Hollywood smitten with Mafioso fantasy

February 13, 2000|By GREGORY KANE

GIOVANNI GEPPI came to the United States in the early 1880s at the age of 18 from the fishing village of Cefalu in Sicily. He landed in Philadelphia and headed south to Baltimore's Little Italy, where he had relatives.

Geppi put what little money he had to good use. He bought and sold vegetables at a profit, repeating the process and saving his meager earnings until he could open the Geppi Nut and Candy store. Tired of Anglicized Americans pronouncing his last name with a hard "g," he changed the spelling to Jeppi.

He and his wife had 10 children. All five daughters eventually married. One of his five sons died at 18. Lawrence, the oldest boy, eventually assumed ownership of the family store. His youngest brother, Anthony, took over when he retired. Joseph, the third oldest, became an ophthalmologist. Samuel, the second oldest, became a pharmacist.

"That's not bad for a guy who came here with nothing," said John Jeppi of Giovanni Geppi's and his offspring's achievements. Jeppi is Giovanni's grandson, son of Samuel the pharmacist, and founder, president and director of the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland.

Giovanni Geppi's story has been repeated again and again by Italian immigrants who came to America and seized opportunities. So why, when those idiots in Hollywood choose to make movies or television shows about Italian-Americans, don't we see more stories like Giovanni Geppi and his progeny? The answer: Hollywood is too smitten with the Italian-American as gangster and Mafiosi story to make anything else. And gullible viewers are just as much to blame.

Witness the success of the HBO series "The Sopranos," which recently won four Golden Globe awards and has critics gushing its praises as "the best drama on television."

I wouldn't know if it is or isn't. I refuse to watch it. The Italian-American as gangster/Mafiosi story has been done to death. The Italian-American as entrepreneur, doctor, lawyer, judge, educator or scientist are stories Tinseltown's producers, directors and screenwriters seem to find anathema. But I'm not watching another Italian-American as mobster story. The genre perpetuates stereotypes and bigotry against Italian-Americans. To be sure I wasn't overreacting, I asked Jeppi if my assertion was true.

"No question," he answered. This is from a guy who actually watches "The Sopranos" -- but only for the acting. Jeppi added that Hollywood needs to get off the Italian-as-gangster theme and show more movies about Italians in various walks of life.

He's experienced the milder form of anti-Italian prejudice in his life. He's used to folks wisecracking "I guess your father's in the cement business" when he mentions his Sicilian heritage.

But he also remembers warnings from his grandfather about more virulent forms of bigotry directed against Italians in America.

"I remember him telling me, whenever we ferried across the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore, `You don't stop because they don't like Italians, and they don't like Catholics.' "

Hatred of Italians was so virulent that it led to one of the worst mass executions in American history. Eleven Italian-Americans were accused of killing New Orleans' police chief in 1891. Local newspapers fanned the flames of anti-Italian prejudice during the trial. When they were acquitted -- the evidence was quite flimsy -- a mob shot 10 of the men and hanged another.

"I've heard about that only recently," Jeppi said. "I was surprised."

Of course he was. The current American Zeitgeist says such a thing can only happen to "minorities of color." Prejudice against Italian-Americans hasn't been regarded as so deadly. Had the mob execution happened to blacks or Hispanics, Hollywood's honchos would have already cranked out a movie filled with hand-wringing guilt about the incident. But Hollywood can't touch the subject -- not without acknowledging that it has done more to promote prejudice against Italian-Americans than any other institution in America.

"I wonder how often other Italian-Americans react to that stuff," Jeppi said of shows and movies like "The Sopranos." Italian-American reaction to the latest "best drama on television" has so far been subdued. That's probably because most Italian-Americans, like Giovanni Geppi's grandson, are content to let their record of achievement as law-abiding, hard-working citizens speak for itself.

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