By Julianne Mosher
Beloved Port Jefferson resident Jill Nees-Russell lost her battle with cancer in June 2018, and now the community is celebrating her spirit with a new performance stage at Harborfront Park.
It all started last year when, after her passing, her friend, Carolyn Benson of East Setauket, along with village-based landscape engineer Michael Opisso, decided to find a permanent space that could honor Jill’s legacy.
The Port Jefferson resident came to the north shore from Los Angeles and immediately became involved with the community. She worked alongside Mayor Margot Garant as the village’s Director of Economic Development and Public Relations, as well as with the Port Jeff arts council, the PJ School of Rock and had worked in tandem with the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.
“I feel like Jill designed this stage… I just held the pen.”
— Michael Opisso
“Dedicating this perfect stage to Jill is special,” Mayor Garant said. “She was a huge advocate for the arts within the community… dedicating this stage to her made sense and it was something the community could get behind.”
The planning for the 15 by 25 foot half-circle wood stage overlooking the harbor began in April. On Saturday, Aug. 10, it made its debut with an afternoon of songs all with the common themes of family and home.
The lawn was filled with over a hundred people whose lives were touched by Jill.
“We have beautiful weather today,” Garant said, “We know who’s looking out for us.”
Over 500 volunteers came together and money was set aside for the concept. With Opisso as the designer on record and Andrew Fortier as the builder, Opisso said that it wouldn’t have been made possible if it weren’t for Jill.
“I feel like Jill designed this stage,” he said, “I just held the pen.”
Fortier was also the first performer on the stage with his two children in their group, Tricycle. Together they kicked off the show with a song they dedicated to Jill and the legacy she left behind called, “Beautiful Light.”
“I want to thank you from the depths of my heart for what you’ve done for this community,” he said before they started to play.
Among the hundreds of people that attended Saturday’s event were Jill’s siblings and family who flew in from all over the country from places like Oklahoma, California and North Carolina.
“The stage is a way to showcase the talent that’s here and to showcase the community she loved.”
— Jeffrey Nees
“We want to thank you from the bottoms of our hearts for dedicating the stage to her,” Jeffrey Nees said. “Although she was from Oklahoma, her heart and her home were here in Port Jefferson.”
As emotional as the day was, Nees said that he knows his sister would be thrilled.
“Jill would think today’s event would be wonderful,” he said. “The stage is a way to showcase the talent that’s here and to showcase the community she loved.”
A dozen community members performed upon the stage, including students from the Port Jefferson School of Rock as well as a reading from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Theatre Three’s Artistic Director Jeffrey Sanzel.
Fortier said that performing on a stage is special because every performance is different. “That’s the beauty of live music,” he said, “That’s the beauty of what’s going to be happening on this very stage.”
Although this weekend’s concert kicked off the planned future performances the stage will hold, the stage was not entirely complete. A plaque dedicated to Jill will be added to the stage, as well as a canvas sail canopy that will embody the look of a sailing ship.
“The stage is a tribute to who she was,” Garant said. “It’s about time we had a focal point in our backyard that allows us to celebrate.”