'50s in focus: Westport in film, TV and Cold War
In the 1950s, Westport became a mecca for writers and actors previously based in New York. When they took their talents to Hollywood, the suburban enclave remained an inspiration for many, and the town found its way into many films and TV series. Now Westport gets another star turn on the celluloid stage as writers and artists who used the town as a setting for their work are being celebrated in a new exhibit at Westport Historical Society.
"Next Stop: Westport" opened with a cocktail reception late Sunday, attracting a full house to inspect the photographs, original scripts, props and costumes on display from leading TV and film productions with a common link to Westport.
A related exhibit, "The Cold War in Our Backyard," features an archival film compilation by Lisa Seidenberg of 1950s programming, news items regarding a Nike missile site once located in Westport and the early space mission era from a town perspective.
"We've done a lot of exhibits on artists, but fewer on writers," said historical society Exhibits Committee member Dorothy Curran. "There was a particular influx of writers to the area in the 1950s due to a variety of factors," she said.
Dick Berg, who owned the Paint Bucket, a local art supply store, was a freelance TV writer who proved "instrumental in introducing writers and artists, forging relationships that led to a lot of creative synergy," she added. In the late 1950s, TV moved from live to filmed content and writers work moved from New York to California. "However, Westport remained in these writers' minds and became integrated into TV and film productions," she said.
Writer Sloan Wilson, for example, set and filmed "Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" in Westport. Writer Max Shulman's "Rally Round the Flag Boys" was based in part on an actual Civics Committee meeting at Westport Women's Club in January 1955, at which members met to discuss plans to open a Nike missile site in town. Westport residents Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward starred in a film adaptation of Shulman's book.
Rod Serling moved to Westport around 1952 and won the first three of his six Emmy awards while a town resident. Westport became a motif in a "Twilight Zone" episode he produced titled, "A Stop at Willoughby."
Perhaps the best-known Westport connection was made by Bob Weiskopf, a writer on the "I Love Lucy" television series, who suggested the Ricardos move their television home from New York City to Westport in the sitcom classic's final season.
Forty-six still photos, a "Lucy" dress and other memorabilia from the last 14 episodes of "I Love Lucy" are a main feature of the historical society's exhibit.
"Lucy and Desi never actually lived in Westport," said Bob O'Leary, who curated the exhibit with Larry Untermeyer, "but we get the impression from Hollywood that they did. The sets were patterned after a home at 1 Old Hill Road."
Other features of the exhibit include Westport-themed scripts by notable writers, including Serling, Wilson and Shulman. The suit worn by Gregory Peck in "Man with the Gray Flannel Suit" is another highlight.
The title, "Next Stop: Westport," was adopted in recognition that rail commuting was a common theme in the Westport-related storylines.
"Next Stop: Westport" is on display through April 28. Westport Historical Society is located at 25 Avery Place. For more information, call 203-222-1424 or check www.westporthistory.org.