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It Began in Brooklyn for Vito Altavilla

By Carin Chea

To spend time with Vito Altavilla is to open a Pandora's Box of delightful anecdotes. Bursting with stories that are enthralling and unexpected, it was the natural progression of things to transfer his memories into book form.

It Began in Brooklyn, Altavilla's freshman novel, chronicles the comical and the poignant moments that peppered his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

And, while some may be surprised that his book contains 42 chapters, I came to this realization in the midst of the interview: What is life, if not an ongoing narrative of stories?

It Began in Brooklyn by Vito Altavilla

You were an industrial research chemist for most of your professional life, then you began writing. How did that happen?

This is a second career for me. I am a retired research chemist that has had several national and international patents to his credit which has given me the opportunity to lecture in Tokyo, Paris, London, and a number of states.

How this started was: My friends told me I should write a book and so I did. It was a very diverse group of people.

What inspired you to write It Began in Brooklyn?

People didn't realize how different life was in the '40s. The word sex was never mentioned, and we thought that the only difference between boys and girls was that boys had short hair and wore long pants and girls had long hair and wore dresses.

My first shock at reality was when my mom and I visited her friend Jean that special summer day. Mom knocked on her door and Jean opened it. Come in, be with you in a minute just toweling off my daughter after her bath.

My mom opens the door and I go in front of her just as Jean drops the towel from her daughter. I couldn't believe what I was seeing! There was nothing between her legs! I ran to my mom and yelled it's gone. There's no pee-pee how is she going to pee? Will she die? It was a very innocent time.

It was two o'clock in the afternoon one Sunday in 1951 and Sonny's family had just finished dinner at Fat Mama's house (my dad's mom) when dad noticed that it was starting to snow. He told all of us to hurry up, put on our coats and let's go because if it gets worse it's gonna take a long time to get home.

We're all in the car, a 1939 Buick five minutes later and on our way home, but after ten minutes traffic has stopped and that's when my mom tells my dad that she has to pee. My dad says the only thing you can use is the ashtray. After several minutes of squirming my mom gets her girdle off, then her panties, and finally gets the ashtray situated.

I am then given instructions on when to lower and raise the window as she fills up the ashtray several times. When the event is over and with my mom's damp dress sticking to her legs, we finally got home.

What inspires you as a writer? How would you describe your writing style?

I remember everything. You write a book, and people don't look at you the same way. They think they know you, but they really don't.

My book and writing style is a non-fiction narrative of a time that has passed. There was no television in those days. That came in the '50s. Most people had a phone and there was a party line. Sometimes I'd pick up the line and hear this girl crying about a breakup. They'd ask, "Is anyone there?" and I'd actually say "no" and hang up!

Anyway, it's a non-fiction narrative of true stories that'll give you many smiles and a lot of loud laughs.

Wait, not every household had their own line? What's a party line?

No, every three families or so had to share the same line. A party line was just a group of people talking on the same line.

[Laughing]. Oh my gosh, I had no idea! I always assumed that every family had their own private line!

You know, most people 35 and older are the ones who find this book hilarious.

There are 42 chapters, and each is a story in and of itself. Each chapter is about 3 or 4 pages.

In those days, the YMCA would have dances every Saturday for teenagers from 3 pm to 6 pm. That's where we'd meet our friends. One day, I spot this girl in the corner and introduce myself. I ask her to dance, and it turns out she's the same height standing up as she is sitting down. I realized I just asked a little person to dance. And now I'm stuck because I've already asked her to dance.

So, I'm trying to dance with her, elbows by my side trying to look smaller. And I could feel her hot breath; every time she breathed on my abdomen, I'd push my butt out further and further. My friends were in the corner, hanging onto each other, laughing.

I understand you've begun adapting your book into a screenplay. How's that going?

I finished it. I eliminated the first chapter regarding my father and it goes basically from the age of 8 to about 17 or 18 years old. I've got more and can do a sequel to that.

I sent the book to 20 people, and one of those people I sent it out to was Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker. His office sent me a nice letter saying they liked my book and it's got legs to make it as a movie.

Then, I got a phone call from Jay Leno's secretary who encouraged me to keep going and that all I had to do was find the right people. That's what got me to turn it into a screenplay.

In those days, everyone went into the services. When you finished high school, you either go into the service or go into university. So, I signed up for the services first.

I'm in North Africa for 10 months and we put a rock and roll band together. We picked up an old '51 Jaguar limousine and we played all the different clubs. We were 18, 19 years old. That paid for a lot of school when we got out. We got the weekends to practice. The thing about being a musician is no one bothers you. There were hookers and pimps, but they didn't bother us. But, you know what all the females complained about?


Cold feet.

Cold feet? Like literally?

Yeah. So, I wrote to my mom and asked her to send me wool socks and women's underwear. I sold a lot of them because you couldn't get them over in Morocco. It made the women happy, but also their pimps.

My mom was going to church every weekend now because she had no idea what her son was getting into.

Vito Altavilla - Author of It Began in Brooklyn

So, who would play you in the movie? More specifically, who would portray Vito as a child, an adolescent, and an adult?

I had freckles and red hair growing up. As a kid, it'd have to be somebody with a sense of mischief.

I went to Catholic school until I was 10, and then we moved to Queens. In those days, the nuns could hit you. If you were bad in those days, they made you face the class on your hands and knees, and they whacked you across the behind. Once, I lost my balance and hit the floor, and got a bloody nose.

I was a curious kid. I would go to the library and read 2 to 3 books a week on my own. It'd have to be an average-sized kid with a hell of a lot of curiosity. Someone you can tell is always thinking.

How about you as an adult?

These are questions I've never asked myself. Maybe a young DeNiro or Pacino.

What do you want your readers to take away from your book?

It was a really different time. There was innocence and honesty.

I want my readers to have a lot of smiles and loud laughs. The people who don't get it are really young people. My 22-year-old grandson says "it's like science fiction, grandpa."

Do you have any upcoming works you'd like us to know about?

I'm working on my screenplay right now. I could add another 20 episodes to the screenplay. There's so much there.

If you want to have an original, fun read, with lots of laughter and smiles, get a hold of the book, and hopefully, someday we'll see a TV series or movie come from it.

For more information, please visit ItBeganInBrooklyn.com.

Hollywood, CA

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