Wednesday, June 3, 2009
The main character in the film "Two Family House" (and our new musical "Buddy's Tavern") is a kind of mid-century, outerborough everyman named Buddy Visalo. Oddly, ever since I made the film, people have asked me if I "knew the real Buddy"--as if there was something about him and his story that couldn't have just been made up.
And I always answer thusly: yes, I knew Buddy. He was my uncle. His name was Dan (birth name: Donato--meaning Donald, which he apparently didn't like) but always, familiarly, "Buddy". Or, to me, "Uncle Buddy". Buddy was an Italian-American, born in the Bronx and destined for a life of manual labor--my grandfather was a housepainter and early on he hired his second born (age 10? 12?) to be his assistant and helper. Never finishing school, Buddy kept working--doing construction, working in factories, doing woodwork etc. All the while he had an intense need to express himself artistically--in his case it was an ambition to be an actor that simmered within him for many years. (He'd apparently had a taste of acting in theatrical productions that they put on when he was in the Navy during World War 2). Barring the ability to become a paid artist, his secondary ambition was to work for himself--to not work for "some guy with a sign that says 'supervisor' over his desk". (I'm quoting my own dialogue from the movie now--but I must have gotten it from somewhere and I bet it was from my Uncle Buddy).
This led him to attempt on a number of occasions launching his own businesses. And one of them that I heard about--it happened years before I was born--had to do with buying a two-family house with the intention of living in one half of the house and operating a business out of the other. Said business being a bar. The story of what happened when Buddy bought the house was a piece of family folklore I heard over the years; there were tenants. They wouldn't leave. To make it worse (assuming you were Italian in the mid 1950's) they were Irish. They were broke. The wife was pregnant. And when my Uncle and some of his thuggier friends went to physically evict the poor couple, the woman went into labor.
The baby being born slowed everything down. The humane and correct decision was made to wait for the couple to have their child and THEN throw their asses out on the street. Only once the baby was born, another issue arose--one that was truly unforseen and scandalous in a way that is hard to fully comprehend in this day and age: the baby was mulatto, clearly not the result of the Irish couple's union.
This scandal didn't solely reflect upon the Irish lady. In a sense the fact that it occurred at the place that my Uncle was trying to convert into his home and business--into his PLACE--meant that it reflected equally badly on him. The disgrace of the mulatto child's birth seemed to have taken the air out of my Uncle Buddy's business plans. I'm not sure how much longer he owned the place. But it wasn't long before he abandoned his plan and was back at the factory...working for that guy with the sign that reads "supervisor" over the desk...
My Uncle Buddy died in 1988 and I thought of him a great deal over the next few years. He--his life--was enigmatic, an unsolved riddle to me. In a sense his character and his unresolved issues were the perfect example of what a writer looks for when creating a character, unanswered questions and all: who was he...what did he want...what stopped him from getting it...what would it have taken for him to conquer his demons?
These are the questions that I thought about it when thinking about him. And ultimately this led to the idea to dramatize a segment of his life, to tell the tale of the two family house, the unfortunate Irish couple, and the stubborn landlord who had to face the scandal that he'd been unwittingly drawn into. I won't tell you what Buddy does in the movie (and now the stage musical) version of his life. Suffice it to say it's a bit different than what he did in his real life. But my decision as a dramatist was to give him the power, on paper, to make the kind of decisions that in life he wasn't able to.
Or perhaps that's arrogant and misguided of me. Maybe the decisions he made later in life--he married several times and attempted to start his own life over on any number of occasions--were indeed informed by events such as the one I've described. Life isn't nearly as neat as a three act script; but it does, in retrospect, oddly resemble a long novel in the rambling, discursive and oddly coincidental way that our "plots" meander along, making a kind of backwards-looking sense as we stumble along to the ultimate and unavoidable climax we all share...
Here's the theatrical trailer of my movie "Two Family House".
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 9:13 PM