JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) —A few years ago, Johnstown jazz musician Frank Filia asked his second cousin, Russell Shorto, an internationally known author, a question: “What are we gonna do about the story?”
Shorto instantly knew what “the story” was.
His grandfather and namesake, Russell “Russ” Shorto, had been a central figure in the Johnstown mob during the city’s 20th Century heyday. His writer’s mind started to develop ideas as they spoke, but, at that moment, he told Filia he was not interested.
The seed, though, had been planted.
And, ultimately, the brief encounter provided the inspiration for Shorto’s most recent book – “Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob” – set for release by W.W. Norton on Feb. 2. Shorto, throughout countless hours of research, conversations, writing and travel, explored his family’s connection to the mafia in Johnstown, eventually creating a story that is part memoir and part narrative history book.
“(Frank) burst the bubble,” said Shorto, a Johnstown native, who now lives in Cumberland, Maryland. “I realized that whatever reasons people had for being silent about it, those people are all gone.
“This is just history. There were enough old people around who had insights into it that I should do it now, and if I don’t do it now it’s going to be gone. It was thanks to Frank that I started really looking into it.”
Filia, who knew Shorto’s grandfather, called the book “a beautiful piece of work that he’s doing.”
“And it’s something that really, really has to be said on his part,” Filia said. “It’s a story about Johnstown in the ’50s and the fascination with Johnstown when it was booming. When I was a kid – at 16 – working in a poolroom, making a hundred (dollars) a week. It was 1951, think about that. … Hustlers all around, numbers writers. Fascinating, so fascinating.”
City Cigar, Wolves’ Corner
One cold winter afternoon this past week, Shorto stood near a building on Main Street that was once home to City Cigar.
The shop, located just a few feet away from City Hall, once bustled with the activity of colorful bookies and pool shooters, during World War II.
“That was like their base of operation,” Shorto said. “They had the offices upstairs. People brought the G.I. Bank (a local gambling game), the numbers and all that, they brought stuff up there. They made regular rounds, but this was where they stopped. Everybody, all the old guys would talk about Wolves’ Corner. … This corner here, Main and Market (across Main Street opposite City Hall) … was called Wolves’ Corner. That’s where the guys would hang out. You would whistle at ‘broads.’ If somebody was going to pick you up or whatever, that’s where you’d be.”
Russ Shorto was an important figure at City Cigar and in all of Johnstown after having grown up in an era when local Italians were treated as “subhuman,” unable to work in the mills or get bank accounts, as his grandson explained.
“That was that generation that had that kind of suffering and that kind of experience,” Shorto said. “So then my grandfather was born and raised in that, and comes of age in the ’20s, (during) Prohibition.
“And so, at that time, his father had been murdered. His mother raised nine kids and she has a still in her house in Conemaugh Borough, and she’s making moonshine for a local kind of pre-mob neighborhood guy. And my grandfather is selling it out of Coke bottles, is the story that they would tell.”
From moonshine to gambling
Russ Shorto switched to gambling after Prohibition ended.
He eventually helped build an organization – in a town run by Joseph “Little Joe” Regino, author Russell Shorto’s great-uncle – that generated, by one estimate, $40 million in the 15 years after World War II ended.
“I grew up with the notion of him as this really dark, kind of scary figure, which I guess in some ways he was,” his grandson said. “But, looking at it from that perspective, it was kind of like what choice did he have? He was barred from everything and this is what he grew up with. It complicates the picture in interesting ways in terms of where you came from.”
But tension arose whenever his son, Tony Shorto, Russell Shorto’s father, tried to get involved with life at the shop.
“There was a complicated relationship between him and my grandfather, which I think stems from the fact that my dad wanted to be in the business and his father didn’t want him to for his own protection, I guess you would say, but was not a very articulate man,” Shorto said. “So what he would do was when he caught him at City Cigar, he would beat the crap out of him. They basically didn’t speak for most of their lives.”
Still, Tony Shorto, supported his son’s writing of the book about their family.
“I wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t want to do this with me,” Shorto said.
Shorto said most family members were OK with his project.
“My grandfather was, in many ways, a bad guy,” Shorto said, “and maybe because of that, I think people in my family since then have kind of bent over backward to try to be model citizens.”
A murder, then crackdown
Feb. 6, 1960 – or maybe a little after midnight into Feb. 7 – was the last time Joseph “Pippy” diFalco, a local bookie, was seen alive.
He was stabbed with an icepick, his remains later found in the Conemaugh Dam Reservoir. The murder remains unsolved by the police and court system, although, in “Smalltime,” Shorto interviews a person face to face who he flat-out asks “Did you kill him?”
The murder became one of the main subjects in the book.
“It occurred to me, ‘OK, I’ve got a murder right in the middle of the story, so that ought to be part of it,’ ” Shorto said. “In a way, this murder, which was never solved, is kind of the beginning of the end for the operation.”
DiFalco’s murder occurred not long before President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy started a crackdown on organized crime in 1961.
“Suddenly, in the course of that year, in Johnstown in particular, the mayor of Johnstown is communicating with the attorney general in Washington,” Shorto said. “The streets are flooded with cops and with FBI people. This activity that until then was in the open, was happening in the open, suddenly people were being shut down, people were being locked up.”
‘Great history … memories’
Shorto, who received a Dutch knighthood in the Order of Orange-Nassau for strengthening Netherlands-United States relations, has written six other book, but “Smalltime” was the first to deal with modern history and a subject directly involving his personal life.
Shorto said the new book provides a look into a bygone Johnstown when “people felt that they were part of something that mattered, they were part of history,” as the mills made steel that helped build the nation and create a bustling, prosperous town.
Francis Ford Coppola, director of “The Godfather,” said the book “draws a convincing portrait of a time when Italian Americans weren’t permitted to live in certain neighborhoods or rise too high in the political firmament” in a blurb in “Smalltime.”
Coppola continued: “This remembrance of his grandfather’s and great-uncle’s lives – of slots and pinball machines, ‘tip seals,’ ‘skeeched dice,’ and places like the Melodee Lounge and City Cigar – mixes great history and lovely, lingering memories: Long conversations about spaghetti sauce and aunts who kissed you on the lips: those were the ways we were Italian.”
And, on a personal note, the experience made Shorto a “promoter of the idea of doing your family history because of that, because it gives you this kind of 3D version of yourself, because you have this much fuller idea of your past.”
“(There’s) maybe a little extra something because I was named after my grandfather, so that helps,” he said. “In my case, it’s just a variation on the American immigrant story. But, of course, the Italian immigrant story is it’s own thing.”