Nourished by memory, poet Frederick Olessi has roamed the world from Calabria to Israel, from London to Seville. Yet unlike many a lost and wandering artist, he always comes home again to his family home in Lawrence Township’s Eldridge Park.
Thirty years ago, Olessi recorded his memories of the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions of growing up in the Italian-American enclave of Eldridge Park in the 1930s and ’40s. Now the 63-year-old poet’s work, Guvalade: A Roman in the Mud, is being brought to the stage in honor of Lawrence Township’s Tricentennial celebration.
Olessi’s impressionistic memoir, suffused with joy and gratitude, is named for Guvalade Iorio, an affectionately remembered Italian expatriate who, in his loss of his homeland, would constantly and wistfully dance the tarantella in the streets of Eldridge Park.
Directed by Willem O’Reilly, and with commissioned music by Olga Gorelli, the sole performance is at the Lawrenceville School’s Kirby Arts Center, on Saturday, September 20, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10, with funds to go to the creation of an Eldridge Park School Alumni Arts Fund, a fund designed to help today’s schoolchildren to follow their artistic dreams.
I can see Guvalade yet, says Olessi, this dear, dear old man, just spontaneously dancing, not a celebratory dance, but one with a sad, wistful quality. The tarantella is a traditional folk dance named for the tarantula spider. In it, the dancer reenacts a fatal spider bite, moving at ever-increasing speed until his final collapse. Gorelli’s spare musical score, performed by flute, cello, and soprano voice, features seven songs based on the poetic text, and recalls the rhythm of the tarantella from beginning to end. Olessi says that instead of the flourish of tambourine and streaming ribbons usually associated with the dance, Guvalade simply had his hat.
Dance is poetry, he continues. I saw that in what this man was aspiring to in his movement. It was very poetic. It said, Here I am in an alien land, and I miss my homeland which I will never see again.
Guvalade was far from the only alien making his home in Eldridge Park. Scores of immigrants from throughout the world were living there, says Olessi, from England, Scotland, Poland, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia. Just about every immigrant group that came to this country living in that community.
To grow up in the Eldridge Park of the 1930s and 1940s was an experience for a poet predestined to be remembered as I have done in this piece, says Olessi. The incredible richness of humanity that I knew there was certainly extraordinary.
How extraordinary, the audience may discover for itself in this poet’s tour of the old neighborhood. Turn one short street, take a right, a left, another right, past pens of pigs, some trolley tracks, says a narrator, guiding us back to this little world where a cast of men, women, and children step in and out of the author’s words to revivify neighborhood incidents and its people.
At the center of Olessi’s story is his Grandfather Colavita, a native of Calabria in Sicily, and owner of Colavita’s store, on Manitee Avenue, and a bar nearby on Rolfe. Everything was there: church, school, and store it was a world unto itself, says Olessi. Eldridge Park in those days was clearly bounded by Route 206 one side, by the 112th field artillery on another, and by the Johnson trolley line that ran from Trenton to Princeton. After working on the trolley line in his early days, Grandfather Colavita bought a couple of acres there and built 8 to 10 houses on Rolfe Avenue. Mostly these were for his children, but some he rented. And these rentals housed many of the fabulous characters that still live in Olessi’s memory.
Olessi’s mother was one of Grandfather Colavita’s girls, Angeline Colavita, born in Eldridge Park. When she married the Trenton-born Joseph Olessi, the couple moved into one of the houses her father built. Now 86 and 88, Angeline and Joseph Olessi are still living in Eldridge Park.
Joseph Olessi worked as a policeman, the fourth that Lawrence Township hired, in the late 1930s, and he stayed with the force his entire career. He was active in the local Democratic Club and in the building of St. Ann’s Church, the first Catholic church in that part of the township. Fred Olessi had one sister, three years younger, who died last year, and many, many cousins.
While the play represents Olessi’s grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins; the priests and nuns of Saint Ann’s Church; and the patrons of his Grandfather Colavita’s store and bar, at a rehearsal in the auditorium of Eldridge Park school a week before the performance the group onstage speaks of yet another level of community.
Olessi’s invitation to perform a work for the tricentennial came from Lawrence mayor Pat Colavita, who happens to be his cousin. His other notable Colavita cousins are the artists Anthony, and the late James Colavita. The cast of Guvalade includes Robert Bartolino, who today lives within a stone’s throw of most of the play’s action. William Amadio, a professor of computer information at Rider University, plays the homesick Guvalade. Doris Forman, a retired teacher, poet, and 40-year resident of Lawrence, plays characters including Grandmother Colavita. Conducting the musical ensemble is Richard Loatman, music director at Eldridge Park School. Also featured in this memoir of the 1930s are Olessi’s own granddaughters, Fatima and Adrianna Olessi Mantano, ages 11 and 7, students at Stuart School.
Today, in retirement, dressed in black slacks and black T-shirt, embellished with a gold chain, Olessi has something of the air of a European artist. His round face and receding hair are balanced by a close-cropped beard and mustache. As a young man, Fred Olessi graduated from Trenton High School and proceeded to Bucknell University, chosen for the simple reason that uncle James Colavita, the local doctor, had graduated from there. Olessi majored in English and political science there and graduated in 1955.
He began his working life as an officer in the Signal Corps, then worked in public affairs for the RCA Corporation in Washington and Princeton for 15 years. These were followed by eight years at Princeton University, where he was director of development communications. He then went to work in Bologna, in Northern Italy, as associate director of Johns Hopkins School of International Studies (where I got terribly fat following my mother’s rule and eating everything on my plate, he remarks). Olessi returned to five years as a vice president at Rider College, then was abroad again working for the Executive Council for Foreign Diplomats. He ended his career as associate executive director of the Pearl Buck Foundation.
Retirement is something of an overstatement for this artist and development specialist. He is currently working on a conference next year between the Vatican and the Koppelman Holocaust Center at Rider University, which he helped found in 1987.
Compounding the multicultural nature of his existence is Olessi’s wife, Salud, whom he met at Bucknell when she was a graduate student from Seville, Spain. The couple married in 1959, and since then have spent a month every summer in Europe, mostly in Spain. I felt completely at home among Latin people whose ambiance I knew well, says Olessi, who now has homes in both Seville and Lawrenceville. Salud Olessi has been a teacher of Spanish at Stuart and at the Lawrenceville School. Their daughter, Salud, is married to the Mexican architect Abelardo Montano, and lives in Trenton.
Poetry and drama have also been lifelong companions to Olessi. I began writing poetry when I was 7 or 8 years old, he says. I heard it in my head. I’ve never been anything more than a stenographer. Many of his works have been produced here and abroad. He is currently preparing for a production of his play, Ennus, to be presented in the ancient city of Enna, Sicily, as a major part of that island’s cultural offerings for the Italian Jubilee and Holy Year 2000.
The author’s models were few. Shakespeare was the one, he says emphatically. I was still in grammar school at Eldridge Park, but I saw the extraordinary possibilities of language. Then the study of Latin in high school gave me a mirror on my own language that was a wonder. English is the most magnificent language and the best language for poetry. Olessi speaks Italian, Spanish, and French, all brought into use in his work in international affairs.
Guvalade, he says, was written 30 years ago when he was writing a lot of plays based on Greek themes and had also begun making films, both of which were being produced locally. It was a good time and I had finally become a mature adult, he says. It was a transition in my life and I thought, if I don’t do something now about that wonderful childhood, it might recede. It began as a poem, but then these characters began to place themselves in the poetry.
He recalls a line he adapted for his play. In a conversation with his mother, his fourth grade teacher, who had also been his mother’s teacher, told her, He’s a dreamer, Angeline he’s always looking out the window.
Eldridge Park School was central to his own artistic development and that of many others, Olessi insists. The overall theme of the piece is love of place, of people, of time, and the vastness of time and space as tangentially represented in this very small piece of earth.
Olessi says that the expatriate experience early in the century, the experience of illiterate Europeans, many of whom left their homelands as teenagers, was quite extreme. Although his grandparents continued to speak Italian at home, both his American-born parents spoke only English.
I’ve roamed the world, but I always came home, says Olessi. I had the ability to do that. They didn’t. When they left their country as teenagers that was it. Many couldn’t write. They effectively cut off communication with their families completely.
Over the years, Olessi has traveled to Italy and met his Italian cousins of every type, from the governor-general of Sicily to those that still have donkeys on the first floor. And they were all so happy that someone came back.
Guvalade: A Roman in the Mud, Lawrence Township Tricentennial, Kirby Arts Center, Lawrenceville School, 609-844-0330. $10. Saturday, September 20, 8 p.m.