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The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski

Published 1:11 am, Friday, July 9, 2010
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When Darien teenagers first jumped and gyrated into the raucous world of rock and roll a generation ago, a band of their schoolmates was there to lead them.

They were the Belvederes, a bunch of talented young guys who loved the "new" music and knew what to do with it. Launched during what has been termed the "golden age of rock and roll" (1954-63), they played and sang the tunes first made popular by the Beach Boys, Beatles, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holley and some of the other early sensations of the musical craze that was taking young America by storm.

But while the music was wildly popular with Darien teens and the Belvederes enjoyed some renown because of the way they performed it, many adults here and elsewhere were less enthusiastic. Some called it "evil" and many, wary of long-haired musicians and weird sartorial styles, the "strange" dancing and the insistent, pulsating beat, regarded it as a "teenage rebellion."

When Wee Burn was urged to book the Belvederes for one of its dances, the buttoned-down country clubbers were reluctant. They doubted that "ol' time rock `n' roll soothes the soul" and they were apparently fearful of the effect the band and its music would have on their kids. Lester Lanin and the society orchestras of the era fit country club decorum much more comfortably, said the committee members, publisher Dick Robertson, Judge William Kelly and bankers Don Blodget and Col. Howard Stout Neilsen.

Hesitation began to fade, however, when the Belvederes showed up for a long-awaited audition not as "wild mopheads" but as young gentlemen attired in jackets and ties and with their hair neatly trimmed and combed. And the early skepticism disappeared entirely when they played the Kingston Trio's "Scotch and Soda" to the merry accompaniment of feet tapping in the adult audience and ice cubes tinkling in highball glasses.

The Belvederes had been put together by Willy Demms of Noroton Avenue, rhythm guitarist and vocalist, who recruited Johnny Lombardo, a Darien High classmate, as lead guitarist and singer. Then Neal Lombardo, Johnny's brother, came aboard to play bass, followed in rapid order by Bobby Lupinacci, Sandy Fletcher, Billy Pegler and Tom Haskell on the drums.

Some of those names added to the Belvederes' luster. Haskell was the son of Jack Haskell, who lived in Tokeneke and was the singer on the "Lucky Strike Hit Parade," a weekly musical show on network television. Pegler was the nephew of famed columnist Westbrook Pegler and the Lombardo brothers were the sons of Nick Lombardo, who owned a popular night spot in New Canaan and appeared often in the community theatre productions there.

As the rock and roll mania mounted and the reputation of the Belvederes grew, their respectability boosted perhaps by their acceptance at prestigious Wee Burn, the group was booked for gigs at teen canteen dances and parties throughout the area. And when some of the music world's famous groups came to area towns to perform, the Belvederes often were booked to back them up. In addition to filling that role with such bands as the Belmonts, the Crystals and Ruby and the Romantics, the Belvederes won some area talent contests and even put their show on the road, going so far as State College in Pennsylvania.

The Belvederes also had the distinction of being the first band to perform in what became weekly concerts at Weed Beach, a summer highlight that continues even now, decades later. Weed Beach, a 20-acre privately owned tract that lived up to its name until it was acquired by the Town of Darien in the late '50s, is now being "revitalized," but the major attractions still include the concert series initiated by the Belvederes at a "block party" on the old tennis courts there.

Darien's popular young musicians also had a peripheral role in an incident that stunned the town and indeed had national ramifications.

On a night in 1964, the Belvederes played for the dancing teens at a debutante party in a private home on Nickerson Lane. After leaving the celebration, a teenage Darien girl was fatally injured when the car in which she was riding slammed into a tree off Mansfield Avenue at 3 a.m. and the boy who was driving was arrested and convicted of negligent homicide.

Police said they had been drinking and the incident set off a widespread clamor for tougher laws holding adult hosts liable if they make alcoholic beverages available to minors even in their own homes.

The host parents were charged with serving alcohol to minors and the case was splashed across the front pages of New York tabloids for months. Headlines screamed about "high society booze for kids in suburbia" and network television news carried film clips showing parents being led into the police station.

The Belvederes' gigs multiplied, though, and their beat went on for another year before the popular young musicians began to go their separate ways, some to colleges and others to jobs and military service. But the part they played in Darien history lingers. Their music had bridged gaps between generations.

Ed Chrostowski was editor of the Darien Review in the '50s. He can be reached at skicrow@att.net.