All photos by Mark Gordan
Our first production of New Year’s eve at Grandma’s House April 13 was a smashing success. Our two shows played to sold-out houses. We even had to bring in extra chairs for the 8 p.m. show to accommodate all the people waiting to get in.
So what’s next? We had two great audience talk-backs that gave us some great ideas for what will be the second act of this play as it expands from a one-act into a full production. In the meantime, the one-act is available to charitable organizations that wish to perform it as a fund-raising endeavor. Simply contact us here to pursue that option.Members of the cast continue in their acting endeavors after turning in memorable performances. For one evening, they transported me back to my childhood in Brooklyn and to my grandmother’s house as it was that New Year’s Eve so long ago. For that and for all their hard work, I am eternally grateful. Our director, Ryan Kitley, also continues in his acting career. We could not have made this production a reality without him. He is always a most welcome guest at grandma’s house, as are all of you who came to the shows and follow us on this blog.
John N. Frank
Everyone has family stories to tell, so why did I take mine and craft a play out of them? Part of it was a challenge from our wonderful teacher and director Ryan Kitley. After finishing a class with him last year, he mentioned he wanted to teach a performance class – one class devoted to rehearsing and staging a one-act play.
I have been contemplating writing about my family for years but Ryan’s comments gave me a deadline and a purpose for the play. Rather than just writing it, I would see it performed as well. That was all I needed to finish it.
But the answer to the deeper question of why I was considering it to begin with is more complex. The major reason is that I miss all the people depicted in this play a great deal. Most had died by 1995, so I’ve been without them for 20-plus years in many cases.
My dad died in 1986 from a heart attack and so hasn’t gotten to see a great deal of my life. My mother died in 2006 and with her went any chance to hear the old family stories from her, or from anyone of her generation – her sister, my Aunt Millie, died a few months after my mother in 2006. I attended her wake on the first Mother’s Day after mine had died.
Losing them brought home to me that the only way to keep those family legends and tall tales alive was to become the family story teller myself. Writing, as a journalist, was what I had done for a living for 35-plus years, so I felt I could be faithful to the stories I had heard so many times as a child and young adult.
I hope you enjoy the stories as much as I do, most of those told in the play were actual family tales, some have been added to flesh out the dramatic arc of the show. Most of the characters were real people too although some are composites since I couldn’t include my mother’s entire family and find a cast large enough! And all say things they didn’t in real life, again for the sake of the story. But that considered, I think you will get a real feel for that crazy family of mine and, hopefully, be reminded of wonderful times with your families as well.
The response to our one-act play has been truly amazing; we have sold out tickets for both performances as of Wednesday of this week. While we had hoped to sell out, we thought it would happen from last-minute people walking up to buy tickets the night of the show, not in advance like this.
We could still have some no-shows, so there may be tickets at the door Saturday. So if you’re adventurous, please do stop by to check at the Piven Theatre in Evanston.
For the 140-plus people already coming, welcome to Grandma’s House, the party is about to begin!
Sonny is the younger of the two Smaldone brothers. Yo won’t meet his older brother Johnny at the party but you will hear about him. As the youngest, Sonny is momma’s baby and the boy she watches over most closely. He returns the affection by visiting every day even though he only lives across the street.
A “big lug” in the slang of the day, Sonny was a tough kid who achieved some local fame in annual Golden Gloves boxing tournaments that took place in New York in the years when he was growing up. He trades on that fame in his current job as a customs inspector on Brooklyn’s tough waterfront. Despite his toughness, though, Sonny did not fight in World War II, a point of tension between him and his various brothers-in-law who did.
And while he wouldn’t want any of his waterfront buddies to know it, Sonny has been going to Brooklyn College at night to get a degree in accounting — something wife Stella has been urging him to do so they can buy a home of their own.
Sonny met Stella at Roseland, a famous dance club in New York City, and fell instantly in love with her despite her not being Italian. He knows his family will never accept Stella but tries to ignore their verbal jabs at her– all the while trying to prove how Italian he is by shunning other non-Italians.
Roughly 16 million Americans served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, which last for the United States from December 1941 until August 1945. But our story takes placed on Dec. 31, 1960, so why is World War II a part of it?
The reason the war is spoken about in our story is because of the massive impact it had on what we now call The Greatest Generation, Americans born prior to the Great Depression and the world war that followed it. Men came back traumatized by their war experiences, but the tenor of those times dictated that they not speak of it, especially not around their wives and families. So they carried those burdens inside them.
Sal, one of our characters, developed severe ulcers during his time in the service, for example. Vinny too served and hides his painful memories in the funny stories he tells about his early days in basic training. While unspoken, the war is a bond they share which their brother-in-law Sonny does not.
Sonny stayed home during the war, a stigma of those times which he constantly has to explain and justify. Sal obviously thinks less of him for it, but has promised his wife Faye to keep his feelings in check for the good of the family.
But Sal’s breaking point may be near as our party progresses, you’ll have to come see what happens.
Ravioli is a traditional southern Italian favorite. In 1960, Italian families like the Smaldones would make their own from scratch rather than buy them pre-made or frozen as people do these days.
Within the family, there was always a debate about which tasted better, round ravioli or square ones. Del, who you will meet in our story, was a big advocate of round ravioli. She had a special glass, which she got in a free jelly give-away of the times, that she swore made the perfect size round ravioli. She would use its open side to cut out round pieces of dough from giant sheets of dough she would make for parties such as New Year’s Eve.
Her sister Carmela, however, thought square ravioli were more modern and so tasted better. She swore by a dough cutting wheel she used to make square ravioli from her dough. Often two or more of the sisters would come together for big events like the New Year’s Eve party, and make ravioli together, all the while debating whose would be better tasting — even though they all used the same ingredients — egg flour and water for the dough, and ricotta cheese.
So when Del says in our story, “we have the ravioli, round and square,” it’s her way of calling for family unity on a special night. Let’s put aside our differences and eat together, she’s saying.
Another family pasta debate involved tubular Italian pasta, known as ziti, mostoccoli or penne among other names, revolving around the grooved lines some of those pasta traditionally carry.
Sister Faye hated any pasta with lines, saying it made the taste uneven. She would refuse to eat it, no matter what arguments her sisters or others made for her. In later life, when she had a nephew doing her shopping on occasion, she would send him back to the store to return any lined pasta he mistakenly bought.
The cast and crew of New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s House is going to great lengths to recreate the look and feel on New Year’s Eve 1960. Some of the furniture on stage during our April 13 performance, for example, actually comes from the Smaldone House which forms the inspiration for the play.
Costumes are being assembled to recreate what people were wearing. The time, 1960, saw fashion trends which still looked back more to the 1950s. The Hippie Era and look, which many now associate with the 1960s, was still some years away. Men almost uniformly wore white shirts while ties were about two inches wide and straight rather than tapered, narrow by today’s standards.
Furniture was largely traditional, which meant bulky with dark wood finishes. Anything sleeker was often dubbed “Danish Modern” or Scandinavian and relegated to younger people just starting to live on their own.
Grandma’s House is a traditional New York brownstone with rooms lined up front to back, an arrangement known in New York as railroad rooms because they resemble the cars on a train. The front door led into the living room or a side hallway that might lead to the middle dining room or parlor. The kitchen was usually in the back, behind the dining room.
So you’ll see people coming in from the living room into the dining room and going out the other direction to the kitchen repeatedly at Grandma’s House. They’ll also be hearing the front door from the dining room since sound travels freely from room to room.
For almost half a century, beginning in 1929 and going through the early 1970s, Guy Lombardo was Mr New Year’s Eve for millions of Americans. Before Dick Clark and now Ryan Seacreast, it was Lombardo Americans listened to as they prepared to bring in the New Year. He and his band first played from Chicago on radio in 1929 and later went on to be regulars on television every year.
Even as the big band era of the 1940s faded into memory, Lombardo and his Royal Canadians (he was Canadian, of Italian decent) played on. New Year’s Eve wasn’t New Year’s Eve without seeing and listening to him. Lombardo also made Auld Land Syne, an old Scottish tune and poem, into the song that has come to symbolize New Year’s Eve every year. The idea apparently came to him when the sponsor of his show was something called Robert Burns cigars and he felt something Scottish would be appropriate to play, he once told a CBS television interviewer.
That’s why there’s so much excitement at Grandma’s House about Guy Lombardo. It wouldn’t be New Year’s Eve without him.