Why I Wrote New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s House

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.New Years eve3

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.

John

Advertisements

Who Will You Meet at Grandma’s House? Meet Sonny

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.

Chris Johnson plays Sonny.

Chris Johnson plays Sonny.

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.

Who Will You Meet at Grandma’s House? Meet Stella

Stella, Sonny’s wife, is an outsider from this world of Italian-Americans in which she finds herself.

Melissa Mok portrays Stella.

Melissa Mok portrays Stella.

She grew up in an orphanage in Pennsylvania with one sister. Anxious for a better life, came to New York as a young woman to live on her own during the depths of the Great Depression.

With jobs scarce, she became a dime a dance girl, dancing with men for 10 cents in dance clubs that did that in the 1930s. The family looks down on her because of that and has never fully accepted her as a sister. She gets called an outlaw, a derogatory variation of calling her an in-law, meant to show she will never truly be part of the family.

Who Will You Meet at Grandma’s House? Meet Momma

The family matriarch, momma has been slowed by strokes and cataracts from the days when she led her church rosary society in a wide range of church activities. She’s raised eight children through some of the most difficult times in U.S. economic history and a year before the story begins, she’d lost her husband, poppa, at a time she had hoped they could finally start enjoying their lives together.

April Cowgur portrays Momma

April Cowgur portrays Momma

She passes her time listening to Italian language radio all day and thinks of the old country

In real life, the person momma is based on never learned English well enough to speak it with the family, and so only spoke Italian. We have given her voice in English to facilitate the story telling in “New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s House.”

Who Will You Meet at Grandma’s House? Meet Bill

Julianna’s Irish boyfriend, Bill grew up in the exclusive Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn,a world away from the hard-scrabble Italian neighborhood he now finds himself about to visit with Julianna.

Patrick Thornton plays Bill.

Patrick Thornton plays Bill.

His father had been a career Naval officer before starting his civilian career, so Bill came from a professional class family, much different than Julianna’s more working class roots.

As a boy, he even played summer sports with Bobby Kennedy on Cape Cod when they were both children. Rather than fighting in World War II, he took part in the Korean Conflict, making him a different generation than the men in Julianna’s world.

He’s currently studying law, planning to follow in his father’s footsteps, but life may have other plans for him.

Who Will You Meet at Grandma’s House? Meet Julianna

Julianna is the youngest of the six Smaldone sisters and two brothers, the family baby who came along long after momma and poppa thought they were done growing their already large family.

Natalie Jacobson plays Julianna

Natalie Jacobson plays Julianna

She represents another generation from most of her siblings, having been only a child during the Great Depression and a young teenager during the war years that followed.

Even at her young age, she already is achieving firsts:

  • The first in the family to go to what had been an exclusively Irish Catholic grade school in the neighborhood (the others went to public school), she mingles with non-Italians from a young age.
  • The first to talk about wanting to work and having a career.
  • The first to have a wide circle of non-family friends, something not done by older siblings.
  • The first of the sisters to drive a car and own a car

She met Bill while he worked in a bowling alley and is bringing him home to meet the family, and to ask momma a very important question.

Who Will You Meet at Grandma’s House? Meet Aunt Del

Exact ages were never discussed at Grandma’s house, doing so was considered the worst of bad luck. But it always seemed to outsiders that Aunt Del must have been the oldest of the six sisters and two brothers in the large Italian-American family.

Del, unlike all her sisters, never married and as the last unmarried daughter, it became her job to care for her aging parents.

Rinat Urman is Del

Rinat Urman is Del

This role has left her feeling that she must be the family protector against outside threats, including against the men and women who have taken away her sisters and brothers. Rather than call them in-laws to show they’ve joined the family, Del routinely calls them outlaws, her way of saying they have robbed her of her very precious family.

Del also is godmother to Faye and Sal’s son, a very important role in an Italian-American family. The son would routinely come to her when he felt troubled or upset and it wouldn’t be unusual or unexpected for her to show up to confront his parents about something going on in the kid’s life.

Who Will You Meet at Grandma’s House? Meet Carmela and Pasquale

Carmela is one of momma’s daughters, one who enjoys dressing up and reminding her sisters she usually knows more than they do. She fell for Pasquale as a teenager and married him just before World War II began for the United States in 1941. When he was drafted, she moved back into momma’s house to have her first daughter, a girl all the sisters helped raise in those turbulent war years.

A combination of stylish and street savvy, she can shift quickly from polite to super-tough.

Husband Pasquale grew up a tough street kids in 1930s New York but like many Italian American boys, he has a creative side that comes out in his singing and his love of cooking, something he longs to do more of at his father’s Italian restaurant. Now the father of three girls, he’s given up his childhood love of baseball but clings to his one-time dream of becoming a famous singer.

Carmela makes the fish for New Year's Eve at Grandma's House.

Carmela makes the fish for New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s House.

New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s House is the story of a family and a time long since past. But within the story are elements familiar to everyone who has ever sat around a dinner table with their extended family.

At its core, it’s the story about people who love each other, sometimes bug each other, yet are there for each other in tough times and in good.

This is the second is a series of character profiles to help you know the Smaldone family a little better.

Who Will You Meet at Grandma’s House? Meet Faye and Sal

New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s House is the story of a family and a time long since past. But within the story are elements familiar to everyone who has ever sat around a dinner table with their extended family.

At its core, it’s the story about people who love each other, sometimes bug each other, yet are there for each other in tough times and in good.

This is the first is a series of character profiles to help you know the Smaldone family a little better.

Faye is the second youngest of eight children in the family and spent years as the baby, years she doesn’t want to forget even though she has a younger sister now, Juliana. She and Sal met in 1948, after he had spent five years in the Pacific during World War II, an experience that has left him a changed man.

A portion of the cast of New Year's Eve..., rehearsing for its April 13 performances.

The cast of New Year’s Eve…, rehearsing for its April 13 performances.

She brought light back into his world and so he is devoted to her. She in turn loves him passionately because he is a kind and gentle man who can live with her foibles which sometimes drive her brothers and sisters a bit batty.

They have one son who is at the center of one of the major story lines of the play. Although never seen on stage, he could be considered a major character in the play as well.

We hope you’ll come see the show April 13 at either 6 p.m or 8 p.m to find out how.

For ticket information, simply write lvl1971@yahoo.com