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Monday, November 22, 2010

Hampstead Stage Co. Raises Spirits with Dickens Classic

Hampstead Stage Co. Raises Spirits with Dickens Classic:
Kids delighted by “A Christmas Carol” at Fairfield Library
(Appeared on Fairfield Citizen news’ website 11/22)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Shrieks of delight and sassy comments spilled from the peanut gallery squatting on the floor at a lively, interactive performance of Charles Dickens’ classic tale, “A Christmas Carol.”

The hour-long, informal show was held in an upstairs meeting room at Fairfield Public Library, 1080 Old Post Road, mid-afternoon Saturday Nov. 20. It was presented by Alex Jacobs and Sarah Bedard of the New Hampshire-based Hampstead Stage Co. The duo played all of the leading characters in full costume in front of a simple set constructed to look like Ebenezer Scrooge’s lending office. The tale was modified to appeal to an audience of 6 to 8 year olds and their parents.

Barbara Hawkins, the Library’s Head of Children’s Services, provided an introduction, noting that this is the fourth year that the group has played the space. She let children know that a question-and-answer session would follow, then the performers launched right into their act.

Jacobs, dressed as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, opened the show and immediately began interacting with young audience members, whom he encouraged to move from chairs to the floor “centerstage”. He instructed them to yell, “Merry Christmas Scrooge!” the moment the bah-humbugging curmudgeon showed his face. Jacobs then dashed behind the set, quick-changed into Scrooge and reappeared. Upon receiving the greeting, he grumbled, “Horrible creatures!”, which elicited much feedback from the rug squatters.

In this interactive way, the performance carried on and, soon, three children were recruited by Scrooge’s employee Bob Cratchit (Bedard) as shop apprentices. They were given bowler hats to wear and even lunch consisting of a rubber chicken and rubber trout. They were also dubbed “Who”, “He” and “Where”, which ignited an Abbott & Costello type routine between Cratchit and Scrooge. A sample: “Here is Who, She is He and There is Where.”

“I better put my money away before someone tries to steal it,” said Jacobs as Scrooge at one point, clutching a coin-filled velvet pouch. “I want it!” came a few cries from the junior set.

The tale, of course, included the visitations of three spirits, that of Christmas Past, Present and Future. These roles were played by Bedard to Jacobs’ Scrooge, whose demeanor changes from reluctant and bitter to re-energized and giving. In the closing scene, Scrooge tells Cratchit that he will be giving him a pay raise, which is followed by a chorus of “Tidings of Comfort and Joy”.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the performance for children in attendance was the opportunity to interview the actors and see behind the curtain. How did you make the ghost go so high? Was it real money? How can you be more than one person? How about next time if you wrap presents? The questions were many.

For Bedard, the interactivity with children is what she looks forward to most. “It’s perfect for kids in general. They’re the most honest and get very involved. We do the show 2 to 3 times a day. We’re trying to bring theater to children, as so many arts programs are being cut. We like to show them the behind-the-scenes. They scream, laugh and run up on stage. No show is the same because of that.”

“House Sleuth” Uses Deductive Reasoning to Solve Date Puzzle

“House Sleuth” Uses Deductive Reasoning to Solve Date Puzzle:
Historian Bob Weingarten provides research keys at Society talk
(Appeared on 11/22)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Westport, CT – It took months of research, thumbing through reams of documents and some good hunches for Bob Weingarten to finally determine the year in which his Greens Farm home was built.

The House Historian at the Westport Historical Society detailed the process in a “How to Date a House” presentation he gave late morning Saturday Nov. 20 in the Society’s Betty and Ralph Sheffer Gallery, 25 Avery Place. He was joined by Architect David Preusch, an expert in the restoration and renovation of historic residences, who added insight on how one’s home’s style illuminates its origins. The talk, which complemented the current exhibit “Putting Westport on the Map” (curated by Weingarten), was designed to give homeowners the tools to research the origins of their own homes.

Weingarten was introduced by Sue Gold, the Society’s Executive Director, who noted that the historian (and licensed real estate broker) also coordinates the town’s historic plaque-placing program for homes over 50 years old. He has placed over 80 plaques to date.

Weingarten’s introductory slide showed a photo of his converted-barn home and the headline, “How Old Am I?” He asked the modest gathering of attendees to guess the home’s age and received in reply answers that ranged from 1790 to current day. The home had had many modifications over time, so it was not surprising that dating it was a challenge for the audience.

However, this guessing game paled in comparison to all the detective work Weingarten had to conduct to accurately peg the home’s age.

“The basic process is to collect all that you can and use deductive reasoning,” the historian explained. “The first dating project I did was my house, which is how I got interested in this. The prior owners told us it was part of a 22-acre farm and that the house next door was the main house, built by Simon Couch. In 1975, our home was converted from a barn to a house.”

Weingarten said tax records indicated that the main house was built in 1783. Assessor’s records indicated the barn was built in 1887. It seemed suspect to Weingarten that the barn would have been built over 100 years after the main house, so that’s when he started digging.

Leveraging those dates, he went to the town’s Inventory List, which is maintained by the Westport Historic District Commission and includes 1,200 historic homes. The list gives details like address, historic name and year built. Unfortunately, there was no entry for the barn.

Changing gears, Weingarten then went to the Assessor again, with the prior owner’s name, and worked backwards to earliest property deeds and the original land-only transfer record. Back in the late 1700s and until 1820, taxes were assessed not on houses but on fireplaces – both size and quantity. The notation of a fireplace confirmed the existence and build date of the main house in 1783. Unfortunately, there was no mention of a barn, most likely because barns were not taxed until 1920.

Weingarten moved on to searching land records and Chain of Deeds available online through the Town Clerk. He noticed that the original owner sold the house in 1819. In the bill of sale, there was mention of “land and buildings”, though “buildings” was used as a general term back then and didn’t necessarily mean there was more than one structure on the property.

Forging on, Weingarten pulled an 1835 U.S. Coast Survey map noting a square and rectangle drawn on his property, the rectangle indicating a barn. That date, however, was still 50 years after the main house was built.

Knowing that the original owner died in 1808, the historian pulled a probate document noting that property of the deceased included “1 corn house, a Chaise house, shed and dwelling.” He discovered a Chaise is a fancy carriage and that the Chaise house must be the barn, which housed the carriage. Further, another survey map noted a small fireplace in the Chaise house and tax records for 1805 showed the addition of a fireplace on the property. Weingarten drew the conclusion that the new fireplace indicated the establishment of the Chaise house or barn in 1805.

“You put a lot of facts together and come up with a conclusion. You could be right or you could be wrong, but you’ve used a logical process,” summed up Weingarten.

Westport residents who would like to research the history of their own homes can visit the Westport Historical Society at 25 Avery Place on Tuesdays, between 10 and noon, when the records vault is open and researchers are available to help.