I remember reading in the Greenwich Times back in the 1990’s about Rene Anselmo, who lived on North Street in a house that reminded me of the White House. He was charged with removing real estate signs, which he thought were a blight on his neighborhood. Later, he tried to replace the Town’s standard green street signs with more attractive white wooden signs with black lettering. Recently, I learned he was responsible for planting tens of thousands of tulips and daffodils along North Street. These bloom each spring, and add to the beauty of the town. I decided to find out what I could about this unusual man.
Reynold “Rene” Anselmo was born on January 14, 1926 in the Boston suburb of Medford. He was of Italian descent, and his father was the Postmaster of Bedford, MA. Anselmo joined the Marine Corps at the age of 16, and flew 37 missions as a tail-gunner in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war, he attended the University of Chicago, where he studied Theater and Literature. Anselmo assembled a theater group, which he named “The Tonite at 8:30”. Several members went on to form the famous “Second City Comedy” ensemble! He graduated in 1951.
He went to Mexico for a vacation, but ended up staying there for 11 years to work on the Mexican television network Televisa. In 1963, he and some other investors bought an ailing TV station. As the group acquired other stations and the network grew, they founded SIN (Spanish International Network) – a Spanish language television network. SIN was the world’s first privately owned global satellite network. It transmitted 400 different broadcast, satellite and cable programs. The network targeted US and Latin American countries. The main competition was a network called IntelSat. Anselmo thought this company did not serve its public well. IntelSat was owned by 120 separate governments, including the United States. This may have been the reason the FCC started years of litigation against Anselmo. Regulations prohibited dual ownership of a foreign and domestic television network. It prohibited aliens from owning US networks. He was too closely connected with the foreign network Televisa. In 1986, he sold his stake in the SIN. Anselmo owned 25% of the company, which was sold to Hallmark Cards, Inc. for $80 million.
Anselmo now turned his attention to satellite transmission of video. In an attempt to break up the IntelSat monopoly, he created PanAmSat or Pan American Satellite in 1984. IntelSat controlled most international satellite television transmissions in 119 nations. Anselmo found allies in IBM, AT&T, Citicorp and several television networks, who wanted to break the monopoly. When a customer cancelled an order for a $45-million satellite from RCA in 1986, Anselmo bought it and launched it for $9 million. He subsequently named it after Simon Bolivar, the Mexican hero. The European Space Agency launched it from French Guiana using an Ariane rocket in 1988.
Anselmo’s venture was considered a mistake. Banks refused to underwrite the company. Anselmo put up $85-million of his own money. Opponents said PanAmSat would never be profitable; but several major cable networks such as HBO and ESPN signed on. A number of retailers utilized its satellite services to communicate between their corporate headquarters and outlets. PanAmSat offered greater flexibility and lower rates to its clients. It was able to raise $620-million for expansion and modernization. Today, the company employs 160 people.
According to a Greenwich city Directory, Rene Anselmo and his family were living at 408 North Street in the mansion they named “Northway”. The house was modeled after the Petit Trianon in Paris – a building near the Palace at Versailles. It was built on 18-acres, and covered 12,000 square feet. The 6 bedroom structure was worth $39-million. Anselmo is listed as being a TV producer in New York City.
Not only was Anselmo a “maverick’ in the communications business, but he also challenged the status quo in Greenwich. This got him into some trouble with local officials. Having spent such a large amount of money on his mansion, he was appalled to see so many real estate signs around the town. He felt these were a blight on the bucolic countryside. Anselmo drove around town removing the signs and brought them back to his house. He would then call the real estate companies and tell them they could pick up their signs at his North Street address. Some even accused him of spray painting over these signs, but this was never confirmed. He was twice arrested for removing and defacing signs. Suffice it to say, he was a sworn enemy of commercial signage. He presented a proposal to the Planning & Zoning Commission to prohibit such signage. This eventually led to a policy change in 1993.
In August of 1990, Anselmo had a public forum on the issue of metal signs. He thought the metal signs undermined the semi-rural character of the town. The Greenwich Green and Clean organization agreed with him Anselmo then ordered about 60 attractive white wooden signs with black lettering from Northeast Graphic Systems on Railroad Avenue. The new signs cost $275 a piece, while the old metal signs cost $45. These were donated to the town and placed on all roads intersecting with North Street. Anselmo tried to persuade the Connecticut DOT replace the North Street Merritt Parkway signs with small wooden ones. The Planning and Zoning Board of Appeals ordered removal of a gold letter sign he donated to Parkway School because it exceeded the regulation size! Anselmo paid to have a billboard removed from town property near Mianus Pond. He hoped this would encourage other beautification projects in town to protect the rustic, country feeling.
He was very generous with the schools. Not only did he pay for landscaping at parkway School, but he also had a wooden fence installed at Julian Curtis and North Street School to replace chain link fences. At Hamilton Avenue School, he installed the new playgrounds, jogging path, trees and shrubbery and improved the softball diamond.
When he started to have a fence erected around the Lawn Bowling Green in Bruce Park in 1993, the town ordered him to stop. He apparently didn’t have the proper paperwork. This angered many residents who started to flood the local paper with letters. Eventually this led to a change in the town’s gift policy. He donated $40,000 worth of trees and worked with Tree Warden Larry Cooper to have them placed around town.
Another thing he did for the town was to plant tens of thousands of daffodils and miniature tulip bulbs around town. He started with North Street, and these can still be seen along the road during the spring. It‘s estimated that he had more than 100,000 flowers planted, and even planted some himself.
Rene Anselmo was criticized by some for using his wealth to reshape the town in his own image. When the Town started talking about a fire station in back country, he donated $737,000 to the town to buy a North Street plot away from his house. He took out a full-page ad one year to oppose John Margenot’s election as First Selectman. Anselmo even protested when some members of the Planning & Zoning Board of Appeals had their house evaluations dropped to lower their property taxes.
One thing is for sure: Rene Anselmo was a very unique person. He was labelled the “Don Quixote of the Broadcast Industry “ and a “monopoly buster”. He passed away on September 9, 1995.
Greenwich Time: Hearst Media Services Connecticut, LLC; Stamford CT