WATERBURY, Conn. — Jane Fonda is coming to Waterbury--and boy, is Guitano Russo peeved.
Seventy-three percent of the town isn't, however, according to a telephone survey. And a local bartender says the actress is welcome to stop in anytime she wants.
The local Fonda flap all started Veterans Day, when Russo, a retired insurance salesman and real estate broker, learned that his hometown is being considered as a possible shooting location for the actress' upcoming MGM film "Union Street." Russo, you see, still hasn't forgiven Fonda for her forays into North Vietnam during the height of the war in Southeast Asia, and the thought of the activist plying her trade in his beloved Waterbury makes his blood boil.
His response has been to initiate what has become a rather protracted anti-Fonda campaign that may grow only more intractable now that MGM and producer Alex Winitsky have declared their intention to use this southwestern-Connecticut city as one of a number of shooting sites.
Fonda, who's on location in Mexico, wasn't available to discuss Russo's protest campaign. Steve Rivers, her L.A. publicist, said, however, that there is a lot less to the Waterbury affair than the protesters would want you to believe.
"This is a classic case of media manipulation," Rivers said. "It's basically this one guy, Russo, working in collaboration with a very conservative (local) newspaper. The coverage and the reportage bear absolutely no resemblance to the reality of what's going on there."
"It's very difficult for me to accept a traitor," said Russo, a 69-year-old World War II veteran and a former major general in the National Guard, during an interview. "It's as simple as that."
Hundreds of letters and bumper stickers later, Russo and those around the country who support his cause are gearing up for round-the-clock picketing, rallies and film boycotts designed to let the two-time Oscar-winning actress know that her past political activities still don't wash with them.
The first salvo of this great Waterbury-Fonda flap was fired when Russo dashed off a letter to his local newspaper--the Waterbury Republican--expressing what he described as his "dissatisfaction" with the idea of Fonda's filming in the city.
The response to his missive, he asserted, was a "deluge" of supportive telephone calls that prompted him to open a campaign second front, namely the distribution of hundreds of "I'm Not Fonda Hanoi Jane" bumper stickers.
So far, about 100 letters have been received by the Republican, where Russo's letter was published, and for every one letter written in support of the actress, said Sherman London, the paper's editorial director, seven others are critical of the conspicuous anti-war stance she assumed in the 1960s and '70s.
Republican Rep. John Rowland, whose district includes the city's 103,100 inhabitants, has thrown his support behind Russo's effort, and Waterbury Mayor Joseph Sanpietro has also expressed his personal support.
"Waterbury," explained a spokesman for the mayor, "is and always has been a very patriotic town. We honor Flag Day, we honor Veterans Day, we're out there in the rain, the snow, the sleet, marching. Everyone has their flags out in front of their businesses. This is a salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar, patriotic American town."
Even so, getting a fix on just how much Waterbury supports Russo's activities can be kind of tricky.
According to Sanpietro's office, "dislike for what Jane Fonda has done" is "widespread" and Russo described the sentiment among residents as "definitely anti-Fonda."
But according to a telephone poll conducted last week for Fonda, publicist Rivers said, 73% of the randomly selected 400 residents surveyed said the actress shouldn't be prevented from making her movie in Waterbury. Seventy-three percent of those who identified themselves as veterans also supported Fonda, Rivers said.
Drop by any of the shops and restaurants in downtown Waterbury, and the poll's findings seem to be borne out. At the J & J Barbershop, for instance, a scissors-wielding Joe Mel thinks the city shouldn't pass up the $5 million that some have said the MGM production would be likely to generate. "I think this is a generous offer," he said.
A few storefronts away at the dimly lit Turf Restaurant, patrons also seemed willing to forgive and forget where Fonda's controversial past is concerned.
"It happened a long time ago," said bartender Dottie Cappellina. Across the faded bar top Joe Famiglitti concurred, arguing that because the success of her movies and exercise videos show that the rest of the country has accepted Fonda, Waterbury might do the same.
Nonetheless, with shooting on "Union Street" scheduled to begin in late spring or early summer and with Russo already planning a January rally and frantically filling orders for bumper stickers, Fonda will always have at least one safe haven in Waterbury:
"Tell her she can come drink at the Turf anytime she wants," Cappellina said.