The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
No unemployed problem for enterprising teenagers
Published 1:03 am, Thursday, June 10, 2010
When the world finally was settling down to some semblance of normalcy after being torn apart by years of war, there was a lot to do at home and Darien always had a good supply of teenagers ready to help get it done.
The 1950s were "the golden decade," the years during which Darien experienced the greatest growth spurt in its history. Television was emerging from test-pattern broadcasts to lead mass marketing of the consumer goods that were trickling back into production after wartime suspension. Automobiles were rolling again, interstate highways were under construction, houses went up as fast as people could move into them, urban sprawl was in full sway and commuting to work became a way of life.
With the post-war economy purring, if not yet robust, there was an important role for teenagers in the contented suburbs and local kids were ready for it. As the school year ended, weekend and after-school jobs became full-time positions in restaurants, stores, homes and any place help was needed.
High school and college boys caddied for golfers at Wee Burn and Woodway. Girls worked as baby-sitters for young families and as waitresses in local luncheonettes.
Grocery shopping was different in the era before supermarket chains. Housewives ordered by telephone at Gristede's on the Post Road or at Royal Scarlet and the Darien Provision Company on Tokeneke Road and their groceries were delivered. Some people went to the store several times a week, even daily, not weekly the way they do now. Perhaps frozen foods had not yet been perfected and freezers at home seldom were big enough for storing much of a supply. So, boys were needed to stock shelves, pack orders and make deliveries.
Joe Palmer's Market in Noroton Heights was growing fast into supermarket status, but Bill Albrecht and Dominick Conti still ran neighborhood food stores in their own homes on West Avenue. Dom specialized in meat cut to order while the customer watched.
Darien had a First National Store then, located where the CVS is now, and several kids worked there stocking shelves and assisting costumers. It wasn't quite the modern self-serve supermarket of today. Nor was the A&P, run by Herb Williamson in a small wooden building near the corner of the Post Road and Mansfield Avenue. The first real supermarket in town probably was the Grand Union which opened at the new Goodwives Shopping Center late in the decade. There were plenty of jobs for teens there.
Taking on more strenuous jobs, some boys worked under Vinny Falcioni's supervision at Ed Wagner's company on the Post Road installing and maintaining a growing number of swimming pools. They worked also as "gophers" for contractors or mowed lawns for home-owners and landscapers or helped Marty Gruss at the Darien Lumber Company across from Grieb's Pharmacy on the Post Road.
Enterprising lads not averse to getting up early took their positions under the railroad bridge to peddle morning newspapers to rushing commuters, usually for State Rep. Gennaro Frate's Darien News Store. Some, Freddy Genestra comes to mind, also delivered newspapers to the homes of Frate's costumers. Among those also was Sal Monti, Frate's godson.
Teenagers, girls as well as boys, also worked on newspapers at the store Bill and Si Stoler ran in Noroton Heights, collating the sections, waiting on costumers and delivering. What began as an after-school job morphed into full-time work there for Joe Vitti Jr., and it seemed like a natural development. His dad was sports editor of the Darien Review and now continues a stellar career as a news photographer in Indianapolis.
Si Stoler (his full name is Simon), well remembered by kids who worked for him, is 89 years old now and living with his daughter, Beth Everett, in Stephentown, N.Y.
There were summer jobs also at Pear Tree Point, the town's only beach before Weed Beach was acquired and developed later in the decade. Dan Troy, a Stamford school teacher, supervised the crew there. Students also were counselors and aides at playground day camps, working for Tom Benson, director of recreation, full-time in summer and part-time the rest of the year. Tom lived on Academy Street and was a teacher in Greenwich.
In Tokeneke, the property-owners' association maintained its own police "force," Charlie Murphy, a full-time year-around officer working out of the Darien Police Department as a "special." In the summer, when shorefront activity increased, bow-legged "Murph" took on an extra hand. Len Frate, an assistant principal at a Stamford middle school, took regular patrols for a couple of years and later worked as summer gatekeeper at Pear Tree.
After high school, Sal Monti was Murphy's "deputy" for a couple of summers. Some say he and the editor of the town newspaper, who was awarded a "special cop's badge," were recruited so they would be eligible to play on the police department's softball team.
Nobody was ever hungry in Darien during those years, thanks largely to the town's teenagers. They served diners, bused tables and washed dishes at the Farmer's Market and Rotisserie, then located on the Post Road approximately opposite Hecker Avenue, and the nearby Whistle, Darien's first fast food places. Old McDonald's Farm, a hamburger heaven on the grounds of a petting zoo that included a real baby elephant for a while, also was a fun place for teens to work. Later, luncheonettes at Goodwives often were staffed by high school and college girls who got to know customers' habits so well they knew their breakfast and lunch orders in advance.
There was a good young wait staff also at the old Howard Johnson's, complete with an orange roof, near the Norwalk line on the Post Road. It later became the Red Coach Grill and finally Victoria Station, dining in simulated railroad cars, was the last stop. When Howard Johnson's re-opened a few years later, this time at the corner of Ledge Road, there were teen servers behind the counter again.
Teens also found jobs as ushers or at the refreshment stand in the Darien Theatre and many remember fondly that the Sweet Shoppe next door was accessible directly from the theatre lobby. Of course, there were other teens working there, ready to dish out the hot fudge sundaes.
Ranking among the more unusual workplaces, the Noroton Publishing Company was staffed largely by housewives and girls fresh out of high school and attending night classes at business and secretarial schools in Stamford and Norwalk. It was owned by Eric Lundberg, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday at his home in New Canaan, and it was rather flippantly referred to locally as "the prayer factory."
Through advertisements in Christian journals, chiefly in the Bible Belt, the company offered to send, for a donation of course, an appropriate prayer to anyone describing their personal distress and asking for help. The staff sorting through the mail worked under the supervision of Mrs. Marion Brencher in a wooden building near Joe Kirschbaum's flower shop (now Flaherty Plumbing). Johnny Keane was the mail room supervisor and Ruth Scofield was the bookkeeper.
No, during the '50s, the era of Elvis Presley and Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock," there was no reason for teens to complain "there's nothing to do."
Ed Chrostowski was editor of the Darien Review in the '50s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.