By the time I finished high school, I’d made up my mind what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to act. I was 16, and I announced it one day to my father, formally. He looked at me without saying anything for a while.
“You don’t think you’d like to be a doctor?” he asked.
I knew he had wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t want to be one. He could see I was determined, and he let it go.
And then he gave me the only advice he ever gave me about acting. “Always find a place to sit down,” he said. “Your legs will get tired.” I nodded as if I understood. This is really strange advice, I thought. What could he possibly mean?
Then we talked about what my name would be. Would I use the name I had been born with: D’Abruzzo? But I realized that most people couldn’t pronounce my name, even after I’d said it three times. Alda was a name my father had constructed by taking the first two letters of Alphonso (his own true first name) and the first two letters of D’Abruzzo. In practice, it was now our family name, so I said I would stick with Alda, which I think made him happy.
My father enjoyed being Italian, as I did, and he identified himself as an Italian even in the ’40s, when it wasn’t especially popular to do that. The rest of the country saw Italians as somewhat foreign creatures without much class but a lot of names. When he went to Hollywood, his press releases started including the information that his real name was Alphonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo, about three first names more than he was born with. When he sang on The Ed Sullivan Show, he chose the Italian love song “Oh, Marie” and dedicated it to “all my paisans out there.” He was trying deftly to play both sides by pointing to his Italian ancestry, but doing it in terms the American audience would accept. Italians were OK as long as they were colorful, fun-loving folks who had the good taste to know their place. He was a handsome leading man who, without making a big deal out of it, was moving the boundary a little.
My father, from a working-class background, dreamed of celebrating his good fortune with his family and the neighborhood he grew up in. As soon as he had saved a few dollars from the modest salary he was earning at the studio, he organized a block party in Queens for what he billed as his 800 cousins (another stereotype he gladly played into).
I loved going back with him to visit family in Queens. There would be a Sunday dinner that went on for several hours at a table that took up the whole living room of my grandparents’ tiny apartment. From the first steaming dish of ravioli to the chestnut shells littering the table at the end of the meal, there was laughter and loud talk. A lot of the laughter was at the expense of my grandfather, a small, quiet man who had been a barber until he retired but now spent his days looking out the window and following the activities of the neighborhood. He sat quietly nursing the half-glass of red wine allowed by his doctor and looking for ways to trick someone into pouring him a little more.
I was glad, as I sat with my father deciding on a name, that Alda sounded Italian.