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Michael Tessler

Dom Famularo

By Michael Tessler

In the face of great loss, we often grapple with the inexplicable question of how someone so full of life could ever truly be gone. These past few days, I have wrestled with this question, trying to reconcile the vibrant spirit of Dom Famularo with the solemn reality of his passing on Sept. 27 at the age of 70.

Undoubtedly, there will be countless tributes to the legacy of this marvel of a man. I’m sharing with you just one experience on how he changed the trajectory of my life.

I first had the privilege of meeting Mr. Famularo when I was just a fourth-grader. His son and I became fast friends. His eldest son proudly declared his dad was famous. Turns out, he was telling the truth! 

Mr. Famularo was one of the greatest drummers of our time, described as the “global ambassador of drumming” who traveled the world teaching his craft. His students and admirers included famous names from nearly every genre of music and hailed from every habitable continent.

He was more than a musician. He was a motivational speaker, an entrepreneur, and a public servant. His generosity knew no bounds, touching the lives of countless individuals. 

He was a world-traveler, a man who often knew more about a place than the locals who called it home. He was a student of history, who somehow found time to be well-read on subjects that spanned all eras of history.

For years, I’ve had the good fortune to consider myself an honorary Famularo. Their cousins felt like my cousins, and we shared countless family gatherings and experiences that bound us together. 

There was a time when I moved back to New York, feeling lost in life. I had no place to live, no job, no college degree, and no clear direction. It was Dom and his incredible wife Charmaine who took me in, offering me a bed and ensuring I had something to eat.

It was Mr. Famularo who inadvertently kickstarted my film career. One morning while I was moping in their kitchen, ready to throw in the towel on a fruitless job hunt, he gave me a pep talk and suggested I peruse the Classifieds in the Port Times Record. It was there that I found my job selling advertisements that would eventually lead to my work on TBR News Media’s first feature film. 

Those were tough days, filled with long hours and a juggling act of night classes at a community college, full-time work, and a part-time job at a pawn shop on the weekends. Yet, every morning as I quietly had breakfast and sipped on coffee, Dom would come downstairs, as if ready for battle, energized and full of life, exclaiming, “MIKEY BOY! IT IS A BEAUTIFUL MORNING!”

Living with Dom answered the question, “Is he really like this ALL the time?” The answer was an unequivocal yes. Dom’s magic lay in his ability to light up a room with his presence, to make everyone feel like they were the most important person in the world. Quick-witted, smart, and full of innuendo, he had the remarkable ability to make even those who were upset with him burst into laughter and be in awe of his charm.

Despite being a famous musician with a massive international fanbase, Dom Famularo gave himself wholeheartedly to this community. He somehow found time to serve on committees, becoming an expert on matters as mundane as metered parking. Even in his final months, he found the strength to go to Village Hall and confront a bully. He was a public servant, a true advocate for his community, a relentless voice for reason, kindness, and doing what is right. 

But Dom’s secret power was not his public speaking ability, his magnificent drumming, nor his uncanny ability to make you feel like the most important person in the world. Of all the things to admire about Dom Famularo, it was his family that shone the brightest. 

Dom’s parents were remarkable, a testament to the greatest generation. He and his siblings carried forward their legacy. I’d never seen such a close-knit and special family before. His pride and joy were his three boys. Each unique, kind, brilliant, generous, and, like their father, hysterical. 

Of all his great achievements, none rivals marrying Charmaine. He would be the first to admit that she was his better half. In addition to raising three incredible boys, she managed to build Dom’s drumming empire, and has always been his secret weapon. Her strength, her heart, and her remarkable resilience never stops leaving me in awe.  

Our last conversation was at the beginning of summer. Somehow, despite a ferocious battle with cancer, he found the energy to greet me with that same familiar “MIKEY BOY!” that I had heard countless times before. I will treasure that conversation forever.

Mr. Famularo, you gave me a home when I had none. You gave me a purpose when I was lost. You believed in me before I believed in myself. You spent your life hoping to leave a mark, to make a difference, to live relentlessly — you did more than that. You’ve inspired countless others to do the same. You are magnificent, the embodiment of magic, and more than anything you are loved now and forever.

So I’ve found the answer to my question. Dom’s mantle is not one that any single individual will ever be able to carry, but between all of us who knew him and have loved him — we will ensure his light will never diminish. As we find a way to move onward, Dom moves upward. Serving now as a great North Star, reminding us just how bright we can shine…if only we’re willing to share our light.

From left, Michael and Deborah Livering and Terri Morrissey with an announcement that PAS will reopen in September. Photo from PAS

By Michael Tessler

What is a community without theatre? Theatre brings us comfort, joy, a sense of wonder, togetherness, and an appreciation for life. For children, especially those lucky enough to find themselves on stage, it is a great escape and a wonderful place to learn about humanity and its many expressions. It is a safe way to learn and explore. For theatre kids like me, it is a home away from home and the place you can truly feel most like yourself. 

For so many children in our community, the Performing Arts Studio (PAS) of New York at 224 East Main Street in Port Jefferson is the beating heart of our hometown. Mayor Margot Garant has called it a “hidden gem.” Right now, this incredible staple of our village is in need of our help. 

For 25 years, a dynamic trio who has brought music, laughter, tears, and every imaginable expression of the arts to a small but magical theatre in Port Jefferson. They are a gift to this community. Deborah and Michael Livering  and Terri Morrissey were some of the first people to ever believe in me. They are true professionals. Class acts who have impeccable talent and have chosen to dedicate their lives to helping young performers find themselves and immerse themselves in all the wonder and adventure theatre has to offer. 

This small studio is unique. Its black box stage is cozy but limitless. Countless children have spent their days after school and summer breaks discovering themselves and the magic of the arts. This is a place where lifelong friends are made. I would know; even two decades later and my old cast members still feel like family. 

Times Beacon Record News Media has been the beneficiary of PAS’ great talent as well; our paper’s first original film One Life to Give and its sequel, Traitor, featured several veteran actors trained at PAS including Dave Morrissey, Jr. and Max Golub.

A veteran of Broadway, Deborah Livering has taken her remarkable voice and talent and used it to uplift a new generation of performers. Her husband Michael is a master of the keyboard and Miss Terri is the most beautiful and pure soul you’ll ever meet — the lessons she’s taught me and countless other children have guided us through life and endure long after curtain call.

PAS has been closed due to COVID-19 since March of 2020 and forced to downsize. The show must go on and our friends at PAS need our help. They’ve launched a GoFundMe with plans to reopen in September and the community has already been pouring in with words of encouragement and much needed donations. 

Theatre isn’t just great entertainment. It is the embodiment of community — countless individuals coming together to make something truly magical. Let’s help make sure live theatre makes a roaring comeback in Port Jefferson. You can support PAS by donating at https://gofund.me/89cc325e.

I’d also strongly encourage you to visit my dear friend Jeffrey Sanzel and the amazing folks at Theatre Three as they return to live shows. How blessed we are as a community to have stages filled with so much love and endless talent. Tickets are on sale now! 

Michael Tessler is a film and television producer living in Los Angeles. He previously served as Director of Media Productions for TBR News Media and is a proud PAS alum.

BJ Intini and Lois Reboli of the Reboli Center accept the Community Recognition Award with presenter Beverly C. Tyler

CELEBRATING THE THREE VILLAGE COMMUNITY

The Three Village Historical Society held its 42nd annual Awards Celebration at the Three Village Inn in Stony Brook on March 27. The evening recognized volunteers, local businesses, society members and area residents who have made significant contributions to help preserve the shared heritage within the Three Village area. Honored guests included the Setauket Harbor Task Force, Michael Tessler, Leah S. Dunaief, Patricia Yantz, Morton Rosen, Steven G. Fontana, the Reboli Center for Art and History, Maura and Matthew Dunn of The Holly Tree House, Marcia Seaman and the Prestia family of Bagel Express. Legislator Kara Hahn and Councilwoman Valerie Cartright also attended to honor the winners.

All photos by Beverly C. Tyler

From left, Michael Tessler and best friend Jonathan Rabeno check out the sights and sounds of Hollywood. Photo from Michael Tessler

By Michael Tessler

Michael Tessler

Adulting is hard. This is a fact the universe likes to remind me of time and time again. Just when you think you’ve mastered it … BAM! you discover that you can’t buy a used, off-brand Roomba online and expect it to work for more than a week (it is now a glorified doorstop that makes me look way more successful than I am). 

Seriously though, every time I begin to feel comfortable adulting, I receive an absurd reminder that I am totally unequipped to cope with the actual stresses of figuring out what the heck an IRS 1095-A form is.

In the chaos of this transition, there are some victories. Both of my apartment’s fire alarms are incredibly sensitive and wail at the slightest inkling that I’m frying up turkey bacon. Using my adulting skills (and The Force) I’ve repurposed my replica Luke Skywalker lightsaber and have placed it in the living room so we can easily shut off the fire alarm, which would otherwise require a ladder. These small victories keep me going until the existential dread kicks in … this moment may be the nearest I will ever get to being an actual Jedi, but it is better than nothing.

During my ongoing efforts to embrace and tackle adulthood, I made a leap of faith by hosting not just one of my friends but three of them at the same time. In my mind, I was opening a sleepaway camp complete with preplanned activities, snack times and lots of sugar-free popsicles. When opening a sleepaway camp for your friends, be wary … they’ll probably want to actually do vacation things.

After you move across the country twice, it can be pretty difficult to maintain long-distance friendships. We as people tend to evolve and grow apart when placed far away from one another and/or while going through major life changes. Living in Los Angeles, work tends to get in the way of just about everything else. The extraordinary cost of living makes it hard to find time to take care of yourself let alone be there for others. Work, relationships, dreaded time zones … all can easily become excuses to disconnect. For me though, the greater the distance the more I begin to see which friendships matter and which don’t.

Best friends are the individuals you can go without seeing for months or even years and pick up right where you left off. They’re the ones who see your potential when you cannot. They know me better than I know myself. So thank you to my friends, the ones who have guided me on my path and inspired me through their own successes and comebacks. My friends are all pretty unique. Each occupies a special place in my heart. Their combined chemistry can be exhausting sometimes but also wildly entertaining (except if you’re our Uber driver in which case I’m so sorry).

Port Jefferson is just about as small as a small town can be. What’s most impressive about this community is, despite its smallness, the friendships made during the Port Jeff chapter of my life have proven to be the most lasting and most meaningful. I’m saying this because at present I’ve got three of my best friends in the world squeezed into my Hollywood apartment occupying an air mattress, my mattress and the couch, respectively. (So sorry to my roommate Andrew.) It’s not quite summer camp, but it sure is fun being back with the gang.

We’re about to head to Venice Beach. My best friend Jon and I have committed to wearing matching cat swimsuits. That should hopefully distract the rest of my friends from the $85 parking ticket they already got and the fact that I only own three blankets and there’s four people here. But hey, at least we’re together!

Catch Open Mike on a monthly basis in TBR News Media’s Arts & Lifestyles.

Mort Rosen, pictured at last year’s Spirits Tour, will be bestowed the Gayle Becher Memorial Award. Photo by Anthony White

By Donna Newman

On Wednesday, March 27, the Three Village Historical Society will host its 42nd annual Awards Dinner honoring volunteers, local businesses, society members, area residents and youngsters who have made significant contributions helping to preserve the shared heritage within the Three Village area. 

After four decades, one might wonder if it is getting more difficult to find honorees, especially because a person may only be honored once in a given category. TVHS President Steve Healy said it wasn’t a problem. 

“You would think that,” Healy said, “but it’s not difficult to find honorees. The Three Village area is packed with people who help others and contribute to their community. We are truly blessed. The society has just over 450 members … and we run more than 30 events and functions per year that bring in new volunteers and first-time attendees. Our membership grows organically through these events.”

Steven Fontana is this year’s recipient of the R. Sherman Mills Young Historian Award. Photo by Anthony White

Nominations come from TVHS members as well as the general public. Awards are given in a variety of areas, from significant contributions to the preservation and conservation of our natural environment, to fostering interest in local history, to the advancement of quality of life and pride of place, to dedicated service and generosity of volunteer time.

Nearly 30 nominations were received, according to Janette Handley, co-chair of the Awards Committee. She noted that the Robert Cushman Murphy Memorial Award, inaugurated in 1987, has only been bestowed 10 times.  

“That’s the award that we find difficult to give out,” Handley said. “We’re very careful to whom we give that award.” 

As described on the awards dinner invitation, it is made “in recognition of significant contributions to the preservation and conservation of our natural environment and to the fostering of a personal identification with the natural heritage of the Three Villages.”

It will be awarded this year to the Setauket Harbor Task Force, formed with the goal of improving water quality in Setauket Harbor, and whose members have held three Setauket Harbor Days to raise awareness for that endeavor.  

TBR’s own Michael Tessler will receive the Kate Wheeler Strong Memorial Award for his creation – together with TBR News Media – of the film “One Life to Give.” This historical re-enactment of little known events during the American Revolution does much to publicize the important role played by area residents. Handley spoke of how pleased Tessler was to receive the notification email.

“Not having a current address, we emailed him,” Handley said. “He’s in California. We got a wonderful email back saying he’s very sorry he can’t come, but he would like to do a video ‘Thank You.’ That’s the first time we’ve had anything like that.” 

“Though I’m far away living in Los Angeles, the spirit of Setauket and its citizen spies remain a guiding compass on my own personal journey to preserve history through multiplatform storytelling,” said Tessler.

According to the Awards Committee report, the TVHS Community Award, when bestowed, is “in appreciation of valuable contributions to the advancement of the quality of life in the Three Villages and the fostering of pride in the rich historical heritage of our homes and lands.” This year it will go to Leah Dunaief, publisher of TBR News Media, but Handley clarified that the recipient is the individual, apart from the position she holds. 

“Leah has received many awards on behalf of the paper, but this award is not for the paper. Leah is still there – and expanding,” said Handley. “She’s involved in so many things, and we feel very strongly that this award is for her.” 

The Maggie Gillie Memorial Award goes to a society member. This year Patty Yantz will be recognized for her many years of service. Yantz has held the offices of president and vice president, and has co-chaired the society’s biggest annual fundraiser – the Candlelight House Tour – for the last five years. 

The Gayle Becher Memorial Award goes to a volunteer. It will honor Morton Rosen for his generosity of spirit, taking part in many society events over the years, including the annual Spirits Tour, where he has enacted at least 11 historical figures. 

“The award is especially meaningful to me,” Rosen said, “because [my wife] Bernice and I worked with Gayle when she organized the Discovery Camp Days program of summer activities for children.”  

Steven Fontana, a sophomore at Ward Melville High School, is this year’s honoree for the R. Sherman Mills Young Historian Award, presented for contributions to the society by a young person. Steven has assisted with traffic flow at many society events over the past four years.

Four community award certificates will be handed out as well. 

The first, for repurposing a building used as a commercial structure in a way that contributes to the historic beauty of the area, will be awarded to The Reboli Center, 64 Main St., Stony Brook for the conversion of a historic bank building to a community center for the enjoyment of art and history. 

The second, for house restoration or renovation and preservation in keeping with original architectural integrity, will be awarded to Maura and Matthew Dunn for their home, The Holly Tree House, at 246 Christian Ave. in Stony Brook. 

The third award, the President’s Volunteer Certificate, goes to Marcia Seaman for her dedication to her volunteer bookkeeping position at the society for the past five years. 

The fourth, a Special Community Service Award, will go to David Prestia and his family, owners of Bagel Express and Express Catering in East Setauket, for their generous donations of food for many society events over the years. 

The Awards Dinner will be held at the Three Village Inn, 150 Main St., Stony Brook from 6 to 9 p.m. on March 27. A three-course dinner will be served, including a Caesar salad with rosemary focaccia croutons, choice of entree (pan-seared salmon with baby spinach and beurre blanc sauce, seared breast of free-range chicken with haricots verts and saffron potatoes or sliced Chateau steak with red wine sauce with Yukon Gold potato puree and baby carrots) and an apple crumb tartlet with whipped cream for dessert. The evening will feature a cash bar and eight raffle prizes. 

Please join TVHS in honoring these worthy awardees. Tickets are $65 per person, $60 members. To order, visit www.TVHS.org or call 631-751-3730.

 

By Michael Tessler

Michael Tessler

Today marks one year since my weight loss journey began. At my heaviest, I weighed 356 pounds and had transitioned from an already uncomfortable diagnosis of morbid obesity to the dreaded diagnosis of extreme morbid obesity, thus making me the literal opposite of an extreme sports athlete. You might have a food problem when the phrase “quitting cold turkey” makes you a little hungry.

In all seriousness — at just 24 years old, I was living a frightening reality. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, occasional chest pains … my body was telling me I was going to die, and it was going to happen fast if I didn’t change soon. Doctors told me the same thing and despite being successful in regularly helping others, I seemed absolutely incapable of helping myself. 

My weight was controlling every aspect of my life. Time and time again I embarked on unhealthy and unrealistic efforts to magically lose all of my weight. Each time I refused to actually change my lifestyle. These attempts were focused on instant gratification, and I refused to consider or acknowledge the reality of my food addiction and where these weight problems likely stemmed from. 

Crash diets, feel good unused gym memberships and diets of deprivation wasted years of my life and wreaked havoc on my body. Each time I’d not only gain back the weight I had lost, but I would become heavier than I was when I had started. This was self-sabotage at its worst.

Finally, I had my aha moment. One family member staged a silent intervention. Without speaking a single word she set me down a radical new path — one that I can comfortably say has saved my life. My niece was less than 2 months old when my sister-in-law asked me to watch her for an hour or two. 

Baby Lilly didn’t weigh much at all. Despite changing her diaper and feeding her I couldn’t seem to make her happy. So I picked her up and starting singing. We danced around the living room and I rocked her back and forth. Her crying subsided as we passed a big mirror hanging on the wall. I didn’t recognize the man holding my niece in the reflection. 

Michael Tessler with his beautiful little motivator, Lilly Rose Tessler. Photo from M. Tessler

His face was red, sweaty, and the simple act of holding a newborn child had him panting for breath. He didn’t even look like me … but this was my reality. Holding Lilly, all I could think about is all the memories and experiences I’d miss in this little girl’s life unless I did something drastic, unless I was really willing to do whatever it’d take to change. 

So rather than waiting another day I got to work. I cleaned my pantry and refrigerator right then and there and went for my first walk that night, adding more and more steps each time. 

I began some serious research, reached out to an amazing therapist (special thanks to Jill Haire) and dedicated myself to not just combatting my obesity but understanding why and how I got to that point in the first place.

Losing 54 pounds, going on daily walks/runs and showing myself that I could truly change my lifestyle, I made a big decision. After consulting with my doctors, I came to the conclusion that the best way for me to permanently maintain this weight loss would be with the assistance of bariatric surgery. This would be a tool and not a solution to help me maintain my healthy lifestyle. 

It has required constant vigilance and a commitment to health and transparency — but as of March 5 I’ve lost a total of 140 pounds and, thanks to little Lilly, am finally living the life I deserve. My dreams and life are no longer sedentary as I hike in the hills of Hollywood. So to whoever you are and whatever your struggle, keep moving forward! Don’t wait for tomorrow to start living your life.

Catch Open Mike on a monthly basis in TBR News Media’s Arts & Lifestyles.

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132 pounds lost, a new life gained - Michael Tessler in a before and after photo

By Michael Tessler

We’ve got quite a bit to catch up on. It has been over a year since I published what I thought was the last Open Mike column. In that time I’ve lived what feels like a dozen lives. 

I’ve moved across the country twice; hosted a radio program; attended the premiere of our first feature film at the prestigious Stony Brook University Staller Center; helped produced an underwater television special starring Sir Richard Branson and the grandson of ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau; successfully filmed several historic short films taking place in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries; and was brought on as a ghostwriter for a compelling biography for a fitness guru/entrepreneur in Atlanta. 

Shortly thereafter I began developing an online school for emotional intelligence and am in the process of writing a corresponding children’s book. Interspersed between all that I founded my own production company, announced my candidacy for a local councilman position and, perhaps most importantly, lost 132 pounds in my effort to live a healthier and happier life.

It has been a long, hard and wonderful year riddled with obstacles and seemingly insurmountable odds. Reflecting back on it all, it doesn’t quite feel real. I’m writing all this because I’m exhausted and a little frustrated at the pace of things lately. Sometimes we as people have to force ourselves to look at our progress rather than just our mistakes or perceived failures. Don’t worry, I make plenty of mistakes too and have been the proud beneficiary of a practical education of failed efforts and misguided attempts.

Presently, I’m at home sitting in a very comfortable leather chair several blocks south from the Hollywood sign. Internally, I’m making the most difficult Los Angeles decision a person can make: protein shake or grilled chicken with avocado? God, what I’d do for a New York bagel.

Being a New Yorker in Los Angeles is a lucrative thing. You’ve got the hustle, honesty and helium-like ego required to keep up and in some cases rise above the fast-paced, self-obsessed world of glamour, fame and film. I’ve been here just three months so far. It truly feels like a lifetime. 

This city is quite a change of pace from Orlando where I lived for nine months after my dad’s fourth brain surgery. Being so far away from family during such a difficult time just didn’t settle right. I’m blessed I was able to pick up my life and move down south. After a whirlwind of a time in Florida that included some serious self-reflection and losing 132 lb (a column for another time), a very scary experience with internal bleeding and lots of personal development, my family finally said it was time for me to pursue my dreams and to stop sleeping on their couch.

From my rooftop you’ve got an ideal view of the Hollywood sign and the massive Netflix building. Sometimes I swear these monuments stare me down — as if to taunt with motivation. These two icons represent the new and old of an ever-evolving industry. Every decision I make must be done to create not just forward professional momentum in the film/television industry that is, but also upward professional propulsion toward the film/television that will be. This can be frustrating and conflicting at times.

My apartment complex is brand new. Since my roommate is from Texas, neither of us were able to visit the place before signing the lease. It is a competitive process to find the right location and price. “Adulting” is hard. Up until the moment my car pulled up, I was not entirely convinced the place was real. Was half-expecting we’d find an abandoned auto body shop or sketchy cash-only “jewelry” store. Thankfully, my internal optimist prevailed.

It’s a nice place, almost too nice — always imagined my first place in Hollywood would have at least some kind of varmint living in the walls. Nothing yet, just very annoying ice cream trucks and the occasional scream in the distance — we live near a high school so it’s hard to tell whether it is an excitable soccer mom or a murder most foul. Gotta love city living. Now that I’m a pseudo-grownup, all of our furniture matches one style instead of the typical postcollegiate hodgepodge of couches and chairs acquired curbside on Sheep Pasture Road in Port Jefferson. This is progress, people.

While I’ve always loved the IDEA of being an adult — this notion that my workday would end with a copy of the Wall Street Journal in my hands, Bing Crosby on the record player and myself looking dapper in tweed jacket with elbow patches is quite different than the reality. Just yesterday I found myself alternating between opening bills and handwashing a massive stack of dishes that were so dirty even the dishwasher quit. This of course occurred while I was blasting SpongeBob reruns on my television. I’m 25 years old and I’ll defend SpongeBob till the day I die.

In all the many changes this year brought, I’m often reminded of where it came from. Part of why I’m bringing Open Mike back is because it was this community that raised me. You paid the taxes that paid for my schooling — you might as well see some return benefit in the form of my column.

Heidi, our amazing leisure editor is going to throw a fit when she sees how long this so let me wrap it up.

What story do you leave behind in a city of stars and storytellers? For some it’d be the Oscars or Emmy perhaps. For me? I’d like to do something to make my hometown proud. Something worthy of a plaque on the Hall of Fame at Port Jeff High School. I know that sounds silly, but where you come from and never allowing distance or success to make you forget — that is what I strive for. All of my good fortune, my confidence and dreams began because of the place and people who raised me. So I give my everlasting thanks and gratitude to you. Home is always home, so yes, Hooray for Hollywood … but most importantly, GO ROYALS!

Catch Open Mike on a monthly basis in TBR News Media’s Arts & Lifestyles.

By Heidi Sutton

The 1,000-seat theater at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center was filled to capacity last Sunday night as the community came out in droves to celebrate the first screening of TBR News Media’s feature-length film, “One Life to Give.” And what a celebration it was.

“I have to say this exceeds our highest expectations. We are so thrilled,” said TBR News Media publisher Leah Dunaief, scanning the packed house as she welcomed the audience to “what has been a year’s adventure.”

“I am privileged to be the publisher of six hometown papers, a website, a Facebook page and, now, executive producer of a movie,” she beamed.

TBR News Media publisher Leah Dunaief addresses the audience.

Dunaief set the stage for what would be a wonderful evening. “I’m inviting you now to leave behind politics and current affairs and come with me back in time more than two centuries to the earliest days of the beginning of our country — the start of the American Revolution.”

“We live in the cradle of history and I hope that when you leave tonight you will feel an immense pride in coming from this area,” she continued. “The people who lived here some 240 years ago were people just like us. They were looking to have a good life, they were looking to raise their children.” Instead, according to Dunaief, they found themselves occupied by the British under King George III for the longest period of time.

Filmed entirely on location on the North Shore in 16 days, the film tells the story of schoolteacher turned spy Nathan Hale and how his capture and ultimate death by hanging in 1776 at the age of 21 led to the development of an elaborate spy ring in Setauket — the Culper spies — in an effort to help Gen. George Washington win the Revolutionary War.

Scenes were shot on location at Benner’s Farm in East Setauket, the William Miller House in Miller Place, the Sherwood-Jayne Farm, Thompson House and Caroline Church of Brookhaven  in Setauket and East Beach in Port Jefferson with many local actors and extras, period costumes by Nan Guzzetta, props from “TURN” and a wonderful score by Mark Orton.

The film screening was preceded by a short behind-the-scenes documentary and was followed by a Q&A with Dunaief, producer and writer Michael Tessler and director and writer Benji Dunaief along with several key actors in the film — Dave Morrissey Jr. (Benjamin Tallmadge), Hans Paul Hendrickson (Nathan Hale), Jonathan Rabeno (John Chester) and David Gianopoulos (Gen. George Washington).

“It says quite a bit about our community that we could pack the Staller Center for a story that took place over two hundred years ago,” said Tessler, who grew up in Port Jefferson. “I hope everyone leaves the theater today thinking about these heroes — these ordinary residents of our community who went on to do some extraordinary things and made it so that we all have the luxury to sit here today and enjoy this show and the many freedoms that come with being an American.”

Director Benji Dunaief thanked the cast, crew and entire community for all their support. “In the beginning of this project I did not think we would be able to do a feature film, let alone a period piece. They say it takes a village, but I guess it actually takes three.”

From left, Jonathan Rabeno, David Gianopoulos, Hans Paul Hendrickson and Dave Morrissey Jr. field questions from the audience at the Q&A.

“Our cast … threw themselves 100 percent into trying to embody these characters, they learned as much as they could and were open to everything that was thrown at them — I’m blown away by this cast. They are just incredible,” he added.

“The positivity that was brought to the set every day made you really want to be in that environment,” said Rabeno, who said he was humbled to be there, and he was quick to thank all of the reenactors who helped the actors with their roles.

One of the more famous actors on the stage, Gianopoulos (“Air Force One”) was so impressed with the way the production was handled and often stopped by on his day off just to observe the camera shots. “I really enjoyed just watching and being an observer,” he said, adding “It was just such an honor [to be a part of the film] and to come back to Stony Brook and Setauket where I used to run around as a little kid and then to bring this story to life is just amazing.”

According to the director, the film has been making the rounds and was recently nominated for three awards at Emerson College’s prestigious Film Festival, the EVVY Awards, including Best Editing, Best Writing and Best Single Camera Direction and won for the last category. 

Reached after the screening, Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said the film was the essence of a sense of place. “I thought it was spectacular. I thought that it was one of the highlights of all of the years that I have lived in this community.”

He continued, “It all came together with local people and local places talking about our local history that changed the world and the fact that it was on the Staller Stage here at a public university that was made possible by the heroics of the people who were in the film both as actors today and the people that they portrayed.”

For those who missed last Sunday’s screening, the film will be shown again at the Long Island International Film Expo in Bellmore on July 18 from 2 to 4 p.m.

Filming for a sequel, tentatively titled “Traitor,” the story of John André who was a British Army officer hanged as a spy by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, will begin in two weeks.

Special thanks to Gold Coast Bank, Holiday Inn Express, Island Federal Savings Bank and Stony Brook University for making the evening’s screening possible.

Photos by Heidi Sutton and Rita J. Egan

Above, a battle scene shot at Benner’s Farm in East Setauket last summer.
Film showcased at SBU’s Staller Center for the Arts

By Talia Amorosano

The wait is over. On Sunday, June 24, an integral piece of U.S. and Long Island history will be revisited in the geographic location where much of it actually took place. At 7 p.m., the Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook, will host the first major public screening of “One Life to Give,” a film about the friendship and lives of young American heroes Benjamin Tallmadge and Nathan Hale, whose actions would lead to the creation of a Revolutionary spy ring based on the North Shore of Long Island.

Presented in the Main Theater, doors will open at 6:45 p.m. After a message from publisher Leah Dunaief, a short behind-the-scenes documentary will be shown followed by the main film screening. After a message from the creators, the evening will conclude with a Q&A with the cast and crew. Admission to the event is free, courtesy of TBR News Media. No reservations are necessary.

Cast and crew gather around a camera to view playback last summer.

The film’s co-producer and writer, Michael Tessler, describes the film as an exploration of historical events with a human focus. “After spending several years researching Benjamin Tallmadge and the other heroes featured in our film, I began to look at them not as detached names in a textbook, but more so as real people, with real stories that deserve to be told,” he said.

 Dave Morrissey, the actor who portrays Tallmadge in the film, describes his character as a “22-year-old kid,” who, despite his relative youth, is “focused” and “grounded,” propelled into action by the death of his brother at the hands of the British. “When something like that happens to you, you turn into a machine … into something else,” said Morrissey. “If you channel the energy and do what’s right, the possibilities are endless.”

By focusing a metaphorical macro lens on the multidimensional characters of Tallmadge and Hale, the film traverses consequential moments of American history: the Battle of Long Island, the anointing of America’s first spy and the events that would lead to the creation of the Culper Spy Ring, a group of men and women who risked their lives and status to gather British intelligence for the Revolutionary cause. 

Though Tessler notes that the film is, at its heart, a drama, he and the film’s director and co-producer Benji Dunaief stress the cast and crew’s commitment to accuracy in their interpretation of historical events. 

“The history comes second to the narrative in most [other film adaptations of historical events],” says Dunaief. “Our approach with this film was the exact opposite. We wanted to see where we could find narrative within [pre-existing] history.” 

“Many of the lines from the film were plucked directly from the diaries of the heroes themselves,” stated Tessler. “We worked closely with historians and Revolutionary War experts to achieve a level of accuracy usually unseen in such a local production.”

The fact that many scenes from the film were shot in the locations where the events of the real-life narrative took place helped give the visuals a sense of truthfulness and the actors a sense of purpose.

“The location took production to the next level. It’s really crazy how closely related the sets we used were to the actual history,” said Dunaief, who specifically recalls filming at a house that contained wood from Tallmadge’s actual home. “It helped to inspire people in the cast to get into character.” 

Morrissey recalls spending a particularly inspiring Fourth of July on Benner’s Farm in East Setauket. “We were filming the war scenes with all the reenactors … in the cabin that we built for the set … in the town where the battles and espionage had really happened. There were fireworks going on in the background while we sang shanty songs. It was amazing.”

The Continental Army shoots off a cannon at Benner’s Farm.

Though locational and historical accuracy played a large role in making filming a success, ultimately, Dunaief and Tessler credit the resonance of “One Life to Give” to an engaged and participatory community. “This was a community effort on all accounts,” says Dunaief, noting the roles that the Benners, Preservation Long Island, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, the Three Village Historical Society and others played to bring “One Life to Give” to fruition. 

The fact that the screening will take place at the Staller Center, in the heart of the community that helped bring the film about, represents a full-circle moment for the cast and crew. “We’re calling it a screening but it is so much more,” said Dunaief. “It is a fantastic example of how the community has stood by this film, from beginning to end.”

“We’re beyond honored and humbled to use a screen that has seen some of the greatest independent films in history,” said Tessler. “Stony Brook University has been a wonderful partner and extremely accommodating as we work to bring our local history to life.” 

Tessler projects confidence that viewers will leave the screening with a similar sense of gratitude. “This story shows a part of our history that I think will make the audience very proud of the place they call home.”

The future of ‘One Life to Give’: 

Michael Tessler and Benji Dunaief plan to show the film at festivals around the country, to conduct a series of screenings on Long Island, and to partner with local historical societies that can use it as an educational tool. Additionally, a sequel to “One Life to Give,” titled “Traitor,” is already in the works. Filming will begin this summer.

All photos by Michael Pawluk Photography

This dragoon coat, worn by actor Seth Numrich in AMC’s ‘TURN’ series, will be one of the items auctioned off on May 19. Photo courtesy of AMC

UPDATE:

I-Spy TURN Auction & Spy Themed Event for May 19 has been canceled
Due to the excessive rain and water on the property this week and with the prediction of additional rain over the weekend, the Three Village Historical Society feels it is in the best interest of guests and volunteers to postpone the event.  “We will reschedule I-Spy for a date in the future when we can provide the best experience for all. Cancelling this event was a hard decision to make and we apologize for any inconvenience,” said the Society.

By Michael Tessler

The Three Villages is home to a remarkable Revolutionary history that for over a century remained elusive to the American people … all except in Setauket where local lore and legend preserved a tale of spies, lies, petticoats and the exceptional bravery of everyday citizens who risked everything to liberate their homes and loved ones from tyranny.

General George Washington established the Culper Spy Ring in 1778 by recruiting Benjamin Tallmadge, a would-be lieutenant colonel and future congressman who called the quaint village of Setauket home. He recruited friends and schoolmates to establish a secret network, eluding the mighty British Empire that had been occupying Long Island since August 1776. Their efforts turned the tides of war in favor of the Continental Army and forever altered the course of history.

It wasn’t until 1939, when amateur historian Morton Pennypacker began to decipher secret aliases and uncover the true identities of the Culper spies. In 2014, the legend of the Culper Spy Ring finally entered the public zeitgeist with the premiere of AMC’s television drama series “TURN: Washington’s Spies,” a historical fiction piece that chronicled the Culper Spy Ring. 

“If it weren’t for Setauket, we would have lost the war,” declared Three Village Historical Society President Steve Healy. “If Washington had been caught, he would have been hanged. They stopped that, they saved the [American] Revolution.” And just as the Culper spies saved the fledgling United States, the Three Village Historical Society has made it its mission to keep the Culper Spy Ring and the local history of this community alive.

When “TURN” ended last August, the Three Village Historical Society reached out to the show and received a very special donation: props, costumes and other memorabilia actually featured on the show during the series’ four-season run. On Saturday, May 19, the public will have the opportunity to own these pieces of history during a silent auction fundraiser on the society’s front lawn starting at noon. Bidding closes at 4:15 p.m.

According to TVHS board members Cathy White and Janet McCauley, the most sought after item of the day will be a dragoon (18th century cavalry) coat worn by the actor who played Benjamin Tallmadge, Seth Numrich. “It’ll be fun to see where it ends up,” said McCauley. “Either way, it is a wonderful tool to educate our community about the area that they live in.” 

Other items in the auction include a reproduction of a 1730 Dublin Castle Long Land (1st Model) Brown Bess musket; autographed sheet music; a portrait of King George II, c. 1730, reproduction on canvas; as well as maps, letters and artifacts such as an astrolab, horn bowls, British army drumsticks, pewter pitchers, posters, an uncut sheet of Continental currency and more.

In addition to the silent auction, there is a flurry of activities scheduled throughout the day. From noon to 4 p.m. community educator Donna Smith, portraying Anna Smith Strong, will hold invisible ink demonstrations while noted children’s author Selene Castrovilla will be selling and signing copies of her books. Visitors will also have the opportunity to meet Benjamin Tallmadge, portrayed by TVHS past president and trustee Art Billadello. The historical society’s two exhibits, SPIES: How a Group of Long Island Patriots Helped George Washington Win the Revolution and Chicken Hill: A Community Lost to Time, and gift shop will be open as well. 

At noon, historian Margo Arceri will lead a Tri-Spy Walking Tour, which starts at the post office next to Frank Melville Memorial Park, 101 Main St. in Setauket. Historian Beverly C. Tyler will give a Walk Through History with Farmer and Spy, Abraham Woodhull, guided tour at 2 p.m. starting at the front parking lot of the Caroline Church of Brookhaven, 1 Dyke Road, Setauket. 

From 3 to 5 p.m., “Wine and cheese will be served while we have Colonial music performed by Natalie Kress and Kevin Devine of the Three Village Chamber Players,” said Sandy White, TVHS office manager, adding, “We want to create a dialogue about our community’s history. ‘TURN’ helped start that conversation. We’d like to continue it.” 

The Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket will host an I-Spy “Turn” Auction fundraiser on May 19 from noon to 5 p.m. (rain date May 20). Tickets, which are $25 adults, $5 for children age 14 and younger, cover participation in all of the day’s events, including both walking tours. To order, please visit www.TVHS.org or call 631-751-3730.