Off-Off-Broadway, The Mob and Me

My amazon review:

For Members Only: The Story of The Mob’s Secret Judge – New Version for 2012 (Kindle Edition)

It is more than peculiar to find a section of a book on the mob about early Off-Off-Broadway, the impecunious yet lasting theatrical revolution spawned in cafes, churches, lofts, storefronts and basements, yet there it is: Chapter 51 Off-Off-Broadway.

I last saw Tony (`Ntonio Bastiano) in the early seventies, when he was operating out of a former storefront “iglesia” on 3rd Avenue just south of 14th Street. He had a sign with him that said MAFIA: More Art For Italian Americans. Tony was short, gruff, likable, if often irritating, with a trim mustache that stopped short of being a handlebar, too neat not to have been waxed. His compact body said he worked with weights. He regularly smoked strong cigars, commonly referred to as stogies.

I knew Tony as an Off-Off-Broadway producer who presented my first theatrical venture, a pair of one-act plays, The Foreigners and The Biggest Information Booth in the World, at The Playwrights Workshop Club, Inc. on West 23rd Street. He would subsequently have different theaters in different locations, most notably Bastiano’s Cellar Studio where I would also later work. Tony also produced the work of playwrights Robert Patrick (of Kennedy’s Children fame) and Tom Eyen (Dreamgirls) as well as drag-celebrity Jackie Curtis.

I am now told, according to For Members Only by G.T. Harrell, that Tony was born Sebastiano Della Universita, affectionately known as Sonny, and was the brother of mob consigliere Paulie Lefty Della Universita.

Apparently Tony/Sonny had been a drug dealer and did time in prison where he began to write and produced at least one play. Harrell says the Off-Off ventures were financed by brother Paulie to the sum of 200 grand. A hefty sum for such a modest venture in the mid-sixties.

Questions about the book have arisen concerning the author’s credibility and the actual existence of Paulie Lefty, as well as the reliability of Sonny’s own stories. The only biographical information I can find on the author is that provided on amazon, most likely written by Mr. Harrell.

Toward the end of the book, copyrighted 2008, it is said that Sonny, now in his eighties, has dementia and lives in Brooklyn, yet there are several youtube postings of Sonny telling Mafia war stories, one and two years ago, under the screen name MafiaMyths, with a comment by Sonny as recent as September 2013.

The author is too in awe of his subject(s), almost gushingly, and the book would have benefited greatly from serious copy-editing and proofreading. A couple of complaints: toward the end, Mr. Harrell suddenly switches to the editorial “we,” and there are some egregious errors, such as “say’s.” There is a link to the book’s website for daily information on a forthcoming sequel but no such information is available.

Harrell claims Tony’s initial foray into Off-Off earned him the nickname La Papa, as a kind of counterpoint to Ellen Stewart’s being called La Mama. Not only is this inaccurate – La Mama was Ellen’s theatre; she was known only by her first name, the affectionate “Mama” coming from a later generation, and “La” is feminine. La Papa would have been a derogatory term. Harrell mentions a popcorn machine at the small theater. I don’t recall anything of the sort, and it would have been noisy and smelly in such an intimate setting. He also refers to the 23rd Street location as Bastiano’s Cellar Studio, a venue that came later.

I wondered briefly if Tony didn’t have a hand in the book’s writing, perhaps even authored it himself, but Tony’s ego would never have allowed him to acknowledge he had dementia.

I can’t attest to anything outside of the Off-Off section, and if it weren’t for that, I would not have read the book. Sonny Della Universita aka Tony Bastiano gave me a start in a world he seems to have inhabited briefly and which has been my own milieu for close to half a century. For that, with gratitude, I’ll give it three stars.

Published on May 11, 2014 at 7:57 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. As a member of the family, I will say the book is fiction based on the true story.


    • You’re beter placed than I am, Anthony, to determine that. It may be that inaccuracies create a new genre of unintentional fiction. Meanwhile Amazon categorizes it as history and the new cover declares it A True Story.


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