In my perfect operatic scenario, the elevator in my apartment building is empty when I step into it, I cut loose with my best basso profundo rendition of Verdi’s “La donna e mobile” as the door closes, and when arrive on the seventh floor, there’s no one there to give me that “What was that?” look. When I grew up in Roseland, there was one place to go for amateur, yet very (to us) professional opera: the Roseland Operetta Club.
The club was located at 372 E. Kensington St., a few doors down from Raymond Levine’s men’s clothiers and just west of the South End Club and Parise’s Restaurant. Before getting into performing operas, it was known as the Chiupanesi Club, a soccer and social organization that raised funds through feasts and other events. Their sports efforts centered on the Roma Soccer team. In the ’20s and ’30s, they had a very good team that did well and garnered many supporters. Invariably, their celebrations would turn into mini-music festivals as everyone sang the team song, which was written and composed by two teammates: Emil Valente and Maestro Frank Bortoli. Unfortunately, the words to what I’m sure was a rousing song have been lost to history.
As time went on, the Chiupanesi Club evolved into the Roseland Operetta Club. The musical performances allowed the members of the club to raise money to fund scholarships to the St. Anthony grade school, assist families of veterans in Italy, and to support worthy causes in their hometown of Chiupano, Vicenza. The photo below showing some of the founders of the Roseland Operetta Club was taken from a book, written in Italian by Amabile Santacaterina, that is available for review at the Casa Italia Roselli Library.
In the beginning, the Roseland Operetta Club rehearsed in John Lavarda’s basement on 118th & Prairie Avenue. They rented space at the Venetian Hall at 139 E. Kensington St. for their performances, such as the December 1939 production of “La vedova allegra.” The club’s first president. Felix Stella, managed to make it a family affair by getting his brothers Nino and Joe involved and, of course, his son Bob.
Felix was one of the most outgoing insurance salesmen in the community. A number of people I’ve spoken with recall Felix stopping by on a monthly basis to collect the ten-cent insurance premium for each member of the family. Ten cents might not seem like much today, but if you had eight children, you were paying a whole dollar a month when a loaf of bread cost a nickel.
I recently spent a few hours with my new friend, 94-year-old Anne Lavarda Ronzani, who provided information for this column since they rehearsed in her father’s basement. She gave me the accompanying photo from one of their performances. In the photo below, Anne is the fourth woman from the right. She was 19 years old at the time. She doesn’t remember the names of the other cast members in the picture, but she did have a story or two for me.
The woman on the far right of the photo was from Caspian, Mich., where Anne’s family came from, but she couldn’t remember her name. However, she did recall that the woman really liked Joe Stella but Joe wasn’t particularly fond of her. The young lady decided to stay in Roseland to try to win Joe’s heart but to no avail. Time dragged on for her and she grew sad over a love that couldn’t be. As fate would have it, her father passed away and her brother had to take over the family’s auto dealership. Within a short time, it was clear to her brother that she was needed back home to take care of the books for the business. She returned to Michigan, never to return to Chicago.
I’ve been told that then nineteen-year-old Lidia Ostarello was an excellent pianist for the Operetta Club. Lidia was smitten and totally in love with Tony Stella, who loved her back. However, her mother didn’t approve of Tony, and constantly accompanied her to be certain that the two stayed apart. Tony went off to war and Lidia married. Tony returned with a woman that he had met and married in Italy. However, true love prevailed. Years later, after they’d both been widowed, they renewed their friendship. Happily, they remained close companions until Tony’s passing a number of years later.
In addition, to Anne’s stories, I’ve been in contact with Joan Marie Brazzale, whose dad was Valentino ‘Tino’ Joseph Brazzale. Joan told me of a family gathering after her father’s passing at which she was talking with her sisters about their happy memories of the Roseland Operetta Club. The conversation turned to the many holiday parties they attended as children when Joan mentioned how she had always been frightened of the Santa Claus at the annual Operetta Club Christmas Party.
When her sisters began laughing, Joan turned to them with a puzzled look on her face. Her sisters asked if she knew what they were laughing about. She had no idea. That was when they revealed that the fearsome Santa Claus of her childhood was none other than her own father, in full fake beard and costume.
Some of the operas presented by the Roseland Operetta Club were: “Il paese dei campanelli,” “Luna Park” and “Scugnizza.” The names of the members that took part in the performances, both small and great, directed by the very capable Vincente Santacaterina, are familiar to many Roselandites: Bortoli, Brazalle, DalSanto, Stella, Frigo, Martello, Muletti, Sola, Mistro, DalleMolle, Carollo, DeMuri, Simoni, DalCason, Lavarda, Filosofo, Sterchele, and Vallortigara.
I’ll be scanning and posting the Roseland Operetta Club program booklets that I received from Anne Ronzani. You’ll feel like a time traveler as you look at the ads. The Kensington part of Roseland, in no small part due to George Pullman’s patriarchal policy of keeping his Town of Pullman dry, was home to many taverns, clubs and bars, which all advertised in the Roseland Operetta Club programs. I will be certain to add the link to the postings in one of my future columns once I have scanned and saved the programs.
Ray Rigoni, age 83, of Lansing and Roseland, was a 30-year employee of Torino/Gonnella on Kensington Avenue. Through his many years at the bakery, Ray served in many positions, finally retiring as route supervisor. A longtime member of the Veneti nel Mondo, Ray was known for his wonderful voice and spent many years sharing his talent with the St. Anthony of Padua Choir.
St. Anthony Feast
Sunday, June 10, will be the celebration of the Feast of St. Anthony at St. Anthony’s on Kensington Avenue. There will be a Mass followed by celebrations in the church basement and a procession. For details, call 773-468-1200.