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Fireworks and Fanfare on Ellis Island

May 22, 2001, 12:00 AM EDT

Ellis Island Medals of Honor awards benefit Ellis Island Immigration Museum Saturday, 05.12.01, 5:30 PM onward
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Take New York luminaries such as Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Yankee great Yogi Berra, police commissioner Bernard Kerik and Metropolitan Opera soprano Renee Fleming, throw in several dozen captains of industry from around the country, and put them on an island with more than 2,500 of their friends and family members, and you've got the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations' (NECO) Ellis Island Medals of Honor benefit awards gala. This giant undertaking, which included color guards, dance troupes, choirs, marching bands and representatives of every branch of the U.S. military, was the work of NECO executive director Rosemarie Taglione and event producers Pat and Vince Ahaesy of P&V Enterprises.

Prior to boarding the boat to Ellis Island at Battery Park (ferrying was provided by Circle Line Statue of Liberty Ferry), guests were greeted by the Shushi Armenian Dance Ensemble and the Holy Martyrs Armenian Day dancers, who performed traditional Armenian dances as the guests waited in line to check-in. The New York City Police Department Ceremonial Band followed the dancing with some rousing Americana tunes, keeping the crowd's mind off the fact that the wind was whipping up ladies' dresses and rain was beginning to splatter on those who weren't fortunate enough to be under the check-in tents.

After the painfully slow loading of the guests, the boat ride over was a pleasure, and quite a sight: More than a hundred guests in black-tie and evening gowns huddled against the walls and tried to balance as the boat cruised to Ellis Island. Upon arrival, guests were greeted with a fanfare by the United States Air Force Band of Liberty, who played more Americana tunes as guests and medal honorees were separated upon docking. Color guards and military representatives stood at attention as the guests made their way to a giant tent (erected by Main Attractions), where they were entertained by more dancers, including those from the Ballet Hispanico School of Dance and the O'Malley Irish Dance Academy.

Once all of the guests made it over to the island (they were ferried on two separate boats) and were seated for the awards, the nearly three-hour awards ceremony commenced. There were more than 10 speakers, several breaks in the presentation for musical performances and the awarding of the medals. The 138 medal recipients were immigrants or the descendants of immigrants who came through Ellis Island to the United States, including WABC anchorman Bill Beutel, eTrade chairman Christos Cotsakos, astronaut Brian Duffy, Estee Lauder's Evelyn Lauder, J. Crew chairman Emily Woods, Met Opera general manager Joseph Volpe and McDonald's Corporation chairman Jack Greenberg. The highlight of the ceremony was Berra's short speech, which ended with a hilarious Yogism: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

By the time the awards ended, the hungry guests made their way over to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum for dinner. Great Performances expediently fed the guests, one course right after the other, and everyone made the boats back to Manhattan with a full meal in their stomachs. The long wait for the fireworks show on the boat's freezing cold top deck had several guests grumbling, “What the hell are they waiting for?” But once Grucci's show was done, everyone was happy. “That was worth it,” we heard quite a few guests say.

Getting home was another issue: If you weren't one of the many guests who had limousines waiting at Battery Park, flagging a cab was impossible. There were more than a few folks taking the subway home wearing black-tie.

--Suzanne Ito

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