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Pageant of Darien: Public Spirit, Extravagance and Rain

Lecture by author Kenneth Reiss illuminates 1913 craze for civic self-celebration.

The year was 1913, the cusp of the turning point between what Darien had been (a Puritan New England farming community) and what Darien was to be (a paradise for New York City commuters).

A craze for community pageants—outdoor historical dramas in which the place is the hero and the historical development of the place is the plot—was sweeping the country and Darien happily joined the fad.

"The Pageant of Darien," the three-day extravaganza staged on the shore of Gorham Pond, was the subject of a slide lecture by Kenneth Reiss on Wednesday at the Darien Community Association.

National Craze

Reiss, former president of the Darien Historical Society, devotes a short chapter to the Pageant in his 2009 "The Story of Darien."

The new electrified rail line emanating from Grand Central Station brought servants, immigrant workers and the first generation of commuters to Darien. By 1913 a sudden influx of wealthy and influential New Yorkers had invaded the quiet farming community of Darien.

The Women's Service Group (forerunner of the DCA) was busy overseeing the screening of outhouses from public view and making other civic improvements.

Proud of their pretty town, the women decided that Darien should join the hundreds of communities across the nation celebrating themselves with pageants. Darien's wealthy newcomers with connections jumped on board to make it happen.

Conspicuous Extravagance

A town meeting was held on March 2, 1913 to approve the event, which was bankrolled with $10,000 in subscriptions—$250,000 in today's money.

The nation's leading expert on pageants, William Chauncey Langdon, was hired as Master of the Pageant. He wrote the script—reposing now in the Historical Society's archives—and directed the production.

Henry Baker, president of the only bank in town, was named chairman. Dr. Howard Stout Neilson, a New York homeopathic physician-turned breeder of Arabian horses at his new Darien estate, was business manager.

Broadway dramatist Edwin Milton Royle helped assemble the talent. New York choreographer Bertha Knight performed with dozens of white-costumed water sprites, played by Darien's young girls.

Thousands of props were assembled for re-enactments of scenes from Darien's past. The first settlers sported Pilgrim attire; a band of bare-chested Native Americans appeared in deerskin loincloths and leggings; Indian squaws wore beaded gowns. A stagecoach was borrowed from the Hippodrome in New York, and tents from the Brooklyn Navy Yard's field hospital were borrowed for the Civil War scenes.

Do It for Darien!

All the 1,800 residents of the town were encouraged to sign on to perform or assist in some way with the Pageant.

"Do it for Darien!" exhorted a paid advertisement.

Residents were encouraged to play the roles of their ancestors, and many did, including Stephen Mather who played heroic Rev. Moses Mather who endured imprisonment by the British after they disrupted a Sunday service during the American Revolution. (See the mural in the Town Hall auditorium.)

An aggressive national advertising campaign invited one and all to attend the great event. Artist Fred Dana Marsh created the vibrant pageant poster with its beautiful classical figure astride a white horse, a floral garland in her hair, hoisting a red banner with golden tassles.

A field off Goodwives River Road, where Swift's Lane is today, became a vast stage for the 200 performers and 27-piece orchestra. Bleachers were constructed to seat the anticipated crowds. Extra trains and trolleys were scheduled.

"It was a colossal undertaking," said Reiss.

The production was mostly spoken, with nine episodes, musical interludes and a couple of songs, all without a sound system.

"People had strong lungs in those days," Reiss said.

Nature Intervenes

Alas, a torrent of rain fell on August 29, the planned opening day of the Pageant.

Despite fair weather a week later, the expected crowds did not materialize and the subscribers lost much of their investment.

As one newspaper notice put it: "The grandstand, while far from full, contained enough people to make the rounds of applause noticeable."

The event publicist was driven to concede, "Pageants are of interest only to the community where they are given."

Nevertheless, the Pageant was a cause of jubilation within Darien.

"The town was very, very pleased with itself," Reiss said.

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