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Spotlight on research: Becoming Italian-American

By April 30, 2020September 16th, 2023No Comments

Guest author Teresa Bertilotti shares about her research project, Becoming Italian-American: Entertainment and Historical Culture, 1860-1930, and about her research at the Immigration History Research Center Archives (IHRCA). She also models how researchers combine primary sources from a variety of archives in order to construct their historical work. Bertilotti is a researcher at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia and was one of our 2019-2020 Grant-in-Aid Awardees.

The project I am developing examines the various forms of entertainment, especially theatre and cinema, produced by or addressed to the Italian communities in the US from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1930s. The fundamental proposition of the project is that theatre and cinema have played an essential role in building the historical imagery not only for Italians in the mainland, but also for the wider Italian diaspora. I analyze how national history was rewritten and re-conceptualized through theatre and cinema, thus providing the basis for the production of “popular national histories”. The aim here is to closely examine such popularized versions of history, the role that they played in building the historical imagery of Italian immigrants, and how this contributed to an “ethnic nationalization” transforming Italian immigrants into Italian-Americans.

Background to my research on entertainment and historical culture

Some studies have evidenced how, in the context of economic, social and cultural transformations during the last decades of the nineteenth century, entertainment spaces assumed a crucial role in the profound cultural changes that created a leisure class characterized by conspicuous consumption.  This changed the way in which the working masses lived, including immigrants, who in urban realities like New York and Chicago were significant consumers of culture. Furthermore, the studies on mass culture have evidenced that their shows have contributed to the construction of a national public culture in which there was not a net opposition between public immigrant culture and American mass culture.  Therefore, the public composed of immigrants was part of a specific “community” and at the same time was part of anonymous and undifferentiated “masses”.

This excerpt from the Dan D’Amelio papers available at the IHRCA reveals an Italian American boy’s experience visiting the movie theater:

The whole family filed into one of the back rows of the darkened theater and sat. Before us, against the flickering light from the screen, the silhouette of heads extended in row after row like the top of gravestones. We had come to join the Americans in their national pastime, the movie.

We sat quietly for a few minutes. Then my mother made her move. She passed out the cloth napkins. We spread them across our laps. […]

I tried to watch the movie. But it was hard to concentrate. Mom kept passing me food. First came the provolone sandwich. I placed it on my lap.

“Mangia”, she said.

I was afraid to. The sound of my teeth breaking through the crust would be like a pistol shot. I settled on taking out the provolone cheese and nibbling on.

Next came the pepperoni, which Mom deftly cut into slices, passing them first to Pop. Of course, she hadn’t eaten anything yet.

My father took a quick swig from the small bottle of wine in a paper bag. He passed it to Mom; she poured some into a paper cup. She took a sip.

“I’ll hold that for you, Mom”, I said in English. I took the cup from her. She still had other food, including plum tomatoes, to pass around. But first there was the soda for me, Nell and Lou.

Mom reached into the large paper bag at her feet and pulled out the soda bottle. Nell held the cups as Mom filled them. Then Nell passed the cup to me and Lou.

Mom looked at the sandwich on my lap. “Mangia”, she said.

“I am, Mom. I’m eating the cheese first”.

Suddenly there was a splash. Lou had spilled his soda.

Mom leaned forward in her seat, looked at Lou, then brought her hand to her mouth and, fingers extended, bit her forefinger. It was a warning signal. It meant that he would suffer for his misdemeanour later.

I ignored the sandwich that weighed on my lap and tried to concentrate on the screen. I looked forward to going to the movies. They not only provided entertainment but also glimpses into American life.

Actors Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper were in this movie, as father and son. I marvelled at the way they behaved toward each other. They were relaxed and talked things over; occasionally, they even smiled at each other. I wondered if that was the way it really was in American families.

I glanced at Pop and tried to imagine what it would be like if he and I were like Beery and Cooper.

“… Hi ya, Pop? How’d it go today at the job. Lay a lot of bricks?”

He’d stare at me.

I’d try a smile. “So, you had a good day?”

He’d glare at me. “What, are you making fun of me?”

“Oh, no. No”.

“Where’s your mother?”

“She’s next door, at Mrs. Lamaglia?”

“Well, don’t stand there like a lamp post – tell her I’m home”:

I suddenly felt a jab in my ribs. Nell passed me a plum tomato.[1]

Many theater shows (both from old Italian repertoires and those new made by the most important companies active in the USA) and films made references to the national history, and more generally, to the past. This newspaper article explains:

“Hard Work for Italian Actors. New York Players Drudges”

December 4, 1910

Actors who growl about frequent rehearsals and the necessity of learning many new plays should take a trip down to Fourth Street and compare notes with the members of the company of the Teatro Garibaldi, says Arthur Bennington in the New York World last Sunday. These have to learn a new part every day. For the Teatro Garibaldi has a change of bill every night. … Teatro Garibaldi can hold 500 persons and is crowded every night … And the audience is composed largely of families. … These Italians love melodrama. The majority of the plays at the Teatro Garibaldi are bloody, for they are given before people whose favorite reading is “I Reali di Francia” and “Guerrino, detto il Meschino,” epic poems and stories taken from the legends of Charlemagne, Orlando, the paladins of the crusades and the medieval wars full of deeds of superhuman valor, heroic slaughter, tragic passion.[2]

This is just one example, of the many that could be cited, of what Italian immigrants could experience in theaters. In addition to “I Reali di Francia” and the “Guerrino” (by the way, these are examples used by Antonio Gramsci in his writing on popular culture), the above article quotes other historical plays, including “Il prete garibaldino,” written in 1881 by Libero Pilotto. Pilotto’s comedy was very successful in Italy and, together with the plays and films based on national history, especially Risorgimento (Unification of Italy) history, was “exhumed” on the fiftieth anniversary of the Unification and during the First World War.

Theater and cinema were important vehicles which historians today define as “popular national histories,” an area of research which is continually garnering more attention.  These studies have demonstrated that history, rewritten and re-conceptualized by diverse media, is not a prerogative of historians but it is rather a social form of knowledge distinct from the traditional experience of history.  The analysis of this social form of knowledge – which is revealed as very significant in respect to the way in which society remembers its own past – must consider the context in which it is produced and consumed in order to understand which types of “pastness” were available.  In parallel, the historiographic debate affirmed the category of historical culture, which proposes a new approach aimed at developing an “effective and affective” comprehension of the relationship that a society has with its own past. Combining the historiography of entertainment with that of historical culture, I analyze the type of relationship with the past that develops in the context of some Italian communities. My premise is that the past is an element whose presence in the present is vital to understanding the immigrants’ experience and the passage from Italian to Italian-American, and that the entertainment had a function which was very relevant with respect to the relationship that people had with their past. I ask the questions: How was their past created in relation to their current needs? Which past is revisited in order to be significant and relevant? How are the preexisting elements combined to form something new and functional?

Material relating to entertainment located at the Immigration History Research Center Archives (IHRCA)

Beyond a repertoire of major Italian theater companies, I will also consider the recreational shows that were organized by associations that assisted immigrants and by churches. From this point of view, IHRCA is very helpful to my research. For example, these two oral histories provide me evidence of entertainment in public recreational places:

I remember very often Andrew Jackson School, there used to be a playground there. And they used to have movies on… oh, a couple of time a week. I don’t know who… it must have been the park board that used to run… part of Andrew Jackson School. But they used to hang up a screen… actually it must have been a bed sheet… and they would show movies, you know. And all of the neighbors would meet there, sit there and stand there and watch these movies… and sing-along with bouncing balls, you know, Charlie Chaplin and all those there. And then they’d have this bouncing ball and we’d all sing.[3]

[Narrator:] Chicago Commons in the… in the 1900… we’ll say 1912… 1915, they used to take care of all the poor people… feed them. There was dancing on Friday night for young girls, sewing classes, cooking little plays… they had. Mr. Taylor used to run it. He was the head of it… Graham Taylor… and his… Graham Taylor and his sister

[Interviewer]: Do you remember what kind of plays they had?

[Narrator]: Plays, like they… if they knew somebody was talented, they’d give ‘em a part. There was a teacher there. She’d write their scripts and give ‘em a part. And then they’d have an auditorium where they had them display the play. And then you’d go to see them on a Friday night or Saturday night. It was nice… very nice plays.[4]

I want to thank the IHRCA because the Grant-in-Aid Program has given me the opportunity to examine sources of fundamental importance for my research. In addition to the Italian American newspapers collection, the personal papers of Italian-American actors and directors and the Italians in Chicago Oral History Project allowed me to reconstruct a series of important events, such as the scheduling of shows, performances, and screenings, the types and themes of plays and films that were put on offer; the nationality of the theatre companies (whether they came from Italy or were indigenous); and the kind of non-professional shows that were staged and the size and composition of the audiences. Last but not least, the documents kept at the IHRCA allowed me to listen to the voices and to know the feeling of those who attended the entertainment places.

[1] IHRCA, Dan A. D’Amelio, Memories of Dining Out, D’ Amelio, Dan, Papers, IHRC333.

[2] New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Billy Rose Theatre Division, Clipping Files, 8401.

[3] IHRCA, Italians in Chicago Oral History Project, University of Illinois, Thomas Perpoli (Chicago, 13 June 1914), PER-85.

[4] IHRCA, Italians in Chicago Oral History Project, University of Illinois, Mary Argenzio (Chicago, 1893), ARG-89.


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