Actors raise the dead at Maple Grove Cemetery event

Nancy Appleby portrays the spirit of Mama Doe, the unidentified woman who died in Grand Central Terminal on Christmas 1985. Photo by Rich Bockmann
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With more than 80,000 souls to chose from, the Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery had no shortage of stories to resurrect Saturday for the eighth annual Spirits Alive event at the Kew Gardens cemetery.

“Hear ye, hear ye, all who dare. Spirits come forth,” bellowed Andrew Koslosky as he welcomed guests, portraying Col. William Cogswell, Maple Grove Cemetery’s first president.

Koslosky was one of 22 volunteers, some professional actors but other amateurs, who stationed themselves around the cemetery’s 65 acres and brought to life the tales of some of its inhabitants.

“These are 22 different stories of people who either directly affected history or were symbols of what was going on at that time,” he said.

Dressed in his black suit and top hat, 11-year-old Tobi Ayeni channeled the Rev. Samuel Cornish, who was the founder of New York’s First Colored Presbyterian Church.

“Many of the people of this church had the rare privilege of seeing Frederick Douglas speak at the pulpit many times,” said the student from Immaculate Conception School, where he had previously performed in the play “Skatepark.”

Ayeni’s social studies teacher, Carl Ballenas, created the event as a school project in 2004 as a way to bring history to life.

“We have kind of a motto. There’s a 3,000-year-old Egyptian proverb that says, ‘If you say the name of the dead, they come back to life,’” he recited.

Ballenas, the cemetery’s historian, said that when Cornish’s church was moved from its Prince Street location in 1877, more than 300 bodies were brought to Kew Gardens. Many of their identities are unknown, and a PBS show titled “History Detectives” is currently investigating if Cornish is among them, Ballenas said.

Another, more recent mystery, is that of Mama Doe, the elderly, unidentified woman who ultimately succumbed to the elements in Grand Central Terminal after sleeping outdoors on Christmas Eve in 1985. Nancy Appleby portrayed the spirit of Mama Doe and told the story of the Bronx insurance executive who had been so moved after hearing of her death that she donated a bronze plaque that reads “Home at last.”

Amateur actor Dan Guarino said he had played Teddy Roosevelt last year, and this year he chose to portray Maj. Charles Cook, a engineer and archaeologist who participated in the expedition of the ancient Turkish city of Sardis and died in 1919 of the influenza epidemic.

“I think he led an interesting life. He touched so many things and was touched by so many currents in history,” said Guarino who, along with wife Liz, authored a book titled “Images of America: Broad Channel.”

“I like to think of it as I’m reaching back into another time. Cook only lived for a brief amount of time but he touched the past,” he said.

Whether it was Patricia Willis, decked out in her white uniform telling the story of an Ellis Island nurse or Tim Morgenstern, who explained how the Dutch translation of the name LaVergne Bronk gave the city’s northernmost borough its name, all the participants shared the same enthusiasm for bringing their subjects’ stories to life.

“As a theater performer, all you need is a compelling story that comes to life,” said Koslosky.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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