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!
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