The King of Nostalgia, and Maybe of Belleville

The New York Times
September 5, 2004 Sunday

Mark Rotella is the author of " Stolen Figs, and Other Adventures in Calabria" (North Point) and is working on a book about Italian-American popular singers.

I FIRST heard Danny Stiles on the radio one rainy, spring night. At the urging of a friend who knew my crooner taste in music, I tuned into his Saturday show on WNYC around 9 p.m. Mr. Stiles, who lives in Short Hills, calls himself the "King of Nostalgia," the "Vicar of Vintage," and on various radio stations—WNYC (820 AM), WNSW (1430 AM) and WPAT (930 AM)— you can hear him play pop standards and big band tunes performed by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Billie Holiday, Rudy Vallee and Fats Waller.

I knew that, in my 30's, I must have been in the minority that evening among his listeners, who were most likely in their 70's or 80's and had lived their youth dancing and flirting to "Moonlight in Vermont." I imagined them listening to the radio by themselves, rocking away the late hours as Danny Stiles played to the lonely.

The music Mr. Stiles plays suits the remote, mono sound of AM radio. "And this one goes out to Josie, the Bayonne Bunny," he announced in cadences redolent of the 1940's. There was a pause, the hiss of the needle tracking the grooves on what could only be a pancake-thick 78-r.p.m. record, then the voice of a young Vic Damone singing "You're Breaking My Heart."

Toward the end of the show, Mr. Stiles reminded his listeners, "You can always catch me for dinner every Friday night at Three Guys From Italy in beautiful Belleville, N.J., where you can reminisce while dancing to the big band sounds on a huge, postage-stamp size-dance floor."

There was only one way to find out who listened to Danny Stiles in the darkness of their living rooms—and that was to join him for dinner. So, one Friday night, my wife and I set out from Jersey City to Three Guys From Italy. We traveled along the Belleville Turnpike—really a two-lane road that snakes through the tall reeds of the Meadowlands, beneath the maze of highway—to sleepy Belleville, a working-class town of wood-frame houses, and a sliver of the true New Jersey.

A Night Out, Old Style
When we arrived, the hostess and waitress, Jetta Vizzone, directed us—without fanfare or barely a hello—to a table in the center of the room, between two columns at the edge of the intimate dance floor.

The decor of the restaurant, which seats 110, was long in the tooth, but the overall atmosphere—including Ms. Vizzone's business-as-usual attitude—put me in mind of what it feels like to visit Italian relatives. Waitresses carrying plates of veal parmigiana, linguine marechiara, and pork chops with vinegar peppers passed by. A couple talked to a group of three at the next table; one man wearing a pinkie ring called out to a waitress, seeking more wine. Everyone was dressed up for a night out, old style.

A musician with thinning gray hair and a huge smile stooped over the vibraphones and began playing "Moonlight Serenade." To the left was a table of about 10 people, and holding forth was a man whom I realized must be Danny Stiles -- thin, fit, with a head of fine gray hair.

Wearing a blue sports coat, tie and pocket square, his presence dominated the room. He got up from the table and began making the rounds, greeting all the radio faithful who had come out to meet him -- the master of ceremonies on a night he wasn't on the airwaves.

By nine, everyone had finished eating. Someone lit a cigarette. They were getting antsy. The vibraphone player, Angelo J. Vaglio, picked up the beat with "Witchcraft."

"Hey, let's get the girls out on the dance floor," a septuagenarian gentleman said to his friend. The two couples put their napkins on their tables and got up.

"All right, honey," one woman said to her lady friend. "Let's see you strut your stuff."

After a few numbers a woman with shapely legs who wore a stylish black-and-white polka-dot dress sashayed to the dance floor with her girlfriend. Her sling-back shoes glided across the wood parquet.

Rina Giancaspro -- a longtime fan of Mr. Stiles -- sat behind us with her 50-something son, Dominick, who is a science teacher at a Newark high school.

"I listen to him all the time," she said dreamily, referring to Mr. Stiles. "I even record his music late at night and listen to it as I shop during the day."

"She comes every Friday night," her son said. "She's made so many new friends. It's as if she were 20 again!"

Ms. Giancaspro added: "I listen to him because it's the only place where I can hear this music. You can't find these old records, and you certainly can't find most of this music on CD's."

It is through his radio shows, which he refers to as the "The Great American Museum of Historic Records," that Mr. Stiles brings to listeners the music of their pasts. And it is at Three Guys from Italy where he gets them out of their living rooms and brings them together to enjoy their present. He opens a window into a bygone era, bringing people back to their youth -- and he himself does this in the most solitary way, by sitting alone in a radio studio.

As it got close to 11, Mr. Vaglio set down his mallets, picked up a mandolin, and played an Italian folksong called "Malafemmina."

The entire restaurant sang along.

Straight Out of Newark
Danny Stiles sat in his office at WNSW in Lower Manhattan. A Con Edison glitch had caused a blockwide blackout, and many of the station's technicians had left, but Mr. Stiles continued with business as best he could, arranging his records and CD's for the next show. He was as impervious to the dark and heat as he is to the changing musical times. It seems oddly fitting that as a radio announcer whose shows are most often played in the wee small hours of the morning, he is completely comfortable in the dark.

Mr. Stiles, 80, is of Russian-Polish origin -- though given his taste in food, you could easily mistake him for Italian -- and grew up in Newark. He began his radio career in 1947 with WHBI, now WADO, in his hometown. He remembers exactly when he got his first job because it was on his birthday, Dec. 2. His shows were considered cutting edge back then, with the music of Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine.

"I played mostly black music to both black and white audiences," Mr. Stiles said as he cleaned his glasses, just as meticulously as he stores his recordings. There was no mistaking his speaking voice, which sounds just like his radio voice; there's no change in persona. He is as straightforward in explaining his own accomplishments as he is in recognizing those who have helped him along the way.

After several moves around the region, including to New Brunswick and Asbury Park, he ended up in New York City. There, young singers and musicians and aspiring disc jockeys would turn up and sit with him as he played music, from blues and jazz to rock 'n' roll and doo-wop.

Bobby Darin hung out with him in the studio, as did Connie Francis, and a young jock, Robert Smith, who later made his name as Wolfman Jack.

Through the dull sunlight coming through the window in Mr. Stiles's office, you could follow his history in radio by framed photos, letters and awards that hung on his wall.

Because of his late-night broadcast hours, Mr. Stiles's shows are no longer live, though they feel like it. The day they are aired, the shows are painstakingly taped and engineered. He pulls all the music from his personal collection of 45's and 78's, although for ease he has burned most of the music onto compact discs.

Mr. Stiles is serious about his music, and you get the feeling that he is single-handedly saving it.

"I pick the songs that hit me in the heart, I pick by feeling," he said. "I concentrate on the record itself -- not the songwriter, not the musician -- but the whole thing. I concentrate on the song as I first heard it, what my listeners remember."

Judging by how often he is on the air and how many stations carry his show, it's hard to miss him. He began at WNYC in 1985, joined WPAT in 2000, and in 1999 started at WNSW. "That was about two years after my wife Barbara died," he said. He paused. "She really supported me. Without her I wouldn't have been able to do all this."

Holding gatherings at restaurants is nothing new for Mr. Stiles. "I've been doing this for years," he said. "A couple of decades ago, I talked to my friend Dennis Carey who owned the Red Blazer on Third Avenue and 88th Street. I asked him what his slowest night was, and said I'd bring in business."

He brought in a 14-piece band, Gary Lawrence and His Sizzling Syncopators, and filled the restaurant with music lovers who dined and danced into the late hours. And at Three Guys from Italy he has been doing much the same thing for almost three years now, though on a smaller scale.

The Past Is Present
On another recent night at Three Guys, three woman sat at a table together. They were all single and come here every Friday night. "His songs have a lot of feeling," said Susan DiMaggio, an 81-year-old widow who once owned a ballroom dance school in Lyndhurst. Connie Russo agreed. The tall woman with the shapely legs I'd seen on my first visit had been, not surprisingly, a model in Manhattan. She had beautiful, shoulder-length black hair and a friendly face. She admitted that her age was "39 and holding."

Ms. DiMaggio grabbed my arm. "Every night I go to sleep with Danny Stiles." The three woman laughed; "All of Me" fills the room and Connie Russo took her friend Renee Roselli by the arm and led her to the dance floor. Ms. DiMaggio said she tunes in to Danny Stiles when she gets up at four in the morning. Seeing the surprise on my face, she said, "Honey, you're too young to realize that at my age you don't get a lot of sleep."

Suddenly all the names from the Danny Stiles show came to life. Sitting at the head table was the "Lemon Ice King," Jimmy Catarella, a man in his 70's with a full head of hair and drooping eyelids. "If I had known I would get all this free advertisement on his show, I never would have sold my business." Next to him was Josie, the Bayonne Bunny, a pert woman in a red, low-cut dress.

At the end of the evening, Mr. Stiles stood up and sang, with an untrained though no less passionate voice, "As Time Goes By," a song he often dedicates on the radio to his close friend Janet Marchese.

It's another Saturday night and I tune into Danny Stiles's "Nostalgia Network" on WNYC -- it's on from 8 to 10. No longer do I think that the music he plays is lulling his listeners further into old age. Now I see them as vibrant and alive, happily looking back on their youths, while still enjoying their present. He often plays "This Heart of Mine," sung by Judy Garland and Fred Astaire and Sylvia Syms's "I've Got to Sing a Torch Song." His most-requested song is "Midnight, the Stars, and You," sung by Al Bowlly.

But, for the King of Nostalgia and his listeners, the memories of a life well lived are close to the surface. At the end of his Saturday night radio show, Mr. Stiles always finishes with "Goodnight, My Love," sung by Shirley Temple. In the last two verses, he sings along. The King of Nostalgia celebrates life's joys while never forgetting the sorrows. At the end of the song, he always remembers his late wife, "Goodnight, dear, sweet Barbara."

But Mr. Stiles ends his show on a humorous note: as he leaves the studio, a heavy vault door groans on its hinges, and his footsteps echo. Mr. Stiles is weighted down by crates of 78's.

GRAPHIC: Photo: Danny Stiles holds forth every Friday at Three Guys From Italy in Belleville. (Photo by Nancy Wegard for The New York Times)(pg. 1)
When you're here, you're family: Three Guys From Italy is a home away from home for the D.J. Danny Stiles, top right, with the restaurant's owner, Giuseppe Cucchisi. (Photographs by Nancy Wegard for The New York Times)(pg. 10)