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 soufflĂ©, 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.