Salvatore Rizzo's Marionettes in Buffalo, NY

The text on this page is excerpted - with permission - from 
Peggy Milliron's blog

View the blog for more information and periodic updates.

Salvatore Rizzo


Like most of the Italians who arrived in Buffalo between 1880 and 1920, Rizzo's background was agricultural. He found work as a fruit peddler, which again was a common occupation for new Italian immigrants.

But there was something that set Salvatore Rizzo apart: he came from eight generations of pupari back in Palermo. Pupari is the plural form of puparo - 'puppet master' in Italian. His father had begun teaching him the skill and the art of the marionette performance as a boy, and he had worked in his father's 'teatrino', as his father worked with his grandfather before him. It was a family tradition, as Salvatore's son Frank proudly told a  Buffalo Times reporter in 1932. "My father can trace his ancestry eight generations and find that they were all great masters in marionettes. It was the great show in Italy."
The Theater on Dante Place
(online August 2013)

In this post I'd like to share what I have learned so far about Salvatore Rizzo's theater on Dante Place. For the sake of coherence, I'm going to refer to the street as Dante Place, even though it was named Canal Street at an earlier point in time.

... every seat in the little theater is filled nightly, and all the wall space taken too. There is the clash of swords and shields, and shouts of  "brava" from the all-male crowd, as the marionettes act out the stories of Charlemagne and his courageous knights.

I like the part from the article above where the writer tells how Rizzo let him look behind stage, where rows and rows of marionettes "are hung aloft like so many Bluebeard victims." Salvatore Rizzo had over 75 marionettes, which gives one an idea of how intricate were the stories he told with them.

Buffalo's Little Italy

The Italian born population in Buffalo increased from 6,000 to 16,000 between 1900 and 1920. Italians represented 10% of Buffalo's foreign born population. They tended to settle near others from their village or town, thus there were four or five areas in Buffalo with heavily Italian populations. This blog is concerned with the Italians who settled in the waterfront area near Canal Street (later named Dante Place). Many of them were from the region around Palermo in Sicily. When people write of Buffalo's Little Italy, this is the area they are usually referring to.

St. Anthony of Padua Church played a large role in family and social life. It was the only Catholic church in the neighborhood until Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church was built in 1906. That church no longer exists; it was razed in the name of urban development in 1949. St. Anthony's is still here - it stands at 160 Court Street in downtown Buffalo.  Social clubs met at the church, along with labor unions when they came to exist. It was the place to celebrate births and marriages, and where funerals were held. There were parades and festivities to celebrate saint's days.

Education was important to the newly arrived immigrants. I have read that it was the ambition of every family to have a doctor, a lawyer, and a priest. The public school in the neighborhood was School #2.
Pupi Fratelli Napoli

Rizzo would have had his sons helping, and would have spoken all of the lines himself. I have not been able to find out whether he had music or not, but I did find an article from the newspaper that described the excitement at Rizzo's performances that was created during battle scenes. Rizzo would stamp his feet on the hollow boards behind the stage during the clash, the same as these Napoli brothers do. The audience would shout for their hero, and there would be the sound of clanging shields and swords. All of Rizzo's shows were in Italian as tradition dictated.
Immigration and Italian Culture in Buffalo

In 1900, these were the cities with the largest number of Italian immigrants, in order: New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Newark, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Jersey City, Buffalo.

Between 1900 and 1920, Buffalo's population of Italian born citizens rose from 6,000 to 16,000. Buffalo was and is very much a city of immigrants - in 1920 Italians accounted for 10% of Buffalo's foreign born population, and 7% of her population overall.


Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2014
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