Even though I was born in the early ’60s, I was brought up in a World War II household. My dad was an 18-year-old sergeant in the U.S. Army fighting Hitler’s brigade in Anzio, Rome and Southern France. My mom was born in Florence, Italy, and watched American tanks roll by her house on a daily basis. By the time I came along 21 later, the war stories at the kitchen table were shared regularly, often ending in an argument about Mussolini pre Hitler vs. Mussolini post Hitler. It was a complicated battle that my younger sister, brother and I didn’t really understand until we were much older.
One thing that there was never an argument about was the topic of the most beautiful actress in movies. In an era of Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Vivian Leigh, Rita Hayworth, Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe and so many others, there was no goddess of the silver screen who represented beauty, class and elegance more than Sophia Loren, at least in our Italian-American household.
That stunning face, buxom figure and adorable Italian accent made her the reigning queen of film, television and magazines for as long as I can remember. And just like so many rock stars and other Hollywood legends after her, she was on my bucket list to one day share a moment with, whether it be a chance glimpse of her at the Rome airport on my way home from vacationing in Italy, a view from the audience as she sat on a dais at an international gala or maybe being in the same huge audience with her at one of those award shows. Never in a million years did I think the day would ever come that I would not only meet her, but also have the opportunity to chat with her and escort her onto one of MY stages … but it did!
As I became more and more involved with agents and managers around the world, I kept my eyes peeled, asking if Sophia would consider coming to tour the United States. For 10 years I checked with international agents, even contacting her son, Carlo Ponti, Jr., an orchestral conductor, by email through a mutual friend, all to no avail.
Then one Sunday morning, I received a call from an agent who specializes in very unique presentations. We had worked together on many occasions before, most recently when I hosted his client, the television star Barbara Eden at The Arcada, where I interviewed her during a multi-media career retrospective.
“You did so well with that show, I wanted to see if you would be interested in another icon,” he said. “Sure,” I asked, “Who is it?”
“You may want to sit down for this,” he warned. “It’s an evening with Sophia Loren.” I nearly dropped the phone! She was embarking on an international tour promoting her most recent book, “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow … My Life as a Fairy Tale by Sophia Loren.” And I was to have the only Midwestern stop on her North American tour! I needed to be medicated.
The show was set for the Copernicus Center in Chicago on March 24, and the day finally arrived. I had thought about it every day, how it would be magical. I planned on bowing down, giving her a grandiose reception. There would be Italian music in the background, maybe some decorated Italian soldiers on horseback flanking her.
As with most dreams, reality wound up presenting itself somewhat differently. What actually happened was that she entered through a back door that was elevated from the stage and covered by a black curtain. She immediately sat on a folding chair at the door. Not the throne I had planned for her! All I saw was her feet at first when she walked in behind the curtain. I froze! With all the celebs I have met over the years, this was one of the ones that made me shiver with excitement. I pulled back the curtain and there she was, the Italian Queen of international cinema! Really, who is bigger than she is, and still around?
I was in awe! She was still so beautiful and elegant, sitting upright as she extended her hand to me. “Hello,” she said. “Spoken like a true Queen,” I thought. Then I took her hand and kissed it, bowing to her at the same time. “Oh no, was that too much?” I wondered. It just happened, I didn’t even think about it, but it felt right and she smiled at me.
I would like to think that I can speak a pretty good conversational Italian. At that moment, however, the words I muttered after “Buona sera” (good evening) came out as a combination of gibberish-Italian and broken English. I really can’t remember what I said as I struggled with a simple sentence. She sort of chuckled and said, “Good evening, it’s nice to meet you.” We both smiled, and I started over. It was an ice-breaker that made for a smooth evening ahead.
As I stood before the packed house and started my introduction of her, I looked down at my 91 year old mother, Gabriella, and began to tear up a bit, recalling those conversations at the kitchen table with my late father. With a quivering lip and a bit of a shaky voice, I said the words, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Sophia Loren.” As I write this today I STILL can’t believe I said those words!
She looked down at me (still very statuesque) took me by the arm, smiled and we walked out onto the stage. The place went wild! She stopped in her tracks, raising her hand ever so slowly, with a regal wave to the insane audience. I could see on her face that she was genuinely appreciative of the love shown by her adoring fans.
Her walk was a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other saunter, very classy, as she blew kisses to the audience. “La Regina! La Regina”! (The Queen, The Queen) was being yelled from the crowd. Just her entrance alone was inspirational!
She sat down in a beautiful armchair (which I still have, by the way) and the crowd settled down. The entire thing was done in English, but her English sounded like romantic poetry. She began with clips from some of her films, including “The Pride and the Passion” co-starring Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.
During that filming, she was also romantically involved with famed Italian Producer/Director Carlo Ponti, who ultimately won her heart and remained married to her for 50 years. Both men were over 20 years her senior, and it was thought that her broken relationship with her father resulted in her attraction to older men.
“My father was horrible,” she said. “He left us when we were very young, and did not help us at all. He actually never really married my mother. As far as I am concerned, I had no father, but I always wanted one like the other kids had.”
That kind of brought the mood down a bit. But she continued to describe her difficult childhood during war-torn Italy of World War II. “My mother would take water from the radiators of cars, and give it to us with a teaspoon,” she said. “Everybody was starving during those times. We never knew if we would make it from day to day.”
Before the war, her mother was a local actress. After the war ended, young Sophia, blossomed from “The little stick” as she was nicknamed (her nanny is quoted as saying that Sophia was the ugliest child she had ever seen) to a “very well-developed” young lady. Her mother decided to take her daughter to Rome to see if she could break into the acting or modeling world. She did get placed in some magazines and wound up getting a few small roles.
In 1960, her personal life came full circle with her professional life as she was chosen to star in the film “Two Women,” an ironic story of a young girl during the terrible times of World War II. The passion was so deep for her, she received an Academy Award for her performance.
The night went very fast as she was chatty with audience members and drew laughter with some of her quips. “I was so self-conscious about my looks in the beginning because a photographer once told me that my mouth was too big and the shadow from my large nose made me hard to photograph!” she chuckled.
She spoke of her two children and four grandchildren as being the center of her life. She keeps her figure by walking every day, and that “quote” that is out there stating “I owe all of this to pasta” was something an advertising guy came up with, “I never said that,” she said. “But, my favorite dishes are spaghetti con ragu (meat sauce) and eggplant parmigiana!”
After the show, she thanked me, took pictures with my family and gave me a great hug. I was hugged by a TRUE queen that night, a larger-than-life living legend. I must say that at 54 years of age, I felt as if I went through puberty all over again. The scary thing for me is that it was an eighty year old that did it!
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