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  • Grandpa Pouted as Grandma Swooned for Valentino
    Italian Memories

    by Cookie Curci

    In an era of fast cars, flappers and bathtub gin, a restless and liberated generation searched for a hero. They found him in silent screen star Rudolph Valentino who, a decade earlier, was among the influx of poor Europeans who came to America.

    Like most Italian immigrants arriving in New York City, Valentino found work at a number of unskilled jobs procured by his fellow countrymen -- jobs that included dishwasher, waiter and taxi dancer.

    Born in Castellaneta, Italy, in 1895, he was christened Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla. The handsome Italian would later reinvent himself as Rudolph Valentino to become the silent screen's biggest star.

    It was Valentino's dancing career that eventually led him to Hollywood, where his dark good looks and seductive glances appealed both to American-born youth and immigrants who had passed through New York's Ellis Island earlier in the decade.

    Immigrants felt a special kinship with the Italian-born star, especially young Italian woman of the 1920s who so adored Valentino that they christened their sons "Valentino" Or "Rudolfo" in his honor. It's been many years since I sat upon Grandma's knee listening to her reminiscence of the great Valentino.

    Grandma, like most of her generation, first saw Valentino on the silent screen in 1921 starring in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. After that film, Grandma and every female over the age of 18 fell for his charm.

    Valentino's personal life became a strange montage of hasty marriages, messy divorces and scandalous romances-- par for the course during any Hollywood era. Valentino's flashy appearance and arrogant style earned him disfavor with the American press, who deemed him a corruptive influence on the younger generation.

    It was around this time that Valentino's most memorable film The Sheik debuted at my Grandma's local Hippodrome theater. Grandma insisted that Papa take her to every performance. Grandma would stand impatiently by the front door, anxiously waiting while calling to her husband: "Vene, vene, Papa", Come, come, Papa its time to see Rudolfo. Grandpa would grudgingly oblige.

    That was until 1922, when Valentino made a film called The Young Rajah. In this film, the young attractive star wore little more than a skimpy, bejeweled loincloth and turban. The loincloth displayed far too much of the star's anatomy to suit Papa.

    "No wife of mine is going to be exposed to such scandalous behavior," he grumbled and forbade his wife to see the film. Grandma's temper erupted and for the next few days there would no peace in the house until Grandpa relented and took grandma to see the film.

    But he issued one condition: Grandma would have to cover her eyes when Valentino's bare chest appeared on the screen. Grandma reluctantly agreed and was forced to watch the move through cupped hands, discreetly peeking through her fingers.

    To capitalize on Valentino's popularity in the mid-1920s, the Ghirardelli chocolate company included a randomly placed picture of the star inside the wrappers of their candy bars. Grandma took daily walks to the grocery store to purchase one of those chocolate bars. Most times Grandma tossed out the candy and kept the wrapper. A howl of delight would echo through the house whenever Grandma discovered a picture of "The Sheik" inside the wrapper.

    Papa's attitude toward Valentino's films softened when the actor starred with the beautiful Vilma Banky in The Son of the Sheik. Grandpa was beguiled by the glamorous Banky and gladly took Grandma to see this movie. Unfortunately, it would be Valentino's final film.

    During the 1920s, Valentino and his films came to symbolize exotic Arabian nights. As a result, ornate wall tapestries, tunics, cassocks and garish jewelry became the rage in home decorating and personal wear. For many years, a gaudy tapestry of a sheik riding off on a white stallion hung on Grandma's living room wall. Although each male member of the family voiced his dislike for the garish tapestry, Grandma's daughters and granddaughters understood its significance and why she stubbornly refused to take it down during her lifetime. The tapestry served as a reminder to Grandma of her early arrival in this country, of her young married life, her lost youth, and her beloved movie sheik. He was to her what Elvis was to her Granddaughters or Brad Pitt is today to her great granddaughters.

    Valentino died in 1926 at the age of 31. The official cause of death was a ruptured appendix. But millions of female fans, including Grandma, refused to accept that he could have been felled by something so mundane. Instead, they chose to believe he met with foul play, poisoned perhaps by a scorned lover. This theory was encouraged by a mysterious lady in black who, for 50 years, placed a bouquet of flowers on Valentino's grave.

    Though Valentino earned millions during his heyday, when he died on Aug. 21, 1926, he was broke and deeply in debt.

    There's an ancient belief that a man lives as long as the last person who remembers him. Few of Valentino's original fans survive today, but judging form the light that shone in Grandma's eyes each time she spoke of him, Valentino the man may be gone, but Valentino the legend will long live on.

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