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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hundreds Make Merry at Library Caroling Party

Hundreds Make Merry at 
Library Caroling Party:
Pequot Open House offers crafts, wagon rides, wine and more
(Posted on 12/22)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Southport, CT – To see the scene, one would think Christmas had already arrived. The wine was flowing, the egg nog nogging, cookie sprinkles flying and carolers caroling.

The site was the Pequot Library at 720 Pequot Ave. and the occasion was the annual Holiday Caroling Party and Open House, held late afternoon Wednesday. The chief organizers were Bill Russell, President of the Pequot Library Board of Trustees, his wife Erin, the chairperson of the event, and Children’s Librarian Susan Ei.

“This is a wonderful holiday tradition,” said the Library’s Director of Development Elizabeth Patterson. “We’ve been doing this for years. The Russells and community volunteers took this to a new level a few years ago. It used to be simple with carol singing. Now there are multiple layers to the event.”

Indeed, the attractions were numerous including a wine bar, cider stations, multiple craft tables, horse and carriage rides, a firebowl and caroling. There was something for everyone.

The most populous area by far was the auditorium, where four banks of tables dressed with red plastic covers had been set up. Each bank offered a different craft activity and dozens of children buzzed from one to the next, guided by a team of youths dubbed “Secret Service Agents” by Ei.

One table provided sugar cookie decorating, where mini paintbrushes were dipped in bowls of liquefied colored icing and sprinkles and mini marshmallows added. Sarah Tabacchi, 5, and her sister, Annabel, 3, were fully engaged in the activity.

The Bowens – mom Dabney, holding baby Leighton, and daughter Wesley, 3 -- were doing the same at the opposite end of the table. “My kids love this and it puts us in the Christmas spirit,” said Dabney.

Making pinecone bird feeders one table over were Monica Jain and her daughter Saloni, 9. “Saloni loves to celebrate Christmas even though we don’t mark it in India,” said Monica, as they rolled large pinecones in Crisco and then in birdseed.

Grace Montelli, 4, standing with mom Debbie and little sister Jane, 2, favored bead making. “A friend of mine is a member of the library association and invited me down. We’re enjoying the Christmas spirit and seeing the horsies,” said Debbie.

Max Preusch, 2, was a fan of sticking stickers on holiday scenes. Mom Alicia supervised, saying, “He’s doing a great job with the stickers. I’m teaching him about Christmas. This will probably be the first one he remembers.”

At the wine bar in the reading room, Sam Kingston was pouring red and white selections provided by Kingston Family Vineyards. Doing some sampling was Southporter Nikki Pecknold, holding daughter Georgia and standing with Pat Alianiello. “We’re having a great time. It’s something we do with the kids. We’ll start the night off here. It’s a great family event we look forward to each year.”

Fairfielder Catherine Friedline, standing nearby with Don Burton, Southport, and Tony Gravanis, in from Hong Kong, said, “Children need traditions. The wine bar is an obvious bonus for the adults.”

Marveling at the scene, the Library’s Executive Director Daniel Snydacker said, “We really put our heart and soul into these things. As a library, we like to be an anchor for seasonal events. It’s a great role for us. We bring the generations together in one event in a time when we’ve become so age segregated.”

As Southport Congregational Church’s Rev. Paul Whitmore, wife Laura and several Santa’s helpers kicked off the caroling with a rendition of “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer”, the firebowl sparked to life out in front of the library and a line formed along a candlelit path for horse and buggy rides. The latter were provided by Norfolk, CT-based Loon Meadow Farm.

One terrific plus of the event was a charity-based element called “The Gift of a Book.” Ei explained, “For every $20 donated, the Library will donate a book to the Bridgeport School system. In return, the donor can decorate an ornament to hang on the library’s book tree, do a reindeer craft and receive a holiday-themed souvenir book.”

Bringing a cider to her son Matthew, 7, Margaret Krauss said about the event, “This is absolutely fabulous. I’ll be here every year going forward!”

Featured Creatures Delight Children at Library Program

Featured Creatures Delight Children at Library Program:
Fairfield Woods Branch Library hosts Audubon’s Carol Kratzman and her critters
(Posted to 12/22)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – How does it locate food? Can it hear well? What does it eat? These were some of the important questions answered about certain woodland creatures that visited Fairfield Woods Library Tuesday afternoon.

The library, at 1147 Fairfield Woods Rd., hosted Carol Kratzman, Education Coordinator at the CT Audubon Society, and a program she and the facility had established together titled “Feature Creature”. The program is targeted to children from kindergarten to 5th grade and held once a month. This was Kratzman’s fourth monthly visit. The program will continue through the spring.

“We wanted to have some afterschool programming for elementary school aged children, kids love animals and Carol is great with animals and kids,” said Cheryl DelVecchio, Branch Children’s Librarian. “We opened two new rooms called ‘Explore at the Woods’ that align with the program. Because we’re Fairfield Woods, we’re pursuing a nature theme with animals and gardening. Carol’s program fits right in with our objectives.”

Previous program installments included owls and reptiles. “We never know what she’s going to bring. It’s a surprise,” said DelVecchio. “It started out as owls as the owl is our mascot here at Fairfield Woods.”

About two dozen people attended the latest session, a mix of children, their caretakers and parents. All sat on the floor in the Children’s Library area, around the perimeter of a blanket that Kratzman had laid out.

“All my crazy critters live up at the center on Burr Street,” said Kratzman, beginning her presentation. “I was thinking that because it’s winter and really cold out that I thought I would bring…” She purposely didn’t finish her sentence as she wanted the children to guess what animal she had with her.

Kratzman’s first guest turned out to be a mouse – actually four mice separated into pairs in see-through plastic carrying containers. She informed the group that these were ordinary pet mice, they like to eat nuts and berries and are good climbers. The children were amused as the critters tried to scale the sides of the containers.

“These are all little girl mice and about the size of a wild mouse,” she continued. “If you have a shed with seed in it and don’t keep the seed covered, they’ll get in there. They can get through the smallest holes as their bodies are mostly fur.”

Kratzman conducted an experiment that revolved around the functionality of the large ears of the mice. She had children cup their hands behind their ears then walked away from the group and shook covered containers containing different items – a jingle bell, straws and rice. If the children could identify the item from the sound, their hearing was on par with that of the mice.

Two more species of animals followed and each provided a new lesson and experience. Simon the African Pygmy Hedgehog was a particular hit. She informed the group that the creature is an insectivore that eats slugs and is a very good climber.

“Its hair is very spiky like a stiff hairbrush and when it gets scared it curls up in a ball,” said Kratzman, as she let the animal roam across the blanket. Its quickness elicited titters from the group. “He really likes to be awake at night and runs on a little wheel in his cage. He’s nocturnal,” she added.

Kratzman used Simon to illustrate sense of smell, the animal’s most acute ability. She had the children smell different items in film canisters and guess the contents. “If you can match two out of two, you’ll pass the hedgehog test.”

Taste was a final woodlands creature sense Kratzman wanted to demonstrate. For this feature, she employed Petunia the Russian tortoise and Spot the Spotted Turtle and placed different edible leaves out on the blanket. “I think the turtle’s going to eat the other leaf!” squealed the very vocal Ella Morris, 3, who was attending with her dad Ryan, neighbor Allison Dickens and Dickens’ son William, 3.

Participating parents were very impressed with the program. “We have been here several times before,” said Fairfielder Todd Agee, on hand with his two daughters and two nephews. “The kids are always fascinated and talk about it for days afterward. It’s one of the great things that the library offers.”

“Carol is amazing,” agreed Nikki Lehman, a Weston resident who had brought her children Makenzie, 6, Evan, 4, and Tristan, 7 months. “It’s worth the trip down. The kids love all the programs from the Audubon Society. Whenever we can sign up, we do.”

Four more Feature Creature programs are planned: Jan. 8, Feb. 15, Mar. 15 and April 26. Each is on a Tuesday at 4 p.m. For more information: 203-255-7327 or

Annual Bird Count Tallies 110 Confirmed Species

Annual Bird Count 
Tallies 110 Confirmed Species:
64th Annual Westport Christmas Bird Count conducted Dec. 19
(Appeared in Westport News 12/22)
By Mike Lauterborn
ã 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – With all the preliminary count data in, Townsend Dickinson announced that 110 different species of birds had been officially observed.

He and his wife, Mardi, are this year’s data compilers for the 64th Annual Westport Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The local count, which is part of a larger National Audubon Society effort being conducted nationwide, occurred over a 24-hour period from midnight to midnight Sunday, Dec. 19. Its goal is to identify and count each species of bird and record how many of each type are seen in a day, within a 15-mile diameter count circle centered at Westport’s Twin Bridges on Route 57.

Counters are all volunteers and range in ability from “pigeon feeders” to very knowledgeable birders. The more experienced individuals are paired with those of lesser experience and most begin looking for birds at sunrise. More ambitious types go out several hours earlier searching for owls and rails.

The CBC results are published in a large report along with input from 1,700 other counts conducted nationwide and throughout the Americas. The concept was initiated 111 years ago and is the longest running annual census of bird populations in the country. About 44,000 birdwatchers serve as counters.

To celebrate their achievement and submit their data, local participants gathered at the Connecticut Audubon Society’s Birdcraft Museum at 314 Unquowa Road at the conclusion of the day’s counting. It was an appropriate site as the oldest bird sanctuary in the United States, started by Mabel Osgood Wright.

While warming themselves and feasting on fare that included lasagna, soup, pizza and ribs, the group of 18 chirped about the day’s activities and unusual sightings.

One of several captains, Charlie Barnard, 66, who led a counting group of six along the Fairfield shore area, spoke about how he got started as a birder. “I just started birding out of curiosity as a kid of 10. Fifty six years later and I’m still doing it. I initially wanted to know bird names, then they became intriguing as I associated the birds with the places from which they’d migrated. It appeals to your imagination. To see a bird bred in the Arctic and bound for South America and to catch him on the way is really interesting.”

His group had started at 7 a.m. and finished at 4:30 p.m. “It was a challenge trying to get to the end of Penfield Reef at low tide. We couldn’t make it today as the northeastern wind was pushing the tide into normally uncovered spots,” he said.

“We saw large numbers of water fowl – not only a lot of species but also a lot of individual birds,” Barnard said. “For instance, we saw 400 Common Goldeneye, a small duck that’s a winter resident down here. We saw one Northern Gannett, which normally nests in rock cliffs in the Canadian maritime area.”

About the counting process, Barnard says he’ll count to 100 birds and then overlay that image on the remaining flock to get a fairly accurate estimate. Numbers are recorded on field cards that the teams carry. These list 406 different species that have historically been recorded in Connecticut.

Two of Barnard’s team members were James Purcell, 14, a Fairfield Ludlowe High School student, and Alex Burdo, 14, an Unquowa School student. Purcell spoke about how he got his birding start. “When I was 7, I got a bird guide in the mail from the Audubon Society, got hooked and started going out birdwatching. Then I heard about the Connecticut Bird List, an online forum that provides info about where certain species can be found in the state. I started going birding all over Connecticut and then joined the count last year.”

Purcell inspired Burdo to join him this year. “There were a lot of great birds,” Burdo said. “I saw two Redheads, which are very uncommon in Connecticut. The Red-Breasted Nuthatch at a person’s feeder was also cool. My top favorite bird of the day was an Ipswich Savannah, a sparrow that only breeds in Sable Island in Canada.”

To record all the species, Townsend called out each species’ name from a field card to the group and they would let him know if they had seen one or not. Often, he would ask where and to provide more detail. The group had noted several species that were not on the list, including an Eider, Barnacle Goose and Cackling Goose. Each will need to be further documented.

“I loved being out there today and collaborating with other birders… but especially seeing all the different birds,” said Purcell, with a clear fondness for feathered friends.

‘Seasons Readings’ a Stocking Full of Surprises

‘Seasons Readings’ a Stocking Full of Surprises:
Dec. 16 Westport Woman’s Club show plays to full house
(Appeared in Westport News 12/22)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Westport, CT – It was not the usual holiday theatrical fare and that was quite alright with the full house of people that had gathered Thursday night Dec. 16 at the Westport Woman’s Club.

The attraction was “Seasons Readings”, holiday-themed, whimsical short plays and stories read by a quintet of professional actors under the direction of Carole Schweid. a principal of JIB Productions. For many years, JIB has produced a popular “Play With Your Food” lunchtime series of performances. This new production was a chance to “offer audiences fresh and provocative holiday-oriented material and in the evening,” according to JIB co-principal Nancy Diamond.

The featured actors came to the informal Woman’s Club stage with impressive resumes. Alison Cimet has appeared on Broadway in “A Tale of Two Cities”, local theater and numerous TV commercials. Tom Zingarelli is a veteran actor, director and producer of 35 years who may be best known as the star of the “Tall Tales” video series for children about American folk heroes. Susan Terry has appeared in Broadway shows “Evita” and “City of Angels”, Off-Broadway, opera and in PBS TV productions. Chris Cafero has been featured in films, TV soaps and local theater. Joanna Keylock has made a splash in film, webisodes, local theater and Off-Broadway.

While the quintet’s talent made the vignettes come alive, it was Schweid’s skill in selecting just the right offbeat fare to feature that drove the production. “You do a lot of reading through an enormous amount of stuff,” said Schweid. “Things pop out and grab you. You say, ‘I love it, others probably will, too.’ There’s all this great material that people don’t normally hear. I think, cool, let’s get a little Tuna Christmas in here.”

Schweid’s reference, formally “A Tuna Christmas”, is a comedic play set in the fictional town of Tuna, Texas, and was first up among the readings in the high-ceilinged, festively decorated Club hall. The readers effected thick Texas accents, played up stereotypes and gave a glimpse at what an over-the-top holiday might be like Lone Star style.

Next in the program, “The Loudest Voice”, written by Grace Paley and performed quite amusingly by Terry, conveyed the experience of a Jewish girl named Shirley Abramowitz, who is put in the awkward position of having to narrate her school’s Christmas pageant.

“On the Bridge”, performed chiefly by Cafero and written by Frederick Stroppel, who was in attendance, told the tale of a chance encounter by a man and woman on a bridge on Christmas Eve. Both are down on their luck and depressed and seeking to end it all by jumping. The story was touching and provided a happy, heart-felt twist at the end.

Full of hilarity, “Christmas in Flatbush”, penned by Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Wendy Wasserstein, offered the sentimental recollection of her first Christmas at Mount Holyoke College.

The concluding number was a piece by William Lederer titled “A Christmas Ballad for the Captain”. Lederer was a career naval officer so it was not surprising that his work paid tribute to the kindness of a wartime leader at Christmastime.

A chorus of “Silent Night” tied a neat bow around the evening’s performances and ushered the audience into an adjacent room for pastries and eggnog provided by The Pantry of Fairfield. There, audience members, producers, writers and cast alike mingled and shared their thoughts on the production.

“I liked how Carole put different styles and pieces together. There were lots of angles… Judaism, Christianity,” said cast member Cimet. “There was enough variety to speak to everyone.” Her associate Terry agreed, saying, “There was a wonderful potpourri of different views of the holidays. I saw a lot of smiling faces in the audience.”

Audience members were united in their appreciation. “I thought it was fabulous, great Christmas spirit, wonderful acting,” said Susanne Addessi of Westport. Friend Jeanette Linsey added, “The selection was great, very diverse. They mixed it up really well.”

Maxine Paul of Weston was particularly impressed. “I saw four Broadway shows in the last four weeks and enjoyed these pieces more than them. Every time I come here it’s remarkable.”


‘Milo, My Stray Cat’ A Labor of Love

‘Milo, My Stray Cat’ A Labor of Love:
New book helps children learn to read
(Appeared in Westport News 12/22)
By Mike Lauterborn
ã 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Trying teenage angst, a case of dyslexia and a curious cat were the catalysts that connected a former creative director and family therapist and led to their collaboration on a new book chiefly designed to help children learn to read.

Interviewed recently at a Fairfield coffee shop, Gayle Gleckler, co-author and illustrator of “Milo, My Stray Cat”, spoke about the inspiration for the book, her background and the target audience.

“My son Zac was going through some difficult teenage twists and turns and we were introduced to Dr. Donald Cohen, a family therapist,” began Gleckler. While Cohen was knowledgeable and helpful, the doctor’s curious gray cat Milo, an adopted stray, was as attentive and accommodating. The cat was also a comforting reminder of Zac and Gayle’s own adopted cats – Steamboat, Spot and Mash.

“I noticed an adult poem on Don’s wall that he had written, titled ‘My Stray Cat’,” said Gleckler. “He said he always wanted to develop it into a children’s book. I said I would love to co-create it with him and adapted it. My son is dyslexic and, not only did I love reading him children’s books when he was young, I thought this could be a useful tool to help him learn to read.”

Further playing on that thought, Gleckler suggested a type style that would be graphically descriptive -- the word ‘fluffy’ would actually look fluffy, the word ‘falling’ would be cascading down, the word ‘eyes’ would have eyeballs. By attaching meaning to the words, she figured that this would help children remember the words and learn to read faster.

The plotline of the story is Milo gets lost after he becomes a beloved pet to six-year-old Donny, and Donny realizes that if you really love a pet (or person), you need to let them go and roam free. Gleckler said the target audience is ages 4 to 104.

Adoption is a definite theme of the book and Gleckler herself was adopted. “We all feel lost at times and want to be adopted,” said Gleckler. “This book teaches children the gift of adopting lost animals while encouraging the idea of taking responsibility for the caring of others. It may also be appealing to parents who already have a child and are seeking to adopt another. It’s a good way of opening up a conversation.”

Gleckler says the book was years in development – a labor of love – and that Zac saw the process and layouts and pages as they were scattered about her house. “It was probably very educational for him and he even made some creative suggestions along the way.”

The book includes a CD featuring an original “Milo, My Stray Cat” song and a complete read of the book by Gleckler and Cohen. Their voices represent both a mother and father reading, which can be particularly comforting to a child of separated parents. For people who are not at ease reading to their children, the CD can also be a great substitute.

Gleckler brings a very strong advertising and design background to the table, which she said has been helpful in developing the book. She is a former art director at New York’s Young & Rubicam, former EVP/Creative Director at Foote Cone & Belding, owned her own agency Gleckler & Partners and is now current CEO of her own North Salem, NY-based marketing firm, The Whole Enchilada. Her experience allowed her to not only adapt the book’s text but illustrate it.

Admittedly, though, the project is still new territory for her. “I’ve been used to big budgets in the agency world. This is very different, with a lot of hands-on marketing. I’ve got copies of Milo in the back of the car and have been going to book signings at remote places. But I believe the book will be an instrumental teaching tool.”

“Milo, My Stray Cat” can be purchased at, and A portion of book sales will benefit the Reidel and Cody Fund for Veterinary Oncology and Hematology Center in Norwalk, CT.

Man About Town: Lounging Around at Las Vetas

Man About Town: 
Lounging Around at Las Vetas
(Column appeared in the 
Fairfield Citizen news 12/22)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

It was a bright, sunny mid-December Friday morning and people were already in that let’s-start-the-weekend mode. I was right with them and thought there’d be no better place than Las Vetas Lounge to get things kicked off.

Perched up the street from the Community Theater at 27 Unquowa Road, the café has been accommodating moviegoers, local business people, commuters and students since January 2010 when it moved from a prior location on the Post Road that it had occupied since 2003.

“We outgrew the old place, especially in the storage area,” said owner Andrew Servetas, 35, who was preparing coffee when I visited. “The rent was due to go up, up, up and I didn’t see the capacity to grow, grow, grow.”

The new 1,800-square-foot space offers the same worn-flannel-straight-out-of-the-dryer charm but with a broader menu and more seating capacity.

The exterior alone invokes curiosity. A large mug-shaped sign emblazoned with the word “Coffee” hangs over the front door. Colorful retro chairs in hues of peach, red, purple, teal and brown sit along the front beside latticed metal tables. A sign taped to one of the large picture windows teases “’Tis the season for kisses under mistletoe, carols and really delicious drinks… to name a few: Peppermint Stick Mocha, the Eggnog Latte, Classic Hot Chocolate.”

Inside, at the far end of the room, a bust of Beethoven guards a small piano. Monkey figurines hold the lamps of an unusual chandelier. A homey artificial Christmas tree is trimmed in red, striped and silver ornaments. A five-tier shelving unit is stacked with coffee table books and board games. Another tower hold several hundred classic LPs like Jimi Hendrix’ Electric Lady Land and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.

Tables and chairs of all shapes, sizes and description fill the center of the room. As Servetas explained, these were sourced from multiple places. “Retro is best. If I want a table, I go to Google or Craig’s List and type in ‘retro’. Up pops the Duke of Earl swing chairs. I don’t feel that things necessarily need to match.”

One formica-topped, chrome-trimmed table was donated by a customer. Another similar table came from an estate sale in Stratford. A third table had come from Servetas’ parents and had adorned their kitchen back in the 1950s.

In high alcoves, more unusual décor: an Elvis bust donated by a local barber, a Beatles album dropped off by a homeless man, clocks and characters.

The center of action is the long pine serving counter opposite the entrance, which is lined with glass candy jars and divides café from kitchen. From this area emanates all the wonderful fare for which the café is known. Pre-roasted java, with tags like South Alps Vanilla and Pumpkin Spice, delivered weekly. A wide array of black, green, herbal and decaf teas. Hot espresso drinks and specials. Mulled cider, hot chai, iced drinks, shakes and smoothies.

And while beverages are a focus, there’s a collection of breakfast, lunch and dessert items to be had. Egg dishes, oatmeal, pancakes and baked goods. Chili, soup, salads and sandwiches. Carrot cakes and cheesecake.

Servetas said the café concept was modeled on Las Vegas and leaving your troubles at home. “It’s about having a social every night.” As to the name, he said his friends call him “Vetas” and it seemed appropriate as an incorporation.

A former marketing guy who had worked with the CT Post and Ryan Partnership, Servetas longed to be his own boss. This 100-year-old space, that has seen incarnations over the years as a Chevy dealership, bookstore and bowling alley, is now his home away from home.

People pop in and out as I gather my things and step back into the brisk December air, another mission completed in my Man About Town campaign.