From the man who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier to Lucille Ball’s beloved second banana, Stamford has had its share of groundbreaking luminaries. Here are just a few:
Harry Houdini — The man who has been called “the Babe Ruth of magicians” paved the way for such escape artists as David Blaine and Criss Angel with death-defying events that have been immortalized in films, TV series and comics. Born Erik Weisz to a Hungarian-Jewish family, Houdini reinvented himself again and again as an actor, aviator and debunker of phony spiritualists, constantly pushing himself mentally and physically. He lived in New York City and Los Angeles as well as in Australia, where he sought to be the first person to fly in that continent, even alighting for a time on North Stamford, where he had a summer home on Webbs Hill Road. But nothing could pin him down for long. He died at age 52, appropriately enough on Halloween 1926, of peritonitis after a ruptured appendix that may or may not have been brought on by a dressing room stunt in which a woman repeatedly punched him in the abdomen.
Cyndi Lauper — With her 1983 album, “She’s So Unusual” — the first debut album to spawn four top-five hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 — Lauper established herself as distinctive a persona as she was a singer-songwriter, one who foreshadowed Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. Her work as a humanitarian, particularly on behalf of the LGBTQ community, earned her a place at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. For 30 years, she and her family lived in a stone house on Saddle Hill Road in North Stamford that once belonged to designer Vince Camuto. There, she wrote five albums and her Tony Award-winning musical “Kinky Boots.”
Meat Loaf — The former Marvin Lee Aday (later Michael Lee Aday) was best-known by the stage name that signaled best-selling albums and appearances in such films as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Fight Club.” Aday had a challenging childhood at the hands of an abusive, alcoholic father in his native Dallas. There as a 16 year old, he met President John F. Kennedy at Dallas Love Field airport just hours before JFK’s assassination. (Driving to Parkland Hospital after hearing of the assassination, his car was commandeered by a government official.) Aday lived with wife Leslie and their two daughters in Stamford, Westport and Redding, coaching children’s baseball and softball in all three communities. Conservative in his politics, he opposed mask and vaccine mandates, telling the press “If I die, I die. But I’m not going to be controlled.” He died Jan. 20 at 74 of complications from Covid.
Dannel P. Molloy — The 88th governor of Connecticut, Malloy was born and raised in Stamford, accommodating learning disabilities to graduate magna cum laude from Boston College and earn a J.D. from Boston College Law School. After a stint as assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, he returned to Stamford and entered into private practice before serving on the city’s board of finance and being elected mayor for four terms (1995-2009). As governor (2011-19), he championed a Democratic agenda of social justice, voting rights, educational reform, stricter gun laws and the decriminalization of marijuana, but proved unpopular due to tax increases. Today he is chancellor of the University of Maine System (UMS).
Gilda Radner — Whether she was playing Roseanne Roseannadanna, the determinedly ethnic local newscaster; the clueless, issues-minded Emily Litella; or Baba Wawa (Barbara Walters) on “Saturday Night Live,” Radner went straight for the funny bone — and the heart. Misdiagnosed for 10 months with what turned out to be ovarian cancer, she chronicled her struggles in part in her memoir “It’s Always Something,” titled after Roseanne Roseannadanna’s catchphrase. After her death in 1989, her husband, fellow comic actor Gene Wilder (“The Producers,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) co-founded Gilda’s Club for cancer sufferers and their families. It is now affiliated with Cancer Support Community. (Gilda’s Club Westchester serves Westchester and Fairfield counties along with parts of New York City.) Wilder died in the couple’s 1734 Colonial home in Stamford in 2006.
Jackie Robinson — The word “legend” is often overused but is probably too little to describe Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 — starring at second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers and enduring horrific abuse in the process, which he bore with grace. His steady presence and sparkling play opened the door for other gifted Black players and later other minorities. His Dodgers career also marked the beginning of many firsts — first Black television analyst in MLB and the first Black vice president of a major American corporation, Chock full o’Nuts. In the 1960s, he helped establish the African American-owned Freedom National Bank in Harlem. For his achievements, he would be posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honors. Not surprisingly, the Robinson family had difficulty finding a home in the mainly white enclaves of Westchester and Fairfield counties. They were ultimately able to build their dream home at 95 Cascade Road in North Stamford with the help of Richard L. Simon, co-founder of the publishing house Simon and Schuster, and wife Andrea. (See below.)
Chuck Scarborough — Since 1974, this Stamford resident has been the lead anchor on NBC 4 — NBC’s flagship in New York — garnering 36 local Emmy Awards, a national Emmy and the Edward R. Murrow Award (for his team’s coverage of Hurricane Sandy) and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award (for NBC 4’s reporting on Covid-19). Scarborough, a Pittsburgh native, began his career in Mississippi, where he graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. A United States Air Force veteran, Scarborough holds a commercial pilot’s license and has also written three novels. He shares the same first name (Charles) and last name with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, to whom he is not related.
The Simon Family — Of all the prominent couples and families in tony North Stamford, few were more accomplished than the Simon family. Paterfamilias Richard L., the co-founder of the Simon and Schuster publishing house, and his civil rights activist-wife, Andrea Heinemann Simon — who owned the Newfield Avenue estate on which the Mead School now sits — were instrumental in helping Jackie Robinson and wife Rachel acquire land in North Stamford to build their dream home and housed them while their home was being built. But the Simonses are probably better-known today for their talented offspring — opera mezzo-soprano-turned-Realtor Joanna Simon; singer-theater composer Lucy, photographer Peter and singer-songwriter Carly, the first artist to win an Oscar, a Grammy and a Golden Globe for writing and performing a song for a film (“Let the River Run” for “Working Girl,” 1988). (Though she grew up wanting to play centerfield for the New York Yankees, Carly would become the unofficial mascot of the rival Dodgers, courtesy of Robinson, who tried to teach her to hit left-handed.)
Bobby Valentine — Valentine has been as loyal to his hometown of Stamford as he has been to baseball. A utility player for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the California Angels (now the Los Angeles Angels), the New York Mets and the Seattle Mariners, he is perhaps best-known as manager of the Mets, taking them to the National League Championship series in 1999, when they lost to their archrival, the Atlanta Braves; and the World Series the following year, when the Mets lost to their crosstown rival, the New York Yankees. Valentine also managed the Texas Rangers and, for one dismal season, the Boston Red Sox and served as athletic director of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. Since 1980, he has owned Bobby V’s Restaurant & Sports Bar in Stamford. Last year, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor against Democratic state representative Caroline Simmons, who became Stamford’s first female mayor. (See Page 12.)
Vivian Vance — Beloved as Lucille Ball’s longtime sidekick — first as Ethel Mertz on “I Love Lucy” and later as Vivian Bagley on “The Lucy Show” — Vance has been back in the news recently, thanks to the absorbing, new Oscar-nominated film “Being the Riccardos,” which takes viewers behind the scenes of the making of “I Love Lucy” during the McCarthy witch hunt when Ball was accused of having once belonged to the American Communist Party. In the movie, Vance is seen as fighting for Ethel’s place in the sun, which often pitted her against the curmudgeonly William Frawley, who played her much-older husband, Fred, and even against Ball, with whom she had a sometime-rivalry. Vance was the first actress to win an Emmy Award as Best Supporting Actress, for “I Love Lucy,” and the first to play a divorcee on a weekly American TV series (on “The Lucy Show”). She and the last of her four husbands, literary agent, editor and publisher John Dodd, lived in Stamford, moving to California in 1974.