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)

Gay Liberation and the Mafia

Gay Liberation and the Mafia

Lucky Luciano built the Genovese monopoly on gay nightlife in New York City in the 1930s. The Stonewall Inn was the site of a violent protest against police raids—and against mafia involvement in gay bars. Ed “The Skull” Murphy (top right) was working the door of the Stonewall Inn the night of the famous riot.

Of the Five Families of New York, Lucky Luciano’s was the one we now call the Genovese crime family. Originally the Morello gang, when Luciano took it over in 1931 it had been most recently run by Joe Masseria, Maranzano’s challenger in the Castellammarese War. Until 1957, when Vito Genovese went to prison for trafficking heroin through his gay bars, it was called the Luciano crime family.

Luciano had long experience in running brothels, bars, prostitution rings, and even drug smuggling. To support his speakeasies during Prohibition, Luciano had mafia-backed vendors for liquor, cigarette vending machines, pool tables, and most importantly, police protection. Investing in “fairy places” or “fag bars” was part of a diverse portfolio of organized crime, and an area in which the Luciano family excelled. Their monopoly on gay nightlife in New York City would not be broken for fifty years.

By the mid-1800s, New York had recognizable gay community in several neighborhoods, including Greenwich Village. In George Chauncey’s “Gay New York,” he writes that at least three different locations in Little Italy had young male prostitutes working in them in 1908. Phillip Crawford Jr, in his book, “The Mafia and the Gays,” writes that before Prohibition began in 1920, the LGBT community in the city enjoyed some degree of social acceptance in these gay enclaves.

Yet in 1923, the law in New York City prohibited loitering to solicit gay sex. When Prohibition was lifted, eleven years later, the new State Liquor Authority considered any establishment that served alcohol to gay customers to be “disorderly houses” or places where “unlawful practices are habitually carried on by the public.”

A wider group of Americans, including homosexuals, enjoyed a brief period of greater social acceptance during WWII, when everyone was needed in the war effort, whether in the service or as a civilian. When the war ended, large numbers of queer people in the military ended their service, and chose to remain in the cities where there was community. Gay spaces became even more coveted as LGBT people faced increasing discrimination in the Cold War years.

Although decriminalized after 1950, sodomy was still a misdemeanor, and various kinds of discrimination were still legally applied to the LGBT community. Apartment owners and employers did not have to rent to, or employ, people they knew or suspected were queer. A bar could lose its license not only by permitting same-sex kissing, touching, or dancing in their establishment, but simply by allowing gay people to congregate. In his book, Crawford offers an example in the 1965 investigation that shut down the Julius Restaurant: police descriptions of mincing gaits, tight clothes, and men who called one another “honey,” were the legal grounds on which the restaurant’s license was suspended.

The businesses that served the LGBT community, were those that paid off the police. And that meant gay bars were run by the mafia. Historians have connected all five of the families to gay bars in New York, with the majority belonging to the Genovese.

People who would today identify as members of the LGBT community, lived marginalized or hidden lives in the 1950s and 60s. “The down low” was the only option for virtually everyone who patronized gay establishments in those days. For transgender people, the options were extremely limited. “Butches,” “queens,” and other gender transgressors lived in danger roughly proportionate to their visible queerness. The more privileged members of the LGBT community, who could pass as heteronormative and cisgender, were by necessity closeted in most aspects of their lives. They, too, needed public spaces to meet their own kind in relative safety.

At the same time that tourists poured into Anna Genovese’s well-produced drag shows, vice squads enforced antiquated “sumptuary laws” that dictated the number of articles of clothing (some sources say three, others five) corresponding to one’s biological sex, which had to be worn at all times in public, or risk arrest for impersonation of the opposite sex.

In transgender activist Leslie Feinberg’s fictionalized autobiography, “Stone Butch Blues,” Feinberg’s alter ego, Jess, identifies as a butch and dresses as many transgender men do today, binding her chest and wearing a packer in her briefs. Jess and her butch friends work in factories, where they trade the relative freedom to be openly butch, for being the lowest-status workers, whatever their seniority.  When an older member of the community dies, her family buries her in a dress, a humiliation her friends also suffer, in order to be allowed to attend the funeral.

The gendered names, pronouns, clothes, and roles that queer people embraced, fifty years ago, are not the same ones used today by the majority of LGBT people. Choices were more limited, and both mainstream and queer cultures change over time. Feinberg’s book, which also depicts police violence in a bar raid, offers a window on a life that was not much documented, and was often purposely erased by family histories.

Being queer in the 1960s and early 70s was not just grounds for “black sheep” status in the family. Insurance companies would not bond anyone in the financial industry who had an arrest record, whether for “impersonation,” “lewd acts,” “solicitation,” or any of the other crimes under which gay life was categorized. To be publicly, noticeably (to straights) lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender was illegal, which meant accepting as a fact of life, socializing in spaces where illegal activity was protected and flourished. Mafia-managed bars ran the rackets that had always accompanied the gay bar trade, since at least the beginning of the century: prostitution of both sexes, including minors, pornography sale and production, drug trafficking, blackmail, and extortion.

In addition to crime, poor conditions and sleazy business practices went along with black markets, and gay bars were no exception. The Stonewall Inn was re-opened in 1967 by Tony Lauria, the son of a mafioso, with Genovese family backing, as a bottle club, meaning it didn’t need a liquor license. The Stonewall’s claim to fame was that it was the only gay bar in town that permitted dancing. The missing amenities included an emergency exit and running water. In 1969, the Stonewall was responsible for transmitting hepatitis by serving drinks in dirty, used glasses.

The mafia has always preyed upon the most downtrodden of its own people. Despite the predatory relationship between them, the mafia and the LGBT community, they were not mutually exclusive in their membership. Vito Genovese’s wife, Anna, ran one of his gay nightclubs and was reputed to be lesbian. Figures including David Petillo, Ed Murphy, and John D’Amato, tell us that gay mafiosi existed, with varying degrees of acceptance by the mafia, and by the gay community. Matty “the Horse” Ianniello, acting boss of the Genovese family for ten years (between prison terms for racketeering), was widely acknowledged as “the Genovese capo who controlled much of New York’s gay nightlife.” He paid off the police to protect Lauria’s Stonewall.

Ed Murphy (1926-1989), born Edward Francis Murphy and nicknamed “The Skull,” was a former pro wrestler (not to be confused with another wrestler called Skull Murphy, who died in 1970). Ed was a mafioso, and in 1969, a closeted gay man. He ran prostitution rings, and worked as a bouncer in gay bars. The Skull was working the door of the Stonewall the night of the police raid that kicked off the riots. The police, according to David Carter and Lucian K. Truscott IV, were targeting mafia activities, not the clientele, but as Zagria points out, if that was their goal, they were failures, from planning to execution. If you’re really going after someone for blackmailing closeted patrons, do you raid the bar when it’s open for business and full of customers? And then do you let your target slip away into the crowd while arresting a paddy wagon full of trans patrons?

The predation of both the police and the mafia were the targets of the fury that was unleashed when police raided the Stonewall Inn in June, 1969. One of the goals shared by the Gay Activists Alliance and Gay Liberation Front, two groups that came out of the Stonewall protests, was to get organized crime out of the gay bars. But with gay liberation, those same bars were now cash cows, and the mafia was less likely than ever to want to let go of them. It would be another generation before Giuliani’s aggressive targeting of organized crime in New York in the mid 1980s broke the monopoly on gay bars in the city. The anti-mafia part of the Stonewall story is virtually unknown in the LGBT community. Perhaps this is a sign of the mafia’s success in suppressing anti-mafia sentiment, and riding the coattails of the civil rights movement after Stonewall.

Christopher Street Liberation Day, as it was first called, commemorated the Stonewall uprising on its first anniversary, 28 June 1970, with a march from Greenwich Village to Central Park. Four years later the Stonewall’s old bouncer, Ed Murphy, convinced the committee to reverse the parade route to its present trajectory, so it ended on Christopher Street, where attendees could drink in the many Mafia-owned establishments. Murphy came out as gay in the late 70s, and rode in the parade with a sash calling him the Mayor of Christopher Street. He died of AIDS in 1989. Murphy’s obituary called him a gay-rights leader.

 

Sources:

“Stonewall Riots: A Gay Protest Against Mafia Bars.” On the blog “Friends of Ours: Mostly About Organized Crime.” (Written by the author of “The Mafia and the Gays,” Phillip Crawford Jr.) Published 7 June 2010. Accessed http://bitterqueen.typepad.com/friends_of_ours/2010/06/the-stonewall-riots-a-gay-protest-against-mafia-bars.html 13 April 2016.

“The Stonewall Inn” Published 27 June 2011 on “A Gender Variance Who’s Who” blog. Accessed  http://zagria.blogspot.com/2011/06/stonewall-inn.html 14 April 2016. (Quotes Carter, an historian who wrote a book on the subject in 2004, and Truscott, who covered the 1969 uprising for the Village Voice.)

Nianias, Helen. “How the Mafia Once Controlled the New York Gay Scene” Interview with Phillip Crawford Jr, author of The Mafia and the Gays. Published 30 July 2015. Accessed http://www.vice.com/read/how-the-mafia-once-controlled-the-new-york-gay-scene-616 13 April 2016.

“Edward Murphy, 63, A Gay-Rights Leader.” Published 2 March 1989. Accessed http://www.nytimes.com/1989/03/02/obituaries/edward-murphy-63-a-gay-rights-leader.html

 

Image credits: Stonewall image is By Diana Davies, copyright owned by New York Public Library – Wikipedia:Contact us/Photo submission, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4547643. Ed Murphy mugshot is from http://aelarsen.wordpress.com/2015/10/13/stonewall-strange-but-true/ . Lucky Luciano image is in the public domain.