The Golden Era of Italian America

The end of WWII sparked an Italian-American cultural phenomenon, unlike anything ever seen before in this country.

By: Basil M. Russo, ISDA President 

It was the late 1940s.

The war had ended, and hundreds of thousands of Italian-American servicemen were returning home from Europe and the South Pacific. They were the sons of the immigrant generation.

Waiting for them were their sweethearts, the women who had worked in factories to support the war effort.

Most couples were married within months. The birthrate skyrocketed, and the Baby Boomer generation was born—it would last for 18 years.

Initially, many of these new families would take up residence in the old Italian neighborhoods. But jobs were plentiful and everyone’s dream was to find their own home in a newer neighborhood.

This was a pivotal and exciting time in Italian-American history.

The immigrant generation was still alive, and they held fast to the traditions and lifestyle they had brought with them from the old country.

Their children, on the other hand, lived their lives in two separate worlds. They lived as Italians in the homes of their parents, and lived as Americans in their own homes. This attachment to two very different cultures allowed the children of immigrants to play a very important role in shaping America’s post-WWII culture.

This new generation possessed an attitude and lifestyle that was neither completely Italian, nor completely American. They were indeed Italian-American, and this unique cultural personality would soon permeate every single aspect of our country.

From music, to comedy, to television, to sports, Italian-Americans provided the excitement and entertainment the country needed to forget about the horrors of war.

Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Jerry Vale and dozens of other Italian-American singers sang the romantic love songs that warmed the country’s heart, as well as the big band songs that kept the country dancing. Louis Prima’s standards, and songs like Volare and That’s Amore, kept all Americans in a “we love Italian music” frame of mind.

Jimmy Durante, who always signed off with, “Goodnight Mrs. Callabash, wherever you are,” and Lou Costello with his famed, “Who’s on first?” routine, kept the country laughing.

Dean Martin and Perry Como hosted two of the most popular television shows of all time. Dean personified the good looks and the classy style that men admired. While Perry’s mellow voice and laid back attitude made everyone feel comfortable.

In the sports world, Joe DiMaggio captivated the country for months with his 56-game hitting streak, while Rocky Marciano held the heavyweight boxing title for years, beating back every challenger to retire undefeated. Eddie Arcaro dominated horse racing, becoming the only jockey in history to win the Triple Crown twice. And Alan Ameche and Joe Bellino—who both won the Heisman Trophy.

This younger generation of Italian-Americans liked to dress well, and chose to pepper their conversations with Italian slang words. Their social life was still primarily spent with one another at dances and nightclubs, and they still loved the Italian food they were raised on. They were a unique, distinctive social group, unlike anything America had experienced before, and they left an indelible imprint on our American culture that is still evident today.

This article first appeared in La Nostra Voce, ISDA’s monthly newspaper, that chronicles Italian life, culture and traditions. Make the ISDA pledge and subscribe today.

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