The Next Page: The coolest cat in history? Dean Martin, of course
Only a day trip away, Steubenville, Ohio pays regular homage to its coolest son, writes KEN KASZAK
JAN 24, 2021 6:00 AM
My friend and I used to debate who was the coolest guy that ever lived. I argued for Steve McQueen with a young Robert Mitchum in the No. 2 spot. My uncool friend argued for Elvis.
Unlike my vote in the 2020 presidential election, I’m changing my “cool” vote. I have a new King of Cool. I now vote for Dino Crocetti as the coolest guy who ever lived.
Never heard of Dino? Well, he was born in Steubenville, Ohio, and began his career as a busboy in an underground casino in that gambling-friendly town. Dino moved up from cleaning tables at the casino to dealing cards to singing for the gamblers.
He changed his name to Dino Martini but, to avoid confusion with Italian opera singer Nino Martini, he changed it again. To Dean Martin.
Martin is available to us only through his recorded music, his movies and his TV shows, but Steubenville is easily accessible to us. It’s only 40 miles away from Pittsburgh as a straight shot down Route 22, an easy and quirky day trip. As a bonus, a telegraph operator for the Pennsylvania Railroad, a young Andrew Carnegie, worked in Steubenville. The town library was one of the first Ohio libraries financed by Carnegie. From November to January, the Nutcracker Village features the world’s largest collection of nutcrackers, each 6 feet tall. The 2020 version lined up 183 nutcrackers in the likeness of both real people and fictional characters.
Martin touched all the bases in entertainment. His voice was silken and will play on the world’s stereos forever. His comedy skills came naturally. His acting skills matched that of Brando’s. He achieved a status that few men ever have — women loved him and men appreciated him without hating him for his good looks and adoration from the female population.
It was Martin’s acting ability that made me recast my vote. When I watch “The Sons of Katie Elder,” I don’t wonder for one moment how an Italian American from Jefferson County, Ohio, ends up in Clearwater, Texas, with John Wayne as his brother. I believe Matt Helm is a secret agent able to save the world and seduce the girl — all in two hours of screen time. Martin’s coolness makes my “suspension of disbelief” kick in.
I teach a writing class that focuses on screenwriting in which I use a concept titled “Anatomy of a Movie.” I show a well-structured, well-written movie that captures just some of the 27 items a screenwriter must think about.
To show introduction of characters, passage of time, plot points, rising action and strong endings, I use a 1959 film titled “Career.” The movie stars Anthony Franciosa, Shirley MacLaine, and Angela and Gaetano Crocetti’s son.
This film is in the category of one of the “great movies you’ve never heard of.” Martin’s character, Maurice Novak, is introduced early, a semi-homeless stage director trying to put on shows at the Seamen’s Mission in Greenwich Village. When he auditions an actor, he has to ask the actor if he has money to invest in a stage play. Sam Lawson (Franciosa) doesn’t have any money, but he’s got acting talent.
The pair bond immediately. While Lawson struggles to get small acting roles, Novak starts moving up the theatrical career ladder and advances to becoming a successful film director. Meanwhile, Lawson barely gets work as an understudy on touring shows.
When you watch this movie, you don’t think about Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr. or Jerry Lewis. You don’t think about the “Dean Martin Comedy Roast” and you don’t think of Martin’s pretend persona of constant alcohol consumption (many of the times he was onstage with drink, it was apple juice in that glass). His acting chops are that good.
Later, both men are now working in their craft but a problem arises — Novak and Lawson are both “blacklisted.“ (This movie was one of the first films to deal with the impact that the Hollywood Blacklist had on the careers of creative people in the 1940s and ’50s.) Lawson gives up the stage for a waiter’s uniform. To add insult to injury, he works at a spot that caters to the theater crowd. One evening Novak approaches Lawson, unshaven and wearing the aura — and clothes — of a man who can’t find work. He knows Lawson would be great in a new play he’s presenting. “A Day of Darkness” is a hit. It moves from the Seamen’s Mission to Broadway. Lawson is in for a long play run, a movie deal, and the stardom that eluded him for so long.
On the second night of the run, Novak suggests to Lawson that they meet for a drink after the show. Lawson declines the invite. Dean Martin’s Novak doesn’t say a word — he gives a look that speaks volumes. The two have been through so much together — as roommates, friends and adversaries. One is now the director of a hit play, the other the leading actor. Martin’s look is one of regret and pain for not understanding why their friendship from long ago can’t be rebuilt.
One of my favorite Dean Martin stories concerns a party thrown by Martin at his house. The party was going strong and loud past 3 a.m. A call was made to the police. When the police arrived at the house, Frank Sinatra saw them and met them on the driveway. He told the police he was surprised that one of the neighbors called to complain because all the neighbors were at the party. The officers told Sinatra that the call came from inside the house.
Sinatra went in the house, up the back stairway, and into Martin’s bedroom, where Martin was already in bed. When Sinatra asked why he called the police on his own party, Martin replied, “Pally, when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.”
Each June (Martin’s birthday was on June 7), the city of Steubenville hosts the Dean Martin Festival. There are music events and tours of the sites where Martin’s boyhood home and his father’s barbershop once stood. The event is a fundraiser for the Dean Martin Scholarship Fund, which provides financial assistance for young men and women interested in music and the arts.
This June, I will definitely be attending the Dean Martin Festival. I will cruise down Dean Martin Boulevard, on my way to the Dean Martin Room inside the Jefferson County Historical Society. I’ll then enjoy dinner at Naples Spaghetti House, where Martin used to eat his pasta fagioli (I now know how that dish became a lyric in “That’s Amore”).
Steubenville’s most famous son definitely was cool. The city, with its strong history and artistic energy, still is.
Ken Kaszak is an investment adviser and writer (www.valuekaszak.com).