Next Stop: Westport (Thru April 30)

The Betty R. & Ralph Sheffer Gallery
Next Stop: Westport! The Inspiration for 1950’s TV & Film Writers
Little Gallery
The Cold War in Our Backyard
featuring an Archival Film compilation by Lisa Seidenberg

“Write what you know” is the first advice given to any young writer. For about a decade, ending in 1958-59, Westport, Connecticut, already a haven for artists, also became a mecca for TV writers and novelists. Most were young World War II veterans, recent GI Bill college grads, newly married and starting families. Career opportunity drew them to New York City, and arts-friendly, family-friendly Westport and its commuter lifestyle drew them here. For some, “writing what they knew”—in I Love Lucy, The Man in The Gray Flannel Suit, The Twilight Zone and Rally ’Round the Flag Boys–made small-town Westport and its commuter lifestyle a national TV and film sensation, culminating with Look Magazine and the National Municipal League naming Westport, among towns its size, “All-American City” in 1958.

Meanwhile, national fear of Communist infiltration, invasion or nuclear war also was a fact of life. This was the era of the Sen. Joe McCarthy hearings, blacklisted writers, Chairman Khruschev’s “We will bury you” speech and the defensive proliferation of fallout shelters and Nike Missile sites, including silos on North Avenue, in Westport, where Bedford Middle School now stands, and companion launch facility, on Bayberry Lane, where Rolnick Observatory is now.

From January 29th through April 30th, the Westport Historical Society presents two complementary and thought-provoking exhibits, Next Stop: Westport, The Inspiration for 1950’s TV & Film Writers and, as counterpoint, The Cold War in our Backyard, An Archival Film Compilation by Lisa Seidenberg.

Looking back in a recent interview, artist and long-time Westport resident, Tracy Sugarman, described the era as “Discovery time for us all…Everyone was moving into town together, socializing and going to each other’s birthday and anniversary parties.” According to Sugarman, it was Dick Berg–owner of The Paint Bucket store and Poor Richard’s Art Gallery at Sconset Square, and also a freelance TV scriptwriter—who introduced the Artists and Writers to each other.

Soon, recalls Linda Gramatky Smith, daughter of artist Hardie Gramatky, there were Artists vs. Writers Basketball Games (to benefit the March of Dimes), with manners moderated by etiquette doyenne, Amy Vanderbilt. Artist Miggs Burroughs remembers that, in season, his father, artist Bernie Burroughs, would bring him along to the weekly Artists vs. Writers Softball Game.

Novelist Max Shulman, author of Rally ’Round the Flag Boys, already was well-established, according to Sugarman, who was reading Shulman’s work in Europe during the War, and notes that Shulman, later a major factor in Westport’s Famous Writers School, was far more comfortable at parties than rising star, Rod Serling. Sugarman was fond of Serling, an avid model airplane maker, and used to tease him about his car, a fancy white convertible.

            Then, TV production technology changed from live broadcasts to film, and the TV writers, following opportunity, moved from metro New York to Los Angeles. “Between 1958 and 1959, my wife and I lost about ten good friends among the writers. They all moved to California,” says Sugarman.

But the inspiration and friendships evidently endured. In the final year of “I Love Lucy” episodes, all written in California, former Westporter Bob Weiskopf and his co-writer Bob Schiller, whose ex-wife was from Connecticut, featured Lucy & Ricky Ricardo—and Fred & Ethel Mertz, of course!—moving to Westport. Rod Serling’s famous “Willoughby” episode in The Twilight Zone features a man who commutes to work by train. In 1961, Serling—who had moved with his family from their High Point Road home in Westport three years prior—was featured in the launch promotion for Westport’s Famous Writers School.

Sloan Wilson’s novel, The Man in The Gray Flannel Suit, set and later filmed in Westport, starring Gregory Peck, likewise portrays a rail commuter.  Wilson’s parents were writers; his mother, a New Yorker writer; his father, an NYU Journalism professor.

Rally ’Round the Flag Boys is set in fictional “Putnam’s Landing”, filmed largely in Los Angeles and stars (rail commuter) Paul Newman and (civic-minded volunteer) Joanne Woodward, but one need not look far from Max Shulman’s River Lane home to find the inspiration for his satire. In January, 1955, the Civics Committee of the Westport Woman’s Club organized a well-attended public forum to review the proposed siting, in Westport, for the defense of Bridgeport, of a Nike Missile. Eric Sevareid and a CBS News crew came to Westport to film the forum, later broadcast nationally on Sunday afternoon’s “American Week”. The Woman’s Club also was well-known for its history pageants, including, in 1920, the Plymouth Rock tercentenary, a rather elaborate re-enactment of the Pilgrims’ landing. The work of long-time RTM Moderator Ralph Sheffer—also a commuting executive–as RTM Nike Site Committee Chair inspired the Harry Bannerman character played by Newman.

Satire notwithstanding, Westport’s proximity to the Atlantic Coast and New York City made nuclear war a real everyday fear, for adults and children alike. Along with Lisa Seidenberg’s cold war archival film documentary, in continuous loop, The WHS Little Gallery’s The Cold War in our Backyard will present images and artifacts that recreate the rational and irrational responses to the fear of that era.

Research and production of these Exhibits was accomplished by the WHS’s all-volunteer Exhibits Committee: Larry Untermeyer, Brian O’Leary, Lisa Seidenberg, Anne Levine, Sue Kirby, Janine Brown, Ellen Naftalin and Dorothy Curran.

Next Stop: Westport, The Inspiration for 1950’s TV & Film Writers and The Cold War in Our Backyard, An Archival Film Compilation by Lisa Seidenberg are made possible by Exhibit Sponsor, Thomas & Jeanne Elmezzi Foundation, with additional major support from Annual Sponsors: BNY Mellon Wealth Management, Betty R. & Ralph Sheffer Foundation, The Leapley Financial Group/Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Berchem Moses Devlin PC, TD Bank, Weichert Capital Properties & Estates.