Dawn of an era

By Karen Zautyk
Observer Correspondent 


“This is where it all started. Belleville, N.J. A thousand years ago. Eisenhower. Rocky Marciano. And a few guys under a streetlamp singing somebody else’s latest hit.”

That’s part of the intro to the Broadway production of “Jersey Boys” — and as soon as the town is mentioned, someone in the audience will applaud. Or shout a “Yo! Belleville!”

Belleville folk are proud of their home. And proud of the Jersey boys who made the big time. And some of them even can remember when the sounds of a summer night always included a few guys harmonizing under a streetlamp.

Which probably was somewhere in the area of Franklin St. and Watchung Ave.

Back in the day, in the 1950s, the popular place to hang out was Joe’s Lunch at 90 Franklin St., at the corner of Watchung. And one of the regulars was a kid named Francesco “Frankie” Castelluccio. We know him better as Frankie Valli, lead singer of The Four Seasons, who topped the charts in the ‘60s and ‘70s with dozens of hits.

“British invasion”? What British invasion? The Jersey boys more than held their own against the groups from across the pond, giving even The Beatles a run for the money.

In 1990, the original members of The Four Seasons — Valli, Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi (another Joe’s regular) and Bob Gaudio — were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

They have since been immortalized in the Broadway musical and the recently released “Jersey Boys” film, directed by Clint Eastwood.

But it all started in Belleville.

We sat down the other day to chat with the former owner of Joe’s Lunch, Joe Fornarotto, whom we first met in his current role as commander of the Belleville/Nutley chapter of the Disabled American Veterans. We were unaware of The Four Seasons link until he showed up at our office with a folder full of photos and clippings. Who knew?

Fornarotto, now 88. is a lifelong Belleville resident and a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Pacific during World War II. After he got out of the service in ‘46, he worked in a supermaket for a few years and then approached his father with the idea of opening a luncheonette.

Fornarotto’s parents, Carmen and Rose, owned the building and operated a grocery at 90 Franklin St., where a groundfloor store was vacant. Thus, was born Joe’s Lunch.

Helping Joe Fornarotto run the place were his sister Josephine and his brothers Carmen Jr. and Albert.

For Fornarotto, it was a relatively short-lived venture. He left the business three years later to take a job in the Belleville Public Works Department, moving on eventually to become an Essex County housing inspector. But the three years at Joe’s Lunch were more than memorable.

Frankie Castelluccio/ Valli was a teenager living with his widowed mother and his brother and sister in Stephen Crane Village, the “projects” just over the Newark line. “Every day, he would walk down Watchung Ave. and come to the store,” Fornarotto recalled. “He’d be there all day. He would drink his tea and mumble his songs.”

Photos courtesy Joe Fornarotto Left: Frankie Valli and Joe Fornarotto in 1987. Right: The pals back together five years ago.
Photos courtesy Joe Fornarotto
Left: Frankie Valli and Joe Fornarotto in 1987. Right: The pals back together five years ago.

“We used to kid Frankie for hanging around singing,” Fornarotto said. “He was a person to himself. He was a loner, I would say.”

“In the evenings,” Fornarotto said, “he and DeVito, Gaudio and Massi would practice at Pete Nappi’s Bar & Grill over on Belmont Ave. in the Silver Lake section (of Belleville).

“At first, he was just hanging around with them, and then they gave him a chance. DeVito and Gaudio liked what they heard and gave him a shot.”

“To my mind,” Fornarotto said, “he made The Four Seasons.”

(To borrow another quote from the Broadway show: “Their brass ring turned out to be a kid who sang like an angel.”)

“The guys started in bars and small nightclubs,” Fornarotto remembered.

“They played at The Silhouette on Mt. Prospect Ave. and a nightclub on the Belleville Pike.”

Fornarotto knew another Belleville guy from that era who would make it big: actor Joe Pesci. “He hung out at Rossi’s Tavern on Belmont Ave.”

Regarding the new “Jersey Boys” movie, Fornarotto termed it just “fair.”

“The show is better than the movie,” he said.

One of his problems with the film: “Everything was ‘F’ this and ‘MF’ that, and they never swore like that.” He also wishes Eastwood had incorporated a few more Belleville locations. Plus: “The movie says Tommy DeVito owed (mobster Gyp) DeCarlo almost $1 million. That’s not true.”

Fornarotto is also irked because “there are a lot of false stories that they (the Jersey boys) were criminals, and they weren’t.”

Any trouble they might have gotten into “was juvenile stuff. That’s all it was.”

Fornarotto still sees Valli on occasion, usually in Vegas or Atlantic City, and in ‘87 he even got an endorsement (of sorts) when he ran for public office.

Among his memorabilia is an envelope bearing the message:

“To all my friends in Belleville: Please support Joseph Fornarotto for commissioner. He is a dedicated and sincere man.” Below that is Frankie Valli’s signature.

However. Fornarotto confessed that he had given Valli a blank envelope folded in half and wrote the endorsement himself afterwards. All’s fair in love and politics, right?

In any case, Valli did later actually support him. And he won, serving one term before the town switched from a commission to a mayor/council form of government.

In 2009, the singer returned to town to be honored as Man of the Year by the Belleville Italian-American Assoc. The dinner at Nanina’s in The Park attracted 570 people. “It was the biggest event ever at Nanina’s,” Fornarotto said. “They even had tables set up in the vestibule.”

Valli could return again in the near future. Fornarotto said there are plans to change the name of Watchung Ave. in Belleville to Frankie Valli Drive. We shall keep you posted.

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