The Italian Tribune Looks Back at the 1970s and 1980s
Gaining Respect – Hollywood Provides the Biggest Hurdle
Once a marginalized, and only marginally tolerated minority, Italian Americans are now among the most highly accepted groups. Statistical data is one thing, it is another to realize that although this group has not only integrated into society, it remains integral to it and has managed to do so while proudly maintaining its Italian American identity.
By the time of the 1980 census, 12.1 million individuals claimed Italian ancestry, equal to 5.4 percent of national population. Italian American’s traditional anchors of family and work ethic remained strong throughout 1970s and 80s. Stereotypes associated with criminal behavior haunted Italian Americans and this increased during the 1970s, due to the popularity of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.” This extraordinary film unfortunately led to an entire new genre of film, inaccurately and inappropriately casting Italian Americans in a negative light. Unfortunately this image has been forged into the minds of many and continues to this day.
The political ascent of Italian Americans was realized as second and third generations reached maturity and became well-represented in city and state offices. They had begun to penetrate the ranks of the federal government, especially the judicial system. By the 1970s and 1980s, there were Italian American cabinet members, governors, federal judges, and state legislators. Only four Italian Americans sat in Congress during the 1930s, but more than 30 served in the 1980s; in 1987 there were three U.S. Senators. The candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro for the Democratic vice presidency in 1984, the high profile of New York governor Mario Cuomo for three terms from 1983 to 1994, and the appointment of Antonin Scalia in 1986 to the Supreme Court are indicative of Italian American political importance.
The Rise of Inflation
Inflation was a big concern for everyone during the seventies. In 1970, a new house cost $23,400 and by 1979 the price was up to $58,500. Wages trailed those figures. The average income in 1970 was $9,350 and by the end of the decade, it had reached $17,550. It was a decade that saw everyone learn a new abbreviation – OPEC. In 1970 a gallon of gas was 36 cents and by 1979 it was 86 cents.
1970 saw the first Earth Day (April 22) and the birth of the EPA. The NFL reached prime time with Monday Night Football and the World Trade Center was completed. The year also saw The Italian Tribune’s first year as sponsor of the Newark Christopher Columbus Day Parade. The first Grand Marshal was Joseph Sivolello (Director of the Newark Housing Authority).
1971 saw the end of the Gold Standard for American currency, in an attempt to halt the increasing inflation. Disney World opened in Florida. Cigarette ads were banned on TV and a lot of great jingles went with them. The Grand Marshal that year was Don Francello – owner of Don’s 21, a hub for business leaders and politicians. In 1972, the Ford Pinto cost $2,078 and a gallon of gas rose in price to as high as 55 cents a gallon, before settling back down to 40 cents. Average Income per year was $11,800. That year saw the release of The Godfather followed in 1974 by its sequel. Both films were brilliantly made, but renounced by Italian American organizations as defaming to the character and culture of Italian Americans.
President Nixon visited China and the Soviet Union on two separate historic trips. The 1972 Olympic Games were forever marred by the taking hostage and murder of Israeli athletes by the PLO.
In June of that year, there was a break-in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington. Although a minor news item of the day, it would have far reaching consequences in the years to come. Today, every scandal is given the suffix – gate. The Columbus Day Parade had two Grand Marshals and they were the first to receive the Italian Tribune’s Christopher Columbus Award – Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Pieretti, who were the owners of Brookdale Soda.
The gas crisis erupted in 1973, as OPEC doubled the price of oil. It was only the first step in rising prices. Oil went from $1.50 a barrel to $11.56 a barrel over the course of a few months. Americans choked at the substantially higher gas prices and also had to endure long lines just to purchase the stuff! Speaking of choking, the Heimlich maneuver was also developed at this time. Peter Rodino became Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in January 1973 and led the investigation into The White House involvement in Watergate.
The biggest news of 1974 was the resignation of Richard Nixon. Faced with the prospects of impeachment in the aftermath of the Watergate cover-up, he leaves the office and hands over the keys to Gerald Ford, who became Vice President after Spiro Agnew resigned (tax evasion).
In 1975, Jimmy Hoffa disappears from the face of the Earth, but Frankie Valli reappears on the charts with his comeback hit “My Eyes Adored You.”
On May 6, 1976, the Friuli Earthquake, measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale, struck in northeastern Italy. Almost 1,000 people were killed, 2,400 were injured, and 157,000 were left homeless. Italian Americans rush to send support for the victims. That year saw the launch of Apple Computer and the Concord Supersonic Airliner. Bob Hope was the Grand Marshal of The Italian Tribune’s Columbus Day Parade. It was also the Bicentennial of The United States of America! Gerald Ford’s pardoning of Nixon had a backlash effect as he lost the presidential election to Jimmy Carter, plunging America into four years of political and economic stagnation.
1977 saw the price of gas rise to 65 cents per gallon. The first MRIs were used to map the brain and other parts of the body and on July 13, New York City had a 25-hour blackout, resulting in widespread looting.
An 8-track tape player could be purchased for $169 in 1978. The average income per year was $17,000 and the average cost of new house was $54,800. In that year Pope Paul VI died and was replaced by Pope John Paul I, who died 33 days after becoming Pope. He was replaced by Pope John Paul II. In New Jersey, gambling was legalized in Atlantic City.
In 1979, Joe DiMaggio was the Grand Marshal of our Columbus Day Parade. The Shah fled Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini assumed power and Iranian students stormed the US embassy to hold 66 Americans hostage. To put pressure on Iran, President Carter issued orders to ban Iranians from entering the U.S. and to deport any Iranian students whose visas were in violation. Roughly 15,000 were deported.
In March a series of mechanical and human errors caused a partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, sparking the “No Nukes” cry across the country.
The 1980s and America’s Comeback
In 1980 the average price for a house was $68,714; by 1989 it was $120,000. A gallon of gas began the decade at $1.19, but by 1989 it was down to 97 cents. The average price for a new car was $7,210.00 in 1980; however by the end of the decade it had more than doubled to $15,400.
1980 was a bad year in many respects. In the U.S., Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington State. In November, a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck southern Italy. The Irpinia Earthquake caused the death of 2,483 people, left at least 7,700 injured and 250,000 homeless. Italian Americans, many of whom had roots in Southern Italy, felt the devastation as though it had happened in their own back yards. The outpouring of assistance from the U.S. totals over $70 million. In December, John Lennon is shot and dies in New York City. On a brighter note, Ronald Reagan is elected as the President of the United States.
In 1981, MTV is launched and Sandra Day O’Connor is nominated as the first female Supreme Court Justice. The following year, The FIFA World Cup is held in Spain and Italy wins the title, Bobby Rydell was the Grand Marshal of our Columbus Day Parade. In 1983, Motorola introduced the first mobile phones to the U.S and Microsoft released their word processing program –Microsoft Word. In 1984, Frankie Avalon was the Grand Marshal of our Columbus Day Parade.
In 1985 Coca-Cola introduced “New Coke” which goes down in history as one worst blunders in marketing history. Another blunder from 73 years early is also discovered – the wreck of the Titanic. Tommy Lasorda received the Italian Tribune’s Christopher Columbus Award.
In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in the USSR, as did the Space Shuttle Challenger, killing all on board. In 1987, Mickey Mantle received the Italian Tribune’s Christopher Columbus Award. During this era, the economy in the U.S. steadily improved and would continue to do so for another four years. In 1988, Ronald Reagan finished his second term in office and George H.W. Bush was elected after defeating Michael Dukakis, who looked very silly riding around in a tank.
As the decade closed, the biggest news was the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall was torn down and the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled a quarter million barrels of oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska.
Italian American Entertainers during the 70s and 80s
As music changed, Italian American entertainers of the newer generation could be found in rock bands and jazz groups. Jon Bon Jovi, born John Francis Bongiovi, and Richie Sambora, both from New Jersey teamed up in Bon Jovi and made hair bands popular in the 80s. Al Di Meola, a jazz fusion guitarist, showed us how smooth jazz guitar could be, while Chuck Mangione did the same, but with his horn in “Feels So Good,” a chart topper in 1977. The 80s brought us guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani, and Lou Gramm, born Louis Andrew Grammatico, who was the rock vocalist for Foreigner.
Liza Minnelli, whose mother was Judy Garland and father was Vincente Minelli, rose to fame in Cabaret in 1972. Cyndi Lauper proved that girls just want to have fun with her smash album “She’s So Unusual” in 1983. Madonna, born Madonna Louise Ciccone, became a star in the mid-1980s and influenced music, fashion and young women around the world.
In the films, Albert R. Broccoli produced ten James Bond films during the 1970s and 80s. Francis Ford Coppola brought us a string of blockbuster – Patton in 1970, The Godfather in ’72 and its sequel in ’74, Apocalypse Now in 1979, to name just a few. Michael Cimino co-wrote and directed the chilling film “The Deer Hunter” in 1978. Brian De Palma from Newark, NJ directed such classic films as “Carrie,” ” Scarface” and “The Untouchables” in the 70s and 80s. Many Italian American directors and actors rose to prominence.
Italian Americans had plenty of sports stars during the 70s and 80s. In Baseball there was Sal Bando from the World Series wining Oakland A’s; Hall of Famer Craig Biggio; Newark-born Rick Cerone; Rico Petrocelli from the Red Sox and Cy Young winner Frank Viola. In boxing there was Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and at the other end of the spectrum was 1988 Men’s Figure Skating Olympic Gold Medal Winner, Brian Boitano. Linda Fratianne won the silver for the U.S. in 1980. Football had Italian Americans such as Nick Buoniconti, Franco Harris, Dan Marino and Joe Montana, but there was also Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. – owner of the 49ers and Coach Bill Parcells who finally brought a Super Bowl to the Giants in 1986. Golf produced Mark Calcavecchia and Donna Caponi, who had four Major wins for the LPGA. Mary Lou Retton (whose original family name was Rotunda) took the gymnastics gold in the ’84 Olympic Games, while Mike Eruzione was the captain of the Miracle on Ice Team hockey team in 1980.