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Woog's World / One-time Westport haunts no bus tour can hit

Published 8:15 am, Saturday, April 20, 2013
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Shameless plug: On Saturday, May 4, I'm leading a bus tour of our town. Sponsored by the Westport Historical Society -- and called "Woog's World of Westport Bus Tour" -- it will hit as many highlights as two hours allows.

Have you ever wondered why those cannons sit on Compo Beach? Where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived during their infamous summer in Westport? Who Horace Staples really was?

I'll answer those questions -- and many more 40 lucky bus riders never knew to ask -- two weeks from now.

But there's plenty I won't talk about. Or, more accurately, plenty I won't show. Not that I don't want to. It's just that some places don't exist anymore.

The Penguin, for example, is now just a memory. But to me, it's one of the most fascinating no-longer-in-Westport spots. A nautical-themed Art Deco building on Hillspoint Avenue, just south of I-95 and the train tracks -- now the site of townhouse-style condominiums -- it was a noted jazz club/speakeasy during Prohibition. Legend holds it was the first air-conditioned nightclub between New York and Boston; it's a fact that it attracted some of the biggest names anywhere.

Over the years, the Penguin lost its mojo. The music died; it became a residential hotel. When I was growing up, it had the reputation -- at least among the junior high set -- as a whorehouse. One day, a few curious teenage friends and I decided to find out for ourselves. We walked in the front door, saw a frumpy woman wearing a ratty housecoat, and fled. For the next decade or so, I always thought prostitutes wore housecoats.

My bus tour will also not stop across the street from the old Penguin. There, at the corner of Hillspoint and Hales Road, where homes now stand -- Westporters once played miniature golf. I have no idea why a course sprouted there. It certainly would not have been to provide entertainment to supposed prostitutes and their alleged johns.

I won't be able to point out other recreational sites either, because they too no longer exist. Westport was once awash in miniature golf courses. There were two on the Post Road, both with adjacent driving ranges. One was where the Regents Park condos now stand, across from Bertucci's.

A larger complex is now home to another condo: Lansdowne. Besides mini-golf and a driving range, the property included -- at various times -- an ice skating rink, trampoline center (run by beloved Bedford Junior High School coach Ed Hall), and a "discotheque."

The disco took over the cavernous skating rink, the loss of which a few Westporters have lamented ever since. The "Nines Club" was bankrolled by orchestra leader Lester Lanin, of all people (I think the name came from the expression "dressed to the nines"). In its brief heyday it featured bands like the Youngbloods, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, quintessential one hit wonders and the Mysterians (of "96 Tears" fame).

What I remember most about the Nines Club is that Lester Lanin's "people" convinced a gaggle of us Long Lots Junior High students to work for a few weeks, converting the skating rink into a dance club. We did not get paid but were promised free admission. Then, the night of the opening -- surprise! Because we were 13 years old, we could not get in.

But that's not the reason I won't be showing the Nines Club on next month's bus tour. For the past four decades, there's been nothing to show.

Nor can I point out Westport's two bowling lanes. One was in the shopping center anchored by Pier One. It was full-service, with all the requisite noise, rented shoes and a bar ("Club 300" -- get it?).

The other featured duckpins. Located on the second floor of the Post Road building opposite the old post office -- if you moved here in the past year, you won't get that reference -- it was a bit before my time. It was so old-fashioned, it employed human pin-setters. But its time was also more recent than you might think, because I know a few guys who set pins there. In their mid-60s now, they say it was one of the best -- and toughest -- jobs they've ever had.

Those are just a few of the famous, semi-famous and infamous Westport places I won't be showing from the Westport Historical Society bus next month. Fortunately, enough spots are left that tour-goers will get a great sense of what this town was like back in the day.

Just think about Longshore. Then again, if town fathers had not had exceptional good sense back in 1959, a 180-home development on the site of "a former country club" would be one more place our tour would zoom right past, without a second thought.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.