Coppola’s Muses

Beginning as an Italian restaurant in an old abandoned theatre in 1961 not only brought Mediterranean cooking to the Hudson Valley, but Coppola’s Restaurant inadvertently inherited the theatre roots of the building. The theatre used to be called The Rialto Theatre which opened in 1920. It was owned by Bardavon Theaters Corporation (the same owners of the Bardavon) until 1925, having several owners thereafter. The Rialto was a 1600 seat theatre, a much bigger theatre than The Bardavon 1876 Opera House. In 1921 it advertised in the Poughkeepsie Eagle with the slogan “At the Rialto Nothing But The Largest and Best.” Tickets prices were between 17 cents to 55 cents and they hosted burlesque shows like The French Frolics, NY Broadway shows and in 1924 they hosted Fitch’s 19 men with singing, dancing, comedic acts and even women impersonators. One paper said it was the “best attraction in many moons!” So needless to say when three brothers and three sisters opened up the first Coppola’s Restaurant in 1961 it literally had a “hard act” to follow! But these Italian immigrants from Monte di Procida and Ischia brought to Poughkeepsie a restaurant where getting a table on a Saturday night was like getting seats to a sold out show! In the early years in true theatre form Coppola’s Restaurant served many celebrities with the likes of Pat Carrol, Dennis Day, Barbara McNair, Ernest Borgnine and of course our own local James Cagney who followed us to upper Main Street.

Sadly when Poughkeepsie Urban Renewal condemned the building my parents begrudgingly moved to upper Main Street. But we couldn’t leave the theatre roots behind so we brought the Rialto Theatre statues along with us. Moving to upper Main Street provided us with more than just celebrities, we even got the whole drama department from Vassar College. I consider those statues theatre magnets because by moving to Arlington we attracted quite a few celebrities, John Travolta, Martin Sheen, Bill Duke, Liza Minnelli, Matthew Modine, Ralph Bellamy, Mark Lynn- Baker… etc etc. But not just actors but sport figures as well with the likes of Joe Pepitone and Floyd Patterson. But who did we end up valuing the most? Our most loyal customers: the Vassar Drama Department, of course! Coppola’s Restaurant was the stage to the drama professors! There was Professor Evert Sprinchorn, also chairman of the drama department and author of several books. Professor Sprinchorn was very quiet and always looked the part of professor with his tweed jacket. Professor William Rothwell was my favorite! Not only did he teach at the Vassar College Department of Drama but he was also chairman of the department. He translated several operas from French and Italian into English for staging at Vassar and he also directed many plays, operas and musicals. Professor Rothwell was quite a character at Coppola’s. He would often come in leather jackets and riding boots. And it wasn’t all for show! He was an avid equestrian. Speaking in his Shakespearean voice as if he was reading from Hamlet, he would say to my brother “Coppola, I had such a good workout riding and I am so sore!” My brother, Nick would look at Prof. Rothwell up and down to his tall black riding boots and would razz him by saying “Rothwell I think I had a bigger workout than you at a bar fight last night.”

With his rich, dramatic accent, one would never guess he was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri! One student described the professor as a teacher whom not only did he learn stage-blocking techniques but also learned that at parties at his house, one never sits down during cocktails. I can just imagine Professor correcting the young student on etiquette. It was always such fun with Prof. Rothwell, he just loved to mix it up with us. I had the pleasure of meeting Meryl Streep one year and I was so excited to tell Professor Rothwell. I knew he was one of her professors at Vassar. So I asked him what he thought of her while teaching her. He said that they knew early on that she was destined for greatness. “Merryl stood out from all the other students!” the professor exclaimed in his deep rich voice.

Along with the professors we also were privy to get to know Genevieve Kenny. Mrs. Kenny and her family frequented Coppola’s restaurant since 1961. She served as administrative assistant in Vassar’s drama department for 43 years until she retired. She was there longer than any of the professors. Some have even said with tongue in cheek that she ran the drama department. Mrs. Kenny performed many jobs there including acting on stage. No wonder she and her son readily volunteered to star in one of our TV commercials! So proud to have a professional included!A lovely woman who is always perfectly coifed and smartly dressed, an inspirational character that starred on the Coppola stage right to the last day we closed!

Let’s not forget we also need a theatre photographer. Dixie Sheridan, another of Vassar’s finest, was a staple at Coppola’s. During the time that she was a constant at Coppola’s (Baked Ziti and Eggplant Parmagiana were her favorites) she was employed at Vassar, her alma mater, as editor, writer and photographer for the Vassar Quarterly, assistant to the president, and vice president for college relations. She is now a NYC freelance photographer specializing in the documentation of performing arts and also has a specialty in theatre productions. She is quite renowned and has had her photo archive of theater productions at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Art for years, which has recently been acquired by the New York Public Library. Our loyal bartender Leo McCabe took pictures of Dixie and proudly kept it in his Coppola’s photo albums!(We inherited the albums after he passed away) I wonder if he knew that he was photographing a famous photographer?

The statues are sitting ominously in our restaurant all alone now. I have been writing to a few historical societies hoping to find a home for them. They deserve to bring others the same pleasure and prosperity they brought my family. The Rialto statues need to be kept working calling out like sirens drawing in the theatre. The Theatre Historical Society of America have actually in their possession the only print of our very own Rialto Theatre drawn by Anthony F. Dumas in 1924. I thought the statues would feel right at home there. I am checking with museums here in Poughkeepsie as well, to see if they have room for those poor lost souls. I want to leave these statues to someone who appreciates the power they possess, the power to attract fame and fortune! Hmmmm… maybe I should hold on to them a little longer!

Yeah, I am Napolitan’

These last few months I often think about my dad’s brother. He was one of the original 3 brother’s that opened up the first Coppola’s Restaurant. Zio Vincenzo just passed away in June joining my dad. I thought I would dedicate this blog entry to him. I close my eyes and try to envision my uncle. I’ll start with his name – I grew up calling him Zio Vincenzo as did all of my American born cousins, but I was always perplexed because everyone else in the family called him Viiishhie!!! And it was always long and drawn out like an exclamation. Viiiiiischie!!!!! Kind of like – the chorus of a song. But, as I think about it now… Zio always seemed to talk in poetic verses, and maybe people were inclined to respond with a chorus. I used to think that all Italians have conversations using rhymes and little jingles. But I realized that it was only Zio Vincenzo that talked that way and it became contagious. One of my favorites of his was his morning greeting when he would find us kids still laying in bed. It was common for his family and ours to be spending the summer months in Italy. Amidst those happy sounds in the morning with the roosters crowing and the venders yelling out their wares, Zio would belt out a greeting “A sera varca varc e a matina non si trovano i barch… (If the boats rock all night and you won’t be able to find them in the morning) and my father would joyously greet him back with a Viiiishieee!!!!!!

Now for all of you that don’t understand Italian or should I say Napolitan or could I narrow it down even more and say Montese. It’s an Italian lingo that has evolved in this little mountain town in Italy called Monte di Procida which overlooks the bay of Naples. The Montese cadence is rhythmic and the words are comedic but the meanings are profound. Zio always spoke in Montese, in a sing song sort of way with a big smile on his face. He would sing all his words, all his greetings…his jingles made us all feel so warm and special. Let me tell you about another one of his sayings. I was very shy when I was little and I didn’t talk much in company. Zio Vincenzo would whisper in my ear “chi tenn’ a lingua va in Sardegn.’ The literal meaning of this in English makes no sense – If you have a tongue you can get to Sardenia. What he was telling me was that” if you speak up anything is possible.” Grazie Zio, I have put in action your words of wisdom on a regular basis and have likewise encouraged my children.

And of course he couldn’t drive through Pozzuolli without saying “Pozzouli puzzelent pur l’erba e feting.” And I loved watching him stand his ground with my dad at his side while making a point to some “paisano” who took his parking spot. “Ma com`e stu faat” (What’s the story)… as they both sing songed the poor guy into moving the car. No one had a chance with Zio’s fast tongue and wit. And then my Dad with a big broad smile would look at his brother and they both laughed.

I can only imagine what my father is saying to Zio Vincenzo as they both see each other in heaven, “Viiiischiieee, I fatto buon che mi si venuto a trova! ( I am glad you came to find me).” And Zio Vincenzo would say….. “a facia e sta pizz’ Peppi non mi faceva fa sape che ca si mangia boun! (Why didn’t you let me know that the food here is good!!)”

As I remember Zio Vincenzo I decided to really dig deep in trying to understand this dialect and what exactly it is. I would like to get to the bottom of the Montese /Napolitana lingo. Is it like here in the United States where each part of the country has different accents? But in dialect the words really vary. As I was trying to write down my uncle’s expressions in dialect I found it really hard. As I tried to spell them out according to sound, I found that they didn’t really look like Italian!

I have to say that traveling through Italy during summer vacations when I was a young girl not only did I get introduced to wonderful food, but I learned so much of the Neopolitan language. My parents are both from Campagnia, the mid through southern part of Italy. My dad and his brothers were born in Monte di Procida while my mom and her family were born on the island of Ischia, a 45 minute ferry ride from Monte di Procida. I will have to write more about Ischia later. That’s a whole other fascinating story!

Napolitana is just one of several dialects in Italy. Napolitana ( Neapolitan) along with the other dialects though out Italy is not a variant of Italian but rather has its own grammar, orthography, proununciation, and vocabulary. So the Napolitana dialect is not at all like the regional accents here in the US. Dialects are actually separate languages of their own. The base of Napolitana language is from Latin but is also mixed with the languages of the people who inhabited and dominated the city of Naples: The Greeks, Normans, French and the Spanish. In modern Italy, dialects are still the primary spoken idiom, although the standard Italian is virtually the only written language.

No wonder it didn’t look like Italian as I tried to write down my Uncle’s expressions! But I am proud to say that the Neapolitan dialect,or Napoletano as they say in Italian, is the best known dialect aside from the standard language. It is mostly due to its heavy use in popular Italian songs!

Napolitana has a long history being not only an official language of the kingdom of Naples in the 1400s but also has a vast collection of literature between poems, books and plays written through out the centuries. Along with the long and prestigious literary tradition, it’s the famous musical tradition that most people are aware of. Even Rosemary Clooney sang the famous Mambo Italiano! It is still heard often in our American musical history even in the current pop music of Lady Gaga which “ Mambo Italiano” was featured in the beginning of her hit song ‘Born this Way.” Another recent song that was turned into techno is “Tu vuò fà l’americano” (English: “You pretend to be American”, or more idiomatically, “You’re an American wannabe”). It is a Neapolitan song by Italian singer Renato Carasone. The lyrics are about an Italian who imitates the contemporary American lifestyle and acts like a Yankee, drinking whisky and soda, dancing to rock ‘n roll, playing baseball and smoking Camel cigarettes, but still depends on his parents for money. The song is generally considered a satire on the process of Americanization that occurred in the early post-war years, when southern Italy was still a rural, traditional society. You know now that I think back – maybe that’s why the villagers in Monte di Procida would ridicule me by singing that song to me! But I didn’t take it as an insult. I realized I knew enough Montese that they didn’t know I was really an American born Yankee! I am sure if you have ever eaten at our restaurant on any given day these two songs were played quite often. I never got sick of listening to them!

Sadly this infamous dialect was also considered the language of the ignorant because after the Italian unification most Neapolitans did not understand standard Italian. The newspapers in Napoli wrote in Napolitana so they could understand the laws of Kingdom of Italy. This dialect remained the common language of the populace until the 1950’s as literacy increased and standard Italian became more generally accepted as the national language. I became fully aware of this myself growing up. My parents and their brothers and sisters came to America in the ’50s. I was the first born American in a household that the only language spoken was Napolitana. So through the years as we visited Italy I became increasingly embarrassed that I could only speak the dialect. I found that for most Italians their first contact with the standard language comes in primary school and then it becomes natural for them to go back and forth between dialect and standard Italian. So when I went to college I made sure I minored in Italian to learn the standard Italian language. I was so surprised to find such differences in grammar and vocabulary. Believe you me! I turned a bright red many times as I would raise my hand to answer a question in Mrs. Gioelli’s class at Marist. I found out that “io sacho!”is dialect for “Io so!” in standard Italian. I learned quickly that my typical Meridional dialect (Central to Southern part of Italy), has so many deviations from standard Italian. A couple of examples is that chi in napolitana- takes the place of pi in standard Italian-; thus chiù is (più in Italian), and chiove is (piove in Italian). Also I found that unaccented vowels are often pronounced as an undifferentiated vowel, similar to the English schwa. The articles (excepting il’) in Napoletano are clipped to bare vowels: ‘o libbro (in Italian it’s il libro), ‘a casa (la casa), ‘e piatte (i piatti). Overcome by so much to remember I would inadvertently blurt out something in dialect in class and my professor (this little old white haired Italian woman) would double up in laughter. I can still hear her cackling in my head. I learned very quickly that my dialect was not Italian!

I am now able to switch back and forth depending on where I go in Italy. I always speak Napolitana in my father’s village of Monte di Procida but know enough to switch to the standard Italian when I go elsewhere. When I first get to Italy I am quite rusty. But after a few days my tongue loosens up and I become one of the natives! Hahaha…I wish!

I thought I would share with you some more of the comedic expressions that I grew up with!! If you could all permit me to be so bold……some of the phraseology is a little racy! J

Una cape squatrate che devo fare rotundo!
A square head that needs to be made round
I had to laugh when I heard my Aunt use it to describe getting my cousin tutored!

Chi ten’ a lingua va in Sardegna!
Who has a tongue can find their way to Sardegna!
By speaking up you can get anywhere!

Buono buono, la terza volta buono si fesso!
Good once , twice , the third time good you are an idiot!
My mom would tell the story of her teacher in ischia who happened to be a Franciscan monk. Whenever he lost his patience in class he would often use this expression. He always gave the class 2 chnaces and then he would blow up that he wasnt going to be an idiot and give them a third chance!

Che si dic….
What do you say?
This is a typical greeting in Monte di Procida. Sort of like the way we use “what’s new?”

Ta gia fa a cape con cipolle!
I am going to fry your head with onions!
My Nonno (grandfather) on my mom’s side,an Ischitano ,would say this all the time when I was being a bratty kid

Mi fa sci ra denti gl’occhi!
You are making it come out of my eyes.
When I was little I took this expression literally when the grownups would say this to each other in raised voices. I used to watch their eyes to see if anything really did come out of them!

Va fa il paese di policinella!
Go relieve yourself in the town of clowns.
My dad would use this expression when he was trying to be descreet around us kids)( You want to hear how naive I am? I always this expression was vulgar but I didnt realize that it meant go to hell

Va fa Napoli!
Go relieve yourself in Naples! (It actually means go to hell)
For some reason this expression was considered way worse than the above expression. I can’t figure out why because they really mean the same thing!) I really am surprised that the a Napolitan would use this expression because it originated in Sicily describing that the worst place to send someone besides hell is to wish them to go to Napoli!

A putanna di mammete!
Your mother’s whore.
Now this is one of the worst of the worst expressions. To this day my mom denies ever saying it to me. I tease her by telling her that she said this so many times to me that I used to think it was my name! She throws a fit when I tell her this! Hahaha…….