Anti-’Sopranos’ sentiment no reason to silence folk-singing actor

Sunday, September 9, 2001


Dominic Chianese

I'm ready to testify in Uncle Junior's defense.

Dominic Chianese, the veteran actor who plays Uncle Junior in HBO's “The Sopranos,” is on the road promoting his new CD “Hits.” Title aside, this isn't “Music for Mobsters.” The 70-year-old Chianese was a folk singer in the '60s, and his album begins with “For the Good Times” and ends with “Amazing Grace.” Not exactly Eminem's turf.

Yet his scheduled appearance later this month at Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre in Colorado was deemed so controversial that it was canceled.

As The Denver Post reported, concern about pressure from Italian-American organizations led the show's promoters — the House of Blues and the sponsoring Opera Colorado — to cancel the show.

“It pains me to do this, but if people are offended then forget it,” Barry Fey of the House of Blues told the Post. “We do not want to offend anyone. Music is supposed to be a joyous and happy thing.”

Some Italian-American groups are indeed offended by the “Sopranos” TV show. The American Italian Defense Association even filed suit against the show's producers, arguing that the show's depiction of Italian-Americans violates the “individual dignity” clause of the Illinois Constitution. Those who are troubled by “The Sopranos” have every right to speak out against it.

Yet it's quite a leap to go from criticizing a TV show to depriving someone of a livelihood because of his appearance on the program.

I met Chianese two months ago in New York at the Bottom Line, where we were staging a “Freedom Sings” benefit for the proposed national folk-music museum. Chianese volunteered to host two shows and play a few of his gentle folk songs. A performer whose past stage credits include productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, Chianese clearly relished the idea of reaching new audiences with his voice and guitar. On that night which celebrated free speech, he had no way of knowing his own was at risk.

The Denver Post described One Stop Italian America, the American Italian Defense Association and its Commission for Social Justice as “national groups that have allied to encourage members to denounce all singing appearances by Chianese.”

Actually, One Stop Italian America is the name of the official Web site of Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA), and the Commission for Social Justice is OSIA's anti-defamation arm. So there are only two national groups at work here, not three.

Nevertheless, OSIA and the American Italian Defense Association may in fact have organized an e-mail campaign. That's the best explanation for angry e-mails sent to Colorado from Bloomington, Ill., and Boston.

Still, there's no indication of public blacklisting on the Web sites of these organizations. No calls for boycotts. No bull's-eye with Chianese's face in the center.

In other words, the sum total of pressure needed to cancel Chianese's singing engagement was the “dozens of e-mail complaints from around the country” reported by the Post.

Dozens. Not hundreds, thousand or millions. It just took dozens of e-mails to keep a man from singing “Amazing Grace” in Colorado.

During the height of the Red Scare, actors were punished for their perceived political beliefs. In Colorado, Chianese was punished not for his beliefs but for the fictional role he plays on television.

Chianese has other tour dates coming up, and the Fiddler's Green cancellation may turn out to be an isolated incident. I hope so. He deserves to be heard.

Aside from any contract provisions, the artist has little recourse in a case like this. There's no violation of the First Amendment, because no government agencies are involved. The House of Blues can simply walk away when it finds a 70-year-old folk singer too hot to handle.

Putting all of this into perspective is George Vendegnia, founder of the Sons of Italy New Generation Lodge in Denver.

“Personally, I don't have a problem with 'The Sopranos,'” he told the Post. “I think everyone deserves their right to freedom of speech.”

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