Rosa and Carmella Ponzillo are a couple of the very few performers who rose through the ranks on the popular stage, in this case, vaudeville, to achieve a place in America’s top cultural institutions.
The sisters were from Meridien Connecticutt. Carmella (born today in 1887) was ten years older, and began by singing in tea rooms and restuarants. When she was 13 Rosa started out singing to accompany illustrated slides at Nickelodeons. By 1912, she too had graduated to performing in restaurants and had begun to teach herself to sing operatically by playing Caruso records.
In 1915 the girls teamed up as a sister act, the Ponzillo Sisters, a.k.a “The Italian Girls”, with Rosa playing piano. They’d each do do a couple of solo numbers and then finish the act with duets.They went immediately to the big time. By 1918, they were so successful that Rosa got a record contract and was signed with the Metropolitan Opera becoming one of the 20th century’s most successful opera divas as Rosa Ponselle. Carmella also graduated to legit opera but didn’t achieve the same heights. Rosa sang with the Met until 1937.
To learn much more about the history of vaudeville, including opera singers like the Ponselle sisters, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.