Thursday, January 24, 2019

A Tribute To Forest Hills’ Own Carol Channing

By Michael Perlman

Carol Channing in "Hello, Dolly!" Courtesy of Carol Channing Productions
America is bearing homage to Carol Elaine Channing, a definitive singer, dancer, and actress on Broadway and internationally, the big screen, and television, who is indeed “Larger Than Life” after her passing on January 15 in Rancho Mirage, California at age 97. She was born on January 31, 1921 in Seattle, Washington, and as of 1955, she was one of numerous diverse artists to call Forest Hills home. This columnist featured her in the book, “Legendary Locals of Forest Hills and Rego Park,” as one of 200 notables. 

Carol Channing in "Hello, Dolly!" Courtesy of Carol Channing Productions
Among her numerous accomplishments, Channing starred in the Broadway show “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” as Lorelei Lee, and most notably as Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” (also a famed song) which debuted in 1964 and consisted of over 5,000 consecutive runs. The Broadway musical earned ten Tonys, including Channing’s for “Best Actress in a Comedy.” She also played Muzzy in the 1967 film “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” resulting in a Golden Globe Award. She entertained on television variety shows including “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Hollywood Squares.” In 1995, she was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2009, she was a Smithsonian Institution inductee. Another milestone was the 2012 documentary “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life.”

Carol Channing & her husband Harry Kullijian, junior high sweethearts, Courtesy of Chip Deffaa
 What better way to pay tribute than through the memories of entertainment industry experts who were fortunate to work with Channing! Television host Bill Boggs, who can be viewed on BillBoggsTV on YouTube, has interviewed everyone from Carol Channing to Frank Sinatra to Burt Bacharach. “The word icon is overused, but it is accurately applied to Carol Channing,” said Boggs, who is proud to see that she is being remembered by a celebration of happiness that reflects how her performances affected people. “You could not watch her on stage or meet her and not smile, and people are smiling as they speak of her,” he continued. 

Boggs called her a 20th century defining Broadway star, and questions the future. He explained, “Due to cultural shifts, it’s unlikely that we will see another star who will dominate Broadway by selling tickets for years and years without having a major career in film or TV.” Although it can pose a challenge to define what makes an individual truly unique, he said, “Whatever ‘it’ is, she had it.” “She possessed the ability to get a laugh and hold your attention just by her presence on stage. In a way, she created a caricature of herself that became her on-stage persona no matter what she was doing, and technically, she really knew how to use her voice.”

Boggs will always be grateful for interviewing Channing on television on a few occasions, such as for the Jerry Herman compilation show. Relating to her originality and sense of humor, he reminisced, “She would show up on the set with a round light gray circle of makeup, smudged on the end of her nose. When I mentioned to her that she had something on her nose, before we started taping, she told me she did that to make her nose look longer.” 

Chip Deffaa with Carol Channing, Courtesy of Chip Deffaa
“To the world at large, she was a Broadway legend since the 1940s, and to me she was an extraordinary friend, as in a fairy godmother who I was so grateful to have in my life,” said Chip Deffaa, a playwright, author, critic, writer, and director. He will always recall her generosity, such as in the case of creating recordings, which appeared on Deffaa’s album productions and in “Theater Boys,” his musical comedy. “She did that as a gift and would not take a dime,” he recalled.

Deffaa draws a blank to think of anyone more dedicated to work than Channing. “Whenever I direct a show, run a recording session, write a script, or hold an audition, I do so with her guidance,” he said. He looks up to her for achieving a record. He explained, “No other actress in America has played any role as many times as she played Dolly Gallagher Levi in ‘Hello, Dolly!’ on Broadway and national tours.” She fought a brave battle against cancer during her first national tour, which she kept confidential at that time, and would fly to and from Sloan-Kettering weekly to undergo treatment. Deffaa said, “I’ve seen her go out on stage on sheer nerves, putting mind over matter, despite fierce health challenges, and she would play her role over 4,500 times before ever letting an understudy go on.”

Channing was the foremost in musical comedy, according to Deffaa. “She would tell me ‘Any actor is lucky if he gets to originate one great role. I got to originate two,’ he reminisced, in reference to Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” and Lorelei Lee in “Gentleman Prefer Blondes.” 

Art Nouveau poster by master illustrator John Alvin for Carol Channing's show "Lorelei"
“She always felt larger-than-life, even simply sitting quietly backstage, applying or removing her makeup,” said Deffaa, who loved observing how she drew eyelashes on herself with mascara, which read well on stage.

Deffaa still hears in her “inimitable deep voice,” “We do our best work when challenged.” “She was like an oracle, and I took her words very seriously,” he reminisced. He strongly embraces his work ethic and never missed a deadline, owing that discipline to her. “I certainly wasn’t disciplined by nature in my youth, but if she could do eight shows a week while fighting cancer, I could damn well write copy for the New York Post or another chapter of a book with the Flu.”

When Deffaa booked singers for a recording session, he would invite extras. “She taught me that some singers would inevitably bail out at the last minute, sabotaging themselves by giving in to subconscious fears, and she was right.” He also learned to be tougher while producing recordings and directing shows. He can still hear, “Chip, you have to be a benevolent dictator.” He said, “She had little tolerance for mediocrity. If she was not happy with, say, the conductor on a tour she was starring in, she’d see to it he was replaced.”

“She encouraged me to dream big, grab opportunities when they came, and work full steam and not to wait, because none of us know how much time we have,” said Deffaa. A case in point was when she planned to write memoirs and requested to meet with him. He reminisced, “She said she couldn’t possibly write a book by herself, and asked if we could do an ‘as told to’ book, with her telling me stories which I could put into book form. She shared stories for hours that night, saying she hoped I could start writing the book at once.” However, Deffaa just moved at the time, and mentioned that he would need six weeks before beginning. “Carol said she’d begin jotting down recollections until I was ready, but by that time, she actually finished writing the entire book in longhand, and it was terrific,” he continued.

Deffaa remembers her as a “consummate trouper.” He explained, “When she recorded the audio book of her autobiography, she spent hour after hour in front of the mic. She knew that time is money in a recording studio, and did not want to take any breaks. Her producer, Steve Garrin, had to call breaks. She recorded the entire book and not an abbreviated version as many might do, spending 40 hours to record the complete book, plus some extras.”

Deffaa can still hear her motivational words, “Create something every day. When we create, we’re closer to being whole and well.”

Carol Channing, first performer invited to entertain at the Superbowl, Courtesy of Chip Deffaa
A similar version of this story is featured in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

New Energy at Red Pipe Cafe - The Modern Mom & Pop Shop

By Michael Perlman

Cozy dining area of Red Pipe Cafe, Photo by Michael Perlman
Artist Akio Matsuyoshi catches up with owner Ofer Kertes, Photo by Michael Perlman
Enter Red Pipe Cafe, a charming, earthy, and unique Forest Hills destination at 71-60 Austin Street, and one is bound to make a friend, exercise their creativity, and socialize and relax while enticing their palates with kosher, organic, and vegan dishes and drinks. Dr. Rene Alkalay, now age 77, co-founded the business in 2014, and 3 months ago, co-owner Ofer Kertes, age 45, came on board, building upon the tradition with new foods and ingredients, an expanded kitchen, improved aesthetics, and an increase in events. Diverse plans will continue for a community that has become the Forest Hills-based owners’ extended family. 

Red Pipe Cafe facade, Photo by Michael Perlman
Owners Dr Rene Alkalay & Ofer Kertes, Photo by Michael Perlman
After a short-term hiatus, the popular live music while you dine concept featuring will make a comeback in January. Past favorite acts included husband-wife musical duo Lou & Marie Michaels’ Bach/Beatles/Bacharach. On 3-month rotations, 3 to 4 local artists display their paintings and photos on a rediscovered brick wall or a neutral painted backdrop, and gallery shows enable patrons to mingle with artists including Robin Amy Bass, a friend to many. Other attractions are Poetry Night on Tuesdays and Open Mic on Thursday evenings. A stand-up comedy feature is also being considered. 

Artist Robin Amy Bass alongside her paintings, Photo by Michael Perlman
“Our renovation has made a huge difference,” said Dr. Alkalay. He eyes necessities such as a delivery service, distributing take-out menus, as well as offering vegan catered parties, as long as the community comes forward. “We basically put in every nail with our own hands,” said Ofer, who was permitted by Dr. Alkalay to renovate it largely as he pleased.

Dr. Alkalay explained his commitment to a vegan lifestyle. “It is a fastest growing movement, and we are contributing to a better world by not destroying the environment or hurting people’s health. I think of us as the New York home of the organic vegan sandwich.” Furthermore, Red Pipe is one of a few cafes where patrons can find organic, vegan, gluten-free pastries.

His early adulthood influenced his artistic vision. “When I was younger, I would go to coffee houses in the Village and in Europe, which were really meeting places for the arts. You could hear at any given table a heated discussion on contemporary or classic art, music, and literature, so I wanted to create a place where community and the arts can come together. I love the idea that we are providing culture in our community, instead of just food. The arts and culture keep society sane, and if people don’t speak the same language, they find ways to communicate through the arts.” The combination has proven to be a novelty to for Queens. “People come in and just love the ambiance, and even if there is no event, the place develops an energy,” he continued.

Dr. Alkalay, who describes himself as not a highly competitive individual, said, “A few years ago, when we introduced live music, other places nearby began having it. There’s a whole difference between live musicians and piped-in music. I would hope that we are considered a pioneer, and more businesses will open and use our model.”

With much gratitude, he said, “Every day that I wake up, I am grateful to G-D for giving me this day. We are here to make the world a better place by giving a little more health, beauty, and compassion.” Dr. Alkalay’s talents include published books on meditation, Kabbalah, poetry, as well as playing guitar and singing, a sight locals are familiar with. 

Owner Ofer Kertes
Ofer draws upon culinary experiences since age 15. He perfected his skills in a culinary institute in Israel, was previously a coffee shop owner, and was an executive chef in high-end hotels. Just a short time ago, Red Pipe was his go-to spot, but he was destined to partner with Dr. Alkalay, who he has achieved much chemistry with. “My recipe for success is to be passionate and consistent by serving delicious, healthy food. It has become a joyful experience, where work became a pleasure and a hobby to serve the community, and it’s really nice working with musicians and artists. I was drawn to the vibe.” 

One of many new coffee mug designs, Photo by Michael Perlman
Ofer explained various new concepts. “People really like being served our coffee in a variety of colorful mugs, and we are also selling them. For every three bags of coffee purchased, you will get a free mug.” One of many slogans is “A happy home is made with love… Home is where the coffee,” which can be found on a sunshine and floral themed mug. 

Tabbouleh Bowl featuring hummus, chopped greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, carrots, walnuts & lemon olive oil vinaigrette
Coconut Yogurt Parfait, chocolate cranberry or mixed nuts
Ofer takes pride in a new line of soups. “Everyone is asking for our red bean soup, as well as our lentil and split pea soups and vegetable stew.” The bowls selection is another new feature, and includes a tabbouleh bowl, quinoa bowl, and oatmeal. Beverages are unique and diverse for Forest Hills. “Our turmeric latte is a huge success, the hot apple cider is really nice, and our coconut milk hot chocolate is a real treat. We will add a cold brew rack and the Siphon Brewing Method. It will be very interesting to look at, and we are working with Counter Culture Coffee, which is considered a very good brand.” 

Oatmeal bowl with apple, banana, peanut butter, cinnamon, agave
At least 4 varieties of Craft wines and beers have proven to be an attraction. “We decided to go out of the ordinary selection and promote more of the New York-based brewers, and we have received a good community response,” said Ofer.

The sandwich menu has also been revitalized. “Our grilled cheese sandwich, which uses cashew-based cheese, has become very popular. We are also serving vegan bacon and vegan pastrami, which is opening a variety of options.” The Metropolitan sandwich is another attraction, where hummus is served with Chipotle mayo, house slaw, olives, lettuce, tomato, and cucumber. 

The inviting counter, Photo by Michael Perlman
Small details that offer a personalized experience include a retractable storefront that encompasses a welcoming spirit and brings the outside in, the jovial staff, subdued lighting, and the new Red Pipe bulletin board with the popular “Word of The Day,” “Thought For The Day,” and “On This Day” features. It read, “Dec. 17, 1962: Beatles’ first British TV appearance.” “It becomes an art exhibit and we have people from the neighborhood who are maintaining it,” said Ofer. 

Red Pipe Cafe Community Bulletin Board, Photo by Michael Perlman
Many patrons have been “giving back.” He explained, “Every new customer is assigned with a certain position to create a sense of responsibility and community, and I am grateful for lots of help from community members in operating Red Pipe on a daily basis. Marina tests our brownies, Gary is the bulletin board manager, Scott is our coffee shop chauffeur, Charlie is the door bouncer, Lou is the shop consultant, and Marty is our cleaning inspector.” He then chuckled, “They become employees, and we end up having more employees than customers.” He continued, “I am grateful for the Forest Hills community and visitors who have been loyal and bring a sense of togetherness into our lives, and whether it’s the ambiance, the vibe, or the splendid staff, this is a key ingredient for success.”

Ofer shared simple pleasures amid high expectations. “Some people come in here, since they find it therapeutic and relaxing to have a conversation with me over a cup of coffee. In ten years, Red Pipe will hopefully have more branches in Queens, as long as we keep the same concept and not feel like a big corporation.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Patrons Mourn The Loss of Shalimar Diner - Now Available For Rent

By Michael Perlman

Full house at Shalimar Diner, Photo by longtime patron Ivy Hammer
For nearly 45 years, the Shalimar Diner has been an unofficial Rego Park landmark at 63-68 Austin Street. It was manufactured by the popular Kullman Dining Car Company, and was one of numerous freestanding Greek family diners dotting the tri-state area. In 1974, it was delivered on a flatbed truck, and a diverse menu has been delighting palates ever since for family occasions, friend gatherings, first dates, and community meetings. It was a destination where patrons at nearly any hour would sit elbow to elbow at the counter or comfortably at a booth or table. The diner has even been in the spotlight for a number of productions including the CBS drama “Blue Bloods” and the 2016 film “The Wolf of Wall Street” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. 

Behind its stone and streamlined façade, patrons attest that owner Chris Karayiannis and his staff have become an extended family, but on November 25, tears were exchanged. The Shalimar was forced to shutter after the owners unsuccessfully negotiated a new lease offered at reportedly more than double the rent for a 20-year period. It has now met the fate of the Flagship Diner among others, unless it can be acquired by a party who is willing to meet the asking price or will present an offer for the property. 

Dr. Arthur Gudeon with some of his favorite servers, Dennis & Dell
For over 70 years, Dr. Arthur Gudeon, a well-respected podiatrist resides in Rego Park, and was a Shalimar regular. He reminisced, “My office was across the street when the Shalimar was built, and I was one of the first customers of the four brothers who owned it. It’s been our go-to place for my family, office staff, friends and neighbors. I’ve also treated my many podiatry students, and we have enjoyed the food, camaraderie, and the consistently friendly staff. I recall the years that they had jukeboxes at the booths which also made it a fun experience. Although my office moved to Fleet Street, I still brought Shalimar breakfasts to my staff regularly.” On the farewell evening, he spent three hours over dinner. “The diner was loaded with regulars, and we went to our table reminiscing and often tearing up, and of course I took lots of selfies with friends, patients, and staff.” 

“This is a story of the ‘Real’ Rego Park with a teary-eyed ending,” said Margot Zimmerman, another Rego Park native. The Zimmerman Josephson, and Morgan families (her relatives) spent decades at the Shalimar. She reminisced, “After the horrid gas explosion on that block, it was exciting to have a new family diner. Back in 1975 to 1978, there was no place for the teens in the neighborhood to go, so the owners would let us stay in that little lobby to hang out until the wee hours, but with no partying. As I got older, this was the place to be after a night of clubbing. I remember many late night meals at 5 AM, and it was a home away from home for Passover and Thanksgiving for a larger extended family.” She continued, “As the area changes, the first generation of new cultures stick to what they know, but it won't be until their children’s children become Americanized, that they may want to experience the real Americana.”

Bonnie Sholl relocated to Rego Park in 1984. She said, “This was where I have memories of my married life, friends visiting, my son’s first restaurant experience at one-week old, and quick and delicious ‘Dinners for Lunch’ before I taught clarinet lessons.” The Shalimar serves more than food, according to Sholl. “It serves friendships, community, reasons not to stay at home, and gives a pleasant diversion to our lives.” 

Shalimar Diner main dining room, Photo by Frank Carroll
For 20 years, Forest Hills patrons Frank Carroll and his wife Gina have shared many laughs and good times with the staff, and especially their waitress and good friend Judy. He and his wife, along with staff members became emotional on the final night. He explained, “The Shalimar offered that true New York diner experience that our out-of-town family and friends craved for. It added a charm to the neighborhood, where people would always socialize in an informal atmosphere and leave feeling better. Losing the Shalimar, as well as other small shops and smaller theaters nearby is diminishing our New York culture. Now there are too many vacancies and too many towers going up. What a shame that the landlord and the current owner are unable to negotiate an acceptable lease!” 

Ivy Hammer & her husband Steve pose with owner Chris Karayiannis, center
Rego Park residents Ivy Hammer and her husband Steve were also sure to say their last goodbyes. “We used to bring our son Michael in his car seat into the diner, and even though he is now 25, the owner Chris still asks about him.” Hammer called the Shalimar a great place to bring grandma on a Sunday afternoon. “You don't have to worry about what type of food she will like because you have your choice of everything in a diner. Many elderly people and singles in our neighborhood count on eating there daily or weekly, so it is sad that they will have to find another place to easily get to. It was close by, affordable, and there was parking.” Her tears continued upon learning that one of her favorite waitresses, Dottie, recently passed away.

The Hakim family has lived in the nearby Walden Terrace for generations, and it has been a staple for Lisa Hakim and her family. “On weekends and after every softball game we would go to the Shalimar. I always enjoyed their breakfast, but I could never stay away from the pickles.” Hakim is hoping that it can still be preserved. “Most local businesses that are family-owned are closing due to the high rents. I wish there was a way we could save this one, as it's one of the last from my childhood.”

Mira Pinkhasova descended from Russia and lived in Rego Park for 21 years before relocating to Long Island. She feels that diners are part of the American Dream, and said, “Diners brought all types of cultures together, and everyone eats eggs afterall.” She called Sunday breakfasts a tradition. “My husband loved his eggs sunny-side-up. My daughter, who is now 12, has great memories too. We loved their pancakes and cheese fries. Now I work nearby, and on Fridays, my colleagues and I would go for lunch.”

“It feels like the death of a good friend,” mourned Rego Park resident David Schantz. “This is an old-school railroad style diner, but will now be a lost architectural design.” For him, among many others, a visit turned into a “family gathering.” “Patrons developed longtime relations with usually one waiter or waitress, but most eateries nowadays do not have that due to the high turnover in the food industry. I would chat with owner Chris, who was always willing to engage.” His favorite foods were the turkey meals and a periodic buffalo burger with sweet potato fries, but it is also the small details that count. “I will miss my weekly after breakfast prune Danish.”

On its final day, patrons were hard-pressed to find a seat. Among the expressions of gratitude by patrons were a display of letters and poetry in front of the cash register. Forest Hills resident Carol Lustgarten, who often dined with her close friend Amy, designed a colorful collage featuring the retro Shalimar sign along with a detailed handwritten poem that began “Shalimar, oh Shalimar; You’ve been part of my life for so long; Where did we ever go wrong?; Now you are singing your goodbye song.” It concluded with “We will always keep fond memories in the light and in the dark; Every season; You are a true landmark!” 

Shalimar Diner menu, Courtesy of Dr. Arthur Gudeon
A similar version of this feature has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column:

Long-Awaited Station Square Restoration Progresses

By Michael Perlman

Station Square is continuing to undergo restoration, brick by brick, after construction began in April and sections were fenced off to vehicular traffic. Last week, local residents and LIRR commuters observed workers reinstalling the historic brick surface along Continental Avenue, which many considered a breath of fresh air. In a time when many buildings citywide that merit preservation fall victim to the wrecking ball, Station Square’s restoration is a rare sight, and marks one of the largest restoration projects in Forest Hills history.

Station Square is the gateway to Forest Hills Gardens, America’s earliest planned garden community, founded in 1909. Inspired by Sir Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement, the model residential development was designed by principal architect Grosvenor Atterbury and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. Station Square accommodated a classy social life, particularly at the Forest Hills Inn, which opened in 1912 and offered 150 rooms, adjoining the Raleigh apartments on the east and the Marlboro apartments on the west. The LIRR Station, once accessible from the Inn through arcades and bridges sheltering residents and visitors from the weather, enabled a 13-minute commute to Manhattan. The Tudor village ambiance gave birth to historic events including annual 4th of July celebrations, Col. Theodore Roosevelt’s “100 Percent American” speech on July 4, 1917, and Helen Keller’s address to over 1,200 soldiers of the Rainbow Division that same year. 

Tony Barsamian, a member of the Board of Directors of the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation provided an in-depth view of the restoration. In order to upgrade utilities to meet 21st century standards, the overwhelming majority of original bricks were carefully salvaged and stored in Station Square and FHGC facilities. “We have cleaned and replaced every brick with either the original brick or custom-tailored bricks 100 percent to match the originals. We’ve padded them with the same sand in terms of how we lay them down. We don’t use mortar, since it cracks when it is icy or snowy, or water gets into it and then it freezes. We have gone out of our way to maintain it to hopefully last another hundred years.” 

In addition to addressing the roadway’s sinking elevation, Barsamian said, “We made improvements in the center island in terms of bringing it back to its original form.” He continued, “When you dug underneath Station Square, you saw that some of the lines and infrastructure elements were dated. Between National Grid and Con Edison and some other service providers, they came in and upgraded their connections to the homes and our community at large.” Water lines were also repaired. The plans will reportedly include the illumination of Station Square’s arcades.

Routine maintenance has been conducted annually, but not a restoration to this level, according to Barsamian. “This is a unique project that should garner great support from historians, since it will bring to life something that could have disappeared. We will probably be finished in February, but a ribbon-cutting ceremony or party may take place in March to welcome everyone to the beautifully restored Station Square.”

“When I watch bricks being put down in 2018, I imagine what it must have been like in the early 1900s,” said Barsamian. “I ask myself, ‘What were the original construction workers and masons thinking? Did it occur to them that they were involved in something so monumental that it has become a model throughout the country and the world, and when someone wants to create a planned historic village? Did the workers have any concept that the brick that they put down would still be walked and driven on?’ This is a throwback to an earlier time, and yet it was futuristic while designing from the past.” 

Barsamian owes much of the success to restrictive covenants. He explained, “A major reason that the community has been maintained for 100+ years is that homes are required by a covenant in their deed that they keep the integrity and structural soundness of the founding fathers’ established code. You cannot walk in and say I’m going to put in a checkerboard look or paint my bricks green and orange. People buy into the neighborhood knowing that there are restrictions on what can be done, and they need to seek our approval based on the community’s original design. That is why it is a timepiece, where you might as well be in an 1800s European Tudor village.”

Station Square’s restoration is not only marked by the most recent roadway project, but is witnessed along its Tudor facades. George Hoban, president of Station Square Inn Apartments Corporation, explained, “Over the past 10 years, our corporation has spent over 7 million dollars restoring our three buildings, and I don’t think people realize that it was funded entirely by less than 100 owners through assessments. People may also not realize that out of the hundreds of brick patterns throughout the buildings, each and every brick pattern is unique.”

Hoban also extended compliments to the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation and Friends of Station Square for their commitment to restoring and beautifying Station Square over the years, and said “The planning and logistics behind this project were obviously challenging, but they have come through flawlessly.” As a 21-year resident, he added, “I still feel a sense of joy each and every time I come home and see the beauty of the Square. I would see the surprised faces of New Yorkers coming off the LIRR into the Square for Forest Hills Stadium concerts and sensed that many were unaware such a beautiful and unique place existed in NYC.”

For another resident Dan Ziegler, who is the owner of Station Square Fight Fit at the Forest Hills Inn, he is also very pleased with the restoration of a town center with many paths. “When I come home, I almost feel like I'm in Europe. Famous people used to stay in my building, and I love how we can go for a stroll in the Gardens and look at mansions, or walk to Queens Boulevard for more of a city vibe. It's almost like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ where you go through a door, and each door has something special.”

“Visitors may not realize that when you get an aerial view of Station Square with its bricks, it looks like a map of England,” said Gigmy Bista, manager of Jade Eatery & Lounge. “I cannot wait for the restoration to be complete. We would always have locals, commuters, and tourists taking pictures and hanging out, and it was really good for businesses.” Station Square is symbolic of his first time settling in America. “When I attended Queens College, I started working at Jade as a server and remember admiring the Square so much, having my meals on the Square’s bench, and feeling special. I always think of Jade and the Square as my second hometown.” 

A similar version of this feature has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column:

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Stan Lee Passes On & Spider-Man Takes Off: A mural & more coming soon!

 By Michael Perlman

Stan Lee at the Phoenix Comicon, Photo by Gage Skidmore

Spider-Man lands at Forest Hills High School
America is paying tribute to an icon, Stan Lee, who left his mark on the comics industry as a writer, publisher, and editor. He actively shaped Americana from 1939 until his passing on November 12 at age 95, and will continue in spirit. 

Born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922 in Manhattan, he was the son of a Romanian Jewish immigrant father. He was raised in Washington Heights and was an early graduate of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. At 19, he launched his career, and today is remembered as the creative tour de force behind Marvel Comics’ Silver Age as a co-creator of everything from Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four (Manhattan headquarters) to Hulk, the X-Men, Thor, and Daredevil (Hell’s Kitchen residence), which continue to influence young and older generations alike. His accolades include being inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame, Jack Kirby Hall of Fame, and being an NEA National Medal of Arts recipient.

The humble photojournalist Peter Parker is the alter ego of Spider-Man who was raised at 20 Ingram Street in the Forest Hills Gardens, as featured in the June and July 1989 issues of Marvel Enterprises’ “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Parker even attended Forest Hills High School from 1962 to 1965. How coincidental that the home’s true residents were noted as Andrew and Suzanne Parker, along with their two daughters. In 1989, the family began to receive fan mail addressed to Peter Parker. 

Peter Parker's House from Amazing Spider-Man Annual, Volume 1
Forest Hills culture continues with “Spider-Man” (2002) and “Spider-Man 2” (2004) starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, which were filmed at Camille Iorio Finamore’s childhood home on 69th Road between Metropolitan Avenue and Sybilla Street. She recalled, “It was filmed outside of the house and in the yard. It was very exciting, and still is a great conversation starter.” 

Locally, much dialogue is underway by residents who are deciding on how to commemorate Stan Lee and particularly Spider-Man. Within days after his passing, Forest Hills resident Jonathan Vick began conducting outreach to Marvel’s PR agency. He said, “I poked them to show some interest in honoring Stan Lee in Forest Hills. He was a great storyteller, and I worry about how many are left in a world of sound-bites and tweets. He clearly had fun at what he did.”

Coming from Queens, he identified with Peter Parker. “It may have influenced my studying journalism, and to this day I can't help but think I am walking among superheroes somehow. Their superpower is putting up with the subway every day and not snapping.” He continued, “I think because of Stan Lee, Spider-Man/Peter Parker and Forest Hills will always be connected, and that is gift beyond measure. Forest Hills is associated with American folklore for many reasons, but Spider-Man is a special part.” He recommended a mural at minimum and a street co-naming, and then said, “Maybe Forest Hills will have a ‘Spider-Man Day,’ which would be a hoot, and Stan might find that a hoot too.”

“Stan Lee, the ‘Father of Modern Comics’ showed the world that comics could make a difference, and he created a universe filled with superheroes , super villains and countless wonders,” said Kevin Manheim of Rego Park. “Our heroes had the same problems as us regular people such as falling in love, illnesses, and homework, etc. Our heroes were vulnerable yet they saved the universe time and again.” Looking ahead, he said, “Every time I pick up a comic, I will be reminded that no matter what comic it is, it was inspired by Stan Lee.” Manheim likes the ring of “Peter Parker Place.”

“Spider-Man is the most human superhero ever created and it's awesome,” said Kew Gardens Hills resident Phil Landsberg. “He was just a kid with kid problems, and as an adult they're just adult-sized. Even his relationships don't go perfect.” As for his vision, he explained, “A mural would be amazing and a street sign equally so. If a statue is commissioned, it should be ‘The Ditko Spidey’ as a way to honor all three of the major ‘men in his life’ and both of Lee's main collaborators.”

“Stan Lee left an incredible mark, just as Charles Schulz and ‘Dr. Seuss’ has,” said Jackeline Canedo of Kew Gardens, who will always be grateful. She reminisced, “When I came to the U.S. in 1971 at age six, I knew very little English and learned by watching not only Sesame Street, but the Spider-Man cartoons. I would get home from school and finish my work as soon as I could. I loved Spider-Man and imagined being in the adventures with him.” Among her favorite Spider-Man quotes is “Whatever comes our way, whatever battle we have raging inside of us, we always have a choice. It is our choices that makes us who we are, and we always have a choice to do what's right ~ Let love and forgiveness reign.” Canedo’s shared her first choice for a tribute. “A statue of Stan Lee and his wonderful characters would stand out just as his talent and love of life, where he gave so much joy and adventure for the world to enjoy.”

Numerous residents’ prayers may soon be answered. “I am planning a local mural with Spider-Man on it, and it is expected to be painted in the near future,” said Forest Hills resident Carlos Pesantes, a familiar face in community affairs, particularly as founder of The Compost Collective. He will always remember Stan Lee as a “creative genius.” “His messages were classic Americana, that even if you were considered funny, odd, or a nerd, you too mattered, and maybe even more so than the rest because there is beauty and strength in that difference. That belief that we all contribute is the glue that binds us together, even through dark times of anti-Semitic and xenophobic sentiment. Good ol’ Stan was all for punching Nazis.”

Pesantes often reflects upon the classic Spider-Man phrase “With great power comes great responsibility.” “It has always reminded me to stay humble and serve others. When I was deployed by the city last year to Puerto Rico after the storms and their devastation, I channeled my inner Spider-Man who I loved as a kid, and tried my very best because that is all we can do in the face of adversity.” He continued, “Spidery is a Queens kid, as some of us are; a Forest Hills boy who is far from perfect but who loves his family, his neighborhood, his country and who is all about inclusiveness. Now I always remember my dad with his comics and passing that love for comics on to me.”

A similar version of this feature appears in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column:

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Landmark Historic African Burial Ground in Elmhurst - Endangered by Development Plans

By Michael Perlman

The original Union African Church on African American Burial Ground, Courtesy of EHCPS
Every community has distinctive resources which are sometimes forgotten, but rarely buried and rediscovered. The African Burial Ground in Elmhurst, once known as Newtown, is a 19th century property that has been long-forgotten, and was even de-mapped by the city in 1931. It may soon undergo a five-story residential building at 47-11 90th Street, if developer Song Liu’s plans materialize, but “not so fast” according to the Elmhurst History & Cemeteries Preservation Society (EHCPS). This non-profit is spearheading the initiative to have this culturally significant site landmarked by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), and has submitted a Request For Evaluation (RFE) form on October 1.

Newtown was one of the first three free African American communities, and it was a pivotal time in history for its residents who owned land and properties including a church, cemetery, and school, as well as homes and shops. The African American Burial Ground originated in 1828, a year after the abolition of slavery in New York, and is rumored to date even earlier. 

Recent aerial view of former African Burial Ground, Courtesy of EHCPS
“The first step is to protect the burial ground as is, so it can be officially recognized for its sensitive and important history, as well as a respected final resting place of the freed and free African American community of Newtown,” said EHCPS President Marialena Giampino. “We are also nominating the site for the State & National Register of Historic Places to be considered as a State and National Landmark.” The list of supporters is on the rise and includes local residents, the Historic Districts Council, Queens Preservation Council, Corona-East Elmhurst Historic Preservation Society, and Queens Community Board 4. “Only landmark designation can protect the historical integrity of the site in perpetuity,” said Mitchell Grubler, Queens Preservation Council President. “The local community should have a voice in what happens to the property.”

The congregation was founded in a Newtown carpenter shop by four freed African Americans. The site once contained a church and parsonage for St. Mark’s American Methodist Episcopal Church, originating as the United African Society, but in 1928, when the church had plans to relocate when the city planned to widen Union Avenue (now Corona Avenue), their permit to transfer all burials to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth was denied. As a result, Mount Olivet records show that twenty burials were transferred to two of their plots. There is an estimate of over 300 burials on the African Burial Ground as of 1886, when the church requested assistance in conducting repairs and enclosing the site.

In 1929, the congregation decided to sell their property and relocated in 1930 to North Corona, now East Elmhurst. Despite the political decisions at play during the 20th century, the church remains a symbol of perseverance at its current location in Jackson Heights. 

Body & coffin fragments after excavation, Identified as Martha Peterson, Courtesy of EHCPS
Fast-forward to 2011, a time when it can be said that the dead teaches the living. The remains of Martha Peterson, a 26-year-old African American dubbed the “Iron Coffin Lady” were discovered on site in a high state of preservation, despite succumbing to the smallpox epidemic in 1850. Giampino explained, “When the site was being prepared for construction, the backhoe dug into something that made a loud noise. The construction crew saw human feet exposed from the ground and immediately called 911. If it wasn't for the Martha Peterson discovery, the public would not be aware of the site and a direct link to Newtown history. She has been a revelation for so many and we thank her.” The crew originally suspected that it was a recent homicide. Peterson received a proper burial in 2016 at Mt. Olivet Cemetery. 

Mummified remains of Martha Peterson, Courtesy of EHCPS
On October 3, 2018, PBS aired “Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin.” The airtight iron coffin originated in 1848 by a stove manufacturer named Almond Dunbar Fisk, and due to its high cost, it was typically used by the wealthy. She was the daughter of John and Jane Peterson, well-respected African American figures in Newtown.

EHCPS Vice President James McMenamin recalls feeling “emotionally lifted” by the research and care, as well as the human aspect. He said, “Who was she? What was her life like? How did the area function in 1850 when she passed, and how were the relationships between people? Based on the evidence, she was much cared for by her extended family, the community at large, as well as her employers.” 

African Burial Ground now with dumpsters, Courtesy of EHCPS
Giampino said, “It appears to be vacant land, but human remains are still interred on this property. The burial ground became the final resting place of the founders of the historic church, former slaves who settled in historic Newtown.” She feels that paving over this property would be “highly insensitive to NYC’s African American community.” “Those buried are their ancestors, and they have a history and story to tell for present and future generations. It would set a very bad precedent for other historic cemeteries, big or small.” As for the developer, she said, “They pre-filed their plans on Sept 13, 2018, but as long as they do not have an agreement with the church, they cannot proceed legally with anything.”

The property became a highlight for walking tours and lectures. EHCPS contacted Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants in spring 2018, and their analysis furthered the site’s significance. Looking ahead, Giampino explained, “We would recommend Precision Radar Scanning to learn what lies beneath, not to disturb the graves, and we would also like to see what St. Marks AME Church wishes to learn about their ancestors. We would recommend a beautiful monument with known names that are buried, and of course dedicate the unknown, as well as designate it an official memorial park and cemetery site.”

McMenamin said, “I pray that this site can serve as a memorial and an educational opportunity, where students among the public can view artifacts and a slideshow, and have a garden to meditate and reflect. It was re-discovered for a purpose, hopefully not to be covered with concrete, and forgotten, but to embrace as a bold reminder, of the human experiences that struggled and thrived here, when in other parts of the country that was an impossibility.”

“Greed has become the hallmark of progress and success” according to EHCPS Secretary Jennifer Ochoa, who witnessed various un-landmarked local sites undergoing demolition. “The formation and development of African Americans’ self-identity as individuals, as a race, and as Americans has been stalled, and it is our moral obligation to honor their ancestors, as they were also part of our nation's history makers. We must confront the truth and learn from our history.” The site offers valuable lessons, especially for children. “Martha Peterson was my catalyst to explain the history of my family tree to my son, as in how diverse our tree is having blood from Native Americans to Africans to European. It is more important today to teach our children about our history and acceptance; not fear and ignorance.”

Ochoa called the site “sacred land on so many levels.” “The act, practice, and belief of burying our departed, in part, make us ‘humane beings’ with an advanced civilization. Furthermore, for our history and self-development, we must recognize the lives and achievements of those buried there. Elmhurst is rich in history, including the Native American experience that is always overlooked. If we want today’s accomplishments to be recognized, we must first resort to the past and preserve.”

A similar version of this feature story has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

“Walter Becker Way” Unveiled in Forest Hills

By Michael Perlman

Walter Becker Way unveiled, Photo by Michael Perlman
Walter Becker signed headshot offered at the ceremony, Photo by Annalisa
On October 28th, it was history-in-the-making for a couple hundred Steely Dan fans who attended the “Walter Becker Way” street co-naming ceremony on 72nd Drive at 112th Street. The event was not to be missed, as proven by fans ranging from Forest Hills to Europe. After a series of speeches by host Jim Kerr of the Q104.3 FM Rock & Roll Morning Show, Councilmember Karen Koslowitz who nominated Becker for this honor, and Matt Kerns, Howard Rodman, and Cindy Mizelle who shared personal memories and professional affiliations, the much-awaited street sign was uncovered. Throughout the event, items from Becker’s personal collection were distributed and prioritized for trivia buffs. The event took place outside The Balfour apartment building at 112-20 72nd Drive, which is where Becker was raised. 

"Before," Photo by Michael Perlman

"After," Photo by Michael Perlman
Walter Carl Becker (1950 – 2017) was a guitarist, bassist, and co-songwriter of the jazz-rock band “Steely Dan.” In 1967, he befriended Donald Fagen (born 1948), the band’s lead singer. Their first album “Can’t Buy A Thrill” was released in 1972 under the self-titled “Steely Dan,” and they toured the U.S. and Britain in 1973. “Two Against Nature” won four Grammys in 2001, and Becker and Fagen were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Some well-known hits are “Do It Again,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and “Deacon Blues.” 

Ronnie Croce with Councilmember Koslowitz, Photo by Michael Perlman
Councilmember Karen Koslowitz referenced her role in “The Ramones Way” street co-naming at Forest Hills High School, as well as local musicians including Burt Bacharach. She said, “You know, Forest Hills is very famous. Today it’s my pleasure to be able to unveil the name of Walter Becker. He lived in The Balfour, so his name will live here forever.” 

Host Jim Kerr of Q104.3 FM, Photo by Michael Perlman
Jim Kerr asked, “What song on Circus Money did Walter sing to a woman who was gone perhaps even on a distance star?” A contestant named Lisa from Bristol guessed “Paging Audrey.” He responded, “What we have for you is the actual chart used by the tracking band when they recorded that song.” Among the other questions was “For many years, Becker used guitars and basses made by his favorite luthier. What was Becker’s favorite make of guitar and bass?” A contestant guessed “Sadowsky.” He continued, “Your prize is a guitar strap used by Walter.” He was given a choice and selected his on-stage strap over the one he used at home. Then he said, “You’re also going to get some very rare guitar picks.” 

Longtime fan Matt Kerns, Photo by Michael Perlman
Guest speaker Matt Kerns, co-creator of a database of Becker’s famous “Hey 19 Raps” said, “When I was first asked if I would speak, my instinct was to say no. It’s hard to say something about someone who so often expressed things better than anyone else.” He continued, “When Walter passed away on September 7th of last year, music magazines rushed on Walter as the silent partner of Steely Dan. The irony would not be lost on Walter. Anyone who knew him to any degree knows that Walter Becker was anything but silent. Walter spoke, and he spoke loudly with a voice unique in popular music”… “He was literate without being pretentious, sophisticated with a splash of sophomoric humor, was jazz and rock, mentor and learner, professor of infectious vibes, and student of rhythm and soul… “Walter inherently knew that if he didn’t try to write songs for everyone, he could write music that reached someone. Often in songs about less than savored characters, Walter managed to find the profound in the profane, all without resorting to troves or clichés. He told tales of the world both dark and real.” 

Howard Rodman, Longtime friend of Walter Becker, Photo by Michael Perlman
Another speaker was Becker’s closest longtime friend, Howard Rodman, who first knew him at age 10. “Like many of the friends and comrades with us, we went to PS 196, whose anthem I can still sing.” “We are left with glorious memories, and we’re left with the music which is indelible; music which was never quite in sync with its time, and because of that we’ll never grow old.” “They sold 40 million records, not by reverse engineering which an audience might like, but by being deeply and obsessively true to themselves. The success of Steely Dan was because and not in spite of the celebration of the marginal.” He later continued, “It took Walter Becker to look out at this suburban landscape of postwar 6-story housing, and recognizing it for what it was. Not a bedroom community, not a bridge or tunnel, or an E train away from Manhattan, but something grand and glorious in and of itself – ‘Forest Hills,’ a place he saw as the capital of the 20th century, and then made it be so.”

Singer Cindy Mizelle, Photo by Michael Perlman
Singer Cindy Mizelle, a guest speaker explained, “Walter is such a champion in my eyes. He always treated me with love and respect, as I did he and his family, and wow, it’s such a great honor to have a street named after him. It’s so cool to take a walk down Walter Becker Way… He took me under his wing and really showed me that I can relax in the person that I am to sing live and egging me along to do more, and invited me on his album, ‘Circus Money.’” 

Guitar tech Orick Salazar, Photo by Michael Perlman
In recent years, Orick Salazar was Becker’s guitar tech. He said, “Walter was more than just a music genius. He was very smart and an amazing human being that helped a lot of people. I am very grateful for his advice.” 

Walter Becker's childhood home at The Balfour, Photo by Michael Perlman
Attendee Ben Larah, a Balfour resident takes pride in being a huge Steely Dan fan since 15. He said, “Their music sounded so different to anything I heard before; an amazing blend of jazz, blues, pop and rock, with a focus on virtuosic musicianship and clever lyrics. Aja is one of my favorite albums of all time. Walter Becker apparently had a lifelong fondness and pride for Forest Hills, so having his old street corner named after him was a fitting honor.” 

London resident Darren Hirst holds a Steely Dan leather jacket, Photo by Michael Perlman
Darren Hirst traveled from London to document the ceremony, and ended up winning a round of trivia, walking away with Becker’s leather jacket. “Walter along with Donald Fagen have a unique view among writers of the period from the 1970s onwards. Their sardonic and skeptical take on modern society coupled with a cool jazz vibe leaves few who can be legitimately compared to their composing and performance skill. I bought their first album in the 1970s, but at that time they had ceased touring. I caught their show when they resumed in the 1990s, and have seen all their tours that have come to Europe and many in the U.S.”

Steely Dan and their music as soloists has been a soundtrack to his life. “I have always found their lyrics intellectually challenging and the musical rhythms and composition so innovative,” he said.

Laura Tommaso made the trek from Italy, and praised it for being a sincere, personalized, and informal ceremony. “Don and Walt are just some of the best music NYC experienced since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Steely Dan are part of that tradition that starts with Dion and goes on with Frankie Valli, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, and Talking Heads; simply the heart and soul of the Big Apple popular music. They brought the passion for jazz, psychedelic music, Bob Dylan, and Ray Charles into a unique music outfit called Steely Dan, and there was nothing like it before or after.” She continued, “What made him memorable was being himself.”

Upon hearing the news of the ceremony, fans began to reminisce and think ahead. Richard Adler of Monroe, NY reminisced, “Walter attended Stuyvesant, but I knew Walter from Halsey. Walter, Randy California, and I had a band called Newport News when we were in high school. Walter was our lead singer and harmonica player, and we mostly played the blues. Randy and I helped Walter learn to play guitar.”

Middle Village resident Ira Nagel said, “At Halsey JHS 157, he was Valedictorian, and we would play music at his grandma’s home across from Yellowstone Park. I remember his horn rim glasses and Squire briefcase. Maybe we can recognize him at Halsey with a plaque, ceremony, and a musical tribute.”

A fan holds up "Can't Buy A Thrill," Photo by Michael Perlman

A similar version of this feature story has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: