The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
Free 'spirits' despite stormy darkness
Published 1:04 am, Thursday, April 1, 2010
The ferocious weather that left the area powerless a couple of weeks ago stirred vivid memories of another dark and stormy March night in Darien almost 60 years ago.
Dick Robertson, the multi-millionaire from Mansfield Avenue, had just purchased The Darien Review and its new building and invited everybody in town to join him at an open house party to celebrate his acquisitions.
It was perhaps a bit presumptuous of him to think everybody was as joyous. In fact, several friends of Charlie Mitchell, manager of the company then, were quite chagrined by the stunning news that Alfred N. Phillips had sold the town's newspaper. Al Brunner, Steve Gannon, Fran Whelan and Bill Pratt scolded Mitchell for not letting them know the paper was available. They could have raised the capital and would have loved to buy it themselves, they said.
But all that was quickly forgotten and they too joined in the fun when the bubbly began to flow and gourmet caterers carried in big platters of food for the town-wide, all-day open house.
The day began inauspiciously enough. An intermittent drizzle didn't keep any revelers away. Before it was all over, more than 500 people had come to tarry a while at the bar and buffet tables, pausing in their partying only long enough for a quick tour of the new plant and offices opposite the railroad station on West Avenue. Among the visitors was John Davis Lodge, who was then governor of Connecticut.
As daylight dwindled, gale-force winds whipped the steady rain into a torrential downpour. Suddenly, as the crowd peaked and night fell, the building was plunged into darkness. At first there was some anxious groping in the dark, but the revelers, Lodge stumbling among them, were determined not to let an inky little darkness interfere with the fun and the party rocked on. Bartenders, powerless, had no trouble finding glasses to fill and the string trio in the corner carried on bravely, not unlike the musicians aboard the Titanic. Battery-operated emergency exit lights were hardly needed; by this time, revelers cast a glow of their own.
More than just weather had made the festivities the talk of the town that weekend. The community was astonished by the news that Phillips had sold the paper just as it was about to move into the new building he had erected for it.
Mitchell didn't have a clue himself about the impending sale. Always impulsive, Phillips was about as predictable as March weather and when Robertson waved a check and made him an offer he couldn't resist. Phillips, grandson of the founder of Phillips Milk of Magnesia and its plant in Glenbrook, had been mayor of Stamford and served a term in Congress. Then, after several months of dealing with architects, builders and zoning officials in planning a new building, he had had enough and wanted to retire.
The Review had outgrown its old home in the white wooden building at the corner of West Avenue and the Post Road, where the newspaper was published and most of the town's commercial printing needs were met. Phillips had recognized the need to move and made preparations, but it was Robertson who expanded on the opportunity,
Then came huge extensions at the rear of the building to accommodate as complete an offset-printing plant as could be found in Connecticut. The West Avenue building became home to what in effect were two separate companies, the larger of which was the offset plant. At that juncture, The Review Corporation was printing full-color album covers for Columbia Records, calendars for Farrell Steamship Lines, promotional pieces for Reader's Digest and work for other national clients. There were two delivery trucks on the road, one making regular trips to cargo depots at the airports, and the firm opened a New York office.
Alas, it all came to an inglorious end as suddenly as it had at first boomed. Unionized technicians in the color printing department went on strike, but the letter-press printers crossed the picket lines daily to keep producing the newspaper. Suddenly, one Thursday morning, the day of publication, the printers decided to join the strikers.
The newspaper that day was printed by front office personnel, including an inky editor who hardly knew one end of a press from another. Somehow, an eight-page paper was printed and distributed that day, though it took the staff, not a Gutenberg among them, until midnight to do it.
But the work stoppage continued, perhaps the only labor strife ever in town, and Robertson contracted to have the paper printed in Mount Kisco, N.Y. Steadily, it began to lose its local flavor as well as its personnel. Mitchell had already left for New Canaan and was soon followed by several of the Darien printers, as well as the editor and his right-hand man, Bill Guillotte. Meanwhile Robertson's stubborn biases on community issues under a succession of editors drove readers away and the company was sold to another Darien resident, Marshall Austin, in the early sixties. Then the building and equipment were sold off and the paper was purchased by Andy Easer, also a local resident, who moved printing operations to a plant he set up in Norwalk. After a disastrous fire there, the paper was acquired by the Brooks chain and wash incorporated into the new weekly Brooks had launched in Darien.
The memory remains vivid here, more so apparently than our recent recollections of the Darien Lumber Company in the heart of town approximately opposite Grieb's Pharmacy on the Post Road.
It was Martin Gruss, not Marvin Gruss as stated here, who ran the business when it flourished in the fifties. A reader, Sidra Gruss, has set the record straight for us. The lumberyard was founded by her grandfather, Abraham Gruss, and it was her father, Martin, who worked there "almost his entire life and was part of the lifeblood of the downtown Darien community." Martin and Marvin were related and Marvin told me at one of the frequent lunches we had together when he was practicing law in New Canaan that he had worked at the lumberyard on occasion before becoming an attorney when he was more than 40 years old.
Another reader, Rod Barker, adds a post-script to recent recollections of the Darien team that qualified for the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., in 1958. Six years later, Barker and three of his Little League teammates formed the core of Darien High School's undefeated football team. Coach Johnny Maher had Barker and Roger Frate as his halfbacks, Joe Miceli as a guard and linebacker and Jere Lynch at quarterback.
Barker, founder and CEO of The Trail of Painted Ponies, a national retailer of collectible art of the Southwest, based in New Mexico, remembers Maher as a great motivator. In one game, when Maher thought the team wasn't playing as well as it could, he told his players at half-time that they had not earned the right to wear Darien's colors that day and made them replace their blue and white game jerseys and with their grubby practice jerseys. It worked. To redeem its pride, the team went on to win handily in the second half.
Ed Chrostowski was editor of The Darien Review in the '50s. He can be reached at email@example.com.