Sort of an era ended in Yorktown this month with the closing of First Fridays Cafe, a monthly open mic night for teens. First Fridays opened its doors at the Yorktown Community and Cultural Center in December of 2009. It was the brainchild of Helena Rodriguez who had just founded the Yorktown Teen Center and was co-sponsored by The Justin Veatch Fund which my family created following the death of our 17 year old son, Justin who had died of an accidental drug overdose in 2008.
First Fridays gave teens opportunities to display their artistic talents as well as honor the legacy of Justin who had been a wonderfully talented songwriter and musician. That cultural seed Helena and I had planted turned into a tree that bore amazing fruit for several years.
Birth of First Fridays Cafe
First Fridays was run with no money and all volunteers. The Teen Center secured the venue from the town and The Justin Veatch Fund put the word out and employed a sound system and keyboard that I had purchased for Justin to help fulfill his talents. I was the first emcee and Justin’s equipment, later expanded with floor monitors and several additional microphones, served us well as First Fridays became a beacon of sharing as well as a builder of talent and collaboration. Sadly in the past two years attendance and participation had diminished so much the few who benefited were simply not enough to justify the work of the volunteers and the efforts of The Fund.
Inspired out of community need
“I was searching for ideas for activities the teens might enjoy and wanted to reach out to non-athletic students,” said Rodriguez, now retired, who adds those who participated in the earliest open mics have since made their marks on the music scene. “Esteban (Rivera) has been playing with his band internationally. Zerena (Lupo) has also played professionally in Nashville and Kristina (Koller) in New York City. Mark McIntyre played the Blue Note in New York City where I used to go when I attended NYU. There are many others.”
Among the others is Melissa Frabotta who went on to record her first album. McIntyre, also now an NYU student, was recently invited to perform in an ensemble of national jazz standouts at The Kennedy Center in Washington DC. These talented musicians have also been part of the opening acts for headliners at Justin Veatch Fund concerts and most have been recipients of Justin Veatch Fund scholarships.
Teens inspired to take the plunge
In the early days First Fridays attracted a full house of some 130 teens on a steady basis as it became the thing to do on a certain Friday night in Yorktown. There were more who wanted to perform than we had time for in a given night so we limited the acts to 12 or 14 so everyone would have a chance. Those who signed up too late were put on a list for the following month. The ambiance at First Fridays was well dressed with background props and mood lighting providing a supportive feeling that gave first-timers who were often nervous the confidence they needed. It brought out the best in all and had a huge and lasting impact for some who later admitted their decision to take the plunge changed the direction of their lives.
From singing to comedy
“My friends and I didn’t talk about IF we would be going, it was EXPECTED,” says Brian Pulling who performed and is now a senior at Ithaca College. “There was a rush for performers, an excitement, a thrill, and even fear…of putting yourself out there, and sharing something so personal as a song with strangers. Those years, being 14, 15, 16 years old are a time when self esteem tends not to be so high. But that room was a safe place to take a chance.”
When Pulling gained enough confidence he switched from his guitar and singing to do stand-up comedy for his first time. “I went up and performed stand up comedy that I had never performed for anybody else. And, best of all, I didn’t get booed off the stage! People laughed! And you’re crazy if you think I didn’t put that on my college resume.”
Jazz to music therapy
“First Fridays really helped me get through high school,” says scholarship recipient Kristina Koller who is now pursuing a graduate degree in music therapy as well as performing as a jazz singer in New York City. “Every month First Fridays would give me the opportunity to practice something new and perform with my ukulele, guitar or even with a band. Without this experience I wouldn’t have become the confident, independent jazz musician I am today.”
Koller tells about one open mic that she says was a life changer. “I performed Yellow by Coldplay accompanied by my ukulele and not only was Chris Bro from 107.1, The Peak in the audience but so was an autistic kid who seemed to really enjoy my performance. That night I left with a smile on my face because not only was I given an opportunity to perform on The Peak but I touched someone’s heart through music.”
Filling a void
There have and will be other open mics like First Fridays in other communities and it’s my hope that they continue to come about to fulfill the needs of our artistic youth. These talented young people should be recognized by their peers and the community just as much as their talented athletic friends who take part in organized high school sports programs. I know The Justin Veatch Fund will be looking for a new program to continue in the spirit of First Fridays. Stay tuned.