April 8, 2009

Norton put heart and soul into Lake Compounce

Lake Compounce, the nation’s oldest amusement park, might not have survived without its former manager, J. Harwood “Stretch” Norton, pulling for it.

In its darkest days in the early 1990s, he rallied the community to keep the park open, if only for a long weekend.

Carolyn Norton said when they were courting, Stretch took her to the park – owned by his family for generations – the first time she came East to visit him from her native Ohio.

“He was truly interested in Bristol, but mostly he was in love with Lake Compounce,” she said.

Norton, a former mayor and famously long-winded talker, could spin tales about his beloved Lake Compounce for hours, telling stories about everything from finding a drowned teenager in the murky water to crawling through the beams of the ballroom to install a secret reel-to-reel tape machine to preserve the Big Band sounds he adored.

“He told me that he had recorded a lot of the bands,” said former Mayor Frank Nicastro.

One of the toughest moments of Norton’s life came in 1985 when he helped sell the park, which had been in the family for four generations. The land itself had been owned by the Norton family for three centuries.

So many family members had a stake in the park, including “a lot of widows” who worried about their finances, that it proved impossible to get a consensus to do anything other than sell, Norton said.

Jerry Brick, currently the general manager at Lake Compounce, said he enjoyed spending time with Norton and swapping stories about amusement park management.

“I thought the world of him,” said Brick. “He was a nice guy.”

Brick said Norton leaves a solid legacy at Lake Compounce, the nation’s oldest amusement park.

“They go hand in hand,” said Brick, “the park’s name, Stretch’s name.”

One tradition that didn’t survive was the annual Crocodile Club dinner that the Norton family had thrown for state politicians each summer for 128 years.

Its menu – roasted lamb, fried corn, sliced tomatoes, watermelon, a beer and a cigar – never changed. Neither did the corny jokes, or Norton’s single-minded determination to pulling off the party every year.

The club held its last dinner in 2002. The next summer, Norton announced he could no longer keep up the work that inviting 2,200 people required.

“We had such great fun at the Crocodile Club dinners,” Gov. Jodi Rell said, adding that she “will miss Stretch's smile and sense of humor.”

“It was a great thing,” said Nicastro.

Former Mayor Mike Werner, a longtime friend, said he’ll always remember the Crocodile Club and Norton’s “terrible jokes when he emceed it.”

Norton’s love of Lake Compounce and of Big Band music “was second to none,” said Nicastro.

Under Norton’s watch, musicians Cab Calloway, Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra, pulled crowds as large as 4,000 people to the park for performances, said Nicastro.

“He met ‘em all,” said Nicastro. “These are the greats. These are the giants. They were all there. There isn’t a band that didn’t make Lake Compounce.”

Nicastro said he shared Norton’s love of Big Band music.

“We got along famously because of that,” said Nicastro.

Nicastro has Norton to thank for exposing him to a lot of Big Band greats at an early age.

When he was about 11 years old, Nicastro said, Norton would allow him to sneak into the ballroom on the side of the stage and see the musicians up close.

“He’d say to me, ‘Ya like that, doncha, kid?’” Nicastro recalled.  “He let me stand there and listen. I would get goose bumps.”

Norton knew what that chance meant to Nicastro, then a beginning trumpet player.

“I truly loved him for that,” said Nicastro. He said Norton even introduced him to Kenton and Ferguson.

Nicastro later not only played his horn professionally, but built an extensive music collection. Sometimes, he said, he’d find an old recording Norton would like and give him a copy.

“He’d go crazy,” said Nicastro.

Today, Nicastro will repay his friend for those old favors by playing “Taps” at Norton’s military graveside rites.


Funeral details

The funeral service for Norton, who died Friday, will be held at 11 a.m. today at St. Joseph Church. A private burial will be held at the Lake Avenue Cemetery where generations of Nortons have been laid to rest.

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.
Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com


Anonymous said...

I was to young to remember Mr Norton as Mayor, but he seems like a really nice guy from what I've read and heard. An a lighter note, to bad he didn't hide reel-to-reel tape machine under the Mayor's desk! I'm sure it would be interesting lol

Concerned Conservative said...

The Crocodile Club was a great event every year. Stretch was a great emcee, organizer and host. It was amazing to see all the big-shot state politicians from both parties there every year. Great food and drink too. What a time! What a guy he was!
Thank you so much Stretch. Heaven has been waiting for you sir.