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'Sopranos' Role in Parade Raises a Racket in New York

Columbus Day: Mayor invites actors. Some Italian American leaders object.

October 10, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — It's a case of life imitating HBO.

When New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg invited two stars from "The Sopranos" to march with him in next week's Columbus Day Parade, he thought he was simply saluting two well-known New Yorkers--Lorraine Bracco and Dominic Chianese--who have done important volunteer work for the city.

But he stirred up angry opposition Wednesday from Italian American leaders, who said the show glorifies violent New Jersey mobsters and conveys the false impression that all Italian Americans are criminals.

"This is not the mayor's parade," said Larry Auriana, president of the Columbus Citizens Foundation, which helps organize the event and has vetoed requests to include other members of the hit HBO show in the parade. "The show stereotypes the Italo American family in the worst way."

Others said the mere presence of Bracco and Chianese would somehow taint Monday's festivities and besmirch the dignity of the Columbus Day Parade. Bracco plays Dr. Jennifer Melfi, a psychiatrist helping mob boss Tony Soprano cope with stress. Chianese plays Tony's aging but feisty Uncle Junior, a North Jersey mobster facing charges.

Bloomberg, who also invited New York Yankee manager Joe Torre and city Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta to march with him, tried to downplay the furor, saying: "I didn't invite them [Bracco and Chianese] as members of 'The Sopranos.' I didn't invite any other members of 'The Sopranos' cast. These are two nice people who have gone out of their way to help the city."

Bracco has been a spokeswoman on city environmental issues, and Chianese has taped public service announcements for tourism, the mayor noted.

"I apologize if anyone's offended," Bloomberg added. "If you are offended, don't wave back when they wave to you."

Bracco tried to rise above the fray, saying through an HBO spokeswoman: "I am glad the mayor has acknowledged me as a successful Italian American actress. As a native New Yorker and activist, it is a privilege to march next to the mayor."

Chianese said he, too, was honored and planned to attend the parade, which begins at 42nd Street and marches up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to Columbus Circle. Thousands of New Yorkers typically line the route.

The dispute is an old argument that goes back to the release of "The Godfather," "GoodFellas" and other critically praised movies about the mob: Are these films great art or ethnically offensive moneymakers?

For "Sopranos" aficionados there's added irony. In a recent episode, Tony Soprano's crew members become incensed when they learn that a Native American group plans to disrupt the Columbus Day parade, on the grounds that Columbus was a genocidal maniac.

"This is anti-Italian American discrimination," muttered one character, infuriated by such allegations. "We have to protect our honor."

William Fugazy, president of the Coalition of Italo-American Assns., called the inclusion of Bracco and Chianese a disgrace, noting that Columbus Day is a sacred occasion for Italian Americans. "Our parade is about heritage and pride," he said. " 'The Sopranos' haven't done much for heritage and pride in our community."

Others might disagree, saying the New Jersey-centered show has--in a bizarre way--boosted the pride of many state residents. And how do you explain the brisk sales in "Sopranos" T-shirts at last month's San Gennaro Festival in New York, the nation's largest Italian American street fair?

As Tony Soprano might say, "Whaddyagonnado?"

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