Westfield, Where are the Notes to Your Opus?

Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.” ~Glenn Holland, Mr. Holland’s Opus

One of my favorite actors is Richard Dreyfuss. He is an excellent actor, he’s in a large majority of my favorite movies, he has an awesome laugh, and he believes civics should be taught in public schools.

He was also in an incredibly profound movie; Mr. Holland’s Opus. It is one of my favorite – and least favorite – movies. It is the perfect example of art imitating life. A musician is hired as a music teacher. He starts out feeling rather uneasy about his decision to enter the classroom. Three decades later, he can’t imagine what he will do when he is forced to leave it.

I know many music teachers, choir directors, and band directors who went into public education, not with the trepidation of Glenn Holland, but as a force of positive energy with great plans to inspire. Unfortunately, most times, the only people who wanted them there were the kids, and sometimes (if they were lucky) the parents.

I’ve written multiple times over the years (on two different blogs) about the importance of arts and music in public education. I can literally feel my blood pressure go up every time I see athletics heralded and music cast aside.

Indulge me while I tell you a story…

I was the kid that played in Pigtail League when I was little because I grew up with a love of watching baseball. I would sit with my Uncle Sonny on Saturday afternoons and eat olives out of the can meant for the salad for Sunday dinner while we watched the Yankees or the Mets on our local television station. We would go through the packs of baseball cards my Aunt Roslyn would bring home for us from the deli she and my Uncle Tony owned. I still have an entire photo album full of baseball cards he put together for me.

Because I was born at the end of the year, all my friends moved up to the middle school softball league a year ahead of me. I went with them to the first practice to see what I was in for when I would join them the following year. The coach took one look at me, asked my why I was there, said “no visitors during practice,” and told me to beat it. I was quite taken aback. My friends went off to the field to start warm ups and I walked away dejected. I stopped and looked over my shoulder once and the coach caught my eye and gave me a nasty look. I quickly took off. I knew my softball career was over.

I attempted track and field when I was in high school, but I was terrible. I was slow and uncoordinated. I mainly gave it a try because a few friends were on the team and I had a crush on a boy that was a runner. They wound up keeping me around as the team manager.

But the music department was where I really belonged. I was in chorus, marching band, orchestra, jazz band, and concert band. I couldn’t get enough. I would plan my entire high school schedule around chorus, band, and orchestra. Before school, we would all collect in the band room and just sit and talk. After school, we would need to get chased out so the room could get locked up. We would all regularly cut class with the standard “I have a band lesson” excuse.

My senior year I was stuck with an English teacher that absolutely terrified me. The Vice Principal came in the first day of school and wrote “Queen of Peace summer school” with an address and phone number. He then proceeded to point out all the students he was sure wouldn’t graduate. I picked up my books, walked right up to the principal’s office and said “I’m graduating on time; get me out of his class!” Yeah, I could definitely throw that Belleville sass around when I wanted to, that’s for sure. I spent most of the next day in the guidance office reworking my schedule to get into another English class. It came at a great expense. I had to rework my entire schedule and drop all three of my music classes. I was devastated. I actually went to all three directors and personally apologized and explained I was terrified of this teacher and had convinced myself I wouldn’t graduate if I tried to stick it out. It took two weeks to get me out of his class. In those two weeks, my average was already a 45. I could barely get my marking period average up to a “C.” It threw off my entire year. But I’m not bitter or anything. Much.

But back to music. That’s where I knew I belonged. I wasn’t popular, except in the summer when the pool was open. I wasn’t interested in most of my academics. I just wanted to go to my writing classes and my music classes. Forget science, math, and worst of all gym. I was far from the best musician, but I was definitely the most enthusiastic!

I knew we weren’t respected. I knew we didn’t get the budget we deserved. But we worked hard. We learned more than just how to read dots on a page. We learned about teamwork, loyalty, we protected each other. When one of us hurt, we all hurt. Those are very special people to me. Music kids are a global community bound together by notes on a page.

And that experience was directly affected by my teachers.

Those special people who spend countless nights and weekends in busses with hundreds of boisterous kids who really don’t even think that teachers actually have a personal life. Teachers that spend their own money on supplies for their classroom. Teachers that know which kids are having trouble at home and need some extra attention. Teachers that know someone’s father was laid off from work and they don’t have money for lunch, so they tell the lunch lady they’ll pay for their kid’s lunch later when he’s not around. Teachers who listen to Christmas music in the spring and spring concert music in the fall. They do all this quietly without fanfare.

“You work for 30 years because you think that what you do makes a difference, you think it matters to people, but then you wake up one morning and find out, well no, you’ve made a little error there, you’re expendable. I should be laughing.” ~Glenn Holland, Mr. Holland’s Opus

So why am I sharing this sermon? Simple. This week, the Westfield Public School system took a machete to their arts, music, and drama programs. The final budget announcement was made, ironically, shortly after an announcement the district was named one of the best school systems in the nation for the arts by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM).

I watched the video of the meeting and a few statements were made that really made my blood boil. I actually needed to let some time pass before I wrote this because I was so incensed I knew I would not be able to effectively share my frustration, anger, and disappointment.

“It included everything we wanted to do, that we wanted to continue to do from this year moving into next year.”

I found this comment particularly disturbing. Does this mean you didn’t want to continue your arts and music program? Did you even try? Do you even care?

“We did not reduce any of the stipends associated with any of the extracurricular athletics.”

Well, thank goodness for that! I can’t even say anything about this comment without sounding like Yosemite Sam.

You know what I didn’t see with cuts? Supervisors. Coaches. Athletics. I. Am. Disgusted.

“The day they cut the football budget in this state, that will be the end of Western Civilization as we know it!” ~Glenn Holland, Mr. Holland’s Opus

One community member tied the district’s budget issues to a hotly contested Edison fields project. This is a project to replace the school’s grass fields with synthetic turf that will cost the town a whopping $9 million. Do they really need to do that? How about the athletics teams just be appreciative they were spared from the cuts and forego this project for the year.

A board member asked a question he received from a parent that was a perfect example that they have no idea what they are affecting. There is a music program that has 40 students in a class. There is a teacher and an assistant. The assistant will be eliminated. The parent wanted to know how that class will be handled. The answer is priceless:

“I don’t know the specifics. I’m sorry” ~Superintendent Gonzalez.

It is worth mentioning, he laughed and put his hands in the air in the classic “I don’t’ know” fashion. The sarcastic laughter from the audience was palatable and the confused look on his face said it all.

In all, 24 total positions will be cut. Of the 24 positions, 10 directly affect the arts and music. That is simply shameful.

I have submitted an OPRA request to the district for specific budget information for a “part two” on this topic.

In the meantime, if you are sick of seeing the arts and music being cut. If your blood is boiling as much as mine, I encourage you to email the Superintendent of Schools and Board Members and share your dissatisfaction. For your convenience, I have them listed below:

To reach all members of the Westfield Board of Education, please use group e-mail: wboe@westfieldnjk12.org

Board of Education Members:
Brendan Galligan (President): bgalligan@westfieldnjk12.org
Sahar Aziz (Vice President): saziz@westfieldnjk12.org
Robert Benacchio: rbenacchio@westfieldnjk12.org
Michael Bielen: mbielen@westfieldnjk12.org
Leila Morrelli: lmorrelli@westfieldnjk12.org
Sonal Patel: spatel@westfieldnjk12.org
Amy Root: aroot@westfieldnjk12.org
Kristen Sonnek-Schmelz: ksonnek-schmelz@westfieldnjk12.org
Mary Wickens: mwickens@westfieldnjk12.org

Raymond González (Superintendent): Email form

If you decide to contact them, please be respectful.

“There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.” ~Gertrude Lang, Mr. Holland’s Opus

It’s a Wonderful Life in New Jersey

“A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town.” ~Harry Bailey

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” staring James Stewart as George Bailey. Originally a flop at the box office, it has found a place in the hearts of millions over the decades. What you may not know is the movie has strong ties to New Jersey, and even more so, my beloved Belleville.

Frances Goodrich was one of the screenwriters of this classic. Born in Belleville and raised in Nutley, Goodrich attended Collegiate School in Passaic, New Jersey, and graduated from Vassar College in 1912. Quite an accomplishment for a woman at that time. She married writer Albert Hackett in 1931 and the two together wrote some of the most memorable stories in the last century.

It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946 movie poster (credit: Wikipedia)

The couple received Academy Award for Screenplay nominations for The Thin Man, After the Thin Man, Father of the Bride, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. They also won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for their play The Diary of Anne Frank.

The screenplay and movie was based on the short story The Greatest Gift written by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1939. After being rejected by multiple publishers, Van Doren self-published 200 copies and gave them out as Christmas gifts in 1943. RKO purchased the story, where it was passed around until Frank Capra saw its potential. Capra worked with a few screen writers to prepare it for filming; Goodrich and Hackett were two of the writers on that small team.

Philip Van Doren Stern was born in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania and grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey and attended Lincoln High School in Jersey City before graduating from Rutgers University. He was a historian and author of some 40 works, and was best known for his books on the Civil War and was widely respected by scholars on the subject.

In 1938, inspired by Dickens’ A Christomas Carol, Van Doren penned The Greatest Gift. The author’s “Bedford Falls” is modeled on the charming town of Califon, also in New Jersey. The historic iron bridge in Califon is similar to the bridge that George Bailey considered jumping from in the movie.

So while the entire country can continue to love this iconic movie, New Jersey, and Belleville, can have pride in the story’s original writers.

Paterson’s and Newark’s West Side

When you’re a Jet, You’re a Jet all the way. From your first cigarette, To your last dyin’ day.

My favorite Broadway show, hands down, is West Side Story. The show that put Stephen Sondheim on the map has transcended time. I remember watching the movie for the first time in middle school during general music class. The music has been ingrained in my head ever since. My husband and I had the song “One Hand, One Heart” sung during the candle lighting ceremony as part of our wedding mass.

A few years ago Steven Spielberg decided to take on the monumental task of remaking West Side Story. It is set for mass release this upcoming weekend. Obviously I haven’t seen it yet, so I am reserving judgement, but needless to say the bar is quite high.

Paterson as late 1950s NYC (Credit: Aristide Economopoulos, nj.com)

What I am excited about is the movie’s filming locations. Nope, it wasn’t filmed on the “West Side.” It was filmed in Paterson and Newark, New Jersey. Yes, Spielberg decided to film his remake of this monumental piece of art in The Garden State.

Spielberg’s team transformed several blocks of downtown Paterson into late-1950s New York City. From half-torn-down buildings to altered storefronts, the team was meticulous.

Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise directed original film adaptation of the Broadway show, which was released in 1961 and went on to win 10 Oscars, including best picture.

Production then moved on to Newark at 744 Broad Street, which was made to look like Bamberger’s. I regularly heard about shopping trips to that store from family members. Sadly, the real Bamberger’s closed in 1986. The department store chain’s flagship store opened on Market Street in Newark in 1912 and eventually spanned an entire block.

The topper to all these Jersey connections is Rachel Zegler. This Clifton native is playing the role of Maria. I’ve seen a few of the short videos that have been released so far online and her voice is absolutely spectacular. I am sure she will make Jersey proud!

Like I said, I’m reserving judgement on the entire production until I see it. I hope Spielberg did not stray too far from the original show. I am sure, however, that Jersey will be positively represented.

Giving Tuesday in New Jersey

It is no surprise to anyone that COVID-19 has affected everyone in the Garden State. Some people lost their jobs. Some people lost their businesses. Some lost their lives.

Many non-profits in the state lost important funding from private donors, as so many were barely able to feed their families and keep a roof over their head.

Enter Giving Tuesday

Giving Tuesday is an opportunity to help those who have helped so many throughout our state. I’ve highlighted a few of the great organizations I have supported and will continue to support to the best of my ability. They represent a cross-section of areas, from the arts, to food insecurity, to cultural support, and more.

Museum of Early Trades & Crafts

The Museum of Early Trades & Crafts is one of my favorite museums in the state. It was founded in 1970 by Agnes and Edgar Law Land and is located inside the building that was the first public library in Madison. The museum began with a display of the Land’s personal collection of 18th and 19th century artifacts representing the lives of the early immigrants to New Jersey. Since then, it has grown to an amazing permanent collection as well as special displays that are presented on a rotating basis. The best part is everything presented in the museum is associated with life and work in New Jersey.

Italian American One Voice Coalition

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know I am very proud of my Italian heritage. So is the Italian American One Voice Coalition. They work to protect and preserve the Italian-American culture. You see, our culture has made a major mistake over the years. We let the mob jokes roll off our back. In an effort to prove our allegiance to our new homeland, we Americanized our names and did not teach our language to our children. We were proud to be Americans. Those very values we have held for generations are no longer valued by many. As a result, people are looking to eliminate what is left of our heritage. The Italian American One Voice Coalition is fighting to make sure that doesn’t happen. That we won’t be cast aside or ignored.

Jersey Battered Women’s Shelter

Sadly, over the last 18-plus months, victims of domestic violence have been victimized twice; once by their abuser and again by the system that is in place to protect them, as these victims have been kept hidden from the eyes of those agencies. With rumor of a new variant on the way and worries of another lockdown loom large, women may be desperate to escape their situation. The Jersey Battered Women’s Shelter has been on the front lines of aiding victims of domestic violence since 1978. JBWS is all about empowering victims to end the cycle of violence and gain control over their lives. The services include 24-hour helpline; safe house; counseling for adults, adolescents and children impacted by abuse; transitional living, including life skills education and more.

Salvation Army of New Jersey

Another issue the COVID pandemic brought to light is how many of our fellow New Jerseyans suffer from food insecurity; especially children and the aged. The Salvation Army of New Jersey offers food pantries, mobile feeding programs, and soup kitchens throughout the state to those in need.

Peters Valley School of Craft

Another organization I regularly highlight and support is Peters Valley School of Craft. For the last fifty-plus years, Peters Valley has enriched lives through the learning, practice, and appreciation of fine crafts, all nestled in the heart of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. If you have ever wanted to experience blacksmithing, weaving, or anything else, Peters Valley is the finest place in New Jersey to learn. They also have a wonderful gallery and gift area and present an amazing collection of artists every fall at a two-day event.

Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey

While most people think New Jersey is nothing more than Newark Airport and the Turnpike, we all know better. Three of my favorite species, the heritage brook trout, the red knot, and the horseshoe crab, are all important parts of the biodiversity of New Jersey. Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey works to protect that rich biodiversity. There are over 70 endangered and threatened species in New Jersey. Supporting the Conserve Wildlife Foundation helps protect all the different animals and mammals that swim, walk, and fly in the Garden State.

And Many, Many More

These are just a few of the many different non-profits that need help in New Jersey. They all do important work and it requires money for them to continue to do their important work. Everyone has something they are passionate about. My two passions are protection of open spaces and access to fine and performing arts, especially in public education. Find what fuels you and become an ally. If you aren’t in a position to donate funds, consider donating food to your local food pantry, clothes to a local shelter, or volunteer with an organization that feeds your soul and does good in your community. If you aren’t sure about the history of a specific organization, check them out on Charity Navigator. You’ll be able to see how they spend their donations as well as their history. You can also look at Community Foundation of New Jersey. This is a well-regarded organization that helps to manage the financial aspect of many different funds, scholarships, and organizations in a legal and ethical manner.

So get ready to give!

Shop Local for the Holidays

As much as I tried to deny it, the summer is long gone. Now that the clocks have changed and it is dark before you get out of work, everyone has turned their attention to the holidays.

The problem this year, however, is the ongoing supply chain issue. Cargo ships wait out in the Atlantic and the Pacific to unload goods. The ongoing shortage of truck drivers across the nation. It’s enough to make you batty.

Or is it?

Every year I remind people to shop local for small business Saturday. With everyone starting to shop earlier this year due to all the panic, this reminder to shop local comes earlier than usual. And the great thing about Jersey is that there are plenty of special places to shop with a unique Jersey flair.

Just Jersey

The best place to start is at Just Jersey in Morristown. This special shop presents unique art, craft, food, and more from over 200 Jersey-based residents. From jewelry, to homemade jams, to glassware, you will find a great variety of unique items in any price range. Best part is they all come with that special Jersey flair we have all come to know and love.

Peters Valley School of Craft

If you have never been to Peters Valley, I highly recommend it. It is not just a great place to visit, you will enjoy a beautiful ride on the way there. Their facilities are located within the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, once the farm village of Bevans. Before that, it was the tribal ground of the Lenni Lenape people, whose ancestors were the first craftspeople and makers of the land. Bevans was lost to the Tocks Island Dam Project of 1960-70’s through eminent domain. Eventually the project was scrapped and the name Peter’s Valley was reinstated in remembrance of early settler and surveyor Peter Van Neste.

Peters Valley offers not just beautiful surroundings, but onsite classes in a variety of crafts. Know someone who always wanted to try blacksmithing or weaving? Consider paying for a class for them to attend. Looking for something handmade? Visit their two unique galleries and leave with a beautiful gift that is sure to create a lasting memory. The Holiday Market begins November 20th.

West End Garage

One of my favorite places in this state is Cape May. And the West End Garage is a really cool place. Filled with funky gifts, you’ll find something for even the hardest person on your list. Check out original art by Maggie May Oysters, who uses locally sourced oyster shells in her artwork or Patricia Jackson Jewelers, highlighting their Exit Zero collection.

Pretty Handy

Belleville mug from Pretty Handy

This great little Nutley shop takes “shop local” a step further. Not only are you shopping Jersey, you are shopping Essex County. Pretty Handy offers town swag for Nutley, Bloomfield, Newark, Clifton, and of course, my beloved Belleville. If you are trying to show your town pride, this is a great place to check out.

Reddie to Burn

Of course I can’t finish out this post without a mention of my favorite candlemaker, Jersey Girl, and Goddaughter, Alyssa Lyn Reddie. Reddie to Burn offers all-natural hand-made candles in a variety of scents. Each soy candle has plenty of scent, from pumpkin soufflé, to apple and maple bourbon, to plenty of others, there’s something to please every taste.

Get shopping!

No matter what you decide, I hope you will consider shopping local and supporting local small businesses and artisans. You are helping those right in your community; no supply chain issues!

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Frankie Valli

“Newark, Belleville; Frankie Valli walks on water. As he should. Frankie Valli has been around so long he’s attached to everything and everybody. And they are very proud.” ~Steve Schirripa, Talking Sopranos podcast.

Belleville has been home to plenty of talent over the decades. Connie Francis, Joe Pesci, and of course Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, known to the world as Frankie Valli.

Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, aka Frankie Valli
Credit: discogs.com

As Schirripa says, he’s attached to everything and everybody. We all have a Frankie Valli story. For me, I have two. Castelluccio grew up in Stephen Crane Village on the border of Belleville and Newark. My Uncle worked as a maintenance man at Stephen Crane Village. He took the bus from our house in Belleville early every morning and came home every afternoon. As kids we were allowed to walk down to the end of the block and wait for him; but no further than the manhole cover!

His first single “My Mother’s Eyes” was a favorite song my Uncle Chubby would sing with his own band, Chubby O’Dell and the Blue Mountain Boys. To this day whenever I hear that song, I think of my Uncle Chubby and smile.

The music of The Four Season was part of the soundtrack of the youth of not just North Jersey, but America. Songs like “Can’t Take my Eyes off of You” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” are engrained in our memories. Castelluccio’s original inspiration was another Jersey boy, Francis Albert Sinatra.

The 45 of My Mother’s Eyes
Credit: Roots Vinyl Guide

A new generation was introduced to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in 2005 when Jersey Boys opened on Broadway and was an instant hit. Bob Gaudio, an original Four Seasons member, sought to make a musical from the discography of the band. He hired book writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, and director Des McAnuff. Brickman suggested creating a show about the band’s history, instead of repurposing their songs. Sharing the group’s “rags to riches” story. Everyone fell in love with their music all over again.

Castelluccio still tours and recently recorded a new album, A Touch of Jazz, which is his iconic voice singing his favorite tunes from the Great American Songbook.

So Castelluccio started singing in the early 50s and all these decades later, he is still growing strong. God willing, he still has a lot of music left in him.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Connie Francis

When I thought about who I should highlight first this year during Italian Heritage Month, I wanted to go with a local hero. Yes, she is a favorite daughter of New Jersey, but she is also a favorite daughter of my hometown, Belleville.

Connie Francis, 1961; Credit: ABC Television, under Creative Commons License

Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero, known professionally as Connie Francis, was born into an Italian-American family in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. She attended Arts High in Newark for two years before attending Belleville High School, where she graduated as salutatorian from BHS Class of 1955. The high school auditorium is now named in her honor. Additionally, “Connie Francis Way” can be found at the corner of Greylock Parkway and Forest Street in Belleville, near the house in which she grew up.

Students sitting in that auditorium today may not know the importance of Concetta Franconero to our “Beautiful Village,” but those of us of a certain age certainly do. Early in her career, Arthur Godfrey made two recommendations to her. First that she drop the use of her accordion in her act. Second, that she change her name from Concetta Franconero changed her name to Connie Francis “for the sake of easier pronunciation.” So she officially became Connie Francis to the world.

Her life has been full of triumph and tragedy. She’s had many top songs we all know and love. I am particularly fond of Where the Boys Are and her rendition of Mama. She also acted in several movies during her young career. In the late 1960s, Francis went to Vietnam to sing for the troops. Through the years, she has performed charity work for organizations such as UNICEF, the USO and CARE.

Deep sadness struck her life several times, unfortunately. The first time was in Westbury, New York, following a performance at the Westbury Music Fair. Francis was the victim of a brutal rape and robbery after an intruder broke into her hotel room and held her at knifepoint. She nearly suffocated under the weight of a heavy mattress the culprit had thrown upon her. Her attacker was never caught.

In 1977, Francis underwent nasal surgery and completely lost her voice. She went through three more operations to regain her singing voice, but it took four more years to regain that lovely voice of hers.

In 1981, further tragedy struck Francis when her brother, George Franconero, Jr., with whom she was very close, was murdered by Mafia hitmen. Franconero, who had twice given law enforcement officials information concerning alleged organized-crime activities, was fatally shot outside his home in North Caldwell.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan appointed her as head of his task force on violent crime. She has also been the spokeswoman for Mental Health America’s trauma campaign. She worked hard to turn her personal tragedy into a story of triumph and inspiration for others.

In 1984, Francis published her autobiography, Who’s Sorry Now?, which became a New York Times bestseller.

Francis continued to perform and record and prove what Belleville and Jersey tough means. That’s why I felt she deserved to be the first person I honored during this year’s Italian Heritage Month.

It’s About Being Better

I started this blog to share with the world all that is wonderful about New Jersey. And I would say almost all my posts are positive and highlight what I love about the Garden State.

Sadly, this is not one of those posts.

Absolutely everyone who knows me knows I grew up a dedicated band kid. It shaped my young life. It taught me important skills beyond music. I learned about teamwork, pride, confidence, and the brotherhood that exists among all band members, no matter where they are located.

I am a proud kid from Belleville; what we lovingly refer to on our Facebook group as the Motherland. We may not have always liked each other, but we could always count on each other.

This is why I feel compelled to stick up for my fellow Belleville High students and, more importantly, my fellow band kids.

On September 10th, Belleville played our local rival Nutley for the Mayor’s Cup. I’ll be honest; I never paid attention to the game. I was there for halftime. While I didn’t get to the game in person, I was excited to see someone uploaded the halftime show to YouTube.

Well, I was excited.

Belleville, NJ Marching Band
The Belleville Marching Band with the Nutley football team warming up in the background and the referees chatting off to the side. Credit: Mitch Zoltowski

Excitement turned to immediate outrage. Not because of the band, but because of the Nutley football team. The band just started their halftime show when the Nutley football team appeared and actually had the audacity to start warm-ups ON THE FIELD! To make matters worse, the referees had a nice coffee clutch around the 20 yard line. The final insult is that this all took place on Belleville’s home turf.

I was completely appalled! These kids work just as hard as anyone else. They deserve respect. Where was the coach on the Nutley side? There was not one adult on the Nutley side that thought “this isn’t right?”

I feel coach Vick of the Nutley football team owes the Belleville Marching Band and their director an apology. He should lead by example and teach his kids that band kids, regardless of the town they are from, work hard and deserve their time on the field.

Coach Vick, you need to be better. And you need to teach your kids to be better.

Shame on you.

Book Review: brat: an 80s Story

When anyone meets me for the first time, two things are obvious. I am a born-and-bred Jersey Girl and I am a Gen-Xer. I still love the music and movies of the 80s. Nowadays when I drive, there are very few radio stations I listen to; most of which are satellite and focus on music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. My favorite movies included a small group of actors that came to be known as the Brat Pack. Everyone had their favorite. For me, it was Andrew McCarthy.

I saw a lot of myself in the characters he portrayed. In St. Elmo’s Fire, he played a wannabe writer who gets his first byline. I grew up wanting to do two things as an adult: be a writer and a photographer. While I never became a full-time accomplished writer, I do have a few bylines to my name and have a few blogs where I get to scrawl and scribble, even if no one really reads them.

So why am I telling you all this? Stick with me.

Whether it was because I was a teenager or not, the 80s were an awesome time in history (and yes, I used “awesome” on purpose). And the Brat Pack movies had a lot to do with it.

There were times watching McCarthy it almost felt like he wasn’t acting. As if those roles really fit his style. I now know in some instances that was true. Enter his book brat: an 80s story.

brat: an 80s Story by Andrew McCarthy

This fellow New Jerseyan shares his rise – and fall – and rise again in the fickle world of entertainment in his recently published book. Of course as soon as I heard about its release, I needed to read it. Trust me when I tell you, it did not disappoint. I read it over the course of two evenings. The last time I read something so quick was a book from another important figure from my youth; fellow Jersey Girl, Judy Blume, and the book was Summer Sisters.

I quickly switched back to 16 again, watching those movies, listening to that music, and doing things, well, let’s just say I am thankful social media wasn’t around.

As I read, and he mentions places in Jersey in the first few chapters, I found myself wondering if the arcade on 22 he went to was at Bowcraft (a home-grown amusement park), how everyone in Jersey MUST be good at skee-ball and if his brother ever played golf at Hendrick’s Field, the public course in Belleville behind my house. He talked about hanging out in Washington Square Park, which made me remember my first job in the City and walking over to the park and eating my lunch there while I watched the street performers. He talked about going with a friend to the second-hand clothing shops, which made me think of my regular visits to the Unique Boutique.  Like him, I went to the Raccoon Lodge. The biggest difference, however, is that he was 17. I wasn’t allowed into the City on my own until after I graduated from college. But I remember feeling just as wide-eyed as he describes his experiences of familiar places to me.

He spoke of the awkwardness of his high school years. While he was always self-conscious about looking too feminine, I was often self-conscious about looking too masculine. By the time I hit high school, my mother started to give up on getting me to “dress like a girl,” and I fell into the habit of oversized sweatshirts and jeans. I stuck to my denim jacket (complete with a music note of safety pins on the back), an Army Class A jacket I picked up at a second-hand store in Bloomfield, and my father’s camel-hair coat. Add to that my voice was kind of deep for a girl my age, which was quite obvious when I would shout over the marching band as drum major. Sophomore year I felt compelled to chop my long hair off, which completed that perfectly boyish look, even if that really wasn’t the goal. When a teacher from the high school first met my brother, he said to a colleague once he thought I was out of earshot “I’m trying to figure out if he’s more feminine or she’s more masculine.” And so it was and so it has been for most of my adult life. Many years later at a full-time job, I learned some of my colleagues referred to me as “Man Benschoten” instead of my proper last name. I never seemed to be able to outrun that “boy thing.”  Sometimes it still bothers me, sometimes I shrug and don’t care in full Gen-X fashion.

Like him, I enjoyed my time alone. For him, he smoked pot. For me, it was riding my bike over to the high school, climbing to the top of the stadium, sitting in the corner and reading. Smoking pot never even crossed my mind. As far as I knew, none of my friends did and my mother could have worked for the CIA. She found out everything. It wasn’t worth the risk.

“Like the first light of dawn, there is a transitory magic in it, a singular quality, something so fresh it seems it must be occurring for the first time.”

Like McCarthy, I found solace in the arts program. For him it was (obviously) drama and it started him down a successful path that led him to NYU. Me? Well, I never got out of the chorus/background dancers, with the exception of one actual line in the production of “It’s Christmas Charlie Brown” (“watch it lady, you almost made me drop my packages!”). I was in concert band, jazz band, chorus, orchestra, drama club, and marching band. I wasn’t “officially” on stage and light crew, but I helped out backstage with the plays before I summoned up the courage to actually try out. For me, that’s as far as my artistic journey went. I didn’t have “it.”

1986 Mercury Cougar
Me in my Cougar, 1988.
Yes, I thought I was that cool.

His announcement to major in acting when he went to college went over about as well as my announcement to major in journalism. I was pushed at every opportunity to become an attorney. When I came home with my declaration form for the Communication Department, well, I’ll just say it didn’t go over well and leave it at that. Like McCarthy, I stuck to my guns and kept with it. And I discovered I did have an aptitude for certain parts of the process. For me, it was print production and typography, along with writing.

We both had our own departmental champions. For him it was Terry Hayden. For me, it was Dr. Don McKenna and Professor Pete Rosenblum. That dynamic duo were my supporters at every turn. They told me about this thing called “prepress.” Where I get to be involved in the actual process of preparing work to go to press. I was in love. Like McCarthy, I was eager to learn all I could. Also, like McCarthy, some teachers were less than thrilled with my feeble classroom attempts. We both struggled with speech class. My prim and proper professor attempted to remove the Jersey from my accent and teach me a proper mid-Atlantic speech pattern (think Katharine Hepburn). Shocker – it didn’t work. I passed, but I think only because I just kept showing up to class. I didn’t care. I dove head first into learning all I could about prepress and writing.

Throughout the book, he has the ability to weave stories of experiences of his past and how those experiences affected his career as he continued to learn and hone his craft. I took special attention to how he handled anxiety while shooting his first feature movie, Class, and how as a director he quietly says “aaaand… action” instead of yelling “ACTION!” like we all see in the movies.

He told his mother he was a pessimist. I call myself a realist. I think they are two sides of the same coin.
Just about the same time he was becoming interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking, I was becoming more and more interested in the technical aspects of photography and press work. As a girl, however, opportunities at the time were limited. At one job, I did become friendly with a stripper (not THAT kind) and would let me watch him work during my lunch and would occasionally let me make bluelines. Every so often I was told I was told I had aptitude. And just like McCarthy was told “you became a pro on this one, Andy,” I would fly high.

One page 130, he finally gets to my favorite of all the Brat Pack movies; St. Elmo’s Fire and devotes a solid twenty-something pages to it. His character, Kevin, felt like it had followed me around my entire life. Cynical, sarcastic, in the background of the group, the oversized clothes, the camel-hair coat. His behind-the-scenes account of the “Respect bongo” scene, my favorite of the entire movie, was just wonderful.

He talks about his use – and abuse – of alcohol. The year he went into rehab was the year I graduated from college. He faced his demon head on and won. Instead of thinking of it as the end of his career, he continued to push forward. He found his way to… writing.

I also give him a lot of credit for how he handled the end of his father’s life. Gracious is hardly enough to describe how he faced the situation.

Overall, I really enjoyed his writing style and his ability to construct some beautifully written sentences. Over time he came to accept his role as a member of the Brat Pack. He now understands that for many of us fellow Gen-Xers, those movies hold a special place for us. For that, I am thankful.

I hope it is a little easier bein’ you now, Mr. McCarthy.

NJ State of the Arts

It’s been awhile since I posted. Like many, life has been full of challenges as of late, but I’m doing my best to pull myself out of this slump. I’ll spare you all the details.

It is important to look for inspiration in times of crisis. And while there has been much sadness, there has certainly been much inspiration around us. Some of it comes from the compassion of our healthcare workers; some from the tenacity of our front-line workers; for me, a lot of it comes from the beauty in nature and the art that surrounds us.

Enter State of the Arts.

This wonderful program is presented on PBS and is a co-production of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and Stockton University. For the last 40 years, State of the Arts has told the stories of creativity in New Jersey. We are lucky to have such a wonderfully active community of artists, musicians, dancers, performers, and more in the Garden State and sadly not enough people are aware of it. State of the Arts works to bring these brilliant people into the light.

I look forward to every new episode and enjoy going back and watching my favorite segments over again, as well as learning more about the artists presented in each short.

A favorite recent short is “Kea’s Ark;” the story of self-taught engineer Kea Tawana from the Central Ward of Newark, who build the skeleton of a massive ark from found objects in her community during the mid-1980s. Having been born in Newark and growing in the next town over of Belleville, I found this story particularly fascinating. It also shows how important it is to share a story like this. I lived approximately 15 minutes away and had no idea this amazing structure was even erected.

I also draw great inspiration from Kea’s self-taught story. As someone who never had any formal art training beyond piano lessons as a child, I always felt I had an artist’s soul, but I’ve always been afraid to share and explore it. Kea’s story is a good reminder that you don’t need a formal education to cultivate and share your creativity. You just need to be willing to try.

I hope you will check out this amazing series on PBS. It will certainly feed your inner artist as well as teach you more about the creative people and places in our great state.