Through pandemic year, Shelton man held community together

Photo of Brian Gioiele
Don Scinto shows off a photo from his days performing at the Polka Dot Playhouse in his hometown of Bridgeport.

Don Scinto shows off a photo from his days performing at the Polka Dot Playhouse in his hometown of Bridgeport.

Brian Gioiele / Hearst Connecticut Media

SHELTON - The last name may be familiar to city residents, but this particular Scinto focuses on developing personal relationships not commercial real estate.

Don Scinto — cousin of well-known Shelton developer Rob Scinto — has spent his life in sales and marketing when he was not displaying his acting skills on stage at the Polka Dot Playhouse in his home town of Bridgeport or appearing in commercials hawking Schaefer beer.

Dealing with people, he says, is his great passion. That may be why he has fit in so well as Benchmark at Split Rock Senior Living’s “ambassador.”

“I’m a people person. You can say I’ve made a career of developing relationships with people,” said Scinto, who has taken over as the facility’s exercise instructor, in-house movie promoter and head of the drama club. “I just try to bring the best out of everyone.”

What has made life easier for Scinto and the Benchmark Senior Living staff is a new program through which residents are interviewed about their lives and interests. The information is then fed into a computer program that helps match residents based on history, likes and hobbies.

For Scinto, this has made his life connecting with other Split Rock residents much easier during the pandemic.

“This program has been a great tool for us,” said David Fife, the facility’s executive director.

In all, Fife said 94 residents were interviewed and the results sparked several new clubs, including arts and drama clubs. The results also sparked new friendships and rekindled old ones. Scinto, for example, learned he was living in the same facility as a woman he once took to junior prom.

Scinto’s story stands out, Fife says, because it demonstrates the power of hope. In a year where COVID-19 kept so many people apart at centers like Split Rock, Scinto never lost hope. He is the embodiment of the strength to stay together and maintain friendships while building new ones, Fife said.

A boxer in his youth, Scinto said his height never matched his desire. So he made the switch from punching to performing, earning his acting chops on stage at the Polka Dot Playhouse, located on Bridgeport’s Pleasure Beach. All the while, his uncle had a connection with the manager of the Fairfield office of the New York-based Schaefer Brewing Company. So right out of college Scinto had a lucrative job in sales and marketing.

At first, other employees resented Scinto, feeling like they had been passed over, he said. But within a year he was in everybody’s good graces.

“I started bringing the girls from some of the shows that we did [at Polka Dot Playhouse],” he said, “And that kind of picked up my popularity.”

Scinto’s breakthrough into television commercials came when his boss from New York was transferred to Fairfield. He asked what people do for local entertainment. Scinto told him, “Well I got the lead in Come Blow Your Horn — why don’t you come watch us?”

After the play, his boss was impressed and called him to ask if he’d ever thought about doing commercials.

“I laughed and said, no I’m waiting to go to Hollywood,” Scinto recalled. “I thought he was pulling my leg.”

But he wasn’t and some weeks later Scinto found himself at a photogenic screen test, and then starring in several commercials for Schaefer beer.

He passed up the opportunity to make commercial acting his full-time job though, because he and his wife were unwilling to move to New York City. The couple was active in the Bridgeport community and political scene, and he was happy with his job at the brewery and his theater hobby.

Then in 1972 Schaefer moved its operation to a new facility in Allentown, Penn., and the company closed its other satellites, including Fairfield. But Scinto and his wife still didn’t want to relocate, so he retired instead.

For 12 years Don Scinto was a lead actor and general house manager at the Polka Dot Playhouse where he helped put on six to seven shows each season. During off seasons he’d travel around with other actors putting on “Miss Polka Dot” contests and teaching dance routines to raise funds for the next season.

Then the community theater attracted some well-connected investors and upgraded to a more glamorous venue where everything was bigger and better for a little while until the theater fell on some hard times.

“It was fun,” he said. “It was a really nice hobby while it lasted.”

To keep his theater spirit active, he started a drama club at Split Rock to teach acting and put on skits and little pageants for the other residents.

Scinto lived on his own for three years after his wife died, but the big empty eight-room ranch made him lonely. He moved to Split Rock four years ago. In that time, he’s managed to bring his many talents to bear and enrich the experience of his neighbors and everyone in the community.

“Here [at Split Rock] you’re never alone and there’s always something to do,” he said. “Plus it’s only about 10 minutes away from (his daughter, who’s also an actor and a teacher) so she can visit any time.”

Though he misses his wife, he keeps pictures of her around his apartment to keep him company—including a photo of the two of them with George H.W. Bush at a campaign cocktail party, which she helped organize as Bridgeport’s first female Republican town chair.

Scinto said he has no intention of slowing down. He’s an actor, a choir tenor, a certified physical education instructor. A people person. Not someone who sits still for long.

“I like to laugh and joke,” he said. “Make people happy. Keep things light as possible.”