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Friday, January 7, 2011

Short Film Fest to Debut Jan. 10 at Fairfield Theatre Company

Short Film Fest to Debut Jan. 10 at Fairfield Theatre Company:
Eleven-film lineup includes a Fairfield-based production
(Appeared in 
Fairfield Citizen News 1/7)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Fairfield’s own Giuliana’s Boutique will be splashed across the big screen Monday evening Jan. 10 when a short film festival makes it debut at the Fairfield Theatre Company.

The boutique, at 39 Unquowa Road, is the featured location in a short comedy titled “This Is It”, which is one of eleven films that will be showcased in “The View From Here: A Festival of Short Films.” Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. and the program will run from 7 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. Admission is $10.

Stratford resident Emily Fortunato, 24, organized the event with the assistance of FTC’s producing director Miles Merek and partner Tyler Grill, for whom she works the box office at the theatre. Fortunato also co-stars in “This Is It”.

A lifelong Connecticut resident and 2008 graduate of Manhattanville College, where she majored in Communications and Theatre, Fortunato was very excited about the inclusion of a local venue. “It was amazing to film in Fairfield,” she said. “Carmen (Delabrena, the store owner) was so gracious to let us use the store. It served as its own character. It was the perfect location.”

Fortunato described the store as a dress shop popular with young girls headed to school dances and proms. “This Is It” was filmed entirely at Giuliana’s and is about two childhood best friends shopping for a dress that Fortunato’s character, Blair, is going to wear on a blind date with a guy she met through an Internet matchmaking site. As they browse, issues arise with regard to Blair’s history with men. The film co-stars Larisa Shaterian and was directed by Rosalyn Coleman Williams.

Williams, along with her husband Craig, owns New York City-based Red Wall Productions, which helped assess and organize the films for the festival event. Williams is also an acting coach and produces a #1 iTunes-rated podcast called “Everything Acting.” It was the podcast that connected Fortunato and Williams.

“I was a fan and listener,” said Fortunato, “and reached out to Roslyn through the site. We met and I started taking acting lessons from her. I consider her a mentor and she was very glad to assist with the festival effort.”

The feeling was mutual for Giuliana’s owner Delabrena. “I first met Emily as a customer of the shop. I made some custom dresses for her then she came back to me about the film. I love to help out in the community when I can. The filming experience was wonderful, very organized. They did a great job and I look forward to seeing the film. The 10th is also my birthday!”

Fortunato and Williams collaborated on three films featured in the fest. The other two are “Daddy for Lunch” and “Sketchy Future”. Films each had to be under 15 minutes in length and fall in one of the following categories: funky, fun, moving, sexy or dramatic. All were directed by professional filmmakers and performed by professional actors.

The inspiration for the festival came in early Nov. 2010 while Fortunato was onsite at FTC. “I thought it would be exciting to bring film to FTC. Miles and Tyler were extremely excited about it and really helped with all the details. This has been an amazing experience, especially as a young actor. I feel I am finding my voice as an artist and as a creative entrepreneur.”

As to what audiences should expect, Fortunato said, “There’s something for everyone. People will definitely connect, whether they like comedy or drama or another genre. We hope to do this annually if it’s successful.”

The Fairfield Theatre Company is located at 70 Sanford Street, Fairfield. For more information about the festival, visit

Man About Town: If the Shoe Fits…

Man About Town: If the Shoe Fits…
(Appeared as column in Fairfield Citizen News 1/7)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

It was an overcast Sunday afternoon New Year’s weekend and the regular crowd had settled in at the Horseshoe Tavern & CafĂ© at 355 Pequot Ave. in Southport. It was a good spot to capture local color and the pints were accommodating.

Southport’s oldest surviving neighborhood bar, “The Shoe”, as it’s more commonly known, first sparked to life in 1916 when horse shoer Edward Russell is reported to have established the original edifice. In 1933, the building became Russell’s Horseshoe Tavern then morphed into a restaurant in 1934. It was actually located on the west side of Pequot Ave. initially and moved to its present-day east side location during a road widening project in 1948.

In 1957, James “Scotty” Fraser was out walking and contemplating buying a restaurant. He came across a horseshoe in the road and it influenced his decision to buy The Shoe. That original shoe hangs by the entry to the kitchen.

Gordon Fraser bought the biz from his father in 1974 and his son, Jim, runs it today. March 2011 will mark 54 years that the place has been in the family. There is a horseshoe affixed high up on the front wall for each year the Fraser family has owned the restaurant.

The Shoe is pretension-free and where regular guys and their sons come to gather. Today, several are in sports jerseys to support their teams. Five TV sets around the space are showing football games including a Patriots-Dolphins match-up, Steelers-Browns and Jets-Bills contest. These elicit shouts, encouraging and not, from the dozen or so lads kicked back in red vinyl bar stools. The design matches a row of booths along one wall where patrons can sit down with food selections.

For those with a hankering, there are a variety of bar food appetizers like wings, poppers and nachos, soups and salads, and charbroiled burgers. House specialties include classics like a Philly Steak Grinder, BLT and Tuna Melt. New York style thin-crust pizza and desserts round the menu.

Game days bring special fare like the Bloody Breakfast Burrito – an egg concoction with a dash of hot sauce served with a House Bloody – or the Pig Sandwich – shredded pork butt with tangy Texas style BBQ sauce.

Besides the games, there’s no shortage of eye candy here, but not the type you’d expect. We’re talking about collages of patron photos, game schedules, beer signs and historical pics and paintings of old Southport and the restaurant.

Dark-haired Claire, a pleasant lass tending bar and serving suds fast and friendly, greeted patrons with a “Happy New Year” and inquired about their holidays. Everyone seemed to know her or each other and called across the bar.

One patron, among an especially tight group sitting in a section of seats nearest the kitchen called “Murderer’s Row”, referred to Claire as “Eclaire”. That was B.C. Mike.

“Mike’s on a demerit system,” joked Claire. “Three and he’s gone.”

Besides Mike, the group included Johnny A, Jim Ewing, Brendan, Zach and Keith. “This is like Vegas,” said Mike of the group and this special zone. “What happens here, stays here.” While Mike’s patronage of eight years is impressive, Ewing, 76, has been a regular since 1949.

“This is just a good old local watering hole,” said Johnny A, sporting a fishing hat and sipping a shot.

“We’re just hard working guys who come in for a cold beer. This is close to home. You’ll see working Joes and affluents,” said Mike, adjusting his Eagles cap.

“It’s a little backwater, a treasure,” said Johnny A. “Off the beaten path.”

“Al’s Place, the Driftwood, Purcell’s. Those places are gone. This is the last of a dying breed,” concluded Mike.

With another entry in the Man About Town chronology, I would leave the lads to their games and libations, looking forward to my next Fairfield venue drop-in.

Top Vocal Coach and Singer Realizing Dual Dream

Top Vocal Coach and Singer 
Realizing Dual Dream:
A spotlight on Fairfield’s Marianne Challis
(Appeared on the front page 
of the Fairfield Sun 1/6/11)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – While she had a love of vocal instruction and singing, she was never sure she could juggle both simultaneously on a professional level -- but Marianne Challis has achieved the feat and will soon star in a self-titled production at one of New York’s largest cabaret rooms.

Interviewed recently at her South Pine Creek Court home, Challis spoke about her early inspirations, frustrating setback and ultimate success as one of New York’s top cabaret performers and vocal coach to some of Broadway’s leading singers.

Thanks Aunt Irene

Challis, 57, was born in 1953 in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, just a few years before then-governor Orval Faubus summoned the National Guard to keep African American children from attending Little Rock High School as ordered by the Supreme Court. Her father was a university professor and her mom was a local school secretary. Fearful of growing civil rights unrest, the couple moved Challis and her older sister to the farmland of Illinois.

The environment there was classic rural small town, complete with corn, cows, sheep and a nearby state fair. She began singing at an early age, with encouragement from her Aunt Irene.

“She was a ‘gal’ who would sit down at the piano at any local anything and play whatever you wanted, from honky tonk to hymns and ragtime,” Challis said. “She would pull me up to sing, as early as age three or four. I probably did this with her until I was nine or 10. Very often, we would perform together at the town’s bandstand – like Fairfield’s gazebo – with other musicians. I realized I loved to sing and that it made people happy.”

At age 12, Challis began singing in the choir at Chatham United Methodist Church in Chatham, IL. “The church is a great tool for singers as you’re often forced to sing solo. But the audience is also very supportive and forgiving. I could make mistakes while continuing to evolve as a singer. The setting also helped me develop as a storyteller through song,” she said.

Challis also sang in high school, and played the clarinet and piano. Her breakout role came senior year when she starred as Eliza in a production of “My Fair Lady”. By this time, she had already performed in community theater productions of “Hello Dolly”, “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music.”

At Eastern Illinois University, Challis pursued a Music major in Vocal Performance “doing anything theatrical I could from Puccini to ‘Canterbury Tales,’” she said. A fellow castmate and theater major was actor John Malkovich.

College summers she performed as part of a big musical revue at Six Flags in Missouri. “That was truly fabulous, with incredibly talented singers and dancers, an amazing stage and most of the St. Louis Symphony in the pit.”

In 1976, as she was headed to Chicago to pursue performing as a career, she detoured into beauty pageantry, earning the local title “Miss Charleston Delta-Chi” -- singing Judy Garland hits in hotpants – and taking second runner-up honors in the Miss Illinois pageant. “The girl that won that year jumped on mini-trampolines to Tchaikovsky with round-offs and cartwheels in between,” she said. “And I did compete in the swimsuit portion, wearing a hot pink, one-piece fully-padded swimsuit.”

On to New York

After a short stint in Chicago, where Challis got her Actor’s Equity card, she moved to New York City, in 1978, to pursue theater full time. “I found the one straight man in a summer stock production of ‘Follies’ with Dorothy Collins,” joked Challis, “and he was already living in the city, so it was a swift, easy transition.”

Frank Root, who would become her husband, was (and is) a talented singer and dancer himself. He was in the original production of “Mack and Mabel” and the most recent “42nd St.” revival on Broadway. The two married in 1982.

“I had amazingly good beginner’s luck, quickly grabbing several terrific jobs, one as an understudy on the national tour of ‘Side by Side by Sondheim,’” she said. The latter was an overwhelming undertaking, but not without humor. “The star/narrator was the noted character actress Hermione Gingold and she had the entire back of the bus with an assistant and an unruly Yorkie that pooped in the aisles,” Challis said.

This was followed by a lead in “Babes in Arms” starring Andrea McArdle at Goodspeed Opera House in E. Haddam, CT, and what seemed like an endless string of starring roles at dinner theaters.

Detour spawns new opportunity

In 1983, Challis fell apart vocally after a very heavy three-month long production of “Funny Girl”, in which she was performing eight shows a week with back-to-back matinee and evening shows three days a week, and a string of industrial shows. A reputed voice doctor advised rest but she just couldn’t seem to recover. After a few more concerts and fundraisers, she hung up her hat in 1986 to focus on starting a family.

She would have two children, Lonnie, now 25 and a cellist, and Abby, now 20 and a junior in Music Theater. “I literally developed a new persona of sorts. People I met through my children at that time in my life didn’t even know I could sing – and I had been singing since I was three.”

They say when one door closes, another opens, and such was the case for Challis. “I had started teaching voice a bit,” she said, “so it was a natural flow to expand that business.”

In the process, in 1993, the family moved from NYC to Fairfield and became members of Southport Congregational Church. Three years later, the pastor, Rev. Paul Whitmore, learned that I was a singer and asked me to participate in a concert with several other leading singers from the choir. After the performance, he pulled her aside and said, ‘I knew you could sing, but I didn’t know you really sang.’ The experience kind of gave me a kick in the butt to return to the biz.”

She worked with voice therapist Joan Lader and, in 1998, finally felt she had enough confidence in her voice and steel in her nerves to do an entire show again. She began slowly, bouncing around over the next ten years from cabaret to cabaret, from the old 88s room in the Village, to Danny’s Skylight Room and the Laurie Beechman, and finally to the Metropolitan Room. Reviews were positive and a Bistro Award in 2008 helped boost her credibility.

Her teaching career had skyrocketed during those years and really became her bread and butter. Challis gained a notable following of leading celebrity singers and working Broadway actors that included Melissa Joan Hart, Gina Gershon, Amy Adams, Kathie Lee Gifford, Joy Philbin and Alan Menken, to name a few.

Life is now split between Connecticut and New York as she prepares for her own show, “Marianne Challis: The Cosmo Report”, opening Jan. 17 at Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency, one of the largest cabaret rooms in New York.

“This is a pinnacle for me career-wise as a singer/performer,” Challis reflected. “It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work. All the balls are in the air right now and it’s ok.”


Fairfielder to Solo in Major Cabaret Production

For most of her 57 years, Marianne Challis has been singing or performing. Now the Fairfield resident and married mother of two will be taking the reins of her own show, “Marianne Challis: The Cosmo Report”.

Challis brings an audience-wowing combination of sophisticated chanteuse and rib-tickling comedienne to her show, which will debut at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency in New York. Opening night is Jan. 17 with additional shows on the 18th, 24th and 25th, all with an 8:30pm start.

The 2008 Bistro Award Winner for Outstanding Female Vocalist and vocal coach to top Broadway singing talent will explore the challenges of the baby boomer generation in this show stamped with her own brand of satirical storytelling. She will also apply her own emotional interpretation of an eclectic song mix ranging from 80s pop to the Great American Songbook.

The show will include several of her most-requested songs, such as “Something in Red” and “Downtown”, as well as new arrangements crafted especially for this engagement.

The production is directed by MAC Award winner Scott Barnes. “Scott and I are an amazing writing team,” said Challis, “and together we have created a style that feels completely ‘mine’ and still evolving. This is more exciting for me than traditional theater, and seems to suit me in every way.”

Marianne Challis: The Cosmo Report will be at Feinstein’s at the Loews Regency, Park Ave. at 61st Street, on Jan. 17, 18, 24 & 25 at 8:30pm. Cover is $30 or $50 for premium seating with a $25 food and beverage minimum. Reservations: (212) 339-4095 or For additional information, visit

'Kids Knit' is a ‘Purl’ of a Program

Kids Knit is a ‘Purl’ of a Program:
Tweens learn lost art 
at Pequot Library
(posted to 1/6)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Southport, CT – Bags full of colorful yarn. The clack of knitting needles. Laughter and cries of “Miss Susan! Miss Susan!”

This was the scene late Thursday afternoon at Southport’s Pequot Library as a small group of girls ages 9 to 11 gathered together to participate in “Kids Knit”, a program open to beginning or experienced knitters led by Children’s Librarian Susan Ei.

The program has been offered annually since early 2006 and has “graduated” about sixty knitters since that time. All have been beginning knitters and predominantly girls. This year’s program began Dec. 16 and will wrap on Feb. 17.

“I started knitting when I was a Brownie,” said Ei, “about eight years old. I first made cute little slippers. My grandma also helped teach me. She was well versed in all those lost arts: crocheting, tatting lace and sewing. I made all of my clothes when I was a kid and knitted from that age on. I’m not a highly skilled knitter like those in the adult group at the library, but I’m steady and can teach beginning knitting really well.”

Ei typically creates programs that speak to her own orientations. “I usually try to explore what I’m interested in and hope that my enthusiasm will carry over into the event. I also like to do programs that are educational and fun.”

A jamming and canning session she conducted this past fall is another example of this type of program. Said Ei, “It encouraged parents and their children to learn something new together that relates to current desires for natural homegrown foods. I really wanted to learn how to do that myself and hadn’t from the women in my family. They canned fruit every season. That doesn’t happen now. There’s a real renewed interest in these activities.”

Another recent program was a Jigsaw Speed-o-Rama that pitted teams against each other racing to put puzzles together. “These programs are good for the brain.”

About knitting, Ei said, “It’s a pastime that’s very relaxing and calming. It’s like a book. When you have a knitting project with you, you always have something to do. It can be a beautiful gift and it’s handmade and very precious.”

Ei added that knitting can also be empowering. “The girls build on their stitches, especially when they learn how to reverse them. They learn to understand what’s not right and how to fix mistakes. It’s very easy to build a new stitch on top of what they’ve learned. And they can choose what they want to make, such as a cell phone case, scarf or even a dog coat.”

This session, Ei will incorporate a cause element with the guidance of Save the Children, to help drive funding for children lacking basic healthcare. The program is called Caps for Good. Students will create baby hats with message tags that will be shipped to newborn health programs around the world and given to new mothers.

The girls are not the only ones learning. “Susan taught us how to knit,” said Fairfield mom Lori Langdon, participating with her 11-year-old fraternal twin daughters Claire and Madeline. “We started last year. We had zero experience before that. There’s a whole world of it that I didn’t realize. Claire knitted me a wallet for Christmas. I’d never heard of that before but it turned out great. It’s been fun to sit around the fireplace and knit.”

Claire echoed her mom’s enthusiasm. “Miss Susan has helped us improve our knitting a lot since we first started. She’s taught us different techniques. Besides the wallet, I’ve made coasters, a scarf and a hat, for my baby sister.”

Classmate Allison Wales, 10, on hand with her fraternal twin sister Kristen, was equally jazzed. “I’m making a bear. In the past, I’ve made a bag, scarf and hat. I love this class because of the fun projects and new friends I make.”