Kenosha’s Italian-Hollywood Connections

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.

Citizen Welles


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.

Gli Amici

don-ameche-alexandersragtime-4He 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.

Big Al


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.”

The Captain


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.

Bonus Round


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.

Further reading:

The Kenosha Connection – Chicago Tribune, June 7, 1990



The Kenosha-Calabrese Connection


The influx of immigrants to America from Southern and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries is not just well-known history, it’s a part of our common pop cultural memory. These immigrants’ stories come to us In books like Ragtime and films like The Godfather Part II, in the recounting of sensational trials like Sacco and Vanzetti, in landmarks like the Tenement Museum in New York, and of course in the reminiscences of those who endured the experience.

It’s especially common to hear their stories of squalor and struggle in New York’s Lower East Side, or perhaps in ethnic enclaves in Boston or Philadelphia. Of course, they didn’t all settle on the Eastern Seaboard. The supply of labor went where the demand was, and that was essentially anywhere in the industrialized U.S.: The Pittsburghs and Clevelands and Toledos, yes, but also the Dearborns and the Youngstowns and the Eries. These small and midsized cities on Midwestern rivers and lakes were, a century ago, the booming “tech centers” of their day, humming with industry and opportunity for the skilled and unskilled alike.

Kenosha, Wisconsin, was just such a city. Situated on Lake Michigan on Wisconsin’s southern border with Illinois, Kenosha is one of those random American cities, like Duluth or Fort Wayne, whose name you’ve probably heard but aren’t sure why. Nearly equidistant between Chicago and Milwaukee, it was an emerging industrial port city, home to company factories like American Brass, Cooper Underwear (now Jockey), and Nash Motors, which was later absorbed into AMC and Chrysler (and lives on today with the Jeep lineup).

It was into this setting that Southern Italian immigrants arrived in Kenosha. First, it was a few brave pioneers; later, as news of job opportunities (and perhaps cash) reached their impoverished Mezzogiorno hometowns, family and friends followed. As was and is often the case with immigration, a great many of them from one specific place relocated to another. Kenosha attracted many Italian immigrants from Calabria, mostly from the Cosenza area. This included a great many Maranesi, that is from two Cosentino hillside towns called Marano Principato and Marano Marchesato. It is unlikely the first of these poor hilltoppers who came to the Midwest had ever previously heard of Kenosha, but they most likely had heard of Chicago. As the Marenesi in Kenosha website explains,

Paesani had settled in the Italian colony in Chicago beginning in the 1880s, and the earliest arrivals made their way to Kenosha on foot, courtesy of their jobs on section gangs with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Many of the immigrants moved from railroad labor to indoor manufacturing jobs in the tanneries and foundries which required large amounts of unskilled labor. Other Maranesi followed from Chicago when they heard of the job opportunities in Kenosha.

Eventually the Maranesi began flocking straight to Kenosha, skipping any stopover in Chicago altogether during their fortnight-long trip via steamship and rail. Kenosha became such a magnet for immigrants that in the four censuses taken from 1890 through 1920, its population grew by an average of 78%. (To be certain, many Maranesi settled in Chicago as well. And of course Italians from other regions landed in both places.)


Tomato garden in the backyard of first-generation Maranesi, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Today it’s difficult to comprehend leaving romantic Italy for the flat landscapes, brutal winters, and staid Protestantism of the American Midwest. Even the Italian South, still struggling mightily, seems to us as a never-ending painting of olive groves, vineyards, deep blue waters, and a kind of idealized, simpler life. Those characteristics may have existed then as now, but as one Sicilian man is quoted in John Keahey’s book Seeking Sicily, “Well, you can’t eat quaint.” Italy circa 1900 was a picture of abject poverty. The South, its richest region prior to the 1861 unification, was hit particularly hard with the collapse of the feudal system. By the turn of the last century, the Mezzogiorno was a place where it was still not uncommon to live in a cave, where to be a brigand paid better than to be a farmer, where a child stood a good chance of enslavement, and where seven in ten people were illiterate. By contrast, a life in Kenosha (or anywhere in the northern U.S.), with its proliferation of jobs and the possibility of owning property – perhaps even an automobile –  must have sounded like paradise.

(And in fact, Wisconsin was settled by French explorers, and its larger cities were and are among the most Catholic places in the Midwest.)

Whatever the drudgery of daily working life, the Kenosha Maranesi found pleasure and solace in familiar institutions – family, church, community, and the like. The first Italian Catholic Church was built there in 1904, with other churches and social clubs to follow. But by far the center of gravity for Kenosha’s (then) west side Italians was Columbus Park, a seven-acre plot that served as an outdoor community center for the city’s developing Little Italy. In the introduction to the cookbook, A Taste Of Memories From Columbus Park, Catherine Tripalin Murry writes of the eponymous playground,

It was a place for children to play, yet be carefully watched from graceful wood front porches that outlined the old west side park. It was an area of grass and trees for neighborhood gatherings and church events and, throughout the four seasons of the year became a field to test the athletic endeavors of competitive youth…These were the makings of Little Italies throughout America and Kenosha was no exception. Columbus Park became an enclave to return to each evening to be among friends.

Except for a brief lull during World War II, Italian immigration continued into Kenosha well into the 1960s. Although Italians no longer dominate the old west side as they did, today people of Italian descent still make up about 12% of Kenosha’s 100,000 residents. (World-famous Little Italy in New York City counted about 5% of its population as Italian-American in 2010.) It’s a much different place now, another Rust Belt city trying to rebound. Factories like Chrysler’s are long gone. The lakefront has been revitalized, and antique trollies run through the city’s center. An enormous casino is currently being planned. But if you look around, you’ll see signs of its Calabrese past, in places like Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, or the Italian American Club, or Tenuta’s Deli. Or perchance on a stroll through Columbus Park.