The many lives of Joey Giambra
Joey Giambra died on May 14, in the COVID-19 wing of Buffalo General. This interview was published in Spree's February 2017 issue.
Actor, author, trumpet player, cook, police officer: Joey Giambra’s life immediately prompts the comment, “This would make a good movie.” In fact, parts of it have been told for the stage and screen, in plays like his Bread and Onions, and films like La Terra Promessa, which chronicles the history of Italian-Americans in Western New York. Add to the Giambra catalogue the soon-to-be-released CD, Legacy, on which he sings seven original songs along with a half-dozen standards, at times also playing the trumpet. In his eighth decade, this denizen of the West Side, this kid who used to hustle ten-cent shoeshines on downtown street corners and grew up to run for mayor of Buffalo, remains indefatigable. Last spring, he played a farmer in a scene in Marshall, the Hollywood film shot in Buffalo. He wrote the bio of legendary local restaurateur Russ Salvatore and is working on a video. He edits Per Niente, a quarterly magazine dedicated to Italian heritage. On any given evening, he can be found in a theater audience or on a stage playing his trumpet. Or, he might be home cooking, an enduring pastime that was once a profession in a lifetime filled with odd jobs and creative careers.
Did you really run for mayor?
Yes, in 1973. I was a city detective back then; I wanted to change the city because I thought it was going down the toilet. It was a three-way fight for the Democratic mayoral nomination with me and former City Court Judge Wilbur Trammell against Mayor Stanley Makowski. So, we know who won. But I got something like 11,000 votes. I’m glad I’ve been around a while, long enough to see this beautiful city coming back, all the new buildings and the trees growing again. I did try to leave, to make it in New York once, and later in California. But, here I am still.
And it makes my day when people recognize me. Happens all the time—somebody remembers my restaurant or knew me way back when.
Tell us about the early days, the trajectory of your career—make that careers. You grew up on the West Side, in modest circumstances.
Like a lot of people. I’m one of three children. My parents, Gregorio Giambra and Josephine Sperrazzo, emigrated from Sicily, but they went back and forth a couple of times, and my mother had their first child in Italy. He was here working when he sent for my mother and sister. It was 1929, and they landed on Ellis Island. No one there to meet them. They waited three days when, finally, my father showed up. He’d been at the funeral of his brother in Buffalo, but she didn’t know any of that, and threw a frying pan at him. That’s family lore—that one frying pan was basically all their household goods. Well, they made it to Buffalo, and my father earned money digging ditches. We lived on Efner Street, between Carolina and Georgia. At age nine, I was adding to the family income by polishing shoes downtown. Did that until I was sixteen, although by then I was embarrassed if any of the girls saw me. I went to Hutchinson Central for high school, where they had a good music program. I had some great teachers all along the way, people who encouraged me to write and sing and play the trumpet. I sometimes snuck out of school to go to lessons, when I could get them for free. One day, I tried to sneak into a venue where Louis Armstrong was performing. Security was ushering me out when Armstrong saw the commotion and asked why they were ejecting me. Before anyone else could answer, I said, “Mr. Armstrong, I’m a trumpet player, too, but I don’t have any money. I just wanted to hear you play.” Armstrong said to let me go, and invited me to visit backstage, where we talked for an hour and a half; he was a great man. At seventeen, I talked my way into a job playing jazz in the band at a club downtown. We got a lot of servicemen in, and they’d be drinking, and the fights would start. Do you know how many times I played the “Star-Spangled Banner” to stop a fight? Played it on my trumpet. They’d hear it and immediately stop fighting.
While crafting a music career in Buffalo, you were also writing and acting, work that took you away from home.
Yes, I played at a lot of clubs here in town, behind some big names who came to perform. But, I was also writing, always telling stories. Back in 1964, I started writing about a dysfunctional Sicilian family. It became my play No One Is Us. I had teachers who encouraged my writing and had me recite poems, classics of literature, in class. I still remember them. I don’t know much about grammar; if it sounds good—if it’s musical to me—that’s how I write. And I always loved performing. In 1960, I left town to try my luck at acting in New York City. I was married by then; I met the former Shirley Ann Tomaselli at a dance where I was playing. She wore a purple velvet skirt. We’ve been married sixty-two years. But, I left my wife and our son and daughter back in Buffalo for a year when I went to New York. Through an agent, I got some gigs, some jobs as an extra. At one point, Richard Castellano offered to be my agent; he was a great guy who was best known for his role as Clemenza in The Godfather. But I was not on that track; I had to make money to send back home. I was working as a bouncer for twelve dollars an hour. Eventually, I was broke, and my family was starving, so when I found out I passed the exam to become a Buffalo police officer, I went back home. It was 1963. I was a cop for the next twenty years, but all the while I am still writing. Things take a while to percolate. I got my SAG-AFTRA [Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] card in 1978, when Hide in Plain Sight was being shot in Buffalo. I had a chance to read for the producers. Then they had me read for Jimmy Caan. They cast me as a cook in my restaurant. I also appeared in the last movie ever directed by John Huston, Prizzi’s Honor (1985). In 1988, my play No One Is Us was finally performed at the Actors Studio; Martin Landau, Mark Rydell, and Sydney Pollack were responsible for getting it produced. In the audience one night was Jon Voight. I went up to him to say hello. He said “Who are you?” I said, “I’m the playwright, from Buffalo, where I remember seeing you perform in A Streetcar Named Desire at the old Studio Arena Theatre.” He really liked my play, and liked hearing that. Lainie Kazan was another one who encouraged my work. She and I became good friends. Even with that kind of support, I wasn’t earning anything. So, back to Buffalo.
Tell us about your time as a cop, and then a cop turned chef.
Early on, I became a detective. Plainclothes. They wanted me to keep tabs on the Mafia. One thing I can say is, I never framed anybody, and that would be easy to do in narcotics, where I was working. Never did that. I never took any money. I only fired a gun three times, and they were warning shots. In the mid-seventies, I was hired to teach the history of organized crime at UB. Around this time, I also got into the restaurant business. I always loved to cook and eat, and I really liked barbecue, so I opened the Rib Crib at Washington and Chippewa Streets in 1971. My workers were black; no one knew who owned the joint. A few years later, after we closed down, I opened the Hard Times Cafe in Allentown, where I did the cooking, Italian specialties. In 1976, I moved the restaurant to Hertel Avenue, then to another location on the same street. I sold the building in 1983, and got out of the restaurant business. Truth is, I like writing best. I like writing about people.
What I want to do next is to direct my play No One Is Us on a stage right here in Buffalo. And cook. And bake bread. I make fabulous bread. It kills me to pay three dollars for a loaf at Wegmans when I can bake it myself for thirty-three cents! Whatever I’ve done, all my life I have trusted my art—that’s what keeps me going.
Longtime Spree contributor Maria Scrivani writes about local history and people who make a difference.