May 8, 2003
Back in Time
By Howie Mansfield
Former members of the Pompeian Players reflect on their experiences
Once upon a time, the curtain rose on the first performance of the Pompeian Players, a group of parishioners from Our Lady of Pompeii Church on North McBride Street. Some people might remember Bill Barnaello, Nick Daddario, John Ciano, Mark Arrigo, Johnny Latone, and Mattia Falcone in the early days of the Pompeian Players back in the 1930’s. For those who participated in the variety and Broadway-style shows and watched them, the Pompeian Players left an indelible mark on the northside of Syracuse. Vincent (Vince) and Josephine (Jo) Morga were two of the first members of the Pompeian Players. They reminisced about the shows, the church’s strong Italian heritage and how the performances affected their lives. The Morgas first met while members of the Pompeian Players and later married. “Both of my older sisters were in plays at church and I used to go to rehearsals when I was in my early teens. After I joined the church’s choir, I started with the Pompeian Players,” Jo said. “We had just a tremendous amount of talent. The singers, comedians and dancers are just too numerous to mention them all.”
Vince Morga was one of the featured singers during the post-war era of the Pompeian Players. Vince was known for performing special Italian selections. “It was wonderful singing for all the people. We made people laugh, too. It was a great time,” Vince said. “My wife is really the singer. She’s wonderful. There were a lot of good singers from the choir. Even the bishop used to come over and see our shows.” Jo said the early days of the Pompeian Players were spent in the basement of the old Our Lady of Pompeii Church, adjacent to the current school, working on “small one-act plays, comedies and operettas.” The shows were simple, but much loved, she said.
“It started with Father Gerard Horn and Father William Mahaney. They were the first two priests to help us,” Jo said. “After a while, we had to move out of the church’s basement and we started holding our performances at the Franklin School.” As the popularity of the Pompeian Players grew, so did the quality and presentation of the shows, Vince said. One of the major reasons for starting the Pompeian Players was to bring in revenue to help build a new church. “We became so popular around here, people would pay whatever it cost to get into the shows,” he said.
Father Charles Borgognoni followed in the footsteps of his predecessors with the Pompeian Players and the shows went from a variety format to almost complete Broadway-style productions, Jo explained. “Father Charles really put on Broadway shows. He went down to New York City to see the performances and got all of the ideas and music for the shows there,” said Jo. “He studied every detail and knew who was going to play what part when he got back to Syracuse.”
Dick Mancini, Jo’s nephew, was one the Pompeian Players when Father Borgognoni came on the scene. He said the professional nature of the show helped give him a strong understanding of drama and what was needed to be successful. “I think it really contributed to my growing up, and I’m sure it did for the others,” Mancini said. “I don’t think I would have the same appreciation for one of the all-time greatest American art forms — the musical comedy.” Mancini talked about some of the shows Father Borgognoni brought from New York City. He shared one story about a special trip Father Borgognoni made to the city. “We were going to do Hello Dolly here in Syracuse right after it was done on Broadway. Father Charles knew the people there and went down there with a truck,” Mancini said. “As soon as they were done with the sets, we put them in the trucks and drove them to Syracuse for our production of Hello Dolly.”
The Pompeian Players produced such Broadway hits as Music Man, My Fair Lady, Damn Yankees, Oklahoma, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls and Kiss Me Kate during Father Borgognoni’s tenure. Even after Jo and Vince stopped performing with the Pompeian Players, they took their children to the shows. “They went from being at Franklin School to Keith’s Theatre in downtown Syracuse. They also went on the road, playing at different parishes in Oswego and around the diocese,” Jo said. “It was quite an experience to watch these shows.”
Marie Felice and her late husband, Edward, both worked behind the scenes with Father Borgognoni from 1956 to 1986. Felice talked about the shows when they were held at Grant Junior High School in Syracuse. She said the Pompeian Players always performed a great show. “It’s an experience I’m sorry kids today can’t be a part of,” Felice said. “Father Charles was a multi-talented priest who used his contacts in New York City to put on these shows. We worked hard to pull everything together and Father Charles was behind all of it. There is no one like Father Charles.”
Vince said being a member of the Pompeian Players was a good way to keep kids out of mischief during that time. “It kept you out of trouble, especially the young crowd. The kids were always waiting for the Pompeian Players. They really looked up to them,” he said. Felice said working on one of the Pompeian Players’ productions was quite special. “It was a part of my life I loved,” she said. “I was very fortunate to have lived in that era.”