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Category: Entertainment

‘Fuerzabruta’: a spectacle that puts your senses into overdrive

Photos by Chad Kraus


By Jennifer Vazquez

Observer Correspondent

There are many who are theater enthusiasts — people who indulge in the world of plays and musicals. However, there are also those who are the complete those who say the theater is an acquired taste. Because of these two, entirely different groups, it is hard for one to find a production that both can actually enjoy. Nevertheless, “Fuerzabruta” might just be the production that satisfies both lovers and “naysayers” of the theater world.

First and foremost, it is of importance to point out that Fuerzabruta — which comes from Argentina — is not your typical New York theatrical production. Not by a long shot. The experience is so unique, so out of the norm that it truly is captivating, surreal and an overload on all your senses.

When one walks into The Daryl Roth Theater — a wellknown off-Broadway theater located across the street from Union Square — to watch the performance you might be expecting to sit down in a chair and witness a plot unfold on a stage. What actually awaits you is a completely different scenario! Instead you will find yourself standing in the middle of an empty room, alongside other spectators, and engaging in the production. That’s right — when you go to see “Fuerzabruta,” you are not only a spectator but part of the story that unfolds before your very eyes!

The production starts off with a man, dressed in a white suit, running on a treadmill in the middle of the crowd. The DJ that overlooks the room plays. With each change of scene the audience is guided to move to certain areas of the room by members of the production staff.

With each changing scene your senses are completely and utterly enthralled with what is happening around you. There is a scene with two women playing tag. Except this tag is actually taking place while the women are running around the walls! There is another scene where rain and wind takes place in the middle of the room. The booming wind and ever present falling water, though unannounced, was completely welcomed by the entire audience.

Yet, there is another scene where dancers take the stage — a stage that is moved into the room. These dancers shatter the “roof” (which is made out of paper) of the stage and throw the remnants — which end up being paper, confetti and foam — into the crowd. They, later, bring their performance into the crowd, picking audience members to join them on stage in a dance.

However, of all the acrobatics and different scenes that make up “Fuerzabruta” the most popular seemed to be the pool scene –a scene where a see-through pool hangs above the crowd while a group of women perform and glide in it. The pool slowly starts descending to the point that the entire crowd can reach and touch it as the women in it interact with the audience.

At the end of the production “rain” comes down once again. While the DJ continues to play, the actors come out and encourage the audience to dance. This end prompts the room to turn into a mini dance club.

For a production that basis itself on visual, audio and tactile elements, with no dialogue whatsoever, one comes out of the production entirely fascinated, awestruck and mesmerized.

“Fuerzabruta” is a production that leaves the meaning of the performance completely up to the spectators. It is by far an exceptional sensory overload for both theater and non-theater lovers. A unique type of production. An avantgarde theatrical masterpiece that is sure to resonate with people, both young and old.

Because “Fuerzabruta” is slated to close Nov. 11, one must act fast to purchase tickets!

If you would like more information on “Fuerzabruta,” or to purchase tickets, visit www.fuerzabrutanyc.com.

New Jersey group, The Cameos, performs at PNC

Photo by Rick Jackson and Frank Carbone
The Cameos perform before thousands at PNC Bank Arts Center.


By Jennifer Vazquez

Observer Correspondent

There are certain venues where not all artists get to perform. For those that do, the feat symbolizes a certain level of success in their careers.

PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel is one such venue and New Jersey’s The Cameos are one of the fortunate musical groups who performed on this renowned stage.

“We performed at an event called Senior Concert Series,” The Cameos vocalist John Basilone said. “It’s always a great experience for us to perform (at PNC).”

Basilone explained the level of importance it is for The Cameos to perform on the PNC stage.

“Groups rarely get asked to perform at this event twice in a row,” he said. “This is our fourth time!”

The fact that the group does not have a current hit album makes its fourth appearance at PNC an achievement rarely seen, according to Basilone. There was an expectation of roughly 10,000 concert goers at the Sept. 18 event but due to the weather that particular day, only about 3,000 showed up, recalled Basilone. “To us this was still a huge outcome,” he said. “Because of the weather, we didn’t have as much people attend but this number still blew us away.”

For those who are not familiar with PNC Bank Arts Center, the venue is an open-air amphitheater with thousands of seats underneath a roof as well as a huge lawn in the open which many concert goers choose as their “seats.” Due to the fact that the lawn surrounding the amphitheater are not covered by a roof, those that purchase lawn tickets are vulnerable to the weather during inclement conditions.

Not only did The Cameos perform last month at the theater, they were slated to return to PNC for a fundraiser to support the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial — an event the group was excited to perform at.

“We are all honored that we can give our time to perform for this cause,” Basilone said.

While The Cameos date back to the 1950s, the latest group alignment has been together for roughly seven years. Drummer Paul Stuart became the head of the group when he took over for Roger DelRusso in 2005 when Del- Russo passed.

The success of The Cameos is apparent when one navigates through their events calendar on their official website. Every single weekend is practically booked — a feat feat all in itself since the majority of the members of the group work full-time at other places. The fact that they love the band and are so dedicated to their music is clearly seen, according to Basilone, especially when their busy schedule becomes even busier.

“We are more than fortunate (with booking dates),” Basilone commented humbly. “But, you should see our summer calendar. We are so busy at times, that we perform five days out of the week…there are days when (members) come straight from work to perform and we still put on a show for our great audience.”

Basilone The Cameos to be “lucky to have such amazing” supporters.

“We always make a point to let our wonderful audience that we are here because of them,” he said. “They are an important part of our band. They make this all possible.”

If you would like more information about The Cameos or would like to purchase their albums, visit their official website www.thecameos.com.

26th annual Broadway Flea Market and Grand Auction takes center stage in NYC

Photos by Jennifer Vazquez
Many took part in the festivities and the opportunity of finding Broadway treasures during this year’s Broadway Flea Market and Grand Auction in New York City.


By Jennifer Vazquez

Observer Correspondent

The streets of the Big Apple were bustling with Broadway fans this past Sunday, Sept. 23, as people participated in the 26th annual Broadway Flea Market and Grand Auction.

Those not familiar with this one-of-a-kind, yearly, exciting and fun event are missing out…big time!

The day was marked by thousands of Broadway and theater fans roaming in Times Square, Shubert Alley and along West 44th Street searching for authentic, unique and rare keepsakes. Everything from lost cast recordings to signed posters and Playbills, rare costume and set design sketches to props –in short you have the wonderful and great possibility of coming across anything and everything that has ever formed part of a theatrical performance.

This high-spirited and lively event also hosted games, giving everyone the opportunity to win Broadway show tickets, free dinners and various other mementos.

The main event of the festivities, however, is the grand auction. This year, with no exception, it proved to be a grand success! A clock that adorned the stage at this year’s Tony Awards –the equivalent of the Academy Awards for those in the Broadway community –signed by Broadway’s elite was one of the auctioned items. The chance to go behind the scenes to the set of television shows like Smash!, NCIS: Los Angeles, Saturday Night Live and Modern Family were also “items” auctioned off. Tickets and VIP nights to Broadway shows –both currently running and future –were auctioned off as well.

One of the biggest surprises, and money grabbers, was the chance to sit in, as a judge, alongside theatrical and acting greats, like James Gandolfini, Nina Arienda, Bebe Neuwirth and Estelle Parsons (just to name a few), as part of the Gypsy of the Year and Easter Bonnet Competitions. This once-in-a-lifetime chance for theater lovers ended up being a neck-toneck auction with two women constantly out-bidding each other. Just when you thought there was no end to the final bid, one of the women decided to bid $7,000! The other woman ceased raising the “bid” bar. However, the auctioneers gave the second participant the chance to match that same bid. She happily jumped at the opportunity. In short, the chance to form part, as a judge, in both these competitions was auctioned off to the two women for the total sum of $14,000!

Not only is the day a guaranteed sensational time but the proceeds from the flea market, auction, games and donations will go to aid a remarkable cause and organization –Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS. This organization is the nation’s leading industry-based non-profit fundraising and grant making organizations dedicated to AIDS. However, BC/EFA is also a major supporter of various programs at The Actor’s Fund, including The HIV/ AIDS Initiative, the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative, the Al Hirschfeld Free Clinic and the Dancer’s Resource, among others.

Last year, the event raised, roughly $550,000. However, since its inception 26 years ago, the Broadway Flea Market and Grand Auction netted over $9.1 million!

This year’s day-long event will also prove to be a success as a multitude of people showed up to take in the great and unique Broadway life.

After all…Broadway is where dreams are made!

The world is her canvas: budding Belleville artist ready to make it big




Photos courtesy Jaszmine Hawkins
Untitled works by Jaszmine Hawkins.

By Jennifer Vazquez

Observer Correspondent


Vivid colors courtesy of dazzling brush strokes. A one-of-a kind inventive, artistic vision. A take on the abstract. Captivating. These are all ways that one might very well describe the work of Jaszmine Hawkins – an aspiring 25-year-old budding artist from Belleville.

Hawkins possesses all the necessary attributes for a successful career in the field: passion, a surplus of creative ideas, talent and a charismatic spirit. The latter is easily attested by just speaking with her.

Hawkins’ passion for painting was always innate. However, she never had any aspirations to become a bona fide professional artist until she was in high school.

“I had phases throughout my life where I wanted to be an astronaut or I wanted to be a veterinarian,” Hawkins said. “It wasn’t until I sat with my high school guidance counselor and was asked what I wanted to do with my life that I thought, ‘What have I enjoyed constantly throughout the years?’ The answer was art.”

Seeing their child, who had been so enthralled by the idea of becoming a doctor now, suddenly, veering to pursuing an artistic ambition, brought utter shock to Hawkins’ parents.

Even though, she explains, her parents were always relatively supportive of her artistic ambitions, they were, nonetheless, a bit afraid of what the life of an artist might be like. The idea of having their daughter follow in the path of many “starving” artists was not appealing to them.

“Imagine telling your parents that you are going from wanting to be a doctor, pretty much your whole life, to a painter?” she recalls, laughing. “They were just worried. They didn’t want me to be a ‘starving’ artist.”

Her parents’ apprehensions aside, one of Hawkins’ relatives wholeheartedly endorsed her aspirations.

“My aunt has always supported me,” she said. “She would always buy me painting kits and supplies. She really believed in my passion.”

Other role models played an equally influential part in Hawkins’ life and work. Masterminds such as Vincent van Gogh, Salvador Dali and Maurice Braun, among others, all shaped her artistic taste and interest – so much so, that she distinctly remembers the image that captivated her and subsequently provoked her passion for painting.

“I remember the first time I saw (van Gogh’s) ‘Starry Night,’ ” she recalled. “It literally took my breath away. I still love everything about it. The colors, the strokes … everything!”

While Hawkins has no problem speaking in detail of her idols and their work, don’t ask her to describe her own art style – because that topic is all too hard for her to convey.

“Other people can’t categorize (my work) because I can’t categorize it,” Hawkins explained. “I would say it’s a mixture of abstract – at times, surrealism. I’ve done avantgarde. It’s just really expressive work. It’s whatever I am feeling. I do tell stories. I have a story for each (piece). I normally don’t tell people (the story behind the painting) because I want them to have their own story for it.”

Given that “everyday life” is the inspiration to her work, her art is a complete collection of eclectic and innovative visual stimulations. However, there seems to be one particular subject that Hawkins is fond of and might be the signature characteristic of most of her paintings.

“I’m known for doing really exaggerated lips stemming from my mom’s obsession with lips,” Hawkins said. “I mean everything you can imagine putting lips on, she has it.”

Hawkins attended Xavier University in New Orleans with hopes of majoring in the arts. However, this charismatic and independent young woman decided to put her studies on hold and become a professional artist for now, testing her luck in the competitive art world.

After showcasing, selling and being commissioned paintings in the New Orleans area, she decided to return to her native state, New Jersey, and try her luck in the Capital of the World – New York.

When speaking of her goals and dreams she exudes an air of confidence while acknowledging the cutthroat, critical, competitiveness in the art world, especially in New York.

The first goal on her list? Finish her collegiate studies.

Although she stresses the desire to finish her academic degree – this time, at an institution closer to the tri-state area – Hawkins also proudly boasts of her ultimate dream: “I would love to own my own gallery in Brooklyn.”

By sheer talent alone, it seems that Hawkins is easily on her way.

Lyndhurst chef cooks up a storm in ‘Hell’s Kitchen’



Photo courtesy Justin Antiorio
“Hell’s Kitchen” co-finalist Justin Antiorio manages a smile while filming a segment for the popular TV series.

By Jeff Bahr

Observer Correspondent

Chef Justin Antiorio, 30, of Lyndhurst, has kept his hometown in the forefront ever since he entered Chef Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen with 17 other hopefuls to compete for top cooking honors and a grand prize for which any chef would drool.

The sous chef has weathered countless challenges and surmounted numerous obstacles to make it into the top two. On this night he would learn if his quest would take him all the way to the coveted grand prize: a head chef position with a quartermillion dollar annual salary at Gordon Ramsey’s new restaurant in Las Vegas. Actually, that’s misleading. We viewers would learn the final outcome. Filming wrapped in June 2011 and the contestants have kept the results hush, hush – no small feat.

To use a food metaphor, Antiorio’s quest wouldn’t be a cake-walk. Co-finalist Christina Wilson, 32, of Philadelphia, has been hungering for the win as much as Antiorio. And her cooking prowess has proved to be at least on par with Antiorio’s.

For the finale, the duo would compete as head chefs during a dinner service. Each would lead a team of cooks comprised of former contestants eliminated from earlier episodes. Antiorio would lead the blue team and Wilson the red. Each would serve an appetizer and entrée course to assembled guests –a varied group featuring the dueling chefs– family members. After the meal, diners would record their opinions of the food and service on comment cards. Chef Ramsay would take these into consideration before rendering his final decision.

As the show progressed it became obvious that neither competitor was going to run away with the title. This would be a real fight – right down to the wire! The grand finale would also contrast the leadership styles of each chef. Antiorio, much like Ramsay, barked out orders to his team members, while Wilson took a more laissez-faire approach by telling her team that she wouldn’t answer to the title of chef during the dinner service – they were all in this thing together.

Both teams made their share of mistakes and suffered setbacks, but both managed to get things back on track. As the end neared and frustration set in, Wilson’s laid back persona suddenly changed. This was for all the marbles and she let her team know it in a spirited tone.

At the end of the dinner service, Chef Ramsay congratulated both contestants for their “amazing” job and set off for his office where he would make his final decision.

As he pondered who would win, he recalled Antonio’s unmatched palette – that he was in fact the only contestant ever to register a perfect score during blind taste tests. He also recalled that some of Wilson’s dishes were among the best that he’d tasted. Hmm…

Each contestant stood before separate doors during the moment of truth. One of these was locked and one wasn’t. The contestant fortunate enough to stand before the unlocked door would be this year’s champion. After Ramsay issued a short countdown he directed the contestants to turn their knobs. Three, two, one, twist… And the winner is: Christina Wilson! Justin Antiorio of Lyndhurst was the proud runner-up.

Although disappointed by the outcome, Antiorio was quite generous with his praise for Wilson and said that he had no regrets.

“When I turned the knob and the door didn’t open, my heart dropped,” said Antiorio of the big moment. “

Although I was upset, because like every other person in the world no one wants to lose, I remember Chef Ramsay telling me to hold my head high because I had nothing to be ashamed of and at that time it hit me; I had given everything I could during my time in Hell’s Kitchen …

As I got closer and closer to the final competition I was at peace with the fact that I have God-given talent as a chef and that I will always be focused on making food that people love to eat and I will continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen.”

As for Antiorio’s hopes for the future, you might say that he has concocted a very tasty plan.

“I truly feel I demonstrated that I am an accomplished and skilled chef and am ready to run my own kitchen and show my leadership skills on my own terms,” said Antiorio. “Chef Ramsay was a great influence for me and I learned a lot from him. But, to be honest, I am more than ready to move forward and to take everything I learned and use it in life and in the kitchen of my own restaurant someday soon. Thank you to all my family and friends who supported me throughout the entire Hell’s Kitchen experience – especially all of my New Jersey people! You haven’t heard the last from me.”

Dancesation dazzles in Disney

Photo by Rhona Siciliano/ Dancesation dancers in the Disney World parade.


By Jennifer Vazquez

Observer Contributor


Those who know dancers, are familiar with the passion that drives these artists to their chosen art form. A passion that is cultivated through the mere pleasure of dancing not through the number of competitions won. This motto rings true, especially in recent years, to Susan Marrazzo, owner, choreographer and teacher of Dancesation Studios LLC located in Nutley.

Even though Marrazzo, known as “Miss Susan” by her students, finds the atmosphere of competitive dance negative and unappealing to her, she still manages to have a stellar reputation within the dance community — so much so that her dancers have been invited to perform many times in the public spotlight.

The latest of these events, where her dancers dance for the sheer love of it, took place this summer in Florida, when her students participated in Dance The World at The Walt Disney World Resort.

Dance the World is a dance showcase that takes place at The Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.

According to their website, “performers from around the world” participate in a fourday event where they “will rehearse at Disney’s Fantasia Garden, with Disney and Dance The World choreographers.” According to Marrazzo, there were about 500 dancers from all over the country participating.

The ultimate event for the dancers participating in Dance The World is when they present the dance in a parade for a special performance at Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

“It was a great camaraderie for the girls,” Marrazzo said. “The best part was their dads, when seeing them come down Main Street, were crying.”

“It is a great experience for the kids because there is no competition at all,” Marrazzo said. “It is just about performing. My (dancers) were asked to perform in the parade…(the dancers) learned the routine ahead of time, so when we got there we rehearsed with all these other girls and boys from around the country and they got to perform in the big parade.”


Though this was the third time Marrazzo and her partners performed in Disney, it was their first time they were invited to perform in the parade.

“The very first time we were invited by Disney was 12 years ago,” she explained. “Once you are first invited to go, you don’t have a problem being invited back. Years ago, we were invited through a competition that the girls were doing…(Disney) has to approve the dance studio and the type of dance that you will do.”

The Disney experience for many of Marrazzo’s dancers is unforgettable.

“I have been dancing in this studio with Miss Susan for about 14 years, and I have pleasant memories of all those performances and classes,” dancer Jillian Lanese, 16, said. “Dancing in Disney with so many others was one of best (memories)!”

Aside from the parade the dancers also took part in a stage performance where they danced their own routine in Disney’s Hollywood Studio. Marrazzo’s dancers range from 11-years-old to high school-aged.

One might ask: what changed Marrazzo’s mind from having her dancers compete (as they initially won a Dance The World invite through a competition) to not competing at all?

“I don‘t do competitions anymore,” she said. “I take my students and we perform at different places. I’m just not a fan of what competitions have become….

“We have a place down in Toms River where my dancers go perform once-a-year their Christmas show,” she said. “It’s nice because they get paid for it and they put that money in their fund so we can travel. They‘ve done the (Macy‘s) Thanksgiving Day Parade.”

Marrazzo explains that their invitation to these well-known events, such as the Thanksgiving Day Parade, was all arranged through word of mouth by people who have seen them perform.

With all these events and their annual recital, which takes place in May, behind them, Marrazzo has no immediate plans for another event. In fact, she says that her dancers are enjoying their time off until classes resume in the upcoming weeks.

Marrazzo has been dancing all her life — from professional dancing to choreography. Dancing is in her blood, so much so that Dancesation Studio LLC is entering its 29th year in business and has staggering 200 passionate students.

Lyndhurst cook sizzles at/on Hell’s Kitchen

Hell’s Kitchen TV series finalist, Justin Antiorio, stands in front of Hell’s kitchen restaurant in Newark.


By Jeff Bahr 


The thing that struck me most during my recent meeting with “Hell’s Kitchen” finalist Justin Antiorio was the downright ordinariness of the man. This is in no way a knock. Quite the contrary. Antiorio is without pretense and very down-to- earth – quite refreshing for a young man who has sampled a healthy heaping of TV fame.

I had made the trip to Newark’s Hell’s Kitchen Lounge (how apropos!) last Monday to join the chef/ contestant and his supporters for a “viewing night” of the wildly popular reality show. A feeling of suspense hung in the air. Would Antiorio make it into the next round and move that much closer to the coveted grand prize? Or, would his long journey come to a sudden end? Since the show was taped, Antiorio and his clan already knew the answer, but, much like good poker players they weren’t throwing out any hints to reporters. Drat!

A Lyndhurst resident until his early teens, Antiorio, 29, lived in Franklin Lakes and Hoboken for a spell before returning to Lyndhurst. While his mailing addresses were in occasional flux, his passion for cooking was always rock steady.

According to Antiorio, his love for the cooking craft grew from watching his father – a respected chef in his own right – as he worked his culinary magic in the kitchens of prestigious hotels. During these early days, the boy would often ape his dad’s movements, pretending that he, too, was a chef.

At home, things were much the same. Antiorio and his mother (also a committed “foodie”) would concoct different recipes and dream up different dishes together. If food seems central to this family’s DNA, hang on for the rest of the story. Justin’s older brother also works as a chef!

Not too surprisingly, Antiorio decided to turn his love for food into a career. After completing high school he enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Education in NYC where he beefed-up his already prodigious cooking skills. After graduating he apprenticed at some of the city’s most prestigious restaurants before taking a job as a line cook at the Highlawn Pavilion in West Orange.

But it was Antiorio’s next job as a line cook at the renowned 21 Club in NYC that provided just the right ingredient for his budding career. Through toil and will he became one of the youngest sous chefs in the restaurant’s history. Five years later, he tackled a different challenge when he performed sous chef duties at Sterling Affair – a highend caterer that counts the Rockefellers (yes, those Rockefellers) among its clients.

With these tasty accomplishments under his belt you might expect that it was the ambitious man himself who applied for a spot on the nationally televised “Hell’s Kitchen.” “Not so” according to Antiorio. “My father actually sent my audition (application) out for me,” he explained. “And then it was a couple calls, back and forth, and we went out (to Hollywood) to shoot. It was nerve wracking.”

Antiorio’s “Hell’s Kitchen” odyssey got underway in June when he and 17 other cooking hopefuls entered Chef Ramsay’s kitchen. Since then, the original group has been pared down to five remaining finalists – a battle-tested club of cuisine elites that includes Antiorio. “It’s an amazing accomplishment… my mother is ecstatic!” gushed Antiorio on making it into the top five.

If you’ve never seen the show, here’s the gist. Ramsay’s over-the-top putdowns and scream-fests keep adoring fans transfixed to the screen, while the cooks laboring under his tutelage try their best not to crack.

Antiorio seems to understand Ramsey’s heavyhanded persona and takes it all in stride – a considerable attribute that may just take the Lyndhurst cook all the way to the finish line.

“In the kitchen Chef Ramsay is all business – he’s the boss,” explains Antiorio in a respectful and accepting tone. “But outside, he’s a regular guy.”

If Antiorio should go on to win the competition, he would work for Ramsay as head chef at a Las Vegas restaurant. It would be nothing short of a dream come true for the chef.

For that to happen, however, Antiorio would need to survive the cooking challenge being aired at Hell’s Kitchen restaurant on this evening: “Italian Night.”

As family and friends watched the show on a giant screen while nibbling on victuals supplied by the restaurant, the nail biting began. Not surprisingly, Ramsay was underwhelmed by the performances of the five and let them know it in his ribald way. “We’re cooking like idiots! Get a grip!” he scolded.

As the elimination process placed the white-hot light of scrutiny on this week’s lowest performers, the unlucky pair stepped forward to plead their cases to Ramsay. It would soon spell curtains for one of them. Where was Justin Antiorio during this heart-wrenching phase? Standing relieved beside two other contestants in the safe zone. He had made it into the top four!

This week the foursome will take turns running a kitchen as rigid taskmaster Chef Ramsay looks on. Will Justin Antiorio of Lyndhurst – the local boy done good – survive another round and move ever closer to his dream? That’s up to a higher power and Chef Ramsay to decide. But not necessarily in that order.

One-tank trips: Grounds for Sculpture

Photos by Jeff Bahr/ J. Seward Johnson’s sculptural tribute to “American Gothic” painting by Grant




















“Red Grooms: Henry Moore in a Sheep Meadow.”


By Jeff Bahr

Are you an art lover? If so, you will simply adore the open-air exhibits found at Grounds for Sculpture, a unique outdoor display of artistic magnificence located just south of Trenton.

On the other hand, if the static viewing of art strikes you as an exercise in tedium – one almost guaranteed to bore you witless – you will still love this place.

Confused? You won’t be after your visit, I promise you. For this is the rare place where a surprise lurks at nearly every turn, and the overall experience is actually worth more than the price of admission – even for the non-artsy set.

From fairgrounds to sculpture grounds

The 42 acres of land where the sculpture garden is situated once comprised a portion of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds. From 1866 until 1980 — a pivotal year when urban decay and nearby Great Adventure amusement park finally delivered a one-two punch to the long-enduring enterprise, forcing its closure — the fair entertained and educated.

By the mid 1980s, things had grown worse still. The once vibrant grounds had become a downtrodden wasteland. The Domestic Arts Building, an ornate hall that had displayed handicrafts, needlework and other home arts to fairgoers since 1920, had become a vandals’ den, stripped of much of its unique decorative tiles and overrun by choking grasses and weeds. The same was true of the nearby Motor Exhibits Building.

Some deemed it the end of an era and wrote the fairgrounds off as a total loss. But not all. One man, with an abundance of creativity and vision (and more than a little clout) decided that something needed to be done.

J. Seward Johnson to the rescue

J. Seward Johnson (a controversial artist best known for his life-size bronze castings of living people) began eyeing the decaying site in 1987. To Seward, the former fairgrounds represented an unpolished diamond in the rough – precisely the type of place he’d dreamt of for a magnificent public sculpture garden.

After some behind-the-scenes wrangling, Johnson acquired a tract of land from the former fairgrounds and got busy. His vision came to life in 1992, when fifteen outdoor sculptures produced by thirteen area artists were presented to the public. An indoor museum was added to the grounds in 1993, and the Domestic Arts and Motor Exhibits Buildings – the very building that seemed doomed only a few years earlier was completely restored, tiles and all, and used to exhibit additional sculptures.

Photos by Jeff Bahr/ J. Seward Johnson’s whimsical “Day Dream.”


Grounds for Sculpture

Grounds for Sculpture has grown in leaps and bounds since those early days. The park now features over 250 works created by a bevy of distinguished artists including Clement Meadmore, Anthony Caro, Beverly Pepper, Kiki Smith, George Segal, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Isaac Witkin.

A Visitor’s Center at the new Seward Johnson Center for the Arts features an introductory film about the history of the park, conference and catering facilities and self-guided tour maps. In the film the narrator tells how Grounds for Sculpture represents many different things to many different people. This is indeed true. Because of its variety of something-foreveryone sculptures, the park has reached across cultural divides and attracted a wideranging audience.

In truth, visitors never know just what they’ll encounter next as they walk the grounds (trust me!), but odds are they will find something that appeals to their senses. Beautiful trees, grasses and flowers abound at the park and captivate at a level at least on a par with the sculptures themselves. It is this interplay of cultivated natural setting and man-made works that truly defines Grounds for Sculpture.

Impressionist sculpture outside Rat’s restaurant.

A fanciful impression of French Impressionists

When I was younger, I had little regard for the muchballyhooed French Impressionists (Monet, Manet, Renoire, etc.) and their “stuffy” paintings. To me, each canvas looked as if it had been painted by a person with vision problems. “Why is everything so muted, blurry and subdued?” I’d ask with mouth agape in total ignorance of what the artists had so brilliantly accomplished. “Couldn’t these guys see clearly?”

Then, as the years passed and my appreciation for subtlety and mood grew, these very same paintings began to speak to my soul. I’ve now come full-circle and become a genuine fan. I’m elated to report that Grounds for Sculpture pays homage to French Impressionism in a way not often seen or experienced. Allow me to give you my personal impressions (pun intended).

Imagine for a moment what it might be like to step into a sublime scene painted by one of the great masters. Could anything ever be so impossibly beautiful? Now, imagine forking over $12 (the current price for adult admission at the park), taking a short stroll and finding yourself smack, dab in the middle of impressionist paintings rendered by the likes of Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, and others.

A lily pond and bridge inspired by Monet and appropriately dubbed Monet’s Bridge is as arresting for its beauty as it is for its ingenuity. Small hidden valves emit a fine water mist that hangs low on the water imparting the perfect mood for the setting.

But it is Déjeuner Déjà Vu, a sculpture by Johnson — inspired by Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe — that truly captures me. Here, in lifelike scale is an uncanny representation of the famous scene depicting two near naked women and their curiously detached escorts. It’s as if someone snapped their fingers and Manet’s painting simply sprang to life.

Other sculptures include everything from the whimsical and stark to the crafty and obtuse. There are highfaluting offerings so staid and polished, the aristocracy would welcome them. Then there are those sculptures that might be considered “racy” by some. Finally, there are pieces that totally confound the senses and defy pat classification. In other words, there’s “art” to be found here, and oodles of it at that.

Hidden (in plain sight) surprises

There are sections of the park that are located off the beaten track, but ones worth the hunt. You will know that you’ve found the most bawdy of them when you encounter a full-sized contemporary male sculpture grasping a bra and other female accouterments in his hand. Just what is this smiling figure staring at so high up in the tree? Could it possibly be? Come and find out! There’s another bit of whimsy to be found beside the lake. Precisely where, you ask? Here’s a hint: Just follow the sounds of a running shower. Then, when you arrive, try your best not to blush!

A last hurrah

After a walking tour, there are a few more places for visitors to check out. The Toad Hall Shop and Gallery offers decorative jewelry and a changing selection of smallscale sculptures for sale.

The Domestic Arts Building feeds body and soul at its Peacock Café: a place where food and art intertwine to delight the senses.

When I visited, a living, breathing peacock stood just outside the window, oblivious to my presence.

And last but far from least, there is Rat’s. This highly rated French restaurant (with an unfortunate name) serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner indoors and outdoors. Located directly beside the Monet Bridge, Rats offers tasty country cuisine in a setting inspired by Monet’s beloved town of Giverny. Bon appétit!


Belweder: little Polish deli ‘round the corner











By Jeff Bahr
Sometimes a jewel can be found right in your very own backyard. Such is the case with Belweder Deli, a Polish meat and provisions emporium (deli to those short on time and long on hunger) located On Midland Avenue, Kearny – a mere stone’s throw from The Observer.

Noted for its fine Polish delicacies, Belweder offers far more to its customers than a typical run-of-the-mill delicatessen – both in the quality of its homemade and imported goods, and in its uncommonly cheerful service.

Owner Mariola Swietkowski puts her heart and soul into the enterprise and the net effect of her loving concern becomes apparent the very second that one walks through the door.

Flanked by Anna Golda, who, Mariola says, “adds her special kick of flavor” and Marzena Burdzy – who prepares the shop’s homemade pierogi. Belweder’s is truly a cut above. Mariola also receives help from her family members. She is “grateful” for this as their efforts help to keep the business running smoothly.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Mariola to discuss her business. As a man who fancies polish food in general, I was already intrigued by the fact that such a deli exists mere blocks from my workplace.

Not surprisingly, Belweder caters to its share of Polish- Americans. But that’s not to suggest that such people represent the store’s only fans. In fact, Mariola is quick to point out, “at least half” of Belweder’s customers hail from locales other than Poland. Good food is good food, wherever you find it, stresses Mariola, and Belweder’s certainly has the goods.

Swietkowski’s attention to quality and detail is obvious, and her strong work ethic ensures that, whenever a customer drops by the store, she’ll be waiting, with her ever-present smile, to take their order.

A Kearny resident for 28 years, Polish-born Swietkowski came to America over thirty years ago. She hit upon the idea of a Polish delicatessen when she noticed that none existed in her community.

“I’ve seen different restaurants open (in Kearny), but there was no Polish place to bring people together,” explained Swietkowski.

Hoping to change that, the budding restaurateur envisioned a “place where a person could get a full meal at a fairly good price, homemade and different, because Polish food is different,” and took steps to turn her idea into a reality. In September of 2008, Belweder (named after the opulent presidential palace in Warsaw, Poland) opened for business on Midland Ave., and the sweet smells of fresh and cooked kielbasa and stuffed cabbage have wafted through the neighborhood ever since.

Homemade foods found at Belweder (even the bread crumbs are made by hand) act as a supreme drawing card and distinguish the business from others. Polish staples such as perogi, potato pancakes, and stuffed cabbage are prepared “lovingly by hand on a daily basis” by the aforementioned ladies, and the sandwiches offered at Belweder are as generous in size as they are robust in flavor.

In fact, the sandwiches are so uncommonly large that one of Swietkowski’s customers actually mailed a picture of hers (for posterity I presume) to the shop along with her compliments. The photo hangs proudly beside the cash register.

“Our hot and cold sandwiches are very popular,” says Swietkowski of her concoctions on Polish rye. Sandwiches for sale at the shop include the signature Belweder, featuring smoked ham, smoked turkey, and smoked Gouda cheese; the Warsaw, a tantalizing chicken cutlet affair packed with sautéed mushrooms and onions; the Pulaski, a no-nonsense grouping where Pork chops and sauerkraut hang tough in unison; the Chopin – a tasty wrap for those that fancy the always delicious kielbasa and sauerkraut combo, and many others.

Customers can also “create their own sandwiches” explains Swietkowski, so getting what one wants at the store is never a problem.

Underscoring the fact that Belweder’s plays to lovers of Polish cuisine, customers will find a vast array of imported Polish foods for sale including: soups, spices, jams, chocolates, cookies, mustards, yogurts, gelatins, puddings, pickles, fresh doughnuts, and other tasty items too numerous to mention. And, as a bonus to those that understand Polish, a large assortment of Polish newspapers, magazines and greeting cards stand at the ready to bring the flavor of the “old country” back.

Belweder’s steady procession of regular customers proves far and away its popularity in the community. “I know what they (the regulars) like and we like to be nice to people,” said an appreciative Swietkowski with her trademark beaming smile. “Delicious and fresh cold cuts, perfectly balanced with the right flavor,” are the ticket, says Swietkowski.

Value factors into the success formula, too. One of Swietkowski’s regulars, just back from a trip to Brooklyn, couldn’t wait to tell the proprietor that a Polish deli in the borough was advertising “seven pierogies for $12!” as if such a price was a big deal. Belweder’s charges roughly half as much.

To sum things up: if you get a hankering for some good Polish cuisine, I’d advise you to beat a “tasty retreat” (get it?) to Belweder’s front door. Good Polish food at a fair price, and everything served up with a smile?

What’s not to like? Smacznego – as they say in the old country. Enjoy your meal.

Grandmaster Marchetti: Pride of Kearny

Photo by Karen Zautyk/ Grandmaster Vincent Marchetti in the Kearny dojo with just a small fraction of the awards he has earned.


By Karen Zautyk

Well, whaddya know? The pen really is mightier than the sword. Or the mugger.

I found this out from Grandmaster Vincent Marchetti when I visited his Kearny Martial Arts dojo at 67 Kearny Ave. the other day.

As I sat down to interview him and began taking notes about self-defense, he pointed to my pen and said, “That is one of the best weapons you can have.” Aside from jabbing an assailant in a vital spot or two, the pen can be used to mark the creep with ink, the better for cops to ID him when caught. Who knew?

And who knew that one of the world’s top practitioners of martial arts could be found right here, just across from West Hudson Park? The international martial arts community, that’s who.

I had been intrigued by a short article in The Observer a couple of weeks ago about Marchetti, a 10th degree Black Belt, being honored at an international conference in Orlando. Also attending that event was Joe Pung, a blackbelt Sensei and the school’s chief instructor.

I wanted to learn more about the (to me) mysterious martial arts, and the learning started as soon as I entered the dojo, which bears a sign reading: Police Tactics Instructors of America National Headquarters. Really? Really. Marchetti is the director of said group.

Marchetti is also 73 years old and of fairly slender build and middling height. But if he were pitted against the combined forces of the Incredible Hulk, Batman’s nemesis Bane and the entire N.Y. Giants team, my money would be on Marchetti.

The walls of the dojo are covered with awards (he holds 400+) attesting to his skills in Karate, Judo, Jujitsu and Michi Budo Ryu – the last being a martial arts system that combines the other three.

Marchetti developed it himself in 1992. A skill now offi cially certifi ed by 19 grandmasters, Michi Budo Ryu translates as the “Best of the Street Fighting.”

All four disciplines are taught at Kearny Martial Arts, which Marchetti founded 42 years ago and which moved to its present location from Midland Ave.

The Kearny resident proudly notes that his school is the oldest of its kind in America and one of the least costly in the Northeast. And there are “no phony or child Black Belts.”

There are, however, child students, who start training as early as age 5, not only in martial arts, but in history and Japanese vocabulary. “We are trying to improve the mind as well as the body,” Marchetti said, explaining that his program is not just about selfdefense, but also education.

And it is about instilling self-esteem, confi dence and, above all, respect. “For yourself, for your family and for all others.” The Grandmaster noted that, at the start of each children’s class, the youngsters are asked, “What did you do for your parents this week?”

While Marchetti should be commended for his devotion to his local students – children, teens and adults – it’s his devotion to this country, its law enforcement agencies and its military that is unparalleled.

Marchetti, an Army veteran himself, has trained – among others – Navy Seals, Green Berets, White House security offi cers, the U.S. Capitol police, U.S. Air Marshals and the Department of Defense (DOD) Swift Reaction Team, which is comparable to a police SWAT unit. Marchetti is assisted in the SRT courses by a buddy, Sgt. Jeffrey Graf, who is now second in command of the DOD’s counterterrorism unit and one of whose skills involves rappelling, head fi rst, out a window while fi ring an assault rifl e. (We saw the photos.)

When training members of the armed forces, Marchetti does it on his own dime. The Pentagon might provide lodging and transportation, but the Grandmaster accepts no payment for the classes. That’s because he refuses to follow Pentagon guidelines to specifi cally grade his students. “I won’t hurt anyone’s career,” he explained.

The military training is of the lethal variety: chokes, suffocation, strangulation, neck snaps, etc.

Photo courtesy Kearny Martial Arts/ At Fort Knox, Ky., Kearny’s Vincent Marchetti (front row, center) trained members of Delta Force, the Lexington (Ky.) SWAT team and the Counterterrorism Rapid Response Team of the Department of Homeland Security. This is one of the ‘graduation’ photos with representatives of all the units.


The more sensitive among you might find the above offensive. Too bad. The troops are being taught how to stay alive in combat, and personally, I have no problem with that.

For the past couple of years, Marchetti’s special classes have been devoted to the military, so he has less time for training police departments, but he used to be quite active in that. The police training, however, is not lethal. Rather, it focuses on how a cop can take down a suspect without using any weapons, such as a gun or a taser, while keeping himself or herself safe.

If Marchetti were not so constantly busy, he could write a best-selling autobiography, starting with growing up tough in Jersey City, where he began boxing at age 7. (His uncle was a pro fighter.)

So when did he get into martial arts? Around age 12, on the day he nearly ran down a Japanese gentleman with his bicycle, except that the potential victim “swept the front wheel out from under me,” Marchetti said.

“I jumped up and wanted to fight,” Marchetti said, recalling how he had assumed a boxing stance. But the man pointed around the corner and gestured toward a storefront with all the windows blacked out.

Little Vincent, suspecting nefarious intent, ran home to tell his uncle, who sprinted back to the storefront and banged on the door. When it was opened by the Japanese man, the uncle could see images on the wall depicting martial arts combatants.

“Hey, stupid,” he told his nephew. “This is Judo.” And he enrolled Vincent in the school. And the rest is history.

Evidence of that history now bedecks the walls of the Kearny dojo. Among the awards and photos is an oil painting of Marchetti, the original of which hangs in the World Martial Arts Hall of Fame in Chicago.

The Grandmaster is depicted in fighting stance, with a panther peering over his shoulder – the panther chosen by the Hall of Fame to represent Marchetti’s combat style: stealth. “You get as close as you can, and then you strike.”

On another wall is a simple framed plaque that reads: “If a student fails to learn, a teacher fails to teach. You never failed us!” And it’s signed, “Your devoted students.”

We’d bet that one means as much, or more to Marchetti, than all the others.

(For more info on Marchetti’s dojo, visit kearnymartialarts.com.)