Friday, October 13, 2006

Mae West: a.k.a. "Steve Rossi"

Since October is "Italian Culture Month" in New York and other cities, it is the season to highlight an Italian-American actor who worked with MAE WEST.
• • Joseph Charles Tafarella was born on 25 May 1932 in New York, NY.

• • He's been on center stage since he was nine. Born on Third Avenue and East 111th Street in Manhattan's East Harlem section, he was most influenced by his father's success in the entertainment business. "We owned a book printed in 1929 that listed Santi Tafarella as the world's greatest cornet player," he proudly recalls. "Papa was also an experienced musical arranger and notator." During the Depression, NBC Radio in California hired Santi Tafarella, who immediately moved his family to North Hollywood and got his son enrolled in the prestigious Robert Mitchell Boy Choir School. Touring with them, the youngster learned to serenade God in seven languages including Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
• • While his father toiled away, making beautiful music with NBC, Catherine Bianco Tafarella was busy driving her son to auditions. At 12 years old, he harmonized with Hollywood's version of a priest - Bing Crosby - in Going My Way (1944); at 14, he sang in The Jolson Story (1946). This was an auspicious beginning: both pictures scored at the Academy Awards and more roles in movie musicals followed.
• • Much as he loved being onscreen, he had a yearning for higher learning. In 1949, Santi Tafarella's son entered Loyola University on a scholarship, majoring in communication arts and theater. Couple of years later, he was playing the lead in The Vagabond King for the Civic Light Opera Company in Los Angeles when he caught the eye of a Hollywood icon.
• • Mae West, clad in furs and jewels, came up to see him backstage with her manager Jerry Franks. "I told her I was a student at a Catholic university. Mae West said, 'I don't give a damn. You're a terrific singer and you've got a great body and a great face. I want you to be the leading man in my show, and I'll sign you up with my agency, William Morris.'" The 60-year-old actress ushered him into her new Las Vegas extravaganza that would feature modern gladiators: Mr. Universe, Mr. America, Mr. World, and other musclemen. "Though several of these bodybuilders were gay," he chuckles, "Mae West slept with them all!"

• • He wrote the opening numbers for this - "The Opposite Sex Now and Then," "In Dreams I Kiss Your Hand, Madame" - songs that were performed by a 15-piece orchestra as he fox-trotted with Mae West. In 1953, since nothing like this had ever been done before, they were unprepared for the audience's reaction. "Women stormed the stage. They went absolutely wild for the men. We'd have to stop the show until these ladies were led back to their seats." He adds, "Wherever we played, The Mae West Revue sold out."
• • According to Mae West's leading man, however, "Mae didn't put my name on the marquee at Ciro's because there was no room for it. Then we went to the Sahara. The night before we opened she called me up and said, 'I want to see you downstairs at the marquee.' My entire name was across the whole marquee. Her name was only seven letters. She says, 'What name do you notice up there?' I said, 'To tell you the truth, I notice my name more than yours.' 'Why is that?' asked Mae West. I said, 'Because I have 22 letters, and you only have seven.' Mae made a decision: 'From now on, your name is Steve Rossi.'" He got used to seeing his new name spelt out in lights, his wagon hitched to a star.
• • In 1953-1954 Steve co-starred with Mae West in her sold-out concerts all over America.
• • In 1957, Steve Rossi teamed up with Marty Allen and they became a top comedy team. They appeared on 700 television shows including 44 appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show," three of which were with the Beatles in 1964.
• • Allen and Rossi were regular guests stars on “What’s My Line,” “Hollywood Squares,” “Password,” and other game shows. They also starred in Paramount films notably The Last of the Secret Agents with Nancy Sinatra and Ed Sullivan as guest stars.
• • Steve Rossi has guest-starred with Perry Como, Dean Martin, Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, and with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.
• • Now 74 years old, he still sings and performs onstage.
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• • Photo: Mae West • • Steve Rossi • • 1954 • •

Mae West.

1 comment:

Karen said...

I remember as an adolescent seeing a TV special that was a tribute to Mae West (1968-ish, probably a half-hour). I believe it was hosted by Allen & Rossi and I not only never saw it again, I can't even find evidence online (including IMDb) of its existence. Anyone else remember it?