Andy Piascik

1936: Macbeth With an All-Black Cast Plays Bridgeport

June 26, 2017

by Andy Piascik

For five days in the summer of 1936, Bridgeport’s Park Theatre played host to one of the most innovative and talked-about theater productions of that era: the Federal Theatre Project’s staging of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with an all-black cast, as directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman. The play opened in New York City on April 14, 1936 at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre, where it ran for ten weeks before moving to the Adelphi Theatre for two additional weeks. Advance word about the production had been so great that a reported 10,000 people gathered outside the Lafayette on opening night. Macbeth played to enthusiastic audiences, sold-out houses and mostly rave reviews during the twelve-week engagement that lasted through July 18th. (more…)

African American Heritage, Theaters

Between the Hills and the Sea

Between the Hills and the Sea
June 29, 2016

by Andy Piascik

 

Between the Hills and the Sea

Between the Hills and the Sea

Bert Gilden was born in Los Angeles in 1915 and moved to Bridgeport with his family when he was a young boy. He graduated from Central High School in 1932 and then from Brown University in 1936. (more…)

Authors, Labor

Bridgeport Baseball, 1947: Candlelite Stadium Opens and the Bees Return

bridgeport-bees-baseball
October 07, 2016

By Andy Piascik
Bridgeport has a long, rich history of pro, semi-pro, African-American and minor league baseball. The city has played host to barnstorming major league teams, teams from the old Negro Leagues and to visiting minor leaguers who went on to achieve baseball immortality such as Lou Gehrig. Much of this history has been documented by local grassroots historians Michael Bielawa(1) and Mike Roer(2). (more…)

Featured, Sports

Bridgeport’s Original Little League

February 25, 2017

by Andy Piascik

Little League baseball was established in the United States in 1939 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. From humble beginnings, Little League has expanded over the decades to many countries around the world involving tens of thousands of boys and girls aged 9 through 12 (girls were first officially allowed to play Little League in 1974).* The Little League World Series that began in 1947 and takes place every August in Williamsport is an incredibly popular event televised around much of the world, first in 1953 by CBS-TV and in recent decades internationally via ESPN.

Little League grew rapidly after the Second World War and the Bridgeport Little League was formed in 1948. In 1949, Bridgeport’s league officially affiliated with the central organization in Williamsport. That same year, 1949, marked the first year leagues from other countries were incorporated into the Little League structure.

1950 World Series Finalists

Bridgeport Little League achieved immediate national success, first by advancing to the World Series tournament in Williamsport in 1949 and then by making it all the way to the national final game in 1950. Made up of the best players from throughout the Bridgeport league, the 1950 advanced through regional play before losing in the final to a team from Houston by a 2-1 score. That is the closest any Bridgeport team has come to winning the Little League World Series.

Little League’s popularity continued to grow throughout the 1950’s and new leagues were established around the world. In Bridgeport, those included Park City Little League, North End Little League, East End Little League and Black Rock Little League. To distinguish it from the other leagues in the city, officials of Bridgeport’s first league changed its name to the Bridgeport Original Little League, and it continued by that name until its demise in the 1970’s.

William H. Ham Stadium in Seaside Village

In its early years, Bridgeport Original’s teams played games in several locations and drew players from throughout the city. Once other leagues were established around the city, Bridgeport Original drew youths primarily from the South End, West End and West Side and played all of its games in an open space at the south end of Seaside Village. At some point a ballpark was created there that featured a fence that ringed the outfield approximately 200 feet at all points from home plate, a scoreboard just past center field, bleachers along the first base line and beyond the right field fence, two walk-in enclosed dugouts on each side of the infield, and an enclosed area just off home plate where a public address announcer announced the starting line-ups, each batter, pitching changes and other information just as is done in any major league stadium. The park did not have lights so games were played on weekend afternoons and on weekday evenings at 6:00 pm, early enough in summer so that the six inning games were finished before sunset.

A short distance from the field was a concession stand where spectators could purchase popcorn, peanuts, Cracker Jacks, hot dogs and soft drinks. Pitchers who tossed a no-hitter and batters who hit home runs were treated to a free hot dog and soda after the game. For most of its existence, the ball park was known as William H. Ham Stadium after a prominent local resident and early Bridgeport Original supporter.

During the peak years from the 1950’s to the early 1970’s, Bridgeport Original consisted of six teams. The sponsors and the names of the teams varied over time but for a period of years, team names reflected Bridgeport and Connecticut themes and each team had distinctive, brightly-colored caps and trimming on their white uniforms: Nutmeg (purple), Seaside (blue), South End (red), Brooklawn (green), Parkside (yellow) and West End (black). Regular sponsors included a local Moose Lodge, Madison Motors, Warnaco, Bonus Market, Bero Realty and Crown Budget Market, a South End institution that still operates all these years later at the corner of Gregory Street and Park Avenue.

A Tremendous Home Run by an 11-Year Old Boy

There were a number of outstanding players and moments in Bridgeport Original’s history. One such moment occurred in the summer of 1968 and involved one such player, Andy Lanham, who was both a feared pitcher and the leading slugger in 1968 and 1969. Playing for Seaside and batting against Nutmeg’s Joe Wright, a close friend and neighbor from Marina Village and classmate at Roosevelt School (and later Bassick High School), Lanham clouted a ball that rocketed high over the left field fence and continued to soar through the air until it also cleared a fence that separated Seaside Village and the property of the Bassick Company. Parts of the crowd at the well-attended afternoon game erupted into shouts and applause while others stared and shook their heads in shock and disbelief at what they had just witnessed: an 11-year old boy hitting a baseball that travelled well over 400 feet, as determined by league officials who tracked the distance as best they could afterwards with a tape measure. As no one was certain how far past the Bassick fence the ball landed, however, the ball may very well have travelled as much as 450 feet (the baseball was never found). Lanham went on to play multiple sports in high school, first at Bassick and then at Harding.

Phil Nastu: From Bridgeport Original to the Major Leagues

Another Bridgeport Original standout was Phil Nastu, who played in the mid-1960’s and later starred in both baseball and basketball at Bassick and the University of Bridgeport. As far as can be determined, Nastu is the only boy to play in the Bridgeport Original Little League who made it to the major leagues. He pitched for three seasons for the San Francisco Giants in 1978-80.

In the mid-1970’s, Bridgeport Original moved from its long-time home in Seaside Village to Barnum Field. The move was reflective of the league’s decline and Bridgeport’s first Little League was disbanded later in the decade. All traces of the ballpark in Seaside Village are gone, though the open space remains. Several other of the city’s leagues have gone under in the years since Bridgeport Original’s demise but two have persevered and continue today: Black Rock, which plays its games at Ellsworth Field, and North End, which plays its games on new fields at Blackham School.

*At least one girl, Kathryn Johnson of Corning, New York, played Little League all the way back in 1950 by tucking her hair under her cap and pretending to be a boy. When after several games she told her coach she was a girl, the coach complimented her on how good a player she was and kept her on the team. At the end of that season, however, the national Little League office passed a resolution that forbade girls from playing that stood until it was successfully challenged by a lawsuit in 1974.

Sports

Casa Frouge, “Bridgeport’s First Luxury Apartment Building”

May 23, 2018

By Andy Piascik

When the 84-unit Casa Frouge high-rise on Cartright Street on Bridgeport’s West Side opened in 1955, its developer the Frouge Construction Company billed it as the city’s “first luxury apartment building” and “the outstanding apartment residence in New England.” Located across North Avenue from Mountain Grove Cemetery, the high rise is nine stories high with ten apartments on floors one through eight topped by four penthouse units. (1) (more…)

Architecture, Business and Commerce, Construction and Development, Italian Populations and Culture

Housatonic Community College: A Bridgeport Gem

December 15, 2016

By Andy Piascik

This Fall marks 50 years since the establishment of Housatonic Community College. The school has come a long way in that time, from facilities scattered throughout Stratford to an old industrial building on Bridgeport’s East Side to a lovely downtown campus. More importantly, enrollment has grown from 378 in the very first semester to almost 6,000 students and is likely to grow larger with new facilities and a continued commitment from the state of Connecticut.

Housatonic’s origins can be traced to the dramatic increase in the need for higher education in the early 1960s. The empire of the United States was at its apex and there was a great demand for a better-educated workforce to fill the many professional and technical jobs of an expanding economy. As the first of the baby boom generation reached college age, new universities were constructed, state college systems expanded and many community colleges were established.

Despite its small-ish population, Connecticut was very much in the forefront of this development and nowhere was this more apparent than in the growth of the state’s community college system. Nine community colleges opened in Connecticut during the 1960’s, including Housatonic, and a tenth opened in 1971. The state’s community college system today includes twelve schools with a total enrollment of about 90,000 students.

Housatonic was originally established in 1966 as a branch of Norwalk Community College. The school’s offices were located in Stratford and classes were held throughout that city including at Bunnell High School, the Stratford United Methodist Church and the Stratford Public Library. Tuition that first year was $50 for a state resident attending full time, with additional fees ranging from $25 to $45.

Housatonic became an independent school the following year and one of the institutions it’s best known for, the Housatonic Museum of Art, opened. The driving force behind the museum was Burt Chernow, an art professor at the school, and the first exhibit in 1968 featured works from the museum’s collection by Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Andy Warhol and many others.

Over the years the museum’s collection has grown as artists and collectors donated and bequeathed works and the permanent collection includes works by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall Henri Matisse and other masters. After Chernow’s death in 1997, the museum’s collection has been maintained by Director Robbin Zella and continues to grow.

With a growing enrollment and the need for more space, HCC moved into the Singer Sewing Machine factory on Barnum Avenue in 1971. Located several blocks east of Washington Park and just north of the New York-New Haven railroad viaduct, the Singer plant had been a fixture on the city’s East Side for decades. The company began phasing out production at its sprawling factory in 1965 and Housatonic moved in after the company closed up shop for good for what was said at the time was to be a temporary stay.

Housatonic’s enrollment continued to grow steadily in the years following the move. It was especially important that such a school be located in Bridgeport, where there were many young people for whom the costs of a four-year college were out of reach. A majority of the students came from working class families and the school, like Bridgeport, was ethnically diverse.

From the outset Housatonic also featured many students who were older than standard college age seeking training that would better position them to get professional or civil service employment. Many students worked full-time and classes were scheduled days and evenings to accommodate busy schedules. We can imagine any number whose parents or relatives had worked in the very same building during Singer’s heyday, and perhaps more than a few who had worked there themselves.

In addition to the art museum, HCC regularly features films, forums and lectures that are open to the public. The school also makes meeting space available to local community organizations. And for a while in the 1970’s, HCC fielded very competitive men’s basketball and baseball and women’s softball teams that featured many standout players from area high schools.

By the 1990s Housatonic was bursting at the seams and functioning in a space that was outmoded. In 1994, the state of Connecticut purchased property at State Street and Lafayette Boulevard which for several decades been home to the Hi-Ho Mall (originally the Lafayette Shopping Mall) for a new HCC. Re-configuration of the building was completed during the 1996-97 school year and students returned to class after winter break for the beginning of the Spring Semester in the new facilities on January 27, 1997. So in addition to marking the 50th anniversary of the origins of the school this Fall, the Housatonic community is preparing to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the move to its current location.

With the opening of the new campus, the Burt Chernow Galleries of the Housatonic Museum of Art opened and had for its first exhibit a collection of photographs by Ansel Adams. The new college building, known as Lafayette Hall, also features expanded classroom space and a spacious library. With enrollment still growing, the state took control of the empty Sears building just to the south of the school and restructured it into a second building, Beacon Hall, that opened in September of 2008. At the center of the campus is a large green where students gather and study during warm weather.

As it enters its sixth decade, Housatonic offers Associate Degrees in 42 programs of study, ranging from Graphic Design to Paramedic Studies to Theater Arts. The school also offers credit certificate programs such as Early Childhood Education and Advanced Manufacturing Machine Technology. Also available are a wide variety of Continuing Education courses for those seeking new job market skills or knowledge enhancement.

There are, of course, challenges and difficulties for Housatonic and its students. Despite a demonstrated need, schools like HCC face regular attacks from those who object to public education and seek to reduce and even eliminate valuable social institutions. Tuition and school fees for a Connecticut resident for two semesters at Housatonic total $4,188 while part-time enrollment costs $155 per credit. At the University of Connecticut, by contrast, in-state tuition and fees for two semesters total $13,366 at the Storrs campus and $11,324 at the regional sites. State budget cuts like those of recent years, however, imperil Housatonic’s affordability.

In recent years, Housatonic and the Connecticut State Universities have established a partnership so that HCC students who achieve a grade point average of 3.0 or higher and an associate’s degree in certain programs are guaranteed admission to the Universities and have equal access in the selection of majors. That ensures fluidity for HCC graduates who seek a bachelor’s degree while making it easier for them to do so in-state. It’s also an important move to strengthen public education at a time when there is ongoing hostility to the very nature of a public sector. With continued popular diligence and a collective progressive vision, people from throughout the Bridgeport area will continue to have access to quality, affordable education at Housatonic.

Thanks to Housatonic Community College’s Public Relations Associate Esther Watstein for her assistance

Education

Kennedy Stadium Hosts the Jimi Hendrix Experience

December 06, 2017

By Andy Piascik

When Bridgeport’s Kennedy Stadium opened in 1964, there was as much excitement in the city as there was three decades later with the construction of the Ballpark at Harbor Yard and Webster Bank Arena. There were plenty of parks in the Park City at the time including many that were used by the Senior City League and other local athletic teams. But since the removal of the grandstand at Newfield Park, a long-time home to minor league baseball whose field was graced by Lou Gehrig among others, and the demise of Candlelite Stadium, which also hosted minor league baseball as well as semi-pro football teams, Bridgeport was without a similar venue until the construction of Kennedy.

Named for the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy, the stadium immediately became home to the University of Bridgeport and Bassick and Central High School football teams as well as, a short time later, the Bridgeport Hi-Ho Jets of the Atlantic Coast Football League. The Jets and UB football are long gone but the stadium today is as busy as ever, hosting high school and local club soccer teams as well as youth football leagues.

Rock and Roll

Kennedy also played host to a number of big-name rock and roll acts for a brief period. In 1968 and 1969, these included The Doors, Blind Faith, The Young Rascals and Joan Baez. There were also composite shows in later years such as by Herman’s Hermits, Chubby Checker and others as part of the 1974 coronation of the Barnum Festival King and Queen, and Rita Coolidge, Kris Kristofferson and Harry Chapin appeared together on June 1, 1975.

Perhaps the best known band to play Kennedy was The Jimi Hendrix Experience featuring Jimi Hendrix, hailed in many quarters as the greatest rock and roll guitarist ever. The Experience’s other members were Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass and back-up vocals, and they came to town on August 26, 1968 as part of the band’s four-month U.S. tour. (1) There were ads in the Bridgeport Telegram and Bridgeport Post in the weeks leading up to the concert and tickets were priced at $4, $5 and $6. The band’s fee was reportedly $14,000.

An unsigned article in the next day’s Post reported a crowd of 7,000, less than half of Kennedy’s seating capacity. (2) Because the stage was set up in the middle of the football field with the band facing north toward Central High School, presumably all of those in attendance were sitting on only that one side of the stadium.

The band’s set list included a number of songs that fans would have recognized immediately and which remain staples of classic rock radio stations today, including Purple Haze. The Experience was preceded by warm-up acts Eire Apparent and Soft Machine, neither of whom made much of an impression on the anonymous reporter from the Bridgeport Post who was in attendance. (3)

A Tumultuous Era

The concert in Bridgeport came during one of the most tumultuous eras of modern history. The preceding months saw the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, prolonged upheaval in Japan and a near-revolution in France.  Five days before Hendrix and his mates took the stage at Kennedy, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia.  Just the day before in Chicago, a gathering of tens of thousands people protesting the Vietnam War at the Democratic National Convention was attacked by police, resulting in hundreds of injuries.

Bright Lights, Lots of Cops

The volatility in the country played out in a small way at Kennedy. According to Thomas Hammang, who states he was at the concert, the lights were left on during all the performances. Writing many years later on a blog devoted to Jimi Hendrix, Hammang speculated that was because the police were expecting trouble. He also noted that having the lights on made it “very hard for the band to make any kind of audience contact,” a situation compounded, Hammang states, by the fact that the stage was 50 feet from the audience. (4)

The reporter from the Post also commented on the lights as well as the presence of the police, noting that “the precautionary over-lighting and over-policed atmosphere of the show added nothing to the performance.” (5)  One blog entry citing an interview done by Hendrix biographer Harry Shapiro with the Experience’s manager Chas Chandler (previously a member of the Animals) quotes Chandler as saying he was arrested just prior to the set at Kennedy for complaining about the lights. (6)

The Post reporter wrote that “one really couldn’t hear his [Hendrix’s] voice for the whining and droning of his guitar. He opened with ‘Are You Experienced?’, continued through ‘Foxy Lady’, ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Spanish Castle Magic’, somewhat lacking in his legendary verve.” He or she did add, however, that “Hendrix is one of the best, and the concert the best attended in Kennedy Stadium this season.” (7)

Over-lighting and over-policing aside, the shape of Kennedy created certain problems. Performers situated on a stationary stage are far different from a football game or a marching drum and bugle corps. Because the stadium is rectangular rather than oval, there was apparently little choice but to position the stage in the middle of the field with the performers facing toward one side. Rather than selling tickets for the whole stadium, where attendees on one side would be looking at the backs of the performers all evening, the choice apparently was to make seating available only on the north side.

The option of positioning the stage in one of the end zones was probably ruled out because that likely would have involved setting up temporary seating on the grass field in front of the stage and also because it was deemed unlikely that enough tickets would be sold to justify doing so. That the Experience concert was “the best attended” at 7,000 supports the latter supposition and it must have been a bit eerie to see a rock concert in a venue with nearly ten thousand empty seats.

Probably for some combination of these reasons, the brief heyday of rock and roll at Kennedy ended in 1969. The handful of shows held there since notwithstanding, the stadium just never caught on as a concert venue. Local popular music fans were thus among those most pleased when Webster Bank Arena opened 30+ years later.

Notes

  1. Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy by Harry Shapiro (St. Martin’s Press, 1991)
  2. “The Hendrix Experience Plays to 7,000 in Stadium,” Bridgeport Post, August 27, 1968
  3. Eire Apparent did “the worst ‘Baby Blue’ ever, and ‘Gloria’ with a great deal of noise but no control whatsoever” while Soft Machine featured an “excellent drummer” but was “otherwise no more impressive than the Irish group.” (Bridgeport Post, August 27, 1968).
  4. http://crosstowntorrents.org/showthread.php?4527-1968-08-26-Kennedy-Stadium-Bridgeport-Connecticut-USA
  5. Bridgeport Post, August 27, 1968
  6. http://crosstowntorrents.org/showthread.php?4527-1968-08-26-Kennedy-Stadium-Bridgeport-Connecticut-USA
  7. 7. Bridgeport Post, August 27, 1968
Entertainment, Theaters

Kiddo Davis

August 07, 2017

by Andy Piascik

One year when I was a teenager, I had a summer job pumping gas at a local gas station. Business at the station fluctuated and on one afternoon when it was quite slow, a distinguished looking man of about 70 pulled in. He got out of his car and we talked as I pumped his gas and checked under the hood. Or rather, he talked and I listened as he spoke at some length about baseball, specifically baseball in the days when he was a young man. Each time he saw me nod or smile in recognition at one of the famous names he threw out, he went on with a new story. Then he asked me if I knew anything about the New York Giants of the 1930s. I got the feeling he was testing me.

I replied with the names of the most famous Giants from that time that came to mind: Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott, Bill Terry and manager John McGraw. The man was impressed when I also mentioned several who weren’t so famous: Jo Jo Moore, Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons and maybe one or two others. I also mentioned that the Giants won the World Series in 1933 over the Washington Senators and had also won two other National League pennants a few years later. If it was a test, it seemed from the expression on his face that I had passed.

“I played for those Giants,” he said finally. “And I played in that 1933 World Series and the 1936 Series. Did pretty well, too. My name is Kiddo Davis.” *

He didn’t seem bothered that I didn’t recognize his name. Instead, he told a few more stories about some of the famous players he played with and against. He didn’t get into too much about his life outside baseball or his family, though he did mention he had been born and raised in Bridgeport and was still living there. After paying for his gas, he eventually drove off.

At the time, I didn’t know anything about James O’Rourke or any other major leaguers from Bridgeport, except for one. That was John “Spike” Merena, who lived on Briarwood Avenue not far from where I grew up. My father Frank pointed him out to me one day when he was walking through the neighborhood.

My father had grown up on the baseball of the 1930s and he immediately confirmed much of what Kiddo Davis told me that afternoon. My father had even met him a few times over the years and mentioned without my even bringing it up that Davis had been one of the stars of the 1933 World Series. It was years later when I was thinking back on my conversation with Davis that I looked into his career and Bridgeport roots.

Among the highlights of his career were that he had played with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on the Yankees even if for only one game in 1926, that he had also played for the famous Gashouse Gang, as the 1934 World Series-winning St. Louis Cardinals were known, and that he batted .368 in the 1933 World Series. He also got a hit for the Giants in the 1936 Series off Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez of the Yankees and had a stellar lifetime World Series batting average of .381 on eight hits in 21 at-bats.

Kiddo’s real name was George Willis Davis and he was born in Bridgeport on February 12, 1902. According to long-time local sportswriter Don Harrison, his nickname comes from the fact that, as a talented young athlete, he often played with older boys who dubbed him Kiddo.(1) Davis attended Bridgeport High School, the city’s only high school at the time. The school was located about where Bridgeport police headquarters now stand and its athletic team took the nickname Hilltoppers because the building was situated at a high point a short distance northwest of downtown. Bridgeport High School later evolved into Central High School and, after Central moved a short distance to the building on Lyon Terrace that later became City Hall, the BHS building housed Congress Junior High School.

Davis led Bridgeport to the Connecticut high school baseball championship in 1918 and also attended New York University. As Don Harrison tells it, NYU’s baseball coach offered Davis an athletic scholarship to the school after seeing him lead the Hilltoppers to a victory over the NYU freshmen team in an exhibition game in Manhattan.(2)

Because he dropped out of high school for a while and went to work, Davis did not graduate from Bridgeport until 1922 when he was 20. He continued to excel in baseball at NYU, so much so that he was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 1972.(3) He was also the first person from NYU to play major league baseball.(4)

Paul Krichell, a famous scout for the New York Yankees, saw Davis play while he was in college and signed him to a contract in the middle of the Yankees’ 1926 pennant-winning season. Davis appeared in only one game before being sent to minors where he played for Newark in the International League. He remained in the minor leagues until 1932, a stint that included playing most of the 1927 season with Hartford in the Eastern League. He posted a .349 batting average that was the highest in the league.

During that 1927 season, Bridgeport also had a team in the Eastern League, the Bears. Davis thus played many games that year in his hometown at Newfield Park, which served as the Bridgeport team’s home ballpark and was outfitted with a grandstand and bleachers. Newfield Park remains though the grandstand and bleachers are long gone.

Davis returned to the major leagues in 1932 with the Philadelphia Phillies. He had been a third baseman as a youngster but in the big leagues, he played center field. Davis batted .309 that season and was among the National League leaders with 100 runs scored. Despite his success, he was traded to the Giants. That turned out to be a big break for Davis, as the Giants won the World Series the next season.

The 1933 season turned out to be Davis’s last as a full-time player. He played for the Cardinals in 1934 and had return engagements with the Phillies and Giants before concluding his career with the Cincinnati Reds in 1938. All told, he played parts of eight major league seasons and compiled a .282 batting average in 575 games.(5)

During his career, Davis was a teammate of a long list of legendary Hall of Famers that reads like a Who’s Who of Baseball from the 1920s and 1930s: the above mentioned Ruth, Gehrig, Hubbell, Ott and Terry, plus Joe Medwick, Chuck Klein, Frankie Frisch, Dizzy Dean and many others. He was also involved in a three-team trade in which one of the other players was Hall of Famer Freddie Lindstrom.

Davis also had a knack for playing on winning teams even if he wasn’t necessarily around for the whole season. All told, he played at some point during the season on five teams that won pennants: the 1926 Yankees, the 1934 Cardinals and the Giants in 1933, 1936 and 1937.

Davis married his high school sweetheart and settled in his hometown, where he and his wife raised a son. After baseball, Davis worked for many years as an accountant in Bridgeport.(6) He was fondly remembered by area sportswriters, who wrote up his accomplishments over the years, and by area baseball fans. Davis died in Bridgeport on March 4, 1983 at the age of 81. He’s buried in Park Cemetery on Lindley Street.

*The quoted words may not be 100% accurate but they are very close to what Davis said to me 40+ years ago.

NOTES

  1. Kiddo Davis by Don Harrison (https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/819f85c4)
  2. ibid.
  3. http://www.gonyuathletics.com/hof.aspx?hof=179&path=&kiosk=
  4. http://www.alumni.nyu.edu/s/1068/alumni/interior_3col.aspx?sid=1068&gid=1&pgid=7397
  5. Davis’s complete professional baseball statistical profile can be viewed at:
    https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=davis-016geo
  6. Kiddo Davis by Don Harrison
Education, Sports

Ozzi’s Shoe Rebuilding, A Hollow Neighborhood Fixture for 69 Years

February 16, 2018

By Andy Piascik

In 1924, Nick Ozzi purchased a storefront building at 447-449 Coleman Street and established a shoe repair business, Ozzi’s Shoe Rebuilding, that lasted for 69 years. The business was located on the ground floor of a building that also included two apartments upstairs that served as a landing place for members of the Ozzi family as they moved from Italy to Bridgeport.

Repairing shoes was a highly-skilled trade that took years to learn. There were dozens of shoe repair men in Bridgeport (in most likelihood all of them were men; Nick Ozzi’s granddaughter Venetia Ozzi Scalo cannot recall ever hearing of a single woman who worked the trade) and many, like Nicholas, were first or second generation Italian-Americans. Nick served as secretary of the local shoe repair association for many years, assisted by his son Robert when Robert was old enough.

Philip and Robert Ozzie

Nick originally learned the trade as a boy in the city of Tortoreto in the Abruzzo region of central Italy, where he was born in 1893. While still in his teens, Nick set sail for the United States, landing first in Chester, Pennsylvania. There he met and married Amelia Giandonato, who was also born in the Abruzzo region in the village of Palombaro, and the couple moved to Bridgeport a short time later. Nicholas worked for some years repairing shoes and saving money while Amelia gave birth to the first two of their four children, Philip in 1918 and Robert in 1919.

By 1924, Nick was able to purchase the house on Coleman Street. He opened his business on the ground floor and the family moved into one of the apartments upstairs. It was at this time that he began to send money to his brothers and sisters so they could move from Italy to Bridgeport. Once they arrived, Nick’s four siblings lived in the upstairs apartments, found jobs, got married and eventually moved into homes of their own.

It was in the shop on Coleman Street that Nick apprenticed Philip and Robert from the time they were very young. He and Amelia had two more children, a daughter Lucy and Nick, Jr. Nick, Jr., passed away at the age of 20 and never worked in the family business.

Venetia Ozzi Scalo is the only child of Robert and the granddaughter of Nick. Her parents were still living in one of the apartments in the Coleman Street building when she was born in 1957 and even after they purchased a home on Elmwood Avenue a short time later, the shop and the apartments upstairs remained a family hub. Venetia has fond memories of the family business and of helping her father when she became old enough by working the cash register and helping to keep the shop clean.

“I’ve been told my grandfather Nick was a stern taskmaster,” Venetia recalled. “He insisted his boys redo any task they had not done well. But both boys grew to love fixing shoes because they carried on the business and never considered doing anything else for a living.”

As boys, Philip and Robert found ways to combine work and fun. “My father would recount that they would shine shoes for people who were walking along Coleman, Pequonnock, and Grand streets on their way to Mass at St. Augustine’s Church or St. Raphael’s Church. They charged ten cents for a shoe shine and they would each earn a dollar or a dollar and a half over the course of the morning. They felt like millionaires and would spend their money at Pleasure Beach on Sunday afternoons.”

Bridgeport was one of the nation’s major industrial hubs at the time and the city’s workers were hit hard by the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929. Venetia heard stories growing up of unemployed tradespeople and laid-off factory workers coming around her grandfather’s shop looking for work.

“Unemployed tile setters, painters and electricians offered to work for a dollar a day during the Great Depression,” Venetia recalled her father telling her. “They offered to sweep the floors or empty the garbage and were happy to do any work at all.”

The fact that many people were without jobs or working for low wages actually resulted in a boom for business at Ozzi’s. “People were more apt to fix their shoes than buy new ones during the hard times of the Depression,” Venetia said. Still, no one in the family got rich repairing shoes. The work was demanding and the store was open six days a week, Monday thru Saturday, from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Venetia remembers that her father took only one week of vacation a year each August.

Philip married Olivia Cianelli in 1945 and the couple raised their three daughters Amelia, Jean and Anna in one of the upstairs apartments. In 1956, Robert married Lydia Iobbi, a native of the town of Montone, also in the Abruzzo region of Italy. Although Venetia was only one year old when her family moved out of Coleman Street, she had a lot of fun playing with her cousins in their apartment. One of her cousins remained living there well after she was married and had children so that four successive generations of the family lived for a period of time in the Coleman Street house.

Although Venetia grew up hearing many stories about her grandfather, she never knew him. He died in 1954 at the age of 61, three years before she was born. He dedicated himself to his family, providing for his brothers and sisters to come to the United States and assisting them greatly in getting them settled in jobs and homes. After his death, the name of the business he established was changed from Nick Ozzi and Sons to Ozzi Shoe Rebuilding.

Philip Ozzi died in 1964 at the age of 46. According to Venetia, her father Robert briefly considered the possibility of closing the business after his brother died and perhaps getting a job at a local factory. Robert loved his work too much, however, and he soon ruled out the option of doing anything else. He had taken business courses years before to prepare for the possibility of having to run the business on his own one day and that was precisely what he decided to do. He became the sole proprietor of the business and Ozzi’s continued on for 29 more years.

It was during this time that Venetia began spending time in the shop. “During the summertime when I was a little girl I would help my dad at the store,” Venetia remembered. “I rang the register, stocked shelves, polished shoes and generally helped out. It is an experience I still remember fondly. I made friends with all the kids in the Hollow, many of whom I still run into from time to time. But most especially, I was able to be with Dad up close and spend the day with him. It was very evident that his customers loved him, as did all the kids in the neighborhood, who would never pass by the store without yelling, ‘Hi, Ozzi!’ from the street.”

“The memory of Dad in his cobbler’s apron at the window tapping heels on a shoe is an iconic one,” Venetia went on. “The image could be a Normal Rockwell print, but that was how he spent his day. He once explained to me that the shoe fixing process was very methodical. He started each day at the front of the store doing hand work and slowly progressed to the back, where the electrical grinding machines were. At the end of the line were the polishers. Dad said each and every shoe was polished and shined before it was returned to the owner. If he noticed that the shoelaces were worn, he’d replace them with a new pair, free of charge.”

Over time, Bridgeport, the only place Robert Ozzi ever considered home, changed. Factories shut down, old friends moved away and businesses in the Hollow closed. King Cole, located close by on Park Avenue at the corner of North Avenue and one of the city’s first giant supermarkets, went under. Small businesses that were family-owned just like Ozzi’s such as Jerry’s Pizza also closed. One of the few that lived on into the 1980s and 1990s was Angelo’s Pear Tree Shop on Grand Street.

“Angelo’s Pear Tree Shop was another Bridgeport institution, run by Angelo Rimini,” said Venetia. “Angelo’s family and my family became very good friends through the years and Angelo’s was as much a fixture in the neighborhood as Ozzi’s Shoe Rebuilding was.”

In 1986, Robert Ozzi and his shoe repair business were featured in Bridgeport: A Legacy of Neighborhoods, (1) a documentary television program shown on Connecticut Public Television. In the show, Robert is seen working in the front of the store by a large plate glass window facing Coleman Street. As he works, he waves to passersby while answering questions about his trade and the many years he’s spent as a fixture in the Hollow.

Robert was also one of seven local residents profiled in a special Labor Day supplement of the Bridgeport Post-Telegram in 1989. He is shown in a photo looking at the camera while holding one of his tools and a pair of shoes. In the accompanying caption, Robert says “I really like working with my hands and I like my job.”

Venetia remembers her father saying similar things all the time. “My father loved his job and loved his life,” she said. “He was always saying that he loved waking up in the morning with the prospect of going to work and fixing shoes and talking to customers, but at the end of the day he also he also looked forward to coming home to a wife and daughter who ‘treat me like a king.’”

Just before Robert was featured in the Post-Telegram, he sold the property on Coleman Street. The members of the family who were living there moved and Robert rented space in a shop a few blocks away on Frank Street. He continued repairing shoes there until 1993 at which point the business was 69 years old.

It was not an entirely happy ending to an immigrant-family-makes-good tale that is such a big part of the story of the United States. As Venetia remembers it, her father had said many times that he would work repairing shoes until the day he died or was no longer able to physically do so. However, he was held up several times at gunpoint in the Frank Street location. During what turned out to be the last of these hold-ups in the summer of 1993, the assailant threw ammonia in Robert’s face. Some of it got into both of his eyes and he suffered blurred vision for the rest of his life. He decided a short time later to close the business, and another Bridgeport institution was no more. One upside was that Venetia gave birth to her first child and Robert and Lydia’s first grandchild, Dina Anne, just weeks after Ozzi’s Shoe Rebuilding closed its doors.

By 1993, the number of shoe rebuilders in the Bridgeport area had dwindled to a handful. “My father was not in this for the money,” Venetia said. “When he closed up shop and customers were forced to have their shoes fixed elsewhere, they said time and again how expensive the repairs were. They had no idea how little he had been charging until they went somewhere else.”

Lydia passed away in 1995 and Robert in 2002. Venetia still lives in the area with her husband and two children. She has worked as a teacher of Italian and Spanish and for more than 30 years in the field of educational publishing.

Special thanks to Venetia Ozzi Scalo for her recollections and the use of Ozzi family photographs

1.) Bridgeport: A Legacy of Neighborhoods, the 1986 Connecticut Public Television documentary in which Robert Ozzi.  Bridgeport History Center.

2.) The Bridgeport Post-Telegram Labor Day feature that includes Robert Ozzi is the September 4, 1989 edition.

Business and Commerce, Italian Populations and Culture, Neighborhood: The Hollow

Pa’lante: The Young Lords in Bridgeport

November 17, 2016

by Andy Piascik

As Puerto Rico began to more acutely experience the economic ravages of colonialism in the years after the Second World War, more and more people from the island began migrating en el norte. Though most settled in the nation’s largest cities, Bridgeport was also a popular landing point. In fact, since the 1960’s, Puerto Ricans have made up a larger percentage of Bridgeport’s population than New York City’s. Statewide, Puerto Ricans have for many years been a larger percentage of Connecticut’s population than any other state and remain so today.

The founders of the Young Lords Party, which began as the Young Lords Organization in the winter of 1968-69, were young Puerto Ricans in Chicago and New York. Some in Chicago were members of street gangs who got politicized around the oppressive conditions their people confronted, particularly police brutality. They became part of the original Rainbow Coalition that included the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, a Chicano group called the Brown Berets, a group of Asian-Americans called I Wor Kuen and several groups of radical, white working class youths.

In 1970, a Bridgeport organization called Spanish People in Command joined with the Young Lords to form the local YLP branch, the group’s fifth. There were approximately 15,000 Puerto Ricans in Bridgeport at the time, roughly ten percent of the city’s population. The YLP underscored the significance of the move in its bilingual newspaper Pa’lante, noting that the establishment of the Bridgeport branch “was very important because it was the first time the Party opened in a small, working class city.”

One of the Bridgeport branch’s first projects was the establishment of a Free Breakfast for Children program at St. Mary’s Church on Pembroke Street. Patterned on similar efforts by the Black Panthers (who also had a chapter in Bridgeport), children were provided free breakfast before school. In addition, the Lords helped launch a tenants association and rent strike at 381-387-393 East Main Street in December, 1970 when tenants were forced to endure five consecutive freezing days and nights without heat. It was also at that site that the branch opened its local office.

Throughout its history, the Bridgeport chapter did international solidarity work including in opposition to the war in Vietnam and U.S. imperial domination of Puerto Rico. When the YLP organized actions around the country on March 21, 1971 to mark the 34th anniversary of the Ponce Massacre in which 22 island nationalists were killed by colonial forces, the Bridgeport branch held a demonstration in Washington Park. Bridgeport members and supporters also participated in a number of national actions such as a 10,000-strong demonstration at the United Nations in New York on October 30, 1971 demanding independence for Puerto Rico.

On May 20, 1971 tensions that had been growing between the Lords and the people they were organizing on the one hand, and slumlords and Bridgeport police on the other, boiled over. With the East Main Street rent strike still ongoing, the owners of the property attempted to evict the YLP from its office. Local leader Willie Matos was arrested for trespassing, the office was trashed and furniture was illegally removed in the presence of Bridgeport police officers. An enraged group of several hundred supporters took to the streets and began throwing rocks at the police and the agents of the landlord.

Protesters blockaded a block of East Main and more people were arrested. Police patrolled the area with police dogs and officers armed with shotguns perched atop patrol cars. The events were covered extensively in Pa’lante as well as in the Bridgeport Post and Bridgeport Telegram. Upon being released from prison after his arrest, Matos said, “This is the beginning of community power. We are sick and tired of police brutality.”

When a fire at one of the properties on East Main Street where the rent strike had occurred resulted in the death of a six-year old girl in early 1972, the YLP and its supporters began weekly picketing at the Lafayette Shopping Center in downtown. The purpose was to pressure business and political elites to deal with tenants’ demands by boycotting stores in the recently opened mall. Five people including several Lords were arrested at the mall on May 6, 1972.

The Bridgeport branch also worked with other city organizations to address the problem of layoffs and unemployment, which by 1972 had reached crisis levels. One venue was the Committee of Unemployed Workers, established in August, 1972. Earlier that summer, the  branch initiated a conference to establish a statewide organization of Puerto Rican migrant workers held at the Disciples of Christ Church on East Washington Avenue. The branch also opened a bookstore when it moved its office to a space on Crescent Place.

Throughout its history, the YLP and its successor group, the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization, were closely monitored by the FBI. It was also investigated by the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security, which was chaired by the notorious white supremacist James Eastland. In addition, a number of members were indicted and imprisoned for refusing to register for the military draft and several members around the country were killed by police. In part because of this harassment, the organization went into decline. The Bridgeport branch was one of four remaining when the group ceased to exist in 1976.

Many who had been members of the Young Lords have carried on its work, including Matos, who for many years worked for the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and in activist groups in Bridgeport such as the Spanish American Coalition and Vieques Support Committee. Some went into academia while Juan Gonzalez, Felipe Luciano, Pablo Guzman and Geraldo Rivera, among others, have carved out distinguished careers in journalism, prompting long-time New York City newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin to say that the Young Lords produced more great journalists than Columbia University’s journalism school.

The appearance of a number of recent books, documentary films and several photo exhibits has stimulated renewed interest in the Young Lords. This is only fitting, as the issues the Lords grappled with – substandard housing, racial oppression and inequality, police brutality, widespread poverty amidst great wealth – are with us more than ever.

Ethnic History, Hispanic Populations and Culture, Labor, Neighborhood: East Side, Organizations and Associations, Politics, Social Justice

Solidarity Bridgeport Style

March 10, 2016

by Andy Piascik

On July1, 1979, 400 members of United Steelworkers Local 7201 employed at the Handy and Harman precious metals factory in Fairfield went on strike. There was nothing particularly unusual or exceptional about that; workers at factories in Bridgeport and the surrounding area regularly called strikes during the region’s industrial heyday. What was exceptional was the way in which a large number of people in Bridgeport responded when Handy and Harman employment representatives began actively recruiting replacement workers – scabs – in economically depressed areas of the city. (more…)

Ethnic History, Featured, Industry, Labor

The Bridgeport Harbor Lighthouse

September 05, 2017

by Andy Piascik

The waters near Bridgeport were long served by lighthouses that helped to guide ships to their destinations. One that is still in use is the Penfield, which opened in 1874 and is located a mile from shore. A little more than a mile to the east is the Fayerweather, constructed in 1808 and long out of use though a popular part of Bridgeport history. (1) (more…)

Maritime

The Bridgeport Home Oilers

The Bridgeport Home Oilers
January 15, 2016

By Andy Piascik

Before there were the Sound Tigers, there were the Home Oilers. Before there was Webster Bank Arena, there was the Wonderland of Ice. The Wonderland of Ice is still there and now with two full skating rinks, but the Home Oilers are long gone. Long gone, yes, but not forgotten, both for the thrills they provided an admittedly small but devoted number of fans and for the small part they played in the explosion of interest in ice hockey in the city of Bridgeport, the state of Connecticut and, indeed, the United States. (more…)

Parks, Sports

The Bridgeport Sunday Herald and a Free Speech Fight

March 21, 2017

By Andy Piascik

Rarely has an American play met with the kind of government opposition that Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty faced in 1935. Mayors and police departments forbade the staging of the play in a number of cities and stopped performances mid-play in others. Audience and cast members were arrested for protesting police actions. Locally, the Bridgeport Sunday Herald rallied to the cause of the play after it was banned in New Haven and thus played an important and honorable role in defending free speech.

Clifford Odets was 28 years old and a member of the left-wing, New York-based Group Theatre ensemble when he wrote Waiting for Lefty. (1) It was the first of his plays to be staged when it opened in a Group production at the Civic Repertory Theater on West 14th Street in Manhattan on January 5, 1935. (2) Among those in the cast were Odets, Elia Kazan and Lee J. Cobb. (3)

Waiting for Lefty is often described as a play about a strike of New York taxicab drivers. While it is that, it’s more a penetrating look at the lives of a group of people who happen to be cab drivers as they cope with poverty and related personal, family and relationship problems at the low point of the Great Depression. The cabbies do discuss going on strike, and they also struggle with the risks involved, one of which is the fact that their union is controlled by racketeers violently opposed to any kind of independent labor action.

The drama in Waiting for Lefty was straight out of the front pages of newspapers throughout the country and thus resonated with audiences. In the months leading up to the play’s opening, there had been general strikes in San Francisco, Minneapolis and Toledo. Workers were organizing in great numbers and left-wing parties and organizations were stronger than in many years.

Waiting for Lefty’s run at the Civic was such a rousing success that it moved to Broadway in June, 1935. Because of great demand and in keeping with their philosophy of making plays easily accessible to the poor and working classes, Odets and the Group took the unusual step of approving productions throughout the country before the play’s Broadway premiere. In no time, labor unions and cultural organizations began staging Waiting for Lefty in dozens of cities and towns. Among them was a production by the New Haven John Reed Club’s Unity Players at Yale University’s University Theatre. (4)

In at least six cities including Philadelphia, Boston and Newark, city officials either shut productions down after performances had begun or forced cancellation of performances before they could be staged. In Newark, the play was stopped in mid-performance and a number of audience members who protested were arrested. The stated reason in some cases was that the play was “Communist propaganda” and “un-American.” In Boston, profanity — use of the word “God-damn” was specifically cited – was the pretext.

The production in New Haven, meanwhile, won the George Pierce Baker Cup for first prize in the Yale’s annual Drama Tournament on April 11th. In response to the wildly enthusiastic reception, the Unity Players booked space at Commercial High School for additional performances. Several days before the first scheduled show, however, the New Haven Board of Education rescinded the agreement and Police Chief Philip Smith declared that the play was not to be performed anywhere in the city on the grounds that it was “blasphemous and indecent.” He added that anyone attempting to do so would be arrested.

The Unity Players brought together the American Civil Liberties Union, community organizations, and students and faculty from Yale, among others, and formed the New Haven Anti-Censoring Committee. They held rallies and meetings demanding that the city allow the play to be staged but Smith did not budge. Then the Bridgeport Sunday Herald got involved.

Founded in 1805 and located at 200 Lafayette Boulevard, the Herald’s motto was “No Fear, No Favor – The People’s Paper.” The paper first reported on the controversy in New Haven on the front page of its April 14th edition. In that same issue, it ran a glowing review across three pages of the New York production of Waiting for Lefty by Leonardo Da Bence. In the April 21st edition, in response to the continuing ban in New Haven, the Herald’s editors printed the play in its entirety. Also included was a lengthy introduction that included criticisms of Chief Smith and that concluded that the Herald’s intention was to give “its readers an opportunity to judge for themselves.”

Though based in Bridgeport, the Herald had influence well beyond the city. It published editions and special sections for areas throughout the state including a New Haven edition that was available on newsstands in that city. (5) Among its criticisms of New Haven officials, the Herald noted that the city had granted space to an avowedly fascist organization for a meeting at a public school simultaneous to the banning of Waiting for Lefty.

In its edition of May 5th, the Herald reported the results of a poll of readers in which it stated that respondents in favor of the staging of Waiting for Lefty in New Haven outnumbered those who supported the ban by 10 to 1. The Herald regularly featured a Letters to the Editor section that often extended over several pages and one letter from Allen Touometoftosky began as follows: “Long live the militant, truthful Bridgeport HERALD! Long live ‘Waiting for Lefty!’”

With the groundswell of protest growing, Chief Smith and the City of New Haven finally relented. The Unity Players were allowed to reserve the Little Theatre on Lincoln Street several blocks from Yale and performances of Waiting for Lefty began there on the evening of May 9th. The play was received much as it was around the country by enthusiastic full houses, without incident or further police interference. (6)

While Waiting for Lefty has never been revived on Broadway, it remains popular in local theaters and union halls. It has played any number of times in Connecticut including a production by The Connecticut Repertory Theater that ran earlier this year in Storrs. When the play was most recently done in New Haven in 2012 by the New Haven Theater Company, some newspaper commentary recalled the controversy of 1935. (7)

The Bridgeport Herald, meanwhile, published until 1974. It is remembered with a degree of fondness by older Bridgeporters and was the subject as recently as 2015 of a panel at the Fairfield Museum and History Center. (8) It should also be remembered for the important role it played in a free speech fight 82 years ago.

                       Thanks to Danielle Reay of Yale University for research assistance

Sources

1.Clifford Odets (1906-63) was best-known for his plays Awake and Sing (1935) and Golden Boy (1937), in addition to Waiting for Lefty. He also wrote a number of Hollywood screenplays, most notably None But the Lonely Heart (1944) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957). The lead character in the Coen brothers’ 1991 movie Barton Fink was inspired in part by Odets.

  1. Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940 (1990) by Wendy Smith is probably the best account of the story of the Group Theatre. The Group also had deep Connecticut ties; see, for example, my article The Hills of Connecticut: Where Theatre and Life Became One posted, among other places at http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/07/01/the-hills-of-connecticut-where-theatre-and-life-became-one/

3.Among the Group’s members were actors Phoebe Brand (1907-2004) and Morris Carnovsky (1897-1992), who married and lived for many years in Easton. Though neither appeared in Waiting for Lefty, both had distinguished theater and film careers interrupted by many years of being blacklisted because of their political affiliations. Carnovsky in particular was a long-time fixture on Broadway and at the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford.

4.The John Reed Clubs were named after the American journalist and revolutionary John Reed (1887-1920) best known for his book Ten Days That Shook the World. Reed is the subject of the 1981 movie Reds.

5.Because of the involvement of the Bridgeport-based Herald in advocating for the showing of Waiting for Lefty, some accounts mistakenly refer to the controversy as having occurred in Bridgeport rather than New Haven.

6.Also featured during Waiting for Lefty’s run at the Little Theatre were modern dance performances by Miriam Blecher (1912-79) and Jane Dudley (1912-2001). Dudley in particular was a trailblazer of modern dance who featured themes of social protest in her work. She was for many years a leading force in the New Dance Group and a teacher at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.

  1. http://patch.com/connecticut/westport/museum-after-dark-remembering-bridgeport-herald-0

8.See, for example: http://scribblers.us/nhtj/?p=2675

The controversy surrounding Waiting for Lefty is covered in a number of books including Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century (2009) by John Houchin; Banned Plays: Censorship Histories of 125 Stage Dramas (2004) by Dawn B. Sova; and Censorship: A World Encyclopedia (2002) edited by Derek Jones.

Labor, Newspapers, Theaters

The Bronx Casket Company

April 26, 2018

by Andy Piascik

In 1933, Antonio Mastromonaco established the Bronx Casket Company on Webster Avenue in the Norwood section of the Bronx. Mastromonaco was born in Campobasso in Italy and emigrated to the United States around 1913. He had been a laborer in Italy and was employed for a while after arriving in the Bronx in the construction of the New York City subway system. His grandson Pete remembers hearing that Mastromonaco also had carpentry skills, skills he put to good use in the business he founded.

The Bronx Casket Company facility in the Bronx consisted of a shop where caskets were made, a showroom where they were displayed for prospective customers, and offices. The skilled casket makers were the heart of the business and they produced high-quality merchandise. Five of Mastromonaco’s sons worked for the company in various capacities. One Bronx local who was also an émigré from Italy and worked for the company for eight years was Salvatore Mineo, the father of movie star Sal Mineo. (1)

Looking to expand the business in the years after the Second World War, Mastromonaco purchased a house at 1635 Fairfield Avenue in Bridgeport where the company opened a showroom and sales office. He assigned Peter, the youngest of his sons, to run it. Up to that point, Peter and his new bride Dorothy Coffey Mastromonaco had spent their entire lives in New York City. Peter had been working for the family business with hopes of someday going to art school. Dorothy, meanwhile, had been part of a jitterbug dance duo with her brother Ed and had performed as a young girl throughout New York City. (2)

To Bridgeport

Peter and Dorothy were very young when they moved to Bridgeport in 1948. Dorothy would give birth to their first child, Mike, the following year just before her 18th birthday. Peter never did go to art school but he did paint throughout his life while running the Bridgeport outpost of the family business. “My father had a studio in the basement of the house on Fairfield Avenue where he painted,” recalled Claire, the couple’s fourth child and sole daughter. “He mostly painted with oils. I can still vividly remember the smell.”

“One of my father’s brothers, my Uncle Benny and his wife Ann, lived on the third floor of the house at first,” Claire went on. “My mother hated that because of the lack of privacy and all.” Benny and Ann eventually moved out and Peter and Dorothy made the three-story house their family’s home. The couple lived on the two upper floors where they raised Claire and sons Michael, Leonard, Peter and Edward. The spacious first floor, meanwhile, was dedicated to the family business.

“Caskets were displayed in the main showroom and two auxiliary showrooms on the main floor,” recalled Pete, who, along with his three brothers, worked for the family business for many years “Additional caskets were stored in the warehouse behind the showroom.  Funeral directors would bring families of the deceased to the showroom to select a casket which would then be delivered to the funeral home.”

Settling Into the West Side

Bridgeport was a bustling center of industry in 1948 and the neighborhood the Mastromonacos moved to was one of the city’s many factory hubs. Located behind the family home and across State Street over to Railroad Avenue were Bryant Electric, Casco, Hubbell, United Pattern and several other shops. Just around the corner on Mountain Grove Street was Bead Chain, and Claire still remembers the constant sound of the factory’s machinery which she can very capably imitate.

Still, there were adjustments, particularly for a couple settling in a new place at such a young age. “I remember my mom telling us that she was a bit surprised there was no subway in Bridgeport,” said Pete. “She was also surprised that the drug store a few doors away, Hancock Pharmacy, did not know how to make an egg cream.”

Claire remembers her parents frequenting many neighborhood businesses that, like theirs, were local and family owned. “State Street really was a great street,” she said. “My father had his suits made at Greenberg’s Tailors and my parents bought jewelry at Blackham’s Jewelers. I remember walking with my mother to Cederbaum’s for yarn for her knitting.  And, of course, my father was a regular at State Paint and Hardware for building supplies for work.”

Caskets and All the Trimmings

The family’s company offered a wide array of products. “In addition to the wood caskets, made from mahogany, oak, poplar and other hardwoods manufactured by BCC’s factory in the Bronx, the showroom displayed metal caskets, such as solid copper, bronze and steel, manufactured by other companies,” said Pete. “The showroom also displayed burial garments for sale and metal name plates that were affixed to the exterior of the caskets.”

Peter had learned many aspects of the casket-making trade from when he was a teenager in the Bronx and Pete remembered his father’s skills with great pride. “My father was a master craftsmen and artist.  Using hand tools, he would engrave the deceased’s name on the name plate.”

Finding Customers in a New Locale

It was also Peter’s task, especially upon first arriving in Bridgeport, to drum up business, something he did quite successfully. “My father was on very friendly terms with a large number of funeral directors in Bridgeport and throughout Connecticut,” said Pete. “Each morning, he would scan the obituaries section of the Bridgeport Telegram and contact the funeral directors with whom he had a steady business relationship to see if they planned on visiting the showroom.”

Peter’s contacts extended well beyond the Bridgeport area, with accounts in New Haven (Shore Funeral Home), Stamford (Lacerenza Funeral Home), Torrington (LaPorta Funeral Home) and Rocky Hill (Rose Hill Funeral Home), among many others. Though Dorothy did not work for the company in any official capacity, she did help her husband out when necessary. Claire recalled that there was a company phone line in the family kitchen on the second floor and that she and her mother would answer calls. The company also employed several men to load, unload and deliver caskets, especially in the years before Mike, Len and Pete came of working age.

Working for the Family Business

The company owned two flatbed trucks that were used to deliver caskets. When Peter’s sons began working for the company, they also made deliveries. On local runs, the two youngest siblings made their contribution. “Eddie and I helped out by riding along and making sure we stopped at Carvel,” recalled Claire. “And we ate our ice cream on the way back!!”

Pete also worked for a time at Hancock Pharmacy a half block away at the corner of Fairfield and Hancock Avenues while working for the family business. “Sometimes I would deliver a case of soda to Polke Funeral Home, which was across the street from the pharmacy, in the morning and then deliver a casket there during my lunch break. Got a dollar tip each time.”

Pete had nothing but good memories of his boss at the drug store. “Sidney Gitlin owned and operated Hancock Pharmacy. He was a great boss and a kind and generous man.”

Mike, Peter and Dorothy’s oldest son, remembered being asked to sometimes do a somewhat unpleasant task. “We also were often asked to ‘help’ one of the undertakers, which usually meant helping them move bodies around. My father would say, ‘Michael, Mr. Lauro needs a hand.’ I’d look at my father and he would simply say, ‘Just go over there!’ I didn’t mind moving the ones who were already embalmed, as they were easy to move, being stiff. But the ones who just died were still soft and pliable…hard to grasp!!”

Church, School and Community

Dorothy and Peter were very involved in their children’s lives, especially through activities at St. Peter Church and school. In addition, Dorothy began a long career in cosmetics retail once her oldest children were old enough to look after the younger ones. She worked for many years at the thriving Gimbel’s department store in downtown Bridgeport beginning in 1968.

They made a contribution to the community beyond their family, careers and parish activities including at least one occasion where the company came to the aid of Lucille Lortel and the White Barn Theater in Westport that she ran. According to an item in the Bridgeport Sunday Post on August 20, 1967, the Bronx Casket Company provided Lortel and the production company a casket needed for a performance of a play called Vacation in Miami. (3)

The company showroom made for a good play area for the Mastromonaco children and the caskets served as good props to hide behind in games of hide-and-go-seek. There were no Dracula-like games that involved any of them getting into a casket, however. “We did not mess around with the caskets in any way,” Pete said. “And we sure did not ever get inside one.  Way too creepy!  Not to mention there would be hell to pay if my father caught us!”

Italian Feasts With Extended Family

Even as Peter and Dorothy immersed themselves in Bridgeport via the business and their children’s many activities, they remained in close contact with their families after they left the Bronx. “My grandfather Antonio had moved to Westchester by the time my siblings and I were growing up and he and my Aunt Phyllis were living right next store to each other,” said Pete. “We regularly got together at one of their houses with my uncles, aunts and cousins for Sunday lunch, which was always an all-day Italian feast. My maternal grandmother also visited us regularly from the Bronx.”

Peter and Dorothy’s youngest son Ed also recalled going regularly for stops at the company’s home office and to visit family. “I remember trips to the Bronx with my father in the summer when school was out,” Ed said. “I hung around with my cousin Leonard, my Uncle Dominick’s youngest son.”

The End of the Family Business

When Antonio retired from the business, his sons became partners in the company. Antonio passed away in 1964 at the age of 89, with the company going strong. As Peter’s brothers approached retirement, the Bronx Casket Company was sold around 1980 to the New Jersey Casket Company. Peter then went on his own and established the Fairfield Casket Company in the same space on the first floor of the house on Fairfield Avenue.

Peter’s son Ed worked with his father during this time and echoed his brother Pete’s sentiments about their father. “Dad showed me a lot of woodworking techniques,” Ed said, “and also how to finish and buff a casket to a mirror-like shine! After the Fairfield Casket Company closed, my father worked as a carpenter and home improvement contractor. He retired sometime in the mid to late 90’s.”

The company name lived on for some years in an odd sort of way: a New York City based heavy metal goth band that called itself the Bronx Casket Company. (4)

Peter Mastromonaco passed away in 2002. Dorothy worked for many years at Gimbel’s before retiring and passed away in 2014. Both were cremated and interred at Mountain Grove Cemetery so neither, notes Claire, was buried in a casket.

Thanks to Peter and Dorothy Mastromonaco’s children Mike, Len, Pete, Claire and Ed for their assistance.

NOTES

1. Sal Mineo: A Biography by Michael Gregg Michaud (Harmony Books, 2010). According to Michaud, the senior Mineo formed the Universal Casket Company with his brother after he left the Bronx Casket Company.

2. Dorothy Coffey Mastromonaco was also the niece of Jack Coffey, a star baseball player at Fordham University who played in the major leagues for the Boston Braves, Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers. He became Fordham’s first full-time baseball coach in 1922, held that post until 1958 and also served for 32 years as the school’s athletic director. Fordham’s multi-purpose athletic stadium, Jack Coffey Field, is named after him: https://www.fordham.edu/info/26211/hall_of_honor/9520/john_francis_coffey

3. “In and Around Our Town” in the Bridgeport Sunday Post, August 20, 1967.

4. Contacted by e-mail, D.D. Verni, one of the band’s founders, states that he and the other band members were not aware of the Mastromonaco family business and came up with the name independently. It fit the kind of music they played and the image they wanted to project, he said, a flavor of which can be gleaned from an album of theirs titled Sweet Home Transylvania.

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