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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Rumors of Demise of Westport Italian Festival are False

By James Lomuscio

Rumors that Westport’s 22nd Annual Festival Italiano next week will be the final one due to a dearth of young blood and volunteers are false, according to the festival’s coordinator.italianfest07080401260.jpg
Westport’s Italian Festival: still going strong. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) file photo

“Not at all,” said Roberta Delladonna Troy, for the past six years the coordinator of Festival Italiano, also dubbed the Italian Festival.

“It’s a rumor. The Italians are strong, and we’re going to go for it. It’s certainly not going to be my last festival.”

Scheduled to kick off Thursday evening, July 7, with a parade down Riverside Avenue to Luciano Park off Franklin Street, the festival is set to run through Sunday night, July 10.

In the mode of an Italian street fair, each year it draws more than 100,000 visitors to its concession stands, rides and musical acts in Italian and English.

How the rumor of this being the last festival got started, Troy said, is anybody’s guess. However, some say the rumor can be attributed to the fact that the festival’s key planners and workers have since died, moved out of town or have grown too old to take on the responsibility.

Troy, who is also president of Loggia Francesca Lodge of the Westport Sons of Italy, which sponsors the event, says her organization currently has 110 members, and about 30 have volunteered to work on the festival.

Originally known as the St. Anthony Feast, the event dates back to the early 1900s in Saugatuck, which was unofficially zoned as Westport’s Italian section.

Westport’s Italians, who helped build the railroad before deciding to lay down their own tracks toward the American Dream in Saugatuck, were historically segregated, and their children even attended a separate elementary school, the Saugatuck School.

The festival thrived through the mid-1900s, but ceased in the 1950s after the Connecticut Turnpike cut through the Italian section, which virtually decimated Saugatuck.

In 1983, Louis Santella, who owned the Riverside Barber Shop, his brother Chip Santella, Peter Romano Sr. and John LaBarca, host of the radio show, Italian House Party, on the then Westport station WMMM, resurrected the festival, and it has drawn huge crowds since.

In recent years, Chip Santella and Romano have since died, and Louis Santella has moved to Florida. LaBarca, who several years back served as the festival’s grand marshall, also won’t be there this year, since he is scheduled to be in Italy at the time, Troy said.

On top of that, Troy said, it has been difficult getting volunteers to set up the tents, put out chairs and help with the wiring.

“People are getting up there in age, and the younger generation doesn’t care to get involved,” Troy said.

While all of these factors may have fueled the rumor mill, Troy stressed, they no way portend the festival’s demise.

“Rumors, just like anything else, get started,” she said. “With the help of God and our health hopefully Festival Italiano will continue for years. It’s a wonderful thing for the community.”

This year’s event boasts longtime Saugatuck resident Angelo Veno as grand marshall, more than 30 rides including a 90-foot-high Ferris wheel, plus a petting zoo, and 17 food vendors.

Musical acts include the Italian songs of Frencesco and the group Odiessa, plus American acts including Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge and the Del Vikings.

William Cribari, a retired special police officer who grew up in Saugatuck and a former grand marshall, also shrugged off rumors that this would be the last parade.

“It will never happen,” he said, “and I’ve marched in every one. It’s nice. It’s a nice festival. It reminds me of the old days.”

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Posted 06/30/05 at 03:33 PM  Permalink