Stickball bats and Spaldeens. Going sewer to sewer, and looking out for cars coming down the block. For generations of youngsters growing up in Brooklyn, these are indelible memories of spring and summer. Tow young filmmakers from Park Slope have captured these quintessential Brooklyn moments in a new faux-documentary called When Broomsticks Were King. Made for the princely sum of $300, the movie was shot right on 10th and 5th streets in just three weeks. No sooner had Jason Cusato and partner Ricardo Pantoja finished editing the 30-minute film when it was accepted to not one, but two prestigious film festivals. Broomsticks will be shown at Madison Square Garden as part of the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival running now through September 17. Later in the fall, the boys from Brooklyn will travel to the West Coast for a showing of the documentary at the Angel City Film Festival in San Francisco, October 22 to 30.
"We were shocked," said Cusato. "San Francisco came first. New York came the next day." The Angel City Film Festival actually accepted two of Cusato and Pantoja submissions. In addition to Broomsticks, the festival also accepted an earlier collaboration between the young Brooklyn filmmakers, both 26, called The Out of Work Mime. The collaboration between Cusato and Pantoja goes all the way back to elementary school at St. Thomas Aquinas. And, in fact, the entire project was made possible with the help of friends and family. Both Cusato's father and uncle appear in the film as old-time stickball champs. But directing their own gang of friends proved to be the toughest thing about shooting Broomsticks â€" at least at the outset.
Insert: By the end of shooting, Cusato found that actors that were once hard to pin down were now coming out of the woodwork and even asking to do a sequel.
The filmmakers actually goofed and let a few guys show up on set with earrings a definite no-no for characters who were supposed to be playing the neighborhood game 20 and 30 years ago. It was something the older guys working on the film were quick to jump on: "If they were playing balk in our day, they wouldn't be wearin' a friggin' earring."
To shoot scenes that depicted the reminiscences of the old stickball players, Cusato and Pantoja deftly shot in grainy, 8mm film and later transferred it to digital format. "Shooting around cars was very tough," said Cusato. The duo estimates that they spent approximately $20,000 on camera equipment over a two-year period all with the sole intentions of making their own films. Both draw inspiration from successful do-it-yourself filmmakers like Kevin Smith of Clerks fame. Broomsticks was entirely edited on the duo's iMac.
By the end of shooting, Cusato found that actors that were once hard to pin down were coming out of the woodwork and even asking to do a sequel. Although the filmmakers originally envisioned Broomsticks as a spoof, both Cusato and Pantoja were moved at how authentic the actors' stickball memories really became. "The guys spoke from the heart," Cusato says.August 12, 2002
Where will the next generation of talented movie makers come from? One of them might already be busily working out of his basement workshop in Park Slope. A quick look around Jason Cusato's improvised 11th Street post production space will tell you exactly where the determined young filmmaker's heart lies.
With his collection of baseball caps lining the walls and an array of camera tripods covering the floor, Cusato 27, is still at his desktop editing a few scenes of his new movie called "The Bag" which is set to premiere at BAM's Rose Cinemas in just 10 days.
"Things are going so well," Cusato says. Cusato has been down this road before twice in fact. His first film outing about the dying neighborhood sport of street stickball won both critical and audience acclaim. For his second film, Cusato dusted off the old Poe story of the Tell Tale Heart and updated it with Brooklyn attitudes and locations. "I'm building each time out and getting more knowledge," Cusato says. As his expertise grows, so does his film crew. The burgeoning writer/director has seen the size of his cast and crew roughly double in each of his successive projects.
"I'm trying to stretch out," Cusato says. "Just by making film, I'm learning more." Although Cusato did study at the School of Visual Arts, he doesn't think that the art of filmmaking is something you can learn sitting in a classroom. "You have to have a natural gift," Cusato explains. "It's not like becoming a plumber. Going to school will just bring out your talents." Cusato has taken his particular talents and honed them on his own neighborhood streets. He shot "The Bag" last April and May on locations in Red Hook, Windsor Terrace, Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge.
"It was a lot of fun to shoot," Cusato says. "The movie is a lot of fun, too. I'm really excited, because I think people are really going to get a laugh out of this." "The Bag" follows the exploits of a band of hapless neighborhood pals who believe that their buddy has accidentally killed his date after one particularly wild encounter.
"We previewed it down there [BAM] last week and the projection guy was dying hysterically," Cusato says. From BAM, Cusato has his sights set on taking "The Bag" on the film festival circuit. "Just the fact that I want to get there is inspiring," Cusato says. Heâ€™s already started work on his next project. "We had a casting call three weeks ago and it went great," Cusato says. "We have amazing actors in the film."
The Bag premieres at BAM Rose Cinemas on August 17 at 9 p.m.
It's his way of saying "thanks for all the inspiration." On Tuesday, December 23, Park Slope filmmaker Jason Cusato will be giving the gift of laughter to friends, neighbors and "anyone else who wants to come" at the premiere of his hour-long sketch comedy show at the Blah Blah Lounge, 501 11th Street off of 7th Avenue, at 7 p.m. Admission is free. Unlike "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," "Olive the Other Reindeer," "Frosty the Snowman" and other holiday shows everyone watches, his "Christmas Special" is a bit different.
Instead of celebrating the holiday, Cusato and his friends prefer to spoof it. Some of the sketches include "The Six Million Dollar Elf," "NYPD Clause" in which Ol'Saint Nick invokes the spirit of Andy Sipowitz and a tribute to the "Odd Couple." Instead of Felix and Oscar, a Park Slope apartment will be shared by Santa and the Easter Bunny. Which roomie smokes cigars is anyoneâ€™s guess.
Cusato, the founder of Park Slope Films, said that there are eight sketches that he, Derek Primont and other close friends put together over the last few months. Cusato wrote the sketches with his friends, who acted in the film. He even plays a role or two.
This is the second time Cusato, a life long Park Sloper, and pals have put together a Christmas show. "This is usually a family and friends type of thing. Since it turned out much better this time around and the ideas came out so well, I thought it would be something everyone would enjoy," he said. "And my friendsâ€™ acting ability has gotten a lot better," explained Cusato.
Nearly all of the sketches were filmed in Park Slope, on the streets where Cusato got the inspiration for his stickball mockumentary "When Broomsticks were King" and his films "The Bag" and "York Street." "When Broomsticks were King" won a Best Documentary award during the 2000 Rutgers Film Festival. Cusato is currently fine-tuning the script for his fourth picture, which he hopes to start filming in 2004.
Not bad for a kid from 11th Street whose heart, apparently, is to quote another Christmas special "two sizes too big."
"It's my way of giving something to the community which has given so much to me," Cusato said. For further information about the Christmas Show can contact Park Slope Films at (718) 369-0973.
Taped-up broomsticks and Spaldeens were in high demand in Coney Island Saturday as the 11th annual Brooklyn Stickball Classic swung into town. Dozens of Spaldeen slammers and sewer cap superstars participated in the coveted event, which was led by "Stickball Commissioner" Curtis Sliwa, the Bronx born, Canarsie raised founder of the Guardian Angels turned talk show host.
As members of the Dodgers Symphony band played on, eight person teams tested their mettle by gripping their hands upon their favorite stickball bat and attempted to knock one out of the park, or at least down the block. Ironically, the competition was held just down the block from Peggy O'Neil's and KeySpan Park on Surf Avenue, where the Brooklyn Cyclones clinched the McNamara Division, but not the minor league World Series war against the Williamsport Crosscutters.
The winners of Saturday's stickball competition, which was sponsored by both the Modell's sporting goods chain and the Daily News, received a chance to represent Brooklyn in a city wide stickball competition which will be held in October. Before teams took to the field-players were able to take part in a "long ball" hitting contest, where people found out just how far a Spaldeen would go. Ray Goffio, the owner of the Brooklyn Egg Cream Company managed to send his Spaldeen 240 feet.
Teams participating in the classic included a team from Park Slope Films, the production company who paid homage to the urban sport with the mock-umentary entitled "When Broomsticks were King." The short film, which was written and directed by Park Slope grown and budding filmmaker Jason Cusato, received rave reviews at Peggy O'Neil's the evening of the competition as players tended to their swinging arms with pints of beer and all American restaurant fare. It was the second time that the movie has been shown on the premises, the last time during this past summer's Coney Island Tuesday Night Film Series.
The film was awarded "Best Documentary" at the Rutgers Film Festival in 2002. Those who haven't seen the film will be given a chance to see the movie, which captures not only the lore, but the love of homegrown neighborhood sport, can get their chance to see it again when it makes its debut at the Coney Island Short Film Festival this Sunday, September 28 at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, 3006 West 12th Street at Surf Avenue a half hour before the viewing.
Ask any dyed-in-the-wool stickball player what the most commonly heard scream at any neighborhood grudge match was, and the answer would undoubtedly be -- with intonation included -- “CAAAR!” as a player warns teammates further down the block of an oncoming Cadillac.
But this past Friday, the scream heard on 11th Street between 4th and 5th avenues in Park Slope was “LIMMMO.”
A Hollywood chariot had arrived to whisk neighborhood filmmaker Jason Cusato and an entourage of friends and family to Tribeca Cinemas’ Independent Features Film Festival, where his film, “When Broomsticks Were King: A Tribute to Stickball and the Heroes Who Played” was showcased.
The touching remembrance of the sewer cap superstars in a pre-Yuppified south Brooklyn was one of 20 films shown at the Independent Features Film Festival, the winner of which gets a distribution contract with several independent movie theaters across the country. But to Cusato, a School of Visual Arts graduate who converted his family basement into his own small movie studio, the real kick was not seeing his film on the screen.It was seeing his cast members dressed to the nines, filing into the theater.“We’ve never had the whole cast together since the movie wrapped in 2000,” the 32-year-old filmmaker said. “It’s really great to have the movie playing at the Tribeca Theater, but it was great to have all the characters back together again. My Dad and my whole family are in the film. So is my softball league.”
Filmed almost entirely in the southern Slope for a whopping $300, “When Broomsticks Were King” is a nostalgic mockumentory about Brooklyn in the 1960s, when a young man’s day out with his buddies would entail nothing more than a clear street, a Spalding ball, a few landmarks for bases and your mother’s mop handle.
Throughout the course of the 27-minute film, Cusato’s father Vincent and his high school friends regale the audience with tales of the masters of the manhole covers: neighborhood gods who could smack a “Spaldeen” down three sewer caps, if not further.
The remembrances are interspersed with Cusato and fellow cast members re-enacting some of those cherished moments.
“When we finished ‘Broomsticks’ we sent it to festivals all over and won a few,” Cusato remembered. “But then I went on to other projects.”
His projects included “York Street,” another film festival favorite. He also flexed his directing muscles with two more films, a smattering of Christmas specials and music videos for the band Speaker Box.
Currently, the intrepid lensman is filming a series of “film shorts” with Brooklyn screenwriter Claire Riley
Cusato said that he was so busy that he “got backtracked” on ‘Broomsticks,’ which, everywhere it went, quickly built a fan base.
“As soon as we came out with ‘Broomsticks’ the response was intense,” said Cusato. “People were going crazy for it. The audience can really relate to my father and my uncles’ stories.”
But Cusato’s films have always been family affairs – if not neighborhood ones. His company, Park Slope Films, is comprised of his cousin, Scott Nawrocki and longtime friends Ed Heegan and Adam Berger. “I do the directing and editing, Scott does the sound work, Eddie is an actor and producer and Adam is a jack of all trades that does the set design for us,” he said.
After some re-editing, Park Slope Films unleashed both “Broomsticks” and “York Street” on the film festival circuit earlier this year. Once again, they were successful. With over 200 full length features and short films submitted to the Independent Features Film Festivals first on-line competition, “Broomsticks” quickly ascended to the top. Cusato got the call that his film was one of the top 20 finalists at the beginning of July. Even if he doesn’t leave the festival victorious (the winners hadn’t been announced as this paper went to press) Cusato said that the real prize was taking his family and friends out on the town in a stretch limo and hob knobbing with other filmmakers. “After going to these festivals, I love filmmaking even more,” he said. “Meeting other directors and actors rejuvenates me. I get more excited than I was when I first started.” To learn more about Cusato’s film work, one can log onto www.parkslopefilms.com.
Prayer and movie making have a lot more in common than you’d know.
For one thing, they both involve faith, something aspiring neighborhood filmmaker Jason Cusato Knows a lot about.
This Saturday, Cusato and his cousin Scott Nawrocki, the team behind Park Slope Films, will be putting their faith in their friends, family andarea residents as they hold a special fundraiser for their new film, tentatively titled “Apostles of Park Slope.”
The August 23rd event, which is being billed a “A Night if Film and Fun.” Will be held at a place that knows a little something about faith: St. Thomas Aquinas Hall on Fourth Avenue at Ninth Street.
In between performances by neighborhood musicians Anthem and Joe Savastano and belly laughs sparked by Mc and host comedian Anthony Devito, Cusato and Nawrocki will be showing a short film entitled “The confession,” as well as a preview trailer for their production, “Sunday Dinner.”
They will then give their audience a glimpse of “Apostles of Park Slope,” the $20,000 labor of love that’s nearing completion.
Cusato said that the money raised will go directly to finishing the film, which in itself is a story about having faith in one’s friends.
Based on a true story, “Apostles of Park Slope” is about a Brooklyn guy who learns just how important his friends are to him during a nosh at Third Avenue’s Two Toms restaurant following his mother’s wake.
At the same time, the holy-rolling parish priest ministering the woman’s funeral learns he has to lighten up a little, Cusato explains.
“It’s a journey that takes place during dinner at a local restaurant,” he said. “But it boils down to friendship and the bonds that neighborhood friends have.”
Cusato, who was the darling of area film festivals with his mockumentary “When Broomsticks Were King,” said that he hopes to bring this story of friendship to as wide an audience as possible.
“We want to bring it to film festivals and get it into as many hands as we can,” he said. “But we have to get the film done first.”
To do that, he’s turning to his own friends, who are all chipping in.
When they’re not playing a key role in the movie’s production, they’re collecting the nearly 40 prizes that will be raffled off during the celebration.
Prizes include tickets to see “Young Frankenstein” on Broadway, Mets and Cyclones tickets, a Park Slope dinner package, gym memberships to Equinox and a jukebox donated by Joe Corrao, who can be found acting in “Apostles” when he’s not running his own jukebox company.
“It’s a great feeling to know that all of these people believe in this movie as much as I do and have a passion for what we’ve put together,” said Cusato. Good feelings – isn’t that what faith is all about.
Slamming rock n’ roll tunes and rib-tickling comedy wafted through Park slope’s St. Thomas Aquinas Hall Saturday as dozens of movie lovers gathered to help turn a local filmmaker’s cinematic dream into a bankable reality.
During the special Night of Film and Fun, guests thrilled to Park Slope Films’ short film ‘The Confession,” as well as a preview of their movie “Sunday Dinner.”
They were then fed the piece de resistance – scenes from their current production tentatively titled “Apostles of Park Slope,” which the Night of Film and Fun was raising money for. Filmmaker Jason Cusato hopes to use the finds generated at the gala to complete “ Apostles of Park Slope” and then enroll it in a few film festivals, so it could reach a broad audience.
Cusato said the night was a complete success thanks to the supports of St. Thomas Church, the bans Anthem, Nicole D’Alessio, Jasmin Zafaranloo, Alfred Accettura, Christine Olivieri, Andrew Pitkin, JeanAnne Asten, Toni Cusato, Donna D’Alessio, Amy Goffio, Mary Ann Donato, and a host of neighborhood businesses including LaBagel, Johnny Macks, Pollio, Harry Bolands, Farrells, Frank’s Deli, Pizza Plus, La Villa and the 12th Street Bar & Grill.
Those wishing to support Park Slope Films’ efforts in creating memorable, entertaining movies can call (718)266-6376 or email email@example.com.
"Borough experiencing renaissance thanks to local artists"
For years, Park Slope has been characterized by blocks of histories 19th century brownstones.
But today, more and more people are moving to the neighborhood and to many other up-and-coming communities in Brooklyn for a different reason.
With the cost of living in Manhattan too high for many, moving to Brooklyn is a more conceivable idea for those looking to stay in the city. Since the mid-90s, Park Slope has experienced a revival of middle-class families and young professionals moving into the neighborhood.
And even more recently, Park Slope is becoming a neighborhood for aspiring artists to live and work.
Jason Cusato, who was born and raised in Park Slope, is the co-founder of the production company, Park Slope Films. Having grown up in the neighborhood, Cusato said he has seen the recent changes the area has undergone. Over the years, the neighborhood has dealt with suburban sprawl, blight and eventual renewal. Last year, Park Slope was named to the American Planning Association’s 2007 Top 10 Great Neighborhoods.
“A lot of artists are moving here. (The arts) brought the neighborhood back up to what it was,” Cusato said. “Ten years ago, it was not the greatest place in the world to live, and now it’s top 10, which is insane.”
JeanAnne Asten has also witnessed the transformation in Park Slope. Asten was born and raised in the neighborhood and now has her own cosmetics line called J. Asten Cosmetics.
Asten currently carries her cosmetics line at a studio in Chelsea, but says she wants to eventually open her own shop in Park Slope. Asten said the neighborhood business partnerships in Park Slope are very encouraging of small, local businesses.
“Park Slope is a really great place to start off. It has changed from a typical neighborhood to trendy, but it still has the neighborhood feel,” Asten said. “It is important and helpful that there’s that local business feel.”
Roger Gaitan is an artist and painter from Park Slope who works in Kensington because, he says, it is more affordable. Gaitan says he’s noticed the increasing presence of the arts community in multiple Brooklyn neighborhoods.
“The most obvious place is Williamsburg. It was blowing up in the nid-80s. I’ve talked to artists 10 years older (than me) and how they are taking advantage of loft spaces out there,” Gaitan said. “An artist usually wants a lot of space for not a lot of money.”
Williamsburg has seen an increase in the number of young people moving to the community. The L Train makes multiple spots in the neighborhood and can get commuters to Manhattan in about 10 or 15 minutes. Gaitan also said that there are about 20 galleries, maybe more, in the neighborhood now. Red Hook and Bushwick are also becoming popular places to live, Gaitan said.
“Areas that had warehouse space were desirable to dancers, filmmakers, writers, poets; a culmination of all kinds of artists,” Gaitan said.
The community is impacted positively when artists move into a community, Gaitan said.
“Artists bring everything with them and their optimistic views of thing. When artists move in, it’s great for developing small businesses like cafes, resturants and independent bookstores,” Gaitan said. “Artists like to socialize, and all these things come with them.”
Ricardo Pantoja of Park Slope was born and raised in the neighborhood. The songwriter/drummer/bass player built a recording studio in his basement. He left the neighborhood for four years from 1996-2000 to serve in the Navy and said that, before he left, there was little or no art scene in Brooklyn.
“What I am seeing more of since 2000 are more art exhibits in Red Hook, lounges and venues with open mic nights and a lot of musicians here,” Pantoja said. “There have been big changes. Flea markets don’t have as many knick-knacks and now have more art. There are little galleries opening up. 18th Street is doing very well – they opened up art spaces where you can make your own art.”
Despite the apparent impact the arts have brought these neighborhoods, some artists say they are worried the cost of living will increase.
“Once places are considered cool or hip, the rent goes up. Businesses help that,” Gaitan said. “Neighborhoods get too expensive. It’s not a bad thing, just the nature of things. Manhattan is just too expensive. People are going to Jersey and the Bronx to develop artist communities.”
Asten is still set on opening her business in Park Slope one day. She said she wants to keep her art in the neighborhood because she has received help and support from not only other neighborhood artists, but also from businesses.
Asten did makeup for Cusato’s last film because he didn’t have the budget for it, she said. She also recently pitched her cosmetics line to a Park Slope store and said they were very interested in what she had to offer, especially since she is a local artist. “Everybody wants to help everybody out,” Asten said.
Pantoja appreciates the way the art community helps one another: He said the best thing about artists working together is there is more exposure for what Brooklyn has to offer.
Brooklyn is very historical, he said, and often filmmakers use neighborhood landmarks such as the Green-Wood Cemetery in Greenwood Heights, as well as other historic landmarks and churches in films and documentaries. .
“Brooklyn is pretty cool and this exposes Brooklyn to all parts of the U.S.,” Pantoja said.
Pantoja said he is excited to be a part of Brooklyn’s resurgence. “Now everyone wants to live in Brooklyn again. (The arts) improve the quality of life here. The streets are safer and the feeling is more homey, family, hang out, socialize,” Pantoja said. “More people are coming here, and it’s keeping Brooklyn alive.”
Comedian Anthony Devito recently wrapped filming an independent flick Apostles of Park Slope and will appear in an A&E’s Biography episode commemorating the 30th anniversary of Animal House. Since you are bound to be bored in the office this post-holiday week, go to YouTube & search for “Rectalieve.” Anthony appears in this funny spoof written by Andres du Bouchet. It’s safe for work assuming you don’t work with a flatulent A-hoe.
Standing in front of P.S. 182 in the Bronx, Tito Rivera Jr., tongue firmly in cheek, offers this sage advise as an argument breaks out between the Royals and Gold.
“He was over the line,” someone shouts.
“You’re crazy,” comes the reply.
The Bronx is baking. The heat is rising off Stickball Boulevard in hazy waves toward Seward and Randall Avenue. Traffic is backed up on the Bruckner and the only shade on this tight, two-lane street is under the sno-cone umbrella.
But the game goes on.
“Every Sunday,” says 73-year-old Bobby Berrios.
“Like a family reunion,” adds 50-year-old Pete Santiago.
“Big Rich” Marrero, commissioner of the New York Emperors Stickball League, quells the argument. He wraps a white towel around his shoulders to stop the sweat running down his neck and takes his position next to Rivera as nearly a hundred people line both sides of the street.
“Everything is fair game except mothers,” Rivera says.
“No mothers,” Marrero agrees.
“Once you get into mothers you’re crossing the line,” adds Rivera as Marrero nods in agreement.
And so it goes. The nicknames and trash talking. Every Sunday, from April to September, the nine teams comprising the Emperors Stickball League converge on this street off White Plains Road and play the game they grew up with, or the one they’ve grown to love.
There’s Dusty and Daddy. Pounds and Ounces. Waterbed Kev. Bam Bam. They’ve all been out here since the Emperors League started in 1985. an they’ve kept a game beating that might have otherwise disappeared.
One of the Royals bounces the pink ball, slowly follows it to the line, and whacks it down left field against the chain link fence against P.S. 182. There’s a play at the plate, and one of the Royals, both thighs wrapped thick and tight in white padding, slides on the hot concrete.
Three sewers and your king. Or queen.
Jennifer Lippold sits in a beach chair under a thimble of a shade tree. The only female to play in the Emperors League, Lippold is sidelined.
She’s eight months pregnant. She’s out to here. She lives in Pennsylvania. But she still comes every Sunday to Stickball Boulevard.
“You know what it is?” she asks. “You don’t have to hide here because of who you are, or what your social skills are. You are who you are, and everybody accepts you. People look after your kids. It’s your family.”
And what about the game? Lippold is asked. Abroom and a ball. The simplicity of stickball. “And no matter what you play,” Berrios says, “you always come back to stickball.”
For those in the Emperors League, this patch of concrete earth, formerly known as Newman Avenue, is the only place to be on a Sunday. Games are played from 10 a.m. through the middle of the afternoon. A batter bounces the ball behind a chalk line – once, twice, three times – and then he swings.
Poetry with a broom and spaldeen.
“I grew up, basically, watching my father play stickball out the second-floor window,” says Steve “Powerhouse” Plerqui.
“People left their brooms on the fire escapes and we’d grab them,” Berrios recalls. “I remember once my mom bought a brand-new red broom. I made it a bat and told her someone stole it.”
The Emperors League has become a way to build a community. Teams meet in the winter and have cookouts. They go on vacation together to play in tournaments.
“Like family,” said Pete Santiago, a boxing referee for the New York State Athletic Commission.
The game used to be everywhere. Block against block. Neighborhood against neighborhood. The Bronx against Brooklyn. Sinatra played stickball. Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Bill Cosby, Joe Torre, George Gershwin and Joe Pepitone, too.
But the spaldeen, the pink rubber ball made by the Spalding Company, has been replaced by the high bouncers. And it’s hard to find a game in the city now.
Except on Stickball Boulevard on Sunday.
“It’s like a drug when you start playing,” says Marrero. “My father played this game. My brother plays this game. There’s so many other things you can do in New York City on a 98-degree day. But right here…”
He looks down Stickball Boulevard. Players, friends and families stretch down both sides of the street. The heat is pounding and the street is filled with laughter, trash talking and the voices of children.
“It’s more than a game.”
Not far from Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, filmmaker Jason Cusato steps away from the cameras and lights inside 2 Toms Restaurant and discusses the game that brought him to direct and produce the award-winning documentary “When Broomsticks Were King.”
“When our parents were kids, there was literally a game on every block,” said Cusato, who has dug in here on the corner of Union and #rd with his film crew to shoot his latest movie. “If it was summer, you were playing stickball. You were challenging other blocks. You’d go down to 15th Street and say, ‘We’re going to kick your ass.’ During the game you’d hate each other. Then after the game everyone was friends.”
The game back then, and still today, knows no racial boundaries.
“Teams were made up of the community,” Berrios said. “Ninety percent of Manhattan was the Italians. You had the blacks, Jews, Irish, even the Greeks. Then when it came to the Bronx, everyone played.”
In Park Slope, Cusato recalls, “it was mostly Irish and Italians.”
“But if a Spanish guy moved in and could play stickball, it would be OK,” he said. “It was more a neighborhood thing. It was whoever was in your neighborhood. You played for the pride of your block or your neighborhood. It was Park Slope against Carroll Gardens. Or Coney Island against Hell’s Kitchen.”
Santiago said color “didn’t matter” when playing stickball.
“None of it mattered because everyone had a good time,” he said. “It was all about bragging rights. You just grabbed everyone in the neighborhood who could play. That’s all it came down to. And that’s all that matters today, too.”
On Stickball Boulevard, Mojica is grinding a broomstick inside the hole of a sewer cover for some waiting children for Mojica, the game has become more than a game. Mojica, is using the game as a teaching tool through the Bronx District Attorney’s office and his nonprofit program Streetball for Kids.
“It’s a mentoring concept,” he said. “We work wit the YMCA. The way I have the program, the parents must be present when I’m teaching the kids. The parents get involved and I’m not just a babysitter. The boys and girls wind up mimicking their parents.
“What’s great about this sport is you don’t have to be a certain height or weight to be able to play. You don’t have to be this or that. It’s just a skill.”
And sometimes thick skin.
Daddy-O. Daddy-O. Slide
Laughter breaks out as 60-year-old Daddy comes running from third base to home plate.
If part of stickball’s fun is its simplicity, it’s also its tradition of trash talking and nicknames. And it isn’t always pretty.
“There was a guy (who) used to play on the Silver Bullets called Hollywood,” Rivera recalls. “The way he approached his at-bat, he’d dribble the ball between his legs, wave the stick… he’d go through this whole thing. And 50 percent of the time he’d strike out.”
Waterbed Kev? “Guy slipped in a puddle and fell,” said Cusato’s cousin, Scott Nawrocki, also known as Kool-Aid because , as he put it, “I always had a shit-eating grin on my face.”
Eddie Who because no one knew his last name. Dusty because he’s fast. Charcoal because he’s the fastest. AC-DC because he runs like a bullet. D-Lush. Boogie Down The Bronx.
In the documentary “When Broomsticks Were King,” Cusato retells the stories of Handsome Hank (“He was so handsome you forgot you were straight”) and Paulie “The Legend” Ganuch (“He shaved in grammar school”) and Sal “The Natural” Nunzio, who played like Fred Astaire danced.
Any nickname is fair. And so is any trash talk.
“But no mothers,” Marrero says.
“No mothers,” Mojica agrees.
“You can talk about a guy’s clothes, his swing, his approach to the game,” Rivera says. “Even guys sitting on the bench not playing are trash talking. It gets heated sometimes because you might strike a nerve with somebody, and it makes it a lot worse when you’re getting beat.
“There’s not too many sore losers, but there are definitely a lot of sore winners. Guys know how to run it in and no one wants to be on that short end of the stick because it’s constant pounding. If you’re not any good, you probably don’t want to be out here. But you know, there’s probably something else out here for you.”
There’s the game. There’s the chance to meet up with old friends.
“The son knows this is where his dad is going to be,” Rivera said. “They can always come here, from April through September, and know this is where their father or cousin or uncle will be.”
In Marrero’s words, “There’s something else out here.”
As dusk settles in the tiny courtyard behind 2 Toms Restaurant, Cusato is melancholic about stickball’s diminishing role in New York sports and culture.
As Cusato puts it: “If you played stickball now, half the people would yell at you for playing in the street and the other half for hitting the ball off their house.
“When I was a kid in the summer, you were outside at 6 in the morning riding your big wheel or playing stickball,” he added. “There was no reason to stay on. Now kids have computers with 10,000 games. If they want to play stickball, they’ll play on some simulated computer. But years ago you had to find things to amuse yourself.
So you lose the neighborhood feel. People aren’t coming together. You don’t have 20 guys or 10, 15 girls hanging out every weekend because kids break off more. I think there was more pride about where you were from back then, too.”
Back on Stickball Boulevard, the sno-cone man is doing brisk business. Mojica finishes off making a bat – white tape, sticky side out – and talks about traveling recently with a stick ball.
“People would see me wit hit and people would always come over to me and say, ‘Hey, you play stickball? And we’d have a conversation for about 15 minutes,” he says.
Mojica takes his turn at bat and returns to a spot of shade outside the main door of P.S. 182. On days like this, when the heat is beating down on the Bronx and there’s so many hours remaining in the day, this is all you need, he says.
It’s about sno-cones and ice cream trucks. Sitting on stoops and baseball on the radio. It’s about nostalgia.
“It brings back all those good memories,” Cusato says.
“I love these guys like family,” adds Lippold.
“Big Rich” Marrero takes a long drink from a bottle of water and, for a moment. Looks silently across Stickball Boulevard. The sounds of the game, the children, the street…it surrounds him.
“It’s great, isn’t it?” Marrero asks.
Mojica, broom in hand, answers, “Beyond fun. Way beyond fun.”
"No, It Ain't The Natural, But Brooklyn Trilogy Is Funnier"
PARK SLOPE – All of us old-time Brooklynites know that it ain’t like years ago around here. Just ask Jason Cusato, 26, who grew up on 11th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues when things were different.
“On Saturday morning,” he remembers, “my block would be packed with kids playing games. We all played whiffle-ball. We played football on the sidewalk when we were too young to go in the street. And block parties – there used to be a million people on the block. One year we rented backboards and hoops to play basketball. There’d be barbeques and buckets of beer. Now it’s so sad. We had a block party last year. MY house and our neighbors were the only people out, and at night another neighbor came out and complained that we were making too much noise.”
Kids today, Jason points out, don’t know from playing in the street. They’re too busy with Nintendo and other computer games. But Jason played the same games his father played – stickball, for example, and skellzies.
“Our generation was in-between,” says Jason’s old friend, Ricardo Pantoja, a 16th –Streeter. Jason and Ricardo, who were classmates at St. Thomas Aquinas Grammar School, Fourth Avenue and Eighth Street, are mates now in the art of making movies, joined in an enterprise called “Park Slope Productions.” Last week they went back to St. Thomas to host the premiere of three “shorts” about games of Brooklyn past. “Brooklyn Trilogy,” as they call it, was partly written and directed and by Jason, with the help of Ricardo, who is assistant-director and cinematographer.
An old stickballer and off-the-pointer myself, I went to see it. It isn’t exactly what I expected.
It was not such a surprise that the films are technically rather primitive – they were made for as little as $300. The main surprise was their tone. Rather than being standard nostalgic retrospectives of Brooklyn’s golden age, these are all comic send-ups of the sporting life of decades past, with, at least in one case, some nostalgia woven in.
The opener is “When Broomsticks Were King,” for which Jason sat down, one by one, a group of middle-aged guys in their living rooms, gave them fake names, as well as fake nicknames, and asked them to recount their stickball memories and make up what they didn’t remember. Between their talking heads he inserted black-and-white shots of Jason and Ricardo and friends pretending to be the old guys in their salad days, batting and catching to the clicking sound of an eight-millimeter movie-projector. The interviews, meanwhile, are edited so that they evolve from straight recollection to absurd exaggeration. The viewer isn’t quite sure what’s going on until someone recalls that 11th Street (the archrival of 10th Street in quest of the annual championship) was the first block to integrate its team, bringing in a player whose name no one can get straight: “Juan Valdez, Don Juan – I don’t know – his nickname was ‘The Spanish Guy.’” Then there’s a cut to “The Spanish Guy,” speaking Spanish.
The role is played by Ricardo’s Peruvian stepfather. Jason’s father, Vinny, who was in fact, Jason points out, a legendary stickball-player, is in there, too, in the part of Rich “Straight Shootin’” Capezio. All performances are by local amateurs, and they’re good. The irony is so well brought off that I am willing to accept that the character of Mike Brennan, who obviously grew up in Ireland, had been a Brooklyn stickballer. (The vainest of all the memoirists, he claims, dubiously, that he was a regular “three sewer” clouter, and is the only one who names himself as the best player of his time.)
The second part of the trilogy, amusing, but not as successful as the others, is a narrated “newsreel” of the 1979 handball match between the Brooklyn and Manhattan champion teams. The final film has better ironic substance. This is “The Story of Joe Higgins,” subtitled “The Greatest Skellzies Player Who Ever Lived.” The very conceit of an annual international skellzies championship – a game played by flicking bottle-caps from square to square on the pavement – is enough to induce a giggle. But add to the flavor an Australian narrator, an absurdly bewigged hero, a devastating household accident, and a Soviet officer as a perennial challenger, and some good laughs will follow.
Jason and Ricardo started working up skits on audio tape when they were 12 or 13, then moved on to doing, in Jason’s words, “real goofball stuff” on video. Jason’s cousins, Adam and Scott Nawrocki, got involved, and in the more mature productions Adam is a featured performer and Scott the sound technician. At Bishop Ford High School and LIU, Ricardo studied art and became a painter. After LaSalle High School in Manhattan, Jason, urged by his mother, aimed at becoming a fireman. But to do that he needed 35 college credits.
“I figured I should take some courses I was interested in, because if I took math or history, I’d flunk and I wouldn’t get the credits. So, since I always loved movies, I went to the School of Visual Arts and took an acting class and some film classes. I wound up failing the fireman’s test anyway.”
Before finishing at LIU, Ricardo went off to the Navy for four years. When he came home, there was Jason, trained and ready for projects and needing a collaborator with an artist’s eye. Without quitting their regular jobs – Jason works at Leopoldi’s Hardware on Fifth Avenue; Ricardo is a sous-chef and waiter for a caterer – they went into production, activating the hidden talents of their friends and relations.
In February, “When Broomsticks Were King” won the prize for the best documentary among more than 100 films presented at the Rutgers University Film Festival. An honor kike that could give these guys the idea that there’s a career in this.
“It’s an odd industry to break into,” says Jason. “The route we’re trying to take right now is to do shorts and enter film festivals. Maybe someone will see your talent and say, ‘I’m interested in you directing something.’ We’d like to get on BCAT”
That’s Brooklyn Cable Access Television. Yo, BCAT, air this “Brooklyn Trilogy.” It’d be a three-sewer home-run for ya.
Nothing can stop a good old-fashioned stickball game not even a torrential downpour. That's how a bunch of hardcore broomstick barons felt as they set up outside of Peggy O'Neill's restaurant outside Key Span Park in Coney Island, as storm clouds loomed in the horizon. For the better part of the day, beach-goers were sprinkled with intermittent rainstorms. But, just before the fourth installment of the Coney Island Tuesday Night Film Series at Peggy O'Neill's things got a little wet.
Still, fill series organizer Anthony Gigante, independent film director Jason Cusato and some of the stars of his mockumentary "When Broomsticks Were King" braced the impending storm to knock a Spaldeen across a sewer cap or two.
Made with the princely sum of $300, the movie was shot right on 10th and 5th streets in just three weeks. No sooner had Jason Cusato and partner Ricardo Jones completed editing the 30-minute film, when I was accepted to not one, but two prestigious film festivals.
Cusato said that the entire project was made possible by the help of friends and family. Both the director's father and uncle appear in the film as old-time stickball champs. Approximately 60 people braced harsh winds and rain to get to the film's premiere at the Coney Island Tuesday Night Film Series, which is sponsored in part by Peggy O'Neill's and Bexel Video of New York. "It went over very well," Gigante recalled. "The rough day turned out to be a beautiful night." Gigante said that he and Cusato are making plans to hold a stickball game for charity.
"We think it's going to be at the end of August," Gigante said. "We want to close down Surf Avenue and have a real stickball extravaganza with teams from all over the borough. It will be a great way to bring back the old days." "What we had Tuesday was a prelude," Gigante said. "We had to test the Coney Island air to see how the wind currents handled the ball."
The Coney Island Tuesday Night Film Series concluded Tuesday, July 29, withy the movie "Moonstruck."
A film about stickball brings memories back from the street
I bounced in my seat watching "When Broomsticks Were King: A Tribute to Stickball and the Heroes Who Played," a movie by Brooklyn filmmaker Jason Cusato that played last week at the Independent Features Film Festival.
The 27-minute short, shot several years ago, is currently making the rounds of the festivals winning prizes and standing O's for its nostalgic gaze back at this vanished king of New York City street games. It hit me like a three-sewer shot because most of what I know about life I learned from stickball.
Stickball is - or, sadly, was - a stripped-bare version of baseball played in the gutters of New York City using your mudda's wooden mop handle as a bat and a small pink ball called a "spaldeen," a Brooklynese bastardization of Spalding, the company that made the magical little orb.
Back in the 1960s, I spent almost every single day of spring, summer and fall playing stickball on 11th and 12th Sts. in what Realtors today call Southern Park Slope. You showed up with your stick and met your friends on Winslow's stoop, where the two best players chose up sides.
Some neighborhoods played pitching-in, but we played fungo style, meaning you stood at a manhole cover that served as home plate and tossed the ball up and hit it and ran the bases.
A two-sewer shot was considered a slug. If you hit "three sewers," you were up there with Maris, Mantle and Mays.
The games were loud, argumentative and fiercely competitive, and clutch hits or heroic plays became the stuff of local legend. The girls used to sit on stoops with a tinny transistor radio listening to Cousin Brucie spin the top 10 on "W-A-Beatles-C," watching and whispering color commentary on the sweaty guys who were mostly trim and ripped from tireless daily play. The best stickball hitters usually scored with the chicks.
Stickball taught us team play, competition, tenacity, hustle, discourse, discipline, performance under pressure and how to navigate the endless roller-coaster ride between triumph and defeat. Like life. No classroom could ever teach you the second set of street-smart-instincts that came from fearlessly shagging flies in honking bus and truck traffic when someone launched a fly into the middle of Seventh Ave.
Guys who played stickball as kids still know a 10th of a second before the rest of the world when the red light is gonna turn green.
That game, that Brooklyn, that city and that street education that came from stickball played for keeps from dawn to dusk has all but vanished. My theory is that stickball was swallowed whole by Pac-Man in the late 1970s; as computer games rose, street games declined. And stickball's demise has made for fatter, duller, dumber, less motivated generations of indoor kids. Sorry, video games don't prepare kids for life. Toru Iwatani, the man who created Pac-Man, has probably done more to promote childhood obesity than the Big Mac.
So it was pure nostalgic pleasure to watch "Broomsticks." This is not a documentary; anyone looking for a history of the greatest street game ever played should look elsewhere. Instead, this little film is a fictional three-sewer tribute to all middle-aged guys who ever worshiped at the altar of the manhole cover. Starring Cusato's father, uncles and cousins with pitch-poifect Brooklyn accents and nicknames like "Boom Boom" Nunzio, Pauly (The Legend) Ganuch, "The Natural" and "The Spanish Guy," "Broomsticks" features sepia-toned re-creations of old stickball games juxtaposed with talking gray heads reminiscing about the days of old when stickball was gold.
"I'm 32, and my generation was probably the last one to play a little stickball," says Cusato, who grew up on 11th St. in Park Slope, went to LaSalle Academy and studied filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts. "But mostly we played computer games. Occasionally, we still play stickball. We used to play in Curtis Sliwa's stickball tournament in Coney Island, and he screened an earlier version of my film afterwards. But for my father and uncles, stickball was like a religion. Hearing their stickball stories moved me to make the film as a tribute to them."
"Broomsticks" was benched as Cusato directed his first feature-length film, "York Street," a gritty street tale with a powerful lead performance by Edward Heegan, a Windsor Terrace resident. That film is available on DVD.
"After 'York Street,' I reedited 'Broomsticks' and started taking it to festivals," says Cusato. "We've been accepted or won in film festivals like Brooklyn Indie House, Rutgers, E.Vil, Jilted, Georgetown, Rochester, Del Ray, Staten Island, Coney Island. The next local festival it will play at will be Wildwood in September, and a DVD release is coming soon.
"Even people who never heard of stickball love the film because of the Brooklyn characters and because it celebrates a forgotten generation. Someday, I'd love to shoot a feature set in the age of stickball."