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Ward Melville Heritage Organization

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The Hercules figurehead from the USS Ohio in Stony Brook. Photo by Heidi Sutton

By Ernestine Franco

The heroes of Greek and Roman legends are long gone, but they are still an echo in our collective mythic memories.

Hercules was the Roman name of the greatest hero of Greek mythology — Heracles. Like most authentic heroes, Hercules had a god as one of his parents, being the son of the supreme deity Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. Zeus’ queen Hera was jealous of Hercules and was determined to make trouble for him by making him lose his mind. In a confused and angry state, he killed his own wife and children.

The story goes that when he awoke from his “temporary insanity,” Hercules was shocked and upset by what he’d done. He prayed to the god Apollo, also a son of Zeus. As part of his punishment, Hercules had to perform 12 labors including slaying the Nemean lion — feats so difficult that they seemed impossible. Fortunately, Hercules had the help of some sympathetic deities. By the end of these labors, Hercules was, without a doubt, Greece’s greatest hero.hercules-1 His struggles made him the perfect embodiment of an idea the Greeks called pathos, the experience of virtuous struggle and suffering that would lead to fame and, in Hercules’ case, immortality.

There have been many reincarnations of Hercules. To name just a few: Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot; the 1997 animated Disney movie “Hercules”; the TV show “Hercules,” which ran from 1995 to 1999; and a 1970 B film “Hercules in New York.” There is even an adjective, herculean, that embodies all the positive aspects of this hero.

But before all these, there was the 19th-century figurehead Hercules of the USS Ohio. Built between 1817 and 1820, she was the first ship built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Ohio served in the Mediterranean, sailed the Pacific and landed troops on the shores of Vera Cruz during the war with Mexico in 1847. By 1884 the Ohio was decommissioned, sold for scrap and moored in Greenport. She broke free of her mooring during a storm and sunk a short distance off shore. Resting in a mere 20 feet of water, part of the ship was above sea level. The exposed parts of the Ohio were burned and the rest abandoned. Luckily this piece of folk art was stripped off the ship before her end.

The figurehead of Hercules, wrapped in the skin of the Nemean lion, was carved out of a single piece of cedar at a cost $1,500. At one point it was sold for a mere $10 at an auction. It was again sold for $15 by the then owner of the Canoe Place Inn in Hampton Bays where it remained for decades. Eventually the figurehead was acquired by Ward Melville in 1954 who deeded it to The Ward Melville Heritage Organization for preservation.

As if this isn’t already an amazing enough piece of history, the pavilion also has a whaleboat used on Charles Hall’s final arctic expedition. The Hercules Pavilion is located along Main Street in Stony Brook Village, across from the Village Green, near the anchor of the USS Ohio.

For more information, call 631-751-2244 or visit www.wmho.org.

Photo courtesy of WMHO

Blast from the Past:

Do you know where and when this photo was taken? Why are these men wearing costumes? Email your answers to info@wmho.org. To see more wonderful vintage photographs like this, visit The Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s ongoing exhibit, It Takes a Team to Build a Village, at The WMHO’s Educational & Cultural Center, 97P Main Street, Stony Brook. For more information, call 631-751-2244.

Last week’s photo:

Beauty ShopThis photo was taken in the early 1940s in the Harbor Crescent section of the Stony Brook Village Center. Photo courtesy of The WMHO

Photo courtesy of The WMHO

Blast from the Past:

Do you know where this bowling alley was located? Do you know when it was built and how long it was in existence? Email your answers to info@wmho.org. To see more wonderful vintage photographs like this, visit The Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s ongoing exhibit, It Takes a Team to Build a Village, at The WMHO’s Educational & Cultural Center, 97P Main Street, Stony Brook. For more information, call 631-751-2244.

Gloria Rocchio. Photo by Marie Gilberti

By Katelyn Winter

In 1939 Ward Melville along with his wife Dorothy created a not-for-profit corporation, the Stony Brook Community Fund, later named The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, to maintain and protect the historical and sensitive environmental properties that he would deed to it over the coming years. 75 years later, the organization continues to thrive. I recently had the opportunity to interview Ms. Gloria Rocchio, president of The WMHO, in her office at the Stony Brook Village Center.

How did you get involved with the WMHO?

My husband and I moved here on Memorial Day in 1977, and we volunteered for the organization. Mr. Melville passed away on June 7, 1977. I looked out the window, and I asked myself, is everything going to change? So we volunteered for a year or so, and then my predecessor decided to retire. I wasn’t too interested in applying [for the position] because I was head of Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. My husband wanted me to, because he never saw me. I was traveling to Washington, Albany and all over Long Island. So I applied [because] after volunteering here for a couple of years, I thought I knew what should be changed. I told them what I thought at the interview, and as I was leaving, I thought, well I won’t be selected. And I was. 36 years later, here I am, and I love it.

So you’ve lived here since 1977?

Actually I’ve been coming here since 1959. My mother and I came here, and when I got married, it was the only place I wanted to live. [My husband and I] got married in Nassau County and we honeymooned at the Three Village Inn.

What do you love about being president of The WMHO?

Well, first of all, for the first ten years I worked for Mrs. Melville — she was president. She was a wonderful mentor; I learned everything from her. She guided me, she had a great sense of architecture, and she was just a very intelligent, brilliant lady. Every day is a challenge. When I hire people I always say you’ll never be bored again, and it’s true. It’s not for everybody, it’s 24/7, and I’m not a one-man band. I have a wonderful staff that’s very hard working and we have a board of trustees that are very interesting, community minded, selfless, dedicated, and many of the people in the community don’t know them but they’re there and we have many meetings throughout the year. I’m just happy to be here.

What do you love about Stony Brook Village, and what is your favorite season here?

Oh, I love it all, I can’t pick one over another. But season is probably the fall, it’s just beautiful. We own the wetlands, 88 acres of it, and [one day] Dr. [Erwin] Ernst and I took some elected officials to the Marine Conservation center in a boat. It was in October, and the grasses and the trees were so golden. It was [Ernst’s] idea to come up with a Discovery pontoon boat to go into the wetlands. It was so different than seeing it by land, and it has really amazed people. Twenty something years we’ve been doing it. I once got a call from a lady who said she wanted to “take that ride into the swamp.” The next day, she called and said, “I never knew anything about the importance of wetlands, and how they contribute to the ecosystem and the wildlife.” She said it was “phenomenal.” They’ve been giving us rave reviews ever since.

What is the story behind the portrait of George Washington that hangs behind your desk?

That’s a funny story, because for a while I didn’t know either. This is Mr. Melville’s office, and I’ve been sitting in front of this picture for 36 years. As the years went by, I started to understand why [it was there]. Mr. Melville purchased properties that had to do with early America and George Washington’s spy ring; he bought the Brewster House. He knew about that in 1942, and so he purchased the Grist Mill. All these things had to do with early America, and Mr. Melville was fascinated by George Washington and what he did, and I am too. I do a lot of research on the houses, and I learned that one of the Brewster’s was very involved in the construction of the King’s Highway, and that’s how I found out about Austin Roe. Now that’s the Heritage Trail. It’s all so important.

How is the ‘It Takes a Team to Build a Village’ exhibit going?

Very well. In fact, we had a reception fairly recently, and a lot of people came. The board said it’s so popular [that] we’re leaving it up as long as we can, because more and more people are finding out about it. We did this because it’s the 75th anniversary of the village, and most things that happened in this area came out of this organization. The archives are enormous. We started to look in boxes and we found an eight millimeter film. It said “The Village Dedication,” and we got it transferred so we could watch it. And son of a gun, it was a video of what Mr. Melville did on July 3, 1941! He had huge parades, and a beauty contest — which we wouldn’t do now. He dedicated the village from the balcony at the fire house. We thought we should do something like this, and we couldn’t do anything as grandiose as he did, but we had this nice little re-dedication on July 10, and it was great. Then we found extraordinary documents, and we’re hoping to get funding to work with Stony Brook University and the Frank Melville Memorial Library to digitize it all and create a website. It’s a huge undertaking but that’s what this has inspired us to do.

What would you say you are most proud of about your time with the WMHO?

One is the Walk for Beauty — 23 years, raising 1.3 million for breast cancer research. [Also] the Youth Corps — 20 years, putting through scores of children. We now have 69 children enrolled who will all know what Ward and Dorothy did here, and they can pay that forward and teach others. I’m proud of the Educational & Cultural Center we built, I’m proud of the Inner Court, where Crazy Beans is — that used to be storage sheds, and we converted them — and The Jazz Loft — I’m very proud of that.

Tell us what upcoming events you’re excited for people to enjoy.

Well, the website with the digitized documents is one. But we’ve also received a grant from the Robert D. L. Gardiner Foundation to do distance learning. What that means is that an instructor giving a lesson in, say, the Brewster House [in Setauket], would be filmed and onto the distance learning site so that people from around the world could learn about the rich history we have here. We already have the cameras installed in the Thompson House [in Setauket] and the Brewster House and we’re developing programs for them. One program should be ready this fall, and the other should be ready next spring. It’s very exciting.

Do you remember what your younger self wanted to be when you grew up?

It’s funny, I wanted to be an artist, and I was an artist, for a while. I went to Pratt College, went into that career, and felt too isolated — you painted alone. I like people. But this is kind of an art form, when you think about it. I worked for government, county executives for a while, but then got into, not events, but being head of promoting Long Island. It’s interesting; it’s definitely an art form, this place. Recently, I began to understand that Mr. Melville wanted us to live with history. We take it for granted, and we shouldn’t. It’s really a phenomenon, what we live with. This morning I got stopped by a resident who has lived here for a long time and she said, “I want to tell you, Gloria, that living here is like living in a park, it’s so beautiful. It’s just wonderful to have it this way.” And I told her, well, as long as we can, the organization plans to keep it that way. It gets more challenging with years. You try to respect the past, but we have to be current and relevant, and be receptive to change. That’s what we try to do.

If you had to pick an ice cream flavor to represent yourself, what would you choose?

Muddy boots! It’s from Latitude 121, it’s such a great flavor.

At the end of the charming and educational interview I had with Ms. Rocchio, she left me with a very inspiring piece of advice. It is a quote, originally by Kuan-Tzu from the third century BC. It is also part of the inscription on a plaque at the purple beech tree on the Stony Brook Village Green planted by Mrs. Dorothy Melville on her 88th birthday, and was incorporated into the speech given by Dr. Richard Rugen, chairman of the board of trustees of The WMHO, for the closing remarks of the 75th anniversary of Stony Brook Village July 10 of this year.

“If you plan for a year, sow a seed. If you plan for a decade, plant a tree.

If you plan for a century, educate the people.”

This simple quote compromises the heartfelt and dedicated mission of not only The Ward Melville Heritage Organization but of Ms. Rocchio herself.

Author Katelyn Winter is a rising junior at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., majoring in English and creative writing. She is from Stony Brook and hopes to one day work in the publishing industry.

The Noah Hallock House will undergo renovations with Rocky Point Historical Society’s newly received grant money. File photo by Erin Duenas

By Desirée Keegan

Thousands of dollars have made their way to North Shore historical nonprofits, which will help continue to preserve Long Island’s rich history and educate others on it.

The Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation funds Long Island’s history-based 501(c)(3)s, museums and universities to help with object conservation, historical preservation, education programs and exhibits. The organization was established in memory of Gardiner’s Island, a part of East Hampton town.

“The foundation grants have become highly completive,” Executive Director Kathryn Curran said. “For this round, the board reviewed 43 applicants that covered every form of historic outreach. Projects included restorations, exhibitions, programs and collection digitization.”

Most recently, local historical societies, Friends of Science East Inc., Suffolk County Historical Society, The Nature Conservancy, 3rd NY Regiment Long Island Companies and Stony Brook Foundation, among others, were the 2016 first round recipients.

A volunteer and child practice on a loom at an event at the Huntington Historical Society. File photo
A volunteer and child practice on a loom at an event at the Huntington Historical Society. File photo

Joseph Attonito, chairman of the board of directors, said there were many great groups to choose from.

“It is very gratifying to have so many worthwhile organizations overseeing our local heritage and preserving our history,” he said. “Bob Gardiner would be very pleased.”

Rocky Point Historical Society received $7,500 for restoration use and, according to historical society President Natalie Aurucci Stiefel, the funds are being used for repairs and restoration of The Noah Hallock House, built in 1721.

“We feel very privileged to have the foundation choose us for that grant,” she said. “It is important to keep this historic house in good shape. We would’ve had a hard time fundraising that money.”

According to Stiefel, the house, which holds tours on Saturdays between 1 and 3 p.m., was the birthplace of revolutionary soldiers, and had the possibility of being torn down several years ago before Mark Baisch, owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point, stepped in to help.

“We still have staircases that the servants and slaves used,” Stiefel said. “It’s filled with artifacts and photographs from the 18th and 19th century, and there’s even a 20th century room dedicated to the radio history of Rocky Point.”

The Port Jefferson Harbor Educational and Arts Conservancy received $16,354.09 for it’s annual Heritage Weekend festivities.

Port Jefferson Harbor Educational and Arts Conservancy used it's funds from the grant to host a larger and more in-depth Heritage Weekend celebration. Photo by Alex Petroski
Port Jefferson Harbor Educational and Arts Conservancy used it’s funds from the grant to host a larger and more in-depth Heritage Weekend celebration. Photo by Alex Petroski

According to Nicole Christian, a consultant for grant writing for Port Jefferson Village, about 50 percent of the funding from the weekend came from the grant.

“The larger, more impactful exhibits and reenactments that would have lasting public benefit, that’s what they supported,” she said.

“We made sure that we tailored a lot of the activities that you see with the cars and the beach scene — we made sure that it all weaves together to celebrate the history of Long Island, particularly the 18th century.”

All 19 locations around the village that hosted the event covered a particular time period in Long Island’s history. According to Christian, the funding helped Port Jefferson be able to create a larger and grander event than would have originally been possible.

“We had all levels of recreational activities here,” she said. “We’re hoping that [visitors took] away a greater appreciation for Long Island’s role in 18th century history, the colonial period, the Revolutionary War, a recreational pastime. People don’t know that [Port Jefferson was] a magnet of recreation for all families.”

The Historical Society of Greater Port Jefferson also received grant money, totaling $22,000 for restoration purposes.

The 3rd NY Regiment Long Island Companies was awarded $12,000 to substitute payment customarily made by collaborators, host sites and venues during the campaign season, allowing those organization to apply those resources to other priorities associated with their missions. The Regiment partakes in re-enactments to educate Long Islanders on the Revolutionary War.

“They are quite an extraordinary group of volunteers who perform a vital role in helping our county’s residents and visitors get a very personal education about colonial life and the role Long Island played in the Revolutionary War,” Richard Barons, the executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society, said.

Smithtown 350 Foundation volunteers walk in a parade celebrating the town. File photo
Smithtown 350 Foundation volunteers walk in a parade celebrating the town. File photo

The Smithtown 350 Foundation received a $5,000 grant toward anniversary events, as the town celebrated its 350th anniversary this year. The Walter S. Commerdinger Jr. County Park Preservation Society in Nesconset received $100,000 for restoration and preservation purposes.

The Huntington Historical Society received a $12,728 grant that Executive Director Claudia Fortunato-Napolitano said will be used to purchase new technology products and technical support.

“With the new technology and updated software that [the] funding will provide for, the society can continue to stay relevant in the 21st century,” Fortunato-Napolitano said in an email. “We will be able to stay better connected with our members and donors, while increasing the number of people who we can help with their research… [It] will lead directly to the growth of the organization as the goal is for the society to successfully engage more members of the public and the community. For small not-for-profits like ours with a limited budget, vital technology updates is often an item that can seem too costly to afford.”

The Old First Presbyterian Church in Huntington received $50,000 for restoration and conservation of the steeple.

The Ward Melville Heritage Organization was awarded $22,500 for an educational program called Distance Learning.

According to Gloria Rocchio, president of the organization, an instructor will give a lesson, in say, the Bewster House, and it would be filmed and broadcasted onto the Distance Learning website.

The Tesla Science Center in Shoreham is looking to get on the National Register of Historic Places with help from the grant funds. File photo by Wenhao Ma
The Tesla Science Center in Shoreham is looking to get on the National Register of Historic Places with help from the grant funds. File photo by Wenhao Ma

“People from around the world could learn about the rich history we have here,” she said. “We already have the cameras installed in the Thompson House and the Brewster House, and we’re developing programs for them. Once program should be ready this fall, and the other should be ready next spring. It’s very exciting.”

Friends of Science East Inc., more commonly known as Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham, received $17,500 for capacity-building technology and $3,800 for collections care.

According to board of directors President Jane Alcorn, the funding will be used to survey the property, especially the lab building and power base, to study its historic nature — identify which parts are historic, have architectural drawings done, and figure out which parts are critical to preserve and protect, and how to do it.

“The funding will help as we continue to protect the site as we work toward getting it on the National Register of Historic Places,” Alcorn said. “We know the history of the project is historic. It has significance because of Tesla’s work there    it’s a scientific site. Its architectural origins, in inspiration of Stanford White, an important architect at his time, [are also significant].”

Alcorn said that every dollar is significant, as the nonprofit looks toward the future of turning part of the site into a museum — and the funding makes the creation of a museum more exciting, if the organization can get the property on the national list.

“We believe in preserving and making the best possible choice in how we use that space,” she said. “Having the grant enables us to develop ideas that bring together the past and the future. We have far more fundraising to do moving forward, so the contribution really helps us realize and achieve the steps necessary to move forward. The Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation has been magnificent, and we applaud their foresight into giving to organizations such as ours, who want to preserve the best of the past.”

Victoria Espinoza and Alex Petroski contributed reporting.

LEGO. Stock photo

Do you love building with LEGOs? Want to show off your most creative creations? The Ward Melville Heritage Organization will present its 4th annual LEGO Building Block Contest & Exhibit at the organization’s Educational & Cultural Center, 97P Main St., Stony Brook, from Sept. 17 to Oct. 16.

Grab your family, friends, Scout troop, church group or school club and start building! Teams may be individuals or groups up to five members. Prizes will be awarded at a celebration on Oct. 16. All submissions must be original creations. Predesigned kits or projects found online will not be accepted. Entry fee is $20. Deadline for submissions is Sept. 5.

For an official entry form, visit www.wmho.org. For more information, call 631-751-2244.

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Peter Gustafson, the longest-serving member of the Stony Brook Fire Department (64 years), enjoys the rededication of Stony Brook Village with Fire Commissioner and guest speaker Walter Hazlitt, who attended the original dedication on July 3, 1941. Photo by Donna Newman

On July 10, the Ward Melville Heritage Organization celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Stony Brook Village Center with a day of festivities, music, antique cars, and special remembrances.

A gathering on the village green brought together the trustees of the WMHO, community members, and representatives of government from the state, the county, and the town.

Curious passersby also stopped to listen as each of the speakers gave his or her own perspective on the little New England village that Ward Melville first dedicated in the summer of 1941.

The longest serving member of the Stony Brook Fire Department, Peter Gustafson, sits in the department’s antique truck dating from 1939. Photo by Donna Newman
The longest serving member of the Stony Brook Fire Department, Peter Gustafson, sits in the department’s antique truck dating from 1939. Photo by Donna Newman

The first to address the assemblage was Walter Hazlitt, a longtime resident of Stony Brook who was present at the first dedication ceremony. He was a teenager then and remembers all the hoopla and watching the parade.

The WMHO has film from that dedication. It is on view as part of a special summer exhibit, “It takes a team to build a village,” at the Educational & Cultural Center.

“The project that was started by Ward Melville was the [impetus] that made Stony Brook what it is today,” said Hazlitt. “The story [of this new center] was in several New York newspapers,” he added, remembering the tourists who began to come here. He opined that Melville started something grand, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller continued Stony Brook’s growth by establishing — with Melville’s help — a state university that is “unparalleled.”

At right, (back row) Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, Suffolk Legislator Kara Hahn, trustee Jim Murdocco, trustee Mary Van Tuyl, WMHO Chairman Richard Rugen, trustee Charles Napoli, NYS Assemblyman Steve Englebright, NYS Senator John Flanagan and trustee Charles Pieroth; (front row) WMHO President Gloria Rocchio, trustee Kathleen Mich, and trustee Laura Huang Ernst. Photo by Donna Newman
At right, (back row) Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, Suffolk Legislator Kara Hahn, trustee Jim Murdocco, trustee Mary Van Tuyl, WMHO Chairman Richard Rugen, trustee Charles Napoli, NYS Assemblyman Steve Englebright, NYS Senator John Flanagan and trustee Charles Pieroth; (front row) WMHO President Gloria Rocchio, trustee Kathleen Mich, and trustee Laura Huang Ernst. Photo by Donna Newman

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) spoke of her idyllic childhood in Stony Brook.

“Small things have changed; so much has stayed the same,” she said. “It is the same extraordinarily beautiful view. You turn around and you look out over Hercules, you look around at the green space we have in our community — where we come together at special moments — this is the most magical, special place.”

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) also gave his take on the village.

“Historically — and I love the fact that we have these antique vehicles here — this is the first mall in America,” he said. “That’s quite remarkable. Ward Melville and his designer Richard Haviland Smythe envisioned a coming of age of the automobile, and they designed accordingly. This is the first shopping mall designed for the automobile specifically, and for that reason, if for no other, this is a part of our national heritage.”

Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) and Supervisor Edward Romaine (R) represented Brookhaven Town. Cartright spoke of reading that the Melville family came across the site by accident.

“Being a woman of God,” she said, “I don’t believe in accidents … I truly believe they were divinely guided here.”

Romaine spoke of Ward Melville’s boldness, calling him “a visionary.”

“He convinced store owners that this wasn’t going to drive them out of business, that this was the way to go,” he said. “And the results endure to this day, 75 years after [the village] was dedicated. Its lesson is what good planning — what having a decent vision for the future of a community — is all about.”

Educational production back by popular demand

A scene from a previous year’s performance of ‘Running Scared, Running Free’ Photo from WMHO

In honor of Black History Month, Long Islanders can truly celebrate the meaning of freedom with Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s acclaimed “Running Scared, Running Free: Escape to the Promised Land.” These riveting live theatrical performances, held over 150 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, will be a poignant experience about the power of the human spirit and Long Island’s connection to the Underground Railroad.

Sponsored by Empire National Bank, “Running Scared, Running Free” is an interactive production based on investigative research compiled by the WMHO and was attended by over 7,000 young people and adults when it first opened in 2005. 

Oral histories shared by Native Americans inspired WMHO to research the movement of escaping slaves from the south to Long Island and north to Canada. A St. George Production, the drama is set in the mid-1850s and is told through the eyes of “Dorcas,” a female slave fleeing South Carolina. The production shows how Native Americans, Quakers, free blacks and abolitionists assisted in the Underground Railroad through the fascinating use of secret codes in quilt patterns as a vital means of communication. It is estimated that at least 30,000 slaves, and potentially more than 100,000, escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

Performances will take place on selected dates between Feb. 1 to 29 at WMHO’s Educational & Cultural Center, 97P Main Street, Stony Brook Village, at 10 a.m. and noon. In addition, there will be a special evening performance on Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m. with dessert and coffee or tea.

General admission is $13 adults; $12 per student (up to 35 students); $8 per student (over 35 students); Distance Learning is $250 per class connection (IP and ISPN connectivity); $1,500 in-school performance.

The program is aligned to meet National and New York State Common Core Standards and BOCES Arts-in-Education reimbursable. For further information call 631-751-2244 or visit www.wmho.org.

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From left, Sarah Cronk, Sara Costantino and Kim Dufrenoy in a scene from ‘Strangers in the Night.’ Photo by Giselle Barkley

By Stacy Santini

“With him it’s impossible…it’s like being with a woman. He’s so gentle. It is as though he thinks I’ll break, as though I am a piece of Dresden china and he’s gonna hurt me,” the American Film Institute’s 25th greatest female star of classic Hollywood cinema Ava Gardner was quoted saying about her marriage to the most tremendous musical icon of the 20th century, Frank Sinatra. Hailed as one of the most sensational, intense romances of all time, the bond between Gardner and Sinatra was as complex as the participants themselves.

Sal St. George and his wife Mary, of St. George Living History Productions take on the task of telling the lovers’ story in Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Holiday Musical Theatre Performance of “Strangers in the Night … The Story of ‘The Crooner’ and the most beautiful woman in the world, Ava Gardner” currently in production through Jan. 10.

Gardner’s dreamlike pilgrimage toward stardom was what so many young girls could only hope would happen to them. The ease at which fame came upon her was not without a cost, and like many well-known 1950s leading ladies, her life was peppered with tumultuous relationships and conflicting interpersonal desires.

Raised in the Deep South, this ravishing beauty was from humble beginnings; her parents Molly and Jonas Gardner were poor cotton and tobacco farmers in Grabtown, North Carolina, a spec on the map in Johnston County. While visiting one of her four sisters, Beatrice, in New York City, her brother-in-law, Larry Tarr, a professional photographer, took some pictures of her to place in his storefront window. The images captured the eye of Loews Theatres legal clerk, Barnard Duhan, hoping to secure a date with the alluring Gardner. This interaction prompted Tarr to send her pictures to MGM. Within the blink of an eye, Gardner was solicited to do a screen test for MGM’s talent agent, Al Altman. She was immediately signed to a standard 7-year MGM contract and flown to Hollywood.

Sal St. George talks about Ava’s ascent to celebrity: “Her story is fantastic. Coming from this tiny farm town, on a fluke a man notices her at seventeen years old. She is brought to Hollywood, signed to a contract and essentially thrown to the wolves, and in a very short time she is right there, smack dab in the middle of the pack, keeping company with some of the most famous stars of all time.”

Her first fifteen movie roles for MGM were small “walk-on” parts and it appeared that it was only her beauty the studio was interested in. But in 1946, she starred opposite George Raft in “Whistle Stop” and Gardner began to carve out her place in Hollywood movie history. Playing femme fatale Kitty Collins, in Universal Studios’ adaption of Hemingway’s “The Killers” with the legendary Burt Lancaster further secured her status. Performances in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Sun Also Rises” made it impossible to not recognize that there was indeed a tremendous talent behind the now tempered southern drawl. Although nominated for an Academy Award for her role in “The Killers,” it was her role in “The Barefoot Contessa” that gave her international acclaim.

As intrigued as the populace was by her beauty and her eventually respected talent as an actress, Gardner gained much notoriety for her romantic pursuits. Over the years, her partners — some spouses, some merely lovers — read like a who’s who of Hollywood.

Her first marriage, at the age of nineteen, was to Mickey Rooney. Lasting only one year, Gardner quickly moved on to famed bandleader and musician Artie Shaw. Eventually the union met the same fate as her marriage to Rooney, and Gardner moved on to marry Frank Sinatra. That relationship also did not last but, although Gardner had several more dalliances with men such as Ernest Hemingway and bullfighter Miguel Dominguin, it was “The Voice” that remained her one true love. Frank Sinatra dwelled deep in Gardner’s heart until she took her last breath in 1990.

Sal St. George is no stranger to the theater or legendary icons. Prior to starting his creative consulting company, St. George Living History Productions, he was a playwright for entities such as Disneyland, Sea World and Busch Gardens. Specializing in historic sites and museums, St. George is often commissioned to tell a story based on the history of a venue, such as The Vanderbilt Museum. He and his wife have also become known for their ability to translate, in fantastic ways, the lives of celebrated actors and actresses of the past — Lucille Ball, Natalie Wood, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, to name a few.

St. George likes to write from the women’s perspective and his stance when it comes to his scripts is often surprising and unexpected. In his own words, “It is easy to just go with the facts. When I am writing a script, I write to myself; it is instinctive and I believe if I find something interesting, others will too. I want the audience to feel like they are eavesdropping on the rich and famous.”

Producing about two shows per year along with the Edgar Allen Poe Festival, “Strangers in the Night” joins a long roster of stellar productions. St. George describes the show, “When Gloria Rocchio, president of the Ward Melville Heritage Organization, discovered it was Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday, she wanted to do something special. She has been pivotal in bringing us on board, very supportive and encouraging. I always try to approach things from a different angle, and with this I kept thinking that behind every great man is a great woman. I wondered what it was like to be married to Frank Sinatra, and so it was Ava Gardner’s perspective that undoubtedly would make the most impact.”

St. George’s unique perspective is further developed in his choice of settings for the storyline. Actress Gail Storm’s 1957 musical TV show serves as the catalyst for this biographical tale. Along with her sidekick Rosie, they prod guest Ava Gardner to expose what it was really like to be married to the infamous Sinatra. Expect surprises along the way.

Ava Gardner’s character is played by Sara Costantino. She is joined on stage by Sarah Cronk as Gale Storm and Kim Dufrenoy as Rosie. The production most certainly tells Ava’s story, but one will not leave without understanding Sinatra’s life as well.

Ironically, Costantino, whose resemblance to Gardner is uncanny, did not know who the woman was that she is now so elegantly portraying. After much study, it is apparent that she has assumed the role with a complete understanding of this complicated woman. When asked about her part, Costantino says, “The most challenging and exciting part about playing Ava is that she had two different lives in a way … because the studio was promoting her as one thing, but deep down she felt completely different; finding the balance between the façade she put on and who she truly felt she was. I really related to this. There are things she said in her autobiography that I have said over the years. My connection with her was amazing.”

When asking St. George what his favorite part of putting on these shows is he says, “My favorite thing in the world, period, is a blank piece of paper, for everything is created from it — the Verrazano Bridge, the Mona Lisa, all the great novels … all these started with just a blank piece of paper. I get to let my imagination run wild.”

It is hard to imagine that “Strangers in the Night … The Story of ‘The Crooner’ and the most beautiful woman in the world, Ava Gardner” was ever a blank piece of paper, but nonetheless, it has been filled in quite beautifully.

The Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Educational and Cultural Center, 97P Main St., Stony Brook, will present “Strangers in the Night” through Jan. 10 as part of its Holiday Musical Theatre Performance series. Catered by Crazy Beans Restaurant, tickets are $50 adults, $48 seniors (60 and over), $45 groups of 20 or more. For reservations, please call 631-689-5888.

A 1955 Panhead Billy Bike replica from the 1969 motion picture ‘Easy Rider.’ Photo by Heidi Sutton

The Ward Melville Heritage Organization will present a free lecture by Jeffrey James on Aug. 22 at 2 p.m. in conjunction with it’s summer exhibit, “America’s Love Affair with the Motorcycle … Continues,” which features more than 50 motorcycles on display as well as vintage collections, memorabilia, artwork and sculptures.

Titled “Movies & Motorcycles,” the presentation will focus on the beloved movies associated with this national pastime. James will discuss a variety of information as it relates to the motorcycles on exhibit, including the music of Bon Jovi and Judas Priest; the top 10 Harley Davidson films; the 1924 Buster Keaton film, “Sherlock Jr.” and other significant movies, such as “The Great Escape” from 1963 and “Easy Rider” from 1969.

James has served on the board of directors of the Nassau Symphony Orchestra, the American Chamber Ensemble, the Gemini Youth Symphony and the LI Arts Council at Freeport to name a few, and he currently sits on the board of directors for the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.

The forum will take place at the WMHO’s Educational & Cultural Center, 97P Main Street, Stony Brook. General admission to the exhibit is $5 adults, $3 children under 12. For more information, call 631-689-5888 or visit www.stonybrookvillage.com.