Seniors sing Porter to stories of his life

Music aficionados will get a view of the legendary Cole Porter not often seen when Hot & Cole: The Life and Music of Cole Porter is presented Sunday, June 23, at 3, at Trackside Teen Center, 15 Station Road. Admission is free and the community is invited.

The show is the annual Greens at Cannondale Talent Show, but the choice to feature the music of Cole Porter was made due to a homegrown connection. Gretchen Yengst, who has lived in Wilton since 1970, is related to Mr. Porter through her mother, the late Beezie Schmitt, who would have marked 10 years at The Greens in September. Sadly, Mrs. Schmitt died June 16, and Sunday’s performance will be dedicated to her.

Ms. Yengst, a professional photographer and audio-visual producer, put the show together, offering an intimate look at the great songwriter through family photos and stories. As she was putting it all together, she learned a great deal about her family history.

“My grandfather was heir to Cole Porter’s estate,” she said, but she never understood why.

Cole Porter was an only child, born June 9, 1891 to Kate Cole and Sam Porter in Peru, Ind.

Ms. Yengst’s grandfather, James Omar, known as J.O., was less than a year younger than Cole. The two grew up on adjoining farms, and became like brothers, she said.

Since J.O. was the oldest boy in his family he was sent off to Wooster Academy in Massachusetts. As the only son in his family, Cole was sent as well. Their grandfather, also James Omar, intended for both young men to become lawyers, Ms. Yengst said.

Both were 18 and set to graduate when young James’ father died and he was called back to Indiana to run the family farm. That was fine with him, Ms. Yengst said, as he was a strapping young man suited to a life outdoors. When he married shortly thereafter, Cole came home to be his best man, even though James had two younger brothers.

Cole was pressured to go on to law school and returned east to attend Yale University.

“They physically split, but never emotionally,” Ms. Yengst said. She added that “they both got what they wanted.”

Cole eventually moved on to Harvard, first to study law and later switching to music and composition. In 1917 he left for Paris where he married American divorcée Linda Thomas and lived the life of a wealthy ex-pat.

“She realized his talent was too great to fritter away on the Riviera,” Ms. Yengst said of Linda, and in 1928 the Porters returned to the U.S. and settled in an apartment at the Waldorf-Astoria so Cole could work on Broadway. There, they continued their opulent lifestyle.

“He was a good time,” Ms. Yengst said. “Everyone loved him. He lived to party.”

The show

With some of the best known songs in American musicals to work with, from You’re the Top to Anything Goes, Ms. Yengst worked her family memorabilia around them to present her family story.

The program opens with Another Op’nin, Another Show from Kiss Me Kate and continues with You’re the Top from Anything Goes. Other selections include Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love; Night and Day; and True Love.

“The last one-third of the show is the part everyone knows,” Ms. Yengst said, “the big songs.”

Ms. Yengst has a treasure-trove of memorabilia to draw on, including private family photographs, souvenirs from a centennial celebration put on by a branch of her family, even Kate Cole Porter’s diary.

Ms. Yengst ties in Mr. Porter’s horseback riding accident that left him crippled in 1937, which she believes is a source of inspiration for the Greens seniors.

“They take great pride that he was crippled and in pain until the end,” she said, and yet he kept working. At his death he had published 800 songs and 30 musicals or stage plays.

“His life is an inspiration to everyone who’s performing,” she said.

Of Sunday’s performance, Ms. Yengst was frank.

“I’m not saying anyone will be blown away, but there won’t be a dry eye or a toe not tapping,” she said.

For the audience, the show “will tell them something they don’t know, add to their information and warm their hearts.”

The Greens seniors performing are Phil Antedominico, Janna Cannella, Sandra Duff, Yvonne French, Mary Jane Haiback, Adele Immerso, Rannells King, Rita Kneeland, Helen Ladouceaur, Shirley Lewis, Al and Grace Papp, Bernice (Sam) Paul, Leonor (Lee) Salvin, Suzanne Steinberg, Joby Stracka, and Nettie Wechter. The show is produced by Brenda Fay with musical direction by Padraic Spencer.

The inheritance

What happened to the legacy of Mr. Porter, who died Oct. 15, 1964? Ms. Yengst’s grandfather left it to his son, who died unexpectedly as a young man. The inheritance was then left to the young man’s three sisters, one of whom was Mrs. Schmitt.

The possessions of the three Porter homes were all gathered in an airplane hangar in Peru, Ms. Yengst said, and divided among the three women.

“One day I had a house as a college student in Indiana, then I came home and it was the Taj Mahal,” she said with a laugh.

Her mother held on to the items, which supported her in her later years. Ms. Yengst’s aunt and cousins control the Cole Porter Trust.

For her part, Ms. Yengst jokes she has a “milk shake mixer from the Waldorf-Astoria.”

“It’s the story behind the story,” she said.