Excerpt from : PRIESTS, POKER AND POLENTA: Growing up at #45 East Main Street, the Other Side of the Tracks

(Author Carole Longo Harris lives in New Hope, PA, is a graduate of Penn State University and has six grandchildren. She has spent twenty years researching and writing about Italian immigrants. Her dream is to publish her collection: Priests, Poker and Polenta, stories about Italian Americans whose lives were an integral part of American transportation and coal mining history devoid of cultural stereotypes depicted on TV series. These hardworking immigrants deserve a voice in history.)

East Main Street was a colorful, noisy and dramatic combination of a daily soap opera, Little Rascal episodes and the Food Network. The set was alive with characters, aroma of Italian food, and all activities of life from birth to death.

Italian immigrants continued traditional customs. Sometimes a bride, on her wedding day, walked to the homes of elderly neighbors to receive bona fortunata kisses, pinches on the cheeks with the customary compliment, Como c'bella! (How beautiful you look!). The grateful neighbor generously presented the bride with an envelope containing money.

Residents didn't need an alarm clock. Noise determined the time of day. Every morning at 6:00 aluminum barrels of beer from Bradford Beer Distributor rolled down metal conveyor belts into the waiting delivery trucks. BAM BAM. The noise sounded like hammers banging on metal trash cans.

A huge multi-colored neon-bowling pin flashed off and on through the living room window at #45, day and night, luring the muscled day laborers into the Recreation Lanes to see how many strikes they could make. The shrill whistle announcing the arrival of a Baltimore & Ohio freight train passing couldn't drown out the loud WHACK of the bowling balls plopping in the lane and bouncing in the gutter. THUD! THUD! As the sixteen-pound solid oak pins slammed up against a rubber backdrop the agile pin boys quickly moved out of the way. During their cigarette breaks the boys went outside the alley, leaned against the brick building and taunted the girls as they walked by, "Hubba Hubba ding ding, look at that porch swing."

In spite of the noise, my parents, Parma and Gerald Longo kept beautiful music alive at #45. When money was tight, the self-proclaimed Boss bought his Doll piano sheet music. Her favorite song was Paper Doll written by Johnny S. Black (1915). The radio sounds of the Big Band flowed from the Philco radio.

Every Friday night when the Doll played poker with the gang the Boss stayed home to baby-sit and listen to Lucky Strike Hit Parade. He crooned just like Bing and Ol' Blue Eyes and remembered all the lyrics.

The door of their ten- room apartment, aka The Do Drop Inn, always welcomed friends and relatives. Parma's family, the Bifano Clan, traveled from Kane to visit on Saturday nights. Gerald's sister, Laura, confidently reigned at the majestic carved oak player piano. When she was twelve years old she accompanied silent movies in the local theater. The guests joined in sing along marathons yelling requests for Indian Love Song, Yes, We Have No Bananas, World War I songs and Broadway show tunes. The funniest song was I'm My Own Grandpa.

Cousins took turns pumping the pedals to rotate the paper piano rolls often lifting the lid to peek at the felt covered wooden hammers pounding out favorite tunes. Smashed fingers were common. They even created strange sounds by pumping the pedals backwards.

A neighbor, Jimmy Orzetti, tapped the Mother of Pearl keys on his huge accordion to squeeze out Lady of Spain, O Sole Mio, and Back to Sorrento. The first note of Beer Barrel Polka summoned the Polish neighbors. They dropped in, whirled around the living room, encouraging reluctant Italians to join them.

Sometimes Parma's friends, dressed to the nines, celebrated New Year's Eve at #45. Once they celebrated at the Moose Club where Gerald serenaded his Doll by harmonizing while the famous Mills Brother performed Paper Doll.

After WW II Parma worked on an assembly line to earn money to buy an automatic washer, and living room furniture. Inspecting the tiny resistors was a tedious job. Dusty carbon particles floated in the air causing skin rashes. Nevertheless, Parma still had plans to rip out the old tin ceilings and walls in the ten-room apartment at #45 before the new furniture arrived.

One day the Doll announced: "The piano takes up too much space. I am giving it away free."

The next week the music died when four strong men attached the piano to heavy ropes and lowered it from the upstairs porch railing to the sidewalk. It was a main event on East Main as neighbors watched and prayed the ropes wouldn't break. The proud new owner hauled the piano to his hunting camp. Rumors spread he chopped up the beloved piano for firewood.

At the movie theaters on Main Street popular musicians performed live on stage. They included Louie Prima and Keely Smith, Cherokee Sweetheart, and Rosemary Clooney Hey Mambo, Mambo Italiano. Every Christmas Santa came to Emery's Hardware store and students lined up on the steps at Fifth Ward elementary school to sing Christmas songs. Aunt Mary worked at Olsen's Department Store so Parma received early notices of sales. Friends met at the Downbeat Restaurant to eat the delicious square slices of tomato pie.

Gerald enjoyed the double feature Saturday matinees at the Dipson Theater as much as his children. Once I crawled under the seat and screamed for ice cream. I fell in love with Roy Rogers and dreamed of being Dale Evans. We watched the News of the Day, cartoons, and previews of coming attractions - all in black and white.

In the fifties Parma was always in the kitchen rattling those pots and pans. The former Kane High Charleston Champ couldn't resist rock 'n rolling with the teenagers. She cut a mean rug on the linoleum floor when Elvis entered the room on 45 rpms. Even romantic Gerald, known only for slow dancing, got caught up in the Twist. After a double hernia operation he kept his promise to dance the Twist at his daughter's wedding.

A young protege, five-year-old cousin, Tony DiMaria, made his musical debut at #45. He wore very thick glasses, never took a lesson or read music. Tony banged out chords and created wonderful music while propped up on a pillow to reach the piano pedals. After high school, Tony became the drummer for the Jesters, a rock n roll band that performed at the Peppermint Lounge in Buffalo. Female groupies screamed, and tried to jump into the car whenever the band raced through a town with the top down on the white Cadillac convertible.

The Jesters' picture is on the cover of the Wild Weekend CD, usually on sale in the gift shop of Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland.

Growing up I loved the music of Gene Autry and Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers and the Riders of the Purple Sage, and memorized all the verses to Happy Trails to You. After getting addicted to country music my trails were always happy. My grandchildren enjoy singing along with Gene Autry's recording of Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer. This timeless version inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame survived from a 78rpm to a CD.

The author is not responsible for errors (e.g. Italian spelling or accuracy) as her stories are mainly based on oral history.

Carole Longo Harris
44 N. Sugan Rd
New Hope, PA 18938