the war as a prisoner at Stalag Luft 1 in Barth-Vogelsang, Prussia, and was liberated by the Russians in June 1945. 
For many people, six years  — a quarter of the time in a German prison camp  — would have been enough military service. But Casagrande loved the Army Air Corps and elected to stay in after the war. After the U.S. Air Force became a separate entity in 1947, he became a captain in the new service. 
In 1950 he was chosen to pilot of one of the first new B-36 bombers assigned to the 2nd Air Force, the reconnaissance arm of the Strategic Air Command. The B-36 was an immense aircraft — the largest piston-engined airplane ever put to use, with the longest wingspan — 230 feet — of any combat aircraft ever built (by comparison, a Boeing 747 has 196-foot wingspan). The plane’s first
versions had six engines, a total soon increased to 10 — six prop and four jet! The B-36 required a crew of from nine to 15 people and because of it size and complexity, it was notoriously difficult to fly.
When he retired in 1962, Casagrande was a lieutenant colonel serving as an SAC squadron leader of B-47 bombers. His commendations included the Air Medal, awarded for meritorious service in aerial flight during World War II.
He became a stockbroker in Riverside, Calif., where he lived for 35 years and was active in community work. He served on the Commission on Aging and on an area social services board, and was active in the California Handicapped Association. He died in Riverside in 1996 at the age of 74. He was buried in Riverside National Cemetery with full military honors and an Air Force fly-over.
One of the first things Jeo Casagrande did when he was freed from Stalag Luft 1 was to write home, praising the Red Cross  — knowing that his mother, Ulrica, was a Red Cross volunteer in Ridgefield.
“The efforts and accomplishments of the Red Cross are a work worthy of the utmost admiration,” he told his mother. “While I was a prisoner, it was the Red Cross who kept me from looking like one of those neglected prisoners of war you no doubt have seen in the movies or magazines. Now, though the Army gives us the best of care, food and medical attention, it is the Red Cross which provides the entertainment and additional comforts which make life quite pleasant.”

Casagrande added, “I am proud to know my Mom has been patiently making bandages and other stuff for this famous organization. Yes, here is one of the Casagrande boys coming home in a few weeks and probably the biggest one factor in helping him survive this struggle has been his own mother’s outfit.”

Monday, February 19, 2018

Israel Grossfeld: 
The Crusading Father
Nineteen-year-old Fred Grossfeld was a quiet, scholarly student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was a sophomore majoring in mathematics. Slight in build, the Ridgefielder loved books and spent many hours in libraries. 
 One November night in 1965, Fred played bridge with three friends in a dormitory where his
own room was located. After the game ended, he said goodnight and left. He was never seen alive again.
The tragic case of Fred Grossfeld, which made headlines locally and nationally for weeks, sparked his father, Ridgefield merchant Israel Grossfeld, to undertake a campaign that eventually helped change how law enforcement officials in the United States deal with missing persons. 
Fred Grossfeld vanished on the evening of Nov. 30, 1965, but it was two days before MIT campus police learned he was missing. Campus police then spent several days either waiting for news or looking into his whereabouts before finally notifying his parents on Dec. 6, nearly a week later.
“We found the delays shocking; the university found them routine,”  Israel Grossfeld told MIT’s president eight months later. Indeed, when Israel Grossfeld had earlier approached an MIT spokesman about publicizing his missing son in the Boston newspapers, he was told, “It isn’t a story. Kids disappear every day. This isn’t news.”
“Then I’ll make it a story,” Grossfeld shot back.
In the weeks that followed, Israel Grossfeld undertook a tireless campaign to publicize the disappearance of his son who he believed had been accosted by robbers or was suffering from amnesia. He knocked on doors of police stations, politicians’ offices, and media newsrooms. Headlines began appearing across the country — The New York Times carried at least four stories.
Fred Grossfeld’s disappearance was mysterious. There was no sign of anything amiss. His room was found in perfect condition. Except for an olive-green raincoat, nothing was missing; even his watch was still sitting on his desk.
The young man was described as a “very quiet, studious boy, who spent most of his time reading and studying,” The Ridgefield Press reported Dec. 9. “He rarely left the MIT campus. He played chess and Ping Pong in addition to bridge.” 
His father discounted rumors that he was having trouble in school, noting his son had a 4.8 grade point average of a possible 5. “His only weak subject was physical education,” Israel Grossfeld told The Times.
The FBI briefly investigated in December after Israel received a ransom call from someone, demanding $3,000 for Fred’s return and telling the father to wait the next day near five pay phones at the corner of Tremont and Boylston Streets in Boston. Grossfeld called authorities, and the next day, Boston police and the FBI staked out the area as Grossfeld waited at the corner. No call came.
Grossfeld said at the time that he believed the caller never contacted him because news of the call and stakeout appeared in Boston media the night before. “I fear that because I did not follow the caller’s advice to not contact the authorities, they might have killed Fred,” he said.
When nothing materialized, the FBI dropped out of the case. 
However, national law enforcement officials began to take more notice after Grossfeld pursued politicians like U.S. Senators Abraham Ribicoff (D-Connecticut) and Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), who in turn pressured U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to personally review the merits of the case. In early February, Katzenbach wound up ordering the FBI to resume the search for the boy.
A native of Poland who was persecuted as a Jew by the Nazis, Israel Grossfeld had come to this country in 1949 with only $8 to his name. He eventually opened I. Grossfeld Ltd., a top-drawer men’s clothing store on Main Street. 
As he worked to find his son, he virtually walked away from the business — many people in the community, including an airline pilot and the owner of a competing store — volunteered to work at Grossfeld’s shop while the father searched for his son. Scores of Ridgefielders also helped him send thousands of missing-person flyers all over the county — even to hundreds of libraries, because Fred had been such a book-lover. 
“If it takes all of my life, this is my No. 1 job — to find the boy, nothing else,” he told The Times. 
The search came to an end on Feb. 8, 1966. A Beacon Street woman was walking her dog along the Esplanade of the Charles River in Boston, when the pet broke loose, ran about 15 feet out onto the frozen river and began barking. Embedded in the ice was the body of Fred Grossfeld. 
Boston police reported that, except for his olive-green raincoat, he was clad entirely in black clothing, including a black shirt and black tie. Investigators found no evidence of foul play.
His father was crushed. He could barely do more than nod his head when he came to the police mortuary to identify the body. He had been in Boston to meet with Cardinal Richard Cushing to enlist his aid in the search campaign.
How did Fred Grossfeld wind up frozen in the Charles River? An autopsy found that the boy had drowned. There was speculation that he had committed suicide by jumping off a bridge over the Charles River, but in a letter to The Press on Feb. 15, Israel Grossfeld and his wife, Mina, wrote: “We are sure to our innermost soul that Freddie was not a suicide. He once expressed himself specifically on the subject, saying that only ‘sick’ people did such a thing. He could not inflict pain on anyone or anything, and certainly not on himself.”
Instead, the Grossfelds said, “we believe that Freddie met with foul play, whether from a gang of delinquents roaming the streets or from someone out of the vast hate world we shall probably never know.” 
The week after the discovery, Israel Grossfeld told The Press, “I am not going to let the files be closed. If the police don’t care to pursue the case, I will pursue it myself. This is something that I feel I must do for the memory of my boy and for my own peace of mind.”
Grossfeld returned to the MIT campus to try to determine whether school and police officials were making any effort to solve the mystery. He was accompanied by author Max Gunther and photographer Joseph Consentino, both Ridgefielders, who had been assigned by the Saturday Evening Post magazine to cover the story. 
Gunther, who had already spent three days interviewing Fred’s dormitory neighbors as well as campus officials, told The Press on Feb. 16 that he “found no evidence that Fred was unhappy or worried in the weeks before his disappearance. Furthermore, Fred’s friends recalled that the brilliant young scholar had always shunned physical violence and was extremely sensitive to pain, cold and other discomfort.
“If Fred was going to commit suicide,” Gunther said, “it seemed unlikely to his friends that he would choose such an agonizing method as jumping into an icy river and drowning.”
By the spring of 1966, Israel Grossfeld had recovered enough to focus on a new campaign: The creation of a federal agency handling missing persons.
“We need what a number of other countries already have: A federal bureau for missing persons, under the FBI,” Grossfeld wrote Senator Ribicoff in July. “In the areas of taxation, water control, education, and movement of traffic, we have gained immeasurably by the unity and coordination of federal control. Why not in personal safety?”
He had already complained to the MIT president, “It is unfortunate that disappearances of college students are each treated as a common, routine matter. In most cases they probably do present no cause for concern, but this results in tragedy for the few exceptions that do occur.” 
He felt that MIT should have been more diligent in dealing with Fred’s disappearance and should have notified area police and the parents immediately. “We shall probably never know whether this entirely usual lack of communication made the difference between life and death,” he told the MIT president.
Grossfeld found a supporter in Senator Ribicoff, who had earlier been governor of the Connecticut. In 1967, Ribicoff introduced a bill to create a federal office to help local police departments to find missing persons. It would, as The Times reported, “set up a separate investigative staff within the Justice Department concerned solely with missing persons…. The staff would assist directly in investigations if requested to do so by local policemen…The office would also serve as a national clearinghouse for information on missing persons, using modern computer technology to collect and store information from all over the country.”
Such an agency would no doubt be overloaded, unless it had thousands of staff members. But the federal government did institute the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, whose huge databases include not only criminals, but also missing and unidentified persons. Today, up to 12 million searches a day are done by law enforcement agencies, using NCIC. Many of those are for missing persons.
But as a result of the efforts of Israel Grossfeld and others, significant improvements in dealing with missing persons have been made. “Many police departments used to wait 24 to 48 hours before accepting a missing persons report,” said current Ridgefield Police Chief John Roche. “No more.”
Grossfeld had argued that any delay in searching for the missing makes the job tougher. Chief Roche agreed. In Ridgefield and in Connecticut in general, missing persons now get instant attention. 
“The longer you wait, the less you have the ability to find the person,” Chief Roche said. While many missing persons cases may involve miscommunications or domestic spats, “you just don’t know,” he said.
Ridgefield police even plan for missing persons. One of the more frequent types of missing persons is an Alzheimer’s patient, who may wander off and get lost. The department maintains a database of dementia victims, with information voluntarily supplied by caregivers, so that such vital details as photos, physical descriptions, and habits can be quickly called up at headquarters.
Israel Grossfeld was active in the 1970s in supporting youth programs, particularly the Ridgefield Boys’ Club. For many years the Fred Grossfeld Memorial Fund provided scholarships for Ridgefield High School graduates. 
Grossfeld sold his store and his Stonecrest Road home in 1980, the same year his wife, Mina, a teacher of Russian, died. He remarried, eventually moved to Israel, and then to Florida, where he became active in the state chapter of the Friends of Israeli Disabled Veterans. 

He died in 2013 at the age of 91.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Imogene Coca:
Sweetheart of TV’s Golden Age
Imogene Coca was the “sweetheart of the golden age of television,” as one critic put it. The  comedienne, who enjoyed the country life of Ridgefield, was known by virtually anyone who owned a TV set in the 1950s and beyond.
Coca, whose show business career spanned 80 years, began performing at the age of 11. Her mother, Sadie Brady, was a magician’s assistant, and her father, Joseph Fernandez de Coca, had been a violin soloist with the Philadelphia Symphony in his youth and later conducted orchestras in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and for the Keith/Albeer vaudeville circuit.
Watching him rehearse, the young Imogene “caught the bug.” At the age of 15, she was performing in Jimmy Durante’s Slipper, a tony New York club. She made her Broadway debut in “When You Smile,” starring Jeanette MacDonald, and continued working as a singer and dancer in New York until her friend, producer Leonard Sillman, saw another aspect to her talent.
Working with her first husband, Robert Burton, in “New Faces of 1934,” Mr. Sillman assigned her and a young Henry Fonda to entertain the audiences with brief comedy routines in front of the curtain while the scenery was being changed.
By the early 1950s, she had entered a new medium, starring with Sid Caesar in the award-winning NBC television series, “Your Show of Shows.” According to writer Sidney Fields, “Imogene Coca is the only TV comedienne who can convulse an audience with just a wink. With one grimace she can make her mouth threaten her chin; with another, one eye will battle her nose. The endless variety of expressions on her flexible face continuously amazes everyone including Max Liebman who directs Imogene.”
She later starred in “The Imogene Coca Show”  and appeared in several Broadway shows including The Girls in 509 where she met her second husband, King Donovan. They subsequently appeared in more than 30 productions together, including Plaza Suite, The Rivals, and The Gin Game.  She continued making appearances on television; for a while, she even appeared in the soap opera, “One Life to Live.”
In 1967, she co-starred in the CBS television special, “The Sid Caesar-Imogene Coca-Carl Reiner-Howard Morris Reunion Show,” bringing together the cast of “Your Show of Shows”; it won 11 Emmies. Over the years, she herself earned three Emmies — 1952 for Best Actress, 1966 and 1967 for Outstanding Variety Special). 
On film, Coca may be best remembered as Aunt Edna strapped onto the car roof in National Lampoon’s Vacation, with Chevy Chase, and for her featured part in Under the Yum Yum Tree, with Jack Lemmon.
Miss Coca lived in Manhattan for most of her life, but often summered in the country, including periods in Ridgefield. She first came here in the fall of 1953, leasing a house on Silver Spring Lane. Mark Basile, a close longtime friend of  Coca, said she was probably introduced to the town by longtime Ridgefielders Debbie and Jack Rosenberg; Debbie Rosenberg was Coca’s agent for most of her career.
“She had loved Ridgefield,” Mr. Basile said of Coca.

She died in 2001 in Westport at the age of 92.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Jessie Royce Landis: 
Mother to the Stars
“I am probably one of the most prolific mothers out there,” said Jessie Royce Landis in a Ridgefield Press interview in 1966, the year she moved to Old Branchville Road.  “But I am lucky enough to have children who are doing nicely and give me no trouble.” 
Those “children” included Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, June Allyson, Tab Hunter, Anthony Perkins, Jean Peters, and Kim Novak. 
Miss Landis played mother to all of them in Hollywood films. As a stage and screen actress for 50 years, she was often cast as a mother, but also played countless other parts with the likes of Noel Coward, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Ray Milland, and Ingrid Bergman. Among the best-known
films she appeared in were Alfred Hitchcock’s two classics, To Catch A Thief and North by Northwest, both starring Cary Grant. She was only eight years older than Grant when she played his mother in the latter.
Born Jessie Medbury in Chicago, Ill., in 1896, she began her career on the stage, performing in plays ranging from Shakespeare to modern comedies. She wound up on television, where she appeared in scores of shows – often as a mother. One of her roles was as Madame Olga Nemirovitch in The Man from U.N.C.L.E, a popular TV series that starred Robert Vaughn, who also made Ridgefield his home.
Miss Landis was also a writer who penned several comedies for the stage. She detailed much of her life in her autobiography, “You Won’t Be So Pretty, But You Will Know More,” about which one critic wrote: “It’s a pity it is true. It would make such wonderful fiction.” 

Miss Landis, whose husband was Army Major General J. F. R. Seitz, died in 1972 and is buried in Branchville Cemetery.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Michael Chekhov: 
An Actor’s Actor
Ridgefield has had its place in theatrical history. Since 2009, the town has had an annual Chekhov Festival, featuring professional performances of plays both new and old. But the Chekhov honored is not the Russian playwright.
Mikhail “Michael” Alexandrovich Chekhov, nephew of Anton Chekhov, was born in Russia in 1891 and by the age of 21 was already a noted actor in his homeland. By 1923, he was a director at the Moscow Art Theatre, but his innovative methods eventually led the Communists to label him “alien and reactionary” and a “sick artist.” So Michael Chekhov emigrated to Germany and then England, establishing a well-respected method of training actors. In 1939, as war was breaking out, he moved his Chekhov Theatre Studio from England to the old Ridgefield School for Boys at the north end of Lake Mamanasco on North Salem Road.
A brochure published in 1940 described the studio as “both a school for the theatre and the theatre itself.” Students learned acting techniques and also staged public performances, often including their teacher. 
While here, Mr. Chekhov made his first appearance in an English-speaking role on the public stage—a Russian War Relief benefit program in the old high school auditorium on East Ridge, where he performed in each of the three short plays presented. 
The studio had its first major production in the fall of 1939, staging Anton Chekhov’s “The Possessed,” at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway. “It has a genius of theatricalism,” wrote Brooks
Atkinson in The New York Times. Burns Mantle of The New York Daily News said, “Michael Chekhov, working from Moscow Art Theatre standards, has created a series of amazingly picturesque scenes and groupings and taught his players a great deal about acting and concentration in character portraiture….They have evidently given much study to body control and facial expression, and there is not a mumbler among them—which could profitably be noted by many Broadway players and their directors.”
Students at the Chekhov Theatre Studio were offered a wide range of courses that included speech formation, eurhythmy (expressive movement), stage design and lighting, makeup, improvisations, and even fencing.
By 1945 Mr. Chekhov had decided to move to Hollywood, where he not only taught and but also acted in films— his portrayal of the psychoanalyst in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound won him an Academy Award nomination. 
Among his students were Marilyn Monroe, Jack Palance, Anthony Quinn, Yul Brynner, Gregory Peck, and Akim Tamiroff.  
He died in 1955, but his school lives on as the acclaimed Chekhov Theatre Ensemble in New York City.

The site of Chekhov’s school later became the farm of Francis D. Martin. A portion of the main building is now a house while much of the rest of the school property is now occupied by modern homes. However, the stage on which Michael Chekhov made his American debut is still alive and well—the home of the Ridgefield Playhouse. —from “Ridgefield Chronicles”

Friday, February 09, 2018

Peter Walters: 
The Personable Pianist
For a quarter of the 20th Century, almost anyone in Ridgefield who loved music knew Peter Walters. Once called “the personable pianist” by The Bridgeport Post, Walters loved playing in his hometown after a career that took him to venues around the country — including an appearance with the Boston Pops and a couple of runs with Broadway hits.
     Born in 1913 in Tonawanda, N.Y.,  Peter Louis Walters learned the piano from his father, a piano teacher. 
     “I took my very first lesson when I was three,” he said in a 1971 Press interview with Linette Burton. “I practiced five or 10 minutes a day and while my father gave piano lessons, I’d crawl under the piano so I could hear.”
     When he was five, Walters made his first public appearance — at a Tonawanda woman’s club meeting. “I sat on a box and used extended pedals so I could reach them. Occasionally I’d fall off.”
      He studied classical piano at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, finishing the four-year course in three. After graduation he entered a performance competition, sponsored by Mason and Hamlin, the piano-maker; the winner got a $2,000 grand piano and a chance to perform with the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler. He won, and did a concert with the Pops.
While he wanted to become a classical pianist, Walters had to turn to hotels, restaurants and nightclubs for employment. In the 1930s, “classical music was at the bottom,” he said. “There just weren’t any jobs.”
His first real employment — at $19 a week — was playing at a restaurant in Boston. But he was soon hired to perform with the Johnny Long and Leighton Noble Orchestras at the Statler Hotel in Boston. It was there that he met his wife, Barbara Beaumont, a singer with Long’s orchestra.
 He was working a stint at the Beachcomber in Boston in the early 1940s when he had “an altercation with the owner. It was during the war and artists were doing a lot of benefits. But the owner wanted me to do benefits for his friends, not servicemen, between my first and second shows. I refused and was fired on the spot.”
Fortunately, a friend told him about a new Broadway musical in rehearsals that needed a pianist. He signed on with “Mexican Hayride,” moved to New York and never returned to Boston. (“Mexican Hayride” starred June Havoc, later a longtime resident of Wilton who created the popular Cannon Crossing boutique shopping area at Cannondale Station.)
After a year and a half with that show, he joined the national tour of the Cole Porter musical, “Let’s Face It.” But he and his wife soon tired of weeks on the road in “crummy boarding houses” and he took at job at The Music Box in Greenwich Village, which “needed someone to accompany opera singers who dropped into the place. I’d learn the arias they were singing that season and play for them. We had more free entertainment than you could shake a stick at.” Among the stars he accompanied were Lawrence Tibbett, Eleanor Steber, Eugene Connelly, and Winifred Heidt.
He played at many other Manhattan venues such as the Little Club and the Monte Carlo, as well as top  hotels. “I was the busiest pianist in New York,” he said.
While playing at the Hotel Madison in 1948, he was heard by Victor Gilbert, who had recently created the Stonehenge Inn in Ridgefield. Gilbert hired him to play for two weekends. “I stayed for 12 years,” Walters said.
 At Stonehenge he would play “soft background music, show tunes and light classics,” he said.  “No rock and roll. The customers don’t want it.”
He and Barbara moved to Ridgefield in 1950, buying a house next to a pond at the end of Hayes Lane.
After Stonehenge, Walters spent 12 years with The Inn at Ridgefield (now Bernard’s). He also performed for the Outpost and Fox Hill Inns in Ridgefield, and the Westnor in Westport.
He recorded two albums for Decca Records: “Portraits in Ivory” in 1956 and “Peter Walters’ Velvet Touch” in 1965. He also appeared on Art Linkletter’s “House Party” television show in March 1964, along with his brother, Bob, also a pianist; Walter played a classical work on the show and Bob, jazz.
In 1986, the Walters moved to Florida where Peter died two years later at the age of 74. 

“Playing a piano is a crazy way to make a living, but it’s better than working,” Walters said in 1971. “You are with people who are out to enjoy themselves.  It never gets boring.” 

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Ralph Edwards: 
A Man of Consequences
Anyone who owned a radio in the 1940s or a television in the 1950s knew Ralph Edwards. He created and starred in shows with titles that became so familiar that even a town took one as its name. One of his shows — The People’s Court — is still running today, 78 years after his first success — Truth Or Consequences — went on the air.
 For all his fame, however, few people knew that Ralph Edwards and his wife, Barbara,  had a home in Ridgefield — a town he had earlier visited as part of his $500-million bond-selling efforts in World War II.
 Ralph Livingston Edwards was born in 1913 on a Colorado farm. When he was 13, his family moved to Oakland, Calif., where as a teenager he combined his ability as a writer with his love of radio to create skits for the local station, KROW.  While studying at the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned a degree in English, Edwards worked at Oakland’s KTAB, now KSFO, doing nearly every job from janitor to producer. After graduating in 1935, he   worked for a while at KFRC in San Francisco, but the mecca for radio in the 30s was New York  so in 1936 he hitchhiked across the country to Manhattan where, he said, “I ate ten-cent meals and slept on park benches.” He landed some part-time announcing work, but his big break came when CBS hired him as a full-time announcer (among his young cohorts was Mel Allen).
By 1939 he was doing 45 programs a week, including The Fred Allen Show, Major Bowes’s Amateur Hour, and the Lucky Strike Hit Parade — all among the most popular shows on radio at the time.
A year later Edwards sold NBC his idea for a game show, called Truth Or Consequences, in which contestants were asked a ridiculously hard or nonsensical question and if they failed to answer correctly — as most people invariably did — they had to undergo some sort of silly task or stunt in order to win the prize. “They had to do such things as bark, crawl on their bellies, push a walnut with the nose, bathe an elephant, get into a doghouse and, in one instance, sell an icebox to an Eskimo,” The New York Times reported.
The show began on NBC radio in 1940, with Mel Allen as host. A year later, a special edition of Truth Or Consequences was aired on the first day of commercial television in the United States. Back then TV was in its infancy — only 7,000 television sets were sold in 1941 (compared to 15 million 10 years later). The show continued on radio until 1957, but in 1950 also became a regular on television; for many years, an Edwards discovery, Bob Barker, hosted Truth Or Consequences. It lasted until 1988, one of the longest running game shows in TV history.
During World War II, Truth Or Consequences went on the road as part of an effort to sell war bonds. On Dec. 14, 1944, Edwards and his crew staged a show at the Ridgefield Playhouse on Prospect Street (now the site of the Prospector) during the Sixth War Loan Drive. With the show’s
help Ridgefield topped $1 million in bond sales in that drive, a record for the town (it was equivalent to about $14 million in 2018 dollars). In all during the war, Edward was credited with selling more than $500-million in war bonds — about $7 billion today! 
In 1948, Edwards started an equally popular radio show, This Is Your Life, in which guests,  both famous and unknown, were surprised and then profiled through reminiscences of family and friends. Considered a pioneer of today’s reality TV, This Is Your Life switched to television in 1952 and continued until 1984. Edwards himself hosted this show most of its run (Ronald Reagan filled in twice for him).
Edwards, who won two Emmies for This Is Your Life and one for Truth Or Consequences, also created a dozen other programs including such long-running shows as   Name That Tune and The People’s Court — the latter is still being broadcast. 
In 1958, Edwards and his wife, Barbara, bought a house on the corner of North Street and Stonecrest Road, and used it off and on until 1971 — probably mostly on visits from the West where they had a home in Hollywood. Barbara died in 1993 and Ralph in 2005 at the age of 92.

Truth Or Consequences was so popular that in 1950,  Edwards announced he would broadcast his 10th anniversary program from the first town in the United State to change its name to Truth Or Consequences. Hot Springs, N. Mex., did just that, and the community of about 6,000 people now also has a Ralph Edwards Park.  Edwards made a point of personally visiting the town at least once each year for the next 50 years.   

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Aaron Turner: 
Circus Pioneer
The circus was a form of entertainment immensely popular in the 19th Century. Traveling circuses visited communities large and small across the eastern United States. But Ridgefield had a more than passing connection with American circus history. One of America’s circus pioneers was born here, and some four-legged stars of early circuses died here.
Aaron Turner was born in Ridgefield in 1790, said to be the illegitimate son of Mercy Hony. When he was 9, he went to live on the farm of a court-appointed guardian, Dorcas Osborn, at the corner of Saw Mill and Turner Roads (the house is no longer standing). Turner eventually inherited the farm and much land in the Ridgefield and Danbury portions of Ridgebury. As a young man he farmed the land and also did some shoemaking.
However, farming and cobbling were not his calling. By age 30, he was associated with the circus world, part owner of a troupe that had sprung up from one of the circus families that lived in nearby New York State. By this time, 1820, his 7-year-old son, Napoleon, was already a trick rider in a New York City circus. 
Eight years later, Turner the elder had a traveling circus of his own, serving as ringmaster. In 1836, he hired a young Bethel man named Phineas T. Barnum as his ticket seller, secretary and treasurer.
Barnum became an important asset. When the Aaron Turner Traveling Circus failed to draw many customers on a visit to Rochester, N.Y., Barnum suggested that the circus should announce its arrival in a community by having a parade. Barnum later used that circus parade technique extensively with his Barnum and Bailey Circus.
P.T. Barnum learned another public relations lesson from Turner. During a circus stop in Annapolis, Md., Turner jokingly told a gathering that his ticket-taker, Barnum, was a wanted murderer. The crowd took Turner at his word, immediately seized Barnum  and began beating him when Turner screamed that it was just a joke. Turner later told Barnum, “It’s all for our good. The notoriety will fill our tent.”
During the winter, Turner’s circus stayed at his Ridgebury farm, which included land along
the west side of Ridgebury and Turner Roads. Many circus animals were reportedly housed there and at farms in the neighborhood. Some of these animals that died were believed to have been buried in the old fields along the western side of northern Ridgebury Road—including at least one elephant.
“Turner’s circus was one of the most important and popular in the country,” wrote Ridgefield historian Silvio Bedini, who said both sons Timothy and Napoleon were “skilled riders.”  Turner’s daughter married George Fox Bailey of Somers, N.Y., who later managed the circus and took it over after Turner retired. Barnum, of course, went on to found his own circus, which became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. (In the 1870s George Bailey was a partner of Barnum, but the “Bailey” in the circus name was a distant relative, not he.)
Barnum described Turner as a genius, a man of untiring industry, a practical joker, and a good judge of human nature, reports William Slout of the Circus Historical Society.
Turner eventually retired to the quieter life of operating a hotel, Turner House, in Danbury facing the Main Street green. 
    He died in 1854 and his hotel, which subsequently became a Knights of Columbus Home, was torn down in the 1960s to make way for—alas—a used car lot. Today, a Walgreen’s pharmacy is there.

Turner Road in Ridgebury, of course, recalls Aaron. So does the Turner Hill subdivision, built in the early 1990s off the south side of Turner Road. Roads there are named for some of the circus families that lived in Ridgefield and nearby, including Hunt, Howes, and, of course, Barnum.