The Phantom of Dream Streets - Umberto Tosi
|Smocked Puglia in "20 Million Miles to Earth," 1957|
Besides having been a musical genius who changed the fundamental of the way orchestras had been conducted, Toscanini was a genuine, anti-fascist, World War 2 era hero, a larger-than-life link to great composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, having led the world premieres of operas by Verdi and Puccini to name a few. The great conductor had spit in Mussolini's eye back in the then-recent 1930s by refusing to perform Giovinezza (the Italian Fascist Anthem) at La Scala Opera House in Milan. Mussolini's Blackshirt thugs beat up the great conductor shortly after that, which prompted him to taken refuge in America.
|Puglia in Flight Lieutenant, 1947|
Puglia was by then a long-established actor, who might well have been a writer for all the stories he loved to tell of life on stage and behind the scenes, the silver screens and - now - the magic-box of TV that would change the world from which he came. Himself a real-life, near-legendary screen figure, Puglia seemed to know about everything, especially how to charm an audience or his frequent guests. I remember him as a dashing, slim, balding figure in his sixties - how I'd like to be when I - someday in the almost inconceivably remote future - "got old."
I had seen him in a good dozen films, not half of the 240 films and television features in which he performed over his 83-year lifetime. His acting career began on the Italian-language stage that thrived in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles into the 1950s. He had started acting at the age of 15 and continued well into the 1970s on TV. His movie career had begun in 1921 with a role in "Orphans of the Storm" starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish, after the film's director, D.W. Griffith saw him on a New York stage.
|Puglia (r) with Bette Davis in Bordertown, 1935|
|In Bulldog Drummond's Revenge, 1937|
He excelled in both comedies and dramas, playing an array of characters, and ethnic types: priests, bartenders, scientists, drivers, madmen, policemen, librarians, jailbirds, sea captains, chefs - you name it. He had a particular gift for parody. But he refused roles as obsequious peddlers, mobsters, and other Italian stereotypes. Although some of his portrayals may seem unintentionally melodramatic or comedic by today's standards, more often he used his gifts to add dimension and piquancy of each role that he played, no matter how small. He was known for bringing an inner dignity to his characters, in the manner of better-known actors like Gregory Peck, whom he admired.
The charismatic Puglia was a notorious scene-stealer - as "Signor Ferarra" a convict pleading for parole in Jules Dassin's 1947 noir classic Brute Force, starring Burt Lancaster. Next time you see Casablanca watch for Puglia playing a memorable Moroccan silk dealer who offers Ingrid Bergman a discount as "a friend of Rick's."
|Phantom 1943 - Puglia conducted|
His backstage stories were layered with play-within-play, Pirandello-like irony - reminding me of Velasquez's poly-perspective insets. They show up in the funhouse mirrors of my own bent stories - in "The Klutz Soprano" chapter of Sometimes Ridiculous, for instance.
|1957: "The Commedy Is Never Over"|
At this point, I pray that is true. I like to think that, and of stage stalwarts like the Puglias and Toscanini, undaunted in their creative work and holding to principles through times of tragedy, now, especially, in this time - decades later - when the most loathsome and corrupt of us seem to have risen to inordinate power once again in our world. The comedy is never over. The struggle is never over either.
(This article is revised from one of the chapters I wrote for Dream Streets: The Big Book of Italian American Culture - Lawrence DiStasi, editor, Harper & Row, 1989)
Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine. He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at Umberto3000@gmail.com