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

Why Is World War II Part of New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s House?

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.

American soldiers in World War II

American soldiers in World War II

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.

Do You Eat Ravioli? Round or Square?

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.photo (3)

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.

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Who is Guy Lombardo? Find Out at Grandma’s House

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.

Mr. New Year's Eve, Guy Lombardo

Mr. New Year’s Eve, Guy Lombardo

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.

What About the Food at Grandma’s House?

meatballs and gravy -- staples of Italian-American cooking

meatballs and gravy — staples of Italian-American cooking

New Year’s Eve marked the end of the Christmas season for Italian-American families in the 1960s. Christmas was a time of constant eating as you visited one relative after another, each of whom put out massive feasts to welcome you to their homes.

New Year’s Eve was perhaps the biggest feast of all because it was not unusual to have several meals over the course of the party, the first before midnight, a second after midnight and a third in the wee hours of the morning. Food was more than sustenance, it was the almost sacred element to bind the family together. No matter how many fights broke out over the course of an evening, everyone came together around the food.

Trays of stuffed shells, typical Italian party dish

Trays of stuffed shells, typical Italian party dish

Those days seem so long ago now, I sometimes wonder if I imagined them. So few people are left in my family now who remember them. So I have tried to capture that magic again in New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s House. You’ll hear all about Italian dishes that were common during the holiday season.

We wish we could serve you some of those dishes in the theater but of course that’s not possible. But you can try some after the show at Dave’s Italian Kitchen, a long-time Evanston establishment that I personally recruited as a sponsor because I have loved the food there for more than 35 years. Dave, there really is a Dave, continues to make Italian food the way I remember it as a kid growing up in Brooklyn. And he’s added new dishes to keep up with the times as well.

Click here to see his ad on our sponsor page and click through there to see his menu and Website. Dave’s is only a few minutes from the theater in downtown Evanston, well worth a stop after the show or anytime you want real Southern Italian cooking.

And if you’d like to hear more about Italians and the family bond that food brings, check out this video I found on YouTube. This person is not affiliate with the show in any way but he is definitely a kindred spirit:


John

How Will We Transport You to 1960?

New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s House will take you back to Dec. 31, 1960. That was the year the United States elected an Irish-Catholic president, the precursor of a decade filled with change and upheaval for the country and the world.

How will we make you feel that you’re in that time and place? Hopefully with our words but also with our staging of Grandma’s House. We are so fortunate to have a sponsor, Swantiques, an Evanston antiques store that offers a wonderful array of mid-century furniture and memorabilia.  

Momma's chair

Momma’s chair

Much of the furniture you will see on stage, along with other items in the house, is being supplied by Swantiques for our performances. Chief among those items is momma’s chair, the throne-like seat from which she presides over the Smaldone family.

Also on-stage that night will be items from cast members family homes, items that date back to that era. Included in these will be side cabinets that were in the actual Smaldone home that inspired this play. When you hear poppa spoken of, know that these were pieces of furniture poppa actually made.
John

Where are the Costumes Coming From?

Cast members in New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s House are responsible for assembling their own costumes — costumes that approximate what party goers in 1960 would have been wearing that night at Grandma’s House.

The styles most closely associated with the 1960s, loud, Hippie-inspired looks, had not happened yet in 1960. Styles that year still harkened back to the 1950s. Men were wearing ties and white shirts along with pleated front pants. Ties had shrunk to approximately two inches wide after narrowing throughout the late 1950s.

Ties you'll see in our play.

Ties you’ll see in our play.

Women’s dresses looked formal by today’s standards but seemed casual at the time compared to some styles that had come before them. The level of casual dress we practice today was unheard of in 1960 America. Even attending a party with family was a dress-up occasion, as you’ll see here looking at the pictures from the actual Smaldone family New Year’s Eve party that inspired the play (see left column here).

So cast members are searching for appropriate attire. Some have even bought patterns and are making party dresses. Men’s ties have already been crafted from ties of today.

Dress styles of the mid- to late-1950s were still being worn in 1960.

Dress styles of the mid- to late-1950s were still being worn in 1960.

It’s all about carrying you back in time to Dec. 31, 1960, to a little Brooklyn, N.Y., brownstone for New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s House.

What is Stickball? And is it Played at Grandma’s House?

Stickball is a quintessential New York City street game. A version of baseball, it’s played with a skinny bat and a rubber ball.

In the Depression of the 1930s, talked about in our show, bats were often broom or mop handles. But by the 1960s, local toy stores sold manufactured stickball bats that had tape on the grips much as baseball bats once did.

The rubber balls used carried one of two brands, Pensy Pinky, which were the cheaper balls that could be bought for a nickel or dime in the early 1960s, and Spaulding, pronounced Spall-dean in Brooklyn, which were the exclusive balls that cost 25 cents in the early 1960s.

A typical (circa 1960) New York City stickball game.

A typical (circa 1960) New York City stickball game.

Bases were drawn with chalk or sometimes painted on streets a car’s width away from curbs because most streets always were full of parked cars. Second base was usually about two manhole covers up the street from home plate. Sometimes teams used pitchers, in which case the game was called “pitchin’ in” but if there weren’t enough kids around for full teams, games often were played with batters simply tossing the ball into the air and hitting it before it hit the ground.

Balls hit onto rooftops were automatic outs, balls that hit cars before being caught were ground rule doubles and anything hit four sewers away was a home run.

Why all this detail about stickball? Because a stickball bat has a very prominent role in New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s House. How can that be? Come see our show to find out.

What Does the Waldorf Have to Do with Grandma’s House?

When you come to see New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s House April 13 at either 6 p.m. or 8 p.m, you’re going to be hearing about the Waldorf. Specifically, you’ll hear about dancing in a Waldorf ballroom. What’s that all about?

The Waldorf Astoria Hotel is a long-time upscale New York City landmark. It was swanky and posh before every hotel chain you can think of north of Motel 6 was trying to position itself as swanky and posh. For members of the Greatest Generation growing up in the Great Depression in New York, the Waldorf was another world, one they could only dream being a part of.

The lobby at the Waldorf.

The lobby at the Waldorf.

A Waldorf ballroom.

A Waldorf ballroom.

So it’s no wonder that one of our characters relishes her memories of the Waldorf. What memories? Let’s just say a ballroom is definitely involved, as is the lobby. To find out more, order your tickets here now. See you at the Waldorf!

Here’s Where the Magic Will Happen

New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s House is a one-act play set in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1960. But to bring back that time and place, we’re renting the famed Piven Theater in Evanston for our April 13 performance.

Here’s what the empty stage looks like. As you can see, audience members will be on two sides as the performance takes place, helping them to feel that they are in grandma’s dining room along with the fabled Smaldone family.

Piven Theater awaits New Year's Eve at Grandma's

Piven Theater awaits New Year’s Eve at Grandma’s

Tickets are being sold without assigned seating, so arrive early to pick out your seats. Performances are tentatively scheduled for 6 p.m and 8 p.m, Saturday, April 13, 2013. E-mail us here for ticket information.

Please note, this is not a Piven production, Evanston’s 2nd Act Players are renting the facility from Piven for the evening. Do not contact Piven for performance or other information about this show. But do stop by this blog often to see the latest and to read what’s going on behind the scenes.

JNF