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Category: Out and About

‘Once on This Island’ coming to Kearny

Photo by Catherine Astrella Playing deities in “Once on This Island,” from l., are Gabe Navia, Mary Berko, Jimmy Simoes and Future Vereen.

Photo by Catherine Astrella
Playing deities in “Once on This Island,” from l., are Gabe Navia, Mary Berko, Jimmy Simoes and Future Vereen. Scroll down for gallery.

 

By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent

KEARNY –

Kearny High School will usher in spring by welcoming visitors to an enchanted tropical isle where, it is hoped that “Once on This Island,” they won’t want to leave.

Or at least, not until the play of that aforesaid name ends.

The KHS players have selected this 1990 Broadway musical, with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, to offer theatergoers on March 21, 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. nightly. Tickets are $8 for students and the elderly, $10 for adults.

Local senior citizens will be treated to a special preview dinner and show on March 19. The meal will be served at 5:30 p.m. and the show follows at 7 p.m. at no cost but reservations are required.

For reservations and/or tickets, call Sally Sprague at 201-955-5048.

To convey what he described as a mixture of “Romeo and Juliet” with “The Little Mermaid,” KHS chorus teacher Brian Toal, the show’s director, has assembled a cast of 23, backed by an orchestra of eight professionals and two students – wind player senior Jennifer Gilker and percussionist junior Aislynn Sroczynski – conducted by KHS Band Director Ed Gargiullo.

If you’re one of those types that demand a plot summary before you venture into a theater, here is a capsule version: A young peasant girl falls in love with a rich guy who is badly injured but whom she nurses back to health but … well, I don’t want to be a spoiler. You’ll hear from those players shortly.

And, oh yes, complications abound, thanks to intervention by the local deities. More about them later.

During a break at a rehearsal a few weeks ago, The Observer was granted an exclusive interview with the show’s co-stars, junior Cassie Shea, who plays the peasant girl Ti Moune; and senior James Berko, who has the role of rich guy Daniel.

After prior supporting roles in “Les Miserables,” “Pippin” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” 16-year-old Cassie is going about the business of preparing for her “most challenging” assignment to date.

“I’ll be singing songs in a higher range than what I’m used to and I have more solos,” she explains. So, aside from normal two and a half hour rehearsals Monday through Thursday, she’s plugged into a karaoke recording at home to achieve the desired effect.

“The music’s amazing,” she says.

As for showing up as Ti Moune, that’s part of her new challenge. “She’s naive but hopeful and determined – I think I’ll be good playing that,” Cassie maintains.

And being disappointed in love? “I’m a teenager,” says Cassie. “I have had heartbreak before but I think I can tap into those feelings.”

James, 18, a seasoned veteran of five shows at KHS (including Seymour in “Little Shop …”), finds himself in a conundrum with this role.

“Daniel is rich and has an arranged marriage but falls in love with Ti Moune, a peasant girl, but the rules of the island say that the rich and poor can’t marry and that’s a hard concept for me to accept,” says James. “I’ve never been in that position so to get into that mindset is very difficult.”

His character’s willingness, ultimately, to accept that principle is a true mindbender for James who recognizes, “I have to get over that [feeling]” to nail Daniel.

Post-graduation plans find James on the path to studying to become an educator, preferably as a high school history teacher, while Cassie confesses to being “torn between pursuing a career in musical theater or forensic psychology.”

And now, lest we forget, an introduction to the island gods, starting with senior Mary Berko (sister of James), who plays Asaka, goddess of earth. (By the way, you should also look for senior Michael Berko – the third member of the Berko triplets – on stage: He’s Armand, another rich guy.)

Mary’s been singing for KHS audiences since her freshman year but she admits she’s up against it with Asaka. “This role is very much out of the [vocal] range of my previous roles,” she says. “The songs are in a lower register than what I normally do, plus my character’s personality is really big. I’m trying my best to be someone I’m completely not.”

By contrast, senior Gabriel Navia, 17, is quite comfortable in the role of Papa Ge, demon of death, who he describes as “very out there, menacing – he wants to take lives of others.” (That may evoke memories of last year’s role as Audrey II in last year’s “Little Shop…”). “It’s fun,” Gabriel says. “I feel this part is perfect for me. Big and outgoing.” He’s projecting a future in “risk management.” No fooling.

But, by the way, Mary, 18, is absolutely confident about a future before the footlights. “I’ve decided to pursue musical theater the rest of my life,” she says. “I like the fact that you can use [your character] to portray strong emotions through song and dance that people wouldn’t ordinarily see and then can relate to that.”

Senior Jimmy Simoes, 17, cast as Agwe, god of water, plays trumpet in the KHS Marching Band and tested the thespian waters last year with the town’s Teen Drama group. “I enjoyed it because you can not be yourself,” he says.

Now that he’s got the bug, Jimmy wants to continue singing and horn playing in postgrad years but not as a lifetime gig. His career choice? “I want to be a S.W.A.T. (Special Weapons and Tactics) officer.”

Last of the deities is senior Future Vereen, 17, who plays Erzulie, goddess of love. “It’s my first time in theater,” she says. Still, Future already knows she’s “going to have a career in music as a singer.” She’s been singing “since I was five” and currently her voice can be heard at the Revival Temple Choir in Newark.

Her vocal talent apparently runs in the family: Her cousin is the professional actor, Ben Vereen, a Tony Award winner for his Broadway work in “Pippin” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Alas, she says they’ve never met.

Rounding out the cast, other supporting players are: freshman Carly Hull as Little Ti Moune, senior Devin Wason as Mama Euralie, senior Adrian Yllatopa as Tonton Julian, sophomore Leslie Hassanein as Andrea, freshman Stephanie Herrera as Madame Armand, senior Chris Doran as Gatekeeper and seniors Shawn Carlos, Karine Nunes, Nicole Olivares and Kathereen Pablo, juniors Michael Oliveira and Stephanie Pinto, sophomores Lilah Orengo, Kevin Steinmann and Julia Truskolawski and freshman Kayla Santana, all as Storytellers.

Behind the scenes, scattered through the “island,” are several others contributing to the production. Among them are: junior Joana Marmelo, stage manager; Garfield School teacher Milagros Gonzalez, choreographer; KHS A.P. studio arts teacher John Bednarczyk, set/light designer; and KHS counselor Catherine Astrella, business manager.

They’re all waiting for you on the “Island.”

It’s never too early to start learning

Mayor Robert Giangeruso (c.) presides at ribbon-cutting for grand opening of The Learning Experience in Lyndhurst in September.

Mayor Robert Giangeruso (c.) presides at ribbon-cutting for grand opening of The Learning Experience in Lyndhurst in September.

 

If you’re looking for a daycare center that offers more than mere babysitting– or plunking a child down in front of a TV — look no further than The Learning Experience in Lyndhurst.

Open since early September, the new center, located at 518 Stuyvesant Ave., is focused on “providing children with a quality education, from the beginning,” noted owner Corinne Aulov.

And she means “the beginning.” The Learning Center enrolls children as young as six weeks. Currently, there are eight babies in the nursery, all of them being provided with “a nurturing experience.”

The infants are part of the initial enrollment of 72 children, through age 5. The facility has a capacity of 167, and “we anticipate being full” by this coming September, Aulov noted. In September, too, The Learning Center will be offering kindergarten classes, in conjunction with the Lyndhurst school system, she said.

Aulov, herself the mother of three, left a career in the corporate world of New York to devote herself to early childhood education, and her passion for and commitment to the work is evident.

At present, she has a staff of 10, including the center’s director, Mara Doloroso. “I make it a requirement that they are all certified in early childhood education,” Aulov noted. “I want the school to be on an elite level,” giving the youngsters “a strong foundation.”

The Learning Center, part of a nationwide group of franchises, offers “one of the best curriculums out there,” said Aulov, describing the program as a “structured Montessori type of education.” “We need to get back to the fundamentals,” she said. In many schools, “the basics are not there.” The Learning Center program is designed to give children “that extra foothold.”

In addition to the day-care program, which operates Monday-Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., The Learning Center is planning a “fun and exciting” summer day camp in August. That will be for children ages 2 to 8. If parents take advantage of early registration, by the end of March, there will be a discount, Aulov said.

The Learning Center houses nine classrooms and features two play areas, indoor and outdoor. There’s a strong emphasis on security; the school is “constantly monitored,” with security cameras throughout the building keeping a watchful eye on the little ones, who, are happily playing–and learning–in their “home away from home.”

For more information on The Learning Center in Lyndhurst, call 201-460-0040 weekdays between 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Or visit lyndhurst.tlechildcare.com.

North Arlington’s Little Secret? The uncloaking of The Angry Coffee Bean

 

Shop logo

Shop logo

By Laurie Perrone

Observer Correspondent

Upon walking into The Angry Coffee Bean Coffeehouse and Café located at 89 Ridge Road in North Arlington, New Jersey, one would get the feel of a trendy coffeehouse a la Manhattan.

Though it needs no Manhattan trend-setting to uphold its pull-out-all-the-stops New York Coffeehouse theme, owners Eileen and Michael Cassano one- upped their own ingenuity in authenticity by hiring their Executive Chef Daniel Sullivan.

Sullivan is a graduate from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. He stayed on in New York working at various restaurants and cafes until his fascination with the fast-paced scene waned after eight years. He wanted to work in a much smaller environment for more creative control in the kitchen.

During an interview with The Observer, Sullivan whipped up a delicious foray of Arugula salad with baked melt-in-your-mouth goat cheese, cranberries, walnuts and a balsamic vinegar reduction, seductive red velvet chocolate chip pancakes sprinkled with powdered sugar and lightly drizzled with maple cream cheese syrup and sinful stuffed French toast made from Balthazar bakery brioche bread cut thick and stuffed with fresh berry cream cheese – all made-to-order as everything is always made at The Angry Coffee Bean.

Speaking about one of his many other culinary creations, Chef Sullivan recommended: “For a quick, lighter fare try the grilled vegetable wrap with homemade garlic hummus or our Quinoa Taboule salad. Quinoa is packed with proteins and Omega3s.”

Co-owners Eileen and Michael Cassano

Co-owners Eileen and Michael Cassano

 

Berry Cream Cheese French Toast

Berry Cream Cheese French Toast

 

Sullivan also spends time encouraging creativity in both his Sous Chefs Chris Nazzaretto and Robert Flythe. Nazzaretto holds kitchen craftsmanship that is not to be ignored much like his teacher. While Nazzarretto was packing up to leave for the night, he mentioned his special “Carne Asada marinated Filet Mignon over mixed greens with roasted peppers, tomatoes, red onions, shredded cheddar and black beans with a citrus vinaigrette.”

Eileen admits that grocery shopping nearly every day is a minor struggle well worth the payoff in being able to deliver fresh products to her customers. Selling out of fish and chips every Saturday and Sunday speaks volumes about its return on investment. Even the smallest details such as coffee aroma, texture and taste mean so much to the Cassanos. They have their coffee beans micro-roasted from The Red House Roaster in Union City, New Jersey. Eileen said that the beans are still warm when she takes them out of the bag. She observed how such attention paid to the bread used for the sandwiches make all the difference in quality and taste. It just so happens that the Cassanos receive all their bread products daily from Balthazar’s Bakery in Englewood.

So, why would the Cassanos leave their cushy corporate jobs as director of sales and corporate trainer respectively at major corporations?

Cafe personnel: back, from l., Executive Chef Daniel Sullivan, Sous Chefs Robert Flythe and Chris Nazzarreto and co-owner Eileen Cassano; front, from l., dishwasher Thomas Hanson and server Natalie Cassano

Cafe personnel: back, from l., Executive Chef Daniel Sullivan,
Sous Chefs Robert Flythe and Chris Nazzarreto and co-owner Eileen Cassano; front, from l., dishwasher Thomas Hanson and server Natalie Cassano

 

A 20-year salesperson, Eileen Cassano said she felt like she wasn’t using the full capacity of her talents. She knew that she could do so much more by using all her salesperson knowledge to work for her and her family. This revelation came to her while advising other salespeople who worked under her; inwardly, she realized that she was speaking to herself as well as to them.

Eileen mentioned that she left her former position without any job prospects on the horizon, despite the precarious state of the economy. Together the Cassanos’ takeit- as-it-comes attitude reflects the confidence it takes to launch a business from the ground up. Eileen said that she trusted her instincts based on how the sales field is flexible and applicable enough to open other doors of opportunities. Thankfully for the rest of us, the Cassanos not only used those opportunities right in front of them, but they took their opportunities to the next level of success in our new entrepreneurship economy.

The fully equipped and never-lacking-in-atmosphere entertainment lounge

The fully equipped and never-lacking-in-atmosphere entertainment lounge

 

 

The Angry Coffee Bean Coffeehouse and Café’s grand opening is an integral part of Eileen Cassano and husband Michael’s story: They pushed forward with their opening two days after Hurricane Sandy hit. The Cassanos call it “the baptism” of their then fledgling business because they immediately became known as “beacons” in the midst of Sandy’s shroud of darkness. Local residents as well as residents from nearby towns found “North Arlington’s Little Secret” by walking in simply to power up their cellular devices. Thankfully, the Cassanos were one of the first businesses on Ridge Road to gain electricity post-hurricane. They saw trouble as an opportunity to give back as they generously donated food to the police, firefighters and utility crews. Word quickly spread about them and business boomed immediately as the Cassanos began steadily increasing their share of regular patrons. They were not such a “little secret” anymore! In fact, during this very Observer interview with Eileen Cassano, The Angry Coffee Bean received word that they are finalists in a bid for a catering job involving, potentially, more than 200 diners, in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Natalie Cassano, one of Cassano’s two daughters as well as an on-staff coffeehouse server, spoke about her parents’ achievements:

“I’m so happy that my parents opened this coffeehouse… I’m so proud of them. We are such a family and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

The Cassanos are not the only ones enjoying their newfound entrepreneurship. They invite local musicians and other talented performers to participate in Open Mike Night every Friday and Saturday night. Eileen is especially proud of a project she is working on with the photography teacher from Kearny High School and his students in organizing an art exhibit showcasing the students’ work at The Angry Coffee Bean. She is currently searching out talents such as poets and story-tellers to fill entertainment slots on other full house nights.

For menus and more information about The Angry Coffee Bean Coffeehouse and Café, look for them on Facebook.com/theangrycoffeebean and tweet them at theangrycoffeebean. Hours of operations are Monday through Thursday, 7 AM to 8 PM; Friday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday Brunch is served from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Although walk-ins are welcome, reservations can be made by calling 201-772-5554.

They were up to the ‘Challenge’

Photo courtesy of W.H.A.T.

Photo courtesy of W.H.A.T.

 

By Karen Zautyk

Observer Correspondent

KEARNY –

If you are in need of a bit of inspiration, look at the faces in the photos accompanying this story. These are among the young people, and their adult mentors, who invested all their talents, and their hearts, in the West Hudson Arts & Theater Co.’s recent marathon “Musical Challenge.”

From 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 25, until 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 26, cast and crew worked virtually nonstop (there was time to eat or take a quick nap) to stage a production of “Rent.” From scratch. No prior rehearsals. No prior script memorization. No prep work at all. A monumental task for anyone, but especially for performers aged 16 to 22.

They entered the W.H.A.T. theater on Midland Ave. “cold” and for 24 hours studied lines and rehearsed and worked on music (with a live orchestra) and costumes and lighting and all the other essentials required to put on a show.

 

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

 

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

 

When the curtain went up that Saturday evening, it was to the applause of an audience of 100 or so people who knew they were about to witness something extraordinary.

The director, Michele Sarnoski of Lyndhurst, summed it up: “It was a blessing to be part of this experience.”

Sarnoski, a founding member of W.H.A.T. and an English teacher at Paramus High School, noted that although she has been involved in theater for about 10 years, it was mostly in choreography and production. “This was the first time I had directed a show of this scale by myself,” she said.

Sarnoski said she had first seen “Rent” on Broadway in 1998 and it had “become a huge part” of her life. “But I had always looked at it from a dancer’s perspective. As the director, “it was like seeing a whole new show.”

She called the 24-hour challenge “a truly impossible task,” but the result “was just astonishing.”

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

 

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

 

 

It was also “exhilarating” although ““emotionally and physically challenging.” When the performance was over, “we were all spent,” she said. “We were laughing and crying — there was such a wave of emotion.”

“We had not been asking for perfection,” Sarnoski explained. “But we were asking them (cast, musicians, crew, etc.) to give us the best of themselves, and they gave just that. They gave 100%.”

One of those doing the giving was Faith D’Isa of Kearny, a senior at High Tech High School in North Bergen. She had approached W.H.A.T. with the idea for the challenge as a fundraiser for the group and served as junior director, as well as performing in the ensemble.

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

D’Isa had a little bit of an advantage. “I’ve seen ‘Rent’ seven times on Broadway and I know it inside and out!” she said.

Still, when they began their work that Friday evening, “all of us were a little concerned” — especially about staying up all night and then performing.

“But it got to a point where the hours no longer mattered,” she said. “Some of the people we had never met before, but it was such a nurturing atmosphere that we started to bond. And when the time came to perform, the community we had formed really showed. Everyone in the cast was helping everyone else on stage.”

Two others in the production (their first with W.H.A.T.) were Kearny High School seniors Michael and James Berko. Michael played drums in the band, and James had the lead role of “Mark.” (By the way, they are two of triplets; the third, sister Mary, was away auditioning at a college. Show biz must be in their genes.)

 

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

Photos courtesy of W.H.A.T.

 

 

“It was a lot of fun. It was an amazing experience,” James said. It was also, he noted, “a challenge trying to learn everything, but we pulled it off.”

Michael, although he was offstage, still faced “a lot of work” but “it’s good to push yourself.”

And the brothers agreed that W.H.A.T.’s presence in town is enriching the lives of both those in its productions and the audiences who come to see them.

“It was just great to see the community come out,” James said. What W.H.A.T. “is doing for the community is awesome.”

And the community is also helping W.H.A.T. The group’s publicist Linda Kraus D’Isa (Faith’s mom) cited “the support we received from our mentor volunteers, as well as the wonderful donations in food from local vendors.”

Those donors included Midland Dairy, Lily House Chinese Restaurant, ShopRite of Kearny, Entenmann’s and Wawa of Kearny.

“We are so very appreciative of their support,” she said. “Twenty-five teenagers can consume a great deal of food!”

24 hours and presto! You get ‘Rent’

What_web

 

By Karen Zautyk

Observer Correspondent

KEARNY –

Anyone who has ever been involved in live theater knows that it takes an inordinate amount of effort and energy — and time — to stage even an amateur production. There are weeks to months of preparation involving learning lines, rehearsals with director and cast, plus the prep work for the stage crew and the lighting people and the costumers and the make-up artists.

Make the production a musical, and it gets even more complicated. You’ve got to factor in choreography and musicians and musical direction and vocal arrangements.

The old Mickey Rooney- Judy Garland notion of “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” is pure myth. Or it used to be. In Kearny this week, it’s “Hey, kids, let’s put on “Rent”!

The West Hudson Arts & Theater Co. (W.H.A.T.) is planning a marathon “24-Hour Musical Challenge,” with production work on the award-winning rock musical starting from scratch at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 25, and culminating at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26, with a public performance.

Once the cast and crew arrive at the W.H.A.T. Theater at 131 Midland Ave., Kearny, on Friday evening, they will be locked in and proceed to work ‘round the clock until they take the stage before an audience the following night.

Not to worry, notes Linda Kraus D’Isa, publicist for W.H.A.T. There will be chaperones for the young performers, ages 16-22, a nurse will be on call, and there will be 24-hour security.

We presume there will also be food; the energetic young require substanial consumable fuel.

She also noted that this will be the high-school version of “Rent,” “so it is age appropriate.”

D’Isa expects at least 30 participants in the marathon, representing not just Hudson, but also Bergen, Essex and Passaic counties. The event is a fundraiser for the theater group, which hopes to make it an annual event.

“This is literally a full show, produced entirely in one day,” said W.H.A.T. artistic director Joe Ferriero, who described the project as the “new flash mob.”

Similar 24-hour theatrical challenges have been produced elsewhere across the country, but this is a first for Kearny.

Participants were notified two weeks ago that the production would be “Rent,” the Pulitzer Prizeand Tony Award-winning musical. Set in what used to be known as Alphabet City (that part of Manhattan’s Lower East Side where Avenues A, B, C and D are located), “Rent” is based on Puccini’s “La Boheme.” But its characters are modernday young artists and bohemians, and the music is definitely not operatic.

Other than learning what show they’d be staging, “everything else — the script, the cast, costumes, set and even the production staff ’s roles– are kept a secret,” Ferriero said.

“We will work throughout the night and into the next day in a creative — and I’m sure caffeine-fueled — diligent setting to bring this show to the stage,” he added.

The idea for the project came from Linda D’Isa’s daughter, Faith D’Isa, a Kearny resident and musical theater major at High Tech High School in North Bergen.

“It began with my wanting to do something different for my 18th birthday,” Faith said, “and the 24-hour musical challenge was always something that intrigued me.” Faith also suggested using the challenge as a fundraiser for W.H.A.T. “We have asked everyone involved to make a donation to the theater,” she explained.

Other funds will be raised by the tickets sold for Saturday night’s show, which are priced at $7.

Tickets can be purchased online at www.whatco.org, by calling 201-467-8624, or at the W.H.A.T. Theater, 131 Midland Ave. Tickets also will be available at the door.

Arlington Jewelers: a ‘gem’ of a business

Photo by Karen ZautykRichard Donato with son, Rick, and wife, Joan. (Rick, in addition to being a jeweler, also works in stained glass, one example of his craft proudly displayed by his dad.)

Photo by Karen Zautyk
Richard Donato with son, Rick, and wife, Joan. (Rick, in addition to being a jeweler, also works in stained glass, one example of his craft proudly displayed by his dad.)

 

Arlington Jewelers has a motto: “You’ll be singing a happy tune when you shop with a gem of a jeweler.”

And in this case, that could be literally. You might be inclined to vocalize if proprietor Richard Donato sits down to play the gleaming grand piano that graces the shop. (More about this later.)

Arlington Jewelers is a family-run operation, with Donato, his wife Joan and their son Rick, also a trained jeweler, serving customers at the shop at 36 Ridge Road, North Arlington.

It has been at the same location, just north of the Belleville Pike, for 28 years. But the business itself actually was launched more than 33 years ago – May 5, 1979, Donato notes – first operating a few doors down from its current spot.

For the Donato family, the jewelry business is about professionalism and something more: personal concern for the customer.

“We like people,” Donato said, “and we care that they like us, too. If you care, it makes all the difference.”

Donato noted that 90% of all jewelry repairs are done on the premises, as are the custom jewelry designing and diamond setting.

In the glass showcases, diamonds sparkle throughout the store, along with other gems and gold and silver. There’s an extensive array of watches, necklaces, bracelets, rings, etc. We found the rings in particular worthy of note, these being of exquisite design.

“We pride ourselves on carrying the largest inventory of silver, gold and diamond jewelry at the lowest and most competitive prices anywhere,” Donato said, adding, “and I haven’t changed my repair fees in 35 years.”

“We offer the best prices and the best service we can,” he said, reemphasizing: “The most important thing is that we care.”

“If you’re not pleased [with the work], we’ll redo it. We’re here to please.

“We’ve been serving the South Bergen/West Hudson area for more than 33 years and we like to treat everyone as we’d like to be treated.”

Donato added: “We want to thank everyone for their loyalty and support and we hope they’ll stay with us for another 33 years.”

Now, about that piano: Donato used to be a professional musician, playing a variety of instruments. He still plays piano a couple of hours a day at home. And in March, he installed a seven-foot Otto Altenburg (a business established in Elizabeth in 1847) grand piano in the jewelry store.

As a treat, he serenaded us with selections from “Phantom of the Opera.” We bet that, if you ask, he’d play a song or two for you.

Arlington Jewelers is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Sundays and Mondays. For special pre- Christmas hours, or for more information on the store, call 201-998-5036.

He was Belleville’s beloved ‘Music Man’

Photo courtesy Joanne Lucas Morelli
Thomas Finetti conducting his last concert in 2006.

 

By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent

BELLEVILLE –

It was Belleville’s version of “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” On Nov. 19 an overflow crowd – mostly alumni who came from all over the U.S. – filled the Connie Francis Theatre at Belleville High School (BHS) to present a moving tribute to a beloved music teacher and friend.

Unfortunately, the guest of honor, Thomas A. Finetti, professor of music and BHS choral director for 38 years, couldn’t be there. He’d been hospitalized with what proved to be a fatal illness; he died two days later the age of 66.

To honor his memory the Belleville school district has named the high school chorus classroom as the “Dr. Thomas A. Finetti, Ph.D. Choral Room” and will dedicate this year’s annual Winter Concerts on Dec. 18 and 20 to Finetti, according to BHS Principal Russ Pagano.

At the high school tribute, former students from each decade of Finetti’s Belleville tenure told the audience of close to 200 how the professor had changed their lives, through his passion for music and his care for their well-being.

Ryan Sheridan, BHS mass communications instructor, arranged for those alumni who didn’t speak publicly to videotape messages to Finetti.

After the current BHS Chorus performed, alumni were invited to the stage to join in the singing of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” a particular favorite performance piece of Finetti’s.

Of the approximately 180 people attending – and that included administrators, faculty and students who were present for the board meeting that night – about 150 came up to sing.

Longo credited fellow 1979 alumna Joanne Lucas Morelli as the brainchild behind the Finetti tribute.

“About five weeks ago, I got a Facebook message from Joanne – she’s now living in Pennsylvania – and she asked me if I was still on the board,” Longo said. Lucas Morelli – who helped organize a surprise serenade by some 100 alums in front of Finetti’s house last month – suggested that the board consider presenting a resolution honoring Dr. Finetti for his service to the district. After getting the okay from board president Peter Sangari and Interim Superintendent Helene Feldman, the board arranged to hold the event at its next meeting.

The resolution says, in part, “Educators like Dr. Thomas A. Finetti provide a tremendous service to the future of our School District, Township, State and Nation, inspiring generations of young people in their educational journeys and ensuring their success in their future years; and Dr. Thomas Finetti has clearly had an enduring impact on the youth of the Belleville Public School District, as well as on the community at large, and accordingly merits recognition and applause for his impressive dedication to others….”

Why the adulation?

For Morelli, it was that Finetti “communicated with kids: there was no divide between teacher and students and yet still respect between them.” So much personal attention was bestowed that “he made us all his kids.”

At the high school tribute event, Morelli recalled, “some people said he saved their lives. … The choral room was like the safe haven of the school. When you needed comfort, he’d give it.”

Never one to stand on ceremony, Finetti could invoke humor to get his point across, Morelli said. “He was known to stand on his head or drop and do crunches, just to get your attention, without having to yell. At the same time, though, he took his job seriously. His class wasn’t an easy ‘A’ – he made you work for it. … But you ended up enjoying the experience. … He was just a caring person.”

On a personal note, Morelli remembered that Finetti “came to my father’s funeral during a blizzard in 1993 – and he was the first one there. That meant a lot to me.”

While Finetti was known to have had his share of the spotlight in professional concert venues – he performed as a piano soloist and accompanist with orchestras, including a Carnegie Hall recital – his preference, clearly, was helping sculpt young people’s musical talents.

That affinity for working with students Finetti made clear in a retirement speech in 2006 in which he said, “Nothing could compare with the wonderful feeling of accomplishment I experienced preparing for and directing hundreds of performances with my high school choral groups.”

And, Morelli observed, “that was reflected in how the kids loved him back. It was amazing to see the flocks of (former) students that came back to Belleville to honor him. A doctor alumnus from the ‘90s flew in from Boston to attend the wake. Someone else flew in from Chicago for the funeral. Another person came from North Carolina. I came from Pennsylvania. If it wasn’t for Facebook, it couldn’t have been pulled off.”

Still, in 1988 – when social media didn’t yet exist – Finetti pulled off a hugely successful reunion of the high school music department – an event that drew some 450 alums, faculty and parents – “which he organized through a phone chain,” Morelli recalled.

When Longo, the board member, was a BHS junior, he didn’t take classes with Finetti but had him as a study hall proctor. “I used to bounce up and down in my chair until he’d give me a hall pass to leave,” Longo said, chuckling. “He’d say to me, ‘Are you trying to be a gorilla?’

’’ Later, Longo sufficiently recognized the virtues of this musical maven to become a solid supporter of the BHS Music Parents Association as his daughter Natalie took chorus and band and son Joseph III, band and orchestra. Sgt. Joseph Longo has been a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Band for the past seven years.

“Dr. Finetti had a profound impact on the district,” Longo said. “He was the consummate professional and he cared deeply about his students and the music. … Every year, he’d go to the junior high to audition every music student for the (high school) chorus.”

“I don’t know if he was a celebrity outside his community,” Longo said, “but I do know he left his mark on the lives of several hundred people.”

As Morelli put it, “(Finetti) brought it in on personal level. He brought himself to your level. He just related to kids as equals. He was one of a kind who’s never going to come around again. I’m honored to have had him as a teacher.”

At Finetti’s funeral Mass, held Nov. 26 at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Nutley, members of the BHS Class of 2005 Chorus performed; Natalie Nachimson sang an operatic version of “Ave Maria,” and Gonzalo Valencia was the pianist, all in their former teacher’s honor.

Born in Newark, Finetti lived in Nutley 37 years. Having earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in music at New York University, Finetti also served as an adjunct professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Kean University.

Survivors include his wife, Immaculate Nancy (nee Lamola) Finetti; son Thomas M.; daughter Cristina Baragona; sister Mary Strauss; brother Vito; and many nieces and nephews.

Arrangements were by the Biondi Funeral Home, Nutley

The wonderful world of ‘What if?’

Laurie J. Roden-Perrone

 

By Karen Zautyk

Observer Correspondent

Can you imagine plaid flowers?

This is not a rhetorical question. Think about it. What tartan would you choose and why?

Can you imagine a rainbow kangaroo or a candy-striped zebra?

These and other questions are posed in a delightful new children’s book titled, naturally, “Can You Imagine Plaid Flowers?” and written by Kearny resident Laurie J. Roden-Perrone.

Though directed at very young readers, aged 3-6, and designed to excite their imaginations and creativity, your correspondent also found it inspiring.

After all, an adult needs an imagination boost every once in awhile, too. If I knew anything about horticulture, I might even give plaid flowers a shot.

You never know.

And that’s the point. Imagination is limitless. But, as we get older, it is also too-often underutilized. I hereby thank Ms. Perrone for the reminders.

On Saturday morning, she gave a reading of her book to youngsters at the Kearny Public Library and hopes to have another reading eventually, but we linked up by phone.

I had read the book and was intrigued by it, its marvelous illustrations (drawn by the author’s aunt Susan Roden) and the personal story Perrone tells in the introduction.

 

(c) Illustrations by Susan Roden

One of the acknowledgements is to her mother, Dennie Roden-Cunningham, “who made a courageous choice to keep her child in 1970,” a choice made at a time “when the practice of having children out of wedlock was considered shameful.”

Perrone readily shared her family’s story, which is one of mututal support and enduring love. Born in Newark and raised in Irvington, the young Laurie “had four mothers,” her mother, her grandmother Grace and two aunts, Linda and Sue.

When Laurie was just 10 months old, her mother married Ronald Jones, who became the baby’s stepfather. Add in two other father figures: her grandfather and an uncle.

“We were a very close-knit family,” Perrone said. “I was never without somebody there supporting me. I was so blessed in so very many ways.”

In a message to parents at the end of the book, Perrone urges them to “reach out” to single parents. “All children should be encouraged to dream and imagine good things for their futures,” she writes.

“Please offer parents and their children your compassion, not your indifference.”

The book itself had a circuitous route to publication. It is written in the form of a poem, one specifically created for a Kean College poetry contest back in 1989. But Perrone decided it wasn’t good enough and was going to toss it out.

Enter Aunt Sue, who found the verses and set about illustrating them. “She said I should be a children’s writer,” Perrone recalled. Nothing came of it, then, but Perrone kept the poem and the drawings.

Years later, Perrone and her husband, John, were cleaning out the basement of their Kearny apartment when he found the illustrated manuscript. “It made him smile,” she recalled, “and he said, ‘You should publish this.’”

And the pictures were perfect. They looked as if they had been drawn with crayons, and “that’s the whole idea!” he said.

Then the wheels began turning down the road to publication.

Of unfulfilled or longdelayed dreams, Perrone said, “Sometimes it takes somebody else to say, “Yes, you can!”

“Sometimes you need this one piece of the puzzle before the thing that you have in your heart can come out.”

Perrone, who used to report for The Observer, is now an IT administrator working fulltime in the fashion industry in Manhattan. But she still finds time to write and to volunteer at Renaissance House in Newark, where she teaches a creative writing workshop.

Her first young-adult novel, “The Fire in Grace: Coming Home,” is scheduled to debut in the spring. To pre-order that book, and to learn more about Perrone, visit www.plaidflowers.com.

“Can You Imagine Plaid Flowers?” is available at www. lulu.com, which also offers a downloadable ebook version for only $2.50.

And remember, all of us, children to adults, can benefit from using our imaginations to see our world not just as it is, but as it might be.

Arsenic and Old Lace

Dinner and a movie? How about dinner and live theater!

W.H.A.T. presents ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’

Photo by Jennifer Vazquez
W.H.A.T.’s Artistic Director Joe Ferreiro (sitting at left) and “Arsenic and Old Lace” Director Sue Mandzick- Davis guide the actors during rehearsal.

 

 

By Jennifer Vazquez

Observer Correspondent

WEST HUDSON -

The West Hudson Arts and Theater Company is busy at it again! This time, W.H.A.T. is preparing for its first-ever dinner theater performance of “Arsenic and Old Lace” set to take place on Nov. 16 and 17.

‘“Arsenic and Old Lace” is a screwball, farcical black comedy that has seen success in both stage and the big screen. In fact, the 1940s movie adaptation starred Cary Grant in the role of Mortimer Brewster.

The story centers on the Mortimer Brewster who goes back home to visit the family who raised him –his two (now) elderly aunts Abby and Martha Brewster. However, Mortimer soon finds out that his sweet, dear aunts are murdering lonely bachelor’s by offering them wine laced with arsenic as a means of escaping their lonely existence. Though the plot seems rather morbid it is infused with hilarity. Especially when it comes to the antics of Mortimer’s brother, Teddy Brewster, who firmly believes he is Theodore Roosevelt and his other brother Jonathan Brewster (who is also visiting) and has undergone plastic surgery as a means of covering up his murderous ways.

W.H.A.T.’s Artistic Director Joe Ferreiro, who is also set to appear in the theater company’s production of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and Sue Mandzik Davis, the production’s director, are excited for opening night, despite the fact that rehearsals have been derailed on numerous occasions due to the inclement whether the northeast has been experiencing these past few weeks.

“Rehearsals have been a challenge because of the weather,” Davis said.

Ferreiro echoed Davis’ statement, adding:

“We’ve lost a whole week because of Sandy and another day because of the snow storm.”

Nevertheless, the entire cast and crew are committed to putting on a great show.

“We have the best people,” Davis said proudly. “They really love what they do and are working hard for the play to come together in time for opening night.”

While everyone is excited about this play, “Arsenic and Old Lace” was not the initial production that was planned.

“We were actually going to do ‘Steel Magnolias,’” Davis explained. “We had everything ready for auditions but the publishing company pulled the rights.”

When this took place, the W.H.A.T. committee had to go back to square one –choose a play to perform. That’s when “Arsenic and Old Lace” was given the green light.

Though every one who is involved in the production is quite excited for the performances that are fast approaching, there is a bit of anxious anticipation regarding the dinner theater performance on Saturday.

The dinner theater performance, which will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, is a joint fundraiser produced in conjunction with the Arlington Junior Woman’s Club.

“I hosted a murder mystery dinner the (AJWC) held,” Ferreiro said, explaining how the idea of having a dinner performance came about. “That (dinner) went so successfully that we thought we could incorporate that concept into one of our shows.”

The dinner will take place starting at 6 p.m., right before Saturday’s evening performance. Dinner will be catered and take place at the cafeteria located in the W.H.A.T. premises. The cafeteria will be formally decorated to create a fantastic ambiance to all who are partaking in this pre-show feast. Dessert will be served right after Act 1 -during intermission, according to Davis.

W.H.A.T. was conceived as a joint effort between many individuals and surrounding towns. The purpose behind it is to be a cultural resource that will enrich and invigorate the West Hudson community as a whole while embracing, educating and entertaining people of all ages, cultures and abilities,” according to their official website.

Those who form part of this organization, including the chairs and actors, are dedicated to the arts –setting aside time from their busy schedules to rehearse and contribute to W.H.A.T.

This is the theater’s company second season. Though, still a young organization, it is showing much promise and has been received and welcomed by the surrounding communities. They are now housed at 131 Midland Ave. General admission for nondinner theater performances is $12. Senior (65 and older) and student (with valid I.D.) tickets are $10.

Tickets for the dinner theater performance are $40. However, show-only tickets at the general admission prices are available for the Saturday evening performance as well.

For more information on “Arsenic and Old Lace,” W.H.A.T. or to purchase tickets visit www.whatco.org or call 201-467-8624. Tickets (except for the dinner theater performance) can also be purchased at the door half an hour prior to curtain but you run the risk of the show being sold-out by then!