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A Magical Night in Windsor Park:
Irish Teachers Festival a Huge Success

Melissa Sgroi

SUV upon SUV lined both sides of Windsor Drive, making driveways no small blessing for the residents. Some cars were even tilted, bumper-to-grill, rear tires into storm drains, and it was easy to envision neighbors, hands on hips, shaking their heads, wondering how on earth they would back out of their properties and manage the tight turns on their evening runs to the Turkey Hill. That would not happen on this beautiful summer evening because the neighbors had no intention of leaving.

A large crowd of friends and neighbors, new and old, filled the lawn in front of the perennial park at the end of Windsor Drive. Many brought blankets for comfort, but many others brought lawn chairs and straw hats as if packed for vacation. And some didn't come to sit at all.

Dotted throughout the lawn were artists working to chronicle the event the way artists do. Several still photographers clicked away recording every detail of the event. The Irish American, a Philadelphia based newspaper sent two reporters who spent the evening talking to everyone they could corner. Theirs would be a story on a unique event celebrating the journey of Irish teachers in America.

As flashes of light from 35 millimeter cameras lit up the crowd, and reporters filled their notebooks with word pictures, 13-year-old Lauren Hardisky dotted green, blue and brown watercolors onto her canvas to outline the stage upon which the dancers would dance and the musicians would play. "It made sense to first paint the trees, shrubs and perennials of the outline," she explained, "especially since the performance had not yet begun." Although Lauren has nine years of painting experience, and her work appeared promising from the start, she had no plans for this painting's future, where--or even if--it would be displayed. "Depends on how it comes out," she said.

She came to the festival with her instructor, Jenny Scott, who teaches part time at Sue Hand's Imagery. Hand, who painted nearby, brought her instructors and students, as well as members of En Plein Air, an artists' group she founded.

"It's nice to paint the dancers as they dance," Scott said.

Across the street in a hidden area of Windsor Park, two En Plein Air artists worked. Ed Rybarcyk painted a watercolor interpretation of a birdhouse and blooming black-eyed Susans. This work was quite different from those he created as a sign painter, an occupation he held from 1941 until his Hazleton employer, The Leader Store, closed its doors in 1976.

Doug Brown, a former package designer for the Bemis Corporation, painted the lush perennials surrounding a birdbath. Before his retirement, Brown designed food wrappers, candy wrappers and "most of the bread bags you see in the market," he said.

While Brown's lifelong painting experience totals more than 35 years, these days he delights in his recreational art. "I'm doing exactly what I want to do. I get up, go to the studio and paint 12 or 15 hours a day," he said.

This festival, held in honor of a group of 21 Irish teachers and professionals, was a gift from Dr. and Mrs. Mussari. The group's visit, organized by King's College since 1974, is the only Irish/American program of its kind in existence in the US. "It is an honor as much as it's an education," said Adrian Brennan, a group member. "There is difficulty in the Irish perception of the US in that it (the US) is fed by mass communication," he explained. "This is a chance to find out what real people are like. It is a voyage of discovery to find American people so welcoming."

As Brennan watched, the musical theme from Windsor Park Stories, the television program the Mussaris' produce, brought the crowd to attention. Dr. Mussari welcomed everyone, passed the microphone to his wife Kitch, and headed for the camera and tripod he would use to capture the performance for a special episode of Windsor Park Stories.

Kitch introduced The Butler Academy of Irish Dancers, the melodious sounds of "The real Thing" filled every corner of Windsor Park, and the dancers entertained, enchanted and impressed everyone with their unique version of Irish step dancing. A special dedication of "The Corr's Reel" to Doc and Kitch for their fifth Season and the millennium episode of Windsor Park Stories, and a compelling and high-energy rendition of "Cotton Eyed Joe" brought sustained applause from the audience.

Watching the dancers with a sense of pride that was etched on his face, Burke was struck by Americans' "retention of their Irishness", he said.

With their practiced posture and straight arms, the dancers weaved in and out of their group and tapped the pavement with both the toes and heels of their shoes.

Beth Ryan of Dallas, a young classical dancer herself, appreciated the difficulty of the Irish routine. "It looks harder because they are on their toes and we are on our heels more. Their knees are straight and ours are bent. They have more ballet technique," she observed.

The Irish dance performers, all members of Butler Academy, Kingston, PA, enjoy the Celtic dance style more than any other. "It's faster," said 12 year old Katherine Manahan. "We are all changing places. It's fun," said six-year-old Ashley Piontek.

None of it, of course, could happen without music provided by the Donegal Weavers of Wilkes-Barre. Singer Mary Ruth Kelly-Burke, whose husband is also a Weaver, said she is proud to share the evening with her neighbors and realistically represent her Irish/American heritage. "Since I have small children, I'm concerned about things on the news. But…this is part of it, too."

As the evening came to a close, and many people made their way to pick up refreshments offered by the Mussaris, Heather Madeira gave neighbors loaves of bread she made with zucchini from her summer garden. "I like to bring the kids here because they enjoy watching the dancers," said Heather's husband, Timothy, as he comforted the couple's infant daughter.

Kathy Berger, a neighbor who made an impromptu stop at the festival on the advice of a friend she met in The Gap store, remarked, "Everybody gets together, the neighbors, it's great." It was a wonderful example of community and that's the way Dr. Mussari hoped it would be. "I think tonight is magical," he said. "For me it's the best day of the year. This is what our society can be like on our best days and a reminder of what we should be like on our worst days."

As he carefully packed his camera into the soft blue Porta Brace bag and chatted with friends, the crowd lingered just a short time. Then hugging and laughing, carrying cookies and Cokes, people walked across the lawn on their way home. The SUV's untangled themselves, driveways cleared, the street emptied, and Windsor Park returned to its normal silence broken only by the sounds of birds preparing for the end of the day.

Photographs provided by Bobby Z

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