When I first moved to Los Angeles in the late summer of 2004 I had that typical Hollywood bug -- I wanted to act, to dance and most importantly, I wanted, no needed, to sing. So, it wasn't long before I walked the three short blocks from my tiny walkup studio on the corner of Edgemont and Hollywood to the Vermont Restaurant (now Rockwell), an upscale eatery in the heart of trendy Los Feliz. There every Monday night, in the tiny sparse bar to the side of the main dining room, cabaret ringmaster Les Michaels, and later pianist Ron Snyder, hosted an open mic night that attracted the fantastic and the freakish, and soon became my master class in optimism and entertainment.
The importance of my time spent at the Vermont and the numerous lasting friendships I made there cannot be overstated. When I first got up to sing I was trembling and terrible, yet everyone treated me with kindness and encouragement. I would sit until closing with bartender Kevin (a fantastic drummer, whom I play music with to this day), drink glass after glass of champagne, and watch as a parade of rising hope and fading dreams entered and exited the tiny stage. There was Shimmy Jimmy, an ancient old man with pants hiked up to his nipples, who would rap "Shimmy Jimmy can dance" as he sashayed around the stage. There was Jane, an almost blind chorus girl from the 1930s already firmly in dementia, with a tiny, surgically altered nose and ill-applied lipstick. Always first to arrive and the last to leave, she could barely speak, but when she was led to the stage she would warble operatic arias from memory with what had once been a powerfully trained voice.
There were wonderful performers in their prime as well -- musical theater dynamos, crooners, singer-songwriters -- some were successful working actors, many, like me, were waiters. They would offer me song suggestions, advice about patter, timing, rhythm- but most importantly, they taught me about passion. These people were showbiz folk. It was in their blood, and their love for entertaining, for that moment in the spotlight, that connection with an audience, no matter how small the crowd, was something they took seriously and treasured. Late at night, often well after closing, I would teeter home with my folder of the music I so loved, so obsessed with the notes I had missed or the gossip I had heard that I never looked up and saw the two long, dim neon signs that hinted that the building where I had felt so understood had long been filled with passion, friendship, anguish, and song.
Pastries, Panetonne and Paisans
A lot of people come to hang out and make contact. They are always looking for their paisans. People are looking for ties and stability. They know we're here.
-- Dino Sarno, Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1986
In 1946, Frances and Umberto Sarno moved with their young children from Chicago to Los Angeles for their health. The Sarno family had owned a bakery outside of Naples, and the couple had continued the tradition in Chicago. They quickly found a suitable 1920s-era building at 1712 N. Vermont Avenue in village-like Los Feliz, which had previously been occupied by the Hollymont Bakery. Los Feliz at the time was a comfortable middle class neighborhood with a diverse Anglo, Jewish, German and Italian population. The Sarno family moved into an apartment upstairs, a caryatid (a pillar statue of a Greek goddess) guarding the door, while downstairs they set to work in the newly christened Sarno's. Working in the bakery was a family affair, with the children placing cherries on the cookies their parents had just made.
The bakery quickly became popular with the local Italian American community who sat at little round tables conversing in the mother tongue. Every morning the Sarnos baked a plethora of treats from the old country. Specialties included panettone, a sourdough-like sweetbread with citrus and raisins wrapped in flowered paper and very popular at Christmas. They made cassatelli, a braided Easter bread with colored boiled eggs, flakey croissants, homemade nutty whole wheat biscotti, and a round version of biscotti called frisalla, which was baked with pepper and garlic. The zuppa Inglese, a liquored layer cake much like tiramisu was also a favorite, as were the more Americanized wedding cakes, often layered with strawberry cream and coated in a toasted crumb coating.
In Italian, the word "paisan" means "fellow countryman" or "brother." For many in the Italian American community it is used as a term of endearment to express a shared history and a kind of communal responsibility. Over the years Umberto encouraged his Angelino paisans to go into business, and the Vermont stretch of Los Feliz would eventually include other Italian eateries like the Dresden Room, Palermo, Luigi's and Guy Pasquini's tiny Moka d'Oro, Los Angeles' first espresso bar.
As the children of Umberto and Frances grew up, Robert studied law, Dino trained to be head baker, while artistic older brother Alberto became known as the family's best cake decorator, piping flowers around small cream puff centers. But hot-tempered, gregarious, Alberto had a dream to be more than a baker and he soon left for Italy to study the great love of his life -- opera.
A Voice in the Night
One day he got up in the restaurant and sang opera. Everyone loved it. And he had discovered the vehicle to really do what he wanted to do in the world.
-- Dino Sarno, Los Angeles Times, October 22, 1987
The reviews were not good. After eight years in Italy, Alberto returned to Los Angeles, determined to become a star. He did the normal stirring and crushing gigs. In 1962, he sang for the Tarzana chamber of commerce, and was the voice of Jack Benny singing opera in a television sketch. In 1966, he performed in a Toscanini Memorial concert at Ebell Hall that a local critic labeled "nightmarish." The next year a reviewer wrote "Tenor Sarno, with an unstable voice and a pronounced lack of musicality, sang confidently, but not well." A few years later, a reviewer for a program at the Ahmanson Theater labeled Alberto "unprofessional" without "vocal security."
Luckily, there was always the thriving family business. In 1964, Alberto opened a small, dimly lit coffee shop next to the bakery. One night he began to sing while working at the café, and the overwhelmingly delighted response led him to rename the shop the Caffe dell 'Opera. He installed a small stage, hired a piano player, violinist and fellow opera lovers as waiters and encouraged patrons to sing. The café became a cozy restaurant, serving hearty Italian classics, sandwiches with fresh bread from the bakery, twelve different kinds of coffee and flavored Italian sodas. Soon, the walls were lined with pictures of visiting celebs like Sophia Loren, Tony Bennett, and Alberto's hero, Luciano Pavarotti, who was honored with a life sized picture in the front window.
Alberto and his wait staff sang their favorites nightly and the tiny venue was soon packed with eccentric regulars. They included the usual Day of the Locust crowd -- bit actors, opera lovers, muscle men, self-proclaimed royals, and a medium named Prince Nathan. Alberto often discussed voice late into the night and invited and encouraged those he found promising -- from truck drivers to precocious children -- to sing. He discovered one rotund Italian septuagenarian named, Dora, at a wedding. She began coming six nights a week, shout-singing "Que Sera Sera" for tips while pushing between tables piled with food next to a cigarette machine topped with a bust of Caruso. Outside, free from all the hustle and bustle, old Italian men sat at a small table playing dominoes and smoking under the stars.
But Alberto still dreamed of bigger things. In 1976, he directed and starred in "Paesano: A Voice in the Night," a low budget tale of an Italian opera star trying to make it big in America. He wrangled a C-list cast that included professional exhibitionist Edy Williams, veteran character actor Aldo Ray, and Dean Martin's daughter Deana. When the movie, contrary to Prince Nathan's prediction, failed to find a distributor or garner Oscar nominations, Alberto hosted his own awards show honoring overlooked films. The show was emceed by a man calling himself Count Anthony and a woman who claimed to be Countess Elaine of Brunswick. Sarno insisted he personally would win no awards and as one actress in the film admitted, "He wasn't a great actor. It was his voice. That voice latched onto my sensitivities and could always make me cry." Prince Nathan believed the ghost of singer Mario Lanza, who was jealous of Alberto's similar vocal style, had jinxed the film. So Alberto decided to honor him with a posthumous award as well.
After the failure of "Paesano," Alberto turned his attention to the restaurant and an album of operatic disco. Next door, the brightly colored bakery with its dusty wedding cakes displayed in niches on the wall was run by Dino. Umberto had died in 1974. Upstairs, brother Robert established his law practice. It seemed the Sarno family's good fortune would continue indefinitely, with a new generation increasingly able to help carry the constant work load. But in the fall of 1987, Alberto's voice would once again ring into the night -- only this time there would be no applause.
Long Term Hype
Crime seemed to stalk 1980s Los Angeles, and even bucolic Los Feliz was not immune. In 1985, Luigi Uzzauto -- the owner of Luigi's, another popular Italian restaurant with singing waiters across the street on Vermont -- shot himself after killing a waitress with whom he had been having an affair. Around this time Alberto hired a waitress as well, a young woman with two kids and a heroin habit by the name of Krysteen Ann Ackerman.
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, October 21, 1987, Alberto closed up the restaurant and drove the short distance to his gated home in the 4800 block of Los Feliz Boulevard. A neighbor reported hearing a man yell, "Who's out there? Get out of here!" followed by two gun shots. Silvana, Alberto's wife of 25 years, found him shortly afterward, slumped against the front door, shot through the chest with $224 still in his pocket.
At first detectives were stumped. Though the big hearted victim had a quick temper, no one had any idea who would want to kill him. Sarno's regulars flooded the family with phone calls and visits, while police worked in overdrive to find the killer. A break came quickly, when Ackerman was arrested for petty theft at a department store. While in jail, she told police a strange story. Recently she had been jailed for a string of unpaid parking tickets. She and her live-in boyfriend had borrowed bail money from his brother, a fellow addict and recently paroled thief by the name of Ralph Mora, described by police as a "long term hype." When they were unable to pay him back, Mora started to ask if he could rob her boss to recoup the money. Ackerman said no and paid him back. But then her boyfriend was sent to jail and she started using with Mora regularly and he persisted in asking her about her boss. This time Ackerman answered his questions, showing him Alberto's house and telling him his habits. She never warned Alberto, who she liked, believing the threat all to be a pipe dream.
After Alberto's death she ran into Mora and he told her he had ordered an accomplice by the name of Robert Lopez to shoot Alberto during the robbery to "shut him up." Both ex-cons believed the other had gone through the victim's pockets, which was why the money was still on the body. Police quickly arrested Mora and charged him with murder. Lopez was picked up on unrelated charges, but never charged due to lack of evidence. From jail, Mora proclaimed his innocence but curiously made a series of threatening phone calls to Ackerman, and her home was burned down in a suspicious blaze. Mora's first trial ended in a hung jury and he was acquitted in the second. Alberto's murder remains officially unsolved.
Silvana kept Alberto's beloved Caffe dell'Opera open until 1992, hanging a big oil painting of her husband on the wall and wearing dark glasses to hide eyes "that look like two tomatoes from all my crying." Dino and his daughters continued on at Sarno's Bakery until 2000, when the family put up a sign in the window that read:
"Thank you Los Angeles, for 54 years...we are closing our doors for retirement. Buona Fortuna!"
Any given night, the building where the Sarnos lived and loved is filled with song. At the slickly bustling Rockwell, a large stage takes up the middle of the dining area where most nights the glitzy musical revue series, "Off the Record" plays to a packed audience nibbling turkey sliders and sipping martinis. Alberto's Caffe Dell'Opera is long gone, as is my dear Vermont, which made way for Rockwell in 2009. All the singers are polished young professionals wearing tiny microphones and crisp makeup, and on Wednesday nights the movie star Jeff Goldblum plays with his jazz band. It is clear that many of the raw, eccentric regulars that Alberto and much later, a scared girl from North Carolina, loved so much would not cut it on this new stage. But one gets the sense that Alberto's spirit is still there, enjoying the music so much he can't bear to leave.