Bounding across the red carpet, St. Thomas the Apostle School students-turned-novice-filmmakers hugged their teacher, pivoted and turned to face the audience. There, under the lights of Forest Hills’ Cinemart Theaters on Monday night, they smiled at an audience of Woodhaven residents – past and present – and clenched plaques commemorating the documentary film they credit with making them realize just how vibrant their neighborhood’s history is.
After spending months collecting more than 15 hours of filmed interviews of everyone from Neir’s Tavern’s owners to elected officials and the owner of the famed Schmidt’s Candy, the 28 students in St. Thomas the Apostle’s sixth, seventh and eighth grades debuted their hour-long film, “Woodhaven: Diverse Backgrounds United in One History,” for a crowd of history aficionados and residents thrilled to take a trip down memory lane.
“It was really fun to make,” Ingrid Karmazinas, 13, said of the film that was part of a collaboration between the school on Jamaica Avenue and 87th Street and the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society. “I learned a lot, and now we have all of this for future generations.”
Other students agreed and said they learned to better appreciate the neighborhood they call home.
“I really only knew about the carousel when I first started this project, so I was really excited to learn about the history of Woodhaven,” said Daija Harrison, 12.
And that is exactly what Ed Wendell, president of the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society, said he had hoped for – to inspire younger residents to connect with a past that few knew about.
“We’re extremely proud of the work they did here,” said Wendell, whose organization donated copies of a Woodhaven history book penned by area author Vincent Seyfried to the school. “They took a book and crafted questions to our business, political and civic leaders about our past, present and future.”
Patricia Eggers, the St. Thomas teacher who worked with students on the film, said she saw an appreciation and love for Woodhaven take root in the students during the filmmaking process.
“They gained a great pride in Woodhaven,” Eggers said. “It really placed them in history, and it’s going to help them hold onto history.”
Students trekked all around their neighborhood for the film, learning about people like Margie Schmidt, who makes chocolates for her Jamaica Avenue store in the same fashion that her family has done for the 85 years that Schmidt’s Candy has been open, and places like Neir’s Tavern – one of the country’s oldest bars where “Goodfellas” was filmed. They spent time with Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) and state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach). They filmed the Forest Park carousel’s operator and spoke to Maria Thomson,a longtime civic leader in Woodhaven.
And it wasn’t just the students who got something out of the film – those in the audience said they were inspired by the young filmmakers who captured on tape a time long gone – but which many remember well.
“The biggest thing then was to go play out on the street – everyone did that,” said Eilish Higgins, who graduated from St. Thomas the Apostle in 1973 – the same class as Schmidt. “I was the oldest of five, and my mom would throw us out of the house and say, ‘go play,’ and we’d play scully and war and ride our bicycles.”
Linda Dougherty, now the principal of Our Lady of Mercy in Forest Hills, said the film was particularly poignant for her because she landed her first teaching job at St. Thomas the Apostle.
“I remember I’d take the bus down Woodhaven Boulevard, and I’d walk down Jamaica Avenue and all the shops were so wonderful,” Dougherty said.
“This is so wonderful for the students to connect with the past and with history, but in a contemporary way,” she continued. “When you know something about your neighborhood, it gives you a sense of pride.”
That sense of pride was more than evident when the film ended and the applause died down. As the students began to filter out of the theater, Daija Harrison and her friend, Linda Lozada, 13, yelled, “come to Woodhaven!”
“It’s not like any other town,” Harrison said, smiling.
By Anna Gustafson