It’s Sunday, May 7, 2017, and folks strolling the world-famous Asbury Park, NJ Boardwalk can’t help but stop and stare at such world-famous celebrities as Kelly Ripa, Ray Liotta, Connie Chung, Tommy James, and Wyclef Jean.
Each arrives at 1300 Ocean Ave. and traverses the long red carpet outside Convention Hall, on his or her way to be honored tonight as a member of the “Class of 2016” at the New Jersey Hall of Fame’s 9th Annual Red Carpet Induction Ceremony.
Since its inception, the New Jersey Hall of Fame has recognized a wide variety of former and current residents of the Garden State for their contributions to New Jersey and to the world.
Back in 2008, The Hall’s first class of inductees included fifteen NJ luminaries ranging from Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein to Bruce Springsteen and Meryl Streep. Since then, the Hall has gone on to honor such additional prominent Garden State residents as Walt Whitman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Woodrow Wilson, Count Basie, Frankie Valli, Christopher Reeve, and many more.
As the Class of 2016 honorees — in addition to many well-known presenters and speakers this evening — walk the red carpet into Convention Hall, they stop to chat with fans, conduct interviews with the media, and smile for photos.
One of the first inductees to arrive is former heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner. In a 1975 title bout, Wepner went fifteen rounds with world champion Mohammad Ali. Given the nickname, “The Bayonne Bleeder,” Wepner was not only the inspiration for the 1976 movie Rocky, but he is also the subject of a new Hollywood film, Chuck, starring Liev Schriber, currently playing in theaters around the country.
Another early arrival is author Carol Higgins Clark, here to receive her award tonight from her mother, Mary Higgins Clark. Carol, who began her writing career re-typing her mother’s manuscripts, is the creator of the popular Regan Reilly mystery series. Says Carol about being a writer from the Garden State, “My mom says it helps to be Irish to be a storyteller. I say it helps to be from New Jersey to be a storyteller!”
Next up on the red carpet is 2012 New Jersey Hall of Fame recipient Eric LeGrand, a Rutgers football defensive tackle. This evening, LeGrand will present the 2016 “Unsung Hero Award” to Sue and Ed Goldstein. The Goldsteins are the creators of the Valerie Fund and the Stacy Goldstein Breast Cancer Center at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey — two organizations which provide treatment to thousands of Garden State residents touched each year by cancer.
Arriving next is the master of ceremonies for tonight’s event, NJ 101.5 FM radio disc jockey, Big Joe Henry. Known to his many fans in the Garden State for his motto, “Livin’ Large and Lovin’ Life,” Big Joe hosts the most-listened-to weekend radio program in the state, in addition to being active in a variety of charitable and community causes. Says Big Joe about the New Jersey Hall of Fame, “No other state has more talent than the Garden State.”
Also stopping for a photo is former MLB pitcher Al Leiter, who spent 19 seasons playing for such teams as the Toronto Blue Jays, the Florida Marlins, the New York Yankees, and the New York Mets. Leiter, now a studio analyst for MLB Network and a color commentator for the YES network, is here to help recognize several deserving young New Jersey Hall of Fame scholarship recipients.
Next up is Connie Chung, escorted by her husband, TV talk show host, Maury Povich, who will induct his wife into the Hall. Known for her TV reporting and anchor work, Chung has appeared on such networks as NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, and MSNBC. In addition to her work on NBC News at Sunrise, Chung also hosted 20/20 with Charles Gibson and co-anchored the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.
Garnering a lot of attention on the red carpet is the arrival of Steven Van Zandt — accompanied by his wife, Maureen — here to induct fellow Jersey musician Tommy James. In addition to being a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Van Zandt is also known for acting — along with his wife — on HBO’s The Sopranos, and for leading his own group, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul.
As the clock nears 7 pm, the honorees, presenters, speakers, and guests make their way into Asbury Park’s historic Paramount Theater where the evening’s New Jersey Hall of Fame induction ceremony is to take place.
The sold-out theater is already packed to the rafters with Jersey fans ready to celebrate the deserving members of this new Class of 2016.
Among others, these individuals include US Army officer Philip Kearny — for which the town of Kearny is named; former President and COO of Bell Atlantic and PSE&G, Alfred Koeppe; founder and president of the NY Waterway ferry service, Arthur Imperatore, Sr.; and former Olympian and Basketball Hall of Famer Carol Blazejowski.
Glen Burtnik and the Hall of Fame Band open the evening’s festivities by performing a rockin’ medley of Jersey-related songs by such artists as Bruce Springsteen and 2016 inductee Tommy James.
Photos by Love Imagery
Big Joe Henry welcomes the crowd saying, “Welcome to historic Asbury Park. This Class of 2016 has done so much for our state, each person deserving to be voted in.”
Connie Chung — who lived for 25 years in Middletown while breaking barriers in television journalism — takes the stage to accept her award from her husband, Maury Povich, exclaiming, “You can take the girl out of New Jersey, but you can never take the Jersey out of the girl,” much to the audience’s delight.
For those unfamiliar with Peace Pilgrim, she was an Egg Harbor City native known for being a spiritual teacher, pacifist, and peace activist. In 1952, she became the first woman to walk the entire Appalachian Trail in a single season. She also walked across the United States — many times, over the course of a 28-year period — always speaking with people whom she would encounter about the significance of peace.
Actor Jay O. Sanders — who some in the audience recognize from his work in films including JFK and Angels in the Outfield, or from his many television appearances on shows like The Good Wife and Blue Bloods — introduces Helene Young, Peace Pilgrim’s sister, who takes the podium on behalf of her late sibling.
Ms. Young — 102 years of age — accepts her sister’s award, saying, “Thank you to all the peace-loving people who voted to bestow this prestigious award on my sister for giving her life to bring peace in the world. I feel so honored to be able to have survived 102 years to see her receive this prestigious honor.”
Informing the audience that her sibling — born Mildred Lisette Norman — took the name Peace Pilgrim so people “would remember the message rather than the messenger,” Young shares some of her sister’s good advice with the supportive crowd saying, “Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hate with love.”
Following rousing applause, singer Jacquita May excites the audience with her tribute to former New Jersey Hall of Fame honoree Whitney Houston.
Backed by Burtnik and the Hall of Fame band, May sings Houston’s 1985 #1 single, “How Will I Know,” expertly accompanied by Reagan Richards and Khadijah Mohammed on background vocals. As the ensemble performs, audience members can be seen and heard dancing in their seats and singing along with these talented musicians!
Steven Van Zandt takes the stage to induct fellow musician Tommy James. Van Zandt explains that he is impressed by three things about Tommy. First is “his craft,” which Van Zandt describes as James’ exceptional songwriting abilities. Next up is “his voice,” about which Steven exclaims, “The simple fact is he is one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll voices of all time.” And, lastly, Van Zandt is impressed with “his soul,” acknowledging that James made it a point to campaign for political candidates at a time in history when that simply wasn’t done.
Most widely known as the leader of the world-reknown rock group, Tommy James and the Shondells, over the course of his 50-year career, James has amassed an enviable collection of hits to his credit including “Hanky Panky,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Crimson and Clover,” and “Sweet Cherry Wine.”
Upon receiving his award, James tells the crowd, “I was born in Ohio, raised in Michigan, and adopted by Jersey,” revealing he’s extremely happy to have had New Jersey as the “home state I’ve lived in for 45 years.”
Following his induction — a bit later in the ceremony — James takes the stage to perform live for the sold-out crowd at The Paramount Theater.
Here, Tommy opens with an unplugged version of his 1971 hit single, “Draggin’ the Line,” singing and playing acoustic guitar accompanied by musician Jonathn Ashe on guitar and vocals.
Moving on to a slowed-down acoustic version of his 1967 smash, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” the crowd cheers for this legendary Jersey musician, who will celebrate a half-century as an entertainer on June 2, 2017 with a 50th anniversary celebration concert at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ.
Tasha Smith — known to audiences for her work on the big screen in such Tyler Perry films as Why Did I Get Married? and on television on numerous shows ranging from Boston Common to Empire — takes the stage to introduce Wyclef Jean.
Smith tells the audience about Jean — a rapper, musician, and actor, who immigrated to the US from Haiti with his family at the age of nine and spent many of his formative years growing up in the Garden State. First achieving fame as a member of the acclaimed hip-hop group The Fugees, Jean is a nine-time Grammy award nominee and a three-time Grammy Award winner.
A graduate of Newark’s Vailsburg High School, Jean humbly accepts his induction into the Hall of Fame by thanking his music teacher, whom he says changed his life. Talking about the power of music and sports in schools, Jean receives cheers from the audience when he strongly advises, “We need to protect these programs in the schools.” Jean also tells the crowd personal stories about growing up in New Jersey, working alongside his father, a custodian, who taught him, “As long as you do something with pride, America gives you an opportunity.”
Actor Ray Liotta — well known for roles in such Hollywood films as Goodfellas and Field of Dreams, and who currently stars on television in NBC’s Shades of Blue with Jennifer Lopez — says, “I always wanted to be in the New Jersey Hall of Fame. New Jersey is about family and Taylor Ham” — to which several audience members shout out, “Pork roll!” The audience cheers for Liotta when he accepts his award, acknowledging, “New Jersey has loads of great people.”
Next, Kelly Ripa is introduced by her father, Joe Ripa, who informs the audience that his daughter, Kelly, “is Jersey tough.” Proud to be honored by her beloved Garden State, Kelly says, “Being from New Jersey is a feeling — it’s a state of mind.” She also admits that she always seems to instinctively know when she meets someone else from Jersey, suggesting they are somehow “drawn to each other.”
Following spirited applause for Kelly and her dad, Wyclef Jean takes the stage to perform a song he recorded in 1975 with The Fugees — listed as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time — Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” deftly accompanied by Glen Burtnik and the New Jersey Hall of Fame Band.
Reworking the lyrics for this special event, Jean sings, “Everything’s gonna be all right/New Jersey’s in the house tonight,” before rapping, “In high school I used to bring the pain/Check it out, I’m in the Jersey Hall of Fame.”
Rapidly approaching the end of this special evening, all the inductees take the stage, rockin’ like only Jersey can, to the classic sounds of one of the greatest party songs of all time — Tommy James’ 1968 chart-topper “Mony, Mony.”
As the inductees and presenters celebrate, the Jersey crowd cheers and claps along, showing their enthusiastic support for all of the notable individuals associated with their beloved home state as they congratulate the New Jersey Hall of Fame Class of 2016!
For additional information about the New Jersey Hall of Fame — including facts about past and present inductees, scholarship information, and the Hall’s touring Mobile Museum — please go to njhalloffame.org.
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