BY RICHARD FASANELLA
Charles Berry came out of 108th Street and 42nd Avenue in Corona. The oldest of nine children, he was forced to drop out of Fordham University at the age of 20 when his father died and he needed to support the family.
Eventually Berry made his way into radio broadcasting, landing work as an announcer at WOV which is now known as WEVD 1050 on the AM dial. At the time, WOV was owned by Arde Bulova of the famed Bulova watch company.
One day the unionized station employees decided to strike, placing the young broadcaster in an awkward position. As the highest ranking management person present at the station that day and a member of the union, Berry had to choose between management and labor. He chose labor and shut down the station. Bulova promptly fired him and then tried to have him blacklisted from the broadcasting industry.
However, by that time World War II was in full swing, and Berry began working in the Office of War Information, the propaganda arm of the federal government. Ultimately, he ended up at WNBC as an announcer before he died suddenly in 1944.
But it was at WOV when he met his future wife — Italian language actress Yolanda Carluccio, known professionally as Yolanda D’Este.
Although a native of Brooklyn, this child of Italian immigrants would later move to Queens — living much of her life in the various neighborhoods of Astoria, Jackson Heights and Whitestone.
Carluccio was a born performer. By the early 1930s, her stage performances were getting favorable reviews from The New York Times. Her stage work involved a repertory company that toured the greater New York area, including stops throughout Queens like Paretti’s Hall in Long Island City.
Carluccio’s radio acting was concurrent with her stage work. At one point, she was involved with three separate “soap opera” style programs whose sponsors included Ronzoni, which had its pasta factory in Long Island City.
Peddlers, Feasts and Nicknames
Giacamo Fasanella and his wife Isabella Spilotros, owned the local grocery store in the closely-knit, largely Italian section of Ravenswood. During the Depression era and through the war years, no one left the 37th Avenue store without something to eat.
It didn’t matter whether or not you had enough money. If people from the neighborhood needed a little credit, their names were recorded with the amount they owed. When they earned enough money to pay for the food, the debt was erased.
Oftentimes, items from the store were sold loose because few could afford to buy full packages. Whether it was the dry macaroni products or the milk — which was sold by the cupful — no one went without. Even popular brand name cigarettes like Camel, Chesterfields and Lucky Strike were sold individually for a penny each.
Whatever you didn’t find in the store was provided by the street peddlers, who walked throughout Ravenswood singing songs to let the residents know they were around.
In the days when iceboxes were commonplace, people like “Ralph the Iceman” would travel the streets of Queens selling large blocks of ice.
After using his ice pick to cut out a piece of ice, he would use metals tongs or even a burlap sack to carry the heavy, frozen block to your apartment, which sometimes meant trudging up three or four flights of stairs. In the summer it was the best job to have, but as the winter months came the icemen would often peddle coal and kerosene to keep sales going.
While other peddlers sold such products as linens and articles of clothing, still more offered services like the knife sharpeners who used a grinding stone powered by a foot pedal to whet the blades.
Ravenswood included a proud common heritage, as residents of the devoutly Christian neighborhood held several annual feasts in honor of various patron saints. While the Polignanese paid homage to St. Vito every June 15, other locals honored Sts. Cosmas and Damian — twin physicians and martyrs whose feast day occurs in September.
Arguably, the most popular celebration was the Neapolitan festival honoring St. Paulinus of Nola on June 22. The highlight of the event was the parading of the giglio, a large religious icon built by the local residents.
Standing about three-stories tall, this paper-mache spire stood atop a wooden stage where a small band sat and played traditional Italian songs. The truly spectacular moment came when this entire construction, including the band, was lifted up on to the shoulders of the local men who would carry the giglio throughout the local streets.
That was Ravenswood. It wasn’t just a neighborhood, it was a way of life.
It was a time when everybody had a nickname from Sonny Fish and Joey Hot Dogs, because their fathers sold fish and hot dogs, to more unusual characters like Jellyroll, Tweety and Pluto.
It was a time when the Loft Candy factory on Vernon Boulevard and 40th Avenue was making some of the best chocolates in Queens and the strong smell of tobacco drew numerous people to DeNobile Cigars.
It was a time when you could take the trolley car on Vernon Boulevard to Gala Amusement Park at North Beach, which is now LaGuardia Airport, or see reputed wiseguys like Vito Genovese and Frank Costello at Smokey Joe’s pool hall.
Most importantly, there was a sense of community that many would say far surpasses the neighborhoods of today. Essentially you had large pockets of immigrant communities recreating their home towns all over again, never learning English or assimilating themselves into American culture. The world was changing but the communities remained the same.
The culture shock didn’t hit until after WWII had passed and people were returning home from the service, many of whom were young first-generation Americans who wanted to break free of the limited confines of these small communities. Instead they chose to venture out on their own, turning away from the traditional ways of the “old country.” While that generation’s efforts to create its own identity has helped make Queens the most ethnically diverse place in the nation, it’s hard not to think that maybe something has been lost in the process. But perhaps by passing along the stories of the past we can ensure that future generations will never forget.