A pilgrimage to a very special eatery.

Pizza, spaghetti with marinara sauce, lasagna, eggplant parmigiana – all standard items you’d expect to find on most Italian restaurant menus. But at Spirito’s, a neighborhood eatery in Elizabeth, New Jersey, these dishes are part of an on-going, inter-generational feast.

Spirito’s opened in 1932. Seventy-seven years later, the business is still run by the Spirito family, and descendants of the original customers continue to patronize the place. The restaurant occupies a nondescript stone building on the corner of 3rd Avenue and High Street, a neighborhood of busy, narrow streets and not nearly enough parking. The bar’s in front; dining room is in back. It’s a no-frills kind of place, clean enough and featuring wood paneling and green-painted booths. Hanging on the walls, framed photos and newspaper reviews and articles celebrate the histories of the Spirito family and the restaurant.

My maternal grandparents introduced me to Spirito’s when I was a youngster. We always started with a cold antipasto, featuring celery, peppers, olives, cheeses and meats. Next came the “pizza pie” (as Grandpa always called it), a cheese pie with lots of tomato sauce and a very thin, crispy crust (what Garden Staters call a “bar pie”). The main courses followed. I can still remember the ravioli – large plump pasta pillows with a feather-light and creamy cheese filling. And the eggplant – wow, my mouth is watering as I write this.

The restaurant does have it quirks. Plenty of bread, but no butter. Soda is served by the pitcher, but you can only buy beer by the bottle. No coffee. And if you want desert you can stroll on down to the Italian ice stand at the other end of the street. But hey, these are the things that give Spirito’s its charm – like the wait staff.

The waitresses were, and still are, fantastic. I’ve heard them described as gruff – but to me they’re pure “Jersey” – friendly, no-nonsense ladies who also happen to have great memories. They never write down an order and they never make a mistake. In fact, years after my grandfather and grandmother moved from Elizabeth and my grandfather had died, I remember going to Spirito’s with my grandmother and finding a waitress who remembered them both.

Memories, I think, even more than the food, are what make this place so special. On a recent trip to New Jersey, I returned to Spirito’s for the first time in two decades and enjoyed a meal with my mom, two of my brothers, my sister-in-law, two nieces and a nephew. Nothing about the place had changed – and that was a good thing. I was happy to see a new generation of our family enjoying the same dishes I savored as a kid. And as I worked my way through the antipasto, the “pizza pie” and my eggplant, the tastes brought with them memories of happy times with my mom, grandparents and brothers around these very same tables. We were all part of a wonderful continuity – a very tasty legacy, if you will.

As we got up to leave, I told my mom that, while we had three generations gathered around our table, I’d felt as if my Grandma and Grandpa had joined us as well. Mom nodded and smiled. She’d felt their presence, too.

A legacy of tulips.

Did you ever play Wiffle Ball? Growing up, it was the summer pastime of choice in my suburban New Jersey neighborhood. Every day, kids would congregate on the side street by my house, choose sides and have at it. Games were noisy affairs, punctuated by lots of arguments over close calls, and could last for hours. It wasn’t unusual for us to suspend a game for dinner and then reconvene afterwards. In fact, I remember finishing one game under the glare of a neighbor’s headlights. It was a pretty safe game, too, thanks to the hollow plastic Wiffle Ball. It would glance harmlessly off just about anything it hit.

The exception was Mr. Daly’s tulips.

Mr. and Mrs. Daly lived on the other side of the street. They were a very pleasant, elderly couple and they tolerated us kids pretty well. Unfortunately, Mr. Daly insisted on planting tulips outside the chain link fence bordering his backyard. He was quite proud of those tulips and the bright red and yellow blooms they provided each spring – and he became quite upset whenever a sharply hit foul ball lopped the top off one of them. Or two. Or three. Not that we wanted to damage the flowers; they were just innocent bystanders that occasionally got caught in our Wiffle Ball crossfire.

The 1960s, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Daly, are long gone. But a recent experience brought all those memories back to me. In early July, my wife Halina and I traveled back to New Jersey to visit family. One day, we drove through my old neighborhood. I couldn’t resist stopping to look at my old house, now vastly enlarged from the little bungalow in which I grew up. I walked around the house and took a few pictures – and it wasn’t long before I caught the attention of one of the neighbors, who probably figured I was casing the place for a robbery. He strolled over, a glass of beer in hand, and asked if I needed some help. I introduced myself and told him I grew up in the neighborhood. We started chatting, and soon I found myself in the middle of a small crowd of neighbors, answering questions about what things were like in the old days, and who used to live where. During the course of our chat, I mentioned our Wiffle Ball games and the many tulips we beheaded.

Finally, the time came to say goodbye. As I was about to leave, the neighbor currently living in the Daly’s old house said, “You know, I’m glad you mentioned about the tulips. They keep sprouting up and I had no idea where they came from.”

As Halina and I drove away, the thought of those tulips – Mr. Daly’s legacy to the neighborhood – filled me with a warm glow. The experience reminded me that legacies can take many forms, be they video biographies or tulips – and that they enrich and inform the lives of the generations that follow.

Nice job, Mr. Daly.

A new website for Family Legacy Video!

Family Legacy Video’s website still has the same address, but as of August 18, 2011 it has a whole new look! The Family Legacy Video website team worked intensely over the past month to create a site that’s warm and inviting, informational, professional and user-friendly. The major goal was to create the most effective and informative video biography site possible. I think you’ll find that our new platform successfully shows off our custom legacy video services – as well as our range of do-it-yourself products and services, like guides, music and webinars. Have we succeeded? Please let us know!

Add "breathing room" to interviews to hold viewer interest.

I’ll never forget my high school biology teacher. Mr. Rutledge was terrific in the classroom. He was lively, funny and entertaining – in short, he made learning fun. Then came the the day he gave my class a taste of what many of our future college lectures would be like. Announcing that it was “college lecture day,” he sat at his desk, opened a text book, bowed his head and read, in a monotone, for the entire class period. His voice never varied in pace or intonation. It was all I could do to keep from being lulled to sleep. In short, it was one of the longest lectures in my life – an object lesson in how not to teach.

So what does this have to do with video biographies? Well, a common mistake I see made in video biographies, be they professional or amateur, concerns pacing. Many producers never vary the tempo of their programs or give viewers a little bit of time to digest the information they’re given. These shows are, in fact, the video equivalent of a monotone. And they send their audiences (at least me) to dreamland.

How can you avoid creating a “monotone” video biography? There are lots of techniques, but in this article I’d like to offer you one particular bit of advice: Let your interview “breathe.” Y’see, many video biographers seem to think they need to present interviews exactly as they were recorded, with minimal cutting and shaping. They let the interviews set the pace, or tempo, for the video, instead of shaping the interviews and varying the pacing through editing.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’ve got half a dozen photos of Granma Annie during her childhood years on the family farm. During the interview, however, Annie only mentions the farm briefly. There’s not enough time to insert all the photos you have in the few seconds she gives you – so what do you do? Some producers cram in a few photos in the time available, resulting in shots that are on the screen for too short a time, which makes them distracting and also doesn’t give the viewers enough time to enjoy them. Not good. The better option is this: After Granma mentions the farm, stop the interview, mix in some music, display the photos (perhaps dissolving between them as they pan left and right or zoom in and out) and then dissolve back to Granma as she continues her answer. This gap, or “breath” gives your viewers the time they need to process the information they’ve just heard in the interview and enjoy the visuals.

Family Legacy Video® – it’s a trademark.

I’m getting to know how the folks at Xerox must have felt when people used their company name to describe any old photocopier. I’ve recently found several Web sites using the term “Family Legacy Video” to describe their video biography offerings. The truth of the matter is that Family Legacy Video® is a trademark of Family Legacy Video, Inc. – something these other companies now know – and I’m devoted to protecting that trademark. That’s because a Family Legacy Video® is a unique brand, standing for professional, highly-crafted video biographies that are unmatched in the industry. And the only place you can get a Family Legacy Video® is through Family Legacy Video, Inc.

Working with your video biographer: Travel.

In many ways, technology has certainly shrunk our world. All you have to do these days to get in touch with someone on the other side of the globe is dial a phone or log on to the Web; within seconds you can be chatting, either by voice or text. It’s easy as pie. But let’s say, after doing some research, you find that the video biographer you want to hire is located in another part of the country, like Tucson, Arizona? How easy will it be to work with someone who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away?

The short answer is that a long distance relationship with a video biographer can work quite well. In fact, I’ve worked with clients from coast to coast and points in-between. But there are some things to consider when looking for a professional outside your local area.

Might as well deal with this issue first. Not a week goes by that I don’t get a call from a prospective client asking me if I can travel to their location outside Arizona. When I say yes, the next question is usually, “Does travel add to the cost?” Quite honestly, it does. A video biographer living and working in your area doesn’t have to bear the expenses that come with airfare, hotel rooms and rental cars. Your local pro also won’t need to spend an extra day’s worth of time traveling to your location and back home. In all fairness, it’s only right to reimburse the video biographer you hire for travel expenses. Personally, I don’t “mark up” travel – I just pass along the actual costs to the client. I can either add the costs to the agreed-upon budget or subtract them from the budget. Let’s say I have a budget of $20,000 and travel expenses of $1,000. To be able to devote all of the $20,000 to the video, I would add the $1,000. The client would then pay a total of $21,000. If the client can’t go as high as $21,000, I can subtract travel expenses, leaving $19,000 to devote to the actual video production.

Staying in contact during the course of production is crucial. You’re likely to have lots of questions about the process and your video biographer will also need information from you. Some people prefer chatting face-to-face or just feel more secure dealing with someone local. However, a professional video biographer, working long distance, can consult with you and conduct preinterviews over the phone just as effectively as in person. One word of caution: You and your video biographer SHOULD NOT rely entirely upon e-mail. E-mails can sometimes be cryptic and incomplete; they also don’t convey emotion well. When I want to send a reminder or ask for a small bit of information, e-mail is fine. For anything more than that, I prefer to pick up the phone and call.

If you do choose to work long distance, you’ll need to decide how to best get your family photos and other mementos into your video biographer’s hands for scanning and shooting. If you’re comfortable shipping your items make sure you wrap them well and cushion them to guard against damage. Clients have been shipping me photos, singly and in albums, for years. Nothing has ever been lost. The only damage in all these years resulted when a client sent a glass-covered photo that wasn’t properly protected, resulting in some breakage. While shipping long distance has worked fine, I understand that some families may be uncomfortable with the thought of packing up their old photos and trusting them to FedEx. That’s why I always ask my long distance clients if they have any photos or other items that they aren’t comfortable shipping – or that wouldn’t be practical to send to me. Knowing that, I can build in some extra time before or after the interview taping to scan or shoot the keepsakes on location.

Working with your video biographer: Visuals.

The foundation of a successful video biography is a well-researched, conducted and recorded interview. But just as important as what the storyteller says during his or her interview is what viewers see. Many times it’s just fine to have the storyteller on screen. Other times, the interview can be wonderfully enhanced by visuals that illustrate the incidents, people and places being described.

What do I mean by visuals? Photos, certainly. But visuals can also include family movies, newspaper and magazine clippings, yearbooks, wedding invitations, journal entries and memorabilia like medals, awards and trophies, etc. Knowing what kinds of visuals can best enhance a storyteller’s legacy video is one of the strengths a professional video biographer brings to the table.

When I first sign a client, we talk in a general way about the kinds of visuals that may be available within the family. Then, after I learn more about the storyteller during the preinterview process, I’ll send the client a specific “wish list” of all the visuals I think will help contribute to the video. After the on-camera interview, I often follow up with a final list, based on other stories that surfaced during the videotaping. These lists guide my clients during their searches for the perfect images to include in their legacy videos – and will often give them ideas for items they might never have considered. After all, as a professional visual storyteller I’m used to thinking visually – and I use this experience to help direct and inspire my clients as they search through their family archives.

Knowing how to use these visuals effectively is another strength a professional video biographer brings to a legacy video project. But that’s another story. Before you can use those visuals, however, you have to find them. And before you can find them, you have to know what to look for. A professional video biographer is just the one to guide you on “the hunt.”

Of personal history and a special lunar eclipse.

It was about 1 AM in Tucson, Arizona, on the morning of December 21. I unlocked my front door, stepped into the night and looked up towards the heavens. There it was: a rust-colored moon in almost total eclipse, floating in and out of view behind a mottled layer of broken clouds. Even though the sky wasn’t as clear as I would have liked, the view was gorgeous, and it was made all the more special by the fact that the next winter solstice eclipse isn’t due until 2094 – eighty-four years distant. That’s pretty far away in human time, but not as far removed as we in 2010 are from the last folks who got to see such an awesome sight.

It was 372 years ago, 1638, when a lunar eclipse last coincided with a winter solstice. As I sat on my front steps enjoying the spectacle in the night sky above me, feeling the gentle breeze brushing my face and hearing the mournful cries of some nearby coyotes, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of connection with my distant ancestors. I don’t know who or where they were, but somewhere close to four centuries ago, my forbears gazed into a star-filled expanse to watch the full moon redden and dim. It may sound a bit silly, but I felt connected to them, as if this celestial event was bridging time and linking us together in spirit.

I think part of that connectedness stems from the fact that, like the light reflected by the moon, each of us is a reflection of the generations of our family that preceded us. My DNA, physical characteristics and maybe even personality traits were bequeathed to me by those long-lost relatives; precious gifts of identity for which I give thanks daily. One thing they didn’t pass along to their descendants were their personal stories – understandable given that, for them, just surviving was probably the order of the day. But thanks to today’s technology, we have opportunities our ancestors in 1638 didn’t have. You and I can pass along our life stories, including our reactions to the 2010 lunar eclipse, to coming generations in the form of personal video biographies. If we create these legacy videos now, before it’s too late, our descendants won’t be left wondering who we were. They’ll know, because we’ll be there to tell them each time they insert our DVDs and press “play.”

And won’t that be a wonderful reflection on us.

Why hire a video biography pro?

So you’ve decided that 2011 is the year you’re going to create that long overdue video biography featuring your grandparents, or your mom and dad. You own a pretty nice consumer camcorder. You’ve dabbled in editing. You’ve even created birthday video DVDs for family members. Who’s to say you shouldn’t take on that long-awaited video biography project yourself, instead of hiring a professional video biographer? Who indeed. But before you decide, you might want to think about what a professional has to offer:

In order to proceed smoothly, a video project needs to be organized from start to finish. A professional video biographer can bring years of organizational experience to the table. A pro can talk with you about your goals and wishes for your video and then design a production that meets your needs and your budget. A pro knows how to start a legacy video project and then proceed efficiently each step of the way. A true professional treats you, the client, like the executive producer – consulting you and ushering you and your family through the process.

A professional video biographer will be well-versed in visual storytelling techniques. He or she can offer you a number of ways to approach and treat your family stories and storytellers. And a pro will have a realistic idea of the cost and time involved in the different options he or she offers you. A real pro will be able to show you samples of past work so you can make informed decisions about the creative direction of your legacy video.

Production Experience
Your storytellers deserve to be presented in the most flattering way possible. A professional can insure that your storytellers look and sound their very best on camera. This means professional lighting, knowing how to compose a pleasing shot and using a high-end camera to capture the image, along with top-notch microphones to ensure great sound. A pro will also know how to make a storyteller feel safe and comfortable during the interview in order to ensure an effective “performance.”

Editing Expertise
The final edit is where the magic happens. A video biographer who is an experienced editor can take all the raw elements collected during the production process (interviews, photos, films, music, sound effects, etc.) and turn out a program that exceeds your wildest expectations.

Time Management
Best of all, a professional video biographer can be working on your project steadily, not squeezing it in during a free moment here and there like you may have to do. This means your video biography actually gets done in 2011 – and doesn’t get put off for yet another year.

True, you’ll have to pay for the service – but in the end, the value a professional can bring to your project can be well worth the price.

World Digital Library offers fascinating glimpses of world history & culture.

The history of the world is a complex tapestry of events, images and sounds. You’ll find a small sampling of those images and sounds is available at the World Digital Library. The WDL is a free, online resource that allows you to view and listen to primary materials from a wide variety of countries and cultures.

The WDL currently offers over one thousand items contributed by institutions around the world. Included in the collection are manuscripts, maps, rare books, musical scores, audio recordings, films, prints, photographs, and architectural drawings. Users can browse by place, time, topic, type of item and contributing institution, or by an open-ended search. Navigation tools and content descriptions are provided in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Many more tongues are represented in the materials themselves, which are provided in their original languages.

So take some time to digitally explore cultural treasures from around the globe at the World Digital Library.