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Kevin Redding

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner, left, and Supervisor Ed Romaine, right, present proclamations to Ann Becker, Lori Baldassare, Fred Drewes and Deirdre Dubato at the Mount Sinai Civic Association's 100th anniversary dinner. File photo by Desirée Keegan

In October, the Mount Sinai Civic Association celebrated its 100th anniversary and further cemented its role in providing the look, helping with the maintenance and ensuring the overall quality of life of the community. Considering its century-long list of accomplishments, the civic association is still going strong.

“The success of the civic association in terms of its longevity is a reflection of how much residents of Mount Sinai care about their community,” Mount Sinai Civic Association Vice President Brad Arrington, a member since 2004, said. “It’s a mechanism to have an input in the future of my community and a place I plan to stay in for quite a long time.”

For their tireless efforts and infinite contributions, the more than 180 members of the Mount Sinai Civic Association have been recognized as Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

“The success of the civic association in terms of its longevity is a reflection of how much residents of Mount Sinai care about their community.”

— Brad Arrington

Made up of volunteers, the organization has been, and continues to be, built on local residents stepping forward and having a voice in shaping the place in which they live.

It all began on Oct. 5, 1916, when the civic association was founded as an offshoot of the Mount Sinai Taxpayers Association for the main purposes of obtaining better roads, improving conditions in Mount Sinai Harbor and figuring out ways to protect against fires, which would ultimately lead to the establishment of the Mount Sinai Volunteer Fire Department standing today.

The original officers elected at the first organizational meeting were Jacob Schratweiser, president; Philip C. Scherer, first vice president; William R. P. Van Pelt, secretary and Lorenzo H. Davis, treasurer.

They paved the way for decades’ worth of major civic issues that include successfully stopping the dredging of Mount Sinai Harbor in the 1960s, suing Brookhaven for overdevelopment to reduce the number of housing units built in 1996 and working with state, county and town officials to purchase and preserve “The Wedge” property as Heritage Park. Developers initially planned to construct a Home Depot where the park is today.

Members of the civic association work toward improving their community, protecting its coastal environment and, perhaps most importantly, protesting against overdevelopment to keep their hamlet quaint and suburban.

“We want to [continue] protecting the open space Mount Sinai has,” Mount Sinai Civic Association President Ann Becker said. “The woodlands, beach areas … preventing overdevelopment is [crucial] because that can also have negative impacts on taxes, quality of life and even things like crime.”

Becker, an active member since 1984, said she joined the organization because of the direct impact its work had on quality of life and families in the area.

Mount Sinai Civic Association President Ann Becker at a recent meeting. Photo by Kevin Redding

What initially prompted her involvement was the proposal for a giant commercial shopping center on the corner of Plymouth Avenue and Canal Road, right behind her home, which would have been inconsistent with the aesthetic of the primarily residential neighborhood. Naturally, there wasn’t a lot of support for the planned development, and so the public — through the civic association — rallied against it and the shopping center never came to be.

Becker said the civic association is always on the lookout for problems and concerns residents might have with the ultimate goal of working on behalf of everyone to reach the best possible outcome and make a difference.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), whose office is currently working closely with the civic on two developmental projects, called Becker “a force to be reckoned with.”

“She’s exactly what a civic leader needs to be,” the councilwoman said. “The Mount Sinai community is very fortunate that Ann and the group continue to step up to the plate. They are a great group of volunteers and it’s an honor and a privilege to work with them.”

Fred Drewes, one of the civic’s long-serving members, joined in 1970, feeling it was important to be an active participant in the community and give constructive suggestions to help develop the quality of it.

Drewes, with the help of fellow civic member Lori Baldassare, projected his vision of a “central” park to help bring people together and have a location for community activities. It didn’t take long before the civic purchased the almost-a-Home Depot parcel and developed Drewes’ “Ivory Tower” idea.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the development of our hamlet,” he said, “has benefited from the input of members of the Mount Sinai Civic Association.”

Students high-five Michael Brannigan as he holds his gold medal. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

One of America’s fastest mile runners has a habit of shattering not just records but expectations both on and off the track.

Mikey Brannigan is coming off a monumental year at just 20 years old. Diagnosed with autism at a young age, he said the odds were stacked against him, forcing him to work twice as hard as anybody else. But in 2016, the odds didn’t stand a chance as Brannigan continuously knocked them down on his way to the finish line.

For his athletic achievements and for inspiring so many people, Mikey Brannigan is a 2016 Times Beacon Record News Media Person of the Year.

In August, Brannigan ran a 3:57 mile at the Sir Walter Miler meet in Raleigh, North Carolina — becoming the first person with an intellectual disability to break the 4:00 record —and a month later, competed in the Special Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, under the T20 Paralympic classification, where he took home the gold after a dominating 3:51 mile in the 1500 meters.

“He’s Mozart on the track,” Sonja Robinson, his coach at the New York Athletic Club, said in a phone interview. “When it comes to running, he’s a genius, and it’s mind-boggling what he’s accomplished and how far he’s come. He does not let the autism define him. I say to him all the time ‘you have autism, autism doesn’t have you.’”

Mike Brannigan smiles and holds his gold medal. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

He came home from Rio not just a hero in Northport, where he’s always been celebrated, but around the country, serving as inspiration for any kid with special needs. Brannigan even participated in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this year with his fellow New York Olympians.

“It’s been a crazy roller coaster,” Brannigan said in a phone interview. “I accomplished a lot of my goals and achievements.”

When he’s not running, Brannigan and his mother, Edie Brannigan, speak to parents and educators in Northport about autism, bullying and accepting people with disabilities.

According to Edie Brannigan, his message to students is to “follow your dream, give it your all, and do well in school.”

“He’s doing autism awareness through the sports world,” his mother said. “People with autism see they can be elite athletes because somebody’s done it now. They have autism in their lives and see Mikey … he’s doing it for them. It’s incredible. He moves people.”

She said her son has had to work through a lot of disappointment and rejection, but he’s come out on top.

Brannigan was just 12 months old when his parents knew there was something different about him. At 2 years, he was diagnosed with autism, and when he turned 3, his parents were advised to start looking at group homes for him, as she said he wasn’t able to speak in a communicative way until he was 5, and struggled to keep up academically.

“He does everything he can to engage and he’s got the best outlook … but to have a conversation, unless you’re talking about running, is difficult for him,” his mother said.

When he was in fourth grade, his parents signed him up for Rolling Thunder, a not-for-profit running club aimed at kids with special needs. The club gave him structure and provided an outlet for his natural ability to run fast. He’s been hooked on the sport ever since.

It was the running that helped him become a better student, Edie Brannigan said. By sixth grade, he was capable of doing age-appropriate work in the classroom.

“The autism serves the running and the running serves the autism,” she said. “He can focus like nobody else can in running. It’s not just about feet and legs, it’s about your head. He has that intense focus and that serves him well. [From there] he was able to absorb information and process it in a way that he never had before. He just kept amazing everyone and excelling.”

So much so that Brannigan was running for the Northport High School cross country team when he was still in eighth grade.

Students high-five Michael Brannigan as he holds his gold medal. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Under Jason Strom’s coaching, Mikey would become the two-mile record holder in the state with a time of 8:45, and by senior year he was recognized as one of the 10 best high school runners in the country.

“It’s been tremendous to see everything he’s gotten to do and experience over the last year,” Strom said in a phone interview. “[I] root for him every step of the way. He’s always been a really good kid and always been very focused and hard working toward his goals, so it’s nice to see that come to fruition.”

Strom said when Brannigan was on the team and went to meets, students from other schools would come up and ask to take pictures with him.

“Mikey transcended the ranks and was a rock star among high school track kids,” he said.

Even though dozens of colleges were interested in scooping him up, Brannigan was unable to attend any of them because his autism makes taking standardized tests like the SATs and ACTs near impossible.

Instead, Brannigan’s been training professionally with the New York Athletic Club under Robinson and going to Suffolk County Community College part-time.

In the last year, he’s trained all over the world, from Berlin to Saudi Arabia to Doha to Toronto and, of course, Rio.

“He’ll have a long career,” Robinson said. “This is what he wants to do. It’s his chosen career. When he has a passion for something he’s going to master it … and he loves the sport of track and field.”

His mother said everything the family was afraid of when Brannigan was a kid — that he wouldn’t be independent or have a job — has been put to rest, but she can’t take any credit for that.

“People say ‘oh you did such a good job [with him]’ to me and I think ‘yeah I don’t think I did that,’” Edie Brannigan said. “I think his success is his alone. He’s so dedicated and gives his all every single day.”

Jack Smith at his home in Terryville. Photo by Kevin Redding

When it comes to preserving local history, Jack Smith has paved the way — literally.

After he retired from his teaching job of more than 30 years, Smith was free to do whatever he wanted.

But rather than just relax at home and take up a hobby, the passionate 66-year-old founded the Cumsewogue Historical Society instead, which has been integral in keeping the vast history of its surrounding communities in the forefront.

“I started to research the history of the area and realized there was quite a bit here,” Smith said in an interview. “So why not start a historical society? There’s a lot here and I thought it would be a fun thing to do.”

Smith even maintained the original Algonquin spelling of Comsewogue for the society; Cumsewogue loosely translates to “the place where many paths meet.”

For all his work in bridging the gap between the past and present for the Port Jefferson area and beyond, Smith is a 2016 Times Beacon Record News Media Person of the Year.

Mike Eiermann, the Cumsewogue Historical Society treasurer, called Smith a true “mover and shaker” in the community during an interview.

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, Jack Smith, Ed Garboski of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association and Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine examine the Gentleman’s Driving Park. File photo by Elana Glowatz

“We have to try to keep up with him,” Eiermann said. “He’s very dedicated, very knowledgeable and is fully invested in what he does.”

As president and founder of the historical society, which was formed in 2008 and has about 30 members, Smith has accomplished a lot.

He and the group went to great lengths to preserve the old Terryville Union Hall as their main headquarters in the time following the society’s inception. Built in 1887, the union hall stands as the last historical building in Terryville, and Smith convinced local legislators to buy it and obtain funding for interior restoration. Now several showcases dedicated to local historical industries are inside the building, for example, the Porter automobile factory.

There are also roughly 120 vintage photographs of the community on display.

Smith established Heritage Day, a beloved event that exposes students from Comsewogue elementary schools to historical artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and demonstrates what life was like in the community then.

Smith said the program helps give students the unique opportunity to not only learn about the community’s history but also to see, touch and experience what life was like “before all the housing developments and shopping malls.”

But perhaps Smith and the historical society’s greatest achievement so far came in October when the Gentlemen’s Driving Park — the last Victorian-era harness racing track on Long Island where Terryville bettors once gathered to watch horses “race in heats” — officially opened to the public after several years of work to resurrect the nearly forgotten historical site.

The opening was attended by more than 100 people and served as a testament to Smith’s dedication to his cause. He discovered a faint outline of the horse track from a satellite image on Google Earth after hearing about its existence off Canal Road, visited the leaf-covered path in the woods with his wife Pam, and ultimately reached out to then Brookhaven Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld and other council members about acquiring the entire 11-acre plot, clearing the overgrown path, and actively working to restore the track as close to the original 1880s footprint as possible.

“I am proud that our society has been able to preserve so much of our history that came perilously close to being lost,” Smith said.

He also uncovered various artifacts surrounding the track, including a pair of field glasses where the finish line was on the track, as well as a ticket to a race at the Gentlemen’s Driving Park on July 4, 1892, which is now on display at the historical society’s headquarters.

A ticket from a race day in 1892 was among Smith’s discoveries; and Smith at his home in Terryville. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Without Smith, the horse track and its history would certainly have been erased, according to Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell.

“He was very diligent in doing the research and finding all the information he could on the track and he’s been that way with all of his endeavors,” she said.

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station), who worked alongside Smith to restore the track, said in an email statement Smith’s work in the community makes him more than deserving of the Person of the Year honor.

“His passion, meticulous care and diplomacy are appreciated by all who know him,” Cartright said. “His efforts to create and implement the annual Heritage Day, his comprehensive background and the lectures he gives at the library and his work and research to preserve the track are all done to celebrate the history of our community. I’ve had the privilege of knowing [him] both personally and professionally for many years.”

Smith said his love of history can be traced back to when he was in fifth grade, where his younger self first took an interest in consuming maps and all things geography related. He went on to receive his bachelor’s degree in history and master’s in special education, which would be utilized at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, where he taught high school students from 1974 until 2005.

It was there he met his wife Pamela, a secretary at the school. She said they didn’t realize it at first but the two actually grew up around the block from one another in Centereach and even went to the same high school.

She said her husband is “very caring and extremely interested in helping the community.” History, including his own personal history, is a part of his daily life.

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Felicity Jones leads the cast of the newest edition to the ‘Star Wars’ saga. Photo courtesy of Disney

THE EXPERIENCE

By Michael Tessler

Ever wish you could celebrate Christmas each and every day? That’s how I can best describe my childhood dream of receiving a new “Star Wars” film each and every year. What seemed like an impossibility back then has suddenly become an astonishing reality. Thanks to Disney’s acquisition of every creative thought mustered by George Lucas, fans can now enjoy an annual installment of the most successful film franchise in cinema history.

At AMC Loews 17 in Stony Brook on Friday, Nick Acampora and his daughters Elizabeth and Melanie sat together in anticipation for the premiere of Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” “We’ve got a family connection with the Force,” joked Acampora, a Port Jefferson resident and community historian. Though all smiles, his daughters were bitterly divided between which was their favorite “Star Wars” film (of course, we all know it should be “The Empire Strikes Back”). Despite some debate, all could agree that “Star Wars” is the perfect escape from reality.

Just a few rows away were two grown men named Mike, a father/son duo, both wearing expressions of childlike wonder in anticipation for the new film. The elder Mike had enjoyed the original “Star Wars” film (later titled “A New Hope”) back in 1977 when he first saw it in theaters. The “Jedi master” and his “padawan” have been to every “Star Wars” premiere together since “Attack of the Clones,” released in 2002. They take enormous pride in having a better relationship than their “Star Wars” counterparts Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

Sitting next to me was my childhood best friend Matthew and, in spirit, my late best friend Brandon. For us, “Star Wars” was more than just a film series, it was the basis for our friendship. Countless days in the backyard were spent dueling with plastic toy light sabers, building the LEGO Millennium Falcon brick by brick, and arguing for hours over fan theories and proper pronunciations of Jedi names. As Darth Vader appeared on screen for the first time in over a decade in “Rogue One,” Matthew and I paused for a moment, looking at one another. For that brief second we saw each other not as adults but as the little boys we once knew a long time ago … in a galaxy far, far away.

THE (SPOILERIFIC) REVIEW

By Kevin Redding

“Rogue One,” the first in what promises to be a series of Star Wars-related anthology films, is a risky experiment in that its plot — based on the first two paragraphs of the original’s opening crawl — requires it to forever change the way we watch “A New Hope.”

In telling the story of how the plans needed to destroy the Death Star wound up in the hands of Princess Leia and eventually kick-start the adventures of a blonde farm kid named Luke, “Rogue One” is of course a prequel, which is a dirty word among many “Star Wars” fans.

But Disney, for the most part, knows what the diehards want to see — practical sets and creatures, Tie fighters and X-wings, and the (ridiculously satisfying, vicious and get-on-your-feet-and-growl-like-a-wookie-worthy) return of the biggest, baddest villain in the galaxy, among other familiar faces. The last half of “Rogue One” sets up the start of “A New Hope” masterfully, so much so that if the closing credits of the former and opening crawl of the latter were eliminated, it would work seamlessly as one long adventure.

But I definitely thought it took a while for “Rogue One” to reach its great moments. As we spend time with a ragtag team of new characters, I couldn’t help but want to see what the old standbys were up to instead. This “Star Wars Story” centers on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a slightly dull heroine whose father unwillingly engineered the planet-destroying weaponry on the Death Star while under the diabolic eye of the Empire’s Imperial Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).

As Erso later finds out, her father intentionally compromised the Death Star so it could easily be destroyed (by Luke in “A New Hope”), thus cleverly correcting one of the biggest plot holes in the original film: Why would the Empire build this elaborate, clearly-expensive space station that can be blown to smithereens so easily?!

Erso finds herself the resilient leader of a group of Rebels who band together to get the job done. Alongside her is Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who’s sort of the no-fun straight man throughout, K-2SO (perfectly voiced by Alan Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial droid that doesn’t know any better than to say exactly what’s on its mind (or in its circuits) to marvelous and hilarious effect, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a Force-sensitive blind warrior who takes down a lot of stormtroopers with little to no effort and is by far the best new addition to the “Star Wars” universe of the human bunch, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Chirrut’s loyal partner, and Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a former Imperial pilot gone rogue.

It’s great to see the inclusion of Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits, reprising his role from the prequel trilogy) and some of the Rebel pilots from the original that were implemented into the spectacular battle scenes on display here. Where the film really shines, however, is in the villain department. Personally, I was blown away at how Edwards and company resurrected the late-great Peter Cushing through a stunning display of CGI and motion capture to give Grand Moff Tarkin, the ruthless Imperial leader in “A New Hope,” a substantial role.

But what brought me to the theater in the first place was knowing that I’d be seeing Darth Vader be Darth Vader on the big screen again, in all his James Earl Jones-voiced glory. It’s really incredible and overwhelming to see. His two scenes, while extremely short, are worth the price of admission, especially the one in the final moments of the film, which will forever change how we see him in the rest of the saga. If nothing else, “Rogue One” reclaims Vader as the powerful and dangerous threat we were always told he was, and then some.

THE VERDICT

“Rogue One’s” greatest attribute is that it somehow manages to make “A New Hope” an even greater film. Admittedly, the first thing I did when I got home was rewatch the 1977 classic. This connective tissue provides compelling emotional subtext to the famed original opening crawl. While a bit clunky in its pacing and struggle to give us new characters to really feel for, “Rogue One” has proven “Star Wars” can survive outside the saga, delivering to fans compelling stories that only further embellish the brilliance of Lucas’ original vision. And if you don’t like this one so much, just wait until next year … and the year after that…and the year after that.

Janet Emily Demarest will reprise her role as Mrs. Dilber, Ebenezer Scrooge’s long-suffering housekeeper, at this year’s Dickens Festival in Port Jefferson. Photo from Janet E. Demarest

By Kevin Redding

Janet Emily Demarest of Huntington has dedicated most of her adulthood to inspiring people through the combination of history and storytelling. A popular lecturer, Demarest has appeared on stage, at universities, museums and libraries across Long Island to teach about storytelling and perform historical theatrical works she’s written.

Most people on the North Shore, however, know her best as Mrs. Dilber, the energetic host of “Scrooge: The Inside Story,” the wildly popular audience participation show that has become a staple at the Port Jefferson Charles Dickens Festival, which returns to the village this weekend.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Demarest about the show, the importance of performing for people, and what made her want to don a mop cap and become Mrs. Dilber.

What is ‘Scrooge: The Inside Story’ about?

Mrs. Dilber, the character that I’m playing, is actually mentioned in Charles Dickens’ book, “A Christmas Carol.” She is Scrooge’s housekeeper. The way that I’ve kind of reimagined the story is that Mrs. Dilber knows all of the little crazier things that actually went on. What [the show] really does is it allows me as a performer to be able to have an audience participation telling of “A Christmas Carol” utilizing adults as the major characters … by not so much giving them lines, but by giving them situations to react to, and then have the audience react to them. It’s kind of “commedia dell’arte” (improvised performance based on scenarios) but certainly not as fancy as all that.

I’m basically the facilitator. I tell the story but I select nine people from the audience to play Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, the ghosts, Tiny Tim and so on. These are all people that are just randomly selected from the audience. Just after years and years of doing theater, I have a pretty good sense of who’s going to be able to sit still on stage and who looks the part. So many people that I do choose wind up really warming up to it and it winds up being a great show.

I’ll get a Scrooge out of nowhere and he’ll go and sit with a little top hat, and anytime that I’ll say “let’s hear it for Scrooge!” everybody gives him the raspberries. It’s a sillier kind of version but we do stay very close to the story. It’s a little bit improvisation, it’s a little bit of theatrical and visual comedy, and above all, it’s a means of everyone having fun together.

How did the show come about?

For many years I have worked as the historic storyteller at Old Bethpage Village Restoration and I’ve performed at the Long Island Fair. One of my colleagues over there, Pat Darienzo who is a magician, had expressed to me “Oh you need to be at the Dickens Festival!” because he had been performing there for a number of years himself [as The Great Wizard of the North]. So he gave me the contact information, put me in touch with the woman at the time who was doing the coordination, and we spoke and she booked me for the one event and the rest, darling, as they say, is history. I have been playing Mrs. Dilber … I think this is going to be my fifth year.

So you wrote the show and serve as the only professional actor?

Absolutely. Well, I wrote it based on Dickens of course. (Speaking in an upscale London accent) “As Mrs. Dilber, you know, that gentleman down the block, you know, I told him that story and he wrote it all down and then sold it for millions, the little Dickens!”

What made you want to have your own spin on this story?

Oh I love “A Christmas Carol.” I love every iteration … I love every single movie; I love the Broadway show; I love the book! It’s just such a beautiful story about getting outside yourself and being able to see how our littlest actions really affect other people, so it’s a story that really speaks to me. And I love the fact that it doesn’t matter if you celebrate Christmas or not. It doesn’t matter because being the kind of person that thinks about other people is universal. That’s what’s really appealing to me.

What is the most rewarding part about playing Mrs. Dilber and performing for people?

Something happened a year or two ago, and I will never forget it and it will always mean a lot to me. I selected somebody for the show, and after the show the gentleman came to me and said, “I had the best time and I didn’t even wanna come!” And I looked at him and I was like, “Oh, who wouldn’t wanna come to this?!” And he said, “No you don’t understand … I just lost my wife to cancer a few months ago. I didn’t want to come; I didn’t want to celebrate Christmas. My friends insisted that I come, and I don’t know what made you hone in on me in the audience, but I think it must’ve been my wife trying to tell you that I needed this.”

So to be able to give somebody back a sense of the joy of the simplest things of Christmas … that’s what it’s all about. It’s so important to take that time to be with your family, and take that time to be silly.

What do you do when you’re not Mrs. Dilber?

I’ve taught marketing and managing courses, mostly at Nassau Community College and also at New York Institute of Technology, and occasionally in other places as well … like Hofstra.

This past year I’ve been doing a lot of college lecturing for lifelong learners. I have worked for Molloy College, LIU Post — they’ve got an award-winning lecture series up there called The Hutton House Lectures and I’ve been fortunate to lecture for them. I’ve been focused on Long Island history and the historical background of certain things that we know and love as a college lecturer.

Two years ago, I published my first book. It’s called “Tales from the General Store: The Legends of Long Island.” It deals with all of those little legends on Long Island that you’ve heard of, like the Smithtown Bull or Mile-a-Minute Murphy or Goody Garlick and the very first witch trial on Long Island, which took place 30 years before Salem.

On Nov. 1 of this year, I came out with my second book called “A Merry, Very Victorian Christmas!: Trivia, Tales and Traditions from 19th Century America.” From gathering more and more information over the past couple years, I’ve realized that it’s so much fun trying to put history and Christmas together and make it interesting for people.

Have you always been interested in performing?

Whether it was a classroom or I was playing Tevye’s wife in “Fiddler on the Roof,” there was always an audience there. I graduated with an MBA in Organizational Behavior, which is an offshoot of management that I never really utilized as a career because I immediately had my kids and I really wanted to spend time with them.

My oldest son’s second-grade teacher was a spectacular woman; she knew more about human nature ­— adults and children alike — more than anyone I ever met. And so she encouraged me: “You’ve got this theatrical background, let’s try to make a safety video for the children.”

So I started writing for children and writing shows, putting on shows, and in the meantime I had started doing some local theater for Plaza Theatrical, that used to do all these tours all over Long Island and the tri-state area. I would be touring with them and teaching and raising the kids and all that. As I got a little bit older and I started writing some historically based shows, I started my relationship with Old Bethpage Village. I went over there to borrow a costume and next thing I know they said, “We could really use a storyteller.”

Where do you get your costume?

I make my costume out of rags and riches, of course! It’s just a mop cap and whatever funky looking blouse I can find that looks period. And then I add some flowers and some aprons. I’ve got big, bulky, hobnail boot-looking things … like a housekeeper from the early 1800s. I’m channeling Carol Burnett!

What makes the Dickens Festival so special? Why should people go?

People should go to the Dickens Festival because it gives families an opportunity to have a fun experience together. When you go there and see things a little bit more historically based, it gives families the opportunity to open up a dialogue about traditions, like “what I did as a child …”

Grandpa’s not necessarily walking through the five miles of snow, but he may say, “Well this is how I did it …” And then the grandkids say, “Ooh, let’s do it the way Grandpa did it!” It seems to expand the Christmas culture as it is for families, so the younger people understand why things were done the way they were in the past … so it opens up a dialogue about what’s considered an established culture for Christmas.

Performances of “Scrooge: The Inside Story” by Mrs. Dilber will be held during Port Jefferson’s Charles Dickens Festival on Saturday, Dec. 3, at noon and 1:30 p.m. and on Sunday, Dec. 4., at noon in the Sail Loft Room, third floor, of the Port Jefferson Village Center, at 101A E. Broadway. This show is free to the public. For more information, please call 631-802-2160.

Last year's performance of 'The Nutracker.' Photo courtesy of Harbor Ballet Theatre.

By Kevin Redding

Toy soldiers, angels, sword-wielding mice and a sugar plum fairy are back in town to spread the magic of Christmas to audiences young and old.

For more than two decades, the North Shore community has looked to Port Jefferson’s Harbor Ballet Theatre to officially kick off the holiday season each year with its dazzling production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”Coming up on its 25th anniversary production, the not-for-profit dance company gears up to deliver another unforgettable spectacle. John Worrell, executive artistic director of the show, said that the calibre of their production has helped it become a holiday tradition among the community.

“The dancing, the dancers, the choreography and the sets are incredible,” said Worrell. “Just the way that we tell the story is very understandable and very easy for everyone to follow. It really sets the tone for Port Jefferson and Setauket and Stony Brook and Miller Place because everybody gravitates to get that holiday feeling.”

Harbor Ballet Theatre was founded in 1991 by Worrell and his wife Amy Tyler as an open company to give dancers of all ages the opportunity to be part of professionally staged ballet productions. Worrell said it was also created to allow anybody from anywhere to come and audition, which is why there are so many new faces on a year-to-year basis as well as longtime dancers.

Last year's performance of 'The Nutracker.' Photo courtesy of Harbor Ballet Theatre.
A scene from last year’s performance of ‘The Nutracker.’ Photo courtesy of Harbor Ballet Theatre.

This production will feature about 70 performers, a majority of them between the ages 6 and 25. Auditions were held in the second week of September and the first rehearsal took place on the first weekend of October, giving way to 10 to 12 strenuous yet worthwhile rehearsals before the final show. Some of the senior dancers in the show even committed six to seven days a week for at least two hours a day to rehearsal.

“That whole debate whether dance is a sport … they [dancers] train like athletes,” said Worrell. “They work drills everyday. To be able to get to the level they want to be and be able to do their solos in the second act and lift each other up, they have to work their butts off.”

Richard Liebert and Rebecca Stafford, seniors from Earl L. Vandermuellen High School, are among some of the more experienced dancers in the production. Liebert, who plays the Mouse King, said there are a lot of physical challenges.

“There are times [in the show] where I have to lift a girl over my head and turn her,” said Liebert. “It could be a bit intimidating … but it’s worthwhile. I love doing it.”

“We’re with our friends, so we’re having fun,” said Stafford, who plays Harlequin.

Worrell said that at the start of production, he and Amy watched the DVD from the previous year’s show and figured out what, if anything, they wanted to change. The most common changes year-to-year have to do with solos, which depend on the dancers in the show, what their strengths are, and what they feel most comfortable doing.

Worrell said that there are plans to add a new element this year but wants to keep it a surprise and “make sure that it works first.”“We try to add something new every year, every two years … just to keep it fresh, so the audience will find it fun to watch,” he said.

Join Harbor Ballet Theatre in celebrating its 25th anniversary of “The Nutcracker” and prepare to be swept away by the extravagant sets, rich costumes, passionate acting and dancing and Tchaikovsky’s masterful music.

Performances of “The Nutcracker” will be held on Friday, Dec. 2, at 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 3, at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 4, at 3 p.m. at Earl L. Vandermuellen High School, 350 Old Post Road, Port Jefferson. All seats are $25 in advance, cash or check only. For more information, please call 631-331-3149.

Dr. Harold Fernandez is one of the world's leading cardiac surgeons. Photo from CAC

By Kevin Redding

There is perhaps no one on Long Island whose story encapsulates the American Dream better than Huntington resident Harold Fernandez, who fled drug-and-murder-ridden Colombia when he was 13 years old; charted through the treacherous waters of the Bermuda Triangle; came into the U.S. not speaking a word of English; worked hard in school; gained admission to Princeton University; graduated from Harvard Medical School; got married and helped raise two children; and ultimately rose to the top of his profession as a cardiac surgeon, currently working at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore.

But his journey to the operating room was one of constant fear. As an undocumented immigrant, Fernandez had broken countless immigration laws by the time he arrived at Princeton. The secret he had harbored his whole life was about to be revealed and potentially undo everything he had achieved for himself and his family and send him back to Colombia.

Harold Fernandez, left, with his brother Byron with the Statue of Liberty in the background.
Harold Fernandez, left, with his brother Byron with the Statue of Liberty in the background.

Fernandez’s compelling and inspiring story is the focus of a new documentary titled “Undocumented.” Based on his memoir of the same name, the documentary will have its world premiere screening at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington on Sunday, Nov. 13, at 6 p.m. (sold out) and 8:15 p.m. The film will be followed by a Q-and-A with filmmakers Patricia Shih and Greg Blank, as well as Fernandez himself.

Shih, a professional local musician who had no prior experience in filmmaking, read the book cover to cover and knew right away that the story needed to be translated to film, not only because of its cinematic themes of danger, suspense and eventual triumph but because its message rang especially true today.

“Harold’s story … puts a human face on the abstract issue of immigration,” she said. “When the presidential election started, there was a lot of hateful rhetoric by one of the candidates about immigration, and specifically racial and religious discrimination. I’m hoping that [the film] will move people enough so that some hardened positions will soften. I can’t stress enough how amazing his story is.”

As an Asian woman whose own father was one of only 105 Chinese immigrants allowed to enter the U.S. in 1945 as a result of the Magnuson Act, Shih considers this an extremely personal topic. She hopes to combat the ever-increasing violence, racism and xenophobia that surrounds the issue of immigration with the film’s telling of Fernandez’s incredible life.

And incredible it is.

When he and his 11-year-old brother Byron left Medellín, Colombia, in 1978, Fernandez hadn’t seen his parents for years. They had already moved to the U.S. to escape poverty, working in embroidery and clothing factories and struggling to make ends meet in West New York, New Jersey, with the hopes that one day they would earn enough money to be reunited with their children. His parents arranged for the two of them to be smuggled in, and so began their dangerous voyage to freedom.

Fernandez, his brother and a dozen other immigrants huddled in a small boat that seemed to constantly be on the verge of splitting in half as the harsh sea raged on in the thick of hurricane season. When he finally arrived in New Jersey, Fernandez was at a complete disadvantage, needing to learn a new language and catch up with his classmates academically. However, he saw how much his parents struggled to put food on the table and understood that the only way he would get ahead in life would be through a good education, and so he buckled down and devoted himself to his studies.

Fernandez became valedictorian in his high school class and was accepted to Princeton with flying colors, determined to help people through medicine. However, this is when his undocumented status came back to haunt him. The documentary explores how Fernandez overcame the very real threat of being deported and wound up where he is today.

As Shih had never tackled a film before, let alone a feature-length film, she approached Push Pause video journalist Greg Blank to see if he would help make this dream project a reality. It didn’t take much to persuade him to get on board.

Much like Shih, Blank had become extremely immersed in Fernandez’s memoir and thought that a lot of people would relate to his story on different levels. The two launched a Kickstarter campaign in an effort to crowd fund the film in April, wound up exceeding their cost goal, and with a final budget of roughly $20,000, shot and edited the documentary in five months — all under the complete cooperation and encouragement of Fernandez, who even contributed large quantities of footage when he visited his old neighborhood, school and home in Colombia this year.

The film features interviews with Fernandez’s parents, a professor of his from Princeton, as well as two former patients who say they owe their lives to him as a result of emergency open-heart surgeries, among others. The bulk of it was shot in Huntington, said the filmmakers, with segments in New Jersey and Princeton.

“This is the quintessential American story,” said Blank. “I hope people can see that it’s not just the story of Harold and one person succeeding in this country, but an entire family coming [here] and making the most of it, and really contributing.”

For Fernandez, seeing his story make its way to the big screen is really exciting. He said it’s an opportunity to show people that most immigrant families in this country are regular people who have dreams and are looking for ways to contribute to the American way of life. “I’ve been so blessed to be able to make my dream come true,” said Fernandez. “but I think that most immigrants that come here are really looking for simple things — living with dignity, just being able to work — and I think that’s what my story really portrays. And the main thing that I remember coming here to America was not really the excitement of coming [here] as much as just the desire to be together as a family again.”

Fernandez continued, “I think it’s one of the tragedies of the whole immigration issue right now. You have all these families apart, so I think the idea of being together again as a family was the most important part at the time.”

The Cinema Arts Centre is located at 423 Park Ave., Huntington. Admission is $16, $11 members. A premium admission of $22, $17 members, includes a wine and cheese reception. For more information, please call 631-423-7611 or visit www.cinemaartscentre.com.

Artist Doug Reina in his Setauket studio. Photo from Pam Brown

By Kevin Redding

From the Reboli Center for Art and History and The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook to Gallery North in Setauket, the North Shore community has no shortage of options when it comes to appreciating work from local artists.

But for those who trek through art exhibitions seeking a more in-depth glimpse into the artist’s process and how specific paintings and sculptures came to be, there’s an opportunity to see it all up close and personal this weekend.

The Artists

Pam Brown

26 William Penn Drive

Stony Brook

Nancy Bueti-Randall

574 Moriches Road

St. James

Peter Galasso

28 Gaul Road

South Setauket

Flo Kemp

94 Old Field Road

Setauket

Hugh McElroy

114 Hallett Avenue

Port Jefferson

Jim Molloy

403 Pipe Stave Hollow Road

Miller Place

Doug Reina

290 Main Street

Setauket

Sungsook Setton

22 Mud Road

Setauket

Mary Jane van Zeijts

268 Main Street

Setauket

Fernanda Vargas

11 Robert Townsend Lane

Setauket

Annemarie Waugh

34 Southgate Road

Setauket

Christian White

574 Moriches Road

St. James

Saturday, Nov. 12, and Sunday, Nov. 13, from noon to 5 p.m., the North Shore Artist Coalition will present an Artist Open Studio Tour that will provide the public with a free and intimate look at the studios of 12 local artists all within Three Village and its surrounding areas.

Artist Pam Brown in her studio in Stony Brook. Photo from Pam Brown
Artist Pam Brown in her studio in Stony Brook. Photo from Pam Brown

Those on the self-guided tour will have the opportunity to meet and talk with the artists — mostly painters and sculptors — about their work, range of styles and studio practices. Among the core artist group is sculptor Pam Brown, who, along with painters Doug Reina, Jim Molloy, Mary Jane van Zeijts and Nancy Bueti-Randall, decided to organize the event in an effort to promote professional artists who live on the North Shore. Other award-winning artists including Peter Galasso, Flo Kemp, Sungsook Setton, Fernanda Vargas, Christian White, Annemarie Waugh and Hugh McElroy were invited to participate in this weekend tour.

Brown, who once served as gallery director and curator at Dowling College, said the group wants to contribute to an already thriving art community and help identify the area as a cultural hub. Since the event is brand new, the artists are still unsure what kind of audience they should expect. Working in a creative field, Brown said that artists are always trying to build their audience, and so the group hopes to see a lot of people interested in observing their process — including kids.

“I think it’s a great way for them [kids] to see artists making a living,” said Brown. “Everyone on the tour is very social and friendly, and it will definitely be a comfortable ‘meet-and-greet’ situation. You can come by, meet the artists, see their studio practice and get the inside story as to the what, where, why and how of their work. Overall it’s a win-win for the community.”

According to Brown, there will be a wide variety of styles and techniques on display, depending on whose studio you’re in. As a sculptor, for instance, she will be working on a new piece and demonstrating copper fabrications.

Reina, who primarily paints the people and landscapes of Long Island from his studio in Setauket, has two commissions to work on during the tour. He also plans to have samples of his work on display, some of which will be for sale. With a background in teaching, he hopes anybody who might be interested in getting started in painting will come and talk to him about it. For him, having people around while he’s working will be a very welcome change of pace.

“It’s a pretty solitary lifestyle for me,” said Reina. “To get any good work done I have to close the door, put on some good music, and work. But I do like people … you need to have a little bit of a reaction every once in awhile to what you’re doing. It’s no good if it’s just a one-way street. You want people to enjoy [what you’re doing], to see what you’re up to, to comment on it, and to get excited about it.”

Even though purchase of any art piece on sale is encouraged, Brown insists that the main mission of the event is to “create an audience and appreciation” for these community artists. “We would love to see this tour happen on a yearly basis and have it continue to grow,” she said.

Admission is free and refreshments will be served at various studios. For further information, please call 631-834-9036.

All related information about the North Shore Artist Coalition, the Studio Artists and the Artist Open Studio Tour Map may be found on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NorthShoreArtistCoalition.

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Callie Hernandez (Lisa) in a scene from ‘Blair Witch’.Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Publicity

By Kevin Redding

In the summer of 1999, “The Blair Witch Project” was unleashed on audiences everywhere and shook things up in a huge way. The low-budget film’s remarkable authenticity — from the talent of its anonymous actors to the way it was shot on hand-held cameras to the conceivability of the events — and genius viral marketing in the early days of the internet convinced millions of moviegoers that the madness they were seeing unfold on screen was real and a direct result of piecing together “found footage” from a trek in the woods gone horribly awry.

This subgenre, which we’ve since been beaten over the head with to the point of desensitization, was spectacularly fresh at the time and unlike anything anybody had ever seen before. It worked like gangbusters and the film’s incredible box office success — raking in about $248.6 million off a $60,000 budget — influenced the next crop of indie filmmakers and certainly spawned its fair share of countless imitators that continue to this day, none of which have yet to rise to its level.

Whether it scared you or not, “The Blair Witch Project” remains a masterfully crafted and wholly unique piece of horror that can never be replicated.

A scene from 'Blair Witch'. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/ Chris Helcermanas-Benge
A scene from ‘Blair Witch’. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/ Chris Helcermanas-Benge

This past weekend, the film’s direct sequel “Blair Witch” is just further proof of that. Resurrecting such a hot property like this was inevitable in the modern age of nostalgia-based reboots, but the studio did something promising by handing the keys to the cabin to some of the most interesting young horror filmmakers working today: director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, the team behind subversive and exciting films like “You’re Next” and “The Guest.”

Unfortunately, their well-established chops aren’t reflected in the film. With Wingard and Barrett at the helm, it’s just even more baffling that the end result is so uninteresting, by-the-book and overall kind of obnoxious in that modern, big-budget “cash grab horror movie” kind of way.

Gone is all the subtlety, atmosphere, tension and dread of the original; in its place are loud and unearned jump scares every couple of minutes, bland and laughably unrealistic characters we don’t care about, and a plot that doesn’t do anything to really enhance the lore and mythos of the witch, leaving me to wonder what the point of this sequel was at all.

It’s difficult to even consider this a sequel as much as an outright remake, because although “Blair Witch” equips its new generation of soon-to-be faces on “Missing” fliers with updated gadgets like Bluetooth earpiece cameras, drone cams and GPS for new inventive angles for the subgenre, it’s basically a beat-for-beat copy of that first one, but without the things that made it really effective.

Here, we follow James (James McCune) in his determination to go and find his long-lost sister, Heather from the original, who disappeared in that dreadful Black Hills Forest 15 years ago (this one takes place in 2014).

Valorie Curry in a scene from ‘Blair Witch’.Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/ Chris Helcermanas-Benge
Valorie Curry in a scene from ‘Blair Witch’.Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/ Chris Helcermanas-Benge

A recent video taken in that stretch of woods was uploaded to YouTube, and blurry footage of a woman convinces him that it could be her and she could still be out there. Even though in the universe of this movie the footage of the original film exists and has been seen and is well known, James decides to gather up a group of friends and go ahead and suffer exactly as his own sister and her two pals did.

One of the friends, Lisa (Callie Hernandez), is a filmmaker set on documenting the experience. Because the leads in the original were likable and realistic human beings, it’s extremely sad to watch their journey as we know full well that they’re not going to make it out alive. Here, there’s no emotional attachment to anyone on screen and so it’s tough to root for anyone but the witch herself.

With the inclusion of two weird locals, the pack of Abercrombie models we’re supposed to believe are real everyday people discover that there’s more to the woods than mere folklore and gossip. Things unravel pretty quickly like in the first film: stick figures are found outside of their tents, people disappear, they walk for hours only to wind up at the same spot. There are also bizarre things thrown in that don’t really go anywhere. It definitely feels like Wingard and Barrett were boredly waiting the whole movie just to get to the last 15 to 20 minutes where they could finally let loose and show off a bit. They take everything up a few hundred notches and for the first time, the movie feels a little interesting and fun. They basically take us through a virtual reality haunted house ride that’s pretty intense and stressful, even though it winds up just being a bigger and louder version of what we’ve seen before — which pretty much sums up the entire film.

In a recent Facebook post, actress Heather Donahue —whose tearful face adorns the iconic image of “The Blair Witch Project” — declared that “scare for scare, the new ‘Blair Witch’ is better than the original” and I couldn’t disagree more.

There’s nothing in the original that breaks the illusion that we’re watching real people going through a real, horrifying situation. Whereas in this one, there’s nothing that feels genuine; instead we’re very aware that we’re watching bad actors pretending to be scared in a very scripted movie. The first one sends chills down your spine with just the sound of a twig snapping and a distant voice in the dark and changed movies forever. This one shoves everything in your face, blares in your ears and is afraid to try anything that hasn’t been done before. It simply doesn’t hold a candle to what a couple indie filmmakers did in 1999 with just a couple cameras and a couple actors in the woods.

“Blair Witch,” now playing in local theaters, is rated R for language, terror and several disturbing images.

'Children in the Park' by Sylvia Kirk

Above, ‘Children in the Park’ by Sylvia Kirk

By Kevin Redding

A classical piano recital  by Alexandria Le will be held in conjunction with the art exhibit. Photo from Ed Mikell
A classical piano recital by Alexandria Le will be held in conjunction with the art exhibit. Photo from Ed Mikell

For the opening of its seventh season as the premiere classical music series on Long Island, Le Petit Salon de Musique will do something a little different and more ambitious than any of its previous events. On Sunday, Oct. 16 at 2 p.m., not only will there be a grand presentation of a variety of classical compositions — performed by Carnegie Hall chamber pianist Alexandria Le — but also a gallery of local art that will serve as visual representation of the concert’s main piece: Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s stunning “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

The famous 10-movement suite was written in 1874 in response to the death of artist Viktor Hartmann, one of Mussorgsky’s dearest friends, and intended to be “evocative of a walk through an art exhibit.” Beginning with an artist reception on Sunday, Sept. 18 from 2 to 4 p.m. and continuing through Oct. 31, the community will be able to take that walk at Pictures at an Exhibition: Revisited at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Stony Brook.

Coordinators of the event, from left, Sylvia Kirk and Linda and Ed Mikell. Photo by Kevin Redding
Coordinators of the event, from left, Sylvia Kirk and Linda and Ed Mikell. Photo by Kevin Redding

Ed and Linda Mikell, the Commack residents behind the concert series, sought to honor the whole theme of the piece and with the help of exhibit curator Sylvia Kirk, 16 local artists working in different forms of media were chosen to visually represent and accompany the music. Linda, who is a former voice major and music teacher, had been a fan of this specific suite for a while when she discovered that Le would be performing it. “It’s one of my favorite pieces,” she said, “and I just kept thinking ‘wouldn’t it be fabulous if we could enlist some local photographers and artists for this?’ and I immediately thought of Sylvia, who kind of curates our little gallery here when we have a show. She knew so many photographers and we have a bunch of artists in the Fellowship so we met three times at my house, played the music, explained what the composer envisioned, and then people just went off and came back with their art.”

Kirk, whose own work will be included in the exhibition, rounded up a wide variety of artistic talent from the area, opening it up to anybody that did anything in any medium. Gallery visitors will see a quilt piece, a pastel piece, paintings, and a large focus on photography — which has lent itself especially well to the concepts within each movement.

“There are 16 artists and 23 pieces [overall], so some artists have two pieces,” said Kirk. “There’s three or four photo montages, two of them did digital art — they do all kinds of things digitally with their photographs — and many of us just took straight photos.” According to Kirk, some of the artists have decided to donate their work to be sold. As is the case for the musicians, their proceeds will be split with the fellowship.

'The Old Castle' by Jerry Levy.
‘The Old Castle’ by Jerry Levy.

Some of the 10 movements include the dark and melancholy sounds of “The Gnome” and “The Old Castle,” more lighthearted scherzos like “The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells,” and the triumphant “The Great Gate at Kiev.”

The Artists:

Linda Anderson, Bruce S.G. Barrett, Doris Diamond, Julie Doczi, Susan Dooley, Jan Golden, Faye Graber, Merrill Heit, Kathee Kelson, Sylvia Kirk, Lily Klima, Jerry Levy, Eric Lohse,  Frances McGuire, Keelin Murphy and Len Sciacchitano

“Each movement has a picture associated with it,” said Ed. “I said to my wife that we should have a description or an explanation of what it is that the artists have addressed when they put their pieces together, a description of the events and what’s being interpreted.”

The Mikells, who launched the concert series in 2010 with Le as its first performer, want to continue giving those in attendance — performers and audiences alike — a great experience. “Everybody who comes out over the years have wonderful things to say,” said Ed. “They don’t really know or care what’s playing. They just know it’s going to be quality stuff.”

“People travel all the way into the city to hear this quality of music,” added Linda, “but it’s right here. You can walk right in the door, sit, and be 10 feet from the performers.”

Le Petit Salon de Musique, 380 Nicolls Road, East Setauket will welcome Alexandria Le in concert on Oct. 16 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 adults ($15 online), $15 seniors ($10 online) and $5 for students. For more information, call 751-0297 or visit www.lepetitsalon.org.

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