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, August 28, 2011

Chapter 10: The Punishment

Italian tempers flared. Curses and damnation spewed forth in a raging torrent of biblical proportions.

The hot July Saturday that Esther and Eddie returned from their civil wedding ceremony in Vermont, neighbors of both families, from Ferry Street to the Canal, and from Havermans Avenue to the River, closed their windows -- more to shut out the mournful wailing than the burning rays of the sun.

The shame of an unconsecrated union was almost too much to bear for the Campobasso family. While Francesco fumed and railed, the women of the clan met in what can best be described as a council of elders. In Italian families, the decisions in cases like this would come from the woman, who was the heart of la famiglia; the enforcement would come from the man, who was merely the family's figurehead.

The ruling came down. Esther was forbidden to leave the Campobasso house – for any reason – for nine months. And, obviously, she was to have no outside male visitors.

Anna Caserta was summoned to the Campobasso household to confer. Her indignation at the elopement of her son and this strong-willed young woman didn't rise to the same level of contempt as in Maria Campobasso's family, but her resentment exceeded theirs. Actually, Anna was more upset over the threat of losing her youngest son's contributions to the Caserta/Case coffers – already two sons had married, and while their brides had joined them in the Liberty Street house, more of their income was diverted away from Anna.

Eddie Case had no recourse but to follow the dictates handed to him by the Campobasso family – he would have no contact with Esther until the end of April of the following year. If he wrote letters, they would be destroyed. The Campobasso phone was in the store, so a call would be futile. No matter how anxious he was to see Esther, Eddie would simply have to go on with his life without her until the matter was resolved. He would go to work, perform in plays with his brothers to benefit St. Anthony's Church and School, but he wouldn't date and he wouldn't “go out with the boys” on weekends. But, if Esther's keepers thought that Eddie's passion would die, they were wrong.

As for Esther, Eddie was the only man in her life. Now that she had known him intimately, she knew that he would wait, and be faithful. She, on the other had, had no choice. Esther was now the princess locked in the tower, and the drama of that reinforced her determination. She understood the reason for the imprisonment – the stain of carnal knowledge must be erased in the only way it could be – by time. If at the end of nine months she were still childless, then it could be argued that the family honor had not been besmirched.

Such was the strict code of the old way. For centuries, the key to the survival of the contadini of Italy was neither the state nor the church. The rulers of the fractured Italian provinces were feudal lords; even when the country was finally united in the late 1800's, the rulers were from the north and actually increased the repression of the southerners. Although individual priests might side with the peasants, church leaders made their deal with whomever was in power.

So la famiglia was all you could count on. And if the family was dishonored in anyway, extraordinary means were necessary to restore it. Esther had committed one of the worst transgressions of the old way – she had completely ignored a basic tradition, in which the family arranges the union of its children.

As so often happens in large families, there was other news that year, and not all of it was bad. Just weeks after the shame that Esther and Eddie had brought on their families, the Campobassos and Cases had a reason to smile: it was announced that Esther's older sister Rose and her husband, Eddie's older brother Joe, were finally going to have their second child.

©Copyright 2009 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: In Chapter Eleven, a wedding, a birth, and a break with tradition.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Chapter 9: The Elopement

Eddie Case had saved enough money from his job at Cluett, Peabody and Company. He bought his first car, an overused Ford Model A, and had enough left over for the trip he had secretly planned with Esther. Ironically, she had saved the same amount from her job at Frear's, so that when they met that warm Friday evening in July of 1934, and pooled their money, it was as if they were fulfilling the ancient, equalizing Italian dowry custom called venti e venti (twenty and twenty) that their older siblings couldn't manage when they were married.

The plan was simple. Now that they were both of legal age, they could get a marriage license without parental consent. Since they couldn't risk discovery, they decided to meet in the Williams Street Alley, where Eddie had left the car earlier that day.

After dinner, Esther excused herself and announced that she was going to meet some girlfriends for their Friday night social. At the same time, a few blocks away, Eddie kissed his mother and told her he was going to work on the car.

The conspirators, unseen by their neighbors, met in the alley, and after a furtive glance or two, embraced and kissed. As fear, passion and anticipation mingled, they reassured each other, and, after a few hard turns on the old Ford's crank, the jalopy chugged to life.

The drive east was mostly accomplished in silence, with a few nervous attempts at small talk. Eddie almost missed the Justice of the Peace sign in front of the neat white clapboard home after they crossed the state border into Vermont. Esther spied it first and announced it excitedly.

They rang the bell and waited nervously. Finally, the porch light went on and Norman Rockwell's idea of a Vermont Justice of the Peace came to the door, complete with pipe, evening newspaper and slippers. One look at the eager couple and he knew what was up.

He ushered them in to the parlor, sat them down and began the interrogation. When the JP was satisfied that all was in order, he called for his wife, who had been in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner and pouring lemonade for the lovebirds.

They stood and repeated the words, Eddie slipped the thin, plain gold ring on Esther's finger, and the JP pronounced them man and wife.

The JP and his wife witnessed the first kiss, the license was signed, and as Eddie and the JP concluded the monetary transaction, the matronly woman of the house whispered in Esther's ear. Esther nodded.

As they left the home, beaming, the newly married couple barely heard the directions to the nearest roadside inn.

The innkeeper, having been forewarned of the newlyweds' imminent appearance by a phone call from his cousin, the Justice of the Peace, made up the bed in the bridal suite and hung fresh towels in the private bath.

Ten minutes later, when the Model A sputtered to a stop in the courtyard of the inn, the young couple found a host with an understanding smirk waiting for them. Even so, he dryly inquired as to their wishes.

Two single rooms for the night, I presume?”

Um, well, no,” Eddie said. “We just.. we're...”

Do you have a bridal suite?” Esther interrupted.

Oh, yes, of course,” said the innkeeper. “Congratulations. Here's the key – and pleasant dreams.”

Thank you.”

One more thing,” said the innkeeper mysteriously, stopping them in their tracks. With his wry smile slowly warming his lined face, he inquired, “Will you be wanting a wake-up call?”

They giggled no and tried to appear as if they weren't rushing to the room. They entered a plain room filled with soft light from a kerosene lamp, and furnished with old but comfortable rustic furniture, dominated by a handsome four-poster bed with a plush feather mattress.

Esther took her cardboard valise into the bathroom, and in a few moments emerged, wearing a nightgown that was just like the one that her famous customer, Mame Fay, had especially liked.

Esther blew out the light, joined Eddie under the covers, and they celebrated their union as man and wife.

The next afternoon, when they returned home, hoping for the congratulations of their families and friends, what they found instead was a bitter, cold reception in the middle of a summer heat wave.

©Copyright 2009 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: In Part Ten, the punishment.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Chapter 8: Call Her Madam

On a bright Sunday afternoon in June of 1932, 237 seniors of Catholic Central High School and their families gathered at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall for their graduation ceremonies.

As the Principal, Father Burns, read each name, the student would come forward and receive a blue square with a document inside that they thought prepared them for life. It was all going as smoothly as the rehearsal, until the priest read the name, “Modesta Campobasso.”

No one moved.

Father Burns glared at her. She glared back. Someone in the audience coughed. From another part of the resonating chamber came a giggle. The restlessness was spreading. Finally, Sister Anna Joseph approached the Principal and whispered something in his ear. He spoke again. “Esther Campobasso.”

As she finally rose from her chair, Esther smiled at the nun, her homeroom teacher, and accepted her diploma from Father Burns. When Esther's smile finally broke through, the applause from audience was a thunderous release.

Things were back under control as the roll call continued through the “C's,” and when Eddie Case's name was called, he and Esther exchanged knowing glances. It was not missed by their parents.

The next day, Esther announced to her her mother that she would not be working in the Campobasso Confectionery store, but would be taking a job as a sales clerk at Frear's Bazaar, one of uptown Troy's finest and most complete department stores. As usual, there was a lot of arguing, none of it productive. Esther would have her way. On the employment plan, yes. But her living plan? That was different.

There was no way that Maria and Francesco would allow Esther to leave the homestead and live independently in an apartment with some of Esther's former classmates. On this matter, Esther had no choice but to give in, because the same conversations were being conducted at the same time with the other girls by their parents. They wouldn't be allowed to leave the nest until their wedding day.

Eddie went to work, too, at Cluett's, and he willingly stayed at home, because he planned to save as much money as he could, to pay for the future that he and Esther had devised.

It was a testament to their commitment and passion that they never revealed their plans to anyone else, and went to their respective jobs happily, in a time when demands were rigorous and amenities like air conditioning, coffee breaks and overtime pay didn't exist.

Working conditions were better for Esther than for Eddie. She got to dress up every day and chat with the fashionable uptown women who shopped at Frear's. Esther found she enjoyed meeting people and had a natural talent for selling. After several months on the job, she prided herself on being able to “read” the customer and anticipate each woman's needs.

Until one brisk winter day that year, that is. An elegantly dressed woman sashayed up to Esther's counter in the sleepwear department. Practically dripping in expensive fur, which covered the latest New York style dress, the woman asked to see nightgowns for her girls.

It being the dead of winter, Esther dutifully gathered a selection of flannel wear. The woman chuckled, “No dear. Something a little more – diaphanous? Alluring? You know – enticing.” For one of the few times in her life, Esther was speechless. Then, in a conspiratorial stage whisper, the woman leaned toward her and said, “Sexy.”

Confused but compliant, Esther produced the desired styles, and the woman selected several, in different sizes. While thrilled to be making such a big sale, the naïve salesgirl was still in the dark, until one of her co-workers took Esther aside while the sales slip and cash were wending their way through the pneumatic tube system to the cashier.

Esther,” she whispered. “Don't you know who that is? It's Mame Faye!”

Esther's face turned almost as red as the Chinese silk nightgowns with the long, promiscuous slit up the side. When Esther handed Troy's most famous madam the receipt and the change, Mame looked her over and told her, quite sincerely, “You know, honey, with your looks, you could make a lot more money working for me than for old Mr. Frear.” And with a wink, she was gone.

It was a story Esther would take pride in telling – but not until many, many years later. At the time, she was too embarrassed, and concentrating on her secret plan with Eddie, which was about to shock everyone.

©Copyright 2009 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: In Part Nine, there they go.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Chapter 7: Curfew for Esther.

It didn't take long for Francesco and Maria Campobasso to hear of their youngest daughter's offstage antics with Eddie Case. La via vecchio – the old way -- would never allow Esther to be in the company of a young man without a chaperon. And even with a chaperon, there would be no hand holding, no kissing, no contact of any kind.

But specifically, they didn't want this daughter anywhere near that young man. They had seen how Eddie's older brother Joe treated their older daughter Rose, and they didn't like it. They rarely visited the Campobassos, even though they lived only a few blocks away, on Liberty Street. Consequently, four-year-old Anthony Joseph Case, the Campobassos' first grandson, was practically a stranger to Francesco and Maria.

But if they had looked closer, they might have seen that their resentment against Joe wasn't justified. The problem was with their daughter Rose, although they were unable or unwilling to see it. Always a private person, Rose now rarely left her home, even to visit her mother-in-law Anna Caserta, who lived in one of the downstairs flats at the Liberty Street home.

It's strange how the same environment can affect siblings so differently. When Rose and Esther were babies, Maria and Francesco worked so hard to scrape together enough to start their business that it left them little time for their daughters. The effect on Rose was to make her more withdrawn, and so she grew up looking for a reclusive life without challenges. The effect on Esther was just the opposite – she became stronger, more independent and daring.

Even so, she had no choice but to accept the new, strict rules that her parents imposed on their errant daughter. With another year of high school ahead of her, Esther was now forbidden to engage in any after-school activities. When the last school bell rang, she was not allowed to linger and engage in the banter that sustains schoolgirls and helps them formulate a picture of the grown-up world and a way to enter it.

She was to be home immediately, with no side trips. Homework first, household chores second, and then helping out with the thousand and one details it takes to run a retail store.

The new curfew didn't sit well with a young woman as feisty as Esther. But it did give her time to plan her future. If she had anything to say about it, she would be out of the house the day after graduation.

Meanwhile, Eddie, spending his second year as a high school senior, was trying to plan his future. He knew he had the looks and the talent to entertain, but his requests to leave the nest after graduation and seek his fortune in Manhattan were vehemently opposed by his mother Anna.

In her limited command of English, she adamantly refused to consider anything but his “obligation” to work and contribute financial support to the family. There weren't many jobs available in the early thirties, and the few that were demanded long hours over a six-day week for very little money.

Eddie's sister Josie worked as a collar-attacher at the Cluett Peabody shirt factory uptown on River Street, and since the balding foreman was smitten with her, Josie turned on the Case charm and made the clownish married man promise to find her brother a job when Eddie received his CCHS diploma.

Between classes, Eddie would console himself by tracking down Esther. He knew her daily school routine better than his own, and whenever he could he used his wiles to escape from the confines of his classes and appear in Esther's.

Despite her parents' warnings not to see him, Esther cherished the rebellious rush every time Eddie appeared. Even though her lunch time preceded his, they often managed to share a few intimate conversations in the cafeteria, when she would volunteer to stay later for extra clean-up, and he would arrive early.

They even managed to sit together during an afternoon production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, presented by a touring group of actors. Although the message of the play was lost on Eddie and Esther, the passion underscored their own.

As in the play, neither parents would have condoned the plans that the twentieth-century star-crossed lovers were hatching.

©Copyright 2009 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: In part 8, prosperity isn't the only thing around the corner.