Hail Columbus! For 25 years, Baltimore man's got the look

October 08, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Staff Writer

7/8 TC For 25 years, undeterred by low-hanging electric wires, egg-throwing protesters and skittish politicians, Don Castronova has struggled to portray a dignified Admiral of the Ocean Sea in Baltimore's annual Columbus Day parade.

Struggled, but not always succeeded. It's hard, he admits, to look dignified during a pratfall.

"I feel like I have an obligation to represent Columbus in the best possible light," says Mr. Castronova, 50, who works for Bethlehem Steel when not standing-in for Genoa's favorite son. "I don't clown around. It's very serious with me.

"One year, I was very flamboyant. I figured I'd jump off the float with a cross and then walk up and plant the cross. But my foot got caught."

Thus, instead of a solemn moment commemorating Columbus' introduction of Christianity to the New World, people saw an impromptu tribute to Charlie Chaplin.

"It wasn't the best-looking landing," he admits with a laugh. "Now I use a ladder to get off the boat."

Fortunately, such moments have been rare -- which may explain why the effusive Mr. Castronova will once again don his purple-and-gold costume tomorrow and begin his second quarter-century as a historical stand-in.

Setting off from Key Highway at 1 p.m., the city's annual Italian-American showcase is scheduled to wind its way around the Inner Harbor before ending at the Columbus memorial on President Street.

It's a Baltimore tradition that dates back over 100 years -- one of the oldest parades in the country, and one that has weathered assaults ranging from dueling celebrations in the 1920s to a dispute this year that led a local Hispanic organization to withdraw its support. For the 25th time, the great man himself will be portrayed by Mr. Castronova, a Highlandtown native who first landed the job simply because he had a garage in which to build and store a float.

"I'm the one who picked him to be my successor," says Joseph N. Zannino, 66, a funeral director and former Columbus. "He was a nice young man and he was able to create his own float."

A bearded Columbus?

Mr. Zannino, who has remained active with the parade and even returned portray Columbus one last time for 1992's quincentenary celebration, believes he left the role in capable hands. He acknowledges, however, that maybe the bearded Mr. Castronova could look the part a little more.

"I don't believe Columbus had a beard," he says.

Ah, the beard. Mr. Castronova admits his white-streaked beard may not fit everyone's image of the man whose holiday will be celebrated Monday.

"Some pictures have him with the beard, some don't," he says. "I always point to the fresco at the U.S. Capitol [where] Columbus has a beard."

But noting Columbus and facial hair entered his life the same year, he says he has no desire to change now.

Not that anyone gets too upset. Besides, it would be hard to argue Mr. Castronova's devotion to the job. Until a few years ago, when the fair's organizing committee started renting a platform for him to ride on, he and his friends would drag the float out of his garage every year and get it ready for the parade. He's designed his own costume, using the purple and gold traditionally associated with Columbus.

Despite historians who denigrate Columbus' role in "discovering" the Americas -- after all, American Indians were already here -- or condemn him for helping to lay waste to another culture, Mr. Castronova's admiration for the man he portrays has never waned.

'Amazing' achievement

"The achievement's amazing," Mr. Castronova says, shaking his head for emphasis. "When you think about that small boat he had, and his determination -- 'I want to cross the world.' And he was a great navigator."

Plus, he adds, the parade honors not only Columbus, but also the country in which he was born. As a man whose mother and paternal grandparents were born in Italy, that's no small matter.

While he never makes fun of Columbus, Mr. Castronova does have fun with the job. He enjoys signing autographs as "Chris Columbus" and laughs so hard while relating some of his experiences that he has trouble getting to the punch line.

Children, he says, sometimes confuse him with the real thing. "They see the wheels on the float, and they want to know, 'How'd you go in the water with those wheels?' And I'll say, 'It was hard, but we did it.' '"

But Mr. Castronova has the most fun with politicians. He can tell stories about the late Councilman Mimi DiPietro's unceasing -- and unsuccessful -- efforts to put campaign signs on the float.

Last year, as he was riding with Mayor Kurt Schmoke, someone threw an egg at the car. "I saw it coming and I ducked," he says with a smile. "It hit the mayor in his shoe."

The exploding cannon

Then there was the time then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer -- during a post-Columbus Day parade designed to showcase Highlandtown's retail district -- was caught unawares by an exploding cannon.

Cruising down the street on a float charitably described as rickety, Mr. Schaefer was preparing to read a list of area merchants. With him on the float, in addition to Mr. Castronova, were the two parade organizers: a pet-shop operator with a parrot perched atop his shoulder and a gun-store owner.

"He starts his little speech," Mr. Castronova says, "he's got all these pages of stores to say . . . the guy standing behind him decides to fire the cannon. Before I can stop him, BOOM!! The whole boat rocks back and forth, the parrot starts squawking, feathers flying everywhere.

"Mayor Schaefer sticks his head around and says, 'Don't do that.' His face was red, everybody's laughing, the police are laughing. The papers fall out of his hand, he says 'Shop in Highlandtown,' then says, 'Get me off this boat.' "

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