"How many people here have been taught at some point in their lives by Jimmy Festa?"
Turner was speaking of the local legend, the long-time resident and former Broadway performer who has been instructing children to sing and dance for ages. "If you've been taught by Jimmy Festa," he said, "stand up."
Practically the entire audience stood. Festa has been a part of the educational mainstream in the town for 50 years. However, in the mid-1980s, when Weehawken was going through some tough financial times, Festa was told that his services were no longer wanted.
In 1991, Festa was brought back to his role as the teacher, choreographer and director of the Roosevelt School's Cultural Arts Program, where the students are taught how to sing and dance from October through May, culminating in the year-end production.
Each year for the last 11 years, Festa's kids, which includes each and every single fifth and sixth grade student in the town (some 216 in all), have put on an extravaganza of a show, complete with show-stopping numbers, precise dances of all kinds and fun and excitement for all.
However, Festa may have just saved his best for last, because the performance Thursday night brought the packed audience to their feet during a highly emotional final number.
The theme for the entire show was "New York, New York: The Heart of America," with many of the numbers focusing on life in Manhattan.
The students strutted their stuff, dancing the waltz, the Lindy, the tango, the rhumba and the paso doble, while also performing musical numbers from the Broadway shows "Music Man," and "Showboat." That alone was impressive.
But Festa wanted to do something truly special for the grand finale.
Grand finale "We were all emotionally changed after Sept. 11," Festa said. "We've all been touched and we all felt so bad for New York. So we wanted to have a salute for all New Yorkers in our own special tribute to New York. We will always remember Sept. 11. We will bounce back and New York will bounce back."
Festa managed to get a representative from the United States Navy, the Marines and the Air Force to attend the performance, to enter on stage while the children sang their respective themes. The representative from the U.S. Army found out he couldn't attend at the last minute, but Weehawken resident Joe Bradley, a highly decorated veteran, represented the veterans.
Festa was also able to secure the services of many Weehawken police officers, North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue firefighters and Port Authority police officers to also come on stage and receive a salute from the audience.
And when Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" was performed, the audience rose to their feet and sang along. Needless to say, the moment stirred a few emotions.
"I was a little choked up," Bradley said. "That song gets me every time. It was a really nice moment. I had no idea what was going to happen. I was very proud to be a part of it all."
Air Force Technical Sergeant Michele Hays-Martinez, who attended the performance from McGuire Air Force Base in North Hanover, N.J., was visibly moved by the closing number, as tears filled her eyes as she stood on stage.
"I didn't expect anything like that," she said. "It was an honor and privilege to be representing the Air Force. I'm very military minded and very patriotic. But to be up there and to see this from the children was very uplifting. I was definitely moved by it. I was proud to be here."
So was fellow Air Force representative and fellow Technical Sergeant John Davenport.
"It was a great show and definitely emotional," Davenport said. "I'll go back to McGuire tonight with a smile."
After the show was over, Festa was presented a plaque of appreciation from the Roosevelt School Parent-Teachers Organization and another plaque from the township, in honor of his many years of working with the children of Weehawken. He was also given a card that was signed by each and every student who performed in the show.
"When I was in sixth grade, I don't know if I would have been able to get up on stage and do what these kids have done," Roosevelt School Principal Anthony LaBruno said. "They've been working hard, learning this every week since October. And Mr. Festa is just remarkable with the kids. We had 100 percent participation of our fifth and sixth graders and I'm very proud of them."
Festa was extremely proud as well.
"America is like a phoenix," Festa said. "We're on the rise again. New York is on the rise again. And the children are a big part of that. Every child knows we have to rise above what happened and get back to order. I think we showed that here with this show."