Archive for the Italian Category

Christmas in Italy!

Posted in Classical, Dance, Italian, Music with tags , , , on December 19, 2016 by travsd

Photo by Annie Watt

We got a badly needed lift yesterday, as well as a much overdue dose of Christmas spirit, and a highly welcome injection of “red sauce” directly into our veins, at Cristina Fontanelli’s 13th Annual “Christmas in Italy” Presentation at the Washington Irving Campus Landmark Theater near Gramercy Park.

Host Ornella Fado of the NYC-TV show Brindiamo! launched the festivities with welcoming remarks and then the mic was passed to world-renowned soprano Fontanelli, founder and prime mover of this heartwarming holiday event, which combines the best of high and popular cultural traditions, ever since its inception. The first half consisted primarily of well-known operatic selections by Italian composers like Verdi, Puccini and Rossini, ending on “The Italian Street Song” from Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta. We could have listened to her heavenly singing voice all night, but she generously shared the stage, singing a duet with tenor Blake Friedman (Rossini’s “La Danza”); sharing the spotlight with pianist David Maiullo, and mandolin players John La Barbera, Barry Mitterhoff, and Jay Posipanko; and even turning the stage over to accordionist Angelo Coppola, whom she said she discovered playing on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx’s Little Italy.

That last detail was the kind of touch that particularly endeared her to me, and I believe to most of her audience. Don’t get me wrong — she has the kind of gift, and the kind of skill, that’s liable to make you feel like a piker no matter what you do in life. If you’re a plumber, you’ll say “I’m okay at my job — but I sure wish I was as good at plumbing as she is at singing.” On the other hand, she has this down to earth personality that seemed to shrink the large auditorium down to the size of a family kitchen. Her aunt was there; Fontanelli dedicated a song to her, and got us all to join her in “Happy Birthday”. She greeted old friends in the audience. She grieved for the loss of her mother, who passed away this year. There were hundreds of us in the audience, but the distance between us seemed very small.

And the second half of the show was even warmer and more family-oriented, for that’s when the Christmas part of the program kicked in and we got to hear The Christmas in Italy Choir sing their beautiful rendition of “Silent Night”, and to watch recitals by large numbers of adorable children from The Little Language Studio and the Jersey City Ballet, and to meet the winners of the Miss Italia USA Scholarship Program, and to enjoy Plu Sayampol and his dancers. And to see Santa Claus!

As I’ve been bragging to everybody lately I’m 2% Italian, and that 2% was fully on the ascendant yesterday evening. Afterwards, we rapidly decided what was for dinner. I had the spaghetti and meatballs; my wife had the chicken parmesan. The 14th Annual concert is already on our calendar for next year.

The Surprising, Violent Film Oeuvre of Mr. Duke Mitchell

Posted in Hollywood (History), Italian, Movies, Singers with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the one and only Duke Mitchell (Dominic Micelli, 1926-1981). Like most classic comedy and B movie horror fans, I’d long known Mitchell solely as the co-star, with his partner Sammy Petrillo, of the schlock film Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (read more about Petrillo, the team, and that movie here). 

Mitchell on the left, Jerry Lewis impersonator Petrillo on the right

Mitchell on the left, Jerry Lewis impersonator Petrillo on the right

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I learned that a little over 20 years later, Mitchell wrote, directed, produced and starred in two films of his own. And yet, when one looks at the films, it all makes sense. Mitchell is often thought of as a lesser Dean Martin (although I tend to think of him as a lesser Steve Rossi). An Italian American crooner, he made his living in big city night clubs and in the resort communities of Las Vegas and Palm Springs. There was more than a little “bada bing” in his act.

In 1974, inspired by films like The Godfather and Mean Streets, Mitchell decided to make his own statement, which he felt would enhance the genre by virtue of his intimate knowledge of gangster types (their experiences and their language), and authentic locations (much of his films were shot at the venues where he performed).

The resulting sui generis genre he invented might be called “goombasploitation”: low-budget, gritty, semi-documentary, completely amoral, and containing enough violence and blood splatter for a horror film. There is something trailblazing about the degree to which Mitchell pushes the profanity and violence. I’d be very shocked if I didn’t learn if Mitchell’s films didn’t turn around and influence Scorsese right back. At the same time, great pains are taken to explain Italian and Italian-American culture to us: monologues about duty and tradition, scenes at Catholic churches and weddings.


His first film Massacre Mafia Style a.k.a Like Father, Like Son (1974) opens in medias res with a pair of hoodlums randomly murdering every single person in an office building. The rest of the film is ostensibly the set-up, justifying the event, but it’s really no justification. The guy just wants to do some crimes. And come to think of it, isn’t that the plot of every goddamn irredeemable Ocean’s 11 movie?


The following year, Mitchell made Gone With the Pope, which went unreleased until 2011. Though finished in 1975, it lay on a shelf for years. Mitchell died of lung cancer in 1981 and it was decades before the virginal work print was discovered.

Like any good follow up picture, this one ups the ante substantially. Whereas the hero (antihero) of Massacre Mafia Style merely wanted to conquer Hollywood, Mitchell’s character in Gone with the Pope schemes to “snatch” His Holiness….and then charge every Catholic in the world one dollar for his release. Any moral intent the film may possess may be undercut by the scenes of gangsters roughing up a 350 lb naked hooker:

I think it’s fair to say that Duke Mitchell remained ahead of his time for the entirety of his career.

The Tragic End of Russ Columbo

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Hollywood (History), Italian, Movies, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Russ Columbo (Ruggiero Eugienio di Rodolpho Colombo, 1908-1934). One of 12 children born to Italian immigrants in Camden, New Jersey, Columbo was already playing violin professionally in bands in vaudeville houses and nightclubs by the age of 13 (1921).


By the late twenties, he was a member of Gus Arnheim’s orchestra, one of the top dance bands in the country, and taking the occasional lead vocal. He can be seen with Arnheim’s band in two early Vitaphone films, released in 1927 and 1928. Interestingly he can also be seen (but not heard) in the 1929 silent film The Wolf Song, with Gary Cooper and Lupe Velez.

Columbo’s career truly took off when songwriter Con Conrad became his manager. Conrad landed Columbo his own nationwide radio show at NBC in 1931, and his crooning made him one of the top heart throbs of the day, usually mentioned in the same breath with Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. His theme song was “You Call it Madness, But I Call it Love”. He is also associated with two songs he co-wrote with Conrad, “Prisoner of Love” and “Too Beautiful for Words”. As the 30s rolled on, Columbo was having success in Hollywood as well. Often he played himself in nightclub scenes, but he also has a role in the all-star Broadway Thru a Keyhole (1933), and had top billing in the 1934 film Wake Up and Dream, his last, with a familiar plot about a love triangle amongst vaudevillians.


Unfortunately it was all cut short in 1934, by what seems to have been a freak accident…but sounds awfully suspicious to me! He was visiting a friend named Lansing Brown, when Brown claims to have lit a match too near an old fashioned dueling pistol, which discharged, shooting Columbo, who was across the room, in the forehead. It may well be true — but if I were a juror at this trial, I would definitely be scowling.

There is a “James Dean” aspect to Columbo’s sad death. He was so young (26) and was really at the top, with higher heights about to happen. He was slated to star in a film adaptation of the musical Show Boat next, and his current girlfriend was Carole Lombard.

But, no, no you go ahead and keep your guns! I can see why you want to play with them! Hours of enjoyment!

I found a terrific, much fuller blogpost about Columbo’s life and career (and death) at read it here. 

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Edith Taliaferro

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Italian, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Edith Taliaferro (1894-1958). Taliaferro was born into a theatrical family in Richmond Virginia. Not only were her parents in the theatre but so were her sister (Mabel Taliaferro) and her cousin (Bessie Barriscale). While her surname is Italian, her family doesn’t fit the customary American immigration profile: the Taliaferros had moved to the U.S. in the early years of the 17th century.

Taliaferro was a “legit” performer who had made her stage debut at age two. Her greatest successes were as a child actress, in roles like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the the title parts in Polly of the Circus and, her most famous role, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. She was also in the original Broadway production of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage PatchShe acted on Broadway through 1935, and also appeared in three silent films: Young Romance (1915), The Conquest of Canaan, 1919 and Who’s Your Brother? Like many of the legit actresses of her day she also toured with one act plays in big time vaudeville, notably New York’s Palace Theatre.  Sadly, she lost her vision in the late 1930s, forcing an early retirement from the theatre.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


R.I.P. Robert Loggia

Posted in Hollywood (History), Italian, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), OBITS, Television with tags , , , , , on December 5, 2015 by travsd


Just a few words of appreciation for the late Robert Loggia, who passed away yesterday at the age of 85.  The first word that popped into my head when I heard he had passed was irreplaceable. By this I don’t mean no one can fill his shoes, or that nowhere is there to be found an actor who can play his type (gruff, craggy, coarse Italian-American) but that we’ll miss him, we’ll want that face, that voice, those readings. Loggia had been around forever. And we want people who’ve been around forever to BE around forever.

Staten Island native Loggia broke into TV in the 1950s. Until the end of the 1970s, almost all of his credits were in television. Then, two things happened to raise his profile. One, as often happens with character actors who aren’t stars per se, after three decades of constant exposure he began to percolate up into everyone’s consciousness. And two, he aged in a terrific way. As a young man he had been almost but not quite handsome. As a middle aged man, his hair receded, his look got lean, the nose turned into a beak, he developed a sort of squint, his whole face sort of turned into a mask of fatigue, or disbelief, or disgust. Beyond this (and this is one of the reasons I think he was truly irreplaceable) was that he had an intelligence. By that, I don’t mean he had an intelligent look. He was clearly a bright guy. And I’ll be frank, not a lot of actors are. I’m working off of what I see on screen. Cast as doctors and lawyers and coroners and other professionals they spout lines they clearly don’t understand like so much gibberish, getting by on their good looks and our inability to catch up and call them on the fact that they don’t even know what they’re saying.

Loggia…knew what he was saying. Sounds like faint praise, but in Hollywood it’s really not. It’s quite rare. And it’s necessary in all sorts of surprising ways, if you want to get at something like the truth. For example, Loggia played many types of roles, but he must be best known for playing mobsters. It’s commonplace to portray hoodlums as idiots. And no doubt a good many of the soldiers are. But the guys at the top are at the top for a reason. They might be rough around the edges but they have a brain in their head. (This is also why we prized James Gandolfini). And what is true of mob bosses is also true of army generals and police detectives, which Loggia also specialized in. These guys might be pugnacious or bellicose, but it’s a mistaken choice (and rather a boring one) to decide, as Hollywood often does, that they are uniformly dumb (no pun intended). And Loggia’s intelligence was his transcendent quality, allowing him often to be believably cast against type, as say a scientist, or something, and that was always welcome.

So somewhere around 1980 he became THAT GUY, the perfect guy you needed for certain roles. Look at his rap sheet (haha, I mean his IMDB page): he guested on nearly every cop show there ever was, on one side of the law or the other. But his big breakthrough (I think) was his role as Al Pacino’s mentor and rival Frank Lopez in Brian DePalma’s 1983 remake of Scarface. (A movie that was thought laughable in its day, and remains so, but gains historical interest with every passing year). Then he begins to get high visibility roles. He’s Eduardo Prizzi in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor (1985), a detective in The Jagged Edge (1985, an Oscar-nominated portrayal), a union boss in Armed and Dangerous (1986), a police lieutenant in John Schlesinger’s The Believers (1987), and a CEO in Big (1988). In 1989, he got his own TV series Mancuso, FBI, which lasted a single season. He was memorable as an  army general in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). He plays two roles in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997). On and on and on.

One of my favorite of his performances was in the obscure 1992 horror comedy Innocent Blood, directed by John Landis. (I intend to write more about this film, and Landis, a favorite director of mine, in future). In that film, Loggia plays a gangster who is also a vampire. Who else could do that? There aren’t many. Ya know how I know? Hilariously, his most recent film credit is in the film Sicilian Vampire, which was released just month. So now I have a vision of Loggia not dead, but undead, roaming the streets of New York at night in his limousine, in a panama hat and cape, searching for new victims. Don’t think of this as sacrilege. It’s a happy thought, a kind of Hollywood heaven.

Emma Trentini

Posted in Classical, Italian, Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2015 by travsd


Opera soprano Emma Trentini (1878-1959) was brought to the United States from her native Italy in 1906 by Oscar Hamnerstein to appear at his Manhattan Opera House. She soon began appearing at the competing Metropolitan Opera as well, making her mark in The Barber of Seville, La Boheme, Carmen, etc al. She was said to have great comic ability. On the strength of this she was cast in the original production of Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta alongside Orville Harrold in 1910. And like Orville Harrold she was not above playing vaudeville, as when she played the Palace Theatre in 1925, with accompanist Eric Zardo. 

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla

Posted in CAMP, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Italian with tags , , , , , on October 24, 2014 by travsd

“It will stiffen you with laughter”

Today is the birthday of the legendary Jerry Lewis impersonator Sammy Petrillo (1934-2007), best known for his one starring movie role, in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952). But first, a little background.

Petrillo (born Patrello, rather a lateral name change), was second generation show biz, his father being a Catskills comedian and dancer, his mother Alice Faye’s double in the movies. He attended New York’s High School for the Performing Arts. He was 15 when Martin and Lewis hit it big on the radio and in movies (1949). The kids at school noticed a resemblance so Petrillo worked up an impression. His family show biz connections got him a meeting with Milton Berle, who got him a meeting with Lewis himself, who got him an agent and employed him on a sketch on the Colgate Comedy Hour. After this, Lewis’s attitude toward Petrillo quickly chilled and he withdrew his support. But Petrillo was relatively hot (as hot as he would ever be), because Jerry was hot, and so he found work on tv variety shows with Eddie Cantor, Olsen and Johnson and Milton Berle.

Then he teamed up with Italian American crooner Duke Mitchell (Dominic Miceli) and the two formed a night club act not unlike…Martin and Lewis. As a team, the two appeared in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), as high as they ever got (low as it is). Petrillo alleged that Lewis thwarted their career, getting them bumped off a spot on the Colgate Comedy Hour with Abbott and Costello, and getting them blackballed from important club dates. Still the team hung on as long as Martin and Lewis did, breaking up shortly after their famous role models finally terminated their partnership in 1956. After this both men plugged along in show business for the rest of their lives, much farther away from the big time.


Petrillo always acted persecuted by Lewis, but I have to say this is a grey area at best. Yes, it sucks that the powerful Lewis wouldn’t allow Petrillo to make his way in the world as best he could. On the other hand, Petrillo was doing Lewis’s shtick! It reminds me a lot of the professional imitators of Weber and Fields, and Charlie Chaplin, back in the day. It’s rather close to plagiarism. Perhaps no specific lines are copied, but the character is. I’ve tried (without success) to think of someone since Petrillo who’s tried a similar gambit (getting famous doing someone else’s act), and I can’t think of one. I think the reason why is that in modern times lawyers simply don’t let that happen. But here’s what’s sad. Petrillo was definitely talented. He did other impressions besides Lewis, for example. But so much depends on luck, and judgment. He was a teenager when he decided to place his chips on doing the Jerry Lewis thing, and that is what he became known for — branded with, really. With more seasoning, you can say that a safer route would have been for Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo to broaden the appeal of their act. For example, Steve Rossi and Marty Allen also followed a partnership formula very similar to Martin and Lewis…but no one could accuse Marty Allen (for better or worse) of being anything but original.

At any rate, it’s the Halloween season! And Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is a classic camp horror movie! Let’s talk about that!

The film was almost the last step down for the perpetually descending Lugosi, whose pinnacle had been Dracula 20 years earlier, and whose FINAL step down would be into the repertory company of Edward D. Wood Jr (they were to make Glen or Glenda together the following year). The director was the legendary William “One Shot” Beaudine, who had earlier directed Lugosi in The Ape Man (1943) and Voodoo Man (1944).

In the film Mitchell and Petrillo play themselves, en route to perform for the troops in Guam (it’s the height of the Korean War). They parachute from their plane and land on the fictional isle of Kola Kola. There they meet many natives and Duke falls for the chief’s daughter Nona (played by the fetching Charlita, whose list of IMDB credits is actually quite respectable.) Still, the boys want to escape, so they travel to the other side of the island, where a mad scientist (Lugosi) performs research in his castle. One of his test subjects is played by Ramona the Chimp, whose best known credits were as Cheetah in the Tarzan movies. Unfortunately, Lugosi also loves Nona, and when he senses the chemistry between her and Duke, he does what any mad scientist would do in his position — injects Duke with a serum that turns him into a guy in a gorilla suit. This adds a nice symmetry to the plot, for Sammy’s love interest seems to be Ramona the Chimp. At any rate, Petrillo is able to recognize Mitchell when the latter manages to sing his signature song “Indeed I Do” from inside his gorilla suit.  Anyway, it all turns out to have all been a dream. (Good ending! Who saw that twist coming?)  When last we leave the boys they are doing their act in a jungle-themed nightclub.

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