by Michael Daecher
About a month ago, John Fasulo started spreading the word about a photography project documenting a day in the life of Beacon. He’s been taking pictures around town since he was a boy, and this project, based on the “Day in a Life” series, seemed like the perfect way to capture Beacon at a crucial juncture in its history. On the Sunday of his first meeting, the chthonic Clash coffee house was packed with people interested in participating. John said he would have been happy if 8 or 9 had shown up. With John leading the way, the “Spirit of Beacon: One Week of Photography” project will take place during the first week of May, with participation from 30 amateur and professional photographers.
Born and raised in Beacon, John has spent the past 25 years working behind a camera for all the major networks. I recently spoke to John at his Exeter Circle home about his motivation for the Spirit of Beacon project, working for Rush Limbaugh, and fishtailing in a C5A Galaxy. You can also see some of John’s pictures immediately following our interview.
You’ve been in this house for two years?
Yes. We moved from Hubert St off of Rombout Avenue — that house had been my grandparents’ since the late 1920’s. My mother’s parents immigrated here from Germany in 1923. My grandfather and grandmother came over within a month or two of one another.
I still have most of the documentation from their journey. I know the name of the ship, what my grandfather had for breakfast the first day on board. I also have a postcard with a menu on the back of it. There’s a passenger list that shows his name and little x’s next to other passenger’s names, which I assume where people that he met on the ship.
Why did they leave?
They left not long after World War I, and Germany was going through a lot of civil strife. The German Communists were stirring things up and it was not long before Adolph Hitler emerged. Things were bad and they decided, like thousands of others, to leave and make a new life in America. They came to Beacon almost immediately after arriving in this country. I think a few aunts or uncles had come to Beacon previously, so my grandfather followed suit.
What did your grandfather do in Beacon?
My grandfather, who we all called “Pop”, was a machinist for the New York Central Railroad. That’s where I get my interest in that medium of photography. A lot of my photographs portray railroads, steam engines, things that move on tracks.
He worked in the railroad most of his life, retiring in the late 1960’s. He passed away in the early 70’s. In some respects I had my own Polar Express when I was a kid. We were able to ride the train for free because he was an employee. Since I was under 18, I could ride along with him, but we had to be on time. Being a railroad man he didn’t like anyone being late. To this day I like people being punctual – I must have got that from him.
A lot of weekends we’d ride into New York, especially around Christmas time, and we’d go into the shops. We always made a circuit. He would pick up a quarter pound of licorice drops and all day long we’d play a game where I had to steal the licorice out of his pocket. We would go to Polk’s Hobby Shop, on Fifth Avenue, just down from the Empire State Building. And they had a huge train display.
Did you have trains at home?
I did. I had an O gauge layout and an HO layout that was constantly under construction in my parents’ basement. My railroad empire was never completed. It was always a work in progress.
When I was a kid trains were everything. From Polk’s we’d go up to see Santa Clause at Macy’s, and hike back up to FAO Schwarz, which at the time had real quality toys – things you wouldn’t find anywhere else. I still have a large metal fire engine that my grandfather bought there when I was a boy, which I put up as part of our Christmas display every year. It’s the kind you couldn’t buy today because it has too many sharp edges.
Growing up at that time was when I started taking some of my first photographs. Pop had a few old box cameras, some of which I still have. He used to take all the family photographs with the Brownie box camera when I was a kid. I eventually inherited it, and I started taking pictures. It uses 120 roll film, so there’s a lot of old negatives lying around that are black & white. A couple of my early train pictures were with that box camera. There’s one I took of an electric engine sitting on a siding at Croton-Harmon, another of my grandfather sitting up in the engineer’s seat in one of the diesels.
A lot of the photographs that I took were of people here in Beacon – Dave Knapp at his paint store or Mike Aquaviva at his barber shop (where I used to go when I was a kid), Frank Dondero, who I photographed about a year before he passed away at the nursing home. One of things that I like is to have contact with the person, and have the person looking at the lens.
One of the photographers I’ve always admired is August Saunder , who did a whole series of pictures of local folk in Austria: policemen, bakers, window washers, most of whom are standing outside, looking right at you.
Did you study photography?
I went to a lot of schools when I was young (chuckles.) After high school in 1968, Vietnam was still hot and heavy, so I went to a small school in Vermont. But I wasn’t ready for higher education, so I dropped out. And when you dropped out of school at that time, there was pretty much a guarantee that Uncle Sam was going to give you a job. While I wasn’t a pacifist and couldn’t be a conscientious objector, I was certainly against that war, and I think history has proven us right on that point. But I did want to serve. So my father, who served in the Merchant Marines and the Coast Guard in World War II, suggested the Coast Guard. They wouldn’t go to Vietnam, and I’d learn something I could learn later on. So I joined the Coast Guard and was stationed in Rockland, Maine, about as far away from Vietnam as you could get.
I ended up being stationed in Maine on a large 110-foot CG tug. I just found out that all of the tugs of that class have just been de-commissioned. You know you’re starting to get old when they’ve de-commissioned the ship you served on when you were in your early 20’s. You start to think, how long will it be until I’m de-commissioned?
After the Coast Guard I tried school again, taking courses at Dutchess Community College, and would up at the School of Visual Arts, which is where I found out about August Sander.
How did you get into television?
I eventually got interested in television through the father of a friend. I’m not sure if I hate him for it, or love him for it, but he was responsible for launching my career as a cameraman.
I started volunteering with Bruno Caliandro, who directed the videotaping of Norman Vincent Peale’s church services, which aired the following week on WOR on Sunday morning. This was before television time became so expensive that you couldn’t give Sunday morning at 5:00 away. The church had spent a lot of money on professional video equipment, and Bruno was directing with two of his friends from the industry. One was in charge of video, the other in charge of audio.
I wanted to be a photographer, but that didn’t seem to be moving along. And I also had an interest in television. So I was introduced to the chief engineer at WOR, and I got a job as summer relief cameraman working for 6-8 months while people were on vacation. So I started working on television shows like “Joe Franklin’s Memory Lane”, which was taped and aired at, like, 2am. We did news, and at 10:00am we did “Romper Room” live for an hour. The “Romper Room” lady had 10-12 kids for an hour of live television. It was tough, but it was fun.
You were behind a camera on a pedestal?
Right, and it was at Marble Collegiate Church where I learned how to operate a camera. By the time I got to WOR, I knew enough to get a recommendation, and they gave me a chance. That’s where my 24 years in television really began. Over the years I’ve worked for CBS, NBC, ABC, and did a lot of Good Morning America. I worked for Geraldo Rivera’s first talk show for the first 5 years it was aired, and I was there for the infamous skinhead episode where they broke Geraldo’s nose. I was behind a studio camera, and was relatively protected by it. Geraldo Rivera making television history and I was there (chuckles.)
During this whole time you were commuting from Beacon down to the city?
Yes, most of my career, except for a 2-year ‘vacation’ at WTZA in Kingston, I commuted into the city. Geraldo eventually moved over to CBS, and at the time it wasn’t in the cards that I would make the move with the show. So it was summer, and I was looking for another job. I knew the News Director at WTZA, so I called him up and said I was looking for work. They had an opening for a Chief Camerman and Producer of ‘On the River’ a weekly special focusing on issues related to the Hudson River. Neither one of those jobs paid a lot of money, but you couldn’t beat the commute. So I negotiated with them to combine the jobs, and I got to shoot news out in the field, supervise other cameramen, and produce ‘One the River’, a show that had won a number of awards before I was there, and, thankfully, in the two years I was there.
Is that when you went to Saudi Arabia?
Yes. After Kuwait was invaded in 1990 we got a call from the press officer at the Stewart Air National Guard Base telling us that they were organizing a media flight to show what the local National Guard and soldiers were doing. I told my news director that I wanted to go, and before I knew it I was on a C5A Galaxy transport plane heading for Saudi Arabia.
What was that like?
There were 7-8 crew members on the plane, with a spare pilot for long flights. There were a couple of bunk beds just behind the cockpit. In the back of the plane, above all the cargo, it looks just like a traditional airliner, with room for about 200 troops. Besides fitting in all the tractor trailers and tanks – the thing is huge. It’s amazing. So we flew from Dover, Delaware to Rheinmein, Germany, and then on to Saudi Arabia. We were only there for a few days.
Coming into Rheinmein we were stacked up for landing because of a snowstorm, and I was shooting over the pilot’s shoulder, out the cockpit window. We were basically snow blind, and we were watching the altimeter as we descended, and I got a tight shot of that, pulling back over the pilot’s shoulder. We’re down to like 2,000 feet, 1,500 feet, and at some point the electronic voice warning comes on telling us that we’ve reached the point where we can safely pull out of the landing attempt. And I said to the pilot, “I hope that whatever we hit is the runway.” And he looked back at me with a smirk on his face and said, “Yeah, me too.”
I think we broke out of the clouds at 200 feet, the runway was right there, and he hit it hard. You could feel that we were starting to fishtail, that we were losing control of the plane, but it ended up straightening out just fine. That was probably the tensest part of the trip. Being in Saudi Arabia, it was buildup time, so the war hadn’t actually started. We shot some interviews with troops from around the Mid-Hudson Valley, brought them some Christmas presents, and were back home a few days later.
But my time at WTZA was almost like a vacation. I had a news car I could use instead of taking the train at 6:00 in the morning.
What was it like working for Rush Limbaugh?
You want to shut that off? (motions to the tape recorder and chuckles) He was demanding and he could be very pompous, but he was very good to his crews, especially at Christmas. He was certainly a character. This was when Rush was the fireman stoking the ‘Republican Revolution.’ The executive producer of the show was actually Roger Ailes, who is now head of the Fox News Channel. I liked Roger Ailes a lot, and still do. He was a master at spinning politics, working with Rush to get across whatever message they had in mind that day. Ailes went on to head up Fox news and I went with him.
But one of my loves has always been photography. I had a darkroom at my parent’s house, and I built one here in my basement as well.
Are you retired now?
No, I’ve been in the television business for 24 years, and I was recently offered a severance package that I decided to take. This past July I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and I just started on my second round of medication. Every week they increase my dosage, and today is my sixth week, so I’ve been very tired as a result of that treatment. But Parkinson’s and stress do not go together, and television is a very stressful environment; especially now that a lot of the studio cameras are robotic and you are operating three, four, or five cameras at a time using a touch screen and joy sticks instead of just one. As much as I loved it, it’s not conducive to my condition. So it’s time to start thinking about something else.
Is that how the “Spirit of Beacon” project came about?
Right. I haven’t been working since early November, so I’ve had lots of time to think. I’ve been working in the darkroom a lot of the time, looking over 30-odd years of negatives.
So I started thinking about doing something around town. Last Christmas one of my presents was “America 24/7″, which was done by the same people who did the “Day in the Life” series. So the Spirit of Beacon project is not a unique idea, but it’s something that focuses on one small community rather than an entire country. And having lived here all my life, growing up here, going to the old Beacon High School, I can see the changes going on, and I wanted to find a way to document that.
For example, I still remember in great detail the day the President Kennedy was assassinated. They let us out of school early, and I always took the same route home, down Fishkill Avenue to Main Street. Where the liquor store and pizza place is now, there used to be a W.T. Grant’s department store. So I’d always walk in the front door, by the candy counter, and go out the back door. There were a couple of little old ladies at the candy counter that day and they were totally distraught. I’ll never forget that.
So, as someone who has lived in Beacon on and off for decades, I’ve seen the changes. I’ve seen the bridge come and the ferry go. I rode the ferry on the last weekend, which was just before Kennedy was shot. So I’ve seen a lot of old buildings demolished, destroyed by “urban removal” as I call it. Over the years I started taking photographs of people that I knew. I remember walking into Mike Aquaviva’s barber shop, which was right next to where the coffee shop is now, and business was slow, so Mike was sitting in his barber’s chair playing his mandolin. That image I have in my head.
I have a photograph of Dick Shea before he died. He was a reporter for the Free Press, Southern Dutchess News and earlier, the Evening News. I used to go talk to him at the Evening News at night and he’d get off on a subject, and I’d take pictures while he was talking, smoking his cigarettes. He was always ready to sound off about something that was pissing him off about local politics.
Sounds like you’ve had fun.
People always say, isn’t it great to be working in television. And my stock answer is: I guess it was great. It was certainly better than working for a living. God, I’m having this much fun AND they’re paying me? You can’t beat that.