Growing up on the East Side of Stamford, siblings Adele and Lou Ursone were always surrounded by art and music, so it's no wonder a book by Adele, and a musical play by Lou, both set at Christmastime, are enjoying success this holiday season.
The Christmas Tugboat: How the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Came to New York City by Adele Ursone and her husband George "Geo" Matteson, tells the true story of how they once delivered the Rockefeller Center tree to New York City by tugboat. A Merry Mulberry Street Musical, written by Lou, is enjoying its third run at Curtain Call’s Dressing Room Theatre in Stamford.
"Our house always had music," Lou said. "Dad loved playing the stereo as loud as he could. He would also 'play' orchestra with us, sitting on the edge of the bed conducting us kids making all kinds of funny kinds of musical sounds." Arts and craft projects with Adele and Lou's aunt, Josephine, were also big part of their childhood. During the Christmas season, "Dad loved decorating and mom loved cooking," Adele said. "It was a perfect combination." All four Ursone children—Lou, Adele, Joe and Rich - liked to help dad so it's fitting that Adele's book and Lou's play are holiday-themed and based on family.
Lou also described how he and Adele (the youngest of four) liked acting out comic scenes and creating silly characters. It was Adele’s involvement in local theater that initially got him interested in what became his life's work. "When I performed in La Cage aux Folles, I dedicated that performance to Adele because she and my cousin, Donna, took advantage of me as the youngest cousin and dressed me up as a girl in many family basement productions" he joked.
Adele's interest in the visual arts also developed at an early age. Inspired by oil paintings by great uncle Joe that hung in their home, Adele began drawing and painting, developed her style through high school, and attended Pratt Institute. Today she is an accomplished painter, exhibiting at galleries throughout New York City, the Hudson Valley and Maine.
And now her book is garnering praise too. It was singled out for the New York Times Book Review’s Holiday Books issue saying, “…Not every child gets this kind of adventure for Christmas, of course. But most will very gladly read all about it.” And in a Publishers Weekly starred review it was called “A radiant Christmas Story.”
Budding adventurers will love to read The Christmas Tugboat, illustrated by award-winning artist James Ransome. Full of lyrical language and evocative art, this heart-warming story about the girl who was at the wheel as police and fire boats, helicopters, and tourists welcomed the world-famous tree into New York Harbor is the perfect way to build holiday excitement as families decorate their own trees and celebrate the season!
"It all seems so long ago now but when Geo got the job to tow the Rockefeller Christmas tree, Emily was in kindergarten and we thought what a perfect job to take her along on," Adele said. "She had been out on the tug before but always pleasure boating on days off. Geo always rightly felt that there was too much risk having a child along on a job but this was special, and of course, I was there to shadow her."
Seeing how excited their daughter Emily was when they arrived at New York Harbor, and they were surrounded by morning news helicopters, Adele suggested to Geo—the writer in the family—that this would make a great children's book, but he wasn't interested. "I couldn't pass up such a good story so I figured I'd write it and give it to him and surely he would rewrite it," she said. "But in the end we handed it back and forth and it became a real collaborative effort."
Busy careers for the husband and wife shelved the project for almost ten years. "When Geo's big history of New York Tugboats was published and received such wonderful reviews, most notably in the New York Times and the New Yorker, I figured this was the time to take it out of the drawer," Adele noted. Ted Lewin, the children's book illustrator and an old acquaintance looked over the project, loved it and suggested a contact with Houghton-Mifflin/Clarion Books. "We dedicated the book to Emily, to the joy that she has brought us all these years, and as Geo said 'To all those who bring joy'," Adele said. "Isn't that what Christmas is about?"
As for A Merry Mulberry Street Musical, this marks the third full-scale production of the piece which debuted in November 2009. “The Mulberry Street characters had been a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” Lou said.
A Merry Mulberry Street Musical came to life after many years of development. His father (Lou Sr.) had been in Stamford’s first production of the non-musical play Moon Over Mulberry Street in 1939. It was also the only stage appearance of the elder Ursone. In June 2002, after a successful run of Mulberry Street, Lou began thinking about writing a holiday version back in June, 2002but not until later winter 2007 did he begin developing the story line. With the encouragement and support of his friend and mentor, Albert Pia, who wrote Mulberry Street, Ursone wrote the first act. After Pia’s passing in September 2008, Ursone finished the script, a charming romantic musical comedy set against the backdrop of WWII.
Lou's next challenge was to write the music and lyrics. Enter the team of Lodin and Squier. Both are accomplished, award-winning, musical theater writers, and have collaborated on several projects, including Top of the Heap and Blindsided by a Diaper, both presented at Curtain Call and notable to Stamford audiences. Lodin and Squier are delighted to become part of the Mulberry Street tradition by contributing music that will allow its beloved characters to sing. “Having seen how audiences have embraced the original play” said Squier. “We’re just tickled to be a part of it!” According to Ursone, Lodin and Squier’s contributions have enhanced the story in ways he never expected. “I can’t imagine this play without their input.”
After a five-week, sold out, run in 2009, Curtain Call reprised the show in 2010 for a three-week limited run with plans to put the show away for four or five years before bringing it back. “Last year we had patrons calling and stopping by trying to get tickets and when we told them we weren’t doing it, they were shocked,” Lou said. So it’s back on the schedule this year, November 29 through December 16. (At press time, many dates were already sold out so four more performances are being planned.)
The Christmas Tugboat: How the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Came to New York City is available at bookstores or at amazon.com. Tickets for A Merry Mulberry Street Musical are available by calling 203-461-6358 or at curtaincallinc.com.