On June 16, dedicated fans from as far as Pine City, Minnesota, turned out for this year's celebration, the 50th anniversary of the last time Dino ever set foot in Steubenville. More than 300 pompadour-wearers and their loved ones attended, plus a few straggling hipsters, clinging to the velveteen remnants of their youth.
Dino died in 1995, but some of his old pals from Steuby's south side are still waiting for him to come back. Boy Scout buddy Mario Camerlengo, for instance, who munched on punch and cookies at the pre-festival nosh at Jefferson Community College.
Camerlengo last spoke to Mr. Laid-Back in 1935, when they played in a band called the Gondoliers. The Gondoliers got all the choice gigs in Steubenville -- Mario's father's bar, baptisms, etc. -- but Dino wanted out. So he left the band and moved to Cleveland, getting a nose job en route.
But Camerlengo and his sister, accordionist Helen Bonitatalis, didn't mind. They had weathered personnel changes before. For instance, they lost their trumpeter in Ashtabula when he was tossed in the pokey for drinking beer and marching in the Italian Day Parade at the same time.
Dino's favorite activities included "throwing crabapples at you from across the bunk [at Boy Scout camp], teasing you, and fighting," recalls Camerlengo, who's 83. "We had a minstrel show, and he was the end man. Three on each side, and the end man would tell jokes. He wore blackface and sang "Blue Moon.'" Ahh, the good ol' days.
Dino was not only the end man, but also the stick man, working the dice tables at the gambling joints during Steubenville's speakeasy days. He also favored leading fraternity recruits to the cemetery in the middle of the night and leaving them there.
"I knew he was gonna make it big," Camerlengo, a former grocer, reflects. "He had the guts."
"He was real serious," adds Bonitatalis, who aches for her hometown now that she lives in the Sun Belt. "He sang "Blue Moon,' "Isle of Capri,' and "Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.' He'd step up to the microwave and tell jokes." And cook a hot dog in 30 seconds.
Camerlengo also has a funny story to share about Dean and a flock of chickens, but he's temporarily forgotten it. Musta been all the moonshine. During Prohibition, Steubenville was a good-time town, a center for gambling and bootlegging. Dino performed at night and worked in the steel mills by day.
Now the flappers are ghosts, and the smokestacks no longer belch that moneymaking black smoke.
"There's jobs around here, but you have to bust your tail to get one," says Michael Bates, a stockboy at the Kroger grocery, home of the Dean Martin mural, which is painted on the store's façade. "You gotta know somebody. My cousin used to work here. She put her foot in the door for me."
Dean Braun, head of the Steubenville visitor's center, said the city is trying to replace the steel jobs it's lost with ones in tourism. They've restored Old Fort Steubenville, built in 1787 to protect government surveyors from the area's hostile Indians, and painted 26 outdoor murals on buildings all over town.
Jerry Lewis helped pay for the Kroger mural -- a gesture some Dino fans look upon with disdain.
"Jerry Lewis is scum," declares Arlene Ferguson, a social worker from Queens who drove seven hours to get to the festival, playing selections from her Dino tape library the whole way. "Jerry Lewis is a hypocrite. He wouldn't have anything to do with Dean when he was alive. Then Dean died, and all of a sudden, he's Dean's best friend."
But there's little room for indignation at the Dean Martin Festival. When Chicago entertainer Ed Dybas, who does a Dino tribute show, slips into the violin-induced "Write to Me From Naples," Ferguson goes soft.
"Oh God, this is my song," she swoons. "This shows his diversity. People think he was just a drunk singer. No one took him seriously. But he sang in Italian, Spanish, and French. How could he accomplish all that drunk? It was an act!"
Sensing opportunity, many aspiring and perspiring Deans flock to Steubenville. One of them is Joe Scalisi of Madison, Wisconsin, a "young" Dean in a dove-gray tuxedo with curly chest hair poking through.
"I studied a lot of his CDs," he says. "The hardest part was holding the cigarette. He never held it like normal people did. He held it way up here."
Neil Daniels, president of the Dean Martin Fan Center in Los Angeles, says Dean's persona lives on in Joe.
"He brings his parents and his girlfriend to each performance," he says. "Just like Dean, his family is so important."
Scalisi and his parents are practically a motif here, snaking through the streets with assorted pieces of sound equipment. Not only do the folks contribute to his wholesome image, but they help him carry his stuff.
Amateur Dino impersonator Rick Treglia wins the look-alike contest at the local Spot bar. Except for the high hair, he looks precious little like Dean.
"I've liked him all my life," says the tippy-tayer, dressed in tube socks, white tennis shoes, and a T-shirt. One could say he got the $50 prize by divine right: His best friend's dad used to get his hair cut by Dean's dad, who was a Steubenville barber until his flesh and blood hit the big time.
"Any time he'd come out with a song, I'd sing it," says Treglia. "But I never gave it a second thought until my kids got me a karaoke machine for Christmas."
Dean stayed in town until he was 17 -- long enough to get baptized at St. Anthony's church, where his color portrait rests suavely on an easel beside a statue of the Virgin Mary. Today, his old parish is celebrating the official Dean Martin Mass by filling in the blanks in the liturgy with the crooner's name. Here, one will find a higher percentage of men in toupees, striving for that hard-to-attain pomaded look, than in the general population.
"Let us pray for the kind repose of the soul of Dean Martin," recites the priest. "We pray that any pain and hardship Dean Martin experienced in his life has passed, and for eternal life for Dean Martin. There is hope that all of Christ's people, including Dean Martin, will have that final destiny of being home."
It's a bit of a letdown. Not even a single "ding-a-ling-a-ling" slipped in the Lamb of God.
But the real treat of the festival is an appearance by surprise guest Deana Martin of Beverly Hills. Dean's daughter reveals the juicy tidbit that, contrary to lounge singer folklore, her father wasn't passed over for the draft solely because of a double hernia. "He had flat feet, asthma, and an ulcer."
Frankie was her favorite Rat Packer besides her dad. "But Sammy was very nice. He was also my size when I was a child. One time, they brought all the tuxedos over to the house, and they had this tiny tuxedo for Sammy. I put it on, and it fit perfectly."
The festival consensus seems to be that Dean's poison of choice was apple juice -- it just looked like J&B whisky.
"He rarely drank," says Daniels, who worked as a production assistant on Dean's variety show in the 1960s, in violation of child labor laws. "But when he split with Jerry, he had to create an image. With the drinking and the broads and stuff. It worked for him, so he built on it."
But what about the bloating? Dean was pretty puffed out by the time he died.
He just looked bloated toward the end because of the industry switch in film grade, Daniels says. "And he let his hair grow more natural," he explains. "He was more comfortable with himself. He let himself sit on the couch."
Though pronounced, Daniels's hairpiece actually blends with his real hair, which is maybe why he's the president of the fan club and not just a member.
In a bold move, Mike Maiwurm and Jim Messerschmidt, 37-year-old friends from the Minneapolis area, are wearing their real hair. They met more than 20 years ago through the Cliff Richard fan club, sharing a singular fascination with the early 1960s British pop singer.
"It was all girls and us," says Maiwurm. "It was perfect."
They soon found they had even more in common: Dean Martin and Star Trek. They even moved next door to each other. Mike's dad was a real-estate guy, and he got them good deals on houses. Every year, they fly out to Steubenville for the Dino reunion.
"It's one of those retro things," says Messerschmidt. "But we liked him all the way through [his career]."
But not without a dark side. According to Messerschmidt, there's a little rivalry brewing between members of the official Dean Martin Fan Club, who call themselves the Rat Packers, and an extremist group called the Mice Packers. Jim and Mike are rats, but they've identified some mice in the crowd.
"You can never tell with them," whispers Messerschmidt. "Yesterday, they gave us the cold shoulder, and today, they're as happy as hell to see us."
And to partake in the cheese. A toupee-wearer with what looks like half a bowling ball on his pate presents Deana Martin with a proclamation. His earnest speech gives the audience some down time to mull over the coiffure extremes they've been confronted with today. Maybe ever since Dean's dad left, Steubenville hasn't had a decent barber.
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