My heritage is half Polish-American and half Italian-American. My late mother was Gemma Pietramale, and as you can guess from the name hers is the Italian side of my family. She and her many siblings and friends from the old neighborhood, which still goes by Little Italy today, attended the annual Santa Lucia Festival. By the time my brothers and I came along, we grew up on the other side of town and the festival never held much appeal to us, although my mom still went some years, if not to the festival itself, then attending the special Mass and procession that officially kicked off the event. That’s not to say I didn’t celebrate certain aspects of my Italian cultural heritage, for I did, particularly indulging its food, which I’ve always loved eating and cooking. There were Italian grocers and bakeries I frequented and other Italian festivals I attended, but most of my Italian-American immersion came via interacting with my large extended family.
I finally attended a Santa Lucia Mass with my and its pageantry inspired me to do the following story on the festival. The piece originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly, a paper that is no longer around.
Santa Lucia Festival, Omaha Style
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly
As Omaha continues plowing under the old to make room for the new, the city leaves behind fewer and fewer remnants of its once distinct ethnic neighborhoods and traditions. Among the oldest surviving ethnic celebrations still observed here is the annual Santa Lucia Festival, a peasant-style street pageant honoring St. Lucy, a saint invoked for her healing powers. This year the tradition-laden festival unfolds June 22-25 in the heart of Omaha’s former Italian colony at 6th and Pierce Streets.
While the festival proceeds in an area that is no longer an Italian district per se, it attracts many former residents of Italian ancestry and stirs in them deep currents. “We grew up in the atmosphere of the festival, and it’s a tradition that’s in our blood. It’s a part of us. It’s a part of our life. It’s like a reunion. You gather with relatives and friends and follow through on what your ancestors from Sicily brought over,” said trumpet player Dominic Digiacomo, leader of the Santa Lucia Band.
The 77-year-old festival is a direct link to the Sicilian emigrants who settled in Omaha around the turn-of-the-century, when they established an enclave in the hilly area just south of downtown that became known as Little Italy. The Salerno family of Carlentini, Sicily is credited with making Omaha a destination for hundreds and eventually thousands of immigrants from that district of the Italian island. The Salernos acted as padrones or patrons to the new arrivals. Within the span of a generation the Italian American colony here was a large, predominately Catholic working class stronghold (many of the men toiled for the railroads) whose cultural heritage was centered around church, home, school and the large array of Italian-run businesses that catered to people’s every need. One tradition missing from the old country, however, was the festival honoring Carlentini’s patron saint, Lucia, a young visionary martyred for her beliefs in Syracuse, Sicily in 320 A.D. when a Roman soldier stabbed her to death. The festival, which continues in Sicily to this day, is a gala occasion highlighted by a decorative procession with an ornate float carrying a statue of the beloved saint. Traditionally, believers in the saint line the streets to make donations of money, jewelry, flowers and articles of clothing in hopes of obtaining her intercession and indulgence.
Feeling the time was ripe for Omaha’s Italian Americans to stage a Santa Lucia fest of their own, Carlentini native Grazia Buonafede Caniglia led a drive to start one in the early 1920s. The matriarch of the Caniglia family that went on to establish some of Omaha’s best loved restaurants, including Mr. C’s and the Venice Inn, Caniglia went door to door soliciting funds for putting on the event here and she ultimately enlisted the support of business leaders. A committed was formed and the festival launched. Since its 1925 start, the festival has come to represent the local Italian-American community’s most visible and enduring heritage celebration.
The festival, which has changed little since its beginning, features a carnival with rides and games, booths stocked with Italian foods (from sausage and peppers to meatballs to biscotti), a band playing traditional Italian music and a solemn Sunday mass at St. Frances Cabrini Church (which has been the site of the festival mass since the church was known as St. Philomena’s). A color guard comprised of uniformed and saber-carrying men from the Santa Lucia Society, each dressed in matching coat, cape, white gloves, bow tie and plumed hat, stands at attention beside the statue during portions of the service, which features the singing of the Santa Lucia song. The color guard accompanies the statue outside, where it is placed on the decorative float. The mass, which attracts an overflow crowd to the tiny church at 13th and William, is the festival centerpiece along with the procession and the crowning of the festival queen that follows it.
For old timers like Frank Marino, the mass and the procession are deeply affecting moments that hearken back to early memories of the festival and all it represents. “When I was a kid I can remember that it was probably the biggest event of the whole year,” he said. “Even though those were tough times, our folks would get my sisters and I new clothes and new shoes. We always dressed real fancy because we met all our friends and relatives down there. This was the big thing. And it was always the religious aspect that was stressed. We always went to the church to the mass. That was the great thing — going to mass and seeing all the people there dressed up and listening to the preaching. Then, when the statue came out of the church, you almost cried because it was such a beautiful sight.”
The statue, patterned after a Santa Lucia icon in Carlentini, was fashioned in Sicily not long before the inaugural 1925 Omaha festival. The float, bedecked with angel figures from Italy, was constructed in Omaha. Where the float used to be pulled by hand, it has in recent decades been rigged to a rolling jeep frame.
Just like in Carlentini, devoted onlookers press in close to offer up money or personal items to the icon. Attendants accept the donations, pinning the money to ribbons and fabrics adorning the float, draping the jewelry about the statue and placing larger items below it. The Santa Lucia song is sung once more before the march through the neighborhood commences.
Nowadays, the post-mass procession is the only march of the four-day fest. In years past, a series of parades were held during the course of what was a seven or nine-day festival. And whereas today the march is a mere few blocks long, it used to wend through the narrow streets of Little Italy along a route covering some three or four square miles. “It started at 6th and Pierce and we would go up and around Little Italy, all the way down to 4th Street and then come all the way up to 12th and Center. It was quite a jaunt. We’d start at 4 o’clock and we’d get back about 7 or 8 o’clock. We were dead tired after we got back. We used to call it the Italian Death March,” said Marino, a past Santa Lucia Festival committee president.
According to Marino, the festival has been pared down over the years in response to the changing makeup of the area. What used to be an almost exclusively Italian section tied together by a common belief and background is now a mishmash of nationalities, histories and interests. “It seemed like in every other house there was an Italian family living along the route, and they would come out and greet us and talk to us and donate money to the cause and ask for the Santa Lucia song to be played in front of their house,” he said. “Many times, in one block alone, we’d stop five or six times for that song to be played. The Italian people all understood the festival. Then, in later years, we’d go almost a whole block without anybody coming out to greet us. The new people didn’t understand the whole deal.”
Italian-Americans, like other ethnic groups, joined the great rush to suburbia in the 1960s and ‘70s — fleeing the old neighborhood in droves for the promised perks of ranch-style upward mobility. Historic Little Italy is home now to only a smattering of second and third generation Italian-American residents, merchants and institutions.
In the early 1980s the festival, faced with declining attendance, pulled up stakes from the old neighborhood and moved to the area around the then-new Central Park Mall. It proved to be the first in a series of moves for the festival, which gained bigger crowds but lost some of its authentic charm and historic surroundings in the process. After downtown construction impinged on the mall site, the event found its way to the Deer Park Boulevard area adjacent to the Henry Doorly Zoo and Rosenblatt Stadium. When parking problems surfaced there, the festival found a new if somewhat sterile home on the south side of Ak-Sar-Ben, where it remained until last year. With the south side Ak-Sar-Ben property’s future in doubt and old timers nostalgic for a return to the festival’s original turf, the 2000 event came back home after an absence of nearly two decades. Santa Lucia Festival Committee president Frank Distefano said, “We tried having it in different parts of the city…but it’s just not the same without having it in the neighborhood.” Except for two rain outs, the festival’s return to what some consider almost sacred ground was a hit. “All the people were talking about how great it was to be back in the old neighborhood and the festival’s original roots,” Marino said. For him, there is no doubt the event is back where it belongs. “Oh, yes, absolutely. That’s still Little Italy in my heart.”
Dominic Digiacomo feels the festival should never have left in the first place. “This is where it should have been,” he said from the kitchen of the Santa Lucia Hall at 7th and Pierce after a festival committee meeting there. “I really wasn’t for it when we moved. We were just kind of feeling our way around. We all wanted to be back here in the old neighborhood and now that we’re back we’re happy about it.”
The religious meaning, ethnic pride and historic ties bound up in the long-running festival became an issue recently when a few detractors sought to prevent its taking place in the mixed residential-commercial district that has traditionally been its home base. Having failed to stop the festival from proceeding there, opponents then tried blocking the sale of beer at the fest, but lost out when organizers and supporters appeared before a City Council hearing to emphasize what an integral part of the Italian-American legacy in Omaha the event is and how vital concession sales are to its success. By a 5-1 vote, the Council granted the beer license. To backers like Frank Marino, the public flap over whether the festival is still a good fit given the area’s altered cultural landscape only helps bring into focus what a vital link it is to Omaha’s Italian-American past and what a revered tradition it continues being for descendants of the event’s originators.
“That’s the whole thing — the tradition behind it all,” said the white-aproned Marino from behind the refrigerated meat locker of his A. Marino Grocery store on South 13th Street. The cozy neighborhood market was started by his late father Andrew Marino in 1920. “And that’s what we keep going — the tradition. That’s what were all after. We don’t want to lose our tradition. It’s the highlight of our year, really. I want to continue it. My children want to continue it.”
Or, as former festival master of ceremonies Joe Carlentine put it, “It’s just a thing we were brought up with and believe in and that’s been part of our life all of our lives. It’s a family thing. It’s a tradition that brings back memories of old times.” Just as Carlentine said of Marino’s throwback store — “It never changes; it always stays the same; it’s part of the old times here” — the festival is one constant in this fast-changing era and one relic from the past preserved in all its glory.
For Yano Falcone, who like the others has been attending the festival for nearly its entire duration, it offers a connection to a time, a place, a people and a sentiment that is otherwise gone. “This is the way we were raised and this is our way of coming back to our home and to our roots. We’re trying to do the festival in the same manner as when our mothers and fathers around. We’re trying to keep the tradition flowing through.”
The event triggers such feelings of pride and reverence among the faithful that anyone describing it as a mere carnival should be prepared for a fight. As Joe Pattavina, who has been at virtually every festival since the early 1930s, explained, “To us, it’s a festival — it’s not a carnival. The festival is what we celebrate. We believe in the saint. We believe in our Catholic heritage. If we didn’t believe in it, I don’t think we’d be here all these years.”
Santa Lucia Festival president Frank Distefano, who is considerably younger than most of his fellow committee members, said, “Most of our members are in their 70s and as a younger member I feel a responsibility and a sense of pride and, actually, urgency to keep this tradition alive.” How far the festival continues into the new century will depend on how well it does financially. Things are tight right now due in large part to last year’s rain outs, which cost the festival $8,500 in projected revenue. “We had to go to the bank and borrow some money to put on this year’s festival,” Distefano said. “But we’re going to get it done. We’re going to spend close to $43,000 this year. That’s why we’re praying for good weather so we can generate enough money from the carnival and the sale of food and beer to cover our costs and to raise money for the charities we contribute to.” The festival donates proceeds to the Lions Club as well as various church and civic groups.
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Vivacious Robinlyn Sayers seemingly came out of nowhere to mesmerize Omaha theatergoers with her captivating portray of Hattie McDaniel in a one-woman show at the Blue Barn Theatre. The niece of football legend Gale Sayers and the daughter of the less well known but equally gifted Roger Sayers, Robinlyn was in the process of trying to reinvent herself when I met her. She was already a distinguished medical professional but she also possessed serious chops as a singer and actress and was intrigued with the idea of doing something professionally with those skills, too, perhaps even transforming herself into a full-time performer. The show at the Blue Barn was her Omaha stage debut and after its success she moved to Texas for another medical position. I lost contact with her along the way and now I see she’s working as the chief financial officer for Family Service Center of Galveston County. I trust she still performs now and then, because she’s been blessed with a great gift and it was her desire to heal people not just through health and medical services but through song and theater. My story about her originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published by the Omaha City Weekly
After a diverse medical career that ranged from molecular research to community health, Omahan Robinlyn Sayers, M.D., now applies a form of healing arts, with a capital A, in service of the theater, where she’s found a home for her many dreams and talents. Fresh off a one-woman tour de force portraying the late Academy Award-winning actress Hattie McDaniel in the Blue Barn Theater production of Larry Parr‘s Hi Hat Hattie, for which her singing and acting drew raves, Sayers sees a parallel between what she did in medicine and what she does in drama. That congruence is like the kinship she feels with McDaniel, a kind of alter ego for her.
“I feel like I’m still healing on the stage,” said Sayers, a living-out-loud figure whose juke joint voice drips with honey, gin, sex and smoke and whose round, expressive eyes fill easily with tears. “I always wanted to cure. I never wanted to be somebody to just push a thermometer or check a yeast infection. I never wanted to be that simplistic. Now, it’s so gratifying to go up there for two hours on the stage and make people cry or smile or forget what happened at home. I just want to make people feel inspired, motivated, hopeful. Afterwards, they come to you and they’re so fulfilled. Like this is the best thing in their life. It’s like I’m their wonder drug.”
Sayers herself finds acting such an elixir that she’s put her work in medicine on hiatus to forge a new life in the theater, an arena she plans using to reach people. “I’m going to be very selective in the types of pieces I become involved in,” she said. “I really want to only be involved in things that are both educational and entertaining. They need to have some element of truth to them. They need to convey some sort of a message or theme or issue or be somewhat political.”
That she made her Omaha dramatic debut as Hattie McDaniel, a woman whose story intersects with her own, makes it all seem fated. “It was just God for me to be able to do this show,” Sayers said. “My goodness…there’s so many things that are similar in our lives.” Both are the youngest of Midwest families. Each dreamed of going on stage from an early age. Each married more than once without bearing a child. Like Hattie, Sayers possesses what Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, who directed her in the play, called “a zest for life and a passion for the work. She’s so intelligent and she has such a desire to tell the story.”
Like Hattie, she’s soldiered on. “I like the struggles and challenges of life,” said Sayers, whose Birth of the Blues rendition is a soul-stirring summation of the black experience. And, like high-living Hattie, she said, “I give the best parties in town.”
Throwing herself into the demanding one-woman show that encompasses 80 pages of dialog and song, Sayers did extensive research on McDaniel and the Jazz Era and spent extra hours working with Toberer on character nuances. “I had to be so focused for that show,” Sayers said. “I had to isolate everybody from my life. I put in six hours a day with Susan (Toberer), not to mention what I did at home. I put a lot into it.” During the February 6 through 29 run Sayers also cultivated some rituals to help her get in character and commune with Hattie’s spirit. For example, before the curtain went up she got in the habit of quickly running through the show backstage and she enlisted the crew, including Toberer and the play’s musical director, Keith Hart, who also played the mute pianist on stage, to pray with her.
“It was all about ushering in Hattie,” Sayers explained. “There were times when we had ushered in so many feelings, it would be scary. I wouldn’t even feel like me. I mean, there were times I felt like I was Hattie McDaniel. There was one night, and it was the last night, when I really, truly felt it. She’d won her Oscar 65 years ago that same day (as brassy Mammy in Gone with the Wind).”
“Even now,” months removed from the show, “I’m not quite separated from her,” said Sayers, adding the experience of getting so close to a figure she admires “was magical for me.” The connection she feels is so acute, she said she likes to think that “if Hattie could have chosen someone to do this role — someone with balls enough to really get her record straight for the fabulous actress and entertainer she was — that I would be the one to do it.”
She’s likely to get a chance at playing Hattie again if the Blue Barn can secure the rights to the show for an as yet undetermined revival that may go on tour.
Performing has been a dream of Sayers, a native of north Omaha’s Florence area, forever. But until a couple years ago, she’d done little to heed her hunger aside from playing the lead in two Little Theater dramas at Tuskegee University, where she earned a biology degree. Despite scoring successes on stage in college, her drama aspirations were deferred in favor of her burgeoning genetic research career.
She first made a splash in academia when her research won her awards and opportunities to present papers at national conferences. Then, using her bravura persona to get noticed, she landed a job, at age 24, with the National Cancer Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. Her NIH stint found her working in the lab of Robert Gallo, the renowned medical scientist who first isolated the AIDS virus. It was the late 1980s, a momentous period in the scientific-medical community’s investigation of AIDS and a heady time for Sayers.
“I was able to get into it (AIDS research) when it was just blowing up,” she said. “All the talents I have and all the things I learned over the years — to be able to isolate and sequence and clone — I got from working with the AIDS virus. I was blessed to be right there when they were just starting to do some really fundamental things in molecular biology. It just opened up a whole bunch of other things for me.”
Sayers has been something of a curiosity in the various labs she’s worked in over the years because she’s an M.D. without a Ph.D. “My expertise as a molecular biologist is just from OST — On the Job Training,” she said, adding there’s a weird gulf between holders of the alphabet soup titles, so much so that Ph.Ds responded to her with incredulity. “They were like, ‘Who do you think you are? We’ve gone to graduate school and defended our dissertations. Why didn’t you go to graduate school?’ And I’d tell ’em, ‘Because I have a million other things I want to do.’ And I didn’t ever want to be just clinical. Never did.”
Doing cutting edge research appealed to Sayers’ sense of discovery, but since she didn’t want always to be confined to a lab, she went after and got her M.D. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Any acting thoughts were put on hold during medical school, especially when she got married. The marriage didn’t last.
After college, she worked with Boys Town National Research Hospital’s renowned Dominic Cosgrove in exploring Alports Syndrome, an inherited kidney disease that can result in deafness. Then, she and her second husband moved to Texas, where she was a microbiology and immunology research associate at the Baylor College of Medicine. Her days revolved around research, leaving little time for anything else.
“It’s a very consuming life. You’re talking 80 hours a week, seven days a week,” she said. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure I had to put on my technicians and on myself to pay very close attention to details. In science, you can’t have flaws. Your data has to be statistically significant and reproducible. You spend many hours not sleeping because you’re worried whether your incubation period is going to work out and if the temperature is going to be all right.”
Deferring one dream to pursue another has been the pattern of her life. Acting just had to wait until her passion for research ran its course. “I’m a dreamer. And the thing with me is…I have all these dreams and I know it’s just a matter of time before I knock them all out. I just go for one, and go for the other, and go for the other…and just live.” For a long time, she kept her performing ambition to herself. “A lot of times I’m afraid to share my dreams because people, you know, poison them and get you distracted and make you doubt yourself,” she said.
The youngest child of straight-laced parents, Roger Sayers and Madeline Adams Sayers, she never acted before college, but instead threw herself into her passion for animals — she was forever bringing home stray dogs — and science — she and her brother dissected salamanders and frogs. She worked for local veterinarian Bill Lofton. Her love for animals was so great, she began her Tuskegee studies in animal science, but she changed her mind after a mentor convinced her that as a bright, bold African-American female she could go far in human medicine.
As a kid, she did sing briefly with the Salem Baptist Church youth choir. Otherwise, the Northwest High grad strutted her stuff in cheerleading, gymnastics, swimming and track activities. The fact she found an outlet for self-expression in sports is no accident, as she hails from one of Nebraska’s most prominent athletic families. Her father Roger was a top American sprinter and NAIA football player at then-Omaha University in the early 1960s. Her legendary uncle, Gale, is a member of both the college and pro football halls of fame following All-America and All-Pro careers with Kansas University and the Chicago Bears, respectively.
All her other performing was done privately, before friends and family, or secretly, as when she learned all the lines of a play her siblings appeared in at north Omaha’s old Afro-Academy. She was, she said, “a closet performer.” As she got older, she rarely performed publicly. There were the two plays she starred in in college. Then, while an NU Medical School student, she let her hair down singing a cover of Roberta Flack’s The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face at an on-campus multicultural affairs concert. When an unexpectedly large crowd showed up, she got stage fright. As if the packed house wasn’t bad enough, she was unfamiliar with the lyrics. Then, the canned music went out mid-song, forcing her to finish acapella.
“I went all the way back in the closet,” she said of that performance nightmare.
It wasn’t until moving to Texas she ventured on stage again when, at the prodding of her second husband, who “loved to hear me sing,” she sang at a string of honky tonk karaoke bars. With a penchant for singing country music and overturning people’s stereotypes, she’d go into a black bar and defiantly belt out a Shania Twain hit. “When the twang would start up,” she said, “people would be like,’Wrong song, wrong song,’ and by the end they would be like, ‘Yee-haw.’ We’d have ’em going, and it’d be so great that I’d think, Hey, I might be kinda good.”
Still, she didn’t try out for her first play in Omaha for two years after moving back here in 2001. Her second marriage had ended. She wasn’t ready. “I was down that I couldn’t stick it out like other women and stay married,” she said. As usual, she immersed herself in work, this time at the Charles Drew Health Center, advocating for the homeless and running the center’s chronic disease management program.
Finally, in 2003, she reached a now-or-never point in her drama dreams. “I was like, ‘I have left both of my husbands. I have no children. I’m about to turn 39, so go for it, girl, go for it.'” Without telling a soul, she auditioned for a staging of the Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the John Beasley Theater and won a part. Theater founder and guru, John Beasley, the film and TV actor, took her under his wing, telling her, “You∂ve got it” — meaning the acting gift. “She’s definitely got it,” he said. “She has the talent, the presence and the personality.”
She followed up Ain’t Misbehavin‘ with a part in Little Shop of Horrors at the Millenium. It was there she met Keith Hart, who told her she’d be perfect for Hi Hat Hattie, a production of which he’d worked in in Kansas City. He sold the Blue Barn on the play and about “how completely” Sayers “threw herself into a character and a song” and how “tough and gutsy” she was. “I knew Hattie needed to be kind of a tough broad,” Hart said. One thing led to another and the Blue Barn added the play to its season and Sayers won the part in an open audition.
As much as her talent impressed Toberer and Hart, her work ethic may have won them over even more. For the audition and rehearsal process, Sayers steeped herself in all things Hattie. Untrained as an actress, she gave herself over to Toberer’s direction, learning to “link” and “pull” emotions from her own life to serve her character; for certain scenes, she drew on troubled relationsips and disturbing memories of racism. “There was unlimited discovery for me,” she said.
Among the discoveries was a tolerance for things not going according to plan, something “the control freak” struggled with in the tyranny of the lab. “It’s made me, at 39, give myself a break in life,” she said. “The last week of the show, I felt like I was running track again. When you start rockin’ and you own the show, you feel like you’re in the starting blocks again. It’s fun…crazy…exciting. I love it.”
She hopes to “ride” the momentum from Hi Hat as long as it lasts. On John Beasley’s advice, she’s taken the plunge and is seeking regional theater and film gigs in larger markets, the very path he took in launching his career. Now residing in Galveston, Texas, she recently turned heads at a Houston audition where 25 theater directors saw her. “I’m auditioning like crazy. I get great comments every time. I have been using a monologue from Hi Hat Hattie. So Hattie is still helping me.” She’s intent on going after any role that interests her and on avoiding being typecast. If acting doesn’t work out, well, she’s already been back to school preparing for a health administration career and is in the running for a research associate spot. Either way, she said, “This is what I’m supposed to do…inspire people to dream.”
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