By SHIRLEY WITHERSPOON
In a 1996 article profiling a then 27-year-old Ken Del Vecchio’s unique Renaissance Man accomplishments, the Passaic County, New Jersey newspaper Herald News proclaimed that the young man had the “Midas Touch.” He can “turn anything into gold”, the newspaper reported, in writing about Del Vecchio’s successes as a published author, a prolific weightlifting champ, and being one of the youngest attorneys in New Jersey history to win a felony jury trial. Twenty years later, nothing has changed, except that Del Vecchio has now written/produced about 30 major movies, authored some of the United States’ best-selling criminal law books (in addition to multiple novels), and he turned that winning seminal case into trying over 400 cases and handling in the neighborhood of 20,000 others as a criminal defense attorney and prosecutor. He also, at one point, served as a New Jersey judge.
Del Vecchio, still baby-faced at 47, is in a torrid race to be the earth’s modern-day Renaissance Man. As part of that self-imposed competition, he founded one of the world’s top film festivals, which has been held for the last four years at Middletown’s Paramount Theater, a theater that he personally resurrected from a 20-year lapse of regular programming. After his Jersey City theater was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy, a bidding war broke out for Del Vecchio’s worldwide renowned Hoboken International Film Festival, otherwise known as HIFF. Somehow, it ended up in Middletown – that was after intelligent pleas by Middletown Mayor Joe DeStefano, former Orange County Executive Ed Diana, and U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer. An HIFF video highlights reel shows the aberrational impact that the festival has had on the Middletown and Orange County economies and communities, and it features Schumer delightfully stating that Del Vecchio has a “great mind and he also has a big heart.” The senator’s statement is particularly compelling, perhaps bizarre, given that Del Vecchio is a conservative Republican who just ran for U.S. Congress (we’ll get back to that).
In 2013, Middletown’s ailing Paramount Theater hadn’t showed movies 7-days-a-week in over 20 years. It also had not held any notable live comedy or music shows during that same time period. Enter Ken Del Vecchio and his Hoboken International Film Festival, and that all changed. Over night.
After the unusual bi-partisan political courting (Schumer and DeStefano are Democrats, Diana is a Republican), Del Vecchio agreed to a one year deal for the festival to be held at the Paramount. The event drew over 15,000 people into the struggling Middletown economy and brought several household-name actors into the community. Businesses reported historic boosts, hotels filled with filmmakers and fans from all across the country and many other nations, and gas stations pumped gasoline into an inordinate number of cars. Excitement and money flowed through the streets of Middletown, for an unforgettable week. That led to a bigger bidding war for HIFF. DeStefano, a mayor who is recognized for making some savvy decisions that have slowly pushed Middletown into a new, better era, made his best decision in offering Del Vecchio a three year deal: not only to keep HIFF in this Hudson Valley city, but also to have Del Vecchio’s production company serve in a theater operator capacity for the Paramount. What ensued was a revitalization of the theater that even DeStefano probably could not have guessed.
Del Vecchio, the man with the Midas Touch, immediately reinstituted daily movie screenings, launching the new programming with his normal Hollywood fanfare. He brought in the first run of Warner Brothers’ horror flick The Conjuring – and a number of the film’s actors. Obtaining a studio film on its opening night release is a difficult task for a theater that hadn’t showed daily movies in a few decades, but getting some of its actors to attend the screening (in Middletown, NY) is a near impossibility.
Del Vecchio, who isn’t known for his modesty, said of the event, “Yes, no one else could have gotten that done.”
But Middletown didn’t need someone with a tepid personality. It needed someone with a brazen bravado, wearing a red cape. Pink, in the case of Del Vecchio; that’s his signature—black suits with pink ties or pink shirts. Del Vecchio’s economic and glitz and glamour tirade took off from The Conjuring premiere. In the first year of his then-new three year deal with Middletown, Del Vecchio personally brought to the Paramount stage some of the country’s superstar comedy acts: Paul Reiser, Kevin Nealon, and Larry Miller to name a few. He even had Jay Leno mention Middletown’s Paramount on “The Tonight Show.”
More top comedians thereafter played at Del Vecchio’s behest – Gilbert Gottfried (who also hosts the annual HIFF), Jimmie Walker, Vic DiBetteto – and Del Vecchio further reinvigorated the theater with prime music shows. He started that trend with a Beatles Tribute band in 2014. And, of course, each year the Paramount’s key signature event, HIFF, has been held. The festival has grown with every annual showcase. HIFF has routinely been called one of the 10 biggest in the world by everyone from FOX to Time Warner Cable. The same with the reality that HIFF has infused millions of dollars yearly into the local economy, with such proclamations in media outlets ranging from News 12 segments to reports in the Times Herald-Record. The daily Hudson Valley newspaper reported Maureen Halahan, Orange County Partnership CEO, saying, “The Hoboken International Film Festival draws 10,000 visitors, bringing millions of dollars to our local economy.”
The list of star power who have attended HIFF at the Paramount over the last four years is staggering: Academy Award nominee Robert Loggia, Academy Award nominee Burt Young, Academy Award nominee Danny Aiello, Academy Award nominee Eric Roberts. Get the idea? If you wanted to hang out with Jane Seymour, Paul Sorvino, Jonathan Silverman, Joyce DeWitt, or about 100 other major stars over the past few years, all you needed to do was come down to HIFF at the Paramount.
But the massive benefits that Del Vecchio has delivered don’t end with HIFF and his work at the Paramount, nor do they end with Middletown. The entire Orange County economy and community has been a benefactor from the festival and theater programming. This, additionally, through Del Vecchio’s movie productions.
Del Vecchio’s movies star dozens of award-winning and fan-favorite actors (many of the same who appear at HIFF), and are distributed through industry leading companies, such as NBCUniversal, Millennium Entertainment, and Anchor Bay. Since 2013, he has produced about 10 movies in Orange County. Some of them include the biopic drama about the Iranian Revolution, Price For Freedom, the rock n’ roll epic Rock Story, the horror flicks Joker’s Poltergeist and Bleeding Hearts, and the comedies Hospital Arrest and Renaissance Man. These film productions have been another economic boon for Orange County, and continual, unique excitement for its residents. More so, Del Vecchio’s movies and film festival have created hundreds of jobs.
But this torrid star-studded and financial stimulation may all now be coming to end, at least for Middletown. Both the HIFF and Paramount Theater contracts have now finished their terms, and it seems increasingly likely – as ridiculous as it may be – that the Middletown Mayor and Council themselves may be the cause of this. This is where the sordid effect of politics may have intervened, which, as always, severely hurts the residents and community.
Del Vecchio just ran for Congress – as a Republican. The first congressional candidate in the country to endorse Donald Trump, he is not shy with his conservative rhetoric in opposition to President Obama, Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and, for that matter, much of the political establishment (on either side of the aisle). DeStefano is a tried and true Democrat. There are also rumors that DeStefano does not personally like Del Vecchio. And that DeStefano rules Middletown with an iron fist, where the city council members simply rubber stamp his rulings. Whatever the exact dynamics, Middletown has failed to execute a new contract with HIFF even though both parties (Del Vecchio and DeStefano) had publicly stated in a September press conference that they had agreed in principle to a new three year deal.
Del Vecchio said earlier this month at this year’s festival, “It’s my goal to stay in Middletown. The festival has become a staple here and I love what it does for the City and Orange County. Likewise, it’s great for HIFF to stay in Middletown. We love the Paramount Theater and the people of Middletown and Orange County.”
But it might just be that Orange County (though not Middletown) gets to keep the economic and fanfare successes of HIFF and Del Vecchio’s movie productions. Of course, this would be a monstrous black eye to Middletown, who will then have lost all that it put into HIFF, turning all over to another Orange County community.
Today, Del Vecchio said, “The Mayor and governing body of Middletown have failed to execute a new contract with Hoboken International Film Festival. It’s not me. It’s still my goal to remain at the Paramount. But I can’t wait forever. We have set a firm deadline to finalize a new contract. If we haven’t signed by that deadline, unfortunately the festival will be moving to a new location. HIFF has far too many suitors, in Orange County where we will likely stay—and beyond, where I will also assess offers. It’s very likely that HIFF will stay in Orange County, but I can’t guarantee anything at this point.”
Sources have confirmed that two Orange County municipalities are already in the running to become the new home of HIFF, one of them purportedly making a firm offer. Del Vecchio would not confirm the accuracy of the sources, who would not disclose the names of the municipalities.
Now, this is where the true Midas Touch of Del Vecchio comes in. Just two days ago, he came surprisingly close in knocking off the Republican Party’s endorsed congressional candidate, Phil Oliva, in the GOP primary. Del Vecchio ran an anti-establishment, populist campaign, and won 43% of the vote.
Regarding his congressional bid, Del Vecchio said, “Although not a direct win, getting 43% of the vote against the machine in a Congress race is unheard of and it has its obvious propulsion. Not to mention, in Orange County, I took almost 50% and outright won many towns. Andrew Heaney, who spent over one million dollars in District 19, only got 33% of the vote, and that wasn’t a bad showing for an anti-establishment candidate.”
So Del Vecchio loses the congressional campaign, but his popularity and strength within Orange County soars. Political observers in the Hudson Valley are noting, some worried, that if Del Vecchio (with no political support whatsoever and less than $70,000 spent) could shake up an entire congressional district, he could run roughshod in a smaller election universe where, as the “Cheer’s” theme song goes, “Everybody knows his name.” And everybody loves him for what he’s done for their community.
It’s doubtful, though, that Del Vecchio has any smaller political ambitions. Something smaller is unlikely to fit with his Renaissance Man accomplishments, or sit well with his ego. His detractors say he’s conceited and loud-mouthed. It’s not actually correct that “everybody loves him.” Del Vecchio is the quintessential “say what you mean, mean what you say” guy. And he has a penchant for making inflammatory remarks. He is a tough, hard, perhaps brash, person. Some say that he is obnoxious and outlandish. He refers to people as “nude” if they are “cool”, and “non-nude” if he thinks they are “not cool.” His recent political rival, Phil Oliva, often remarked that Del Vecchio is “bombastic.”
Del Vecchio’s response to that: “I like Phil. He beat me fair and square.” But Del Vecchio added a caveat: “That is, ‘fair and square’ through our current, rigged political system. There are over 130,000 registered Republicans in our congressional district. Yet, a mere 5,000 voted. That’s just 4% of the voters. That’s pathetic. But how did this happen? Because the political system is designed to disenfranchise voters, to make it difficult for them to vote, and to make it so they are unaware that the election is even occurring.”
What happened in Del Vecchio’s election, on the one hand, is fairly typical. The Republican Party has elected organizational loyalists, called county committee members. The county committee members are the party officials who determine who becomes the establishment’s endorsed candidate. In Del Vecchio’s Congressional District 18, there are approximately 1,100 county committee persons. These people are often described as being robotic, and simply following the orders of the political bosses. They often are criticized for not even knowing who they are voting for. Nonetheless, they voted for Phil Oliva to be their endorsed candidate, and they did their job, coming out and voting for Oliva in Tuesday’s primary election. In a Congress election where a puny 5,000 people voted, the county committee’s 1,100 votes (along with family members they dragged out) was sufficient to defeat Del Vecchio, who had been 16.5% ahead in the most recent poll. What it meant was that Del Vecchio gathered upwards of 75% of the non-party machine vote, and that’s not typical. That makes his showing in this election even more stunning.
Del Vecchio said, however, “Regardless of what the masses of people actually thought and wanted, Phil won. He knew how to work the inside game, and who can blame him? I’ll definitely be supporting him in the general election. Aside from the fact that I like him, I’ll likely be running for President in the near future, and I’ll want his support.”
With Del Vecchio, who knows if the latter line is joke or not, but it definitely is alluding to another direct result of the end of his congressional campaign. And that is this: it is all but certain that soon there will be a network TV release of a new reality show about guess who? Yes, the Renaissance Man, Ken Del Vecchio.
Media has been calling Del Vecchio “The Renaissance Man” since the publication of that first novel back in 1996. And that’s the title of his new TV show. See link to the show’s trailer here.
Get ready for this show; here’s its description from a press release:
If you thought the new doc starring Anthony Weiner was candid, meet Ken Del Vecchio, the political world’s answer to Kim Kardashian. Surely, there has never been anything like his new TV show – in politics or on television. The acclaimed filmmaker of 30 star-filled movies, best-selling author (novels & legal books), film festival chairman, and former judge & prosecutor (and oft-described ego-maniac who bench presses 450 pounds) stars in a mockumentary reality TV series chronicling his Renaissance Man accomplishments and bid to win the nation’s top political office. The staunch Trump supporter (Del Vecchio was the first Congress candidate in the country to endorse Trump) – who describes himself as a “pro-2nd Amendment, freedom fighting, anti-abortion, political insider crushing, terrorist smashing, anti-illegal immigration, IRS-ending capitalist” – was leading in the polls by more than 15% for New York’s 18th congressional district (he ultimately lost the race on June 28, getting 43% of the vote). With a theme song that includes the lyrics, ‘I’m so muscular, I’m so beautiful, I’m so glad I came into my life,” it’s not surprising the “Renaissance Man” ‘star’ argues that his accomplishments far supersede those of movie star Matt Damon.
“No one would touch the show while I was running for Congress, or if I got elected,” Del Vecchio said, “That’s because of all that equal time crap. But since the election’s over, that all has quickly changed. In just one day, I already have three top network meetings set up with me and my agent. That number will grow quickly. As it should because, thanks be to God, I am the Renaissance Man.”
Guess not winning the Congress campaign has its benefits. Now that is indeed the Midas Touch.
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