"End of An Era": Westport film documents '50s
Published 1:06 am, Friday, April 2, 2010
In the 1950s, Westport was prospering. The baby boomers were booming, and so was the population. With World War II over and the Korean War ending in 1953, people were taking their mind off of international affairs and focusing on their homes, their children and their communities.
It appeared to be an idyllic era complete with a small-town atmosphere. So small, in fact, that before fears of pollution permeated public consciousness, kids swam in the Saugatuck River regularly. When was the last time that happened?
However, it wasn't the totally the tranquil life depicted in the sitcoms and movies at the time. A decade before the civil rights movement reached full steam, discrimination existed even in Westport. Jewish people had difficulty purchasing homes due to a so-called "gentleman's agreement."
"It started disappearing in World War II, but there were some streets in Westport that just weren't shown [by Realtors] to Jewish people," said Chuck Tannen.
The decade, warts and all, is the subject in a documentary produced and directed by Tannen titled The End of an Era -- Westport in the 1950s, which is premiering Tuesday at 2 p.m. in the Westport Public Library, with another showing on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Tannen, who took film courses at New York University, had the idea to make the 40-minute documentary when he realized time was running out to chronicle certain moments of history. If he didn't act soon, some of the stories about the way Westport used to be could be gone forever.
The notion to do a documentary was born when he was working on video footage interview featuring town historian Allen Raymond and two prominent lawyers in town, Ed See and Leo Nevas. Soon after the interview took place, both See and Nevas passed away.
"I'm talking to friends and they're saying, `Gee, it's a shame,'" Tannen said. "So many people have great stories about Westport and if the stories aren't captured, they're just going to disappear."
As a member of the oral history committee of the Westport Historical Society, Tannen, is part of a group that records and archives hundreds of hours of interviews. Some audio files date back to the '40s. More recently, video cameras have become the preferred method of documenting interviews. Most of these videos are raw and unedited, so Tannen's documentary aims to educate the casual public rather than the historians and researchers.
Ken Smith, chairman of the historical society's oral history committee, realizes that sitting back and not acting can cause history to disappear, which is why the group has the goal of interviewing people for later generations. He organized the meeting between See, Nevas and Raymond.
"We all say, `Well, someday I'll do this. Someday I'll do that,'" Smith said. "When you see the ... realization that two of the people who participated in that discussion are no longer with us and never will be, [Tannen] was spurred on to do something."
Tannen looks at the '50s in Westport from an unbiased perspective, since he was living in New York City at the time. He moved to Westport 20 years ago, so he had a little help with the film. Together with Tom Ghianuly, owner of the Compo Barber Shop, the two men came up with a list of potential people to interview. Then they whittled down that list to six people, not counting Ghianuly.
Some of the interviewees include Howard Munce, the famed artist; First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and police veteran George Marks. Once the list was narrowed down, the subjects were invited to be filmed at the barber shop last fall.
In addition to the interviews, Tannen gathered all the photos he could, both from people in town and businesses that had them hanging as décor. He found plenty of material, but it wasn't always easy.
"What's really amazing is how much history is already lost. People talk of things and there are no photos," he said. "People refer to things and nobody remembers them. I was surprised how history gets overtaken by events and people just forget."
Only a handful of people have seen the finished documentary, but Tannen said he intended the audience for anyone with an interest in Westport, whether they're new in town or have been here for decades. Since the '50s, business have come and gone, Interstate 95 has since been constructed and the demographics of the town have shifted.
"I think the biggest changes are in the people," said Tannen. "It's no longer a small-town atmosphere. It's more cosmopolitan. It's less insular."