Tag Archives: Erie Pennsylvania

Butchie.

Butchie'sBowl

 

The Italians in Erie have always been different from those at the other end of Pennsylvania.

Not sure why, probably settlement patterns. Perhaps the bricklayers all ended up in our port city.

But, Butchie was typical of Erie. He was a Sicilian and Calabrese mix.

And, most of these were deeply familial, multi-generational. All associated, historically, with the mob mystique that shrouded our town for so many decades.

Many of the rest of us, whether Italian of heritage ourselves, or among the scores of other ethnicities represented in Erie’s closely juxtaposed ghettos, regarded the short, broadly smiling, muscular men of his ilk as classed alike.

Most of them worked for the City. Streets. Waste management. Water treatment. Parks and R. They were the crews in charge of maintaining what kept the city going every day.

I confess. I always thought Italian men born and raised in Erie would be workers, to the core. Never did I assume, and errantly, that a single one of them would be at all like Butchie DeFazio.

We’d met in the late 1980’s at Denny’s Restaurant on Peach Street, the old Sambo’s. He’d always come to the counter with Roberto, the tailor. Didn’t know it then, but they were both committed betting men, wagering on the horses at the nearby Downs racetrack. There’d be a coffee, and then several minutes at the PackMan over by the wall, Butchie leaning against it and deftly playing the thing like a slot machine.

Butchie didn’t say much. He liked short words, quick phrases, thick with his tough, second generation accent and attitude. He seemed like a street kid, shy but never letting on, and the first man in town to have hair implanted right across the forehead. Many others would make the attempt, and we’d find out how the pain aborted their efforts; not Butchie. Like everything else we’d come to know about him, he wanted a clean line and would do whatever it took to get it.

In 1986 Mr. Veltri, who’d taught sixth grade at Lincoln, came in for dinner and told me about a vocal music position opening up at the junior high I had attended.  Mr. Ciotti was retiring; did I want to apply? It had been over 5 years since my college graduation day, and this role as waitress had settled nicely for me; short, intense shifts, nothing loading the frontal lobe after hours…..I liked my life. But, expectation beckoned, along with a faint memory of why I went to college in the first place. I took the interview.

The panel included administrators, Personnel, the district psychologist…what were my thoughts on marching band? Obliviously, I gushed; as lead bugler, my father had led his battalion in a parade for the US Army dignitaries. I loved parades!

When the letter from the district arrived, I’d been assigned to East High School.

As music teacher to the East High marching band, choir, chorus, “stage band”, and whatever else the principal called his depository for students not destined for academic superiority, I was both energized and scared; I hadn’t been around teenagers since student teaching years before, and this was the roughest neighborhood in town. Gingerly, I stepped into the bandroom to check out my new digs.

Butchie stepped in right behind me.

Never knowing he’d been employed by the district all this time,  I was astonished to discover that, he having bid out and vacating the position to the newbie, I was the winner of his prized legacy.

Mr. DeFazio hadn’t been at East very long – maybe a couple years. Figures. He’d not been at all understood, by anyone there, any more or less than I might have been. Politically, the East side belonged to the Poles and the Germans and the Russians, after all, and the Italians should stay on the West side where they came from.

He was heading to the elementary schools, he’d said – something I would do many years later, to stay, just as he. And, then he carried on with his usual flair. Only this time he peppered his delivery with complex chord progressions; a jazz pianist, he disclosed, he had “played out” in the Erie scene for many years, all in the past, he kept assuring me.

Turned out we’d both graduated from Fredonia State University. He’d been a piano major, no less. Then, the teaching degree, same as mine. Who was this masked man, and why had I never heard him play?

I asked him to sit at the nearby piano.

He refused.

He’d stopped playing, he said. Stopped playing out. Stopped playing.

I stared at him.

And, I never, ever found out why.

Years in, when I had moved to the elementaries, he would stop in out of the blue. On his final visit, a couple years before I retired, he brought me a huge box of videotapes to use – and, did I want them all for just 200 bucks?

One time, I’d asked him to stop over to the house. I thought maybe, if he did, he could play me some Chopin. I’d heard from Mary Ann, his sister, that he played a hell of a classical piano, too. I pled. I begged. He never came.

About four years ago, after his beloved sister Judy died, he moved from his house to the Glenwood Towers. And, he called me. Would I stop over? He had some music he wanted me to check out.

He looked good. Enhh…a little sugar, he said. A bit thinner, but still vital and on it like always. He took me to the storage cages. Here were boxes filled with Fake books, sheet music, and volumes of classical literature – the Beethoven sonatas. The Brahms. My God. The man had played everything.

He insisted. Ruthie, he called me, Ruthie, take it. Take the stuff. Take the Fake books…….I left most all of those, selecting a Brahms folio and some Beethoven. It was so good to see him.

A few months ago, Butchie died. He had been failing, Mary Ann said – getting ever thinner and thinner. But, true to form, never a peep about discomfort, never a need expressed, always tough, always cheerful. The casket was closed. I averted my face, feeling utterly exposed at the funeral. Why did his death feel like a tragedy?

Mary Ann told me, a few days later. He’d played his graduating recital at Fredonia, and the family was there. She said he came out, and sat at the piano, and didn’t move. He sat, for an entire seven minutes, without placing one finger on the keys. Then, he began to play.

She said the performance was stunning. Everybody in the audience felt it. And, everybody at Fredonia talked about it, for weeks and weeks thereafter. Samuel “Butchie” DeFazio was brilliant. A master.

I don’t know whether Erie will survive. Our city has been mismanaged by proud, short sighted people for decades. Entrenchment has seeped its dulling, molding poisons into the landscape and, in spite of a whole generation of emerging talent and intelligence, its families of longest standing – and, their legacies – are threatened with extinction.

One wonders how many Butchie DeFazios have been lost in that terminal shuffle.

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© Ruth Ann Scanzillo   6/24/17    All rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line. Be a good person.  Thanks.

littlebarefeetblog.com

 

 

 

 

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Mrs. Diehl.

Erie, Pennsylvania has been straining, lately.

The Commonwealth is being alarmingly recalcitrant about sending sufficient funds all the way to its northwest corner, as if defying the entropic forces that pull all assets toward the valley is just too much effort, too much of a threat to the homeostasis of those driven to entrench an already archaic class war; as a result, the School District of the City of Erie is in total crisis – closing high schools, losing five thousand students with only the scent of enough loaves and fishes to feed those who remain.

And, even the contingent of otherwise-safely retired teachers bite their nails, wondering if the time will come when somebody decides to dip into their rightful, guaranteed pensions, that portion of their salary which they deferred for twenty five to forty interminable years on the promise of that guarantee.

Mrs. Diehl doesn’t have to think about any of this. She’s long been dead.

Her daughter, however, just passed away. Today. Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong’s life ended in federal prison, her body succumbing to cancer, the disease which often overtakes those who are otherwise hopeless.

Marjorie, a troubled child taken in and adopted by the Diehl family, as accomplice to what would become the stuff of national tabloid news had managed to cap her life in Erie by participating in the most bizarre crime in the city’s history: the case of the “Pizza bomber.” Details of the morbid scenario included a frozen body, a bank robbery, and an innocent delivery man whose life came to an end in that bank parking lot in the blazing sun, the bomb strapped to his neck exploding in front of an entire flank of helpless law enforcement officers and medical personnel.

But, Mrs. Diehl had lived a generation before.

She first appeared at Lincoln Elementary School as a substitute teacher. In those days, substitute teachers paid their dues, and those dues were sure to be rewarded; show up enough times to cover the random classroom, and the offer of a secure, full time position was assured.

I first saw her, seated, at the upright grand piano against the wall, which ran parallel to the teacher’s desk in virtually every classroom at school. She wore perhaps a dark green Chanel styled suit – boxed jacket, small lapels, simple sheath skirt; on another day, a dark blue and black plaid shirtwaist, its full, pleated fabric draping the piano bench. Her lipstick was scarlet, and her hair raven black, classically curled around her ears and neck with the dramatic upward swoop over the forehead which marked a woman of real class who’d come of age in the 1940’s.

It was customary, during the 1960’s, to begin the school day with the Pledge of Allegiance and a silent prayer. But, if the teacher played the piano, there would also be a song. And, this is why I loved Mrs. Diehl.

Already seated as we entered the room in the morning, Mrs. Diehl would already be playing that piano. Full on, with the grandest of gesture, her arms arching and diving from bass to treble, the strains of “America the Beautiful” resounded like a cross between a rousing march and a triumphant anthem. There was nothing, absolutely nothing rudimentary about this woman or the music she made, and the result was utterly infectious. Had we slept restlessly the night before, or endured the screechings of a “We Can Do It”, post-wartime mother frantic to get her children off to school so she could get to the machine shop without being late, the sound of Mrs. Diehl at the piano dispelled any and all angst of such a hyperventilating morning with one, windswept burst of song.

Furthermore, after we had stood to Pledge, to pray, and to sing, only to dutifully be seated, Mrs. Diehl would continue to play. And, for myself, a budding young musical student already being chauffeured off to the Erie School of Music every Thursday at 4:00pm for my own piano lesson, I was deeply transfixed, listening, watching. Several minutes would pass, as Mrs. Diehl, never once making eye contact with any of us, her countenance intently introverted by her voluminous musical mind, played song after song. She would become my first true model of performance, giving herself totally to the enterprise, instinctively knowing and manifesting the inherent value of the music itself.

Other cultures on this planet also know the inherent value of the musical art. They make certain to include music and music related activities in as much as 50% or more of their student curriculum. And, research scientists who devote their efforts to the study of the human mind and the brain which drives it are consistently putting out data in support of the multi-level value of music as both a discipline and art form. Now, there is enough evidence to defy all detractors; those who make music, and specifically those who play the piano, have some of the most highly developed brains on the human spectrum.

Mrs. Diehl may have been a superior musician, but she was also a woman of compassion. No one knows for sure how or why she adopted the girl who was called Marjorie. But, she did. Yet, just as every human is capable of both strength and profound weakness, of confident stride and defiant misstep, Marjorie made a rocky pattern out of her life. And, Mrs. Diehl did not live to see the culmination of her daughter’s actions, a blessing indeed; diagnosed with mental illness, Marjorie very likely did not receive the benefit of music therapy in her lifetime and, in the end, even her mother could not alter the behavior potential of a starling child, though she had made the effort of a lifetime.

But, Mrs. Diehl did contribute to the nurture of hundreds and hundreds of Erie’s children, mentoring other teachers as well, and is remembered by many as a remarkable educator. She also left distinctive, inspiring musical renderings in the minds and hearts of everyone who entered her classroom. Lest the community of Erie and those who view it from afar regard the story of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong as a tragic stain, a moment of honor is due her mother, whose efforts painted an elegant, graceful picture of enduring nourishment. Perhaps her story, and those of Erie’s best teaching professionals, should be celebrated instead.

Erie, Pennsylvania could use just such recognition and encouragement.

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© Ruth Ann Scanzillo  4/4/17       – All rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line. Thank you for your respect for those whose story is told herein.

littlebarefeetblog.com

The ERIE CHAMBER ORCHESTRA: He Built it, and They Came.

Way up in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, there is actually a state park called Presque Isle. A 13 mile peninsula, this vacation destination draws tens of thousands, each summer, to its eleven public beaches, lagoons, campgrounds, and trails. The city which hosts this gem is called Erie, after the Great Lake which bears the same name. It is here where small, but emphatic, dreams are realized. This is the story of one of them.

The Erie Chamber Orchestra was founded over 35 years ago by the late Bruce Morton Wright. An African American raised by God-fearing parents, his vision took him well beyond the stereotype of his generation. Though he’d spent his early years as a jazz saxophonist, Bruce’s dream –  a sudden epiphany, coming to him while seated in the audience of an orchestral concert – was to create a symphonic ensemble of professionals that would present the music of the masters to any audience interested in attending, regardless of socio-economic status. To say that he realized this vision would be an understatement.

An Erie native, Wright qualified by earning a music degree from Mercyhurst College and then studying conducting, both in Vienna, Austria and Colombia, South America. Upon return from his training abroad, he formed the Erie Bayfront Orchestra. The unique feature of this orchestra was its “no ticket required” stature; admission, to every concert, was: FREE.

This ensemble caught the attention of one Charles Beyers, a local philanthropist, who offered a sizable trust through which the orchestra was able to sustain itself for many years. Via this support, the orchestra’s professional musicians were able to receive AF of M Union scale compensation for each “service” (every rehearsal and performance), and Maestro Wright a modest salary.

Though the name was eventually changed to the Erie Chamber Orchestra, its conditions for performance were not; musicians were still paid, at professional Union scale, and the audience’s admission was still free.

Over the decades which followed, the ECO could be seen and heard at such venues as the Villa outdoor promenade, aptly named “Music in the Air”, the Bayfront open amphitheater during the Erie Summer Festival of the Arts, and even served to originate what would become the Lake Erie Ballet Orchestra, with its annual production of Tschaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.” The regular season’s offerings were always heard at either Gannon’s Mary Seat of Wisdom Chapel, or the beloved St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

Bruce, always a man of the people, was warm, accessible, and fiercely loyal both to his musicians and audience alike. He did the work of three people – planning the program, presenting it, and completing it, down to the stacking and hauling away of the last chair and music stand.

Sometime in the mid-90’s, CNN caught wind of this anomaly and sent its filming crew, to document the story and to interview Bruce Wright. The feature appeared nationally, quite a thrill for both the musicians and the entire community of loyal audience members. All were especially proud of Bruce, for being recognized in such grand style.

Several years prior to the illness which took his life, Bruce sold the orchestra’s rights to Gannon University. Gannon committed to the continuing support of the ECO’s mission, maintaining its seasonal offerings while upholding its promise to provide music free of charge to the public. Gannon pays the salaries of both the conductor and the business manager, and provides a marketing budget for the seasonal calendar and any outreach efforts.

The Erie Chamber Orchestra is not, nor has it ever been, affiliated with the Erie Philharmonic Orchestra. Each is a distinct entity, with both a distinct financial structure and season calendar. The only similarity, which many may note, is that both orchestras share some personnel – primarily across the string sections.

Like the Erie Philharmonic, professional personnel which populate the Erie Chamber Orchestra hail from both the city of Erie, its surrounding townships, greater Erie County, Meadville, and Pittsburgh, as well as university centers in Western New York and Eastern Ohio.

Maestro Matthew Kraemer, originally associated with the Buffalo Philharmonic, succeeded Bruce Wright following the maestro’s death in 2011. Though he is leaving in 2017, his efforts have expanded the orchestra’s repertoire and personnel considerably. Regional professionals in attendance have remarked at the quality, both of the ensemble and its musical execution, of the new “ECO”. Notable soloists, just in the past two seasons, have included numerous Eastman School of Music faculty, as well as Concertmaster David Kim of the Philadelphia Orchestra, cellist Roman Mekinulov, violinists Rachel Barton Pine and Michael Ludwig, and even actor Harry J. Lennix as narrator for Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat”.

We are a proud and durable lot at the ECO. We welcome both your support as audience attendees, and your generous donations toward our financial sustainability. If you have never paid a visit to an ECO performance, go to the Erie Chamber Orchestra at Gannon University and email our GM, Camille Pierce. Request that you be placed on the mailing list. She will send you a season brochure! All you’ll need, beyond that, are the wheels to take you to either Luther Memorial or First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, where we perform in season 2016-17. There really isn’t an affordable venue in Erie County big enough or acoustically suited to the needs of our orchestra, so these churches have opened their sanctuaries for our use, an act of generosity for which we are very, very grateful.

The 2016-17 concert schedule has brought the ECO into yet another season of candidates vying for the baton. Two down, three to go!

Hope to see you, soon! Bruce would be so happy. And, in his memory, we would be, too.

Thanks!

Ruth Ann Scanzillo
principal cello,
Erie Chamber Orchestra.

littlebarefeetblog.com