The two most important events in the lives of early Italian immigrants were weddings and wakes. These were occasions for families and friends to gather, celebrate a happy occasion, console one another over a loss, share gossip and introduce young people to others from the same paese in the hope of engendering a wedding, a business deal or at least a friendship.
The photo today is of an aspirational North End wedding that took place around 1935. Think about that. The country was in the middle of the Great Depression, 25% of adult males were unemployed yet the gentleman in the middle of the picture gave his daughter a wedding fit for European royalty. There were eight groomsmen looking sharp in their double breasted tuxedos, an uncomfortable but cute ring bearer, an equal number of bridesmaids, a flower girl and the bride resplendent in her hand embroidered gown. Notice how she’s holding her bouquet demurely on her lap; could there have been a little taralla in the oven? Weddings like this one were an important way an Italian immigrant could broadcast to his friends and family that he had succeeded in the New World. Good luck to the groom, la principessa looks a bit annoyed by all the attention.
I only recognize two people in the picture, my father at the top right and next to him his great friend Anthony Servidio whose street name was “Tony Martin” after the popular singer who was married to Cyd Charisse. When World War II ended my father and his brother, Willie, took over the tavern on Lewis Street from their brother Arthur and Tony became one of the regulars. He was a smooth operator who knew everyone worth knowing and could keep his mouth shut. Two valuable attributes in the world we lived in. Tony had a wide circle of friends and traveled with a fast crowd that included his brother in law, Mahoney, Louie Capizzi the maître d’ at Felicia’s, Angelo Labadini the manager of Locke Ober’s Café, Phil Gioia who was married to the Contessa Lillian Bono de la Becasse and Mario Labadini who was the maître d’ at the Ritz. Cutty Sark on the rocks was their favorite drink and they made the rounds of all the watering holes in Boston. Everyone wanted to hang around with Tony because he managed the Casino Burlesque House on Hanover Street near Scollay Square and had access to show girls. Tony knew them all, Blaze Starr, Georgia Southern, Sally Keith, Anne Corio and, of course, Irma “The Body”. Every so often he would bring one of the girls to my father’s bar and the guys would go wild. The Casino closed around 1962 when Scollay Square was “redeveloped” and morphed into the sterile Government Center. The strip clubs and seedy characters moved to the newly named Combat Zone at the lower end of Washington St. and Tony was transferred to Baltimore by the guys who owned the Eastern burlesque circuit. In Baltimore, Tony helped manage the famous Gaiety Theatre which was on the “Block”, the red light district and Baltimore’s answer to Scollay Square. Tony settled right in to the Baltimore scene and before long was hanging around with the local wise guys, politicians and reporters from the Baltimore Sun.
In 1965, I was nineteen years old and had to go to Baltimore for business at the University of Maryland. My father said he would call Tony and ask if I could stay with him because he lived right downtown within walking distance to the university. That sounded good, the call was made and I soon took my first airplane ride down to Baltimore. Tony sent his driver to pick me up at the airport and he brought me to the Lord Baltimore Hotel where Tony had one of the penthouse suites; two bedrooms, a kitchenette and a living room twice the size of my entire flat over the bar on Lewis Street. Tony was living large. He took me out to eat at a place called Haussner’s down by the waterfront and suggested I get the crab cakes. The maître d’ was a friend of Tony’s and he sat us at a window table with a great view overlooking the harbor. Over dinner we talked about North End gossip and he told me how much he missed his friends at Nick’s Tavern and his wife, Muffy, who stayed in Boston with his children.
As we drove back to the hotel in his black Caddy he said he had an exciting night planned for me. At the theatre, he was going to introduce me to some of the strippers after the show. This trip was sounding better all the time. As soon as we got to his suite the front desk rang and said Tony had a long distance call from a woman named Emily. What a coincidence, I thought; my mother’s name was Emily. Tony spoke to her for a few minutes looking sheepish, nodded his head and said he would take care of it. When she hung up he sat me down and said there was a change in plans. I was to stay in the room all night and he would have a guard downstairs to make sure I didn’t sneak out. I could watch TV, call room service for whatever I wanted but I couldn’t leave the suite. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement but what could I do?
The next day after my business was finished; I caught a cab to the airport. By late afternoon I was back in my father’s barroom and all the guys gathered around me. “So how was it?” “Did Tony fix you up with one of the strippers?” “Was she a blonde, a redhead”? Apparently my father had set it up with Tony to introduce me to the charms only show girls could offer. Who knows why? Maybe he thought I was, unlike him, too timid around women or that I had unnatural tendencies. Whatever it was, my mother got wind of his plan and it was she who called Tony and scotched the deal.
So, my one chance to date a stripper was lost because of an over protective mother but the trip wasn’t a total loss. Those crab cakes at Haussner’s were fabulous.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.