The Day – Reflections on 11 years of the New London Talent Show

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There are those big random events or accidents in life where, if you’re there or see it on TV, you’ll probably never forget it. Usually it’s something or someone that’s globally iconic. The inauguration of Barack Obama. The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show”. Being at a Super Bowl. Witness the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in real time.

Here’s an intriguing local example: Over 10 performances over 11 years, the New London Talent Show, held at the Garde Arts Centre, has involved hundreds of participants, coaches, volunteers, teams and backstage staff – and thousands of show parents. , relatives, friends, and community members from every possible demographic in Southeast Connecticut.

None of them will ever forget it.

On Saturday, the last – and last – production of the New London Talent Show takes place at La Garde. It’s a bittersweet moment underscored by the passing last week of Junior Jones, the 39-year-old longtime bandleader and musical director of the talent shows. Typically, several people stepped in to help, some traveling long distances. It’s emblematic of what the series means and how it works.

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The event was founded after the 2010 murder of Matthew Chew, a white man, by five black teenagers and a Latino teenager. The reactive unrest was plagued by broad racial accusations from an entire New London demographic that threatened to fracture the community, with the wellbeing of our young people caught in the middle. Politicians, social workers, service groups and all sorts of organizations fumed and tossed out suggestions – some well-meaning, some selfish – but nothing happened.

Then a small group of visionary and concerned citizens led by businessman and New London councilor Curtis Goodwin, musician/youth advocate Frank Colmenares, New London police officer and now representative of the State Anthony Nolan and New London lawyer Susan M. Connolly came forward. Fueled by the belief that the arts capture our imagination, provide creative outlets and a sense of belonging, and heal our wounds, they came up with the idea of ​​the talent show – instinctively understanding that it would be a superb way to accomplish a variety of immediate projects. and longer-term goals focusing on creating opportunities for the city’s youth.

The Garde Arts Center, a non-profit theater in the heart of the city, volunteered to serve as the home base and provided the venue, equipment and staff to work with the talent show staff newly formed and ongoing. It was the kind of hitherto unlikely alliance that symbolized possibility – and it worked.

In 2021, a documentary chronicling the show’s history, “These People” (named after a pejorative and racist expression used in the wake of Chew’s murder to frame an entire group of people as accomplices in the crime based on the ethnicity), was created. The film was produced and broadcast by The Day in partnership with the talent show. It was written and directed by Peter Huoppi, the newspaper’s multimedia director, and co-produced by Huoppi and Goodwin.

When the final salute is fired on Saturday, the legacy of the New London Talent show will be underway. Alumni have embarked on high-profile careers in the arts and entertainment, as well as a variety of jobs across the professional spectrum. For those who have worked behind the scenes on any or all of the shows, the lessons learned and the moments of triumph and appreciation are truly indelible.

In anticipation and appreciation of the farewell New London Talent Show, it seemed best to honor the legacy of the event by speaking with a cross section of those who are and were there.

On whether the Talent Show fulfilled the original vision:

Nolan: “I think it opened the door for our community to come out of what was a tragedy. People from different fields met at the talent show and some ended up with professional careers and jobs in the arts and crafts. is rewarding to see.

“Also, relationships have been established. For example, some people who were friends with the young man who was murdered got together with friends of the young men responsible. Not all of them, but in some cases, and those bridges were built across the community because of the talent show.”

Joseph Salcedo (New London; longtime participant as a dancer, singer, and rapper; studying communications with a music minor; helping with the final show as a coach): “Curtis, Frank, and Anthony did a terrific job. I made so many friends from cities like Norwich, Groton and Mystic and we were all together and despite our differences we took the opportunity to share with each other and the community Matthew Chew will always be there. spirit, and we’ve learned to reach beyond our comfort zones and engage together with the different demographics that our shows have appealed to.”

Steve Sigel (Executive Director, Guard Arts Center): “It’s bigger than I think any of us expected. The Guard said yes to the young leaders of the community whom we did not know and who had no professional experience. But because of the tragedy, we welcomed the leadership that Curtis showed. It’s not just the show itself, but how the youngsters grew up and displayed a commitment to the community they grew up in that hasn’t wavered from the start.

Michael Passero (Mayor of New London): “I think back to the Matthew Chew incident and I was a freshman councilor at the time. I remember a lot of torpedoing and soul-searching in the community – and some grandstanding very frankly political. There were a lot of encounters and solutions and words…

All those years on the road? I can’t think of anything else that would have survived or been such an effective response. If you were around at the time, would you have thought that this group of young children and leaders would have had a practical and helpful way to approach this? Ours was a community that projected the wrong image and we had failed our children and damaged our psyches – and under the core group of Frank, Curtis, Anthony and Susan and many talented young people, that’s what has stood the test of time. test of time.”

Brian Johnson (Montville; long-time participant as singer and drummer; owner of the Hit Room recording studio in New London): “I knew the issues inside out when I first auditioned, but I’ve learned to appreciate what an event that has brought people together over the years.”

Huopi: “It’s hard to assess the overall impact. I don’t think anyone involved at the start and along the way would argue that ‘we fixed New London!’ “I think they were originally trying to do something positive and, talking to a lot of them for the documentary, the idea was to be a role model for other people and other cities. about how you can do good and try to create positive change. all those little individual stories add up.”

Goodwin“It’s incredibly hard to accept what we’ve achieved. It’s been more than we ever thought possible in the first or second year. I’ve learned to teach our staff, our volunteers and our youth that we can literally accomplish anything we set our minds to – and I use our alums and 11 years of productions as proof.”

On how being in the talent show helped in a personal context:

Caroline Tanner (2014-2017 participant; current volunteer; University of Connecticut graduate with a major in psychology and communications; aiming for a career in sports or entertainment management): “I thought of the show as a home away from home. I was looking forward to the (show) practices and seeing all these people who had become friends that I would never have met otherwise. And performing on stage for the first time was amazing. I learned it helps to be a little scared because at the end of the day you conquer your nerves.”

Aliyah Stanton (Groton; sang in shows 5 and 7; studying at Sweetbriar College in pre-law): “I learned that it is a very stressful process to come out of your shell, but it is invigorating. I have also realized that I’m more of a background person, so I started helping out behind the scenes and learning how it worked. It was amazing to learn how much effort it takes to make these shows happen.

Diego Davila (Miami; attended Mitchell College in New London; 2017-2020 solo and show guitarist; professional performer, session player, and teacher): “Throughout my life people told me I couldn’t make it. never to anything and that my guitar skills were never good… The talent show gave me the opportunity to portray what I had to offer in music… Curtis welcomed me as if I was family and I felt I could do something on my own.

Not the same (New London via New Bedford; sang in 2019 and 2020 as Mason Imperial; CEO of Lynesire Productions, a marketing company developing brands for creators; sang “National Anthem” this week for Pride Day at Fenway Park before the Red Sox game): “Being on the show was a fiery moment for me. I had forgotten what it was like to be on stage!”

Casey Lin (Mystic; 2015-18 performer; senior at UMass Amherst majoring in sports management and marketing with a minor in psychology): “The talent show absolutely paved the way for me to perform and got me excited. gave me the confidence to start my own, and I just loved being a part of those show experiences with so many different talented people. I’m not going to play music professionally; I think that might ruin some of the magic that I felt being part of these talent shows.

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