Well, not exactly. I just always wanted to play off of the famous headline. Pope Francis did visit Calabria on Saturday, and the family of a 3-year-old victim of a stray mob bullet, to let the mafia know they are “excommunicated.” It’s the latest in a string of courageous and/or interesting stances from the Holy See, who has softened the papal position on homosexuals, paid lip service to a zero-tolerance policy on child abuse in the church, and offered to baptize extraterrestrials. His anti-Mafia proclamation is easily his riskiest move to date, unless aliens take umbrage at being baptized and vaporize Earth. It’s no secret that the Vatican has a history of, shall we say, turning the other cheek when it comes to organized crime. Although the mafia in the U.S. has been greatly diminished, in regions like Calabria the ‘Ndrangheta is still a dangerous force. That probably doesn’t scare Francis, who in Argentina bore witness to the “Dirty Wars” in which the government there swept away tens of thousands of dissidents and Jews. It’s been alleged Francis’ role in that pogrom was less than noble; perhaps he’s atoning. Whatever the case, he’s proved himself a very different pope in just over one year wearing the big hat.
I’ve written previously about Kenosha, the Wisconsin city of 100,000 located at the northernmost edge of the Chicago metro area, and of its Southern Italian immigrant history. The quiet Rust Belt town merits a second posting on this blog, and it’s not to talk about its fictional polka history or its real-life League Of Their Own story. This time we’re going to talk about Kenosha as the birthplace of a considerable number (for a place its size) of Italian-American screen actors. But before we delve into Italian-Americans, there’s an elephant in the room.
While on the subject it’s important to note that Kenosha was the birthplace of Orson Welles, a titan and legend in motion pictures during his lifetime and today. Welles (born 1915) was not Italian; his surname is probably English and his American bloodlines predate the immigration flood of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He also moved to Chicago at age five (with his parents, naturally) and seemed bitter about his birth town later in life. That may have had something to do with his mother dying, his father being an alcoholic, and his sister running away from home before he turned ten. It sounds like Welles’ childhood was not exactly Rockwellesque. In any case, Welles went on to be one of the biggest (ha ha) Hollywood stars of his or any era, most famous for his tour de force Citizen Kane, as well as having voiced the radio broadcast of War Of The Worlds that terrified all those listeners. He rounded out his career voicing a robot on the animated Transformers movie in the 80s. So while he wasn’t Italian, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention him in a post like this, especially for the Transformers thing.
He was never the household name that Welles became, but Don Ameche (born 1908) had a steady if not spectacular film career spanning nearly 60 years. Ameche was dashingly handsome even into his golden years, and as a young man played the titular role in The Story Of Alexander Graham Bell as well as D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers. He is probably more recognizable to younger viewers for his roles in 80s films Trading Places and Cocoon.
Ameche’s brother Jim Ameche (born 1915 in Kenosha as well) had a long career on the radio in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and New York. Jim did manage to turn in a screen role in 1957 in The Story Of Mankind as – coincidentally I suppose – Alexander Graham Bell.
On a tangential note, Don and Jim were cousins of Alan “The Horse” Ameche, a college and professional football star. Alan was born in Kenosha in 1933 and won the Heisman Trophy while a tailback at the University of Wisconsin. I realize football isn’t acting, but I never miss an occasion to discuss it, and it is a form of dramatic entertainment played out on a screen for millions of viewers. In fact “The Savage Ballet” is often more entertaining than a scripted film, as when Ameche scored the winning touchdown for the Baltimore Colts in their 1958 NFL Championship win over the New York Giants. But I digress.
It’s also important to note that “Ameche” is a stage name and a modification of “Amici.” Don Ameche was born Dominic Amici, and his father Felice Amici was born in Montemonaco in the Marche region, pretty far north compared to most immigrants in his day. Supposedly Felice Amici was a bartender, and who wouldn’t want to have a beer and shoot the breeze with a guy named Felice Amici? Just by his name he sounds like a happy-go-lucky fella, the kind of barkeep who’d comp you by round three.
If you’ve ever watched a Garry Marshall-produced sitcom or a frozen dinner commercial, you know doubt recognize the distinct mug of Al Molinaro, born in 1919 and still truckin’ at age 94. Molinaro first became a steady presence in America’s living rooms in the early 70s, as Murray the Cop on the TV version of The Odd Couple. A few years later his fame spread when he took on the role of Al Delvecchio, owner of Arnold’s Diner on Happy Days. By its fourth season, Happy Days (which was set in Milwaukee) would be the number one rated show in the country. That in and of itself is a curious fact and probably says something about what options existed on TV in 1976. In any case the show lasted eleven seasons, and Molinaro’s “Al” joined a pantheon of characters known on a first-name basis by most Americans – Richie, Potsy, Ralph, Fonzie, Joanie, and yes, Chachi. (Most Americans probably didn’t and still don’t know that many Supreme Court justices by name.) Molinaro reprised his Delvecchio role in 1994 for a memorable Weezer music video for its song, “Buddy Holly,” which I recommend you watch. And of course he was also the face of On-Cor frozen meals for many years. On the subject of Kenosha, Molinaro has been friendlier than Orson Welles, once remarking, “I love that town; I love it. If it wasn’t that I left it for show business, I’d still be there today.”
Daniel J. Travanti (born 1940) must be a real pro’s pro, because for a good quarter century starting in 1958 he turned up on just about every TV show you could now find in the TV Land library: The Patty Duke Show, Route 66, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Mod Squad, Kojak, the list goes on and on. It wasn’t until he reached the mature age of 43 that Travanti really broke out, for his role as John Walsh in the TV movie Adam. The gripping, based-on-a-true-story drama of the kidnapping and murder of Adam Walsh caught the viewing public’s attention and netted Travanti an Emmy nomination (and a return to the role in its sequel). It was a coup for Travanti in an era when made-for-TV “Movies of the Week” and dramatic miniseries meant big ratings and made water cooler conversations the day after.
On the heels of Adam, Travanti landed the role of Captain Frank Furillo on NBC’s Hill Street Blues. Today we’re used to television reviewers and bloggers singing hosannas for whichever is the latest acclaimed TV drama (The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc.). Hill Street Blues is one of the grandfathers of the “critically acclaimed” drama. Compared with its campier cop show predecessors, Blues was novel in its grittiness, tackling racial and sexual issues with a squalid urban landscape as a backdrop. Travanti’s police captain was a recovering alcoholic who attended AA meetings on screen from time to time, a reflection of Travanti’s own personal battles with booze. Critics and Emmy voters couldn’t get enough of it, but viewers could, and the show never cracked Nielsen’s top 20 in spite of its seven-year run. As for Travanti, he is still acting at 74, including a role on Starz’s series Boss.
The Other Tomei
Like Travanti, Concetta Tomei (born 1945 – no relation to Marisa) has had a prolific career, mostly on television. Unlike her fellow Kenoshan and contemporary, Tomei has yet to land that one signature lead role that would put her on the cover/main page of whatever is today’s equivalent of TV Guide. No matter, though, as Tomei has appeared in some of the most popular and acclaimed programs in the medium. She’s had recurring roles on Falcon Crest, China Beach, L.A. Law, Picket Fences, and Providence. She could most recently be found on USA Network’s Necessary Roughness.
Don’t Make Him Angry
Of course, Mark Ruffalo‘s body of work deserves more than to be boiled down to a Bill Bixby catchphrase. But since superhero movies continue to be the, er, rage, it bears mentioning that Ruffalo is currently recognizable as mild-mannered Bruce Banner, alter ego of the Incredible Hulk in the Avengers movies. Before the gamma radiation got to him, Ruffalo’s career was already off to a flying start, with roles in respected and popular films such as You Can Count On Me, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Zodiac, and The Kids Are All Right.
Ruffalo was born in 1967 and grew up in Kenosha and Virginia. Like the name Molinaro, Ruffalo (or Ruffolo) is a surname concentrated heavily in the Italian South, and mostly Calabria, according to this online map of Italian surnames. In fact, the Ruffolo surname (the name has been spelled or misspelled a few ways in America) is especially prevalent in the Cosenza area, and was my great-grandmother’s maiden name. I’m just throwing it out there that we could be distant cousins, in case Mark ever wants to share a future Oscar with me, or better yet, a percentage of his earnings.
I’m squeezing stand up comic Jeff Cesario (born 1953) into this mix, since he’s appeared on most of the big late night shows (Carson, Leno, Letterman, Conan, Ferguson), and written for the 90s HBO classic The Larry Sanders Show and later Dennis Miller Live. Most recently he was co-Executive Producer of FX’s Brand X With Russell Brand. That, and having dabbled in both art forms at the extreme amateur level, I believe stand up comedy is much, much more difficult than acting. I’d like to see Orson Welles try that.
If you’ve been to New York City’s Little Italy neighborhood anytime over the past ten years, you’ve probably noticed that it feels not so much like a neighborhood but a theme park or open-air museum. Mulberry Street, its main (and besides a bit of cross-street spillover, only) artery is still a parade of Italian restaurants and souvenir shops, and local organizers still put on a big bash with the San Gennaro Feast every September. But the percentage of residents claiming Italian ancestry has dropped to less than 5%, and its borders have closed in over the years as Chinatown has encroached from the east, south and west, and trendy clothing boutiques from the north. We may be witnessing the extinction of an ethnic enclave that once counted 10,000 Italian residents.
That’s what the New York Post reported last month, when it interviewed Robert Ianello, Jr., owner of Umberto’s Clam House at 132 Mulberry Street. Ianello is just the latest commercial tenant in Manhattan to see his rent spike after a new landlord bought the building ($34,000, more than double). And Umberto’s has relocated twice already since 1996. Granted, periodicals have come to praise and bury Little Italy before, including this New York Magazine piece from 2004, and this New York Times death watch from 2011. But when you read the Post’s latest, you get the glum feeling that the neighborhood really is about to go the way of the Oldsmobile: Eight restaurants have closed in the past year alone. Beyond the statistics, however, is the harsh reality that to stroll through Little Italy is to be awash in tourists and touts and little else. You’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of Italian residents. It’s not so much that I mind the tourists – they’re all over Manhattan – but that Little Italy has been reduced to an oversize, tacky Italian airport gift shop. I’ll never forget the time I passed by a couple of pasty-white yokels standing next to a souvenir stand on Mulberry, pointing and guffawing at a black T-shirt that read in white lettering, simply, “Fuhgettaboutit.” There’s a time and a place for that kind of kitsch, but in today’s Little Italy there doesn’t seem to be much left but kitsch. As the excellent film location scouting blog Scouting New York put it:
I’ve been in Little Italy all week, and I gotta admit, of all the neighborhoods in Manhattan, I think Little Italy might depress me the most. Have you ever been to the Countries at Epcot, where they create kitschy miniature recreations of China or France? The Little Italy of today reminds me of what it would be like if Epcot created a version of historic Little Italy: a smidgen of history and culture, surrounded by endless crappy gift shops, overpriced restaurants selling subpar food, and silly recreations of what once had actual meaning to a world that has disappeared.
It’s a far cry from a neighborhood that, thanks to the wave of Southern Italian immigration in the early 20th Century, was at one point 98% Italian, and was spread past Mulberry onto Mott, Elizabeth, Bayard, Baxter, Worth, and Pell Streets. Within the district itself, sub-neighborhoods were established based on region – Sicily, Calabria, Naples, Basilicata. Once immigration slowed down and the post-World War II boom came about, many residents moved to the outer boroughs, Long Island, or New Jersey. Some old-timers remained, but as the generations passed, Little Italy’s Italian population and merchant community thinned out. Some still hold on – Alleva Dairy at 188 Grand has been in operation since 1890, and Ferrara Bakery and Cafe (195 Grand) since 1892. But mainstays such as these are fewer and farther between, so go visit them today.
I suppose there will come a day when Manhattan’s Little Italy is reduced to a museum or a plaque on a wall alerting passers-by to what once was. After all, the Irish were there before the Italians, and plenty of other ethnic enclaves have evaporated here and elsewhere. You don’t see a lot of German or Dutch neighborhoods these days, to say nothing of the Lenape. Check out Little Italy while you still can, but if you want to see some better-preserved Italian neighborhoods, you’ll have to go to Big Italy.
Last week, Arturo Licata of Enna, Sicily, who was the oldest man in the world, passed away just shy of his 112th birthday. He was born in Enna in 1902 and seems to have lived most if not all of his life there. It would be tempting to extrapolate Sig. Licata’s longevity and link it to the Mediterranean Diet, but record-breaking old people have come from all over the world. And anyway, I have no idea if Licata ate lots of fish and olive oil or Cheetos and candy bars. Though if I had to wager, I’d go with the former.
What’s more interesting is the world that Licata witnessed during his 111 years and 357 days on this spinning blue marble. No, I’m not talking about moon landings and Twitter feeds (though Twitter might be considered a step backward). While our technological advances have been extraordinary, the immediate world outside Licata’s door no doubt affected him more as it, too, endured fascinating changes.
When Licata was born, Italy as a nation was but 41 years young, and of course it was then not a republic but a kingdom cobbled together by dubious means and unified more by bayonet than any sense of patriotism. Its neighbor to the northeast was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a big mustard-stain-like splat on the map that enveloped whatever random Eastern European countries it could without ever taking the time to choose a catchier name. To its southeast and south, across the seas Adriatic and Mediterranean, lay the more memorably-named, indeed welcome-sounding, Ottoman Empire, or what was left of it. Both of these monoliths were one World War away from crumbling, but when Licata was born these events were still more than a decade away. Also in existence was the German Empire, stretching from Belgium to Russia, and of course the mighty Russian Empire, then on its last czar but still a good 15 years away from going as red as a box of Pall Malls. (Pall Malls were introduced just three years before Licata was born.) The Europe in which Arturo Licata came of age was still mired in the ways of centuries past, at relative peace but about to be torn at its tenuous seams.
And as for Sicily itself, that mystifying island was in the throes of one of the greatest exoduses in history. Between 1900 and 1915, some 3 million Italians came to America, the majority from the poor Mezzogiorno region which includes Sicily. (This does not even account for those emigrants who moved to Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Canada, and other destinations.) The majority were farmers or unskilled laborers. Sicily was still largely a struggling agricultural area, though you were probably lucky to be working on a farm rather than in a sulfur mine. If it was the latter, you might even be as young as five years old, working 8-10 hours a day, and in a state of indentured servitude. We know from the news stories reporting Licata’s death that he worked at the age of nine in a sulfur mine.
Licata later spent some time in the Italian army, including during its 1936 invasion of Ethiopia. From a political perspective, Licata saw his homeland shift from monarchy to fascism (there was technically still a king up through the end of Mussolini’s era), then to republic. Although Italy has had brief economic booms in the postwar years, Sicily itself has remained poorer on average, and it still struggles with the scourge of organized crime which was so rampant when Licata was born.
But that’s all newsy, political stuff. I don’t know to what extent any of these sea changes affected Licata personally. But it must have been amazing life all the same, 112 years on an island that’s used to witnessing change.
In an Op/Ed piece from this past week in the New York Times, Beppe Severgnini offered up his thoughts on why so few travelers venture south of Italy’s “Mason-Dixon” line, i.e. Rome. He points out that only 13 percent of tourists visit the Mezzogiorno, citing failed infrastructure, bureaucratic disorganization (well that’s redundant), and blown tourism budgets, leading to a lack of real promotion of the region. It probably hasn’t helped matters that some knucklehead in the U.S. government was a few years ago quoted in a Wikileaks document referring to Southern Italy as a “failed state,” but for its attachment to the rest of Italy and Europe. These factors, plus the region’s poor economy and the continued presence of the Mafia, all make for great deterrents to Frank and Alice Fannypacker from Dubuque when planning their Italian dream vacation. (The Mafia is about as likely to harm a tourist as it is to start its own LinkedIn page.)
The great irony here is that so much of the Italian culture with which we’re familiar in the New World was brought to us by southerners – mostly Sicilians, but also Calabrese, Pugliese, Napolitani, etc. Theirs are the cuisines, traditions, languages, indeed even the facial features and clothing we think of when we think “Italian.” That’s not to detract from the great destinations of the north, nor is it to say that people can’t differentiate or don’t know who the Medici or Michelangelo were. I only mean to say that by writing off the south, people are missing out.
Part of me wants to tell Mr. Severgnini to dummy up, that the first rule of traveling to the Mezzogiorno is you don’t talk about traveling to the Mezzogiorno. It’s not that I want to rob the region of tourist dollars, but I’m reticent to see Palermo and Cosenza and Bari become flooded with trinket-peddlers and consumers in an approximation, however unlikely, of Rome, Florence and Venice-style tourist trap-ism. (To say nothing of the inevitable price inflation and corporate chains that would come with it.) We already live in a world where every place is starting to look like anyplace, so as much as I’ll tout the south’s great qualities and attractions, here’s hoping that its natural and man made beauty doesn’t become spoiled in pursuit of the Almighty Euro. In Texas’ capital they say “Keep Austin Weird.” Well, let’s keep the Italian South Southern.
In the 15th Century, the surging Ottoman Empire was pushing into the Balkans. The troops of Sultan Mehmet II in 1453 famously toppled Constantinople and slayed the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI. In the meanwhile it was making its presence felt in Albania and along the Adriatic in a more gradual, but no less dramatic fashion. By the turn of the 16th, the land had been ceded, and an Albanian exodus was already in motion; most of these exiles fled across the water to – guess where? – Italy.
The descendants of these refugees live on today as the Arbëreshë people. Found in pockets mostly over Southern Italy and Sicily, the Arbëreshë are distinct from modern Albanians in that their customs, language, cuisine, and other traditions bear greater resemblance to the Albania of 600 years ago. Thanks to their stubbornness and, more recently, Italy’s embrace of its minority cultures and languages, even the Arbëreshë language is closer to pre-Ottoman Albanian than what’s spoken in modern Albania. In fact, “Arbëreshë” was the name the people of Albania called themselves before the invasion.
Today there are roughly 100,000 Arbëreshë spread out over 50 different communities in Italy, mostly in the south and in Calabria. Although many of their names may have been Latinized, they were allowed from the outset to practice their Orthodox brand of Christianity in this Catholic land. Thus in many of the Arbëreshë dwellings, the town has two main churches, one Latin and one “Greek.” (Albania today remains half Muslim, either in spite of or because of the best efforts of its national hero, Skanderberg.)
Arbëreshë is not considered an official language in Italy, it has been fiercely preserved along with the customs, food, and traditional garb brought over centuries ago. Not to mention it also gave us this awesome Italian-Albanian hybrid flag.
Although the straight-up Albanian flag is even more badass.
Mr. de Blasio has become something of an Italian sensation, within and beyond this town’s medieval walls. A Neapolitan artisan fashioned a terra cotta figurine of Mr. de Blasio, with tricolor sash; a pizza-maker wrote “Napoli Love de Blasio” in mozzarella on a pie. In New York, candidate de Blasio offered interviews in Italian; his campaign staff jokingly designated a press aide who spoke a bit of the language as the “Italian desk,” and on election night, 15 journalists from Italy showed up to cover the festivities at the Park Slope Armory Y.M.C.A.
According to the article, de Blasio is an Italophile through and through. He’s visited Sant’Agata de’Goti half a dozen times, given his kids Italian names, he practices speaking Italian, and of course keeps plenty of fresh mozzarella at home. As for Sant’Agata, residents have reciprocated this pride, hanging American flags from balconies, naming a cake for him, and at least a few said they plan to come to New York for his inauguration.
EDIT – The good people over at the Italian Dual Citizenship Message Board have determined that Mr. de Blasio is most likely an Italian (dual) citizen by birth, through ancestry.