The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
Town was really discreet about affairs of the arts
Darien in the 1950s was no Athenian mecca for the arts, but it wasn't exactly a cultural wasteland either.
Nor, however, was the rest of the nation. It was the age of McCarthyism, raising the specter of a Red under every bed and the creative types ran for cover as the Wisconsin senator hunted for communists. And there was the Korean War, too, to occupy American minds with matters more ominous than the arts.
Music? We had to be satisfied with tunes like "Enjoy Yourself, It's Later Than You Think." A somber cautionary note, perhaps.
There was some good stuff, too, in 1950. Damon Runyon's "Guys and Dolls" gamboled on Broadway, John Wayne was showing some of his true grit on the silver screen, Gian-Carlo Menotti won a Pulitzer for "The Consul" as did Carl Sandburg for an anthology of his poetry.
Thor Heyerdahl's "Kon Tiki" swamped the book stores and there was a Shakespeare binge on the New York stage with Katharine Hepburn in "As You Like It" and Orson Welles in "Macbeth," playing almost simultaneously.
Nor was Darien totally bereft. If the arts are to be regarded an expansion of the mind and the spirit, the nucleus of a higher civilization, then Darien was flourishing more than a half century ago.
Although public experiences in literature, music, fine art and theater were then confined largely to the town's schools, the first very early steps that led eventually to creation of the Darien Arts Council were being taken.
Esther Tyler called a group of friends to her home one evening to discuss what she envisioned as a showcase for the arts in Darien -- an organization that would give actors, painters, sculptors and the like an opportunity to put their creativity on display for their neighbors to enjoy.
Thus began Showcase, Inc, which focused primarily on theatrical productions. Walter Tyler, Fred Scharmer, Stefan Schnabel, Elsa Petterson, Tinsley Ray, Bill Rylander, Jack Dahlby and Miggs Jones were in the vanguard.
Miss Petterson was the drama coach and English teacher at Darien High School and appeared on stage herself in Showcase productions. Her role as one of the old biddies in the Showcase production of "Arsenic and Old Lace" was particularly memorable.
Dahlby was a teacher but left the profession to become a disc jockey on area radio stations and an actor in community theater productions throughout the area. Scharmer and Schnabel were professional actors and Rylander, who worked for the phone company, was a jack of all trades on either side of the footlights.
The involvement of Lloyd and Betty Day in Showcase was instrumental in development of the Troupers, who still flourish in annual productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
Lloyd Day, a Madison Avenue adman, was unable to transmit his estimable creativity to the stage, try as he might, and he never got to be the "grand Poo-Bah," but he finally landed a spear-carrier walk-on role in one show and was delighted. In the meantime, he and Betty ran the publicity that led repeatedly to SRO audiences for the Troupers and Showcase.
Later in the decade, Ray Yates took a prominent role as The Darien Review's theater critic. Theater people in Fairfield County used to say the curtain couldn't be raised until Yates was in the front row, pencil and notebook at the ready. He loved theater and never missed a show within 50 miles of home. He also belonged to a group of amateur playwrights and directors who met once a week in New York City.
Darien lacked an art guild or gallery in those days, but certainly was not without artists. John P. Wheat became famous for his watercolors and oil paintings, mostly portraits, and Else Bostelmann, a little gray lady with a heavy German accent, was a superb botanical illustrator.
George Shellhase, Walter Kelly and Mischa Richter were the "fun guys" in Darien's art world. Shellhase was a commercial artist whose drawing and sketches illustrated books and magazines and made magazine advertising come alive. Much of its focused on sports and all of it had a touch of humor. Kelly was the creator of Pogo, the swamp character famed for observing, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Richter did cartoons and covers for the "New Yorker" and other magazines. He worked in a cubbyhole office/studio in the big white wooden building at the corner of West Avenue and the Post Road, then also the home of the town newspaper.
When it came to music, Luther Thompson called the tune. As band and orchestra director, as well as music teacher, at Darien High School, Thompson handled the baton at whatever public concerts there were in Darien. Later in the decade, he also organized and led an adult community orchestra.
There was some highbrow stuff in town in those days, too, but it was not generally available to the masses. Frank LaForge, one of the era's outstanding piano recitalists, lived in town and often presented musicales at his home. Many stars of the music world would attend and often perform in programs he arranged to benefit the Darien Methodist Church when it was still on the Post Road in what is now the Calvary Baptist Church.
LaForge was primarily an accompanist and a voice coach who developed numerous singers, male and female, and then played for them on international concert tours. His last pupil with whom he also concertized was celebrated operatic star Lily Pons. She later sang at his funeral in town.
Prominent on the cultural scene, too, was Polly Compton's Ballet School. She and her husband, famous character actor Francis Compton, were local residents and her pupils presented local shows.
But Darien had become accustomed to famous show business names perhaps dating back to the early 20th century when John McCormack, the famous Irish baritone, made his home on the Noroton shore.
Darien also was home to one of the great Life magazine stars of all time, photographer Margaret Bourke-White. Photos of her dangling by her heels from a helicopter, her camera clicking as the pilot hovered low over Korean battlefields were published all over the world.
She was married then to Erskine Caldwell and they lived on Point O' Woods Road. He was the author of "God's Little Acre," a salacious tale that shocked the world's sensitivities, and "Tobacco Road," the famous story of poverty in the deep South.
Also in our galaxy of stars was actor/comedian Eddie Bracken, star of a hit movie, "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek." He lived up to his comedic billing when he conned a young newspaper reporter with a story of how he headed a group of investors planning an inter-galactic resort in anticipation of the age of outer space tourism.
Jack Haskell, male vocalist on television's "Lucky Strike Hit Parade," was a Tokeneke resident then and a frequent visitor at the newspaper office.
Also visiting regularly was Gwen Verdon, the long-legged, red-headed star of "The Pajama Game" on Broadway. Her son was then a student at Cherry Lawn School on Brookside Road and she was in town often. Coincidentally, "Pajama Game" was based on a book, "Four and a Half Cents," by Richard Bissell, who was living in Rowayton at the time and commuting out of the Darien station.
It was during this era also that people like John Oldrin, Harold McGraw and Elinor Hughes were doing the spadework for what is today Darien's outstanding public library.
Almost simultaneously, Bertha Mather McPherson, Bob Fatherley and Dick King were developing the still embryonic Darien Historical Society.
There were many others, of course, some famous and some not, who were outstanding in the world of arts and letters and who shared its benefits with their Darien neighbors.
Ed Chrostowski can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.