Marc Catone's writings

Subtitle

The Danbury Fair

Students attending school in Danbury received a major perk.  Every year on a Friday in October, school was closed and each pupil was given a free ticket to attend Connecticut’s “greatest show on Earth”, The Great Danbury State Fair.

The Fair lasted for over 100 years.  It began as an agricultural showcase in the early 1800s and then continued as a regularly scheduled event in 1869.  As the years went by, during good times and bad (including a major fire), it evolved into something more, greatly aided by the vision and leadership of Danbury’s premier showman, John W. Leahy.  Mr. Leahy became the major owner of the Danbury Fair during the immediate post-World War II era, and brought to the Fair new ideas and innovations. The Great Danbury State Fair was a circus, Wild West show, agricultural exhibit, theme park, carnival, and race track all rolled up into one.  Located on 100 acres in the southwestern corner of the city, near the state border with New York, the Fair drew crowds numbering in the 100,000’s from all over the East Coast every year.

There was the Big Top where farmers competed with their vegetables and fruits for blue ribbons; Gold Town, an Old West replica of Dodge City with saloons, good guys and outlaws; the New England Village featuring a one-room school house and old country store;  dozens of permanent buildings housing pigs, cows, horses(including the Budweiser Clydesdales), assorted poultry, and various home improvements salesmen; the Dutch Village, a New Amsterdam era New York with windmills and other amenities from that time period;  a giant Mid-Way with carnival rides, arcades, side shows, and Hoochie Koochie girls; auto-racing daredevils on the racetrack near the Grandstand; huge towering fiberglass figurines of Paul Bunyan and Farmer John; a Pirate’s Cove, Cinderella-land, and musical performers; dozens of food vendors serving hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries, pizza, sausage and meatball grinders(subs), Bavarian waffles, cotton candy, candy apples, snow cones, and full-course restaurants; and last, but certainly not least, the daily Fair Parade headed by John Leahy himself.

The night before Fair Day was like Christmas Eve, each child so excited by what they would see and do the next day that sleep was nearly impossible.  My sister, Sara, and I were no exceptions, dreaming about riding the “Tilt-a-Whirl”, playing in the Fort at the Dutch Village, and smacking our lips just thinking about “Jack’s French Fries (a pre-cursor to McDonald’s), and the meatball grinders at the VFW booth.

I attended the Danbury Fair from about age 3 until age 24, approximately 20 years.  The only one I missed during that time period was the Centennial year of 1969, and that was due to my involvement in college with the Vietnam Moratorium.  The last year I went was in 1974, right before my wife, Donna, and I moved to Arizona.

The Great Danbury State Fair was part of my heritage.  I had the unique experience of seeing it from different perspectives than the average Fair attendee.  In 1965, my father, Camp, began working for John Leahy’s fuel oil company.  He was employed there for about three years, working for the fuel oil business during the winter, and working as part of the Danbury Fair paint and labor crew from spring through fall, including the 10-day run of the Fair in October.  The Fair was immense with many permanent buildings and displays that took the crew all spring and summer to re-paint, fix, and maintain from the wear and tear of Fair week, and the ravages of winter weather.

Back then, my family had one car.  My mother, Martha, who was a bookkeeper, often got done with work before Dad, and I would accompany her on late summer afternoons when she drove to the Fair Grounds to pick him up.  It was always a thrill to ride through the gates and drive to the paint building, located near the pond in the New England Village.  However, it was an eerie experience as well.  All of the temporary tents were not there.  One could look across a flat expanse and see the Grand Stand and Big Top as if they were a stone’s throw away.  It was hard to imagine that every October the same area was so thick with people, tents, and food vendors that on a busy Fair day it might take 30 minutes to walk the same distance.  Often, while we waited for Dad to get done at work, I would wander around the Fair.  I felt like the last person on Earth walking around all those empty acres.  And yet, I treated those happy, yet hallowed, grounds with the reverence only a Danbury kid could know.

In 1972, I had the opportunity to work at the Fair.  My next door neighbor, Fred Najamy, ran one of the few sit-down restaurants, “Freddie’s Country Kitchen”.  His daughter, Gilberte ran the Breakfast part of the restaurant called “Bunny’s Ham ‘n’ Egger”.  Fred was a caterer by profession, but his real money maker was the restaurant at the Fair.  That summer, out of college, no job, and recently engaged, I got my feet wet by working with Gilberte at a few clam bakes.  When she asked me if I wanted to work at her breakfast place at the Fair, I jumped at the chance. 

It was a very hard job, up each morning at about 4 AM, on the job by 5:00, ready to serve breakfast to all the Fair workers, the carnies, and other Fair participants by 6:00.  Gilberte served breakfast all day, although mornings were the busiest.  At night we put food away, cleaned up, and performed other duties, not getting done until about 10:00.  However, I was only 22 years old, and had the stamina...especially for 10 days in a row. 

It was quite a different view of the Fair when one worked there.  You wanted to do well.  There were so many people walking by and stopping in during the day.  Many from far away, who had never been to the Fair before.  It was a matter of pride to give them good service and make a good impression.   There were moments of tediousness and boredom, but I never tired of the Fair whether I was an attendee, son of a Fair worker, or employee.  The Danbury Fair was in my blood.

And then came 1981...and it all came to an end.  John Leahy died in 1975, and the Fair began to decline financially.  Though we had moved back East by then and it was only a four hour ride away, I didn’t make it to the last year of the Danbury Fair.  I don’t know all the reasons why the Fair ended.  Maybe, it was just the time period, the 1980s...there were new forms of entertainment and distractions, or perhaps with Leahy no longer in charge, there was a lack of leadership.  Along came a major developer who dangled the right sum of money in front of the eyes of those who had controlling interests in the Danbury Fair, and the Fair was gone...forever.  Knocked down, torn apart, never to hear the squeals of delight from children again.  In its place, the Danbury Fair Mall was constructed.  Just what the world needed...another mall...the 20th century’s edifice to planned consumerism.

Fast forward to 1997.  My family and I were making an infrequent trip to Connecticut which took us through Danbury.  We exited off I-84 to drive around, and look at my old neighborhood and stomping grounds.  We decided to drive down Mountainville Avenue, which was on the other side of Rogers Park from where I grew up on Putnam Drive.  I was driving when my wife told me to stop and turn around.  She noticed a house with a lot of things on the front lawn....things from the Danbury Fair.

We pulled into the driveway, and marveled at what we saw...old figurines from Gold Town, parts of familiar signs and pieces of buildings from the Fair, and a large bulletin board with dozens of family photos from the Fair.  We knocked on the door of the house.  An older man answered.   His name was Walter Dunlap.  A chance drive by a house on Mountainville Avenue resulted in an hour long reminiscence of the Danbury Fair.  We spoke excitedly about our Fair memories, and about people we knew in common from years ago in Danbury. 

Mr. Dunlap had been a State Policeman, who worked the gates, parking lot, and security at the Danbury Fair for many years.  When the Fair closed down, there was a major auction of thousands of Danbury Fair items.  Many were bought by people representing other Fairs and carnivals across the country, but some were bought by average citizens, like Walter Dunlap.  However, he didn’t buy the items to make money from them.  Instead, he displayed them annually as a tribute to the late Great Danbury Fair during the same week in October that the Fair had run every year.  It was my good fortune to be there during that week in 1997, and see his homage to days past.

Every year, Dunlap began his weekly Fair tribute by visiting the grave of John Leahy, saying a few words there, and leaving flowers.  He had known Leahy on first name basis, and spoke of him with great respect

"You know what I miss most about the Fair?" Mr. Dunlap asked me, his bright eyes wide, "all the wonderful smells."

Instantly, I understood exactly what he meant.  He wasn't referring only to the typical food and carnival smells.  No, at the Danbury Fair there was an air of conviviality...a liveliness.   Every October, the Fair became a large happy organism, and all the attendees, vendors, and entertainers contributed their joy to its existence.

To this day, there are legions of “Walter Dunlaps” who savor and keep that memory alive in their hearts.

Copyright: Marc Catone, 2011

Click below for photos from the Danbury Fair:

Danbury Fair Photos

Click below for "Danbury Fair Song" video by Dave King:

Danbury Fair Song

 

The Sunday Drive

Back in the 50s, and early 60s, many families would go for what came to be known as a "Sunday drive". Sometimes, there was a destination in mind, sometimes not. Mom, Dad, and the kids would pile into the family car, and just go for a ride, often times on back roads, not trying to get anywhere fast, but just going somewhere for the sake of going somewhere. This was before all of the Interstate highways linked everyone, where one would be on a country road, not totally sure where you'd wind up if you took a left or right at a fork in the road, often coming upon some Mom and Pop diner, or place to spread out a picnic lunch.
This was also the time before stores were open on Sundays. In some states, like my home state of Connecticut, there were Sunday "Blue laws" in effect that actually prohibited stores from being open on Sundays. I remember that pharmacies would take turns on Sundays being the "designated drug store" open. Everything was closed up...which not only contributed to the "Sunday drive", but also to taking long walks, just going over someone's home to shoot the breeze for awhile.
Then, in the early to mid-60s, the interstates beckoned and the Blue laws were repealed...Sunday was no longer a special day anymore. We all came into the mindset that "fast" was the way, and doing something quicker was better.
Call me old fashioned, but I miss that slow pace...somehow we managed to live on Sundays, without too many disruptions or tragedies, just by taking our time.

copyright: Marc Catone 2010

Danbury in 1960

This is the original piece I wrote in March 2010 about Danbury in 1960. I rewrote it, and pared it down for the article which eventually appeared in the Danbury News-Times(see below this article or in the Links section for that published article)

Danbury in 1960

Marc A. Catone

 

Perhaps, it's because the beginning of 2010 is still upon us, or that I've been afflicted by every conceivable kind of flu and illness coming down the pike for the past 2-3 weeks, but something obvious dawned on me last night.

2010 is the 50th anniversary of 1960.
A good friend of mine once told me that the year in which one attains 10 years of age is pivotal...a period of transistion. You're no longer a little kid, and yet you aren't a teen. You can still get away with sitting on a parent's lap, but you're also expected to act more mature.

I was 10 years old in 1960, and I will never forget that year. There was such a newness...a freshness...just saying the name out loud, "1960", was cool...a radical departure from the 50s. So many things happened to me, and the country, that year.

The presidential election between Kennedy and Nixon was the hottest thing going. Heck, they even talked about it on my favorite TV Show, "Dobie Gillis". I was in 5th grade when Kennedy won. My teacher was a 20-something, Irish Roman Catholic guy, who had recently been in the army. He was my first male teacher. You could see the glee in his eyes when he spoke to the class about what Kennedy would do for the country, how he would usher in a new era of young people into civic life. Little did we know how much of an impact JFK's life, and death, would have on us later in the decade. Things as noble as the Peace Corp, and as devastating as Vietnam.

It was also a year of innovation...color TV became more popular, though still on the pricey side. My father drove my sister and I to an appliance store as we joined others gazing at "The Flintstones" on a color TV in the showroom window. The local radio station from my hometown of Danbury CT tried an experiment in stereo.

America moved closer to manned space flight...in competition against our sworn enemy, the Soviet Union.

I think I should pause here, for a second, to point out that in 1960 you couldn't have found anyone more "American" than yours truly. I believed all of the historical "facts" that my teachers taught me about the USA. I believed that our leaders were always right, and our country was never wrong, but most of all, I knew that the biggest threat to our way of life was communism, and we had to stop the Communists before they stopped us. Russia was always plotting against us, I was told...and I never doubted it. Only five short years later, I began to have an entirely new outlook about my country. When one realizes that imperfection exists, and that those once trusted do, in fact, lie...it is the lifting of a veil never to cloud one's vision again.

But back to 1960...I began my lifelong love of baseball. I began watching the game, on and off, a couple of years before, but in 1960, I watched baseball on TV. In that era, after the departure of the Dodgers and Giants to the sunnier climes of California, and before the Mets began, the Yankees were, literally, the only game in town. I spent many a Sunday watching double-headers from Yankee Stadium on our old black-and-white TV...my father teaching me the rules of the game.

I watched the 1960 World Series from beginning to end, arriving home from school just in time to witness Bill Mazeroski's 7th game, bottom of the ninth, home run propel the Pittsburgh Pirates over the Yankees. I was ecstatic. Hey, I said I watched the Yankees, but I never liked them...still don't. 50 years later, some things don't change.

I also started collecting baseball cards...TOPPS brand with the impossible-to-chew piece of flat bubblegum inside each pack. My father and I began to toss the ball around to each other, having games of "catch" that summer of 1960....breaking in my new baseball glove. When I saw Dad catch the ball one-handed, and I tried and failed to do that, he said to me, "Beginners use two hands"...advice that applied to many things as time went by, both literally, and figuratively.

Dad was selling above-ground swimming pools at Firemens' carnivals at various towns on the CT/NY border that summer, and I would help him set up his demo-model. One time, the local firemen were filling up the pool with their firehose. I was standing on the ladder on the opposite end when the hose slipped out of their hands, and the powerful stream hit me right in the chest, knocking me on my ass to the ground. Dad ran over to see if I was OK...I was...just soaking wet, and a bit embarassed. However, whenever I would see film on the news of civil rights workers being sprayed down with firehoses, I knew first hand how powerful those water cannons could be.

It was also a Summer of Love for me...of the unrequited variety that is. For reasons only known to the heart of a 10 yr. old boy, I developed a "crush" for a girl who lived on the main road, opposite the street where I lived. She was five years older...I didn't stand a chance. I acted goofy, and showed off in front of her. I'm sure she had no idea that I liked her that way. Had she known, I'm sure she would have run in the opposite direction each time I rode on my bike to her house.

As 1960 came to a close, one of the most traumatic events of my young life occurred. My next door neighbor, Jerry, and I had been buddies since we were three years old. We played together all the time...making believe we were soldiers in the woods and fields behind our homes...hunting for nite-crawlers, and going fishing in the Rogers Park pond about a half-mile from our street...riding our sleds down the big hill in his backyard. However, it all ended shortly before school started in the Fall of 1960, when his parents bought a house on the other side of town, moving Jerry and his two younger brothers away from Putnam Drive. The scene of his departure is forever etched in my mind. Jerry and his family piling into their woody station wagon...his Dad driving them down to the circle turn-a-around at the end of our dead end street, and Jerry waving to me for the last time as they drove by. I stood on the sidewalk for a little while, feeling empty.

I'll never be sure, but I think his departure from our street taught me about change. Walking away from the sidewalk on that uneasy day, I was ready...things were in the air in 1960, the winds of change were shifting. It was a portal for things to come...and oh, what times came after...the Sixties.
And now it is 50 years later since I was 10 years old in 1960. Time is flying by at a rapid pace. It feels good to sit back and remember a world that moved a bit slower, and showed us who we would become.
Copyright: Marc Catone 2010

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Click below for the abridged version of the above article, as it appeared in the Danbury News-Times in April 2010.

http://www.newstimes.com/opinion/article/Remembering-Danbury-in-1960-433609.php#page-1

Below is the link to the 1960 photo of my pal, Jerry Lefebvre, and me included in the print version of the Danbury News-Times, but not in the online version

http://marccatone.webs.com/apps/photos/photo?photoid=107789121

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