Three visionaries, three stories to tell, three new films—it seems we’re having a Hollywood moment. Someone, please, turn down the lights.
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Bells on the Hill
It was an offer he couldn’t refuse. In 1997 Dr. Herbert T. Casalena of the Knights of Columbus, a charitable and fraternal organization affiliated with the Catholic Church, approached Gus Parodi—a somewhat lapsed Catholic but a proud Italian-American and lifelong Wilmingtonian—about a project. “They wanted to do a small film that traced the history of the church and its impact on the neighborhood,” Parodi says.
That neighborhood is Wilmington’s Little Italy, and that church is St. Anthony of Padua. The church, its schools and senior center stretch from Ninth to Tenth streets along DuPont Street. Those streets are home to the annual St. Anthony’s Italian Festival, which takes place over eight days in June and draws thousands of people to the neighborhood.
Those people—their faces, families, stories, food and music—fill “Bells on the Hill.” What began as a small film became a three-year project for Parodi. With almost no budget and no professional filmmaking experience, Parodi enlisted Matt Swift as a creative partner and set out to make a movie about Wilmington’s Italian-American families, their neighborhood and the church they built. They started with a priest.
“We went to see Father (Roberto) Balducelli, the 97-year-old priest at St. Anthony’s,” Parodi says. “He’s a walking history book. I’m telling you, the man knows and remembers everything. Everything. We interviewed him several times, then we went into the archives at St. Anthony’s. There were thousands of pictures. Thousands. Then we talked to people from the founding families: the DiSabatinos, the Fortunatos, the Fendozas. Then we went to guys on the street and interviewed them. We said it like this: ‘Who are you and what’s your family’s history in Little Italy?”
All of that film—35 hours worth—became a 77-minute documentary. The movie premiered to a sold-out crowd at Theater N in Wilmington in July. “So after three years of work, we put the thing up on the screen and we didn’t know what people were going do, how they were going to react,” Parodi says. “Let me tell you what happened. People laughed—and they cried. We had a lot of tough guys crying in the movie. We struck a chord, and that chord was nostalgia. The movie is about us, our neighborhood, our heritage. They stood up and applauded for two minutes at the end of the film.
“And me? I couldn’t put my hand on just one feeling. I was dissatisfied, because I was still wishing that we had done small, tiny, microscopic things to make it better. I was proud, not of myself, but of the community, the families, the Italian-Americans, the parts of Wilmington depicted in the film. I think that’s how everyone in the audience felt, like it was a little bit of all of us, our heritage, right there on the big screen.”
So how did Parodi, 72, a barber by training, become a documentarian? Parodi had no experience in movies or television, but he had a lifetime’s worth of storytelling.
“The very first thing I remember writing was when I was 8 or 9 and it was for a class assignment. There was one particular nun—a real knuckle-cracker—who was all over my back to finish this writing assignment. So I wrote a story about finding a penny, and I wrote about the entire life of this penny. I thought for sure that I’d get into trouble writing about something like a penny. But the nun, she loved it. She thought it was fantastic. I was a little kid, but it made a big impression on me that she liked my writing.”
Parodi also filled his imagination with books, TV shows like “The Lone Ranger,” and lots and lots of movies. “A bunch of us kids would go to the Park Theater at Fourth and Union and pay eight cents to see a double feature. I loved ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ with Bogart and ‘Going My Way’ with Bing Crosby. But my favorite was ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ with James Cagney and the Dead End Kids. ‘Ma, ma, I don’t want to die!’ And the guy in the crowd says, ‘Rocky’s yellow.’ Ah, I loved it.”
So when it came time for Parodi to tell the story of his own neighborhood, he was well versed in narratives of heroes and tough guys, kids and Catholics, and the women who brought them all together.
Meanwhile, in Dewey Beach, a movie was being filmed about one particular woman and the town she brought together.
Page 4: Mayor Cupcake