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InterviewS Well, hello Dolly

February 24, 2019

Dolly Curtis still remembers when actress Carol Channing sang her a song.

Curtis and the late Leo Meyer were co-hosting their weekly radio show “Backstage Buzz” on WPKN and talking to Channing by phone in California.

“She asked if she could sing ‘Hello, Dolly!’ to me, and then she did it on the air,” says Curtis, a longtime arts enthusiast from Easton.

Channing, who died in January at age 97, is one of many theater luminaries Curtis and Meyer interviewed on the show. Meyer knew Channing from his years as a prominent theater set designer.

Curtis is well known in the region’s arts community for her involvement and passion. In addition to the radio show, she hosted the cable-TV show “Dolly Curtis Interviews” for 28 years, has offered weekend entertainment suggestions on WICC-AM, and organizes Easton Public Library art exhibits to promote the work of emerging and established artists.

She’s also active with the Easton Arts Council and Connecticut Critics Circle, a statewide group for theater reviewers.

“Next week, I go out every night,” Curtis says recently while looking over her hand-written personal calendar. Plays, concerts, a circus and gallery opening at a variety of venues were on her schedule.

The following week was just as booked. “Monday is my only quiet night,” Curtis says.

Some people may wonder where Curtis, 76, gets all her stamina. “It’s just part of me,” she says. “I’ve always had this amazing energy.”

The arts hold a special place in her heart. Her mother studied art in Paris but then worked as a teacher to help support her family. Her mom instilled a love of art in her children and Curtis and her three siblings all grew up to be artists.

“Art helps people find their way in life,” she says. “It helps them grow by leaps and bounds.”

When younger, Curtis was a textile artist. She specialized in large installations, some 40 feet tall. Many were commissioned and put in corporate and university buildings. A New York City gallery sold her work.

She became a textile artist somewhat by accident, when she retained some weaving supplies — including a loom — from her mother’s house and decided to take lessons at the Brookfield Craft Center. “It was in my genetics,” Curtis says.

Former Easton Librarian Bernadette Baldino has known Curtis for many decades and says she “has unstoppable curiosity and that makes her a fascinating person. Dolly is a character, can always make you laugh and has a big heart.”

Hugh Hallinan, executive producer of Bridgeport’s Downtown Cabaret Theatre, says Curtis “is the poster child for the optimity of all things theater.” He always learns something new when he chats with her, even if Curtis does most of the talking.

Curtis is known for being talkative. She says it was the only way to get noticed growing up in her family. “If you didn’t talk fast and often, no one would hear you,” she says.

She grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Her father owned an electronics store. She got excellent grades, was president of her high school senior class and mastered baton twirling.

She attended Penn State, where she met her husband, Jack, and graduated in three years. They married in 1963 and he became a landscape architect. She was a teacher before having their two children, Kara and Jack. The family moved to Easton in 1979.

Baldino asked Curtis to oversee art displays inside the Easton Library almost 25 years ago. The volunteer responsibility increased when a new, larger library was built.

“I don’t want them to be empty for one day,” Curtis says of display spaces inside the library.

She seeks out artists from beginners to the renown, showcasing not just paintings and photographs but costume design, pencil sculpture, painted bricks, hand-blown glass, industrial product design and masks.

“We’ve had some amazing things,” she says, noting she’s already booked artists for most of 2019.

“Dolly Curtis Interviews” began by featuring every farmer in Easton on a show and expanded to cover the arts, history and other regional subjects. She eventually did 300 shows.

She interviewed an Easton woman who flew with Amelia Earhart as a teenager at Sikorsky Airport as well as folk legend Pete Seeger, who she first met during a hootenanny in Easton.

The “Backstage Buzz” radio show started when Meyer suggested the idea. The two were friends and attended many plays in New York together.

The show airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on WPKN. Guests have included entertainer Lucie Arnez, “Mommie Dearest” author Christina Crawford and Turner Classic Movies presenter Robert Osbourne.

Curtis also has been active in other ways, working with an organization to keep Easton rural, once serving on a committee that helped select Fulbright Scholars, and supporting local preservation efforts such as trying to save Norwalk’s White Barn Theatre.

She takes pride in the many budding artists she has assisted through the years, whether with words of advice or an invitation to exhibit their work in Easton. “It’s nice to know you encouraged people,” she says.

Brad Durrell is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.