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Posts Tagged ‘high school’

It’s that time of year when high school kids wrap up a lot of the year’s business. Calendars are full of AP exams; proms; musicals; championships in various athletic and intellectual competitions; and like that.

This week we return to an end-of-year ritual that, while relatively new at the time, might have felt to its participants awfully like old news:

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May 8, 1964. The Mets win. So do the Yankees, beating a young, unknown, but strong-armed and healthy Cleveland Indians pitcher named Tommy John.

My dad apparently won the Masters this week, because he got a green jacket delivered to him … but that’s not the subject of this post.

The weather was remarkable, and not just in Stamford. Tornadoes damaged Midway Airport in Chicago and killed 12 people in Michigan. But that’s not what we’re focused on this week either.

No, my aunt’s writing at the top of this week’s calendar entry is what we’re interested in. I don’t know if she was participating in the musical “Bye Bye Birdie” or just wanted to go to support friends, but it was prominent enough on her social agenda to mark on the family calendar.

(I would guess that she was just watching the show, because if she were participating, the whole family would have gone to support her, and then my grandpa would have marked it on the calendar. But I’m just spitballing with that.)

“Bye Bye Birdie,” for those unfamiliar with the plot, is based loosely on the induction of Elvis Presley into the Army in the 1950s.

In the musical, flamboyant young rock singer Conrad Birdie gives “one last kiss” as a publicity stunt to a randomly selected all-American girl on The Ed Sullivan Show just before being inducted. This event precipitates all manner of chaos into the lives of Birdie’s manager; the girl; her boyfriend and family; and others.

This pop-culture confection, introduced on Broadway in 1960 with Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera in lead roles, was a Tony Award-winning sensation. A movie adaptation starring Ann-Margret hit paydirt too, becoming the most popular movie in America for four weeks in April and May of 1963.

But something happened between May of ’63 and May of ’64. Specifically, a little something called the Beatles.

John, Paul, George and Ringo landed in the U.S. in January and February of 1964, and in no time at all, they owned American charts and minds.

During the week this musical was staged — presumably at Stamford’s old Rippowam High School — New York City’s WABC (“W-A-Beatle-C”) listed three Beatles tunes in its top 20. Just a month before, the Fab Four had attained the legendary feat of holding down the top five spots on Billboard’s national chart in the same week.

Elvis, in contrast, had simmered down considerably since his release from the Army in 1960. He’d starred in forgettable movies like Fun in Acapulco and It Happened At The World’s Fair, and he’d released a series of toothless (if sometimes successful) singles that lacked the rebellious punch of old.

That makes me wonder if “Bye Bye Birdie” had a bit of a faded feeling about it to its teenage participants in May 1964.

Wiggling hips? Sneering? A U.S. Army draft notice? Maybe your older sister got worked up about such quaintnesses. The real heartthrob action on every teen’s mind in May ’64 spoke with working-class English accents and bore no obligation to Lyndon Johnson’s Army. (Nor the Queen’s, either.)

As it turned out, time would be merciful to both “Bye Bye Birdie” and Elvis.

Less than two weeks after the Stamford performance of “Bye Bye Birdie,” the once and future King proved he wasn’t washed up by releasing Viva Las Vegas, the vibrant and energetic high point of his post-Army film career. (In a mild irony, the female lead who brought out his best performance was Ann-Margret.)

And, despite the eventual fading of Elvis, “Bye Bye Birdie” managed to survive through the years as a staple of the teenage musical repertoire. The young thespians of Rippowam — it’s a middle school now — put on an age-appropriate version of “Bye Bye Birdie” as their spring musical just a year ago. Elvis’ induction into the Army is ancient history now, but apparently, the tunes are timeless.

I’m not sure any of that could be predicted in the specific window of time we’re visiting this week, though.

I wonder if the folks who’d written “Bye Bye Birdie” were looking out upon a Beatle-obsessed nation and thinking, “Well, it was a fun ride while it lasted.”

And, I’m imagining an auditorium full of teens sitting through the fictionalized story of Elvis … then stepping out into the still-humid night, starting up their cars, rolling down the windows, and singing along to the radio with a single voice:

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

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I’ve written about all kinds of community anchors that come and go.

Last week it was banks. In previous installments we’ve hit stores (like Gimbels and E.J. Korvette), movie theaters, churches, and too many restaurants to list.

I’m pretty sure we’ve never hit schools. Indeed, the schools attended by the Blumenau family of Hope Street, Stamford, have shown admirable staying power.

Springdale Elementary School — just up the street from 1107 Hope Street, and a place where I used to walk with my dad and brother for some open-field exercise — is still in business. So is my dad’s alma mater, Stamford High School, on the wonderfully named Strawberry Hill Avenue.

(Now that I think of it, I did once write about my dad’s old junior high, Dolan. That’s still around too.)

While those schools have lasted, other schools come and go — sometimes much quicker than anyone imagined they would.

This week finds my grandpa dropping off his recycling at a school that went from community institution to closed within a quarter-century’s time.

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February 6, 1971. The expansion Buffalo Sabres, in their first season, are outperforming the established Detroit Red Wings.

My dad, a member of Stamford High’s Class of 1961, attended double sessions at the school all three years he was there because of overcrowding. My mom spent her first year of high school in double sessions at Stamford High as well.

As it happened, the city of Stamford had a plan in place to respond to its teenage population boom. In the fall of 1961, the city opened its second public high school, Rippowam High School, on High Ridge Road.

The Hope Street Blumenaus’ younger child, my Aunt Elaine, graduated from Rip. So did the young woman who would later become my mother. And so did her younger brother, my Uncle T.J.

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These pix of Rippowam High’s football team (I think they’re in dark) were taken by my other (maternal) grandpa. My Uncle T.J. is almost certainly on the field somewhere. Rippowam’s most famous football player is not pictured, as he was 12 at the time; he did not take the field for Rip until later in the Sixties.

Rippowam High — named for a Native American tribe, which also lent its name to a local river — primarily drew students from the more affluent northern half of Stamford, while Stamford High drew from the city’s middle-to-working-class lower half.

(This seems to have been a common social pattern. When I lived in Framingham, Mass., 20 years ago, there was a Framingham North High School serving the leafy suburban parts, and a Framingham South serving the grittier southern parts where the freight trains ran through.)

In 1971, when my grandpa took his empty bottles there, Rip would have been settled in as a regular part of the city’s daily fabric.

But that didn’t last.

This New York Times article, despite its melodramatic lede, tells the story: As birth rates declined, the city of Stamford didn’t need Rippowam as much as it did in the early Sixties. Rippowam was closed following the 1982-83 school year. According to the Grey Lady, that was part of a larger trend: Stamford’s public school district declined from 24 schools in fall 1971 to 16 in fall 1983.

A third public high school in the northern part of town, Westhill High School, opened in 1972. Since Westhill was newer, Rip might have lost out to it when city officials were deciding what to close.

(A few of my cousins are Westhill grads and grew up in a house that backs up to the school’s property. Once in the late ’80s, when my brother and I were on our high school track team, we were visiting my cousins in Stamford and decided to sneak over to Westhill for a track workout. I jogged some laps while my brother — who won a New York State championship in indoor track around this same time — lit up a bunch of 400-meter intervals. The Westhill team was watching from the sidelines by the time we were done, wondering if the speedy stranger was a friend or a foe. They never found out for sure, because we never talked to them; when we were done, we just left. My brother had a flair for the dramatic during his competitive years, and leaving a bunch of kids asking each other, “Who the hell was that?,” was one of his great moments in that regard. This has nothing to do with Rippowam High or the patterns of Stamford’s teenage population. It was just a fun moment, and a favorite story of mine. And you get to hear it too.)

Anyway, the Rippowam building was used for alternative education programs, adult education, and for a science and technology magnet school.

Then, with enrollment on the rise again around the year 2000, it was pressed back into service as Rippowam Middle School, and remains in that use today.

Perhaps, fifty-plus years after its opening, Rippowam has finally found its permanent educational niche.

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