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Celebrate St. James

Eric Dubin, left, of The Whiskey Crows rocks Lake Avenue Sunday night, Aug. 6, during the Celebrate St. James concert series. Photo by Steven Zaitz

By Steven Zaitz

If you were strolling down Lake Avenue in St. James this past Sunday evening, Aug. 6, you might have been compelled to check the map on your phone to see if you were magically transported to Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Springsteen’s “Rosalita” rang out from Celebrate Park in the latest of the 2023 Summer Concert Series and this time it was The Whiskey Crows who got the people on their feet. The dynamic eight-piece band is an upbeat rock ‘n’ roll, twang and soul revue in the Jersey Shore bar band tradition. The band included a three-piece horn section.

Energetic front man Eric Dubin bounced around the stage and, thanks to the technology of wireless amplifiers, was able to sing and play while mixing with the crowd.

With a mix of Elvis, Dobie Gray, Mitch Ryder, St. James-resident Dubin and the boys played for two hours and had the crowd dancing with them in front of the canopied stage.

In addition to Dubin, the band features Mike Breier (bass and vocals), Rich Dashnaw (guitar and vocals), Andrew Rubenstein (drums), Joe Ferrante (keyboards and vocals), Mike Baratelli (saxophone), Josh Seifert (trombone) and Joe Boardman (trumpet).

As part of the Celebrate St. James Summer, a lucky raffle winner won the tidy sum of $318. Second place was slightly less lucky with the prize being a Whiskey Crows T-shirt.

Celebrate St. James Past-Present-Future is a nonprofit cultural arts organization. Housed in the historic St. James Calderone Theatre and built in the early 1900s, its mission is to preserve and celebrate St. James’ rich history and inspire an appreciation and knowledge of the arts in the community. 

Founded in 2017, Celebrate St. James was born as a nonprofit cultural arts organization by Jack Ader, Arline Goldstein and Natalie Weinstein to assist in the revitalization of the Lake Avenue district.

In November 2020, Town of Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) and the Town Board joined Celebrate St. James in a groundbreaking ceremony commemorating the construction of Celebrate Park.

Blu Bayou, featuring the music of Linda Ronstadt, will play on Aug. 13 and the final concert will be Aug. 20 with SouthBound, which is heavily influenced by the music of the Allman Brothers.  

Celebrate St. James hosted its first Kids Community Earth Day Celebration on Saturday, April 22.

The event was held at the new Celebrate Park on Lake Avenue. Children had the opportunity to learn about nature and Earth Day with story time, plant sales and the opportunity to make their own terrariums. 

Attendees also enjoyed listening to live music, getting henna designs and visiting a rabbit and a miniature screech owl at the Sweetbriar Nature Center table.

Abraham Lincoln presenter Garry Rissman heads to the St. James Community Cultural Arts Center on Feb 12.

By Tara Mae

Legacy is where man and myth intertwine. More than a summation of his best ideals, the heritage of President Abraham Lincoln’s humanity takes the stage on his birthday, Sunday, Feb. 12 at 1 p.m. when he visits the St. James Community Cultural Arts Center in Celebrate St. James’ latest Living History event.

Garry Rissman, an Abraham Lincoln presenter, is the conduit for the 16th president. His interactive presentation will consist of scenes from three different plays in which Rissman inhabited the role, a monologue from the movie Lincoln, a game, and an audience Q&A session. 

Abraham Lincoln presenter Garry Rissman heads to the St. James Community Cultural Arts Center on Feb 12.

“Many attendees are history buffs and their questions display their knowledge of the historical figures. So far, the Living Historians have been great — they really assume their character — costumes, persona, mannerisms, etc. They are knowledgeable and able to answer audience questions. You would think you are actually in [the historical figure’s] presence,” said Celebrate St. James President Patricia Clark.

Historical re-enactors and living history interpreters showcase an amalgam of artistry, history, and theatricality. They make the past present, facilitating scenarios in which audiences are not simply observers but rather cooperative collaborators participating in the presenter’s paradigm. 

In this spirit, Rissman’s Lincoln interacts with his supporters, engaging with them throughout the program and creating an immersive experience. 

“The audience members who volunteer to read lines in the Civil War plays really feel more involved by being the characters. It is very fulfilling to see them enjoy a living history lecture,” said Rissman.

A member of the Association of Lincoln Presenters for nearly six years, Rissman, who also belongs to the Screen Actors Guild, has appeared as Honest Abe on stage and screen as well as in private and public occasions. 

Not unlike Lincoln, Rissman’s preferred profession is a second career. Whereas Lincoln was first a lawyer, Rissman was initially a working actor. Both roles benefit from a gift of oration.  “I decided that being a living historian was more fulfilling than being an actor in a play with little to no pay and usually no possibility of getting a copy of my performance. I can do things my way,” he said. 

Abraham Lincoln presenter Garry Rissman

Having found his path, Rissman had not yet selected the persona he would portray as he walked it. Initially, Rissman experimented with representing other prominent men of history, but they were not the right fit, so he sought inspiration from his previous occupation. 

Like the five o’clock shadow that eventually yields a full beard, Rissman’s association with President Lincoln grew from portraying him in a play at the Incarn Theatre in Brooklyn to embodying him as a full time job. 

“I was playing Lincoln in a Civil War play from [the] Incarn Theatre when I decided to go to the yearly Lincoln festival in his hometown of Hodgenville, Kentucky,” he said. “I believed that I needed to experience the Association of Lincoln Presenters first hand before deciding to spend the $200 for a lifetime membership.”

Finding resources and community to support his passion, Rissman, who is based out of New York City, embarked on his campaign of traveling Lincoln presenter. While he has been stumping, the staff and volunteers of Celebrate St. James have been organizing innovative programming to facilitate not only its mission of rejuvenating the town but buying the historic building in which it rents space.  

Celebrate St. James resides in the historic Calderone Theatre. Built in the early 1900s, the organization hopes to purchase the building and restore it as a functional theater and creative arts space. Fundraising efforts are in the early stages and the Living History series, highlighting speakers and living history presenters, is a means of spotlighting the town’s robust history and paying homage to its theatrical roots. 

These talks constitute Act One of the organization’s ongoing initiative to engage the public in local culture by invoking the past into the present. 

“Our goal is to bring attention to the history of St. James, which is a hamlet with a very rich past,” Clark said. “We want to revitalize St. James as the flourishing hamlet it once was by bringing the cultural arts to our community to drive economic growth.”     

Clark and members of her team have been inviting living history presenters to speak at their events following successful visits from Mark Twain, George Washington, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, President Theodore Roosevelt’s oldest daughter, among others. Rissman and Clark connected via the Association of Lincoln Presenters’ official website.

“The historical recreations have become a regular series of events … Living History: Abraham Lincoln is a very family friendly educational/entertaining event and we encourage attendance from families with school age children to see the Living Historians bringing these historical characters to life,” Clark said. 

Other Celebrate St. James endeavors include art exhibits, art classes, senior fitness classes, comedy shows, a virtual book club, various children’s events, a classic film series, and summer concerts at Celebrate Park this summer. 

St. James Community Cultural Arts Center is located at 176 Second Street, 2nd floor (no elevator), in St. James. Tickets to Living History: Abraham Lincoln are $25 per person, $20 for members, $10 children ages 10 and up. The event will be followed by a Q&A and refreshments will be served. For more information, visit www.celebratestjames.org or call 631-984-0201.

St. James residents had a new park to visit along Lake Avenue this summer. On Tuesday, Oct. 18, elected officials, members of Celebrate St. James, donors and residents came together at Celebrate Park for an official dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Oct. 18 marked the official dedication of Celebrate Park in St. James. Photo by Rita J. Egan

The park sits where the Irish Viking pub was once located. The establishment had been closed for nearly a decade when Town of Smithtown officials considered tearing it down to make way for a park and municipal parking lot. When the bar was put up on a tax lien, the town worked with Suffolk County to acquire it through an intergovernmental contract.

Volunteers from the cultural arts organization Celebrate St. James worked with elected officials during the design and construction of the park, including soliciting donations for the brick walkways that feature stones embossed with local families’ names and special messages from residents. 

In November 2020, Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R), other elected officials and members of the community broke ground and officially unveiled the plans for the park. On Oct. 18, among those Wehrheim thanked was Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) for his part in making the park happen. Bellone was unable to be in attendance due to dealing with the recent county cyberattack issues. The town supervisor said everyone had a part in making the park a reality.

“This day marks completion of the third and final phase of the revitalization efforts in St. James,” Wehrheim said, adding that the town is working on a connection to the sewer line installed under Lake Avenue a few years ago.

The town supervisor said before he took office in 2017, he had counted 33 vacant storefronts on Lake — now there are less than a handful. With more people strolling the street, kids riding their bikes, the park and more, he compared it to a Norman Rockwell picture.

“Today we can see what can happen when a community, the good people who call it home and local levels of government all work together as one,” he said. “Today we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor and officially welcome the people of this great town to Celebrate Park.”

Today we can see what can happen when a community, the good people who call it home and local levels of government all work together as one.”

— Ed Wehrheim

Wehrheim credited the Celebrate St. James volunteers, especially former president Natalie Weinstein and current president Patricia Clark, for being a big part of the process.

Weinstein said the park came to fruition due to an “unusual administration and an unusual group of volunteers.”

“Both embody the vision of economic revitalization,” she said. “Both are committed to progress, and both attract the talent and cooperation of some pretty amazing people.”

Weinstein also credited St. James residents due to their “generous donations of dollars, service and talents.”

“We know St. James has always been a special place,” the resident of nearly 50 years said. “This little sleepy hamlet of Smithtown has a history worth sharing and perpetuating. It has been home to a famous architect [Stanford White], a New York City mayor [William Gaynor], countless vaudevillians and many hardworking people who, in good times and bad, helped their neighbors.”

Weinstein said the park was aptly named by the town’s public information officer Nicole Garguilo, a lifelong resident of St. James.

“Today we cut a ribbon to symbolically and actually turn a vision into reality, taking an eyesore in our community and transforming it into a place of pride for all, now and in the future,” Weinstein said.

Clark said in 2017, every time she drove through Lake Avenue and other parts of town and see so many empty storefronts, she thought, “This place is dying.” Later she discovered Weinstein and Celebrate St. James vice presidents Arline Goldstein and Jack Ader had noticed the same as she did and approached town officials to see how they could help revitalize St. James.

She said in addition to working on the park, Celebrate St. James aims to turn the former Calderone theater on Second Avenue into the St. James Community Cultural Arts Center.

“Today, we see our dream of this park become reality, and now we at Celebrate are once again on the verge of a community endeavor of unique proportions,” Clark said. “Once again it is time to come together to plan for the future for our children, for our seniors and for ourselves. Now is the time to preserve and cherish the past on which we build a future to serve the town for generations to come.”

Mick Moloney

Celebrate St. James welcomes award-winning musician, recording artist and author Mick Moloney to the St. James Community Cultural Arts Center, 176 Second St., St. James  on Friday, Dec. 3 from 7 to 9 p.m. Moloney will present an informative talk titled Exploring Our Roots — Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley on the wonderful Irish and Jewish collaborations that contribute to the history of musical theater. Donation of $25, $20 seniors. Refreshments will be served. For reservations, call 631-984-0201.

'Our Flag Was Still There' by Jack Ader

In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Celebrate St. James will present an art exhibit at the historic Calderone Theater, 176 Second St., (second floor), St. James with an opening reception on Sunday, Sept. 12 at 11 a.m. Raffle prizes & 50/50 raffle. Refreshments will be served. Funds raised will go to the St. James 9/11 Memorial Fund and Save the St. James Theater Fund. For more information, call 631-984-0201 or visit www.celebratestjames.org.

Save the date! The St. James Fire Department Engine Company #1 will be spearheading a St. James Community Holiday Gift & Toy Drive-Thru at Gyrodyne/Flowerfield on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 5 and 6 from 12 to 4 p.m.

Visitors will enter via the Gyrodyne entrance on Route 25A. Admission is free but please bring an unwrapped toy or gift card to donate.

Santa will be there on a Fire Engine (aka sleigh) to allow for parents to snap a photo of “the Big Guy” with their children, socially distanced of course! There will be live holiday music playing throughout the day, courtesy of Celebrate St. James and funded by a grant from the Suffolk County Department of Parks, and a mailbox in which kids can mail their letters to Santa.

All proceeds will be distributed by the Smithtown Township Emergency Food Pantry to families and children in our community so every child will have a happy holiday. (CDC COVID guidelines will be followed.) For more information or questions, email [email protected].

Elected officials and community members break ground at the spot of the soon-to-be Celebrate Park in St. James. Photo by Julianne Mosher

As part of the Lake Avenue revitalization project in St. James, Celebrate Park is well under way to bring an inviting space to local residents.

Rendering of the planned Celebrate Park in St. James. Rendering from Town of Smithtown

On Wednesday, Nov. 4, Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) joined other elected officials and members of the community to break ground at the soon-to-be Celebrate Park. The new park will sit on the lot formerly occupied by the Irish Viking bar located at 369 Lake Ave. and is part of an $8 million rebuild of St. James’ downtown.

During the press conference, Wehrheim said the project is seven months ahead of schedule.

“We are seeing the rebirth of this beautiful community,” he said. “Vacancies are down, assessed values are up and people are beginning to walk up and down Main Street again.”

The property where the bar sits was put up on a tax lien, and the town and Suffolk County worked together to acquire it through an intergovernmental contract. The space will eventually house a small park and municipal parking lot. The Lake Avenue entrance into the park will be through an arched ceremonial gateway flanked with informational brick piers. A clock will be centered at the top of the arch.

“The park is designed to provide a flexible inviting public space that is defined by classical elements that reflect the rich history of buildings and places in our Historic St. James Cultural and Arts District, and that will be a centerpiece of the downtown revitalization,” said Bob Retnauer, architect with RDA Landscape Architecture of St. James.

Celebrate Park is planned to be arranged around a classical ellipse walkway with the outer edge bordered by brick seat walls. The bricks can be engraved within the walkways and are available for purchase to commemorate families and residents. Festival lights will be hung across the park to create a welcoming atmosphere for anyone who visits.

Natalie Weinstein, president of Celebrate St. James, said the collaboration of local government and volunteers may seem unusual but, by working together, the vision of economic revitalization is getting close.

“It has been a bumpy road, as progress usually is, but when all the bumps are gone  — as they soon will be — we can look back at this time and know we have done the right thing for our town, today and for its future,” she said.

Demolition of the Irish Viking bar began after the groundbreaking. According to Weinstein, the project should be completed by next spring.

Kevin McEvoy's free art history lectures draw a crowd.

On the evening of Jan. 8, the Town of Smithtown held its first public hearing about the subdivision and development for the Flowerfield/Gyrodyne property on Route 25A in St. James. The plan, however, has already had a notable impact on the community.  

Prior to Wednesday night’s meeting, members of a vibrant local art community with studio space at Gyrodyne disbanded, leaving some artists searching for a new home.  

Kevin McEvoy, president and art director for The Atelier at Flowerfield, resigned Jan. 2. The studio’s operations director, youth program coordinator, two administrators and four teachers also resigned, he said, walking out along with more than 93 students. McEvoy is seeking new space in other towns. He was unable to respond to request for comments for legal reasons but did not deny that the subdivision and development situation was a factor. 

The Atelier trustee Barbara Beltrami, one of six trustees, said Monday’s classes were canceled, but the studio is still open for business. She expects operations to resume under a new director, when they find one.   

“Some classes are still functioning,” she said. “People should check with The Atelier for further information by calling 631-250-9009.” 

The Atelier website lacked information about the resignations. Its class schedule still lists McEvoy as instructor for 10 out of 21 classes in the winter schedule. Sources said that all but two teachers are gone.

Kevin McEvoy paints a portrait. The classically trained artist resigned Jan. 2 as president and art director of the Flowerfield Atelier.

 Paul Lamb serves as chairman for The Atelier at Flowerfield. He also has been Gyrodyne’s chairman of the board since 1999. Lamb, a lawyer with an office in Melville, was traveling and did not respond to messages left with requests for comment about the subdivision plans impact on the art community.  

Gary Fitlin, Gyrodyne’s CEO, president, CFO and treasurer, said in a phone interview the company is laying low until after the public hearings. He explained that the existing facilities will remain intact, when and if the project is ultimately approved by the town. Gyrodyne tenants, he said, will not be impacted by the subdivision development. The proposed 150-room hotel, two assisted living centers, two separate medical office parks and a new sewage treatment system, he said, will be located on the site’s undeveloped land.

“It is all very positive for our tenants,” he said. “The subdivision doesn’t impact them, its beneficial to our current tenants because it increases their opportunities.”

Sama Millwork, a fine quality handmade cabinet maker has been located at Gyrodyne for 28 years. John Sama said that he doesn’t expect any impact from the subdivision/development plans. 

“I’ve been hearing about this for a decade,” he said. “I’ll likely be retired by the time it happens.”

Vinny Galanti owns Picante Tex Mex, a Mexican deli and food truck kitchen that’s been located on the site for the last year. He said more development could be good for his operation. 

But for McEvoy and his following, doors have closed.

McEvoy and musicians perform in the atelier’s fine art library and cafe to celebrate its opening.

A native Long Islander, McEvoy was classically trained as an artist in the Charles Cecil studios in Florence, Italy. He opened the studio in the spring of 2016 with a vision to revive the classical drawing and painting techniques and traditions taught for centuries in Europe. In addition to offering instruction and hosting exhibitions of local, national and internationally renowned artists, he incorporated free art history lectures open to the community. The events typically drew large crowds. The studio recently renovated a portion of its space to create a library and café comprised of special collection of thousands of fine art books. McEvoy feverishly sketched in charcoal on the building’s cinder block walls the design he envisioned for the library space. Once the studio was gifted a collection of art books, construction was completed.

In previous interviews, McEvoy said that his hope for the library was to offer artists a space where they could share ideas and offer inspiration to each other. McEvoy also had architectural renderings created to convert the outdoor space surrounding the studio into a less industrial, more inviting garden space.

McEvoy paints with fellow artists while musicians perform at the Jazz Loft in Stony Brook.

It’s unclear how The Atelier’s unique original mission and vision will change with new leadership.  

The Atelier news comes at a time when the St. James community and its Celebrate St. James campaign is gearing up for revitalization by emphasizing the arts. Ironically, those plans hinge upon Gyrodyne’s development.  

Since the project would require the construction of a new wastewater treatment facility, town officials have been expecting to use the new plant to serve the Lake Avenue business district. 

“The town has had talks with the folks at Gyrodyne regarding their sewer treatment plant and the Lake Avenue business district, and they verbally indicated they would be willing to build their facility to accommodate Lake Avenue,” said Smithtown council member Tom Lohmann (R). “Additionally, the town received funding from Sen. [John] Flanagan [(R-East Northport)], $3.9 million, so we could install a sewer line when we start the Lake Avenue project, with the expectation we would be connecting to their plant.”

Representatives from Celebrate St. James, a group focused on the revival of the community’s art district, is also depending upon the Gyrodyne sewage treatment plant. 

“If we don’t connect, the town has to find a new location and get approvals from local, state agencies and health departments, which would take not months or years, it could take decades,” said its president, Natalie Weinstein.