Articles by: Laura e. Ruberto

  • Life & People

    Italian American Victrola-Spinning

    This is a blog post about a collection of seventy-five LPs, 78s to be more precise. But it’s also a story about transnationalism, pre- and post-World War II Italian migration, and how everyday kinds of entertainment can end up having interesting implications for how scholars document cultural histories and how we collect and preserve those histories, especially outside institutional contexts.
    A few years ago, Genesio Murano, a family friend, gave my parents his collection of 78s (see attached pdf below), because he knew that they had a working Victrola. Others had previously done the same so that my parents now have dozens of boxes of 78s (well, some are actually 80 RPMs) neatly organized in the garage of their California ranch house.  But Genesio’s collection was unique in that the records were all Italian/Italian American recordings.
    The collection is exclusively Italian in nature but covers a range of musical styles: opera, folk, and popular song. There’s also a lot of linguistic diversity, with recordings in Italian, Neapolitan, Sicilian, Barese, and English. The composers and performers are both Italian and Italian American. The packaging and printing, often both in English and Italian, tell us these were made with an immigrant consumer in mind. Adhesive labels from three different music stores all on Mulberry Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy (John Cerabino, Caruso Phonograph Co., and G. Quaranta) are still visible on a number of the records/sleeves and a Victor catalogue pamphlet, listing the available Italian-language records was neatly folded among the wax.

    John Cerabino Advertisement from the New York Evening Telegram, 1916

    Caruso Phonograph Co. Advertisement from the New York Evening Telegram, 1916


    A section of the Victor Catalogue, found among the Murano Family LP Collection
    There are some real gems in this collection: familiar names of composers and singers (e.g., Enrico Caruso, Eduardo Migliaccio/ Farfariello, Carlo Buti) as well as some obscurities (e.g., Giuseppe Spilotros singing “La predica di un prete Barese,” “A Barese Priests’s Sermon”).
    Many of the pieces document significant cultural/political moments in Italian and Italian American history; they are so-called topical songs:  e.g., “Il Funerale di Rodolfo Valentino” (“Rudolph Valentino’s Funeral”); “'A Morte 'E Sacco e Vanzetti” ( “The Death of Sacco and Vanzetti”); “Partenza delle truppe Italiane per l'Africa” (“The Italian Troops Departure for Africa"). While others sound today like musical snapshots of an Italian American neighborhood (“Tony, the Ice Man” or “O Store ‘e 5 e 10”).

    But what’s really special in this collection is less any individual piece but rather the existence of the collection as a whole and that it was kept together well after anyone was listening to the music any longer.
    The Murano family history includes stories of transnational migration across multiple generations and countries; a criss-crossing of time, place, and people. Genesio inherited the record collection from his father, Gerardo, who had emigrated from Cairano, Italy (province of Avellino), to Caracas, Venezuela, and eventually to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Along the way he worked as a carpenter and a barber and played the guitar, sometimes with Don Alessio's Banda di Cairano. Genesio and his father are both part of the post-war wave of Italian migration—Gerardo arrived to the U.S. in 1952, Genesio in 1954. However, the LPs originally belonged to some of Genesio’s extended family who had emigrated to Pittsfield well before World War II, especially Gerardo’s siblings, Lucy Murano and Leone Murano.

    La Banda di Cairano, circa 1948
    Like Genesio, my father, Raffaele Ruberto, also emigrated from Cairano after World War II. He and Genesio knew each other as children in Italy, but their family’s respective migrations took them on different routes (although their fathers were in Venezuela together). Only in the last dozen years or so have they met up again in both California and Cairano. Which brings us back to the records.
    The Murano family collection has been preserved—across geographies, generations, and families. Presumably, the records moved from different spaces, different homes, from living rooms to basements, to boxes, to attics, garages, moving trucks and cars. The everyday stories of the individuals who bought them, played them, listened to them—the personal stories written inbetween the groves of each record—are to a great extent lost.
    On an institutional level, there are a handful of archives which focus on Italian American cultural and political history, and seldom is much made of Italian American music (the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center should be noted here as an exception, given that it holds an extensive collection of Italian American sheet music and the papers of main artists, although not their recordings). See the exhibit, Chist'è New York: The Mark Pezzano Collection of Neapolitan Sheet Music from New York, for an example of parts of Italian American music history which has been to a great extent overlooked.
    Much of immigrant everyday forms of entertainment, even those forms which are part of the age of recorded technologoy (popular music, early radio and television) has not been taken seriously or at least not taken seriously enough by archivists and curators. A lot of early, ethnic-specific, reproduceable mass media was not well preserved and rarely documented on an institutional level. Looking at music collections such as this one becomes a window onto a cultural history of how immigrants and their families lived, socialized, entertained, and customized their lives.

    (Many thanks to Genesio Murano for sharing with me details about the collection and his family and to Raffaele Ruberto for cataloguing the entire collection--attached as a pdf to this post.)

  • Life & People

    An Italian Topography within a California Cemetery

    One of Giacomo Leopardi’s more famous canti, “Sopra un bassorilievo antico sepolcrale” (“On an Ancient Funeral Relief”), asks readers to consider the life of a young woman by directing their gaze to her tombstone.

    I am reminded of his words as I stroll through Oakland’s main cemetery, an urban retreat that lies just a few blocks from where I live.

          Asciutto il ciglio ed animosa in atto,
    Ma pur mesta sei tu. Grata la via
    O dispiacevol sia, tristo il ricetto
    A cui movi o giocondo,
    Da quel tuo grave aspetto
    Mal s’indovina.
           Your eyes are dry, your movements spirited,
                    and yet you’re downcast. If your way
    is glad or hard, the destination
    that you travel to is dire or happy,
    your grave expression doesn’t indicate.
    (Giacamo Leopardi, translated by Jonathan Galassi)
    Oakland's Mountain View Cemetery and Gardens, designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead, was to be (like Olmstead's other works) a nineteenth-century model for balancing the human and the natural in a single topography, even when that meant removing native plants or relocating communities that had lived there for generations.
    Walking through it, I am struck at how many headstones record immigrants’ journeys to the U.S., from Ireland, China, the Philippines, Mexico, and elsewhere. This marking happens not just through assumptions gathered by reading the names of the dead but also by the materiality of the headstones themselves—the use of different languages on the headstones, the style of the tomb markers, or the way the burial sites are tended by survivors.

    Especially striking is the way the graves so eloquently and seemingly haphazardly describe the diversity of Oakland and surrounding cities. Rather than segregating ethnic groups in different parts of the cemetery, the constructed geography reflects the multiculturalism of the area enclosing it.
    Gravestones written in Italian (in whole or in part) catch my eye first. Often the Italian is nonstandard, in dialect, English-infused, Spanish-tinged, or perhaps merely marred (or improved) by a mason’s typo.

    Although the Amador Memorial Company, a headstone-engraving business, is right down the street from the cemetery, I’m led to think about the well-known Italian stonecutters of Barre, Vermont, reminded that both Barre and Oakland once had high numbers of immigrants from Northern Italy.

    Even taken alone, apart from their wider context, the designs of the gravestones gesture toward questions of ethnicity. The simple crosses, the unusual shapes, the decorated marble, and the use of photo-ceramic portraits are to different degrees imported customs, carried across the Atlantic, renegotiated along the Pacific. In particular, the photo-ceramic portraits, like the use of Italian itself, immediately codes the tombstones as Italian, constructing a kind of imagined community for the deceased (read Joseph Inguanti's article "Domesticating the Grave: Italian-American Memorial

    Practices at New York's Calvary Cemetery").

    There are other places in California to find graves linked to the state’s Italian immigrants. Not far from here is the San Francisco Italian Cemetery, built by La Società Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza, a benevolent society started during the Gold Rush by recent Italian settlers. The Italian graveyard opened in 1899 in Colma, on the eve of San Francisco’s ban on burials within the city’s borders. Since then, well-known Italian Americans have been interred there (e.g., Beniamino Bufano, Joe DiMaggio, A.P. Giannini, Vince Guaraldi, and George Moscone), as well as thousands of less-famous Italian Americans.
    The cemeteries of California's missions are also speckled with the graves of Italians, and countless smaller towns up and down the coast have cemeteries that outline some of the transnational lives of immigrants and their children: from Martinez (the birthplace of Joe Di Maggio, the resting place of Sabato Rodia), to Benicia (where in the city’s Military Cemetery lies one Italian, a former World War II prisoner of war—marking a forgotten aspect of the movement of Italians abroad).

    Together these tombstones create a suggestive topography of an Italian California and hint at some of the ways that the cultural practices we carry around with us throughout life don’t necessarily end with our deaths.

    Click through the slideshow below for more photos of Italo-tombstones found at the Oakland Mountain View Cemetery.



  • Art & Culture

    The “Naive Wooden Sculptures” of Theodore Santoro

    Who is Theodore Santoro?

    I’d bet a string-tied box of fresh sfogliatelle  that not even the most illustrious scholars of the most obscure minutiae of Italian Americana have ever heard of him or what has been called his “naive wooden sculptures.”
    Self-taught artists of all kinds abound on the West Coast, but it is Italian American men in California who seem to have created more site-specific installations, landscapes, and individual pieces than any other group along the Pacific. And yet the focus has usually been on what is idiosyncratic and “outsider” about such artists rather than what might link any one of them to a larger community, ethnic or otherwise.  
    In thinking about Italian Californian self-taught artists, Sabato (Simon) Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles rank as the most visible and most widely studied, but even Rodia has only recently been thoroughly recognized in relation to the community that he was a part of and his Italian immigrant identity. Other, lesser-known California Italian so-called self-taught artists remain on the fringe (e.g., Baldassare ForestiereRomano Gabriel) of a still-evolving conversation about Italian American aesthetics, material culture, and place-making.
    Theodore Santoro belongs in that conversation.   
    I share here some of what I’ve learned about him, information culled from Philip Linhares (retired curator at the Oakland Museum of California), Bonnie Grossman (founder and director of the Ames Gallery of Folk Art in Berkeley), and Ron Jehu (deceased art dealer and collector in San Francisco). The rest comes from Google and local public library archives.

    Theodore Santoro (date unknown)
    Santoro was born on July 1, 1912, in Cleveland, Ohio, of Neapolitan parents. His family moved by car in 1939 to Oakland, “where Santoro was employed as a machinist at the Nabisco company” (Jehu’s biography). There are plenty of Santoros listed on census reports and voter registration records both in Oakland and Chardon, Ohio (on the outskirts of Cleveland). According to these sources, Theodore Santoro lived at 1736 24th Avenue in Oakland for some time.
    When Santoro was 44, “deteriorating mental health forced early retirement,” and he lived in relative isolation for the following eight years (Jehu’s biography). In 1964, Santoro, along with his mother, sister, and brother, moved to East 27th Street. There his mental health improved or at least stabilized to some extent. Was it something in the family dynamic that changed? Was it the change in neighborhood? Was it his developing interest in woodwork?
    All we know is that in the next 17 years, until his death on August 1, 1981, he carved some 3,000 sculptures “in a simple shed behind the house” (Jehu’s biography). 
    Most of the carvings were of animals—dogs, birds, cats, swans, pigs, deer, squirrels, and rabbits. But he also shaped wood into human figures—a Santa, a man wearing a hat, an “Indian Chief,” a baseball player. Some figures were specifically religious in nature—lots of Madonnas (some in grottos, some made from “dark wood”), angels, hands praying. There are also descriptions of other structures he built, carved, and adorned: planters, large containers, furniture (including a “miniature Italian T.V. with Stand”),  and toys. He sketched as well, suggesting something, perhaps about his creative process (Jehu price list).
    His sculptures were made using simple carpentry tools—some were carved from solid blocks of wood, others were nailed or doweled before being carved (Grossman’s description). He often adorned the carvings, either with paint or varnish. He also at times “embellished with upholstery tacks or bead eyes” (Grossman’s description). Some pieces had moving parts.
    He was choosy about who saw his work. However, he had some sense or desire to create community out of his work, given that  “during the Easter and Christmas holidays…he would create elaborate lawn displays” with his sculptures (Jehu’s biography). I would like to know more about what these looked like or how his family or neighbors experienced these displays.
    After his death, many (all?) of his sculptures were bought and his work was part of at least five group exhibitions. Other than one piece owned by the Oakland Museum of California, it’s not clear what has happened to Santoro’s creations; some were sold to private collectors (a 1998 price list of Santoro’s sculptures ranged from $35 to $500). I’ve traced the fate of some of the pieces up to 2004 but do not know what happened to them after that.
    The other day, I drove up and down E. 27th Street in Oakland, wondering where Santoro had lived. It’s a street whose approximately two-mile course has not changed much over the last 100 years. A 1912 map shows it as it is today, although then it ran east to west in a city called Brooklyn, California; today it falls somewhere in East Oakland, between the Fruitvale and San Antonio neighborhoods . 


    Oakland and Brooklyn, California (1912)

    East Oakland has always been racially mixed. Today’s residents are mostly working class Asian and Central American immigrants and African Americans. And while the dominant Italian neighborhood was historically across town in North Oakland, Italian Americans lived in East Oakland as well (the occasional remaining Italian storefronts are one of the remnants of that past). Today the houses are a riot of architectural styles: Victorians, 1930s Craftsmen bungalows, 1950s duplexes, and 1970s apartments. I snapped a photograph in front of 1736 24th Avenue, a particularly depressed block of an Oakland that is eons from the hipster city the New York Times loves to cover.

    1736 24th Avenue, Oakland
    I wonder what these blocks and houses were like when Theodore Santoro lived here. Where did he live? Which backyard shed did he work out of? Were photographs ever taken of his lawn displays? What did his neighbors think of him or his work? What drove him to carve? And why does no one remember him today?  
    (Many thanks to Bonnie Grossman and Phil Linhares for sharing information about Santoro and to John Wranovics for his research.)
    “Biography of Theodore Santoro,” Ron Jehu, 1988
    “Description of Theodoro Santoro pieces,” Bonnie Grossman, date unknown  
  • Il Fanciullo del West: Shorty Joe Quartuccio’s Country Western Sound

    Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks aside, some might think a musical landscape of an Italian Old West begins and ends with Giacomo Puccini.

    His 1910 La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), set in the Sacramento Valley during the Gold Rush, mines images of the American frontier and subtle western-tinged sounds to create what the San Francisco Opera in their centennial production dubbed the first Spaghetti Western. Indeed, the history of the opera—involving Enrico Caruso and Arturo Toscanini, Puccini’s family’s emigration history, and David Belasco (the San Francisco Sephardic Jew often misidentified as Italian) who wrote the original play—is ripe for a serious Italian American transnational critique.

    Enrico Caruso at The Metropolitan Opera, NYC, La Fanciulla del West

    In fact, pretty much all of the diasporic Italian-Western musicscape needs some scholarly attention. Somewhere within that still unwritten history there’s a place for Giuseppe “Shorty Joe” Quartuccio, San Jose’s own Sicilian American country music artist.

    Quartuccio was born in Monreale, Sicily (province of Palermo), in 1924. He emigrated with his parents via New York to Ohio in 1930 and then settled in San Jose in 1936. His family worked as farm laborers and cannery workers—he started picking fruit at age 12 and later worked in various fruit canneries. During World War II he worked as an aircraft mechanic in the Navy and later assisted in the training of astronauts and jet pilots at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field. But it was as an immigrant teenager that he was first taken by what he recently described on the phone to me as “what we called them then, ‘cowboy bands’” (October 10, 2011).

    And it wasn’t just any kind of country music, but a West Coast-inflected variety that he connected with. One of his earliest influences was Dude Martin, né Stephen McSwain, the San Francisco Bay Area cowboy singer who created an entire “cowboy” persona. As Martin describes, “And though born in California, I spoke with a Texas drawl, or as reasonable facsimile as I could muster.”  Indeed, even before World War II, a young Quartuccio started his first country trio, mimicking Dude Martin’s style and sound.

    After the war, the trio started up again and in a short time grew in size (to an octet) and in popularity (larger venues, broader radio play). In no time at all, Shorty Joe and the Red Rock Canyon Cowboys, whose original members were all Italian American, were recording under the Golden West and Bella labels. Their original numbers had a Bay Area flavor (e.g., “In Santa Clara Valley Round Ol San Jose”); they played sold-out shows all over Northern California alongside the likes of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, and Lefty Frizzell.


    Today his band’s recordings are housed at the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina. Shorty Joe and his music will be honored as a “living legend” at the San Jose Italian American Heritage Foundation on Sunday, October 23, 2011 (see attached PDF), where nephew Anthony Quartuccio (and current assistant opera conductor for the acclaimed San Jose Opera Company) will also be in attendance.


    Shorty Joe, 2009

    Shorty Joe Quartuccio has shaped California’s own style of what some call “dago twang.” Together with musicians like San Diego-based Andrew “Cactus” Soldi, Larry “Pedro” De Paul, and Joe Limi, co-owner of the honky tonk Blackboard (one of the Central Valley’s most influential venues that helped shape the Bakersfield Sound), Shorty Joe asks us to rethink our accepted notions about Italian (Sicilian) American influence on US popular culture.
    And along with other Italian American country artist—Michael FracassoJoe Val, and Tim McGraw come to mind—Shorty Joe reminds us that honky tonk, bluegrass, western swing, and other country styles may not be so distant from the land of bel canto.

  • Leo Politi, Saint Joseph, and Las Golondrinas

    This weekend the Watts Towers Common Ground Initiative in Los Angeles culminates in The Communal Tables: Practicing Hospitality, Sustainability project, an event that weaves together themes that are foundational to how St. Joseph’s Day is often celebrated.

    Some of the breads that will be put on the St. Joseph's Tables in Watts

    (photos courtesy of Luisa Del Giudice)
    The tables and altars constructed for St. Joseph are common among various (Southern) Italian traditions and within the Italian diaspora are examples of some of the ways Italian immigrants put into practice that which suits their hybrid identity as migrants. As Luisa Del Giudice puts it: “It does not take a long stretch of the imagination to see a strong identification of immigrants with Joseph—himself ‘emigrant’—fleeing into Egypt, a stranger in a strange land, at the mercy of a foreign and historically hostile people who had enslaved the Jews” [“Rituals of Charity and Abundance: Sicilian St. Joseph’s Tables and Feeding the Poor in Los Angeles," California Italian Studies Journal 1(2)].
    Set in the multi-racial and culturally dynamic neighborhood of Watts, with Sabato Rodia’s Nuestro Pueblo in view, The Communal Tables also mark, for me, another section of a decidedly Italian-Californian cartography.
    The reshaping of a St. Joseph’s Day Italian immigrant experience within a multi-cultural, Southern California landscape also figures in the children’s picture book, Song of the Swallows, published by Leo Politi in 1948. (Indeed, Politi’s art and the Watts Towers are certainly no strangers in other ways as well, but I digress.)
    The children’s book tells the “legend” of the famous Capistrano Mission swallows, las golondrinas, who magically fly back from South America and arrive just in time for Saint Joseph’s Day. The tale was first spun in the early twentieth century by then Monsignor John O'Sullivan and quickly caught on—the annual Fiesta de las Golondrinas is still celebrated today.
    Significantly, Politi recounts the legend through the experiences of latino characters—Julian, the bell-ringer and gardener of the Mission, and Juan a school-age boy.


    The return of the Capistrano swallows makes up part of the collective cultural memory of many Americans, mainly because of Leon René’s song “When the Swallows Return to Capistrano,” made famous by the Ink Spots and others. In René’s song, a longing for the swallows’ return is a poetic conceit for a lover’s pining for his sweetheart.

    Here's Bobby Day's version of the hit.


    But Politi puts an important spin on the story, suggesting that it is because of the hard work and care that Julian and Juan give their garden that the birds return—as the song Politi composed for the story explains: “into my garden they’ll fly to admire my flowers”.


    Although Politi presents the California Missions in an uncritical way, he humanizes minority ethnic characters (bilingual ones to boot), giving them agency, thoughtfulness and a sense of history.
    Julian worked hard in the gardens, for Saint Joseph’s Day was coming soon. He wanted the gardens to look their best for the swallows’ return.
    Politi (1908-1996), nè Atiglio Leoni Politi, was born in the US, raised in both Italy and England, and made a career as an illustrator and children’s book writer in California. Many of his works focus on California border culture, and we can see how he melds aspects of Italian ethnicity with other ethnicities, most notably Mexican American.

    Although the study of childen’s literature has long been a sub-discipline of literary studies, a thorough, Italian-American-inflected critical intervention on culture produced for children has yet to be written.  Leo Politi, whose words and drawings continue to spark curiosity in young minds, would be a good place to start.

  • Art & Culture

    The Case of the Missing Fasanella Painting

    About a month ago, Paul D’Ambrosio, a colleague and Facebook friend, asked me if Ralph Fasanella’s painting Welcome Home Boys was still in the Oakland Public Library’s main branch. I live 2.5 miles from the library and visit it regularly, but I had to admit to Paul—Fasanella scholar and Chief Curator of the Fenimore Art Museum in New York—that not only had I never seen it, I didn’t even know such a painting was exhibited here on the West Coast.
    Several Google searches that night showed conflicting information—that the painting is both at the Oakland Public Library and at the Oakland International Airport. D’Ambrosio told me that the painting’s owners originally wanted to hang it at the airport, but that he had seen it at the library in the mid-1990s: “I recall it being hung up over an archway in one of the reading rooms. I had to search for it as none of the librarians knew what I was talking about” (Facebook email exchange, Feb. 6, 2011).
    And so, last week I started asking some questions.
    Tuesday, February 22, 2011 ~ a visit to the main branch of the Oakland Public Library.
    I had never really paid attention to the library’s interior walls before, and I was saddened to notice that they were mostly bare and in need of fresh paint. I looked around a bit and then walked to the second floor, where the Oakland History Room is, passing the hallway of historical photographs of Oakland, many of them documenting Oakland’s Italian working class history. I found myself thinking, surely the watchful eyes of this ethnic enclave wouldn’t let a Fasanella disappear from right under their noses.

    Photography-filled Hallway Leading to the Oakland History Room
    In the History Room I asked the librarian, Maggie, if she knew if there was a Ralph Fasanella painting somewhere in the library, possibly in the Art and Music Department (as per one of the websites):
    Hmm….Yes, this (pointing across the room) used to be the Art and Music Department, but that was a long time ago. Does the painting have to do with Oakland? Otherwise, it would not be in this room. Try Jade, downstairs at the reference desk—if it was ever here, she’ll know.
    Jade was nowhere to be found that afternoon; I left my card and scribbled down a note about what I was looking for. I returned to the History Room to find Maggie Googling information for me “Famanella… Fazarella….” Of course, she wasn’t having any luck.
    A few hours later, Jade left me a message—Yes, the painting used to hang at the library. We spoke later, and she told me that there were a few folders with “internal memos” regarding the painting; Jade would talk to her boss, get permission for me to see the memos, and be in touch. The next day we spoke again and made an appointment for that Saturday.
    Saturday, February 26, 2011 ~ back to the library
    I met Jade, who handed me a folder but told me that there were other documents, more “internal memos,” that the library didn’t want me to see. She suggested that all the information I needed would be found in the folder she handed me and that the other memos pointed to some nasty, local politics, and it was best for those names not to get out. I didn’t push it.

    The memos and newspaper clippings I looked through detailed that the painting was bought in 1990 for $53,000 ($43,000 was put up by a local union, Local 790, and $10,000 by the Oakland Public Art Fund). It was part of the nationwide Public Domain Project, whose goal was to put all of Fasanella’s paintings into public spaces. Fasanella (1914-1997) was an Italian American painter from New York, whose work is generally described as heavily connected to his ethnic background, progressive politics, and experience in the US labor movement. As a 1989 press release put out by the SEIU Local 535 describes, Welcome Home Boys
    depicts a post World War II strike. A multi-racial group of women seeking equal pay and men seeking relief from wage losses resulting from the wartime no-strike pledges are marching in front of a waterfront factory or warehouse.  
    In short, it was an ideal piece of public art for the people of Oakland.
    The painting had been designated to go to the Oakland Airport, but later it was determined that there was no place for it there. And so in December 1992 it was hung at the Oakland Public Library’s main branch, which is where Paul D’Ambrosio saw it.
    Jade told me that the reference librarians used to be able to look at it from their desks when they worked.

    The Library Wall I Understand to Be Where The Painting Was Last Displayed
    The memos also suggest that the painting was removed from the library around 1997 because it needed to be repaired, and that it stayed in storage at the Oakland Museum from 1997 until 2003, when funds were at last found to restore it. (Since I moved to Oakland in 1998, I couldn’t have seen the painting as it had already been removed from the library by then.)
    Monday, February 28, 2011 ~ phone calls, emails
    I called my contacts at the Oakland Museum and quickly ended up talking to Pauline, the painting restorer, who told me: “I’m fairly certain that it’s not here,” and then called me back to tell me that the file from that time period is difficult to get to because that database has since crashed. She also explained that such restoration work was considered “private outside” work and that the museum no longer took such jobs. She would keep looking and call me back if she came across anything.
    I spoke with a few other people at the museum, but no one knew anything, and I left messages with the Public Arts division of the airport. I also spoke to Jasper, one of the museum’s registrars, who told me that since the painting was not part of the museum’s collection (the restoration project had basically been contracted by the city), its whereabouts were not tracked by the museum. I left phone messages and sent emails to various City of Oakland officials.
    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 ~ more phone calls, more emails
    I continued trying to contact someone at the city, and I also left phone messages with the Ironworkers Local 790. I spoke to a few Italian American retirees in the area, former union men I know. Finally, I spoke to Karen at the Public Arts division of the City of Oakland, who said, “Unfortunately, we don’t know where the painting is.” She assured me she would begin searching for it, and thanked me for bringing this situation to her attention.
    I wish I could end this Nancy Drew-style blog with a photo of the restored painting in a public space in Oakland. Alas, I can’t. I really hope, though, that I will soon learn that the painting is, sano e salvo, hanging somewhere nearby.
    I’d also like to end this piece talking about what its presumed disappearance says about the current state of art, working class lives, and Italian American creative efforts.
    But frankly, all I can really do is end with a simple question:
    What happened to the Ralph Fasanella painting, Welcome Home Boys?
    CODA--evening of March 2, 2011,

    I am thrilled to report the painting has been located at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland. Media interest after my initial blog post apparently helped the cause. The painting is hanging on display in a staff member's private office--read more about that and see a photo here.
    NOTA BENE: I have changed the names of all public employees as my interest is not to embarrass any one employee but rather find an apparently missing painting.

  • Life & People

    Vince Guaraldi--“the sound of Yuletide on these shores”

    It seemed right this Christmas to connect the dots among the creator of Peanuts, a cartoon celebrating its 60th anniversary, the man who whistled the bird calls at Disneyland's Tiki Room, and the city known for its crooked street and beatniks.

    When all the lines are drawn we have an image of Vince Guaraldi and his music, a sound that has become a ubiquitous part of Christmas in the USA. As others have said before, everyone knows the music, but few people know about the man who wrote and performed it.

    Vincent Anthony Guaraldi (July 17, 1928 – February 6, 1976) was born in the North Beach  neighborhood of San Francisco and raised out in the Avenues, surrounded by an Italian American musical family, especially on his mother’s side. According to the pianist’s son Dave Guaraldi, Vince was adopted by Tony Guaraldi, after Vince’s mother, Cannella Guaraldi, neè Marcellino, split with his biological father, Vince Delaio (sp?). Guaraldi’s maternal grandfather hailed from Sicily and at least some part of his family emigrated first to New York before coming west.

    And although it was his mother who arranged for his piano lessons as a kid, it was his uncles, Joe, a violinst, and Muzzy, a singer, who introduced him to the world of professional music.

    Listen to Maurice “Muzzy” Marcellino with Ted Fiorito and The Debutantes.

    Muzzy, who achieved renown as a professional whistler, was especially influential to the young Guaraldi, according to son Dave, who intimated to me that Muzzy was “almost father-like” for Vince (phone conversation, December 23, 2010).
    Watch this clip of Muzzy Marcellino from the Lawrence Welk Show. 
    Guaraldi attended San Francisco’s Lincoln High School in the Sunset District, graduating in 1946, just six years after the school opened and about  a decade before fellow alumnus Richard Serra, the celebrated sculptor, would graduate. In the school yearbook, Guaraldi is described as follows: “Vince played at rallies….ambition: to play the piano.”

    Richard Serra's Charlie Brown (San Francisco, 2000)

    That’s exactly what Vince did: after studying at San Francisco State University—and a stint in Korea—he quickly becamea part of the Bay Area’s vibrant live music scene. His performance credits are long and impressive.
    He was the first jazz booking at North Beach’s Hungry i, a club run by “Enrico” (Harry Charles) Banducci, an Italian American impresario born in Bakersfield. Banducci earned a reputation as a talent-spotter, and he booked dozens of influential new acts. Guaraldi also played at San Francisco’s venerable Black Hawk and the well-known Monterrey Jazz Festival.
    Guaraldi also performed and recorded with all kinds of serious jazz talents, including Bola Sete, Cal Tjader, Frank Rosolino, Conte Candoli, Art Pepper, and Jimmy Granelli  (both Pepper and Granelli are also California Italian Americans, by the way). In 1965, Guaraldi performed the first Jazz Mass at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral ( months before Duke Ellington’s more famous date at the California Street landmark), leading me to wonder if Guaraldi knew about the Beat Youth Masses in Italy of the same era.

    Given that he lived in the Bay Area in the 1960s, I’d like to know how Guaraldi’s musical style might have meshed with the local political culture. His last album, Alma-ville (1974), with such tracks as “Detained in San Ysidro,” point toward a politicized consciousness.

    It’s an awareness we can see more clearly in the various benefit concerts he played. For instance, in 1964, he gave a concert for 781 students arrested during free-speech demonstrations at the University of California, Berkeley; the show was set to be held on campus but was moved down the hill to the Finnish Hall after UC administrators put the kibosh on it.
    Posters at the University of California archives also have him headlining a benefit concert in Marin County for farmworkers, a “Latin Jam Farmworkers Benefit Concert.” Together these are important links to the greater story of Italian American progressive politics, a history that remains under-documented.
    But it is a little boy, a figure Umberto Eco describes as a universal, epic character, who made Guaraldi’s music a kind of soundtrack to American holiday celebrations. The story starts with a Guaraldi  B side,  “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” which became a West Coast hit when a Sacramento radio station played it incessantly, leading to a Grammy in 1963. The unlikely success of the record also likely led to Lee Mendelson’s convincing Charles Schulz that it was perfect for a televised version of Charlie Brown. The details of this evolution can be traced with the help of Google, but they’re also set out in a recent documentary, The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi (directed by Andrew Thomas and Toby Gleason), based in part on a TV show Ralph Gleason made in the 1960s.  
    Jazz and popular culture scholar John Gennari, casually described Guaraldi’s more up-tempo Charlie Brown tunes as having a “kind of cool modern boogie-woogie” style (email communication, December 22, 2010). It seems that it’s just this tempo that hit the mark for millions.
    Mendelson has described the successful impact of Guaraldi’s sound coming from the way it is “both adult like and child like”—a succinct description that could also be used to characterize the Charlie Brown cartoons themselves (2009, radio interview). In fact, many have noted that for middle-America, Guaraldi’s music, experienced through Charlie Brown, was their first exposure to West Coast-style cool jazz.

    Although his Italian American background is usually just marked in passing, son Dave told me “he was a strong Italian in every way. Just look at him! No, seriously, he was Italian. Period.” He went on to talk about the fact that his father grew up during the Depression, taking note that San Francisco’s Italian side was probably more prominent than it is today. Dave concluded by remarking on the challenges of raising a child in an extended family without a lot of money: “he was raised with a lot of love….and, with his music he gives people that same love” (phone conversation, December 23, 2010).
    Elsewhere Guaraldi’s Italianness has been anecdotally associated with his temper. Doug Ramsey, a jazz critic talked about his personality in the radio production It’s Jazz Charlie Brown: The Vince Guaraldi Story (2009): Guaraldi was“a very aware person and engaging in conversation and had a kind of, if this makes any sense, an Italian American way of expressing himself that has a lot in common, maybe, with people on The Sopranos”.
    However we might interpret that comparison, it is not the first time Guaraldi has been compared to New Jersey Italians—real or invented.  Indeed, he also shares a musical Christmas connection with another Italian American from New Jersey, Frank Sinatra, at least according to music critic, David McGee:
    If Frank Sinatra is the voice of Christmas in America… then Vince Guaraldi’s music for A Charlie Brown Christmas has become the sound of Yuletide on these shores …
    Thinking about McGee’s take on Guaraldi, I'm left asking questions. What does it mean to have an Italian American Christmas soundscape, the kind that gets embraced nationally, if not globally, as representative of that imagined place called America? 

    What kind of America do Italian American artists and entertainers like Sinatra and Guaraldi stand for? And for whom?  What would the rest of an imagined Italian-American-imbued Christmas be like? What shape? What smell? What taste?  What look?

    I'm not sure, but I can hope there's a giant panettone involved...
    Coda:  Guaraldi died tragically young and is buried at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma—the oldest cemetery in a city that boasts seventeen separate burial grounds and where other notable Italian Americans are also interred: Beniamino Bufano, Joe DiMaggio, A.P. Giannini, and George Moscone.

  • Remembering the Irpinia Earthquake Thirty Years Later

    November 23, 2010, marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Irpinia Earthquake, a quake that hit some of the poorest and most rural parts of Campania, Basilicata, and Puglia, killing 2,735 people. It hit 679 towns in 8 provinces and left upwards of 400,000 homeless. The earthquake also created a political rupture that cut across economics, culture, and history in ways that are still felt in the daily life of the people who live and work in those areas, as well as in the tens of thousands who emigrated because of it.
    Such catastrophes often forge renewed ties across migratory lines, with the influx of remittances and other forms of assistance coming from the diaspora. Certainly this kind of aid was visible in the weeks and months following the tremor (in fact, the Irpinia Earthquake of 1980 long ago taught me this lesson in transnationalism, as I talk about briefly in this previous post).    

    An example of Italian American aid to earthquake victims.

    "The Irpinian residents of Erie (PA) help rebuild the town of Altavilla"

    (Il Progresso Italo-Americano, December 14, 1980)

    Such geopolitical crossings inform many aspects of megadisasters—human-made and natural alike. Material culture—especially those concrete objects that create the tenor of our everyday lives—likewise become part of this exchange.
    And so today I remember the thirtieth anniversary of the Irpinia disaster by considering some of the ways in which narratives of migration become written on quotidian artifacts, marking the dislocation of communities and individuals.
    The items in the photos here—a few ceramic tiles, an aluminum tin—and others were all gathered (i.e., swiped) in the last few years from one of the houses in my father’s home town, Cairano, a village in the province of Avellino, just a few miles as the crow flies from the trembler’s epicenter.

    Ceramic tile pieces found in damanged, abandoned building in Italy,

    now stand near the San Andreas and Hayward Faults in Northern California

    "Plasmon" cookie tin, visibly corroding, found in a kitchen in an abandoned, damaged building in Italy, now in a kitchen in Northern California

    The objects come from a house damaged by the earthquake and never repaired (that the house had been more or less abandoned long before 1980, presumably because the owners had emigrated, offers still another layer to this story).

    The inside of the building where the above-items were

    found (photo taken June 2010)
    I’m interested in these unearthed objects, items that offer material reminders of the past and at the same time that act as a kind of palimpsest towards a future. As Urban Studies professor, Ilaria Vitellio puts it, in reference to a makeshift bar set up days after the quake:
    “nella discontinuita’ creata dall’evento, nel cratere apertosi nell’esperienza incontra il tempo passato e quello presente abilitando un nuovo contesto di senso, una realtà praticabile, dove il futuro diventa possibile”(“Irpinia 1980,” in Dialoghi Internazionali, Città del Mondo, n. 13, Bruno Mondadori Editore, Milano, 2010, pg. 2) 

    “in the discontinuity created by the event, in the quotidian experience becoming an open crater …past and present moments come into contact with one another, allowing for a new context of what makes sense, a practical reality, where the future becomes possible”
    To see these fragments lined up on the stucco porch and in the tiny kitchen of my 1920s California bungalow is to be reminded of some of the ways everyday experiences get coded. Devoid of any inherent use value, these objets trouvés become corroding memories.  Although they are falling apart now under the West Coast sun—and so eerily near the active San Andreas and Hayward faults—they remain markers of journeys never taken, cultural exchanges that could never be. And yet at the same time, they are resilient tokens of the multiple trajectories of migratory histories.
    Classicist Antonio La Penna, from Bisaccia (another Irpinia town leveled in 1980), wrote about the quake in for a conference at the Istituto Gramsci of Avellino in January, 1981. He considered trauma’s relationship to the diffusion of history:
    “Diastri come il terremoto mettono meglio alla luce le condizioni permanenti della storia, i fattori di lunga durata, di seccoli o di millenni” (Antonio La Penna, pg. 112, in 19:35, Scritti dalle macerie, Ed. Paolo Speranza, Laceno, 2005)
    “Disasters like the earthquake illuminate the permanent conditions of history, those long-term factors, the ones of centuries or millennia”
    Thinking of the thirty years since the 1980 Irpinia Earthquake, I see how these material objects, pieces I carried across the ocean, mark new directions taken because of the disaster—future possibilities written on the material culture that make up our everyday lives.

  • Art & Culture

    Italian America’s Eureka Moment

    Later this month the Watts Towers Common Ground conference will take place in Los Angeles; it’s only a small part of a larger festival and series of public projects bringing people together, as the organizers explain, “to celebrate the common ground of the Towers, a locus of creativity, of sustained resolve in adversity and of positive public transformation.” Indeed, Sabato (Sam) Rodia’s colorful, mosaic towers have long inspired individuals and nourished communities, sometimes at the most volatile of moments.
    The Watts Towers are without a doubt the most visible and well-known Italian American construction this side of the Mississippi. But California is in fact home to a number of site-specific vernacular art environments built by Italian Americans, and while only Rodia can claim to have made his way on the cover of a Beatles album, together they reflect a West Coast Italian American experience.

    In the Central Valley, outside of Fresno, Baldassare Forestiere carved out of the ground a sprawling series of living spaces, grottos, and gardens, collectively called the Underground Gardens. In Pope Valley, not far from Napa, in the state’s wine-growing region, Litto Damonte assembled everyday objects into his 62-acre enclosed Hubcap Ranch. Near Stanford University in Palo Alto, John Giudici created Capidro—a cemented garden (now extinct) started in a backyard pond but expanding over a fifty year period. There are even far more modest (and now extinct) site-specific environments throughout the state: e.g., Joseph Formica’s La Casa Formica in El Cerrito and Martin Dioli’s White Cement Artichokes in Menlo Park.

    Detail of Silver Madonna at Capidro/Photo © Phil Pasquini
    In fact, I had all of these ethnic, creative constructions on my mind as I drove up Highway 101 this past summer to visit another site I knew about but had never had a chance to see in person: Romano Gabriel’s Wooden Sculpture Garden in Eureka, just south of the Oregon border.
    The garden was built by Gabriel over the course of three decades and stood until his death on the front lawn of his house. Then, due to the efforts of a number of people, especially Dolores and Ray Vellutini, the pieces were taken apart, restored, and re-constructed in a storefront space especially built to house the Garden.

    In fact, Dolores had been working with the California Arts Council and others to keep the structures at the house while Gabriel was still alive. The story of why the structure was moved is complicated: suffice it to say that Gabriel, who had been ill for some time, passed away before anything could be legally finalized. The result was that his house was sold to one family, the art to another, and the Vellutinis—the latter family—were given two weeks to move it.
    In that time, according to a phone conversation I had recently with Dolores Vellutini, the structure, which was already in disrepair, was photographed and catalogued and moved temporarily into her four-car garage until a suitable arrangement  for the structures could be found (and the funds needed could be raised).

    Romano Gabriel (1887-1977) was from Mura (province of Brescia, in the region of Lombardy) in Northern Italy. He came to the U.S. in 1913, eventually settling in Eureka, where he worked as a gardener. He was drafted into World War I and returned to Italy for some period of time after the war—it seems he returned to Mura to marry, but that his betrothed had since found another mate. 
    Most accounts make him out to be a solitary man (it’s not uncommon for folks still today to refer to him as a “recluse” or a “crazy man”). And yet his vibrant garden suggests a person with a keen sense of community.
    First, on multiple levels the Wooden Garden was in and of itself a dynamic and living space. Made from scrap wood, mostly salvaged from California produce crates, Gabriel created a colorful Italian-American neighborhood village, a place that, as long as his health allowed, he was adding to or restructuring.

    Red, white, and blue dominate the color scheme, and the figures are caricaturized as heavily ethnic, with thick eyebrows and big noses.

    Certain faces capture real people that Gabriel knew, especially back in Italy. There are “Italian salami” hanging to dry on one side, and dancers lined up on the other.

    Much of it is constructed of bright flowers and abstract fruit trees, perhaps as a response to the coastal fog that surrounds Eureka, making for the dominance of Redwood trees over other vegetation. The Garden also contains more idiosyncratic horticultural details—e.g., upside-down mason jars with plastic flowers on display like a row of specimens in a lab.
    In addition to the site itself being a representation of community and a dynamic, changing space, the relationship the site had (and has still) to the people of Eureka further helps explain the community–building nature of Gabriel’s work. Like other examples of vernacular architecture, Gabriel’s work drew people to it. Take, for instance, this telethon produced in 1981 (click here to watch video) that raised over $8,000 to help restore the Garden.

    Currently, North Coast Dance, the Humboldt Arts Council, and Eureka Heritage Society are working on producing both a theatrical piece about Gabriel as well as a museum exhibit of his work. These projects point to ways the Wooden Sculpture Garden continues to inspire individuals and sustain communities.
    Much more needs to be said about Gabriel and his art, especially in relation to other vernacular environments in the Golden State made by Italian Americans (but also in dialogue with other folk art spaces in the state such as Grandma Prisbey’s Bottle Village or Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain). Together these structures help mark the relationship individual creative expressions have to work, place, and community. Moreover, in relation to ethnicity, they illustrate how material culture is suggestive of immigrant ways of negotiating everyday life, ways that may have an impact well beyond the visible borders of knowing and being.
    (Many thanks to Linda DeLong of the Humbolt County Historical Society, Jemima Harr of the Humboldt Arts Council, Phil Pasquini of San Francisco City College, and Dolores Vellutini.)

  • Life & People

    Hollywood, Italian Americans, and the Golden Coast

    “He’s a stonesmen, he hates stucco.”

    ~~Nick Rocco, in speaking about his father


    Richard Conte may be more famous for playing Don Barzini (from “After all, we are not communists,” fame in The Godfather), but it’s as Nick Rocco, in Richard Quine’s Full of Life, that he most astutely captures some of the complexities of an Italian American identity.


    In the rather obscure 1956 film, based on the novel (and screenplay) by John Fante, Conte plays a veiled Fante character: a young, married, struggling writer, living off an advance with his pregnant wife, Emily (played by Judy Holliday) in postwar suburban Glendale, California.  


    The film was marketed as a light-hearted romantic comedy but it struck me as much more serious than that because of the way it concludes with a reaffirmation of certain traditional Italian American (Catholic, in fact) values. Stephen Cooper in his biography of Fante, also entitled Full of Life, remarks on how the “shrewdly orchestrated publicity campaign prepared the nation for Full of Life” (255). For instance, Macy’s Department Store created a series of tie-ins connected to Judy Holliday’s character, an expectant first-time mother; the store’s advertising campaign included a line that rings out-of-place, in the sterile, anti-breastfeeding, 1950s America: Full of Life “rates an extra round of cheers for treating pregnancy as naturally as….a walk in the country” (255).



    Indeed, the film’s wholesomeness is vividly apparent in the broad slapstick comedy it favors. And yet, I didn’t even crack a smile until well over an hour into the film. My amusement came from seeing something that was so exaggerated and simultaneously something I knew to be authentically (a slippery word, I’m aware) plausible. While the classic scene of the eight months pregnant, independent-thinking, Emily falling through her kitchen floor was certainly meant to have audiences in stitches, it was the hardcore ethnic references that got me chuckling.



    In fact, it is in such ethnic comedic sketches that we witness Fante’s creation of a non-typecast, Italian American identity, placing it squarely in a California setting.  To cut to the chase, Fante and Quine (although based on Fante’s novel, the two worked closely on the script and mine is a cinematic, not literary analysis) complicate Italian American filmic representation by capturing—in a touching and real-to-life way—images of West Coast Italians. It’s a particular combination of identity and location that Hollywood, still today, has yet to mine for clichés.


    As such, ethnic- generational clash jokes (i.e., Nick’s father brings a suitcase full of wine and food on the train from Sacramento to Los Angeles, embarrassing his grown son) move beyond stock Hollywood gags because they are placed far outside of the standard locations where those clichés are usually found. This may seem like a simplified argument, but take a moment to consider the character of Nick’s father, Papa Vittorio Rocco, played by operatic bass, Salvatore Baccaloni.

    We meet Papa Rocco on his Sacramento Valley land (a spot that is practically a spitting image of Litto Damonte’s Hubcap Ranch , minus the chrome). Pre-dating Don Corleone’s more famous moment with a feline, he sits with a kitten on his lap, talking of lemon trees, grape vines, and the magical qualities of garlic.


    In his actions and words he (not to mention his wife, played by Esther Miniciotti) is in many ways a stereotyped Italian immigrant, and yet he is likewise shaped by the unusualness of his persona. Fante, mightily aware of himself-as-author in this film (Cooper notes that Nick quotes a line from Fante’s Ask the Dust at one point in the movie) works hard to call attention to the Rocco family’s Italianness, because without it the slapstick humor could not carry the film’s weighty conclusion.



    The film’s most exaggerated ethnic joke comes when Papa Rocco purposely destroys the young couple’s fireplace and builds an immense stone one in its place. He rips out an entire stucco wall—the standard material for California’s ranch houses—and replaces it with an intricate stone one. He constructs an absurdly beautiful and inspired structure, expressing an Italian American sense of place, one that leads the Dianetics-reading Emily to a kind of cultural appropriation of Italian Americana.


    That Papa Rocco’s construction is tied to California mid-century architecture (stucco and ranch houses) and to his immigrant working-class identity (a stone mason who never stops working), suggests a slew of possibilities about the ways Italian American identity has been shaped with and against other identities and experiences. Moreover, it reminds us of the relevance of recognizing regionally-specific representations of ethnic identity—with the recent onslaught of New Jersey-flavored Italian American pop culture, such a lesson has arrived not a moment too soon.