by Carl Ballenas
Spirits Alive 2019 at Maple Grove Cemetery was a smashing success and very well received. The Friends of Maple Grove has been holding this annual event for close to 15 years. Every year, First President and Historian Helen Day continues to discover new historical figures, buried at Maple Grove. Over time their stories have become lost. We take all the information we can find, from newspapers, books and obituaries to recreate their stories and write a script for our actors. This year we focused on a few incredible people including Bonnie Magin, an actress and dancer who survived the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903. The fire was the deadliest theater fire and the deadliest single-building fire in United States history, resulting in at least 602 deaths. Another was Emily Huber, who formed a local chapter of the Suffragettes movement. She went on to become treasurer of the Queens Suffragette group. Hearing her story was accordingly relevant, seeing as 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. Bonnie Magin and Emily Huber were portrayed by mother daughter team, Reagan Stone and Luci Sellerberg.
This year we had three actors portray World War II soldiers. The soldiers were from Kew Gardens and grew up near the cemetery. All three died in the war and their names were found on a forgotten Kew Gardens World War II bronze memorial. The three portrayed were Richard Smith, Walter Roth and William Yepsen. We were very lucky to have an avid collector of World War II artifacts, Sean Miller, who came to portray Richard Smith and provided authentic World War II uniforms. There are 27 names on the memorial and only Richard Smith was buried at Maple Grove. Marco Vittozzi portrayed Walter Roth and Giovanni Vittozzi portrayed William Jepsen.
We have a number of local community members who volunteer to perform every year and the largest group of actors come from the Josephine Foundation troupe under the direction of Andrew J. Koslosky. Others who came this year include Aj Pecoraro who portrayed noted stage actor and photographer Adam Dove. Tim Sims took on the role of Ralph Rawdon, a note engraver whose company was commissioned to create the first American postage stamp featuring George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Katie Pecoraro portrayed Mary Ann Burkhardt. Mary Ann was a direct descendant of the famous American Sea Captain Lawrence, who upon his death urged his men “Do Not Give Up the Ship!” Ell Kezys portrayed 19-year-old Virginia Smith who entered the American Air Force but was killed on the air base by a blot of lightening. Gianna Varrassi took the role of Jane Heath, the wife of one of the early Trustees of the cemetery. She was a direct descendant of William Rogers who founded the Colony of Rhode Island.
We were very fortunate to have Captain Chris Kraft, who worked at Ground Zero after the attacks of 9/11, and talked about the 23 victims of 9/11 who are buried at Maple Grove.
A very special feature of Spirits Alive 2019 was to witness a solemn Re-dedication Ceremony by the Pyramid Lodge organization at their 1893 Maple Grove monument. They are marking and celebrating the 160th anniversary of their founding in 1859! Many visitors were given the special privilege of witnessing this ceremony! Their dedication and Spirits Alive occurred at the same time, and upon learning that they were to occur simultaneously, they enthusiastically joined the other actors.
We had many visitors who walked through the cemetery and heard many historical stories. It truly was an event that brought history to life!
Photos taken by Carl Ballenas