The Esperia Film Distributing Company

The Esperia Film Distributing Company

The Di Carlo family was persecuted by Italian Fascists in Sicily. That didn’t stop them from becoming propagandists for Mussolini.

A couple weeks ago on Mafia Genealogy, I introduced “Capitano” Angelo di Carlo. Calogero di Carlo, called “Lelio” or “Leo,” was the youngest child of the Di Carlo family, and Angelo’s business partner.

Seven brothers immigrated: Antonino (Nino), Giuseppe (Piddu), Giovanni (John), Angelo (Capitano), Francesco (Frank), Salvatore (Toto), and Calogero (Leo). Two sisters also immigrated: Marianna and Rosa. All but Angelo lived the rest of their lives in the United States, with several of the siblings settling together in Yonkers.

Their father was a butcher in Corleone, and at least two of the brothers, Nino and Toto, were butchers in the US. John owned a plastering business, and Frank worked with two of his brothers, sometimes with Toto as a butcher and other times with John as a plasterer. Lelio and his brother, Angelo, were entrepreneurs: before the war, as film importers, and after WWII, as travel agents. According to the Italian police, the brothers were suspected of international drug smuggling as early as the 1930s.

Angelo was in Sicily from 1937-39, having gone to assist their father, who died in Corleone in 1937. Angelo had a prior conviction for mafia association, and was unable to secure a visa, or even a driver’s license, under the Fascists. Despite these difficulties, Lelio says that Angelo may have helped acquire two of the first films Esperia distributed in the United States.

The Esperia Film Company was formed by Lelio in January 1939. He originally called Esperia the “Modern Film Company.” The company was called Esperia by March, when Angelo returned to New York. After two years in Italy, Angelo’s wife, Luisa, contacted a relative, a judge in Palermo, who secured visas for their return to New York. Angelo and Luisa lived with Angelo’s brother, John’s family in Yonkers. Angelo joined Esperia as a salaried employee.

According to IMDb, the films Esperia distributed were made between 1936-40, and distributed in the US between 1939-41. Other than those first two, Francesco Macaluso, Esperia’s president and general manager, selected all of the films Esperia licensed. He made a number of trips to Italy during the 1930s to obtain films for distribution. He is seen on manifests, returning to the US with his wife and two of their children in 1933, in 1936 with his adult daughter, who worked for Esperia as a bookkeeper, alone in 1937 and again in 1939. The records list Macaluso as a lawyer, until the last trip I found, in 1940, where “lawyer” is crossed out and replaced with “film merchant.”

Lelio claimed in a 1943 affidavit that all of the funds used to purchase the film licenses were his own, with some of those funds acquired from unspecified family members, and some quantity borrowed. But in 1942, when the FBI investigated Esperia, thirty percent of the stock was owned by Francesco Macaluso. The majority shareholder was Lelio, the treasurer, with sixty percent. His brother, John, owned the other ten percent.

According to the FBI, Esperia ceased operations in 1941. On 9 December, immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, several of the Di Carlo brothers were arrested. Angelo and Luisa were still living with John’s family. According to John’s son, Vincent, who was ten years old at the time, Angelo, Toto, Frank, and Leo were arrested, because they were not yet citizens.

John was also arrested, according to Leo’s affidavit. In fact, his letter suggests only Angelo, John, and Leo were arrested, not Toto and Frank. Angelo, Calogero (Leo), and Frank appear in a list of persons of Italian ancestry who were taken into custody during the war. Only Angelo appears in the list of those initially rounded up after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and he is also the only one interned. That Toto was also arrested, soon after his brothers, is confirmed in FBI Agent Burleson’s report from Ellis Island, the following month.

Calogero, who wrote in 1943 in an effort to have Angelo released from internment, downplayed his brother’s involvement in Esperia. Based on the contents of his affidavit, he understood the propaganda charges to be the main reason Angelo remained interned. He writes:

“My brother, Angelo di Carlo, came into the organization solely on a salary basis. He contributed no money to the company’s capital. His connection with the company was solely as a salaried employee, although he nominally held the title of Vice-President. He had no control over the bank account.”

John’s son, Vincent, who wrote a family history in 2013, and worked for his uncles as a teenager, provides a different impression of the brothers: “They were business partners but Angelo ran things and made all the major decisions.”

Though by the time of their 1943 affidavits, the Di Carlos and their supporters were careful to distance themselves from fascist governments abroad, domestic fascism enjoyed broad support in the 1930s, when Esperia began importing films. American heroes of the time included the pilot and widely known white supremacist and isolationist Charles Lindbergh, auto manufacturer and anti-Semite Henry Ford, and real life “Citizen Kane”: the yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst. “Hitler’s Mountain Home” was featured in the Hearst publication, “Better Homes and Gardens,” in 1938, the same year as Kristallnacht.

All 29 of Esperia’s 1940 releases “attempted to convince spectators that under the leadership of Mussolini Italy was a strong and mighty nation.” One feature film distributed by Esperia is described as propaganda in the book “Equivocal Subjects.” “Under the Southern Cross” (1938) (on YouTube) is seen to “naturalize” Italian occupation of Ethiopia, which began in 1898. A second Italo-Ethiopian War was fought in the years just before this film’s release. Recall that Angelo’s service to Italy, from which he derived his lifelong nickname, was in the occupation of Libya. His evident pride in his role in Italy’s colonial “Scramble for Africa” may have extended to the subject of his countrymen in Ethiopia. Angelo told FBI investigators, following his arrest, that he was not pro-Fascist, but he was still pro-Italian.

libya-location
Italy in Africa: Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia (Map source: Ethiopian News)

Lelio calls Esperia “a private business venture, absolutely in no way connected with the political regime in Italy”. In their defense, Lelio notes that the films Esperia imported, were also shown in other theaters around the United States. Individual Esperia releases, reviewed in contemporary newspapers, are depicted as light entertainment, exotic dramas and comedies of variable artistic merit.

bonita-y-feas-se-casan-todas-an-esperia-film
(Image: Spanish language promotional poster for “Belle o brutte si sposan tutte” [English: Pretty or plain they all marry]. Source: IMDb)
The News Research Service, produced by Joseph Roos, describes Esperia as a propagandist specializing in short films. The typical distribution method was to screen a full-length feature along with two or three short pieces of propaganda. This article singles out two film houses in New York City, the Roma Cine Teatro at 1662 Broadway, which “flourished under the management of the notorious, one-time anarchist, Pietro Garofalo,” and the Cine Citta, at 250 W 54th St, managed by Signor Macaluso, a “widely known… Fascist agent.” The Rome Cine was one of the theaters in which Angelo di Carlo was invested.

By 1936, Francesco Macaluso had been active in American fascist leadership for almost two decades. The Di Carlo brothers were well aware of their business partner’s politics. Vincent knew Francesco personally. He visited his uncle Angelo during his internment, at two different camps. Vincent says of Macaluso: “His relationship with Angelo was strictly business. They were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Macaluso was a hardcore Fascist. At my visit to Fort Meade I witnessed him trying to impress visiting family members of the POW with shouts of ‘Viva il Duce’ and making Nazi/Fascist salutes.” (Personal correspondence, 11 March 2016.)

italian-internees-missoula
Italian internees at Ft. Missoula (Source)

Since internees were rated on their behavior in the camps, his association with Macaluso may have harmed Angelo’s chances of being released. Luckily for them both, the war was coming to an end.

Sources

Affidavit signed by Calogero di Carlo, 28 July 1943. Released electronically by NARA on 9 March 2016 to the author.

Vincent Angelo Di Carlo. 2013. “The Di Carlo Family: From Corleone, Sicily, Italy.” Accessed http://www.dicarlofamiglia.com/uploads/3/7/3/5/37352841/dicarlo_family_05_18_2013.pdf 11 November 2015.

“Fascismo Says It With Movies.” Research Supplement Published by News Research Service, Inc. Vol. 5. No. 142. 23 April 1941.

Federal Bureau of Investigation report made at New York, NY, on 23 January 1942 by J. Burleson regarding Angelo di Carlo. File no. NY 100-17523. Released electronically by NARA on 9 March 2016 to the author.

Francesco di Legge. “L’aquila e il littorio: direttive, strutture e strumenti della propaganda fascista negli Stati Uniti d’America (1922-1941).” Accessed http://road.unimol.it/bitstream/2192/306/1/Tesi_F_DiLegge.pdf on 19 February 2017.

XIII Legislatura – Disegni di Legge e Relazioni – Documenti. Legione Territoriale Carabinieri di Palermo. Oggetto: Vito Calogero Ciancimino gia’ Sindaco della Citta’ di Palermo. Senato della Repubblica. Camera dei deputati. N. 3209/1064-2 di prot.llo. Dated Palermo, 14 April 1971. Accessed at http://legislature.camera.it/_dati/leg13/lavori/doc/xxiii/015_RS/00000008.pdf on 24 January 2016.

Feature Image: Promotional poster for “Il Sogno di Butterfly” [English: “The Dream of Butterfly”], a 1941 Esperia release (Source: IMDb)

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Francesco Macaluso and American Fascism

Francesco Macaluso and American Fascism

Before and during World War I, Giuseppe Morello was fighting his own war in New York, while in Africa, Captain Angelo di Carlo was fighting an aggressive war of colonial expansion in Libya, which Italy had recently wrested from the Turks. Angelo found himself on the other side when the Fascists rose to power in 1922, as it soon declared a war on the mafia in Sicily, nearly wiping them out, and forcing di Carlo to flee. Meanwhile, his future associate in the United States, an Italian Fascist propagandist, was making a name for himself in the United States.

Francesco Macaluso was born in Casteltermini (in Agrigento province) on 18 November 1886. (A poet and lawyer by the same name, born in the same province the previous year, was a socialist, and ardent opponent of fascism.) Francesco and his wife immigrated to New York in 1914, joining his sister there briefly before moving on to Boston, where their first two children were born. Francesco and his wife, Esmeralda, named their first child Ferdinando Antonio Americo Macaluso. It’s hard not to see the Macalusos as making a declaration of confidence in their new home, giving their first born son the name “Americo.” What can be more difficult to resolve is the simultaneous regard Macaluso held for fascism and for the United States.

Fascism was not only a European phenomenon. The ideas of eugenics, social darwinism, and “Nordicism,” a set of myths about the aggressive, colonizing nature of Aryan people, were in powerful circulation in the US, from at least the 1890s, the same time it was galvanizing Europe. The Fascist League of North America had an active chapter in Boston by the late 1910s, with Macaluso at its head. As part of his political organizing, he published a monthly journal, called “Giovinezza,” the first openly fascist publication in the US.

While World War I raged in Europe, Giuseppe Morello, one of the original bosses of the Sicilian Mafia in New York, was fighting the Mafia-Camorra War against a Neapolitan gang based in Brooklyn. In 1906, Morello’s former captain, Gaetano “Tommy” Reina, married a woman from Corleone, Angelina Oliveri, whose mother was a Streva. Angelina is a second cousin of Paolino Streva, the captain under which Giuseppe Morello worked in Corleone as a cattle thief, in the 1890s.

castellammarese_war
Masseria and Maranzano. by Schreibwerkzeug.

Reina formed his own family, and managed to avoid the conflict, enjoying the protection of Joseph Masseria, who would figure prominently in the next mafia war, the Castellammarese. Tommy and Angelina’s daughter, Carmela “Millie” Reina, would marry Joe Valachi, a Lucchese gangster, at that war’s conclusion in what is described as a “union of underworld convenience,” in 1932. (Valachi famously turns pentiti before the US Senate in 1963, and brings down the crime family his father-in-law originated.)

Italy entered the war against Austria-Hungary on 23 May 1915, in order to annex two historically contested regions, the Austrian Littoral (Trentino) and Dalmatia (South Tyrol). However, at the end of the war, Italy did not receive the territories, a “mutilated victory” that would become an important part of Italian Fascist propaganda.

The US finally entered WWI by declaring war on Germany in 1917. The following year, large numbers of American troops deployed to Europe. Doctor of Italian law Francesco Macaluso, an Italian national, working for the Italian bank, Banco Stabile, in Boston at this time, requested an exemption from the US draft, because he was supporting a family. By this time, he and Esmeralda also had a daughter, Rose.

The end of WWI saw the beginning of another worldwide catastrophe, a flu pandemic that killed between three and five percent of the total population. Previously healthy young adults were its main victims. The US experienced a mild economic recession during the pandemic, followed by a more severe one that began in 1920. By that year, Francesco Macaluso and his family had returned to New York, where their third child, Armand, was born.

In one of the first scenes of the 1974 film, “The Great Gatsby,” set in 1922, Nick Carraway arrives at his cousin, Daisy’s rich estate on Long Island, and her boorish husband, Tom Buchanan, is spewing classic “Nordicism”: white supremacy, and its allied fascist mythology of world domination. It comes up three times in the film: everyone remembers the glasses on the billboard across the street from the filling station, but fascism is as essential to “Gatsby” as the Charleston. While white America was dancing to the new sound, jazz, Black Americans in the 1920s were being brutally repressed by their government, and through extralegal violence. The KKK was at the height of its power in 1925, when 400,000 members marched on Washington. It is no exaggeration to say that the Holocaust is descended from Jim Crow. Nazi Germany modeled its discrimination and segregation laws on America’s.

mussolini_a_hitler_-_berlin_1937
Mussolini e Hitler in Berlim (Hungarian name of the book (Felvidékünk – Honvédségünk / Trianontól-Kassáig), publishers (Vitézi rend Zrinyi csoportjuának kiadása, Budapest, 1939) [Public domain].
In Italy, Fascist Benito Mussolini took power through use of the Blackshirts, paramilitary squads of First World War veterans and ex-socialists. He marched them on Rome in October 1922, and the king appointed Mussolini Prime Minister during their march, turning a military invasion into a victory parade. Under Mussolini’s orders to eradicate the Mafia in Sicily, Cesare Mori, Prefect of Palermo, arrested over 11,000 people between November 1925 and June 1929, and a countless number died in mysterious circumstances or simply disappeared while in police custody. Hundreds fled to America to avoid the purge, including “Capitano” Angelo di Carlo.

Angelo arrived in the United States for the first time in 1926, age 35. Although married, he traveled alone, arriving in New York on July 16, 1926. The manifest lists his occupation as Captain. Several of those traveling with him are stamped “Diplomat.” Angelo met his uncle Giovanni di Miceli, a banker living at 241 East 108th St, New York. One of Angelo’s brothers was staying with him, already.

Not much is known of Francesco Macaluso during the 1920s. Based on the census records, he lived near his sister in New York, and worked as a lawyer. It’s possible that he traveled back to Italy in 1928, calling himself a journalist at this time: a manifest matching his name, age, and birthplace is likely Macaluso. Evidence indicates he remained active in the American fascist movement: in the 1930s, his propaganda would shift from print to film, in partnership with the di Carlo brothers.

By the late Twenties, there was already notable tension between the two factions who would fight the Castellammarese War, the gangs of Joe Masseria (the future Genovese family) and Salvatore Maranzano (the future Bonanno family). Maranzano, born in Castellammare, Sicily, was sent by Don Vito Cascio Ferro (a Palermitan who lived for a time in Corleone) to take over Masseria’s operations in New York.

Tommy Reina had become successful under Masseria’s protection, but now the boss began demanding a portion of Reina’s profits, prompting him to consider defecting to Maranzano. Masseria, learning of this, arranged with Reina lieutenant Tommy Gagliano to have Reina killed. (Gagliano and Reina are related through Reina’s wife: they are second cousins, once removed.) On February 26, 1930, Vito Genovese murdered Reina, on Masseria’s order. The hit is widely considered the opening salvo in the Castellammarese War between the exported mafias of Corleone and Castellamare del Golfo: the “Mustache Petes” of the Old Country and the “Young Turks” of the New World. That August, Giuseppe Morello, the first mafia boss of New York, was killed.

Feature Image: Still from “The Great Gatsby” (1974)