Migliaccio began his entertainment career in his native Italy as a singer of Neapolitan comedy and folk songs. After studying design and the so-called plastic arts such as carving and sculpture at the Istituto di Belli Arti in Naples, he began observing the macchiettista Nicolo Maldacea, who would become a model for the character Farfariello, at the Teatro Nuovo in that city. A macchietta is a skit or comic scene lampooning a recognizable character type, written in verse, often set to music, containing double-entendres and with spoken passages in prose. Machiettista is usually translated as ‘impressionist,’ but that’s an oversimplification: like their American and British counterparts in vaudeville and music halls, macchiettisti were actors, singers, dancers, mimes, clowns, and social commentators. Closer to our own lifetimes, you might think of former vaudevillians who transferred to television in the Golden Age: Sid Caesar, Red Skelton, Groucho Marx, or, in the next generations, Carol Burnett; today, the closest we can come would be Martin Short, Tracy Ullman, or the casts of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In or Saturday Night Live. (It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Chico Marx modeled his comic persona after some macchiettista’s caricature. After all, not only were the Marxes vaudevillians themselves, but they came out the Jewish counterpart of the same immigrant theater tradition in New York City of the same era.) Many, like Migliaccio, were also writers, composers, and lyricists as they often created their own material. We’ll see that Migliaccio was much more even than that.
The Migliaccios of Italy were wealthy, but lost $50,000 in a mine fraud after they emigrated to America. As was often common, Migliaccio’s father came across before the rest of the family. He became an officer in the Banca Sandolo in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, where Migliaccio joined him when he arrived here just before the turn of the century. The would-be entertainer held many short-lived jobs before devoting himself to the stage, including manual laborer, presser in a garment sweatshop, and letter-writer for the illiterate clients of his father’s bank. This gave the young man insight into the feelings, thoughts, and desires of the immigrant Italian-American laborers who’d become the base of his audience and introduced him to a variety of roles in the Italian-American community from which he’d draw his material and characters. Dissatisfied with the position in Hazleton, he left Pennsylvania for another job at the Banca Avallone on Mulberry Street in New York City’s Little Italy.
The first record of Migliaccio as a stage performer in New York City appeared in 1900 as a member of the Antonio Maiori Company in, of all vehicles, Hamlet. (I have no evidence of the role he played—perhaps one of the comic parts like the gravedigger or Polonius.) This seems to have been Migliaccio’s only attempt at serious drama. The young performer, however, may have started his U.S. career around 1898, appearing in the cafés-chantants or caffè-concerto of New York’s Italian immigrant community. These were restaurants, bars, or music halls in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and West Hoboken, New Jersey, in the 1890s and early 1900s that offered entertainment along with food and drink—sort of like a downscale precursor of the modern-day night club. (Actually, I think of it as a kind of prototype of what the Caffe Cino, the granddaddy of Off-Off-Broadway theaters, was like when it first started. It may not entirely be coincidental that Joe Cino was Italian-American himself and could conceivably have had caffè-concerto—sometimes also called caffè-cantanti—in mind when he launched his coffeehouse.) Much of the entertainment in the earliest days was amateur, just as Migliaccio was. Like many such endeavors, though, both the venues and the performers transformed into professionals and their influence spread across immigrant America. Almost every ethnic group had its own forms of this popular entertainment and wherever there were émigré communities—San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle—caffè-concerto popped up, and so did the performers, local and, soon, national figures who toured. Perhaps surprisingly, the audiences for these performances, clearly created for spectators from the same parts of the world as the entertainers, began to include non-immigrant Americans at major theaters like the Palace on Broadway where Migliaccio performed in English.
In the caffè-concerto, such as the Villa Vittorio Emmanuele III on Mulberry Street near Canal in New York’s Little Italy where the macchiettista appeared early in his U.S. career, Migliaccio sang Italian folk songs, ballads, and Neapolitan comedy songs, and he performed the macchiette he’d seen back in Naples. It was here that Migliaccio invented the variation that became known as the machietta coloniale, the immigrant American version of the sketch comedy back in the old country, caricaturing local figures and the Italian-American experience and dialects. He limned the “archetype of the poor southern Italian immigrant” in the Little Italies of New York and other U.S. cities: the street vendor, the rag-picker, the organ-grinder. A common character was the cafone, a buffoon who adopted American clothes, mannerisms, and slang, and yet wasn’t any more American than the newest arrival from Naples. Migliaccio portrayed the greenhorn “who murdered the English language as well as the Italian” and played a “hero as well as a clown, exposing the weaknesses of the wealthier, more prosperous people . . . and somehow, triumphing over them.” Impersonating both male and female characters (he was well-known for performing in drag), Migliaccio also lampooned famous Italian and Italian-American figures such as his friend Enrico Caruso (with whom he’d record for RCA after he became famous) and soprano Luisa Tetrazzini. It was the character of the “quick-witted greenhorn with his own set of cultural values, thus turning the tables on the ethnic stereotype” that became Migliaccio’s beloved signature stage persona: Farfariello.
While he was still in Naples, the young entertainer introduced a comic love song, “Femmene-Fe!” (“Women”), and it became so popular with the audiences of the city’s music halls that when he was on the streets, people would point him out as the populizer of the song whose refrain eventually gave him his stage name. Farfariello literally means “little butterfly,” but it carries the connotation of a man who flits from woman to woman—that is, a “little devil.” Often compared to Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Farfariello derived his humor from the abuse of language along with an element of social satire. The routines included shrewd commentary on the class structure in Italy and Italo-America. The character “served as a mirror—satirically distorted but a mirror nonetheless—in which the Italian immigrants could see the reflection of their own recent struggle, sufferings and triumphs.” Farfariello’s audiences “laughed themselves sick,” according to Giuseppi Cautela in the American Mercury. “And after they got through laughing, it made them think.” So popular was Migliaccio that another successful caffè-concerto entertainer in Little Italy, Antonietta Pisanelli Alessandro, took him as her partner for her act in which they sang duets. Then in 1905, Alessandro moved her little troupe to San Francisco, where she nearly singlehandedly started the local Italian-immigrant theater. It was at her theater on Little Italy’s Mulberry Street that Farfariello made his début as a character.
I don’t know how long Farfariello remained with Alessandro, with whose company he toured on and off, but I imagine he eventually outgrew the ensemble. Apparently he returned east to Little Italy, the place with which he was most identified, around 1917 or ’18. Migliaccio conceived, wrote, and performed his own sketches (his brother Ernesto composed some of his music and often led the orchestra at Farfariello’s performances) and except for that one, brief stint with the Maiori troupe, he never did regular dramas. He used the “new Italian-American dialect,” sometimes called “Italglish,” composed not just of Italian but of a dialect of the Neapolitan vernacular seasoned with Americanisms and local slang. (No one from the streets of Naples, for instance, would ever understand expressions like barra for ‘bar’ or visco for ‘whiskey.’ Denizens of Little Italy used fait for ‘fight’ but also for ‘punch’—as in chiaver nu fait, ‘give a punch’ and nato fait, ‘another punch.’) Though photos show that some of Farfariello’s characters (including some of the women) were very realistic in appearance, his make-up and costumes were often exaggerated, deliberately styled to provoke laughter with masks and prostheses. Migliaccio taught himself wig- and mask-making, installing a workshop in his home, and even devised a quick-change technique by constructing each costume as one unit with snaps in back. He meticulously practiced every gesture, step, line, and inflection before a mirror. In a half-hour performance, Farfariello did six or more macchiette, using grimaces, gestures, and pantomime. Alternating the satirical and the tragicomic in his routines, Farfariello depicted the bewilderment of the immigrant.
Photographer and music critic Carl Van Vechten, considered an accurate chronicler of the culture of his times, assessed Migliaccio’s material and approach:
Satiric verse, I say, but never offensive. Benevolent good-humour is the keynote of his impersonations and even his models laugh at the caricatures of themselves. Farfariello completely transforms his appearance for his several roles. Every detail of his costume is studied, stockings, shoes, neckties, and hats included. His face goes through an alembic; a new nose is added or a pair of shaggy eyebrows, or a complete mask. Each of his characters has a distinct walk, a distinct use of the hands, and his hands are marvellous in their expressiveness. Because scarcely one of his men and women speaks Italian Farfariello has found it necessary to learn at least five dialects. In the past twenty years he tells me that he has "created" (as he writes his own songs, invents his own disguises and gestures this word can be legitimately applied to his interpretations) over a thousand of these characters and at the present time he has a repertory of two hundred and fifty. You will find it difficult, indeed, not to meet new people each time you see him.
A description of Farfariello’s one and only film appearance gives an idea of his repertoire. All of the characters were part of Farfariello’s stage act, though the cinema set-up was clearly invented for the movie. Showing up as himself at an audition for a New York film producer, Farfariello sings several of his famous Neapolitan songs. The impresario, who doesn’t recognize Farfariello, rejects him, so the performer returns disguised as Mademoiselle Fifi, a flashy sciantosa, a cabaret singer. Rejected again, the impressionist comes back dressed as an armed rackettiere, a mafioso, who brags about his protection racket. Turned away again, Farfariello finally comes in as a slightly drunk cafone, who after 30 years in America has refused to learn a word of English. The bumpkin tries to sing “O Sole Mio,” a sentimental paean to his native Naples. Farfariello then delivers one of his most famous routines, “’A lengua ’taliana,” a witty speech in the “Italglish” of the southern Italian immigrant praising the Italian language and the Neapolitan dialect in comparison to the inadequacies of English. In the end, informing the producer that he was the one portraying all those people, Farfariello gets the part. The camera zooms in and Farfariello addresses the audience directly, saying, “Aggiuffatt a ’merica”—the macchiettista’s catchphrase—“I made it in America.”
After seeing Farfariello on stage on the Bowery in lower Manhattan in 1918, Van Vechten provided a first-hand observation:
A man and woman have just finished singing a duet from The Count of Luxemburg and have left the stage. Now, without a second's pause, a deft but coatless stage attendant slips past the proscenium arch and changes the placard of announcement on the easel. The new placard contains a single word:
Violent applause sweeps over the playhouse . . . . Then . . . the orchestra strikes up a tripping tune and Farfariello appears in evening clothes. He walks to the footlights and announces his first song, Femmene-Fe, a trifle about women, with a pretty refrain which he sings with a pleasant baritone voice. This unexpectedly commonplace beginning is one of the subtleties of Farfariello's art. The song over, he leaves the stage; the applause is perfunctory; the crowd knows that it must allow its idol time to prepare himself for his first impersonation. . . . The orchestra stops playing. Chatter simmers up through the smoky atmosphere . . . . But the hubbub dies away as the orchestra begins a new tune. A transformed Farfariello enters; from hair to shoes he is a French concert-hall singer of the type familiar at Coney Island. He has transfigured his eyes; his nose is new; gesture, voice, all his powers, physical and mental, are moulded in a new metal. He shrieks his vapid ditty in raucous falsetto; he flicks his spangled skirt ; he winks at the orchestra leader and shakes his buttocks; his bosom has become an enormous jelly. . . . Again he has gone but soon the figure of an Italian patriot appears, a large florid person with heavy hair and moustaches. Across his chest, over his shoulder, and ending in a sash at his hip, he wears the tricolour of Italy. Farfariello paints the man in action: he is for ever marching in parades (the moment when he falls out of step always arouses a hot chill of appreciation in me!); he is for ever making speeches at banquets; he is for ever shouting, Viva Italia! Like all good caricatures this is not only a comment on the thing itself, it is the thing itself. And as this portrait is essentially provincial it thereby passes easily into the universal apprehension. We all know this man in some guise or other. . . . Farfariello goes on, singing, acting, impersonating. . . . Perhaps next he becomes a bersagliere, perhaps a Spanish dancer, perhaps a funeral director, or a night-watchman, or an Italian nurse-girl. . . . He may sing Pasquale Basciamento, Rosalina, Patsy, Quanno Spusaie Francisco, or 'O Richiamato, but always at the end he is the iceman. The applause grows wilder and wilder, the shouts more thunderous, as his half-hour dwindles away, and sooner or later, mingled with the bravos are cries of "Iceman! Iceman!" this iceman who sings folk-songs of his native land to amuse his customers, who forget their empty ice-boxes while they listen to him. Of all Farfariello's numbers this is the most popular and perhaps deservedly so for to his Italians it suggests both home and the adopted country.
As a conclusion, the writer summed up Farfariello’s attraction for his audiences:
His appeal is made directly to the very people he characterizes or caricatures. Almost every one of his types is present in his audiences every night, and they have some appreciation for the care he devotes to his impersonations, the reverence he feels for his art. His reward is complete understanding, a wave of personal feeling that destroys the barrier of the footlights. It is a reward which is bestowed on few interpreters.
Farfariello was a great success and spawned many imitators, though Migliaccio was known universally throughout the Italian émigré community across the country as “Il Re dei Macchiettisti”—“The King of the Impressionists.” Critics and audiences alike said that he “approached brilliancy in his insight and penetration of the heart of a character.” In 1917-18, Migliaccio organized his own operetta company and toured the U.S.; in 1919, he toured Chicago and California. In 1932, Farfariello appeared in that sole film, Attore cinematografico, a 15-minute short directed by Bruno Valetty for the Roman Film Corporation of New York City. Often known by its English title, The Movie Actor, it was, as I noted, based on Farfariello’s vaudeville routine. The New York Times reported that the short was “an excellent vehicle in which Farfariello (Cav. E. Migliaccio) . . . gives a series of impersonations with laughter-provoking songs and dialogue.” In 1936 he toured Italy and, starting in 1937, during the heyday of Italian radio in the United States, he appeared on programs performing his routines and singing his repertoire of comic songs, many of which had been recorded, as I said, on 78’s by RCA Victor during the ’teens and early ’20s. In 1940, four years after his tour of Italy when war in Europe and Mussolini’s Fascists’ controlling the old country put pressure on American Italians to break ties with the motherland, King Victor Emmanuel III knighted Migliaccio as a Cavaliere del Ordine della Corona d’Italia, citing his efforts to keep the émigré community in the United States connected to Italy. (He was often referred to in the newspapers—like the New York Times review above—and programs and on handbills and posters as Cav. Eduardo Migliaccio—Sir Eduardo Migliaccio.)
On 27 March 1946, Eduardo Migliaccio, who then lived in Brooklyn, died of cancer in a Manhattan hospital. Depending on when his actual birth date was, he was between 63 and 65 years old. At the time of his death, he was believed to have accumulated over 600 macchiette. His like was never seen again on the Italian-American music hall stage, despite the attempts of many successors to imitate him. (Riccardo Migliaccio, grandson of Farfariello, performs today with a troupe that recreates some of the macchiette of his grandfather’s day.) Emelise Aleandri, who’s written extensively about the Italian immigrant theater in this country, asserts: “What is left is the memory of the smiling man behind the big noses, funny costumes, and crazy wigs who found such an endearing way to make his compatriots, strangers in a strange land, feel at home.”