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.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Dr. John G. Perry: 
Letter-Writing Civil War Surgeon
A young Harvard-educated surgeon from a well-to-do Boston family experienced the bloody horrors and the amazing heroism of the Civil War and described what he saw in letters to his fiancee and then bride. Forty years later, his wife turned dozens of those letters into a book that is still widely quoted — and reprinted — a century later.
  Dr. John G. Perry underwent experiences — including being trapped in the New York City Draft Riots — that seem unimaginable today. He later became a top New York City surgeon and had a summer home — the predecessor of Sunset Hall — on West Mountain for more than 20 years. He was one of many New York City physicians  around the turn of the 20th Century who found Ridgefield a healthful place to take a break. 
John Gardner Perry was born in 1840 in Boston. His father, Dr. Marshall Sears Perry (1805-1859), was a well-respected community physician while his mother, Abby Stimson Perry (1816-1857) “exerted a particularly strong influence on the moral and spiritual character of her son,” according to a 1918 biography. 
While his parents oversaw a top-notch education for their boy that included private schooling and attending Boston Latin high school, they also grounded him in the “real world” by sending him each summer to work on a farm. He said later that his love of nature and country life came from these summers; it may have led to his decision to buy an old farm in Ridgefield.
Perry had always been interested in the profession of his father and, as a boy, was called “the little doctor.” In 1858 he entered Harvard College but soon transferred  to study at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School. He then entered Harvard Medical School.
While he was studying medicine, the Union Army issued a call for surgeons and, wishing to serve his country and gain surgical experience, Perry enlisted in April 1862 at the age of 22 as a contract assistant surgeon — because he did not yet have his medical degree, he could not be  commissioned.  
He was sent to northern Virginia where he treated countless badly injured soldiers, including Confederate prisoners. By August  Perry fell ill from the exhaustion of working almost non-stop
under trying combat conditions, and was sent home. During this break he finished his Harvard medical school studies and graduated with the class of 1863. He also married his longtime sweetheart, fellow Bostonian Martha Derby Rogers, in March of 1863. He returned to the war a month later, now a commissioned officer in the 20th Massachusetts Regiment.
During his periods of service, Perry wrote scores of letters to his fiance and then bride, describing his experiences. Forty years later, Martha Perry came across them in “a much weather-beaten trunk, which since the Civil War has travelled from one attic to another.”
She got permission from her husband to put together the book, “Letters from A Surgeon of the Civil War.” Published in 1906, the book was widely read, has been often quoted by Civil War historians over the past century, and is today still available in many reprint editions. 
“Letters” offers a well-written, frequently dramatic look at the often heroic and horrible results of combat. It also describes in non-technical language how the wounded were treated. 
Here is a sampling of Perry’s experiences:
  • “I hear that the surgeon who served before me, while dressing a [Confederate] soldier’s wound, laid the knife for a moment on the bed. The man seized it and made a lunge at the doctor, but instead of killing him, as he had intended, only ran it into his arm; whereupon the doctor instantly shot him. I suspect that the surgeon may have been rough in this instance, possibly intentionally so; I am careful, however, not to leave my instruments within reach of these prisoners, although they seem friendly and I do not fear them. —May 18, 1862, Chesapeake Hospital at Fortress Monroe
  • “This afternoon I collected all my convalescents in the kitchen of the cottage, placed them about a blazing fire — for it was chilly and raining hard outside — and started the singing of Methodist hymns. The music caught like an epidemic, and soon from every side came doctors, nurses, patients, negroes, until we had a rousing chorus. All of them sang with their whole souls, each one asking for his favorite hymn, and the concert ended with ‘Old Hundred.’ How I did enjoy it!” — June 15, 1862, Chesapeake Hospital
  • “A new contingent to-day of sick and wounded; in fact, the men arrived in such numbers that we laid them on the grass and dressed their wounds there. I was obliged to perform an operation on one man and cut off two of his fingers. He sat up perfectly straight and did not wince a particle. I called him a ‘man,’ for he truly deserved the title, though he, poor fellow, was a mere boy of eighteen years.” —July 1, 1862, Chesapeake Hospital
  • “Home! Oh, how that word still haunts me! Yet I am calmer now and take the situation more reasonably; but an awful sinking at the heart still sweeps over me, and I can easily understand how soldiers die of homesickness.” — Sept. 26, 1863, Culpeper, Va. (Many doctors back then believed both nostalgia and homesickness were deadly, says one scholar who quotes Perry and adds, “The idea that nostalgia and homesickness were lethal illustrates the fact that physically unwounded soldiers suffered debilitating symptoms, making them unfit for duty.”)
  • “We had a drunken row in camp last night, owing to some villain’s having sold whiskey to the men, and it was one o’clock before the noisy ones were secured and all became quiet. These conscripts, or rather substitutes, behave disgracefully, deserting at every possible chance, even to the enemy. Notwithstanding that two who belonged to our regiment were shot, thirty-four deserted immediately after. One fellow, having failed to escape in the direction of his home, attempted to go over to the enemy, but was prevented. He then shot his finger off, with the hope of being sent to the hospital, where the opportunities for desertion are greater, but the result is that he will serve with one finger less.” —Oct. 1, 1863, Culpeper, Va.
  • “Colonel Mallon was at that time with me in the rear, for, as the brigade had made a breastwork of the railroad embankment, he could not be in front; and we were lying side by side, flat on the ground, so as to be out of range of the enemy’s guns, when the colonel, who was very fond of Major Abbott, said he must take a look round and see if he were safe. I begged him not to, saying that he would surely be shot, but he answered, ‘No, I cannot stand the suspense, and it will take but a moment’; where upon he rose, and was instantly shot through the abdomen. I dragged him to a little muddy stream — the only place of safety — where the poor fellow lay with water almost running down his throat. He lived until the fight was almost over, and finally expired in my arms. He was just married.” —Oct. 22, 1863, at Auburn, on the banks of the Bull Run River. (In a footnote, Mrs. Perry adds that “Major Abbott was shot through the body, and lived for about eight hours after. He left all his money to the widows and orphans of the regiment.”)
  • “Exhaustion and confusion, worse confounded. Although perfectly well, I am tired and hot, having slept only a couple of hours out of the last forty… the thought of sleep makes me absolutely silly. I now sit on the ground in the woods, leaning against a log and writing on my knee. I am surrounded by soldiers, bon-fires, and kicking horses — but out of their reach, I assure you; dust is sweeping over me like smoke; my face is black with dirt and perspiration, clothes soiled and torn almost to pieces. I am too tired to sleep, too tired to stand, and should dislike to have you see me just now. Although we have been steadily banging away at each other for a week, neither side has gained much advantage. The enemy has gradually fallen back, but each day shows a bold front.” — May 8, 1864, Cold Harbor, Va.
  • “It seems to me I am quite callous to death now, and that I could see my dearest friend die without much feeling. This condition tells a long story which, under other circumstances, could scarcely be imagined. During the last three weeks I have seen probably no less than two thousand deaths, and among them those of many dear friends. I have witnessed hundreds of men shot dead, have walked and slept among them, and surely I feel it possible to die myself as calmly as any — but enough of this. The fight is now fearful, and ambulances are coming in with great rapidity, each bearing its suffering load.” —May 24, 1864, near Hanover Junction, Va.
  • “Every day there is a fight, and every day the hospital is again filled. For
    four days now we have been operating upon the men wounded in one battle, which lasted only about two hours; but the wounds were more serious than those from former engagements. I am heart-sick over it all. If the Confederates lost in each fight the same number as we, there would be more chance for us; but their loss is about one man to our five, from the fact that they never leave their earth-works, whereas our men are obliged to charge even when there is not the slightest chance of taking them. Several times after capturing these works, our troops were unsupported and had to evacuate immediately, with great loss. The men are becoming discouraged, but there is plenty of fight in them yet.”  —June 4, 1864, Cold Harbor, Va.
  • “We have had thirty of our division wounded to-day by shell which the Confederates manage to throw into our pits, but we are successful in dropping some into theirs also. The heat is intolerable, and the roads are covered with dust six or eight inches deep, which every gust of wind sweeps up, covering everything with a dirty, white coating.” —June 10, 1864, Cold Harbor
  • “I had to follow the hospital wagons, look after the stores, and attend the sick and wounded in the ambulances. These wagons took the same route as the troops but kept far in their rear. The heat each day was intense, and the dust beyond any expression of which I am capable; but suffice it to say that most of the time I could not even see the head of my horse.” —June 21, 1864 near Petersburg, Va.
By the middle of August 1864, Martha Perry had fallen seriously ill and Dr. Perry was discharged from the Army to go home and care for her. After her recovery, the Perrys settled in New
York City where the doctor became  well-known for gynecological surgery and treatment of diseases of the thyroid and pituitary glands. He spent some time as a surgeon at the New York State Woman’s Hospital in Manhattan, now part of Mount Sinai Hospital.
Among his patients in the early 1870s was Salmon P. Chase (1808-1873), chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who had been secretary of the treasury under Abraham Lincoln.
Perhaps recalling his childhood summers on Massachusetts farms, Dr. Perry decided to buy a summer place in Ridgefield. In March 1891 he paid Stephen Burt $1,100 for about seven acres and buildings on Old West Mountain Road. The Burt family had farmed this land since the 1700s. In the coming years, John and Martha bought more adjacent land.
It is unclear whether Perry built a new country home or modified the old Burt farmhouse, but his “cottage” was considered a showplace at the turn of the 20th Century. A picture of the house, taken in the late 1890s by Marie Kendall, shows a residence more modest than the 22-room mansion called Sunset Hall that is now on the property. Sunset Hall may incorporate parts of the Perrys’ place, or may have been built from scratch by Ambassador James Stokes, who bought the estate from the Perrys — by then including some 27 acres — in 1912.
Dr. Perry was among the physicians cited in an 1894 New York Times article, headlined
“Doctors Recommend Ridgefield.” The writer maintained, “That which has contributed largely to the success of Ridgefield as a summer resort is the influence of many of the prominent physicians of New York, who have induced their patients to pass the summer here.” 
Perry left Ridgefield after he had left New York. By 1912, he and Martha had retired to a
brownstone on Commonwealth Avenue back in their native Boston where she died in 1916 and he in 1926 at the age of 86.
John Perry witnessed untold suffering during the Civil War, but also experienced it himself well north of the battlefields. On June 15, 1863, somewhere near Fredericksburg, Va., he fell from his horse, badly breaking his leg. “Seeing the sole of my boot facing me, I knew what had happened — a multiple fracture,” he wrote Martha.
He was put in an ambulance where, for some reason, he was left for more than 24 hours. “The next day after my accident a wounded officer was placed beside me in the ambulance, who died during the following night, and to add to my torments, the body of this poor man incessantly rolled over and against me, rendering my condition absolutely unendurable.”
After pleading for assistance, he was eventually moved to a railroad freight car and shipped to a hospital in Alexandria, Va. There a surgeon removed his boot, revealing “a black and angry-looking limb,” Perry said.  The surgeon quickly declared, “It is gangrene and the leg must be amputated!"
Perry refused amputation, maintaining his leg was just swollen and dirty. “Determined to save that leg, and to avoid any serious conflict, [I] felt that I must, as it were, escape from the hospital. I called one of the nurses to me, told the circumstances, and asked her to find two trusty
men, whom I would pay liberally, to carry me on my stretcher to a steam-boat bound for Washington. This she agreed to do; and that very evening I was carefully lifted through a window and placed on the deck of a boat which was to sail in the morning.”
Arriving in Washington, he convinced a doctor at a military hospital to send him to New York where he hoped to get his leg properly cared for. In New York, however, “one physician after another was called to set my poor long-suffering leg, but each left with the same response, ‘I am not a surgeon-doctor; call this one and that.’ At last, in sheer desperation, I asked my wife’s brother to find splints, plaster, and bandages, and we, together, set my leg.”
But the tale doesn’t end there. During his recuperation in Manhattan, John and Martha Perry found themselves in the middle of the famous Draft Riots of July 1863 (featured in the 2002 Martin Scorsese film, “Gangs of New York”).
“About noon that same day we became aware of a confused roar,” Martha writes in the book. “As it increased, I flew to the window, and saw rushing up Lexington Avenue, within a few paces of our house, a great mob of men, women, and children; the men, in red working shirts, looking fairly fiendish as they brandished clubs, threw stones, and fired pistols…
“The mass of humanity soon passed, setting fire to several houses quite near us, for no other reason, we heard afterward, than that a policeman, whom they suddenly saw and chased, ran inside one of the gates, hoping to find refuge. The poor man was almost beaten to death, and the house, with those adjoining, burned.”
As the days of rioting continued, she witnessed more fires and “men, both colored and white, were murdered within two blocks of us — some being hung to the nearest lamp-post and others shot,” Martha said. “An army officer was walking in the street near our house, when a rioter was seen to kneel on the sidewalk, take aim, fire, and kill him, then coolly start on his way unmolested.”
At one point, “a crowd of boys arrived with stout sticks, threw stones at our house, called for the ‘niggers,’ and then rushed on. This added to my alarm, I having heard that a rush of street arabs always preceded an attack by the mob. Parties of Irishmen passed and pointed to our house, and a boy ran by shouting, ‘We’ll have fun up here to-night.’ My heart felt overloaded as I looked at John in his helpless condition. What were we to do?”
Fortunately, patrols of citizens and police  protected their neighborhood that night and soon federal troops arrived to quell the riots. John was unaware of much of the goings on; Martha kept him away from windows and did not reveal the seriousness of their situation, feeling it would interfere with his recovery.
Ninety days after he signed himself out on medical leave, Dr. Perry returned to his unit in Washington where he had to meet with the surgeon-general to be approved to return to service. He hid his crutches so that the surgeon-general would not send him to the “invalid corps” and he “managed with great difficulty” to walk unaided across the superior officer’s office. His infirmity went undetected.
Eventually his leg fully healed and for the rest of his life, John Perry’s favorite form of exercise was walking.

(Note: Dr. John Perry was not related to the Perry family that produced three generations of respected Ridgefield physicians, Dr. David Perry, son Dr. Nehemiah Perry and grandson Dr. Nehemiah Perry Jr.) 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Charles Pope: 
King of the Choristers
Music has long been an essential part of Ridgefield life, and among the people who kept the town in song was Charles Pope. But the founder and leader of the Charles Pope Choristers had a stage and reputation that extended far beyond Ridgefield.
Over 34 years the choristers sang more than 1,600 concerts, most of them in and around New York City, including dozens of performances at Carnegie Hall.  But that was just one of the many activities of this man who often worked seven days a week providing people with music.
Charles Frank Pope was born on June 4, 1930, in Brooklyn, N.Y., At the age of 3,   he started his musical instruction at the piano under his father, Alfred August Pope Sr. He gave his first organ recital at 15 and a year later, was hired as a church organist.  
Though his father was a pianist, the young Charles Pope was discouraged from pursuing a career in music. “My family felt music wouldn’t be lucrative enough and thought I would starve,” he said in a 1966 interview. “I got a job in a bank for six months, but decided that it wasn’t for me so I went back to the organ.”
At the age of  17 he was attending Guilmant Organ School in Manhattan, and was studying choral and orchestral conducting, organ, piano, harmony, counterpoint, composition, and improvisation. In his younger days he was mentored by many leading musicians, including Robert Shaw, Elaine Brown, Fred Waring, Alice Parker, and Willard Irving Nevins.
At  Guilmant, Pope organized and began conducting the Charles Pope Choristers. Over the next 34 years this full chorus and show group presented more than 1,600 concerts and shows   — many years, he did two concerts annually at Carnegie Hall in New York City. In addition, he conducted more than 800 performances of other choruses in metropolitan New York.
Pope’s skill at leading the choristers often gained recognition in the press, including The New York Times. For instance, in 1961 after the choristers sang at the Town Hall in Manhattan, Alan Rich of The Times wrote that “the chorus has about 65 members, chosen without regard to musical training. This fact did not deter Mr. Pope from choosing an exceptionally varied, interesting and difficult program. The major work, in which the ensemble was joined by a group of brass players and a timpanist, was Purcell’s imposing Funeral Music for Queen Mary, of which few, if any, previous American performances are recorded. Energy and devotion characterized the performance, along with a remarkable degree of professional polish.”
According to his family, “he also won acclaim from the New York critics when he appeared at Carnegie Hall as a soloist with his interpretations of Bach.”
In the 1950s and 60s, Pope was also organist, choir director, minister of music, and youth director at many houses of worship in the city — ecumenical in his outlook, he performed at Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, Congregational and Catholic churches as well as Jewish synagogues.
At many churches, he organized, directed, and supervised up to five vocal, two handbell and brass choirs. He also influenced and oversaw the replacement of organs at seven churches.
 Pope’s Choristers appeared on both TV and radio. For the CBS television network, he conducted several hour-long, national Christmas specials and, for NBC, performed for the Kraft Music Hall and the Ernie Kovacs Show. For radio, the Charles Pope Choristers sang on  many WNYC radio broadcasts. 
He presented more than 250 fully staged Gilbert and Sullivan productions, including the Mikado, H.M.S. Pinafore, Iolanthe, and the Pirates of Penzance; staged tributes to Rodgers & Hammerstein; and did dozens of Broadway shows, including The Sound of Music, Amahl and the Night Visitors, Annie Get Your Gun, Guys and Dolls, Bye, Bye Birdie, Brigadoon, 1776, and The Wizard of Oz. 
Pope also served as the festival conductor for the Associated Male Choruses of America, at times leading a chorus of 2,000 men!
He was so busy he often worked seven-day weeks,  performing at the keyboard, leading  his choristers and other groups, and teaching music.
In 1965 when he moved from Brooklyn to a home on five acres in Ridgefield, he moved the choristers’ base of operations from the Brooklyn Academy of Music to Ridgefield. “My big dream for years was to have a home in Connecticut,” he said. “I looked for two years before I found this.” (To this day the sharp curve of Ridgebury Road where the Popes lived is called Pope’s Corner.)
A year later he married Eleanor Zettelmayer, whom he had met while serving as musical director for the Equitable Life Assurance Society where she was an expediter and he led the company choral group.
In 1972, he opened the Ridgefield Musical Kindergarten, aimed at teaching music to   four- and five-year-olds — who he said were “the ideal age to acquire with ease the language of music.”  By then he was also leading a bell choir and a boys choir, as well as the Charles Pope Choristers, from his house.
The Charles Pope Choristers continued to perform in Ridgefield and the region into the 1980s when the Popes decided to semi-retire and move north. He was living in Bethel when he died in 2006 at the age of 75 and had been providing organ music for churches in the area, especially Immanuel Lutheran in Danbury.
One of the churches he had served early in his career was the Dutch Reformed Church in Brooklyn, which had been established in 1654. There he started a “cherub choir,” and among its members was a young Lois Brennan. Both Brennan’s father and cousin were members of the Charles Pope Choristers, and “Uncle Charlie” became almost a part of her Brooklyn family.
“Charles and his dad were colorful characters in our family life,” Brennan recalled. “He would join us in the Berkshires for a week in August and scare the likes of us with ghost stories!”
Years later, when Brennan moved to Ridgefield, she was surprised to find Charles Pope and his choristers here. Their concerts could bring back many memories. 
“I was ushering the Charles Pope Choristers Christmas Concert at East Ridge Middle School when I heard them sing the old Scottish hymn, ‘God Be in My Head,’” she said of one occasion. “Well, tears filled my eyes at the remembrance of days long ago when my dad was one of them.” 
 For a while in the 1990s, the Popes’ son led a new group, the Jonathan Pope Choristers. Today he is teaching music at Newtown Middle School where many of his students describe him as “amazing.”

Jonathan had an amazing teacher himself.