Best of the best: top arts stories of 2017 in Queens

Vincent Tomeo wrote a poem — as he likes to do when travelling — for an Italian town. A town elder liked it so much that he had it carved into stone and is erecting it there next momth.
Photo by Michael Shain
By Tammy Scileppi

It seems every time you turn around, something cool is happening in The World’s Borough, where every neighborhood has its own special vibe.

Whether it’s a singer, dancer, filmmaker, visual artist, author, musician or chef…someone somewhere is always making waves here. And their stories are just waiting to be told.

Luckily, plenty of these local movers and shakers were featured in 2017, along with a roster of celebs who have returned to their Queens roots to entertain audiences here….

Paul Simon returns to Queens for benefit concert

The legendary singer-songwriter came back to his roots on April 5, to play with local musicians at a benefit concert supporting Long Island City’s Materials for the Arts.

While MFTA’s warehouse of free artist supplies isn’t the kind of venue the arena-packing performer usually graces, it was his call, as it turned out.

“But that was ultimately the point — and his direct requirement, in fact, to play the nontraditional venue in hopes of bringing more people into MFTA that would never have seen it otherwise,” according to Kwame Belle, MFTA’s communications coordinator.

For Simon, it was all about helping a cause…and his passion for wind chimes. “When Paul Simon first visited MFTA…, to see the wind chimes that had been created by fellow musician Skip LaPlante, I think he was amazed by what he encountered,” said the group’s executive director, Harriet Taub.

“I guess only he would know, but my gut tells me that he was impressed with the work we are doing to foster arts and culture in NYC.”

At the end of his 2016 summer tour, Simon had a sold-out concert for fans at a newly renovated and revamped Forest Hills Stadium.

While Queens welcomed back one of its own, a small town in Southern Italy welcomed back a mild-mannered former high school teacher from Flushing, who became their beloved poet hero…

Flushing poet honored in Italy for poem sculpted in marble

Vincent Tomeo couldn’t believe the warm welcome he received when he returned to the picturesque town of Monterosso Calabro in ancient Calabria, for a celebration and ribbon-cutting ceremony in early April.

His inspirational poem, “A View from a Tower in Calabria, Italy” – penned atop a villa tower during his first visit back in 2015 – became a hit with the townspeople and was unveiled in marble for all to admire.

The Corona-born poet without borders, has been discussing details for a new poetry workshop in that village. He is hoping that his dream will become a reality, and he’ll be off to Calabria soon, to teach budding bards sometime next fall.

Meanwhile, in sunny California, a rising star who dreamed big, finally got his wish.

Queens comic gets big break with ABC series

Actor and comic, Barry Rothbart, was over the moon when he heard that his career had gone to the dogs. The Forest Hills native had just snagged a juicy role (as Kevin) in a unique network sitcom called “Downward Dog,” which aired on ABC May 23.

The refreshingly out-of-the-box show, revolved around the adventures of a human-like, highly opinionated rescue dog turned TV star named Martin, who had a lot to say about his owner Nan’s life.

Like his fellow creatives, Rothbart lived in artsy Astoria when he was just starting out, and knew that the road to fame would be a rocky one. So he just kept hustling. After getting laughs at scores of NYC comedy clubs, he went bi-coastal, headlining at hotspots in L.A., while auditioning for acting parts.

You may have seen him on Comedy Central and on “Tonight,” “Conan,” and “The Late Late Show,” or in “Dean.” He played Peter DeBlasio, a broker working for Jordan Belfort (Leo DiCaprio), in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013). Rothbart just finished filming his parts for two upcoming movies.

While Martin was stealing viewers’ hearts, a traveling chef made his foodie fans’ mouths water when they tuned in to an episode he filmed while sampling diverse homestyle dishes from local eateries, hole-in-the-wall joints, and food carts.

Celebrity food adventurer Anthony Bourdain finds world’s menu right here in Queens

The Emmy Award-winning cook extraordinaire took the borough by storm when he arrived here on the No. 7 train from his home in Manhattan, and ate his way across several ‘hoods, thus proving that you don’t have to globe-trot to discover delicious ethnic fare in your own back yard.

Who could resist platefuls of authentic Ecuadorian, Chinese, Korean, Tibetan, Mexican, African and Latino cooking?

On this episode of CNN’s TV series “Parts Unknown,” which aired May 21, Bourdain described Queens as “a stewpot of neighborhoods filled with the languages, cultures, traditions and flavors of many lands,” and “an international crossroads.” He also acknowledged how hard the immigrants, who make up the backbone of the local culinary scene, have worked to make it here.

With prices going up everywhere – across the board – getting your culture on in Manhattan may not be such a wise option these days. So it’s great to know that you can still get world class entertainment for bargain prices, without crossing a bridge and sitting in traffic or having to fight the crowds on subways and buses.

Gladys Knight brings the funk to Queens College

Thanks to local organizations like Kupferberg Center for the Arts, getting your culture fix on a budget is possible. Just check out their cornucopia of quality shows.

If you were lucky enough to catch Motown diva Gladys Knight’s sold-out concert at Colden Center in November, you’re probably still talking about her memorable performance.

The audience was reminded that the powerhouse vocalist and “Empress of Soul” still had it going on 60 years later, and fans let her know how much she was still loved and admired.

In the fall, Kupferberg Center celebrated 10 years of dedication to music, art and culture, marking the occasion with a dynamic roster of well-known artists who reflect the rich diversity of this borough.

“When we present artists like Gladys Knight…, we know we are giving audiences a chance to see top tier artists without having to leave their own borough,” said Executive Director Jeffrey Rosenstock.

With so much happening here all the time, stay tuned for an exciting lineup of captivating arts stories in 2018.

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