It’s Midnight Out
GEORGE Mesterhazy, the Grammy-nominated pianist who became an institution at the Merion Inn on Decatur Street, was admired around the world for his musical genius. In Cape May, he was a legend. Four days after his 59th birthday, in April of 2012, George’s sudden death — he’d experienced a heart attack after a performance in Somers Point — left the community in a state of grief and shock. We interviewed some of George’s countless friends and fans, who took comfort in the knowledge that his music will live on always. This week, we’ve been reminded of this fact.
One of George’s students — former Cape May councilman David Kurkowski — has released a CD called It’s Midnight, a project done in collaboration with George.
“We first met at the First Presbyterian Church in Cape May,” David told us. “I’d been writing music and lyrics for 20 years, I showed one of my songs to George, and he thought there was great potential. We started working together on my compositions, and he suggested we record them all. I was immediately excited.”
George helped develop the songs, and provided some of the piano playing and orchestration. The duo also recruited Philadelphia-based singer Paula Johns and world-renowned pianist Barry Miles to perform on the tracks, while David played his oboe. It’s a process, he says, that had a year-long gestation period. “It was such a great experience,” he told us. “George took such delight out of the creative process, and he took each song to the next level. He was a very close friend of mine, but that’s the thing about George… everyone who knew him considered him a close friend. He was a first-class human being.”
The musicians recorded live, after-hours at the Merion Inn, before moving into a studio in Smithville, where Bob Fowler served as sound engineer. Their last session as a complete group was April 2, 10 days before George’s death, making his work on It’s Midnight likely his last recording. David told us he never considered not finishing the project, which took longer than anticipated to complete, as he now had to learn how to do the orchestration work George had been contributing. “It was important to complete the CD,” he said. “George loved these songs.”
Loved, indeed. David shared with us some of the text messages George sent him after their final recording together. “I can’t bring myself to delete them,” he said. One read: “I really loved the work we did last night. What a beautiful song!!! Great and joy-filled chemistry in the room. Thanks for trusting us with your baby.” And another sums up the encouraging, gracious attitude for which George was so loved: “Take your time and savor each composition,” he said. “I’m spending more time on that also. Even if eight bars come out pretty, I’m happy. I’m trying to do a little every day.”
Each track on It’s Midnight has been inspired by an important moment in David’s life, including one written in the ’90s for his wife on their anniversary. “I had to leave for a business trip,” he said, “so I recorded myself singing and playing piano and left it on her pillow at 5:30 in the morning. Of course, I’m a pretty bad singer, so I’m sure that cassette has been destroyed.” Another, a gospel piece, was written for a friend experiencing a personal crisis. A third was written for a friend’s second wedding, and sung by her 14-year-old daughter, leaving not a dry eye in the place. Many have never been performed at all.
But perhaps the most poignant number is the album’s final song, “On the Road of Life,” the meaning behind which is that every person’s life becomes a song in its own right. The closing line — “We’re better for having heard his song” — is the group’s tribute to George. “He lived such a rich life,” David said.
It’s Midnight is now available at Whale’s Tale on the Washington Street Mall. Look for it also on iTunes and cdbaby.com. “I’m really hoping these songs can bring some beauty to another person’s life or stir some thoughts or feelings,” David said. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Let’s show him our support.
Laugh It Up
WE’RE getting psyched for the Eighth Annual PAL — or Police Athletic League — Comedy Night Social on March 15. It’s an event that used to take place at the old Convention Hall, until the building was deemed structurally unsound in 2008. Then it moved to West Cape May Banquet Hall, which was a nice venue, according to PAL President and Cape May Police Officer, Tony Genaro. “But I’m excited to be back at Convention Hall,” he said. “Before, we were limited to 200 people. Now, it would be great to get up into the 300s again. More people means even more laughter.”
Not that laughter is a thing that’s ever in short supply at one of PAL’s comedy nights. Tony goes through Headline Entertainment each year to book three professional comedians, making sure they’re always different than the comedians who’ve performed in Cape May previously. “It keeps it fresh,” he said. We called Headline owner Johnny Lampert, himself a former PAL night comedian, who told us he expects this to be the best show yet. “I make sure every act is strong,” he said. “These are real comedians, not just open mic guys. They’re coming out of Philly, New York and Boston.”
Take Joe Vega, for example. He’s been around for 35 years, and he regularly opens for Chris Rock and Mark Anthony. “A real pro,” Johnny said. Then there’s Mick Thomas, a comic from Ireland who brings a fresh perspective. “I tend to stick with what I know,” Johnny said. “But he’s one of the new guys who caught my attention.” Finally, you’ll be treated to Keith Anthony, from whom you’ll get “no generic nonsense.” Each one is going to make it difficult for the next one up, Johnny said. “I stand by this show 100 percent,” he told us. “The reason the PAL nights are so successful, is because people know they’re going to get their money’s worth.”
As for content? “I prefer that my comedians can work clean,” Johnny said. “Not to say they always have to; everyone likes a dirty joke from time to time. But it can’t be based on that. I need to know they have the chops.”
But PAL comedy night is not all about the jokes. There will be light fare – including soda, beer, and wine— provided by Lucky Bones, DJ-ing by Tony (that’s his other, other side gig), and plenty of good energy. “The doors open at 7pm, but the comedians don’t come on until 8:30,” Tony said. “So there’s time to grab a bite and hang out.” Then there’s the raffle. “I’ve asked each basketball team to sponsor a raffle prize with a value of at least $200,” Tony said, “meaning there will be close to $2,000 worth of prizes. One team is doing a barbeque grill, for instance. I’ve been the DJ for a great deal of beef and beers where I’m calling raffle winners all night long, and no one’s paying attention, because the prizes just aren’t that great. This won’t be like that.”
But the best part is that this all benefits a good cause. PAL works to improve police-youth-community relations. In Cape May, the organization oversees nine traveling basketball teams comprised of approximately 90 kids from third to eighth grade. “Our main goal is to keep kids active, out of trouble, and doing constructive things with their time, all while having positive interactions with police officers,” said Tony, who is himself the parent of two participants. “I’m very proud. It’s such a great feeling walking into the gym and seeing these kids ready to play.”
To purchase tickets, which are $35 in advance or $45 at the door, visit Convention Hall’s box office or log on to capemaypal.com. Seating is limited. For more info, contact email@example.com. And get ready to laugh.
IN JANUARY, we posted a picture on Facebook of the frozen water at Higbee’s Beach, and it generated quite a bit of commentary about how cold it’s been here recently. One comment in particular, from a gentleman named Pete Hart, caught our attention. “I just did a dive job in the harbor,” it read. “Air temp = 25 degrees. Water temp = 35 degrees.” We contacted him to find out why anyone in their right mind — save for the usual, surfing suspects — would leave the comfort of central heating for a frigid dip this time of year.
Turns out, Pete is the owner of Twin Beach Divers, a local dive and salvage company that’s been around since 1984. But the story of Pete’s life on — and under — the water begins long before that.
Pete was born in Cape May, and for the most part, bred here, save for a few stints. (There was that time he spent, at the age of six, packing fish on the dock where his father worked in North Carolina.) “But I grew up on Lund’s dock in Cape May,” Pete said. “My dad worked there for a long time. Then he went over to Two Mile and was in charge of the whole dock there.” (That’s before the Crab House was built, Pete explained.)
At the age of eight, he went out on his first clamming expedition, on an 85-foot boat. “The crew needed a deckhand,” he told us, “and my mother let me go. I brought my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and climbed aboard at o’dark thirty in the morning. The other deckhand got sick, so the captain had me steer the boat all day, while he shoveled clams into burlap bags. When we docked, the captain told my mother I could come along any time I wanted. She wouldn’t believe I’d driven.”
Pete has equally vivid memories of unloading fish at the age of 11. “It took all day to do one boat,” he told us. “And it’s not like we were messing around. That’s just how much fish they’d catch in those days.”
But when it came time for college, Pete took off for Georgia Tech in Atlanta to study something nice and easy: aerospace engineering. “I wanted to research nuclear propulsions for space vehicles,” he told us. “But the biggest thing going on in aerospace at the time was trying to make airplane engines more efficient so they burnt less fuel. Whoopee.” Pete did finish school… actually, he earned his Masters degree in aerospace engineering, but not without taking a few hiatuses in order to come back to Cape May to serve as first mate and engineer on clam boats here — including a 123-footer, the largest in the harbor at the time — and in Ocean City, Maryland.
Pete did these jobs until he opened Twin Dive and Salvage, which he did “right down the street on Park Boulevard with 20 bucks in a checking account.” Since then, Pete’s answered calls from commercial and private boaters when things like lobster traps get caught in propellers. “Yes, sometimes with lobsters in them,” he told us. He’s done a great deal of work with dredging companies who lose their pipes and need help tracking them down in local waters. And he’s answered calls when boats run aground, or when they need to be sunk, sometimes with explosives, on nearby reefs. “Within 10 miles of Cape May there are lots of boats under the water,” he told us. “Lots of stuff, actually, including the slabs from the Walt Whitman bridge.”
Then there’s the times he’s brought in to deal with objects that people should not have attempted to sink, like tractor trailers. “I won’t say who did that,” he told us, “but they did it. They put cables around the tractor trailer to keep it from floating away, thinking it would eventually go under, but because it was refrigerated, the insulation kept it afloat. It was my job to cut the cable. Think of a rubber ducky you pull under the water with a string. What happens when you pull the string? Magnify that times a tractor trailer.”
We asked Pete about his greatest wildlife encounter, and he assured us that the sharks everyone wants to know about are just as scared of us as we are of them, though he did have one encounter. “I saw it’s great big teeth, and I thought, Wow, this is a moment right here,” he said. “This is out of the ordinary. But I noticed he seemed pretty tame… he wasn’t moving much. I thought he was dead, so I poked him. Turns out, it was plastic… just a child’s toy. I still have that thing somewhere.”
But laughable instances like this are outnumbered by bona fide close calls in Pete’s line of work. “Nobody wants my job,” he told us. “I cannot describe to you how dangerous some of this stuff is.” Which isn’t hard to believe when you hear about the time Pete closed his company for a period after a colleague jumped off a boat to rescue a friend who couldn’t swim and ended up drowning himself.
Then there’s the cold. “We’ve had to start the propellers of boats in order to break up the layer of ice on the water before I jump in,” Pete said, “and sometimes it closes back up while I’m under.”
But despite it all, Pete’s happy with his choice of career… and he’s about as comfortable underwater as anyone we’ve ever met. “Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m below the surface,” he told us. “That’s how long I’ve been doing this. I don’t have any fears. The job has to get done, and that’s what I have to focus on.”
To all the men and women doing what Pete does — or working outside at all in these temperatures — we salute you.