Jersey 101.5 radio personality Big Joe Henry (pictured here at a past Miss Teen NJ pageant) has confirmed that he’s stepped down as host of the fifth annual Basie Awards for high school stage performers, an event scheduled for Wednesday night at Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre.

To the organizers, sponsors and featured guests of the yearly event, it’s “all about the kids” — a chance for talented young performing artists from Monmouth County high schools to be treated like red-carpet royalty for an evening.

But with the fifth annual Count Basie Theatre Awards scheduled for Wednesday night, a simmering controversy has boiled over from the politicial arena, resulting in the eleventh-hour withdrawal of the event’s master of ceremonies, and threatening to cast a plus-size shadow over the proceedings.

On Monday, the Count Basie Theatre announced that the 2010 edition of the program commonly known as “The Basies” will proceed as planned, but without the formidable figure of Big Joe Henry, the Garden State radio personality who was scheduled to serve as guest host.

Described on the venue’s website as a mutual agreement made “so the event can remain focused on the students,” the parting of ways was the culmination of an increasingly public argument that pitted supporters of the New Jersey Education Association against both Basie management and Big Joe’s employer, Trenton-based WKXW-FM (Jersey 101.5). It’s also a fracas that’s continued to snowball from e-mail campaigns and Facebook forums to the region’s major print and broadcast media.


The Count Basie Theatre’s Yvonne Scudiery (second from left) directs student performers in a rehearsal for 2009’s Basie Awards show. (Photos above and below by Alicia Yerves)

The Asbury Park Press reported Monday that Henry’s decision to step down as the show’s unpaid emcee was prompted when “teachers threatened a protest over political views” aired on Jersey 101.5, a popular point on the dial whose rightward slant (evinced by such personalities as morning drive man Jim Gearhart) has frequently placed it at odds with public employees in general, and the NJEA in particular.

In a letter to Count Basie CEO Numa C. Saisselin that was made public by the station, Howell High School faculty member Regina McAllen criticized 101.5, commenting that “its Republican agenda is consistent and unwavering, with a unified vision that demeans public education and educators.”

Citing the station personalities’ emphatic urging of listeners to “VOTE NO for every school budget in New Jersey,” the veteran music teacher praised the Basie’s stewardship of the annual awards while condemning the theater’s alliance with “a radio station that has been directly responsible for the demise of arts opportunities for students.”

In her letter (the full text of which can be found on the Jersey 101.5 website), McAllen also emphasized that “I have never stated not meant [sic] to indicate that Big Joe Henry has spoken out against public education nor been unsupportive of the arts.”

Also included on the station’s website is this:

Steve Wollmer, Communications Director for the NJEA, called the station to say the NJEA leadership did not order or authorize the threatened boycott of the Basie Awards at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank.

Big Joe — widely regarded as “the least political thing” to be found on WKXW — presides over an oldies-oriented block of programming that airs on weekends, when the station switches to music from the talk format that dominates the weekday waves. A comment from program director Eric Johnson said that Henry “plays music, tells jokes, introduces the traffic report, and he does a countless amount of charity work. So it seems to be a stretch to connect him with a position on the teachers union.”

A frequent and highly visible presence at events for such organizations as the March of Dimes, Special Olympics and Holiday Express (for whom he’s often filled out the big red Santa suit), the rotund broadcast veteran with the robust baritone was praised by Saisselin as “the kind of person that we hope all the students in the Basie Awards will grow up to be. He is an involved citizen donating his time and energy to countless NJ charities.”

Saisselin arranged a May 13 meeting between Henry and McAllen. On the Baise website, Henry characterized the meeting as “frustrating,” and said McAllen “was very set in her ways that New Jersey 101.5 is a Republican based biased media entity that employs Republican hosts. I explained that statement is simply not true and that I have never openly supported any political candidate, never attended any political rally and that I play music and have fun on the weekends. She informed me that I receive my paycheck from this biased entity.

Henry said, “I offered to step down as host to preserve the integrity of the event.”

He added, “If by stepping down I can help keep the spotlight on the students, then I am happy to do so.”

The deejay provided a more pointed commentary on the WKXW site, in which he calls the experience “one of the most disheartening, maddening events of my professional career. The narrow minded, bullying tactics of some teachers disgusts me.”

Writing on the local blog More Monmouth Musings, former Red Bank councilwoman Grace Cangemi defended Henry, saying that “While Big Joe has never offered any comment about the NJEA, school boards or budgets, these folks have decided that fighting the presence of someone whose fellow employees have at times been critical of the NJEA is more important than supporting the kids.”

A Facebook group entitled Reinstate Big Joe Henry as the host of the 2010 Basie Awards has generated numerous entries from all ends of the issue, as has the station’s own comments forum. Meanwhile, tickets to Wednesday night’s Basie Awards remain on sale here for $15.

A Basie spokesperson confirmed on Monday that the awards ceremony would proceed without Big Joe — whose name still appeared on the event’s web page into the late afternoon — adding that “we’ll be hosting it ourselves” in a divided-duty format that breaks from past entries (previous hosts have included locally connected SNL veterans Joe Piscopo and Siobhan Fallon Hogan).

McAllen is among a dozen faculty members, students and ensemble groups to receive nominations for Howell High’s staging of Gypsy this year. More than 100 nominees, representing 15 area high schools (including Red Bank Catholic, Red Bank Regional, Rumson-Fair Haven, Middletown South and Mater Dei) will be vying for some 25 separate awards, given for dramatic as well as musical productions.

Red Bank Catholic High School’s production of the 1930s comedy classic You Can’t Take It With You racked up nominations for actresses Katharine Scott and Mary Schneider, while the school’s staging of the Lerner-Loewe musical My Fair Lady garnered three Basie nods, including lead actor David Shirley.

The recently rediscovered Mark Twain play Is He Dead? made for an unorthodox dramatic choice for Red Bank Regional High School, and veteran drama director Joe Russo was recognized with two nominations, along with a third for student leading man Reid Henderson. RBR’s musical Cinderella received two accolades, including one for musical director Kris Zook.

Rumson-Fair Haven High School’s dramatic production of the rarely staged Egyptian Fable earned two technical nominations, along with two for supporting players Kevin Karol and Patricia McCarron. Karol was also one of twelve nominees in the school’s musical Fiddler on the Roof, a group that further features the show’s Tevye, Austin Dornan Ryan.

Across the Navesink, Middletown High School South collected six nominations for the musical Pippin (including director Alexis Kozak and lead actor CJ Marsini), while Mater Dei High School scored Basie nods for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (lead actress Michelle Budzyna) and their two musicals, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (three nominations) and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (five nominations).

A complete rundown of nominees can be seen here, and a list of Basie Award winners should be posted to the theatre’s website within 24 hours of Wednesday night’s ceremony.