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Melissa Arnold

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Pictured from left, author Virginia McCaffrey, Allyson Konczynin, Bob Scollon, Will Konczynin and Brian Ehlers. Photo from Virginia Ehlers

Reviewed by Melissa Arnold

Virginia McCaffrey, an 11th-grade special education teacher at Ward Melville High School in Setauket, has brought her childhood memories to life with an imaginative new book for kids. “Chased by a Bear,” McCaffrey’s first book, honors the memory of her late grandmother, Jean Scollon, who loved telling her grandchildren vivid bedtime stories. I recently reached out to McCaffrey to ask her about her newest venture.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Ward Melville High School special education teacher Virginia McCaffrey is pictured with the children’s book “Chased by a Bear” she authored. Photo courtesy of Three Village school district

I am one of five children, one girl with four brothers. I was born in Lake Ronkonkoma and our family moved to Setauket when I was in ninth grade. I loved growing up in a big family as there was never a dull moment. As a child, I never really dreamed of becoming a writer, although I did think of it occasionally, not sure what direction I should take. The answer only came to me at the passing of my grandmother, Jean Scollon, three years ago.

Why did you decide to write a children’s book specifically?

My grandmother was such a large part of our lives. My own children knew her well and have always loved hearing stories of the terrific times my brothers, cousins and I had with her as we were growing up.

One night I was telling them about our many sleepovers at Nany and Grandad’s house. The four of us would climb onto the bed in the guest room at the end of the hall, then Nany would squeeze in with us to tell us a story before going to sleep. As I grow older, I fondly remember taking turns adding to the story, but specifically remember thinking that Nany had an incredible imagination. She always seemed to be coming up with great scenes, characters and situations, as well as games for us to play.

After sharing these stories with my own children and sending them off to bed, I decided to sit down and write a “Nany-type” story for them. At first, it was meant to simply be for them, but the more I worked on it, I began to dream of sharing the story of this wonderful grandmother with other children and turning it into a book; I found a way to honor my grandmother and share her with others.

How did your family respond when you told them you had an idea for a book?

I didn’t tell the family about my project until it was complete and I could present it to my grandfather, Bob Scollon, at a family dinner.  The only exception was my mother, who was sworn to secrecy. It was probably the hardest secret I have ever had to keep.

To say my family was surprised is an understatement. They appeared to be completely shocked. All four of my brothers told me how proud they were, my nieces and nephews all asked if they could share it with their classes, and my grandfather was speechless. He immediately sat down and read the book cover to cover while the rest of the family chatted about how surprised they were. Their reactions made keeping it a secret for so long all worth it.   

What is the book about?

The cover of Virginia McCaffrey’s first book.

“Chased by a Bear” is the story of four young children and the magical adventure their grandmother is able to make them a part of through her bedtime stories. No one but the five of them know where Nany’s stories take them each week during their sleepovers, making the adventure so much more special for them. They find themselves in a dangerous situation but use teamwork to resolve the problem.

Why did you choose a story about a bear for your first book?

I chose to use a bear story for the book because so many of Nany’s stories involved a bear in the woods. It was her favorite theme to her stories. Looking back I think those were always my favorite ones to hear.

Are the children in the story based on real-life people?

My younger brother (Brian Ehlers), two cousins (Allyson and William Konczynin) and I are the youngest of seven grandchildren and the characters in the book.

What was the publication process like?

Once I decided to write the children’s book, the process took about 18 months to complete. I decided to self-publish, and ultimately took the advice of my illustrator as to which company to use. The result was a very smooth process.

How did you find an illustrator?

I found the most challenging effort was to find an illustrator to capture the characters in the book: my grandparents, cousins, brother and myself. After a great deal of research online, I found an illustrator whose artwork not only connected with the personalities and descriptions of all of us but was exactly what I would hope for in a children’s book. Robin Bayer’s style is so uplifting and colorful. She made my story come to life. I sent her pictures of the four of us as children, as well as pictures of Nany and Grandad. She totally captured the look I wanted.

What was it like seeing the illustrations and receiving the first copy of the book?

When the first sketches were sent to me, I found it incredible how someone who didn’t know us as children and never had the opportunity to meet Nany was able to read a story I wrote and look at pictures I sent and completely capture my childhood and my vision of how my book should look. The story seemed to come to life more and more as additional illustrations were created and color was added to the pages.

When I received the first copy of the completed book to proof, I was in love with it. Once the book went public, friends sent me pictures of their children reading my book. I’ve saved every picture they’ve sent. I love hearing what their children and grandchildren think of the story.

What is the target age for the book?

The book was written on a second- or third-grade reading level. However, it was intended to appeal to many ages as it can be read aloud. 

What do your students think?

My students have expressed excitement at the idea of their teacher writing and publishing a book. They make me feel proud when they mention it. Recently, I was invited to read to the class of one of my daughters. The students had many questions about the writing process and becoming an author. It was wonderful to see the awe and excitement on their faces.

Do you plan to write any more books?

I would love to see this turn into a series of Nany Bedtime Stories … and maybe even let the rest of my family have some input.

“Chased by a Bear” is available for purchase on Amazon.com.

Andrea Goss, Barry Debois and Stephen McIntyre in a scene from ‘Once’. Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

By Melissa Arnold

If you’ve ever fallen in love, had your heart broken or faced unfulfilled passion, you’ll relate to “Once.” And even if you haven’t, the cast at the John W. Engeman Theater will still grab your heart and squeeze. The show, which is part of the theater’s 11th season, is both unique and compelling. It’s easy to see why “Once” grossed 11 Tony nominations and eight wins in 2012, its first year on Broadway. The show is a stage adaptation of the 2007 film of the same name that starred Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Both versions were written and directed by John Carney.

Barry DeBois and Andrea Gos in a scene from ‘Once’

Under the direction of the Engeman’s Trey Compton, “Once” begins with a nameless street performer referred to as Guy (Barry Debois) singing a heartbreaking ballad about an ex-girlfriend. A bold and honest young Czech woman (Andrea Goss as Girl) overhears the song and immediately pesters him for the juicy details that inspired it. It turns out that Guy has lost his love of music since his old flame left for New York City. Performing just hurts too much, and he’s ready to throw in the towel on his dreams.

But Girl won’t hear any of that, and she’s convinced that he’d win his love’s heart again if he sang her that song. Their conversation is the beginning of an intensely passionate and emotionally raw week as the two write, rehearse and record songs together.

What makes “Once” stand out is its presentation, which you’ll notice before the show even begins. Get there early and you’ll find the cast on stage in the middle of a rocking pub party, Dublin style. They hoot and holler while they sing, play Irish tunes and dance on tables. The best part is that the audience is invited to go up and join them. The set includes a working bar that offers a single variety of beer, red wine and white wine for $10.

A scene from ‘Once’

The musical performances in this show are also one of a kind, as there is no stage band providing accompaniment. Instead, each person in the 13-member cast also plays an instrument, and all of the songs are performed from memory, which is beyond impressive. To make it work, chairs are set in a semicircle around the perimeter of the stage. When a character exits a scene, he or she simply takes a seat, fading inconspicuously into the background.

They also function as their own stage crew, dancing and playing brief musical interludes as they carry props on and off the set. It’s a bit hard to describe in words, but the overall effect is visually compelling and speaks to the incredible talent of this cast.

Both Goss and Debois are no strangers to “Once” — she was part of its recent Broadway run, while he was the music captain of the 2016 U.S. national tour. They bring to the show an intense realism you can hear in every note they sing. Guy’s opening number, “Leave,” and Girl’s tearful performance of “The Hill,” will leave you awestruck.

The members of the ensemble, which include “Once” veterans Elisabeth Evans (Reza), John Thomas Hays (Billy), Stephen McIntyre (Bank Manager) and Bristol Pomeroy (Da) among others, are every bit as talented as Debois and Goss. They put out a powerful sound with rich harmonies and tons of energy. During their a cappella performance of “Gold,” you could hear a pin drop in the packed house. The standing ovation during the press night performance last Saturday night was well deserved.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, will present “Once” through March 4. Tickets range from $73 to $78 with free valet parking available. For more information, call 631-261-9700 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

'Country Ride,' taken in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, edited with oil painting effect

By Melissa Arnold

For more than 40 years, John Spoltore has immersed himself in his love of photography. It has taken him all over the world, earned him scores of accolades and allowed him to nurture hundreds of budding Long Island shutterbugs through teaching. But it all began with an unfortunate accident.

John Spoltore

In 1975, Spoltore was enjoying an exotic honeymoon in Montego Bay, Jamaica, with his new bride Barbara. The couple spent one afternoon exploring the beautiful Dunn’s River Falls, but in a split second, Spoltore dropped his tiny camera with its precious photos of the trip from the top of the waterfall.

That trip led to a better replacement camera and a desire to capture the world. Now, Spoltore is sharing some of his favorite photos in an exhibit at the North Shore Public Library in Shoreham throughout the month of January.

“I always enjoyed taking pictures, but it wasn’t until after I was married that I really got bit by the [photography] bug,” said Spoltore, 64, of Port Jefferson Station. He originally went to school to become a teacher but ended up working for the Nassau County Department of Social Services, helping those in need access welfare and food stamps.

In his spare time, he read every book about photography he could get his hands on and attended local workshops.

‘Eagle Eyes,’ an image of a bald eagle in captivity (sky photo edited in) taken in Skagway, Alaska

One day, Spoltore walked into a photo studio and asked to help them shoot weddings. They took a chance, and soon he was shooting his own weddings and portraits. Eventually, Spoltore launched a successful career with companies including Tiffen and Canon. He has also taken thousands of photos of railroad life while working in public affairs for the Long Island Rail Road. Many of these photos are framed and hang in stations around the Island.

While portraits, weddings and event photography pay the bills, Spoltore loves to shoot landscapes. His favorite style focuses on highly saturated photos of colors that pop, as well as infrared and combinations of color with black-and-white palettes. He also likes to manipulate photos so they resemble oil paintings.

Spoltore takes much of his inspiration from the famous wedding and portrait photographer Monte Zucker and creates images based on Zucker’s quote, “I don’t photograph the world as it is. I photograph the world as I would like it to be.”

‘All Aboard,’ an image taken with infrared digital camera at Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada.

“I think digital technology makes things a lot easier since you can see your photos right away instead of waiting for your film,” Spoltore said. “Many of my students are intimidated by digital photography because of all the options. But when you see a really gorgeous picture these days, it’s (mostly) digital manipulation. You’ve got to be a good photographer, but you also have to be good on the computer.”

Spoltore’s teaching career began with a simple class he offered for adults in continuing education at Comsewogue High School. When that program ended, one of his former students approached the Comsewogue Public Library about letting him teach there.

The popularity of Spoltore’s classes exploded, and he now offers classes at 34 libraries on Long Island, in addition to private lessons. More than 800 people receive his weekly email newsletter featuring photos and articles about photography, and he’s also contributed a column to local newspapers for the past several years.

“Seeing the ‘aha’ moment on the faces of my students makes me so happy — they would say how easily they understood what I was explaining to them,” Spoltore said. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve never met have emailed me with questions or problems. I’ve had people come to me with a camera still in the box become really great photographers.”

‘Glacier Moon’, taken from a cruise ship in Alaska with moon edited in

This month’s exhibit at the North Shore Public Library is Spoltore’s 10th on Long Island. It will feature 25 framed prints of his favorite photos that showcase a variety of styles. Each photo is printed on metallic paper to enhance its color. Visitors to the exhibit can expect to see visions of Long Island’s North Shore, Alaska, Canada as well as Pennsylvania’s Dutch Country, to name a few. A photo of an Amish father and son riding a horse and buggy titled “Country Ride” is among Spoltore’s favorites.

“John Spoltore has a great and beautiful heart,” said Lorena Doherty, art exhibit and adult program coordinator at the North Shore Public Library. “I have attended his classes and am astounded at the level of knowledge that he has to share. He enjoys working with people. It gives him such great pleasure to share his talent, knowledge of people and wisdom with all. Please come and view these colorful iconic images.”

The exhibit will also be the photographer’s farewell to Long Island — Spoltore plans to relocate in a few months to Florida, where he hopes to continue spreading his love of photography to anyone willing to learn. His absence will be felt by many including the library where it all began.

“John has taught photography programs at the Comsewogue Library since 2010, and we are sad to see him leave the Island,” wrote the library’s Adult Services Librarian Christine Parker-Morales in a recent email. She continued, “John’s classes were always beloved and well-attended. In 2015 we ran a Geek the Library campaign at the library and John was our go-to guy for a patron portrait shoot included in the activities. He also took part in our library’s 50th Anniversary celebration, providing digital professional-quality family photos free of charge to those who participated. We wish him all the best in his future endeavors and will find his shoes here at Comsewogue hard to fill.”

“Photographs by John Spoltore” is on display through the month of January at the North Shore Public Library, 250 Route 25A, Shoreham. For hours and more information, visit www.northshorepubliclibrary.org or call 631-929-4488. Learn more about John Spoltore at www.swedephoto.com.

Presley Ryan as Annie and Moon as Sandy in a scene from 'Annie'

By Melissa Arnold

There are few characters from a musical more enduring across generational lines than the curly-haired, ever positive orphan Annie. The John W. Engeman Theater in Northport is celebrating the holidays with its mainstage production of “Annie” through Dec. 31. Now in its 11th season, the Engeman has once again teamed up with director/choreographer Antoinette DiPietropolo (“Grease,” “Memphis”) to bring Annie and her friends to life.

Presley Ryan and George Dvorsky

The story of New York’s most beloved orphan was partially inspired by “Little Orphan Annie,” a comic strip created by Harold Gray in the 1920s. After his death, the strip was carried on by a number of cartoonists until 2010. The comic followed the adventures of a little redhead girl and her dog while also offering commentary on political issues of the day, including the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal.

“Annie” the musical debuted on Broadway in 1977, with book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin. Since then, the show has toured around the world, won a slew of Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Score and inspired several film adaptations.

When the play begins, 11-year-old Annie and her fellow orphans are growing up in the shadow of the Great Depression in New York City. Life is tough for these kids, especially living in a run-down, dirty orphanage under the care of calloused Agatha Hannigan. For years, Annie has waited eagerly for the return of her birth parents, who left her at Hannigan’s door with a letter and a locket. But they never come, and when Annie is chosen to spend two weeks with lonely billionaire Oliver Warbucks, her life is forever changed.

The cast of Engeman’s “Annie” will win your heart as soon as the show begins. Young Broadway veteran Presley Ryan embodies Annie’s charisma and unbreakable spirit effortlessly. Ryan’s Annie is appropriately youthful, and her voice is pleasant to listen to — sweet and strong, never shrill. You’ll fall in love with her during the first song, “Maybe,” and it’s hard to resist singing along with her on “Tomorrow.”

Ryan is far from the only young lady to stand out in this show, however. All of the girls at the New York Municipal Orphanage have a key role to play — to remove even one of them would make the ensemble seem incomplete.

Cordelia Comando, Sophia Lily Tamburo, Meaghan McInnes, Emma Sordi and Cassandra LaRocco

At the Engeman, the cast features two teams of orphans that will appear on different nights, but if the “red team” is any indicator, you’re in for a treat regardless of whose turn it is. The chemistry among the girls is natural and endearing — a special note of praise should go to the adorable Sophia Lily Tamburo, who plays Molly, the youngest of the bunch. Her comedic timing and dance moves are so impressive for her age, though all of them are incredibly talented with bright futures ahead.

Lynn Andrews is reprising her role as Miss Hannigan for this production — she and Elizabeth Broadhurst (Grace Farrell) were part of the 30th Anniversary Tour of “Annie” beginning in 2005. Andrews’ character is loud, proud and shameless with bold vocals to match. She’s snarky, funny and foolish, sometimes all at once, which is entertaining to watch. Her rollicking performance of “Easy Street” with Jon Peterson and Gina Milo (Rooster Hannigan and Lily St. Regis, respectively) is one of the best in the show with fantastic harmonies.

Gina Milo, Jon Peterson and Lynn Andrews in a scene from ‘Annie’

George Dvorsky, another seasoned Broadway actor, plays Oliver Warbucks, the billionaire looking to make one orphan’s Christmas a bit brighter. He wasn’t expecting a little girl, however, and the relationship he builds with Annie is full of emotion and nuance. Dvorsky has both comedic and poignant moments in the show, and his performance of “Something Was Missing” will resonate with anyone who has experienced deep love of any kind.

There are also a few special guests in this show. For a brief time, Annie finds a loveable sidekick in a stray dog named Sandy. In this production, Sandy is actually played by two real dogs, Moon and Sandy. Moon was once a stray himself, and Sandy was recently rescued from a kill shelter following this summer’s devastating Hurricane Harvey in Texas. The dogs are amazingly well-behaved onstage thanks to hard work with Happy Dog Training & Behavior and the support of the cast “animal wrangler,” Cassidy Ingram.

While the ensemble serves as the supporting cast for the show, they have plenty of time to shine on their own — keep an eye out for them during the hilarious scenes at the White House and the radio station.

Elizabeth Broadhurst, Presley Ryan and George Dvorsky

New York scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader are behind the unique and versatile set for this production. Detailed artwork of a hazy NYC skyline remains in the background throughout the show, and scene changes are made by the cast themselves. There’s not a lot of variation, but the transitions are simple and clear, so it gets the job done. Jonathan Brenner leads a seven-man orchestra in performing the classic score.

As of this writing, it still feels a bit early to think about the holidays, but the Engeman is dressed to the nines with garland and lights. And since “Annie” is set just before Christmas, it’s hard not to catch the holiday spirit during your visit. You might even feel like you’re a guest at Warbucks’ elaborate Christmas party.

Each year around the holidays, the John W. Engeman Theater gives back to its community through charitable support. This year, the theater is partnering with the Ecumenical Lay Council Food Pantry at the First Presbyterian Church of Northport, which helps feed more than 160 local families each week. Consider bringing some extra cash to the show, or visit www.fpcnorthport.org to learn more.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present ‘Annie’ now through Dec. 31. Tickets are $73 to $78 with free valet parking. For questions or to purchase tickets, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

All photos by Michael DeCristofaro

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By Melissa Arnold

Most people have something they dislike about their appearance at one time or another. Diane Melidosian is no exception, struggling with a stubborn cowlick for her entire life. In the spring, she released her first book for children, “Cornelius & the Cowlick,” which recounts a young boy’s efforts to tame his unruly hair. In the end, kindness from his friends and classmates allow Cornelius to embrace the things that make him unique and special.

Tell me a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in East Northport, but I’ve lived in Stony Brook for more than 30 years. I went to college in Michigan but returned to Long Island when I got married in 1974. I studied special ed, and when I was in undergrad, Eastern Michigan was one of the few schools in the country to offer that program, so off I went. My husband and I were both special ed teachers, but later on I became a reading specialist. We’re both retired now.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I didn’t really want to be a writer when I was a kid — I just had a very active imagination.

What inspired you to write this book?

Above, the cover of Diane Melidosian’s first children’s book

I have a cowlick myself, and it’s always been a problem. All the things that Cornelius does to try to deal with it are things I’ve tried myself. Nothing works! To this day I struggle to keep my hair down, so that’s really where the inspiration came from — having lots of bad hair days. Somewhere along the line I decided to write a story about it.

How did you go about getting the book published?

I did self-publishing through Amazon. One day, I visited the Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Educational & Cultural Center in Stony Brook, and there was a woman there doing publicity for a book she had written. I don’t remember her name now, but I spoke to her and she told me about publishing through CreateSpace, which is a part of Amazon. I went online and it looked like something I could handle. It was pretty user-friendly, too.

What made you choose the name Cornelius for the main character?

I thought it was a good fit because of the alliteration with the word “cowlick.”

What do you want kids to take away from reading your book?

You know, it’s meant to be a silly book, but my cowlick was something that always troubled me. I figured there’s a kid out there that struggles with hair issues and they might be able to relate and get a laugh out of it. Having his friend and the other kids rally around him helps him to accept himself more. The message I would want them to walk away with is that nothing is insurmountable and don’t take yourself too seriously.

Who did the illustrations for the book? Were you involved in the process?

After I wrote the story, it sat in a drawer for 10 years because finding an illustrator was a big obstacle for me. I don’t have any artistic talent. But then a friend of mine suggested her niece, Kyra Slawski, who ended up doing it for me. She had just graduated from college with an art degree, but she had never done anything like this before. She was very hesitant at first, but I said, “Look, anything you do is going to be fine.” She did a wonderful job. We met a few times in person but did most of our work through the computer. She would send some illustrations to me and I would send them back with comments — sometimes Cornelius’ cowlick wasn’t in the right spot, or I had a different idea. We’d go back and forth until both of us were satisfied.

What was it like seeing Cornelius come to life?

It was so surprising. You can write the story and have an image in your head, but seeing it is different. I can’t say he was exactly as I pictured him — I had pictured a boy a bit more like Dennis the Menace — but when Kyra first sent me her illustrations, I was all for it.

What advice would you give someone who wants to write a book?

Don’t put you book in a drawer for 10 years! Work on it bit by bit and set a time for it to be completed.

“Cornelius & the Cowlick,” recommended for ages 3 to 8, is available on www.Amazon.com for $9.50. The book can also be found in the Local Authors Collection at the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, 120 Main Street in Setauket.

Reviewed by Melissa Arnold

Grant Shaffer and Alan Cumming with their current pets, Jerry and Lala. Photo from Jud Newborn

Have you ever wondered what your pets are thinking, or what they’re up to when you’re not around? Actor Alan Cumming and his photographer/illustrator husband, Grant Shaffer, sure have. Constantly entertained by their late beloved dogs, Honey and Leon, the couple decided to share the fun in their new children’s book, “The Adventures of Honey & Leon,” beautifully illustrated with a silly, imaginative story line. Cumming and Shaffer, who have been together for 13 years, recently answered questions about the book via email.

Tell us a little bit about yourselves. Were you always animal lovers?

Alan Cumming: I always had animals around me growing up. I had two little West Highland Terrier dogs when I was a little boy, but as I lived on a country estate there were always sheep and cows and deer and pheasants around.

Grant Shaffer: I’ve always been an animal lover. I grew up with dogs, cats, a rabbit, lizards, snakes, hamsters, fish … I even had a pet rat that I was crazy about.

Is this your first foray into writing/illustrating?

AC: I’ve also written “Tommy’s Tale,” a novel published in 2002; “Not My Father’s Son,” a No. 1 New York Times best-selling memoir; and a book of photographs and stories titled “You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams.” GS: I illustrated a children’s book last year called “Three Magic Balloons,” written by Julianna and Paul Margulies.

How did you come up with the story line?

GS: The idea came up when we’d be traveling and missing our dogs. We would spot people at the airport, on the street or at a beach and say, “There’s Honey” (old lady in a bathrobe and a floppy sun hat), or “There’s Leon” (short little guy wearing big sunglasses and a flat cap), and the story just grew from there. The problem with dogs is that they don’t stick around forever. I think this was our way of trying to immortalize them, and we thought kids would like this tale.

AC: It seemed such a good collaboration considering our respective jobs. I love the idea that we have created something together that celebrates the creatures we loved so much.

What was the process like?

GS: Alan wrote the story first, and then I added the drawings. We mulled the idea of doing a children’s book for years, so it took a long time. It was great, and pretty fluid. I’ve heard of some couples who are barely speaking to each other after a joint project like this, but luckily that’s not us!

How did you come to adopt Honey and Leon?

GS: Before we met, Alan had adopted Honey, and I had adopted Leon, so when we got together, so did they. They were pure love and magic to us, but all dog owners think that about their dogs. Leon would sing (howl) along to Radiohead or if a siren went by, and Honey always crossed her paws like a lady, and she’d actually pose for a camera, looking left, then right.

Did you often wonder what the dogs were thinking at home?

GS: All the time. It usually involved food and dog treats I think. One time we rang up a pet psychic, so she could tell us what the dogs were thinking. She was so off, saying that Leon didn’t like my phone’s ringtone (I never used a ringtone) and that Honey wanted Alan to eat more vegetables (as a vegan, that’s all he eats). It was worth a funny phone call though.

Can you share with the readers a favorite story about Honey and Leon?

GS: We used to play a game: If I walked the dogs, Alan would hide somewhere in the house. Alan’s hiding places became more involved, and the chase would become more frantic each time. I would guide them with “hot” and “cold,” and Alan would clue them in with a whistle. When they’d finally find him, it was like a family reuniting that had been separated for decades — lots of whining and licks!

Do you two hope to adopt pets again someday?

GS: We already did! When Honey died (from old age), Leon was so lonely, so we adopted a Chihuahua mix named Jerry. Then Leon died (from old age) and we adopted Lala (a mini-collie mix, but she looks like a black fox). We are in love all over again.

Is there a particular message you hope to pass on to kids with this book?

GS: I like that the story features two gay dads, but that isn’t the story really. It’s just, “Here is our family on a fun adventure together.” I guess that’s a message in itself.

Who is your target audience?

AC: We recommend the book for kids ages 3 to 7.

Are there any other books we can look forward to from you?

GS: “The Further Adventures of Honey & Leon” comes out in 2019. “The Adventures of Honey & Leon” is available online and in stores wherever books are sold.

Cumming and Shaffer will make a special appearance at the Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington on Sept. 18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $75, $60 members. The event, hosted by Jud Newborn, includes a rare screening of Cumming’s “The Anniversary Party,” followed by a Q&A and book-signing reception for “The Adventures of Honey & Leon.” Every ticket holder will receive a copy of the book. Call 631-423-7611 for more information.

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Reviewed by Melissa Arnold

Author Lisa French

Fishing has been a beloved part of Lisa French’s life for many years. The South Setauket mother of three has turned that passion into a fun book for kids with “A Fishing I Will Go!” Follow the children in the book on a fishing adventure as they catch fish commonly found in Long Island’s waters including a fluke, sea robin, crab, squid, eel, blackfish, bass and a tuna. The interactive story, told entirely in rhyme, features a jellyfish, starfish, piece of driftwood and a message in a bottle in every hand-drawn picture.

French, 53, hopes to teach kids about fish and fishing while also raising money for a cause close to her heart. A portion of the profits from the book will go to the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation to support multiple sclerosis awareness and research. French lives with the disease, and her mother, to whom the book is dedicated, died from MS-related complications in February of this year.

Were you creative growing up?

I’ve always been the creative person in my family that people would come to for wedding toasts, eulogies and poems. I have a whole book of poems that I’ve written and I love to draw, especially in pencil.

What inspired you to want to write a book?

I spent 26 years running a day care, and I have three children of my own. There was a time when my children and the children I watched wanted a new game to play, and I created one for them. I had a patent pending for it, but the process became too costly. After that, I decided to try writing a book.

The kids love books, and they like catchy phrases. I had a couple different ideas started, but the kids I watched knew that I would go fishing, and they were always excited to hear stories about it. Every Monday when we got back from the weekend they’d ask me, “What’d you catch, what’d you catch?” At first, I just wrote the story and printed out pictures from the Internet to go with it. The kids still loved it, and that inspired me to go forward with it.

How did your family respond?

They definitely took it seriously. In fact, they even helped me to get the money together that I needed.

Tell me a bit about the story.

This is a simple story — my own story — of going out and trying to catch a fish to keep for dinner. It’s about learning what you can keep, what you can’t, and making the perfect catch at the end of the day.

Why did you want to write a fishing book specifically?

Each page of the book has a significant, personal meaning for me. A friend of mine has a boat called The Reel Adventure that we go fishing on. All the fish mentioned in the book I caught on his boat. There’s a page with a lighthouse that’s actually Breezy Point — my nana had a house that overlooked the scenery I drew in that picture. I also used to fish off the pier. I even went in a rowboat with my father and caught an eel with him once. The page with the sea bass that swallowed all the bait but wasn’t (heavy enough) is something that actually happens while fishing.

Did you self-publish or work with a publisher?

I looked at several different publishing companies online and read reviews, and I decided to go with one that’s only been in business for about four years, called Palmetto Publishing Group. They’re based in South Carolina and were a very nice group of people to work with. By working with them, I now have the freedom to get into bookstores and create a hardcover version of the book, which I’m planning on.

What about the illustrations?

I had trouble finding an illustrator to work with, so I did all of the drawings for the book myself using pencil. I did the drawings on paper first, and then I found Adobe Draw, which allows me to copy my drawings onto (the computer) and color them in.

What is the target age for this book?

The kids that I’ve done readings for have been between the ages of 2 and 4. They really enjoy acting out parts of the book with me — we cast our lines together, reel in the fish and throw them back. I also have a fishing game that allows them to catch fish using rods with magnets on them.

Lisa French with her late mother, Joyce, who suffered from chronic progressive multiple sclerosis.

Why did you choose to have some proceeds from this book benefit the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation?

My mom always stood by me and always told me how good I was (at writing). She really pushed me, and it’s for that reason that I dedicated the book to her. She passed away in February from chronic progressive multiple sclerosis (MS), which she got in her late 20s. It wasn’t until her mid-30s that she was diagnosed. She started using a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair. She ended up paralyzed from the waist down, and in her mid-50s also lost the use of her left side. Doctors told me she wouldn’t live past 60, but she passed away at 74 — she was a miracle case.

I also have MS, but it’s the relapsing-remitting form. They say it’s not hereditary, but I’ve heard of so many people who have MS whose mothers had it, too. I believe there’s more research to be done.

“A Fishing I Will Go!” is available online at www.amazon.com. Find out more about the book on Facebook at www.facebook.com/afishingiwillgo. To make a donation to the MS Foundation, visit www.msfocus.org.

All photos courtesy of Lisa French.

'Great Blue Heron' by Chris Bazer
Photo artist Chris Bazer shares magical images of nature in latest exhibit at Emma Clark Library

By Melissa Arnold

Like all great photographers, Christopher Scott Bazer has an eye for beauty. But he also knows how to take a beautiful image to the next level with a little computer magic.

It’s what he calls photo-art, a unique blend of traditional photography and modern, digital effects. The result is vivid and ethereal.

A collection of Bazer’s favorite pieces is on display at the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library in Setauket for the month of August in an exhibit called Essence of Nature.

‘Butterfly en rose’

Bazer has been a shutterbug for almost his entire life, starting out with a little Brownie camera at just 5 years old while growing up in Queens. “My mother was very artistic and became a very good painter in her own right,” said Bazer, who now lives in Huntington. “Her brother, my uncle, also painted, so I think [the artistic talents] came down from that side of the family.”

While Bazer didn’t major in art, he did take a handful of art classes while working toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Southampton College. During his time there, he had the chance to study under painter and filmmaker Larry Rivers.

After college, Bazer worked for a time as a salesman before settling into a successful 35-year career as a DJ. But his love for painting and photography never died. At one point, he was the brother-in-law of Richard Bernstein, an artist who ran in the same circles as Andy Warhol. “I learned so much from [Bernstein]. He ended up being one of my idols,” he said.

Now 70, Bazer has had more time to devote to his artwork. He’s done more than a dozen public exhibits in the last few years, mostly in libraries and village centers. He is one of many artists to benefit from the support of Princess Ronkonkoma Productions, an organization that helps the disabled and elderly find outlets to show their art.

Bazer said that he’s not much of a painter, but there are usually a few acrylic paintings in the mix at his exhibits. “My paintings are what you’d call folk art — they’re not meant to be taken as realistic,” he explained.

‘Shore wader’

As for photography, Bazer now uses an Olympus Stylus 1 to capture the world around him. It’s a natural part of his routine to bring the camera along whenever he’s headed out. His favorite subjects are wildlife and landscapes, especially beaches; and he enjoys taking photos of Coindre Hall’s boathouse on the Long Island Sound in Huntington.

As traditional photography evolved with the arrival of digital technology, Bazer was inspired by a whole new realm of possibilities.

“I just started playing around with the software that came with my camera and experimented with different effects and styles. What I’m able to do now is stuff that you were once only able to do in the darkroom, and it was hit or miss, and very expensive,” Bazer said. “What’s interesting is a lot of times I go out and take pictures and I’ll come home and look at what I have and not see anything good, but then I can work with it on the computer and end up with something really great.”

The Essence of Nature exhibit will feature 21 photos and paintings, all of which can be purchased as a low-number print. For information, contact Bazer directly at chrisbazer@yahoo.com or CSBazer Art on Facebook.

The Emma S. Clark Memorial Library is located at 120 Main Street, Setauket. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. For more information, call 631-941-4080 or visit www.emmaclark.org.

The cast of 'Grease'. Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

By Melissa Arnold

When it comes to musical theater, few shows are more beloved with theatergoers than “Grease.” Can you blame us, though? It’s an old, familiar story: Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Things get messy.

Put simply, it’s a snapshot of teenage relationships that’s almost universally relatable. And thanks to the 1978 film adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, “Grease” is permanently cemented into the hearts of so many.

From left, Madeleine Barker (as Rizzo), Laura Helm (as Marty), Liana Hunt (as Sandy) and Sari Alexander (as Frenchy).

All this makes it the perfect summer kickoff for the John W. Engeman Theater’s 11th season. For those of you who are not familiar with the plot, “Grease,” written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, follows the Rydell High School Class of 1959 through the highs and lows of hormone-fueled infatuation.

At the center of it all is Sandy Drumbrowski (Liana Hunt), the naïve, charming new girl in town who catches the eye of notorious bad boy Danny Zuko (Sam Wolf). While the two develop a whirlwind summer romance, the transition back to Rydell High is a tough one. Peer pressure, social stereotypes and the desire to fit in pull Danny and Sandy in different directions while sending ripples of tension through their circle of friends. While it sounds like a lot of drama, the show is full of fast-paced banter and folly that will keep you laughing and singing along until the end.

Director Paul Stancato leads a cast of theater veterans in a well-polished performance that’s hard to criticize. Such high quality is what you can expect to see regularly at the Engeman.

Liana Hunt plays Sandy in a way that’s down to earth and totally believable. Her voice is strong without being over the top. “Hopelessly Devoted to You” allows her to shine on her own, which is appreciated in a show mostly comprised of duets and chorus numbers.

From left, Chris Collins Pisano (as Roger), Sam Wolf (as Danny), Chris Stevens (as Kenickie), Zach Erhardt (as Doody) and Casey Shane (as Sonny) perform ‘Greased Lightnin’.

As Danny, Sam Wolf builds fantastic chemistry leading the rebellious Thunderbirds. The first words in the iconic “Summer Nights” will leave no doubt about why Wolf got the role — he can sing, and that same passion translates to everything he does on stage.

But this production wouldn’t be what it is without the phenomenal supporting cast, who are every bit as talented as Hunt and Wolf. In fact, they nearly stole the show.

The T-birds (Zach Erhardt, Chris Collins-Pisano, Chris Stevens and Casey Shane) are hysterically funny. Their antics will make you laugh out loud, especially when they briefly dip into the audience. They’re also incredible dancers, pulling off flips and jumps like they’re nothing.

The Pink Ladies (Hannah Slabaugh, Laura Helm, Madeleine Barker and Sari Alexander) are a force of their own as well — each one stands out from the group with individuality and assertiveness. Of particular mention is Barker, who plays the cynical Betty Rizzo with tons of natural swagger, and Slabaugh, who you can’t help but love during “Mooning,” a duet her character Jan performs with Roger (Collins-Pisano).

From left, Madeleine Barker (as Rizzo), Laura Helm (as Marty), Liana Hunt (as Sandy) and Sari Alexander (as Frenchy).

The efforts of choreographer Antoinette DiPietropolo and dance captain Tim Falter have definitely paid off in this production. Dancing is central to the plot in “Grease,” and the cast’s quick, complicated routines are worth shouting over. From the opening “Grease Is the Word” to the dance contest during “Born to Hand Jive,” they should be commended for both their skill and the stamina required to pull off the show.

And while you can’t see the band at the Engeman — they are tucked neatly under the stage — their rock ‘n’ roll carries the whole show. In fact, if not for their credits in the program, you might think the music was prerecorded. The six-man ensemble is led by conductor/keyboardist Alec Bart.

Costume designer Matthew Solomon does a fantastic job transporting us back to the ’50s. The dresses worn by the girls at the school dance are gorgeous and colorful, and their twirling skirts are perfect for all the dancing in that scene.

Liana Hunt (as Sandy) and Sam Wolf (as Danny) in a scene from ‘Grease’.

The set, designed by Stephen Dobay, is simple but functional. The stage is flanked by generic buildings on either side, but there are also a set of risers leading up to a second level. This area was transformed throughout the performance last Saturday night and allowed for multiple conversations or settings to occur at once. It works especially well as a stage for the school dance.

Overall, this production is exactly what you’d expect to see from such a classic show — there are no surprises, and that’s a good thing. Find your seats early to relax with a drink while listening to top hits from the ’50s, and make sure you stay through the curtain call for a brief, fun sing-a-long with the cast.

Runtime is 2 hours and 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Be aware that strobe lights and haze are used throughout the show.

See “Grease” now through Aug. 27 at the John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport. Tickets range from $73 to $78 and may be purchased by calling 631-261-2900 or by visiting www.engemantheater.com. Free valet parking is available.

All photos by Michael DeCristofaro

Photo by Joyce Ravid

Former New York Times columnist and best-selling author to come to Huntington

By Melissa Arnold

Growing up, Anna Quindlen’s one and only dream was to write. Her life was flooded with the written word from the very beginning. Quindlen described herself as “a difficult child,” but teachers praised her for her writing skills. That encouragement led her to study English and creative writing at Barnard College in New York City and then on to a career in journalism.

“I always intended to be a novelist,” Quindlen said in a recent interview. “I only went into the newspaper business to pay the rent, but I loved it so much that I just stayed and stayed.”

Anna Quindlen will hold a special book signing at the Cinema Arts Centre on June 8.

Quindlen paved an extensive career as a columnist for the New York Times and Newsweek, even earning a Pulitzer Prize along the way. But then she returned to her first passion — fiction writing — and hasn’t looked back. Her beloved novels, including “One True Thing,” “Blessings” and “Black and Blue,” have amassed a dedicated fan base and time atop the New York Times Best Seller List. Her book, “A Short Guide to a Happy Life,” has sold more than a million copies.

Now, Quindlen is celebrating the paperback release of her latest novel, “Miller’s Valley,” with a stop right here on Long Island.

Long Island LitFest will host Quindlen on Thursday, June 8, at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington. The evening will include an intimate reading from “Miller’s Valley,” a meet-and-greet, a signed copy of the book and refreshments.

The LitFest, which launched in 2015 as an annual event bringing lauded authors to the area, has now grown to include occasional Long Island LitFest Presents evenings with a single author.

Claudia Copquin, the festival’s producer and foundress, calls it a labor of love. “My friends and I are avid readers and booklovers, but we’ve had to leave Long Island to go to book festivals and the sort,” she said. “We saw a need for something like this at a local level, and Long Islanders are well-read and very cultured. Authors are usually excited to get involved [with us].”

Copquin and members of the festival’s advisory board work to identify authors that would have an interest in making an appearance here. Many of the selected authors are preparing for or on a promotional tour for a book release, Copquin explained. In past years, they’ve hosted writers including Alan Zweibel, Adam Resnick, Dave Barry and many more.

Quindlen described “Miller’s Valley” as “set in a small farming community threatened by a government plan to dam and flood the valley, and its action stretches from the ’50s to the present. It’s about that period when Americans learned that their government might not have their best interests at heart. It’s also a period when the lives of women changed radically, and those changes are embodied in the book’s protagonist, Mimi Miller.”

Above, the cover jacket of Quindlen’s latest novel.

The book has received much praise. The Washington Post has called it “stunning,” USA Today writes it is “a breathtakingly moving look at family” and The New York Times Book Review calls it “overwhelmingly moving.”

Raj Tawney, director of publicity and promotions at the Cinema Arts Centre, said the venue is thrilled to welcome Quindlen as part of a wide spectrum of events held there.

“While the [center] is more about film, we’re here to service the entire community and deliver them all kinds of opportunities in arts and culture,” Tawney said. “We’re a sanctuary for artistic and creative people, and Anna Quindlen is such a renowned, accomplished creator. She’s an artist in her own right. It’s fitting to have her come out here.”

Long Island LitFest Presents Anna Quindlen will be held at 7:30 p.m. on June 8 at the Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington. Tickets, which must be purchased in advance, are $35 for members and $40 for the public. For more information, call 631-423-7611 or visit www.cinemaartscentre.org. To learn more about Long Island LitFest, visit www.longislandlitfest.com.

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