Remembering a class act
July 6 marked the birthday of one of Montclair’s most talented and world-renowned daughters, yet almost no one in Montclair today remembers Dorothy Kirsten.
Born in 1910, Kirsten, a glamorous blonde, was a major operatic soprano whose long career spanned nearly four decades. She stared at the Metropolitan Opera, sang on radio with Frank Sinatra as well as having her own show, appeared on the cover of Life Magazine, was featured on the Ed Sullivan Show and The Voice of Firestone, and acted in major films including “The Great Caruso” (with Mario Lanza, the highest grossing Hollywood film of 1951) and “Mr. Music” (with Bing Crosby).
Raised in a musical household on Howe Avenue, she attend Nishuane, Hillside and Montclair HIgh School until her family moved to Livingston when she was 16, when she went to West Orange High, but left school before graduating.
She worked for Bell Telephone in Newark and demonstrated Singer sewing machines while she studied voice, dance, and drama in New York.
A columnist recommended her to the American soprano Grace Moore who became her mentor and declared, “Why that’s the best young voice I’ve heard in years.” Moore was a glamorous star of the Metropolitan who also appeared in several popular films. She sent Kirsten to study in Italy, who returned after six months to make her concert debut at the New York World’s Fair “Court of Peace.”
She made her operatic debut in 1940 in “Chicago,” where she sang 15 small parts, and then Musetta in Puccini’s “La Boheme” with Moore as Mimi. In 1941 she sang her first major role, Micaela in “Carmen in Cincinnati,” and sold out the Paper Mill Playhouse in “The Merry Widow.” When she appeared at a sold-out scholarship benefit concert with the West Orange Symphony in 1942, people were turned away and the police had to keep them from storming the doors.
That same season she went on a coast-to-coast concert tour performing in 38 states.
She made her New York debut with the San Carlo company in 1941, and her New York City Opera debut in 1943, both in her favorite role, Violetta in “La Traviata.” Time magazine called her “a rarity: a lyric soprano with dramatic verve and coloratura glitter, the best Violetta heard in Manhattan since the late, great Claudio Muzio.”
Her MET debut came in 1945 as Mimi and she was beloved for her Puccini heroines in “Manon Lescaut,” “Tosca,” “Madama Butterfly,” and “La Fanciulla del West.” She was considered one of the definitive butterflies of her time.
In 1947 she sang at Montclair High with legendary tenor Jussi Bjoerling for the Unity Series. She partnered superstar tenor Mario del Monaco at his MET debut, and appeared often with other megastar tenors of the day including Franco Corelli, Carlo Bergonzi, Giuseppe Di Stefano and Richard Tucker.
In nearly 300 performances her other MET roles included Manon (the title character this time) Nedda (I Pagliacci), Violetta, Charpentier’s Louise (which she went to France to study with the composer), Fiora in Montemezzi’s lurid rarity L’Amore de Trei Rei, Gounod’s Juliet and Marguerite in Faust, and Rosalinde in Strauss’ Die Fledermaus.
She starred in 20 live broadcasts from The MET and in 1962 famously rescued a performance of Fanciulla, arriving from her hotel just in time to make her Act III entrance on horseback after Leontyne Price lost her voice mid-opera.
While never achieving the international superstar status of her contemporaries, she was beloved as a highly dependable, consummate singer who always gave the audience an intelligently thought out performance filled with moving vocal expression. Her silvery soprano was even throughout its range, with an easy, soaring top, characterized by a quick vibrato. Her diction was impeccable, and her talents allowed her to crossover from opera to pop and back.
One critic wrote: “All evening long her voice was radiant, and her vocalization was as nearly perfect as any to be heard at the Metropolitan.”
Her recordings include Tosca, Madama Butterfly, The Merry Widow, arias and duets (with Tucker, Robert Merrill, Nelson Eddy and others), operettas (one with Gordon McCrae), and popular songs by Gershwin, Kern and others. Her 1949 Manon Lescaut and 1950 Faust broadcasts are available on Naxos CD.
Her final performance at The MET was as Tosca in 1979, at age 69. She attributed her vocal longevity to never singing roles too heavy for her. In San Francisco, she sang every season from 1956 until 1972, including the American premieres of Walton’s Troilus and Cressida and Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, and Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. She toured Europe and sang in the Soviet Union in 1962.
She raised millions of dollars for Alzheimer’s research after her husband, Dr. John D. French, died of the disease.
Kirsten died in Los Angeles in 1992 of a stroke at the age of 82. At a 1949 PR event Kirsten “asked to be remembered to her many friends and admirers in Montclair.” Perhaps this legendary Montclair musical icon’s request could be memorialized with a plaque in the new arts plaza?
End ICE contract
The Essex County Correctional Facility — a jail — should not house undocumented immigrants because it treats people who are the victims of violence as though they are perpetrators.
What if Essex County responded to undocumented immigrants in the way that we would want to be treated, should economic and political distress force us from our homes? I was horrified by accounts of plumbing that leaked from the ceiling onto beds, spoiled lunch meat for meals, and moldy bread served as “bread pudding”; the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General documented these problems in a 2019 report.
And while Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. crows that the Essex County Correctional Facility has addressed some of Homeland Security’s concerns, he conveniently avoids mentioning mind-boggling shortfalls.
When a loaded gun was left in an employee bathroom, and no security report was filed, that was incompetence. When strip searches became routine, even though ICE policy clearly states that this should not be the case, that revealed a rotten workplace culture.
There is no quick fix for these underlying problems.
Essex County is very bad at doing a task that arguably shouldn’t be done. End the contract.
Adopting Trump’s tactics?
It is more than a bit disturbing that in the face of two separate political scandals both George Norcross and Joseph DiVincenzo are trying to deflect attention away from their actions using the same deceitful behavior that President Donald Trump employs when he finds himself called out for many of his egregious misdeeds.
Norcross, a powerful Democratic political power broker in southern New Jersey is being investigated for his part in the Economic Development Authority (EDA) giveaway of billions of dollars of New Jersey tax money to businesses to remain in the state. Among alleged wrongdoings are charges that several of the businesses he is involved with received millions of dollars to stay in the state, when in fact, they had no intention of leaving.
Norcross’ response to the allegations was that the investigation was a political “hit job” thrown at him by his political opponent, Gov. Phil Murphy. His efforts to shut down the investigation were dealt a major blow recently in court when Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson refuted the argument that the inquiry was little more than a political hit job saying, “To prevent the governor from investigating the EDA just didn’t make sense to me.” She was especially scathing of Norcross’ attorneys who urged her to ignore the findings of the state auditor whose work sparked the creation of the task force in the first place.
DiVincenzo, the Essex County executive has come under fire for the conditions (let alone the existence) of an ICE detention facility in Newark. When investigated by the Department of Homeland Security their report issued a long list of dangerous and inhumane conditions found at the facility. It is not unfair to say the place was even dysfunctional by ICE standards. Calls for an independent investigation of the jail have gone unheeded.
What did DiVincenzo have to say about it? He asserts that not only has he fixed what’s wrong at the jail, but these problems were also simply an “anomaly.” He refers to the Essex County Correctional Facility as “one of the most professionally run jails.” In fact, the history of the jail is one of secrecy and obfuscation. The approximately $40 million the county receives annually in a contract to run the facility is part of President Trump’s cruel immigration policy and, until recently, the county’s dirty little secret.
So Norcross goes to court armed only with lame arguments that come nowhere close to cogency and Joe DiVincenzo employs the “big lie.” Sounds familiar, but totally unacceptable. As Abraham Lincoln famously stated, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
People, let’s hold those in power to a higher standard.
Better planning needed
I wish to make a few points regarding the changing nature of this township and recent decisions. I am not anti-development, rather I feel that development done properly can benefit all, including longtime residents. I can’t help but feel that longtime residents have become the step-children of this town. PILOT or Payment in Lieu of Taxes offered to developers, has only given me huge tax, water and sewer increases, increased traffic, congestion, and parking nightmares.
First, I am in agreement with the present lawsuit against Pinnacle, Hampshire et.al regarding the Lackawanna Plaza development.
We the members of the Portland Place Neighborhood Association have some experience with these developers. Several years ago, our neighborhood was faced with annihilation. The property feet from our homes, much to our surprise, was designated as an in need of redevelopment. How convenient for developers We endured countless open and closed meetings with our members, members of the public, township employees and elected officials and representatives of the developers to come up with a workable plan — until the bombshell that a self-service storage facility on top of a parking deck was proposed for our short block running behind the police station. So I know how the developers operate. It was easy to develop mistrust regarding their relationship with township representatives. Eventually, facing our strong opposition, they pulled out.
Today, we continue to see decisions made around profitability and growth for some over quality of life for all. We are being overrun with new, questionably constructed and overpriced housing, traffic, lack of parking and decrease in pedestrian safety.
The proposed Lidl Market at Lackawanna Plaza is by no means adequate for current residents nor for the influx of additional residents.
Second, Dr. Renée Baskerville, Fourth Ward councilwoman, has been a consistent voice for our communities throughout the township. Many newcomers don’t know the history of the Baskerville family in this town. They and other families led the struggle and filed the initial lawsuit to desegregate the Montclair Public Schools. The lawsuit resulted in the establishment of the integrated magnet school model, the very reason that folks want to move here. Yes, Montclair was heavily segregated like everywhere, and there were those who struggled for, and continue to struggle for, equity in our institutions.
More recently, Dr. Baskerville supported the initial efforts to bring two day anti-racism training to every teacher, administrator and support staff in the district. The trainings bring to light the systemic, institutional, cultural and policy level manifestations of racism. Those moving to Montclair for the “diversity,” whether it be racial, economic or cultural may not understand that our diversity is disappearing or why it is disappearing. I invite anyone to research who is transferring out of the district and where they are going, and who is transferring in and where they are from. And we white folks are pretty much free to live just about anywhere we choose to live, without regard to the history or the roots of the residents who have been displaced due to so-called development.
Dr. Baskerville, along with William Scott and others, have been fighting tirelessly to make affordable housing available in our community. This is an uphill battle. Many of the conditions that prevent the availability are related to conditions set forth by developers who are looking at their profit margins as a reason to not comply with state recommendations for 20 percent affordable housing in all new construction. Baskerville, dedicated to finding solutions, puts herself in the middle of the citizenry, putting her heart and soul into public service.
Anyone living in this town long enough would remember other African American public servants, particularly in the police and fire departments, being passed over for promotions and recognition.
I end with a question to the town council. Why has this council chosen to disempower Councilperson Baskerville by denying her rotation as Deputy Mayor? What policy decision was made to allow this? What is this saying about our town? The reasoning of the decision is not adequate and continues to disrespect Dr. Baskerville.
Ban on plastic bags
Hoboken and Jersey City successfully banned the use of plastic bags. Come on Montclair.
Lackawanna Litigation to the Rescue
I am in favor of making the developers follow Montclair’s laws and the Master Plan recommendations. Apparently litigation is the only avenue left to try to get the Montclair Planning Board to fairly represent their constituents.
Yes we are waiting for a supermarket, but why should the pressure be on citizens to cave in to the developer’s desires? That would be one more example of the Fourth Ward getting a substandard deal. The Planning Board could step up right now and demand that the developers fix all the issues with their plans or they could have chosen to do so years ago.
Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.
Developers are so used to getting what they want from the Montclair Planning Board that they’ll ask for outrageous concessions — and get them.
History and a sense of place: Maybe that’s just for wealthy neighborhoods.
Half the required parking: Have these developers ever tried to park in town on a Saturday? Or even a weekday evening?
Safety: After the Planning Board approved everything in the developer’s plans, the Town Council hastily passed a ‘no left turn’ rule for Grove Street.
We townsfolk are getting the worst deal on every aspect of this project. Are we supposed to accept this just to speed up getting it done? We’re going to be living with the results of this project for generations. Twice before Lackawanna has fought off greedy developers — let’s not be the generation that caves.
Montclair Fourth Ward Resident