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Saturday, February 24 Opinion

Woog's World: The Levitt gets a new stage fit for Westport's version of 'Ed Sullivan Show'

It's been 40 years in the making. But this Sunday, Westport's Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts finally moves into a home worthy of its mission.

Six days a week, every summer since the Ford administration, "the Levitt" has provided outdoor (and occasionally indoor) entertainment to the greater Westport community. I say "indoor" because summer brings rain and lightning, so sitting outside watching performers with amps is not the safest idea. And I say "the greater Westport community" because while many residents are Levitt regulars -- particularly families with young kids, and senior citizens with lawn chairs -- many others could not find their way there if world peace depended on it (hint: it's that big bandshell behind the library). But audiences are consistent and large, and a decent bulk of them are folks who don't live in the 06880.

The Levitt Pavilion is our version of the Ed Sullivan Show. I mean that very respectfully. Note to anyone born after the Nixon administration: Back when "television" meant three networks and one set with rabbit ears parked in the living room, the Ed Sullivan Show was a Sunday night ritual. Entire families gathered to watch Broadway stars, opera singers, comedians, ballet dancers, plate spinners and a "little Italian mouse" called Topo Gigio -- ask your parents about him -- along with Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Doors (until they did not change "girl, we couldn't get much higher" to "girl, we couldn't get much better"). We had to watch all the random acts before the Supremes, Turtles, Remains and many other groups did their thing, but that was back in the day when teenagers still had attention spans, and no other diversions (or lives).

The Levitt offers up all that stuff -- plus military bands, oompah bands, swing bands, klezmer bands, and everything other kind of Ed Sullivan-esque band -- though instead of something different every five minutes, the act changes every night.

You never know what you're going to get -- a great performance or a dog -- but that's part of the Levitt's charm.

Actually, from time to time you do know. This is Westport, so every once in a while the Levitt books a Really Big Shew. (Ask your parents about that reference too.)

This Sunday, for example, the newly renovated Levitt opens with Jose Feliciano. (And "newly renovated" ain't just whistlin' Dixie. There is a handsome new stage, with actual dressing rooms. Re-graded and re-sodded grass. Picnic groves. An information booth. A "hospitality center" featuring food services and indoor restrooms (!). This is all great news, unless you are a Porta-Potty vendor or bug spray manufacturer.)

But back to Jose. He is not only a fantastic singer/guitarist/songwriter -- with a vast repertoire far beyond "Feliz Navidad," "Light My Fire" (note second reference in one column) and a jazzy version of the national anthem at the 1968 World Series that paved the way for Whitney Houston, Marvin Gaye, Ace Frehley and all who followed.

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Jose Feliciano is also a Weston resident, and a man who gives back to the community. When he kicks off the slightly delayed 2014 season on Sunday -- sorry, all the free tickets were snapped up long ago -- he'll donate his fee to the Levitt building fund.

Jose Feliciano joins a long list of notable performers at the Levitt, though he'll be the first on its new stage. Many appeared at benefit concerts -- the one or two times a year that the Levitt charges money. (The funds pay operating expenses, along with whatever an oompah, klezmer or military band charges.)

My favorite benefit concert was Willie Nelson. In addition to being an A-list artist who clearly loves performing, he played a couple of songs with one of Jose Feliciano's neighbors who wandered onstage, guitar in hand. You may have heard of him: guy named Keith Richards.

Buckwheat Zydeco was a close second. In addition to epitomizing Levitt-ness -- sure, let's book an accordionist who plays Creole/Cajun/rhythm-and-blues -- his was one of the most energetic shows I've ever seen. There is nothing like a little washboard music to get the hedge fund managers of Westport dancing in the grassy aisles.

The worst -- hands down -- was the Beach Boys. Bad weather moved the show inside to the Staples fieldhouse, where the temperature was about 190 degrees. The sound system sucked. This was several years ago, but the "Boys of Summer" had already become the "Grandfathers of Summer." This was in the middle of one of their many legal battles too, so only a couple of real Beach Boys were actually on stage.

Yet that was an anomaly. Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Frankie Valli, Neil Sedaka, America -- all have graced the Levitt stage.

And now the Levitt has a graceful new stage -- and much, much more -- to usher in the next 40 wonderful years.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.