How I Got to Madison Avenue. And beyond.

As with life, this blog is developing and changing. It began with a lot of stories that occurred on my career path from Albany to Madison Avenue and back.

There were some similarities to the AMC series "Mad Men," and then I went even farther back in time with a somewhat fictionalized version of growing up in Troy's Little Italy.

And now, a new development. As my free lance advertising and marketing career winds down, I'm becoming more interested in the theatre arts that my father and his 3 brothers helped instill in me as I grew up.

As a result, I've volunteered to help promote the Theatre Institute at Sage, and now, to continue a long-interrupted desire to be behind the proscenium, I've joined the newly formed Troy Civic Theatre, and was actually fortunate enough to appear in their first production.

So, I hope you'll enjoy the new stories that will develop from this latest turn.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Chapter 6: The Play's The Thing

Not surprisingly, Eddie Case easily won the lead in the Catholic Central High School senior play in April of 1931, even though he was about to discover that he would not graduate that year, and would be a senior for another year. It didn't seem to bother him, for two reasons. One, he would have one more year of seeing Esther Campobasso every school day; and two, it would delay his having to look for work in Troy's factories during the Depression.

The play was Mark Twain's “The Gilded Age,” an adaptation of a novel by Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. It may seem an odd choice for a high school production in the middle of the Great Depression, but it spoke to the hope of all Americans, and especially second generation Italo-Americans like Eddie, who dreamed the great American dream of striking it rich.

The attitude was summed up in what was perhaps the play's most famous line, delivered by the character Eddie portrayed, Colonel Sellers, as he promoted his Oriental Optical Eye-water: "There is millions in it." On further reflection, the play may not have been as surprising a choice as it first seems. The actual Gilded Age itself ended in 1893 with a great economic depression.

Sister Mary Annunciata, the hawk-faced director of the play, wanted incidental music during some of the more sumptuously-staged scenes, and so she auditioned student pianists. Eddie was nothing short of ecstatic when Esther Campobasso was chosen, thinking he'd have many chances to spend time with her at rehearsals.

Tete-a-tetes proved to be more difficult than he imagined, because the good nun was wise in the ways of teenagers. Eddie's not so subtle attentions to Esther weren't difficult to see, and Sister did all she could to keep her actor's focus on the play and not on the player. Sister wasn't entirely successful, however, simply because she was outnumbered.

Esther enjoyed the attentions of Eddie Case, and, in her own subtle way, encouraged him. Occasionally, during rehearsals, she would flash a rare, toothy smile at Eddie from her position at the offstage piano as he walked toward her. Invariably, her attention would cause him to forget a line or miss a cue, and Sister would bring him back to reality with a quick, harsh word, and he'd continue, red-faced but smug.

At one rehearsal, however, Eddie was more successful in his quest to court the object of his affection. His fellow student actors were all too aware of his affection for Esther. To them, it seemed he had only two obsessions – becoming a movie star was one; Esther was the other. Because they teased him about her so mercilessly, he enlisted them in a plot to help him have some time alone with her. They were happy to help, anticipating the pleasure of putting one over on their dictatorial director, and in the bargain, hoping to put an end to Eddie's constant prattling about Esther.

The plan was simple enough. One day, when they were rehearsing a ballroom scene, before Colonel Seller's entrance, the cast made a mess of the blocking that Sister Annunciata had so carefully planned. As they knew she would, she stopped the rehearsal, and from her third row seat in the auditorium, began her lecture on professionalism, concentration, obedience and competence. They'd heard it all before, but to help Eddie, they paid attention as if it were new information, even to the point of asking for clarification on some of Sister's finer points. It was probably the best acting the cast had ever accomplished, and it was for the benefit of the smallest audience they'd ever perform for.

While their performance was in progress on stage, Eddie simply sat down next to Esther on the piano bench, and told Esther he was going to marry her.

Her reaction was a total surprise, to both of them. She looked him straight in the eye without smiling, and kissed him. “I'll wait,” was all she said. He needed to brace himself. Unfortunately, forgetting where he was, Eddie leaned on the lower keys of the piano and created a dis-chord that stopped Sister Annunciata in mid-rant.

What's going on up there?,” she barked, and Esther peeked out from the stage right wing and said,“Sorry, Sister. I slipped.”

©Copyright 2009 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: In Part Seven, hell to pay.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Chapter 5: High School Sweethearts

For Eddie Case, high school was an opportunity to play to a wider audience. Until his second year, in 1929, when Esther, graduating from St. Anthony's School, began her freshman year at Catholic Central High.

From then on, he played to an audience of one.

For once, the Campobasso and Case families had something in common – the youngest member of each clan was the first to extend their education past grammar school. But that didn't mean that Francesco and Maria Campobasso approved of Eddie, let alone the American custom of dating.

True, their reclusive older daughter, Rose, had married Eddie's big brother Joe, but that didn't bring the families together, even when Rose gave birth at home to Anthony Joseph Case in 1927.

The birth was a difficult one, and despite the efforts of Viorica DiPaolo, the Italian community's ostetrica – midwife -- Rose had to be taken to the Troy Hospital, where Doctor Positano, the Italian community's obstetrician, attended to her postpartum complications.

The baby was healthy, but the name the parents chose rankled the head of the Campobasso clan. It was expected that the first son would be named after the Case patriarch, but Francesco hoped that at least the boy's middle name would be the same as his. Instead, Joe had named his firstborn after his grandfather and himself, and proud Francesco took it as an insult.

The economic depression didn't make things easier. It seemed as though half the population of Troy was out of work, and the Campobasso Confectionery store, even though struggling, extended credit to many of their regular customers.

It wasn't easy for people like Joe Case, either. Although he was employed, Joe worked on commission, and found fewer customers coming to the haberdashery, as more men made do with worn and patched clothing. Despite the downturn, both families scrimped in order to send their youngest to the Catholic high school.

Esther was aware of the tension between the families, but she still enjoyed Eddie's attention whenever they crossed paths on their way to class in the former Troy Hospital on the hill.

Although Eddie wasn't a sports star, he took an active interest in basketball, tried out for the all-male CCHS cheerleading squad, and made the team. Even back then, the rivalry among the high schools was keen, and Eddie, using his wiles, had developed a special trick to help his team get an added advantage over the Troy High and La Salle Institute teams.

In an era when nicknames were more common, Eddie would learn the special names that the members of the opposing teams would call each other. Sitting at courtside, Eddie would wait for his opportunity – as a rival player was driving toward the goal, he would call out: “Butch! Over here!” The player, thinking it was a teammate calling, would break stride, and either earn a foul for double-dribbling or lose the ball to an alert Crusader. Naturally, this earned Eddie his own nickname: Slick.

Although Esther's sense of justice and fair play was offended by his trickery, she had to admit that she admired Eddie's ingenuity. His good looks and attention to her didn't hurt, either.

If you had asked Eddie about Esther's looks, he would have said they were perfect. Actually, she combined the best of her parents' features, with her mother's wide-set, hazel eyes, high cheekbones, and her father's large mouth with a slight overbite, all set into a smooth olive complexion. She wore her auburn-tinged hair in the latest style known as Marcelle waves. When she smiled, which wasn't often, the effect was sufficient to cause double-takes from the boys, and envy from her female classmates.

Besides her looks, Eddie admired her demeanor, too. While it's true that she was serious and strong-willed, her piano-playing revealed a sensitive side. When she played at the school's annual recitals, Eddie gave her his complete attention. It wasn't that she played his favorite music; far from it. Esther played classical pieces; Eddie favored the popular music of the day whenever he found the time to fiddle.

In fact, one of his favorite songs was a ditty recorded by the now nearly forgotten Jean Goldkette Orchestra, called “Gimme A Little Kiss, Will Ya, Huh?” To show you how much Eddie appreciated good music, the band featured Bix Beiderbecke on cornet, Jimmy Dorsey on sax, younger brother Tommy Dorsey on trombone, and Joe Venuti on violin. And to show Esther how much he cared, Eddie painted the song's payoff line on the wall in the backyard at Liberty Street:

Gimme a little kiss, will ya, huh?

And I'll give it right back to you.”

Esther would see it on the rare occasions when the Campobassos visited the Case homestead, and know it was for her.

©Copyright 2009 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: In Part Six, a little kiss.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Chapter 4: Campobassos in the News

The time had finally come. It was 1923, and Francesco and Maria had saved just enough for a down payment, just as the 3-story corner property they wanted came on the market. Francesco was literate in his native Italian, but couldn't read or write English; Maria had no education at all. This posed a problem with negotiating a bank loan, but not an insurmountable one.

South Troy was full of Italian imprenditori – entrepreneurs – who used whatever skills they had to help their countrymen and themselves. Arturo Larigno, known in the neighborhood as Argento Linguetta (Silver Tongue) was such a one. Proficient in both English and Italian, Silver Tongue would serve most of his neighbors as a scribe, writing letters in Italian to accompany the money sent to relatives in the old country, and reading the thank you replies and requests for more when they came. He collected a small stipend for each transaction.

The Campobassos employed Silver Tongue to serve in his other capacity – as translator – with the local banker and lawyer in the purchase of the corner building. In this case, Silver Tongue collected three times – from the buyers of course, but also from the lender and the lawyer, in return for steering the business their way.

The purchase of the store and apartments above it went smoothly, and the entire Campobasso clan pitched in to clean, stock the shelves, and move their belongings to the second floor. They rented out the third floor to earn enough to insure that the monthly mortgage payment was met, no matter what the fluctuations in income from the store.

Only Esther was exempted from service – schooling and piano lessons were more important. To Francesco and Maria, a daughter with those skills would attract the right kind of husband. Esther took to her studies and music lessons, and progressed rapidly, even performing difficult classical pieces when the Sisters of St. Joseph showcased their students at the annual recitals at their conservatory.

Music played an important part in the life of all the immigrants. It was more than entertainment – it was a catalyst for bringing families together, and the songs helped to keep alive the customs and traditions that had been left behind.

Even in the impoverished Case family, a battered old violin was handed down, until Eddie, the youngest son and the only one not working full time, took possession of it and began learning to play popular music on the fiddle.

As Esther's father proudly arranged the wire-backed chairs at the store's marble soda fountain, he wished his young brother, Michele, could have been there to share in his success. As was often the case, some members of the family had to stay behind until they had the money and the Italian government's permission to emigrate. Since Michele was a talented and prosperous blacksmith, the money wasn't a problem. But his too-vocal opposition to the oppressive taxes imposed by the Northern-run Italian government had angered a local official, and permission to leave Italy had been tied up with an excess of red tape.

The delay lasted through the beginning of the Great War, and when Michele came of age in 1917, he was drafted into the Italian Army. Although Francesco and his brother managed to exchange letters as often as possible, Michele hadn't been heard from for more than a year.

Francesco had followed the progress of the war as best he could. At night, when Esther was beginning to fall asleep in her bedroom off the Campobasso's kitchen, she would hear her father speak in Italian to Maria about the Italian army's futile attempts to confront the Austrian army. Esther knew enough of the old language to understand how badly things were going. It was a hopeless cause, and over 300,000 young Italian soldiers would lose their lives.

Soon after the store opened, with the proud owners cutting the ceremonial ribbon with a pair of their own family's scissors, the black-bordered envelope arrived. It had been traveling for many months, and it contained the news Francesco dreaded. His brother had died on the battlefield long before his last letter arrived, but timely identification and communication had been next to impossible.

The day that letter came was the first and only time Esther saw her stoic father cry.

©Copyright 2009 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: In Part Five, Esther and Eddie at the school on the hill.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Chapter 3: What's in a Name?

Even though Francesco Campobasso was working in Troy's Public Market as a common laborer in 1921, he and his wife Maria were saving every cent they could, because their dream was to buy a building and own their own business. It was a tradition in the hill towns of South Central Italy – where iron ore was plentiful and a skilled blacksmith crafted his knives and scissors on the first floor of his home, with living quarters above.

The Campobasso family name had already been stamped into fine cutlery for generations. But with the unification of Italy, the northern rulers levied an oppressive tax burden on the workers and craftsmen of the south, and Francesco and many of his family joined the exodus to America.

With America's first Bessemer steel mill turning out tons of product in Troy, there was no call for Francesco's traditional craft, and so he and Maria decided that their South Troy neighbors needed a local confectionery store where they could enjoy home-made Italian gelato, candies and soft drinks made by the Campobasso clan. Francesco and Maria were too proud to be poor.

A few blocks away, on Liberty Street, things were different for the Case family. Anna, a widow with eight children and very little income, was too poor to be proud.

Education, what little Anna could afford, was reserved for the four boys, and the girls were hired out to laundries and shirt factories before they were 10. The boys would get whatever work they could after graduation from St. Anthony's School. Anna's only possession was a small, ramshackle double-duplex frame house that was saved from destruction when Antonio Caserta, using his natural ability and strength, dismantled the house on Williams Street and reassembled it on Liberty Street, where it seemed to lean against the stone wall that kept Havermans Avenue above it. Neighbors said the effort killed Antonio, who had spent all his energy and all his savings from his years as a member of the Carabinieri to buy and move the house, and died before he could move in. Now his widow Anna augmented her meager income by renting out rooms to more recent immigrants from the towns around Naples.

The oldest Case son, Giuseppe, was called Joe just as the Italian hero he was named for, Garibaldi, was when he labored in America. This Joe hated the factory work that faced him after grammar school, and instead of making the fancy shirts and collars for others, he longed to wear them. Like the rest of his brothers, he had an outgoing personality, and soon found work as a salesmen at Rockne's, an “uptown” men's clothing store.

Both the Campobasso and the Case families were among the first supporters of St. Anthony's, Troy's “Italian Church,” and in 1918, when 17-year-old Joe Case, dressed in his Sunday best, saw shy, 16-year-old Rose Campobasso in the confirmation dress she always wore to Mass, sparks flew. But those sparks of love ignited a firestorm of protest in the Campobasso household.

The Italian custom known as “venti e venti,” (twenty and twenty) required equal dowries from both families, originally meaning that each family provided twenty different outfits. It immediately became clear that the Case family finances prohibited them from meeting their traditional obligation. Despite vehement objections from Francesco Campobasso, and with the aid of his sympathetic and more romantic wife, as well as Joe's ability to negotiate a sale, the wedding took place early in 1919, and judging from the photographs still in the family albums, it was a grand affair, with the women in yards and yards of fine lace, the men in the finest rented formal wear, and flower girls and ring bearers matching the attire of the adults. Rose, uncomfortable in the spotlight, was glad that her little sister, Modesta, carrying flowers, was a beautiful distraction. Joe's little brother, Eddie, carried the ring.

In a neighborhood where “marrying your own kind” was still the rule, it was natural that many second generation Italo-American brothers married many sisters. In Troy, three brothers of one family married three sisters of another, only to be topped by another family, where it was to happen four times!

If anyone at the wedding of Joe and Rose saw another joining of the two families looming in the future, they didn't say anything. But it was coming.

©Copyright 2009 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: In part 4, sad news from Italy contrasts with progress in America.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

South Troy, Part 2


Eddie Case had a secret. He loved his name. All of it. Never mind that his father and mother had named him Egidio on his baptismal certificate, from the “Italian” church, officially the Shrine Church of St Anthony of Padua. In its early years, the church was listed in the city directory simply as “The Italian Chapel.” By 1925, it would be run by the Franciscans and wouldn't even be a parish of the Albany Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church in America. South of Ferry Street, Mother Church was known as the “Irish Church.” Back then, Italians weren't welcomed at other parishes, and they didn't especially want to be.

As Egidio, Eddie was, after all, the eighth child and the fourth son of Antonio and Anna Caserta. But when the Irish-American census takers came around every ten years, they didn't try to understand the broken English, and wrote down “American-sounding” names. In this instance, he was not Egidio Caserta, but Eddie Case. No sense fighting those in power – hundreds, even thousands of years in the Campania region of southern Italy had taught the peasants what was futile.

The family took its name from Caserta, a once-great city in Italy, with what might have been an imitation of French royalty's Versailles Palace and gardens, except that Caserta's royal complex was even larger than the original. Although from peasant stock, the Caserta family had improved its lot a few years after the Bourbon rule ended with the complete unification of Italy in 1871, by sending Eddie's now deceased father Antonio into service with the Carabinieri, Italy's version of military police. Since the Carabinieri were viewed by his family and neighbors as laughably incompetent, Antonio endured the ridicule, saved his money, then joined the Southern Italian exodus to America.

This day, December 12, 1920, was Eddie's 9th birthday and he was ready. Vince and Mike, two of his older brothers, often sneaked Eddie into the neighborhood theater where they would catch vaudeville acts and silent movies, and then would come home and re-stage them for their widowed mother, often trying to coax their four sisters into the act. Today, Eddie would surprise them with a recitation of a poem he had memorized in secret.

He was hoping that his nineteen-year-old brother, Joe, would show up at his party with his reclusive new wife Rose and her little sister, Modesta – now called Esther – Campobasso. The two babies of their families had met at their older siblings' wedding the previous year, and immediately began teasing each other. Eddie wanted to impress Esther. But that wasn't the only reason he would enjoy center stage today.

As the youngest of his large family, and with a mother sickly from child-bearing and a hardscrabble life, Eddie craved more attention than he could get. A handsome boy with sharp features and black, wavy hair, he loved his Americanized name because he could see it in lights – and especially on the silver screen. Eddie Case was a movie star's name, and inside he just knew that he could be as famous a child star as Jackie Coogan now, and grow up to be as swashbuckling as Douglas Fairbanks. Meanwhile, whenever he could find time alone, he would practice his recitation, complete with gestures, in front of the mirror in the little room he was forced to share with his brothers.

The poem he chose allowed him to express a wide range of emotions, from hushed tones to histrionic excitement. Here he would gesture dramatically, there he would run to the window as he declaimed excitedly.

The poem, first published almost a hundred years earlier for the first time in the Troy Sentinel, had become an annual holiday favorite throughout America. But Eddie knew he could breathe new life into it, holding the entire family spellbound, and he did.

He announced the title and author, and began with a stage whisper, “'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

And as he approached the ending, he was pleased to see that his rehearsing had paid off with the reactions he had hoped for. Each appropriate gesture had earned him laughter, cheers, oohs or aahs. Finally, imagining what Saint Nicholas must sound like, he concluded in his most robust voice, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Amid the raucous appreciation of the families, Eddie's eyes met Esther's, and that exchange began a family saga.

©2008 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: In part three, the Montagues and Capulets live again in Troy.