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)
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.
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.