“What’s going on at the theater? The door’s open. There’s a lot of people out in front.” While conducting our May cover photo shoot outside the Strand Theater on Main Street in Seymour on a chilly Monday evening in late March, John Fanotto’s cellphone kept ringing.
The Grand Knight and business manager of the local council of the Knights of Columbus, which owns and operates the Strand, Fanotto knows a sizeable portion of the roughly 15,000 residents of Seymour. “That’s just people that know that I run the theater,” Fanotto says. “They were just calling to see, what does ‘The Valley Issue’ mean?”
The Naugatuck Valley is a largely self-contained community, and not exactly regarded as a destination location for those who reside outside the area. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Most local economies aren’t set up to be dependent on an influx of tourism dollars, and small-town charm can often be lost on those not from a small town.
Seymour is run by a board of selectmen headed by First Selectman Kurt Miller. But after spending some time with Fanotto, one could easily take him for the town’s unofficial mayor.
Fanotto, whose father was also a member of the KoC, is a civil engineer and land surveyor by trade. About 20 years ago the framing of the Strand’s iconic marquee was overloaded with snow and the drains were blocked. Fanotto used his expertise to fix the marquee, reinforcing it to the building, rebuilding drains and attaching emergency chains in case of future issues.
“That was just how I started getting involved” with the Knights and the Strand in the first place, says Fanotto (standing on the ladder on our cover).
“One thing led to another and it was, ‘Well, can you solve this problem?’ And then all of a sudden it was, ‘Here, this isn’t much more to do,’ and ‘Ahh, can you do this?’ ” Fanotto says, “and now we are running the theater and the Knights of Columbus.” The “we” includes his wife, Anna, who handles a lot of the day-to-day business of the Strand. Every movie the theater shows — The Rocky Horror Picture Show every October and It’s a Wonderful Life every December are the big draws — is a fundraising event benefiting a multitude of charities.
Fanotto took a couple of hours out of his busy schedule one recent Wednesday afternoon to provide a tour of the town, a town his family has called home since 1916 when his grandfather, an Italian immigrant, bought an ice house on property Fanotto still owns.
After meeting at the Strand we stopped into GuitarFixer Bob’s shop, which shares the marquee with the Strand and the Knights. The walls of luthier Bob Pieper’s spot is lined with guitars — old and new, traditional and exotic — guitar parts and all sorts of paraphernalia. It doesn’t take long for Fanotto and Pieper to start reminiscing about each of their times spent living in California, where Pieper was one of the original members of hard rock band XYZ in the late 1980s.
On that note we left the shop and walked down Main Street past galleries and antique shops, taking a right at the post office onto DeForest Street, Fanotto narrating all the while with knowledge of both past and present. We walked into the firehouse — the garage door was up, welcoming a large delivery of Easter plants — where he was able to double-check his memory against an early-20th-century town map hanging on the wall. Fanotto even has a story about the map.
He was hired by the town to do a structural report on the library for a planned addition. In order to get state funding, the whole library had to be inspected. In the Daughters of the American Revolution room, leaning against the wall, was an old map. “I said to the head librarian, ‘Did you see this? This is a really nice map. Maybe if you reproduce this, I’m sure people would love to buy it.’ So they used that as a fundraiser,” Fanotto says. “They still sell copies for $5 a piece.”
We crossed Wakeley Street and walked down to the banks of the Naugatuck River, which bisects the town of Seymour. The Tingue Dam and newly constructed fish bypass, located in the shadow of Route 8, is an impressive sight and ideal for lunch-hour strolls and dog-walking. We head up Wakeley and stop into Lizzie’s Corner, a consignment and gift shop with local products and crafts — the kind of place where you’ll spend a half-hour and walk out with honey, a T-shirt, a record, and a wooden block that says “All you need is love … and a cat.”
Tony’s Diner, Tea with Tracy and Barone’s Sports Cafe — depending on what kind of food and drink you’re in need of — are also located in the tiny downtown. You’ll need a vehicle to see the rest of Seymour, so we hopped into Fanotto’s truck as he drove from town line to town line. He pointed out certain developments that were “his” — Fanotto’s engineering and land surveying work on display — and casually reminded me how woven into the history of the town he and his family actually are: “That’s Emma Street … Emma was my grandmother.”
After treating me to a cappuccino, we conclude our tour at French Memorial Park (“It’s a guy’s name, it has nothing to do with France.”) It’s also the home field of the Seymour High baseball team, and the Wildcats are practicing as Fanotto explains that this is the location of the Seymour Pumpkin Festival, an annual event in September that seemingly everyone in town attends. As he drives toward the park exit, a towering foul ball lands about two feet in front of his truck. Fanotto doesn’t brake, his truck or his speech, and we head back toward the Strand. Something tells me when it comes to Seymour, he’s already seen it all.
More stories from our tribute to the Lower Naugatuck River Valley: