Saturday, December 25, 2010


The girls and I celebrated one of our best Christmas holidays ever this year, but at the same time I find myself reminiscing on another season when the greatest present came a little bit early.

It was a gift that will stay with me forever.

It was on the afternoon of Dec. 8, 2002, and it started during a visit to my parents' house in Sherrill, N.Y. It certainly didn't initially seem like the makings of a memorable occasion, since everything began with a call from the nursing home where my grandmother Irma Ess was a resident. The caller told my mom that Grandma had fallen, but everything was fine; he just wanted the family to know what had happened.

Something told me to make a trip out there anyways. I dropped the girls at their mother's house on the way, and took a drive out to nearby Rome, N.Y. to see her.

(That's me with my Grandma Ess way back in 1964!)

Like most of my visits to the Rome Nursing Home, the first order of business was finding Grandma -- she was always on the move! Rarely in her own room, she didn't lack for exercise at the home since she was an avid walker always traveling up and down the hallways at a hurried pace.

I visited her at least once a week, so I was used to spending the first 10 or 15 minutes on the prowl looking for her.  I always got the feeling she was trying to find a way out of there. Sometimes I'd even have to enlist the help of one of the nursing home staff, and they would chuckle that Grandma was on the loose again. A couple of times we even found her asleep in someone else's bed.

Once I located her, I joined in the walk as we covered the entire length of all hallways several times. I was always amazed at her energy -- she never needed to stop for a break as we walked for upwards of an hour through the building. Hey, when I'm 90 years old I hope I'm that spry.

(Grandma and I play in the snow in January, 1965)

When we finally retreated to her room, we sat down to watch TV. It was the holiday season, so I expected there would be something festive for us to see and wasn't disappointed when we found "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The 1965 animated classic was always a family favorite when I was a kid and it brought back many fond memories of visiting with Grandma and my Grandpa Harley Ess at their Oakfield, N.Y. home as a youngster.

There were so many fun Christmases there; I can still picture their tree in the corner of the living room and all of the lights that adorned the porch overlooking Oak Street. Family traditions like the sharing of Grab Bag gifts -- usually the more outlandish the better -- were born on the Ess side of the family and to this day live on in our family to delight a new generation.

Regardless of if we celebrated with Grandma and Grandpa on the actual Dec. 25 date or not, our Christmas night and early morning was always a thrill for me. Whether we were at their house or if they came to visit us in Sherrill, I would rarely sleep and was always the first one up knowing Grandma and Grandpa would have gotten me everything I asked for from them. My sisters and I were always seriously spoiled, especially by Grandma, and I remember when we were little we always begged her for money. She always delivered. And whenever they drove in or we arrived at their house we always ran to her yelling "Grandma!" while totally ignoring poor Grandpa, although he never seemed to mind.

(Grandma and Grandpa Ess join me in celebrating my wedding in 1992.)

We sat watching the show and holding hands. When it was over we hugged and kissed, I told her I loved her and would be back soon, and drove home.

The early morning call Monday really didn't surprise me that much, as my mom told me Grandma passed away in the night.

I will always cherish that evening. It was a Christmas gift that keeps on giving, as today, eight years later, hearing any of the songs from the Charlie Brown show immediately bring back the memories of that last night with my Grandma. I am taken back to a simpler time of our visits to Grandma's house -- making colorful Christmas decorations with her, eating our big family holiday dinners often joined by our other relatives, sharing presents, and all the time feeling my Grandparents' love.

In the spirit of the holiday and celebration of Jesus' birth, I think there was something happening that Sunday that goes beyond earth-bound explanation. I felt a compelling urge to be with my Grandma on that day, even after the caller from the nursing home said everything was fine.

Maybe it was because I was the oldest grandchild; some family members have even said I was her favorite. I just know I feel honored and blessed to have been the last member of the family to be with Grandma and to have shared those last hours in the loving way we did.

To me, that was the greatest Christmas present ever.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Imagine Fritz Scherz thanking ME for attending his party and having a great time today.

I suppose it's true there was a certain amount of work done on my part plus a financial investment made, but I wouldn't have missed this event for the world. Plus I got to share some quality time with both Gabby and Sam, so it was a doubly enjoyable afternoon.

The happening was Fritz's Holiday Party for the Town of Verona on Dec. 12, 2010, a get-together he organized as a town councilman to invite out residents for a couple of hours of games, snacks, storytelling, face painting, a drum workshop, and a visit from Santa himself. He sent me the original press release notice; realizing the importance of the event I responded with a longer, more in-depth interview and preview story. I also quickly volunteered our services to help the cause by becoming our clown alter egos from our St. Peter's Lutheran Church clown ministry team to help entertain the youngsters at the party. Okay, Sam decided she wasn't stooping low enough to don a clown face, but she still came along as our Marilyn Munster to assist Gabby as Gibbers and myself as Bingo as we painted faces and made new clown friends.

(Gibbers and Bingo in our brand-new holiday garb, bought that morning in the ladies department at Walmart. I'd like to note this outfit adds a couple of hundred pounds. )

(Magician Matt Episcopo, left, was one of the many volunteers Fritz enlisted to come out and give the kids and adults alike a good time at the party.)

(But we just couldn't compete with the crowd-stealer in red who came in the back door about halfway through the party to hear the kids' Christmas wish lists.)

One of the coolest activities at the party was hearing our local elected officials reading Christmas stories to the tykes. Check out Oneida County Executive Tony Picente, New York State Senator Joe Griffo, and Oneida County Sheriff-elect Rob Maciol as they share tales of Christmas with the kiddies and kiddies at heart:

(Oneida County Executive Tony Picente, top, New York State Senator Joe Griffo, middle, and Oneida County Sheriff-Elect Rob Maciol read Christmas stories to the youngsters.) 

Fritz wasn't the only one from my list of favorite musicians at the party, as Central New York country music legend Matt Chase also came out to the festivities to share his talents and guitar. Truth to tell, I don't listen to country music as a rule, but I could listen to Matt and his Thunder Canyon Band all day. He and Fritz are also two of the top acts in our Sherrill Summer Concert Series, and I usually try to schedule them as bookends to start and finish the summertime fun.

(Matt croons some Christmas tunes for the audience -- didja know Matt has actually recorded an entire album of Christmas music?)

Fritz's Polka Band drummer Mike Faraino even gave a drum workshop for the kids, showing them some of the techniques of his trade.

(Mike shares his tricks with the sticks)

The party was a real family-friendly event both for the attendees and us folks putting it on behind the scenes. Gibbers was a clown off the old block with her face painting prowess, and the kids warmed to her immediately. Sam was also invaluable to me, as she took most of the pictures appearing here.

(Photographer Sam, 16, standing, and Gibbers, 17, working hard at the party.)

(Gibbers shows her artistic skills as a painter.)

Meanwhile, Fritz's wife Kathy and kids Katherine and Marissa also hustled and bustled throughout the party to make sure everybody was having a great time and deserve kudos of their own!

(Kathy, Katherine and Marissa lead the kids in some craft projects at the party.)

Even though Sam was taking pictures, I still needed to do some interviewing for the newspaper story, now online at At our last staff meeting, my beloved boss Karen told us she wanted us to have a more memorable presence in the community. Well, I bet New York State Senator Joe Griffo won't soon forget this interview ...

("Excuse me, Sen. Griffo ... I'm Bingo the Love Clown from the Oneida Dispatch and I'd like to ask you a few questions ...")

And luckily my church pastor Greg Tennermann came out for the party, so he could see I didn't leave church that morning before the service was over to go to the pool hall ...

("Sorry I had to leave church early this morning, Pastor Greg, but I had to go home and put on my face ...")

I always joke that I search out parties, invite myself to them under the guise of promoting the event with an article, and then write that story so I can call it work.

Regular readers will probably see right through that by now, knowing that I really am enjoying myself at these festivities even as a slave laboriously to craft a story that captures the essence and mood of the fun. The Fritz party was one of the best times I've ever had in the field of journalism -- just don't tell the corporate bean counters or they'll withhold my pay. And I need that check to pay for those fancy new duds.

So while Fritz was thanking me for my assistance, I honestly feel indebted to him -- he is one of the most genuinely community-spirited guys I know and it is my honor to help him out. If there's a more honest, people-friendly, caring, and gregarious person on the Earth I haven't met him!

(He's our hero Fritz, center, with Gibbers, left, and Bingo.)

Fritz just ran a thank you letter to all of his volunteers on the Internet, and here is my own response to his words, basically a thank you for the thank you:

"As one of the volunteers at this event, I would like to offer my personal thanks to Fritz for making this a great time, not only for all of the people who came out for the party but for all of his helpers as well. It was sincerely an honor to be able to assist my good friend in helping brighten the holidays in Verona. Fritz is one of the greatest persons I've ever met, and it is my pleasure to be able to work with him on this. I already look forward to doing it again next year!"

Sunday, December 5, 2010


It was a great evening of fatherly pride as both of my high school-aged daughters were on stage Dec. 2, 2010 at the Camden High School's National Honor Society induction. The event was made even more special as NHS President Gabrielle, 17, welcomed sister Samantha, 16, as a new member that evening before the audience of a couple hundred people, also including their mom Laurie Semo, step-dad Jeff Semo, and kid sister Hannah.

(Gabrielle, left, and Samantha stand in front of the National Honor Society banner Dec. 2, 2010 following the induction ceremony at the Camden High School in Camden, N.Y.)

Watching Gabrielle on stage at the podium as she ran the ceremony, directing her fellow students and the adult participants as well, made me both misty and amazed as I saw how she had blossomed far beyond the shy and quiet youngster of only a few years ago. Was that really my little Gabby up there? It was hard to process the image I saw as this person I used to hold in my arms as a baby seemingly transformed overnight into a young woman.

(Gabrielle strikes a majestic pose at the podium during the National Honor Society induction ceremony.)

    (The ceremony was a real family affair as the girls were joined by their cousin and fellow inductee Melissa Kirby, 16, left, and little sister Hannah, 7, front.)

(And while we were there, Samantha shared some of her artistic talents with us, showing the exhibit featuring her work on the wall at the school. I must say these girls are some awesome students, even if I'm just a little biased!)

The whole ceremony is on YouTube right now -- although the slide show in part 6 is already banned in Germany and will probably be coming down soon -- so get started with part one at:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Imagine my surprise when the bare naked ladies I was expecting to see perform on stage turned out to be a quartet of fully dressed dudes.

Okay, that joke is getting old -- I never really thought Barenaked Ladies was anything but a rock band before their Nov. 27 concert at the Turning Stone Casino Event Center in Verona, N.Y. And as it turned out I couldn't have been more entertained it really had been a troupe of nekked females.

In the spirit of full disclosure, prior to the show I wasn't much of a fan of the Toronto-based Barenaked Ladies -- featuring Ed Robertson on guitar and vocals, Jim Creeggan on bass and vocals, Kevin Hearn on keyboards and vocals, and Tyler Stewart on drums and vocals -- but I sure was when I left. At first, I simply figured it would be a fun way for Gabby, Sammy and I to kick off the holiday season, something they would enjoy since Barenaked Ladies' music is more from their generation.

(Barenaked Ladies musicians, from left, Jim Creeggan, Kevin Hearn, Ed Robertson, and Tyler Stewart thrill the audience with music and mirth Nov. 27 at the Turning Stone Casino Event Center)

Familiar hits like "One Week," "Brian Wilson," and "It's All Been Done" got the crowd to their feet singing along and moving to the beat, and their quips between tunes set a fun and festive tone that enhanced the show and grabbed the attention of even a novice Barenaked Ladies concertgoer like myself.

Kevin's jest about the "gambled eggs" being a hit on the breakfast buffet table at the casino might have fallen a bit flat, dying even after a couple of attempts to raise a chuckle from the crowd. He finally accomplished the guffaws by an exasperated "(F-bomb) me!" that brought a roar of laughter even from Gabby and Sammy, who I'm sure have never heard that word before. It was a part of the fun as the audience laughed along with him (and not at him) as his joke choked.

His vocals on "Another Heartbreak," however, proved an unexpected highlight in the show as he quickly won over the audience with his emotive live take on the track from their latest CD "All in Good Time."

The theme to TV's "Big Bang Theory" offered a surprise guest appearance. It seemed 13-year-old audience member Danielle Fleming had learned all of the gazillion words to the song, and her mom held a sign to tell the band of her accomplishment. Suddenly, Ed invited her up on stage to prove her talents, ordering her a microphone and sound monitor headset. Danielle appeared a bit nervous at first, but Ed loosened up the mood by letting her know she was free to say anything she wanted on stage.

"Are there any swear words you've always wanted to say?" he asked her, telling her it was OK to use any language she wanted. Danielle confessed she did not swear, so Ed responded, "Do you want a smoke?" The audience loved it, although I couldn't quite see how Danielle's mom reacted. The young singer did a great job and Ed gave her the advice to leave town and never come back in pursuit her career into stardom.

(If I had $1,000,000 I'd hire Barenaked Ladies to come back for another show)

"Pinch Me" brought the concert crowd to the penultimate peak of pleasure, and by then anybody wondering if this band formerly known as a quintet could function as only a foursome had those doubts quelled. Of course, lottery theme song "If I had $1,000,000" was the big hit of the evening, made even more fun with some seriously creative improv at the end including a lively rap by Ed.

Tyler took a trip into the spotlight himself during the encore, saying he was making amends for his quick rendition of ELO's "Turn to Stone" superimposing the words "Turning Stone" at the end of the regular set (Hey, I liked it, especially since the ELO hit IS from my generation!). He belted out a raucous lead vocal on "Alcohol" and "Feliz Thanksgiving" that proved he's more than just a bald head behind the drums.

A line in their "Thanks, That Was Fun" concert closer perfectly captured the spirit of the night as the group sang "Thanks, that was fun/Don't forget, no regrets." It's certainly not to message in the rest of the song, but that particular part caught my ear as the sentiment I had for the band as we parted ways. Thanks for a great time, and I can't wait to catch up with you again next tour.

(Mike, Gabby, and Sammy kick off the holiday season with a fun night of Barenaked Ladies)

Check out a complete setlist for the evening at For more on Barenaked Ladies log on to and tell them Hot Scoops sent you!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


(Broadway and movie star Franc D'Ambrosio sings a duet of "All I Ask Of You" from The Phantom of the Opera with Sherrill's own Audra Cramer during his Nov. 13, 2010 appearance at the Oneida High School) 

My daughter Gabrielle is peeved at me.

Obviously, since she is 17 that is pretty much to be expected, but this time it really isn't my fault. All I was trying to do was write an entertaining story about our local Oneida Area Arts Council's latest show, earn some extra cash, and maybe enjoy the Broadway show tunes even though at the time I honestly wasn't all that familiar with the genre.

How was I to know the featured artist would turn out to be Franc D'Ambrosio, formerly renowned as the longest running Phantom of the Opera with 2,600 shows as the masked crooner on Broadway? I try to make as many of the OAAC shows as possible, so it doesn't really matter to me who is there -- I know I can always expect quality entertainment and they never let me down. So I didn't really pay that much attention to who would be on stage before I get there.

I wasn't expecting a family crisis to come from attending the Nov. 13 show. But as I sat there in the center of the front row (thanks for that awesome seat, Linda!) and Franc told the audience of his time in the Phantom show, I immediately knew there would be trouble brewing at home.  Gabby is a huge Phantom of the Opera fan, and she wasn't with me at this particular show, so when I heard about his Broadway experience I felt a shudder and squinted involuntarily to the anticipated pain I would incur when she found out. Hey -- maybe now she won't ditch me on the weekend anymore because she'll never know what fun I'll be having that she'll miss!

Anyways, it didn't take long before Franc won me over as well and had me swooning like a schoolgirl myself. You see, Franc had a job before the Phantom -- working on a film in a series that is close to my own heart. Sure, he was the Phantom of the Opera on Broadway for 2,600 shows, but I'll always remember him from his stellar performance as Michael Corleone's son Anthony in The Godfather III. The movie may not have been the jewel of the Godfather trilogy, and maybe most fans prefer to think there were only two of them, but while watching it again the other night I noticed what a great job Franc did in his role. Personally, I think the big name actors in the movie really look worn out and tired, while Franc is upbeat and alive. Check out this clip and tell me you don't agree ...

Of course, after rewatching the movie the other night I really must wonder, was D'Ambrosio's first movie kissing scene that peck with Al Pacino? I'm not making any kind of orientation judgement, mind you, because stuff like that doesn't matter to me. I'm just offering a word to the wise -- if I was going to kiss a guy, it wouldn't be the Godfather. Does the name Fredo ring a bell?

(Franc D'Ambrosio takes us on an autobiographical trip along Broadway)

The special "Franc D'Ambrosio's Broadway" show, part of the OAAC's 46th season of programming, featured Franc telling the tales of his youth through words and song accompanied by his music director Scott Besser on piano. He told of his humble beginnings in a family of bakers ("We were the best smelling family in the neighborhood," he quipped) in the Bronx and how they always had music playing in their bakery.

Franc recalled landing his first Broadway role in a revival of Sweeney Todd, and that performance brought him an invitation to try out for an upcoming film ambiguously called Secret Journal 2 -- a movie that turned out in reality to be The Godfather III, where Franc played opera-singing Anthony Corleone. Anthony's big opera debut finale is even the setting for the traditional Godfather murder montage of revenge, a reprise of similar scenes in the first two films. The Oneida show included Franc crooning "The Immigrant" a/k/a/ “Speak Softly Love” in both English and Italian to thrill us Godfather fans.

“In my neighborhood, people know more about the Corleones than the Obamas,” he told the audience.

Other show tunes included "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," and "Mack the Knife," but it was a song from The Phantom of the Opera that brought the audience to their first standing ovation of the evening. Franc preceded the song with the story of how he was auditioning for Miss Saigon when the panel of listeners unanimously agreed he was trying out for the wrong show. He was quickly sent to the audition for the Phantom role. Admittedly "unprepared and unrehearsed," he tried out before the judges with the lyrics written on his hands, he recalled. Those gestures as he read those lyrics helped win over those observers, and Franc got the part.

The Phantom selection that night featured a special guest appearance by Vernon-Verona-Sherrill Central School class of 2005 and Nazareth College class of 2009 graduate Audra Cramer, now living in Queens and pursuing her own musical performance career, as the star and his up-and-coming counterpart gave a heartwarming duet on the Phantom song "All I Ask of You."  

(Franc and Audra croon while the audience swoons at the Oneida Area Arts Council-sponsored show)

"This was just awesome and superfun," Audra, who was to celebrate her 24th birthday the following day, said. It was actually making her second time singing with Franc -- they met on stage last year after she won a vocal competition in Utica to appear with him at his appearance at the Stanley Theater.

"She has an amazing, amazing, amazing voice," Franc complimented.

Audra came back after intermission for an encore solo number. The audience that night was filled with Audra's fans and family, including some of the folks who helped her get there.

“I am very proud of Audra for all her accomplishments and that I taught her for six years at VVS,” said her former music teacher Sue Tyler.

OAAC President Tom Donegan admitted they had a little snafu in the behind-the-scenes production that evening. He told the audience Franc not only took it in stride as a true professional, but even worried that someone in the OAAC might lose his or her job over the dilemma. Tom admitted they were all volunteers, so that wasn't likely, but complimented Franc for his compassion for the amateurs.

After the show, Franc met with the audience, signing autographs and chatting with fans old and new. Gregarious and accessible, he graciously shook hands with his well-wishers with a genuine camaraderie that was warm and welcoming to all of the folks at the Oneida appearance. The people might not have been fans when they arrived, like myself, but they certainly were when he left, also like myself.

Franc travels all over the United States and beyond with his two-man show, but he intimated some upcoming plans that will thrill New York City stage musical fans -- within the next couple of years, he expects to be back on Broadway. He didn't say if he intends to try for the Phantom role again or something new, but wherever he ends up it's guaranteed to be a high quality performance from a true professional.

There's still a chance to get in on the fun -- Franc's CD "Franc D'Ambrosio's Broadway" is available from your favorite music vendor, as is his companion disc of Hollywood favorites. Even Barry Manilow has Franc's music on his iPod, so you know it's got to be good.

For more on Franc, check out with Website at

Monday, November 8, 2010

Volunteers help out and inspire

Who would have thought our Oneida-Sherrill Lions Club pancake breakfast fundraiser on Nov. 7, 2010 would be so inspiring and reassuring that there still are great young people out there?

Visualize this moment if you can -- it's 5:30 a.m. on a chilly November Sunday morning as it's time to wake Gabby and Sam up to go to work at the breakfast for their fourth year in a row (and no, I don't force them to go). And would you believe it wasn't just them, but Sam's two Camden High School friends Alisha Merrick and Brandi Robinson as well (I didn't force them to go either)? Truthfully, I couldn't understand the attraction for a couple of teenagers to give up the best part of a Sunday -- not to mention voluntarily get up at that already mentioned 5:30 a.m. -- and work with a group of Lions Club members. Seriously, I'm 46 and I was the youngest member there so it wasn't like they were chilling out with a gang of their peers!

Anyways, whatever Sam told them about the joy of working at the breakfast must have been good because these young ladies showed up the night before for the trip to my place for a pre-pancake breakfast sleepover. Come that Sunday at 5:30 a.m. I witnessed something reserved only for Christmas morning -- all four of the girls bounded right out of bed and were ready to head out the door within an hour! They certainly don't do that for school or church ... 

(Waitress Gabrielle Jaquays, 17, serves a tasty breakfast to fellow Oneida-Sherrill Lions Club volunteer helpers, from left, Alisha Merrick, 16, Samantha Jaquays, 16, and Brandi Robinson, 15, at the club's annual fundraising pancake breakfast on Nov. 7, 2010)

Besides pancake breakfast regulars Gabby and Sam we had another faithful helper teen make his return visit to the event this year -- our dashing dish washer, Dan Musgrove, grandson of Lion John Musgrove. The Vernon-Verona-Sherrill Central School student didn't see many breaks in the action during the seven-hour marathon of soap suds. He kept up a fast pace alongside Granddad in making sure everybody was eating off of clean plates (that's a health code rule, I guess).

(Dan Musgrove, 16, strikes a pose as grandad John Musgrove chuckles as they keep the dishes and utensils spotless at the pancake breakfast) 

The fivesome of Lions member relatives weren't the only teens there, however. Shortly after we got started serving, a quartet of Oneida High School students --Ann DuChene, Candra Connelly, Taylor White, and Tom Holtom -- came out as part of the Oneida-Canastota Leos group (a student version of the Lions Club). They also slaved like dogs delivering plates of food and filling cups of coffee, cleaning and setting tables, and preparing eating utensils.

(From left, Candra Connelly, 16, Tom Holtom, 15, Taylor White, 17, and Ann DuChene, 16, join in the fun of the pancake breakfast serving the crowd of appreciative and hungry diners)

(Here's the whole gang -- but wait, there's more! Even with all of these glowing examples of the helpfulness of youth, the most incredible moment of inspiration was still to come ...)

We are all bustling pretty quick as there wasn't much break in the crowd all morning, when 10-year-old Sierra Bloom comes up to me and asks if she can help us. Her friend Sarah Wayland-Smith, also 10, also offers her assistance as well. So, I'm figuring why not humor this little girls, let them do something easy for the couple of minutes they would be interested before they decided it wasn't for them. Whoa -- was I wrong! These two young spitfires started cleaning tables, serving breakfasts, and even pouring hot coffee. I watched amazed, knowing that the future of community service in Central New York was in good hands!

(Sarah Wayland-Smith, left, and Sierra Bloom came out of nowhere at the pancake breakfast as our surprise volunteers -- hustling around the tables and leaving us older folks in their dust)

 (There was no stopping these 5th-graders ... they cleaned tables, served plates of pancakes and sausage, and even poured hot coffee without spilling a drop!)

Seriously, we Lions are getting on in the years, so we couldn't do it without the able-bodied assistance of all of our young helpers. Here's some big kudos for all of our helpers! Hope to see you again next year!

(And Dan had the most important job of them all -- finishing off the leftovers!)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Doing the Time Warp again

One of my fondest college memories is thinking back to our regular outings to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show -- the theater across the street from St. Bonaventure University played it every weekend for just about the whole four years I was there. Now that Gabby is college-bound herself in less than a year, I figured it was a good time to introduce her to some of the other stuff you need to know before you head off to higher education ... namely, indispensable knowledge like what props to bring to the Rocky Horror theater, when to say your lines, and most importantly, how to do The Time Warp.

Anyone who has never seen the film in a theater filled with rabid fans -- and it is definitely not the same as seeing it at home on your TV, unless you are willing to trash your place -- might not understand, so let me give you a little background. The Rocky Horror Picture Show came out in 1975 and stars Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Susan Sarandon as Janet Weiss, and Barry Bostwick as Brad Majors. The movie was a huge flop at first and, in all honesty, it really is a stupid flick. But that is all part of the fun, as the film evolved over the years into one of the biggest cult classics ever, and a movie that now brings the audience along for the wild ride as moviegoers have added their own lines to the script. Any time a character pauses, someone in the audience will yell out their own line that gives the actor's next phrase a whole new, and usually nasty, meaning. They also bring along some bizarre props and dress in crazy costumes to augment their own enjoyment of the movie, along with everyone else's around them.

(Gabby and I dress in our Halloween finest for a night at the theater)

The shopping list for attending the film is pretty odd: you need items like rice, newspaper, a squirt gun or reasonable facsimile, toast, toilet paper rolls, and noise makers. This year there were even raw hot dogs on the menu; I don't know who came up with that, but that's part of the fun of the film -- and it's always changing.

The movie is rated R but most of what you see in it is now readily accessible on daytime television. On the other hand, the mostly-college student crowd's lines were pretty racy for this family-friendly blog (Gabby commented afterwards, "There was a lot of profanity in there!" I did notice she was giggling at most of it, though) but I'll try to capture the essence of the experience without losing my own G rating.

The interactive fun starts almost immediately, as a wedding scene sees a couple walk out of the church into a crowd of rice-throwing friends. The audience as well starts throwing their own rice. I had rice in my shoes, down my collar, and in my ear by the time the scene was over. Shortly afterwards, there's a rain storm and Brad and Janet's car breaks down. When Janet takes out a newspaper and puts it over her head, everyone playing along does the same.

(Gabby and I won't be bothered by the storm as long as we have our newspaper rain bonnets)

And don't think those newspapers don't come in handy, especially for the bald-headed (although looking around at all of the college-aged people there, I think I was the only bald audience member since I was the oldest person there). Those squirt guns came out at the same time, and the entire theater was deluged by a raging indoor typhoon.

(I can't imagine what it was like to clean up after this night at the movies)

Once Brad and Janet find a castle to seek sanctuary, they find it full of weirdo characters like Frank-N-Furter and his servants Riff-Raff and Magenta. The hero and heroine walk in during an odd dance ritual, as the gang does what they call "The Time Warp" and the audience jumps right up to join them. And it doesn't matter if the crowd is familiar with the steps, because the technique is explained in detail during the scene for the new people.

(This movie doesn't just keep the audience on the edge of their seats, but gets them right out of them and on their feet to do the Time Warp)

Oddly, this wasn't Gabby's first Time Warp experience -- her drama club at the Camden High School recently did a performance of macabre shorts, and she and I actually danced in the aisles during the show. So we are old hats at the Time Warp moves -- made all that much more complicated thanks to the slippery slime of water and rice and who-knows-what-else under our feet.

(It's just a jump to the left and then a step to the right ... or is it a step to the left and a jump to the right ... whatever; the theater is full of drunk college students so nobody cares)

Kudos to the Hamilton Theater and Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. for keeping my Rocky Horror viewing tradition alive for me some (cough) two decades after those college days and creating new memories for my progeny. We'll be back next year, and we can't wait to see what new fun the fans have come up by then!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hats off to my hero!

     Peaking in the office door as I arrived at the paper the other night, I saw our computer fixer ace, Production Manager Bob Bennett, hunched over my work station diligently slaving away trying to rectify the technological issue of the day.

     It was a bit like seeing the Grim Reaper waiting for me, because I knew this was anything but good news.

    One of the worst parts of my job is making that occasional late night call to the poor guy after he has left following a full day's work and then some, asking him with my best whiny voice to please come back and save us from the disgrace of having no paper on the stands in the morning. I'm sure he doesn't appreciate receiving that call as much as I appreciate hearing him -- even begrudgingly -- agree to come in, so here's some big, you-saved-our-butts-again kudos to our king of the keyboard, our sultan of systems, our guru of gigabyte: Mr. Bob Bennett. Take a bow, buddy!

     Now get back to fixing that computer so we can get the paper to the press people ...  

Monday, October 11, 2010

A musical Pied Piper visits VVS

     Probably the best part of writing a blog is being able to share some of the emotions felt behind the scenes during the production of stories that appear in the paper. Regular readers will know I'm no stranger to the concert scene, but I have to admit this particular musical event probably touched me more than any other -- and that includes my own performances. And I think the more than 600 people who came out that evening would agree, because I've never seen such a warm feeling of affection between an audience and a performer.

     Students at the Vernon-Verona-Sherrill Central School heard a nightmarish tale on Oct. 9, 2010 of an inner-city Chicago school where there was no music curriculum and how a sole teacher who took the initiative to introduce her guitar playing and singing as an educational tool in class was soon driven out -- not only from the building but from the profession as well.

     But that didn't stop singer/songwriter Katie Quick from inspiring and educating students as she visited the Verona, N.Y. school that night. She released her first CD "Be the Change" on May 1, 2009, moved from Chicago to Nashville six months ago, and took her trip to VVS as part of her first-ever tour of northeastern United States. There, Katie had the young people plus faculty and community members falling quickly for her upbeat and catchy county music and fun stories in between songs.

 (Rising Nashville star Katie Quick plays songs from her independently released CD "Be the Change" plus some new tunes during her concert Oct. 9, 2010 at the Vernon-Verona-Sherrill Central School. Some 600 new fans instantly fell in love with her that night.)

     Katie came out for a special concert that Saturday evening, sponsored by the school's Music Boosters as a token of their gratitude for the community's support. The event was also the kickoff to the Hearts For Hope Project, a collaboration between the students in the VVS entertainment industry class and the KEYS Program, a musical outreach for children with cancer that will produce a special therapeutic CD of music for those kids. 

     Before the concert, Katie met with students to share some of the tales behind her rise to fame. And don't think she wasn't just as big a star as anyone the kids hear regularly on the radio; I doubt any singer could have impressed the people that evening like Katie did. 

(Katie shares some of the stories of her music career with VVS students during a question and answer session before her concert.)

     She told them of that school where she was a 6th grade teacher -- the place where music was not allowed. 

     "You guys are extremely lucky to have your music programs," she said, reminding them to appreciate what VVS and their music teachers had to offer them because not every kid out there has the same opportunities of instrument lessons, bands and chorus groups in the schools. And I have to admit, as a VVS graduate and musician myself, I was just as impressed by her words as the kids were. We all need a little reminder now and then of how good we have it, and that we should be thankful. Where would I be without a music curriculum in school? Definitely wishing I had a teacher like Miss Quick to bring in her guitar and sing to us!

      And no, her name is not a takeoff of a synonymly-named fellow country singer -- Katie said she had the surname Quick a good 10 years before Taylor was Swift.

      She told the mostly-teenaged audience how she released her CD by herself; Katie is unsigned so she has no record label and no manager, doing all chores from writing to recording to marketing herself. This means she has nobody telling her what to do and what not to do, when she can talk to fans, and how long she can mingle with them after a concert. She certainly proved that at VVS -- Katie stayed after the show until every single member of the audience was happy with a hug, autograph, or their own copy of her CD.

      "I like being an independent artist," she said. "You have total control over every aspect of your career."

(VVS seniors Paige Brown, Adam Chandler and Aeshley Detor share a fun moment with Katie after her concert.)

(How cool is this? Katie takes the time to hear Aeshley play an original composition of her own on the piano, offering some professional encouragement for the teen's musical endeavors.)

     Katie reminisced about the first time she went to a concert -- a Celine Dion show while she was in 7th grade, she said -- and how she would actually become envious watching performers ply their craft. While her friends would be dancing and enjoying the music, Katie stood back feeling what she called "a really strange jealousy" towards them. 

     "I said, 'I can do that.' I really had a burning desire to perform," she said.

     She started dancing in front of a mirror, singing into a hairbrush, and was coerced into the role of Jan in her school's production of "Grease" -- a part that included a song of her own. On stage for that performance, Katie suddenly knew she was in the right place because "it felt like home," she explained to the teens.   

(KEYS volunteer Donna Mucks duets with Katie on her hit "Fingertips." VVS 8th-grader Molly Blehar also sang on Katie's song "Home" during the concert. Next time I want to perform "Lonely Stage" with her, because that's what it'll be when everyone runs when they hear me sing.)

     Other than some time in the high school choir and some vocal technique lessons she admits now she doesn't really remember, Katie had no formal training. She didn't take guitar or songwriting instruction, she told them; she just had a driving desire that has now taken her to Nashville in pursuit of her dreams.

     "If you want something bad enough you can make it happen," Katie said. "If you want to get up there and sing, just do it."

     Her parents were big supporters, and she said it made them happy that she was doing what made her happy.   
     "I just feel really blessed and lucky that I grew up in a family that was supportive," she said.

     Katie admitted that at this stage in her career she hasn't yet made her fortune, but she's happier than ever because she is doing what she loves -- making music and touring the country bringing her songs to new fans and friends. And there are several hundred new Verona-area fans who can't wait to have her back.

(Hey, this is my blog so I don't have to keep a professional detachment -- I am just as smitten with Katie as everybody else. And I love her CD so trust me and go out and buy a copy or five. If we still ran the Open Mike Top 10 she'd be number one with a bullet.)

    For more info on the concert, check out:

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A special day with some special folks

    It was one of the days I look forward to the most during the year as Heritage Farm -- a working farm in Eaton, N.Y. that provides a variety of services to the mentally and physically challenged -- brought back their annual Fall Festival on Sept. 26. For the third time, I was tapped to serve as their Master of Ceremonies, one of my favorite duties where I get the chance to laud the accomplishments of all of my friends at the farm for all of their successes in the many activities offered there.

(That's me with my high-tech emcee headset; photo by my assistant Samantha!)

    Following an inspirational welcome by Heritage Farm Executive Director Jim Simmons and Madison County Mental Health Department Director Dr. Jim Yonai, it was time for the kickoff to the full day of festivities -- and what better way to start the show than with a 45-minute musical performance by the farm's own Music Group. Jim is the leader of the band, singing and playing guitar with myself as bassist, but the real spotlight falls on our special needs compadres. There is no such thing as a bad day any time we get together. It doesn't matter what's going on out there in the real world -- when we play our music during weekly jams at the farm or out "on tour" it's a wonderful time. They always treat me like a rock star myself, when in truth it is themselves who are the real stars.

(That's Walter Koennecke, Betsy DuFeur, Mellie Putnam, Kristen Stosal, and Kayla Jones from left in the front row, with myself, Jeremiah Werden, and Jim Simmons on the stage behind them. Another photo by Samantha!)

     The Festival took on a more somber mood after our set, as the farm's Programming Director Mark Piersall offered a heartfelt tribute to one of our friends who had passed away this year. Scott Mylles of Oneida, N.Y. was one of the very first participants at Heritage Farm and "just a good old boy, never meanin' no harm ..." as Mark quoted the old Dukes of Hazard theme song. A memorial was dedicated to Scott in the garden next to the farmhouse, with his parents Linda and Kevin Bailey standing nearby.

(Mark Piersall, wearing his Dukes of Hazard shirt especially for the occasion, recalls the good times with our late buddy Scott Mylles) 

     Heritage Farm staff members Kelsey Brady and Zachary Collins -- who lead the Music Group on days when Jim is not available -- gave a sweet acoustic set of folky tunes, followed by some savory songs courtesy of the quartet Williams Road. The Madison Cortland ARC Wind Dancers then took the stage for their interpretive dances to "Colors of the Wind" and "Supertrooper."

(Jeremiah Werden, left, plays double duty by also joining Kelsey Brady and husband-to-be Zachary Collins during their set at the Fall Festival) 

(Williams Road played some fiddle-driven acoustic folk music at the Festival, fitting perfectly with the rural countryside setting of Heritage Farm)

(Another shining example of the accomplishments possible for special needs individuals, the Madison Cortland ARC Wind Dancers performed two musical numbers for their appreciative audience)

     Magician Jim Okey then thrilled the crowd with some slight-of-hand, and even brought up a special guest victim  volunteer from the audience for a trick -- or was it really magic?

(Magician Jim Okey does his stuff with audience member Nick Ambs)

     Of course, a farm wouldn't be a farm without animals, so the young and young-at-heart were invited over to the petting zoo to meet some of the farm's residents.

(Heritage Farm Senior Site Supervisor Christine Fuess, left, introduces Samantha to a new furry friend.)

     Heritage Farm celebrated their 25th year in service to the special needs residents of the Madison County area this year, and their outreach has grown steadily since their early days. Now offering everything from day and residential habilitation to supportive employment, respite, and even religious services, the farm gives well-rounded and invaluable experience to more than 100 participants. They have a gift shop where they sell the crafts made by participants, and an art room where colorful works of artistry are created. Those pieces travel to exhibitions all over the area, and were seen at the farm during the Fall Festival.

(Festival visitors peruse the artwork created by the talented participants of Heritage Farm) 

     The public is always welcome to come out a visit the farm. They are located at 3599 State Route 46 in Eaton, N.Y., just south of Stockbridge and north of the Route 20 intersection. For more information on any Heritage Farm offering or to arrange a tour, call (315) 893-1889 or log on to their website at