(Sopranos Scrapbook photo page here)
Bloomfield, N.J. -- Holsten’s Brookdale Confectionery is an old-fashioned 1950s-style soda fountain and a local landmark. The place makes the best homemade mint-chip ice cream in the world in my book. That should earn it a place in culinary history. But Holsten’s made its mark in TV history, instead. Back in March actor James Gandolfini and other cast members from The Sopranos were sitting in a red leather booth in Holsten’s dining room, shooting a scene for the show’s final episode.
The Sopranos’ connection to Holsten’s, which I’ve frequented for years and drive past every day on my way to work, is just the latest example of the show’s intersection with my life in “Sopranoland,” namely, northern New Jersey. In the final episode, Tony’s main nemesis, Phil Leotardo, met his demise at a Raceway gas station in Morris Plains, N.J., not far from where I grew up. I'll miss seeing places like that, which I'm so familiar with, on the small screen on HBO, all gone now that The Sopranos has closed up shop. I’ll miss the spotlight on, and attention paid to, my native New Jersey when the program -- which some zealots have described as the best TV show ever made -- never sets foot here again shoot a scene.
For me, the show’s success was a win for the home team, for the tribe. The Sopranos was an Emmy Award-winning drama conceived by a Jersey boy, David Chase, with several of its key cast members, like Gandolfini, also native sons. It was a new kind of “hit” from a New Jersey “mob.” At a Sopranos screening earlier this year, Gandolfini took pride in what he called the “blue-collar” work ethic of those who toiled on the show. To me, that was a shout-out that all we children of working-class parents, descendents of immigrants, could relate to. Now, I won’t have anyone to root for. “Not for nothing,” as we big-haired Jersey girls might say, but after all those years of our state being the butt of brain-numbing “Joisey” jokes, this groundbreaking show won New Jersey a place in American pop culture and engaged TV viewers around the world.
Some Manhattanites still shudder at the thought of crossing a bridge or tunnel to come to the Garden State. Yet Sopranos fans from faraway countries have hopped on guided bus tours and flocked to the show’s filmlocations, places such as Satin Dolls in Lodi, N.J., which served as strip club Bada Bing!. “There’s about 60 people on the tour bus every Saturday and Sunday,” said Rouz, the one-name-only manager of Satin Dolls. “People from across the world come here -- from Scotland, Brazil, England. I get a lot of people saying 'Cheers’ to me.” Sopranos aficionados, like me, are offering a sad Salute! for the end of its run on HBO. New Jersey was the grand stage where The Sopranos played out. The locale was so integral to its story lines that it was almost like a character in the show. Jersey had long been associated with corruption and organized crime, shamefully so. Chase made a tart, but tasty, lemonade out of those lemons. In fact, Chase insisted from the start that The Sopranos be set and shot in Jersey, and HBO officials agreed [Thank you, ex-HBO CEO Chris Albrecht].
That risky creative choice, it turns out, paid off big time for Chase and the premium network. But in truth, not everyone is tipping their vino glasses to Tony. The Sopranos was a controversial show, with its sometimes unwatchable violence. It had its vocal detractors, who felt it besmirched the state’s image. They are happy to see it end. Just last week, in fact, Fairleigh Dickinson professor William Roberts claimed that The Sopranos “helped to perpetuate one of the more problematic and stereotypical images of Italian Americans.”
The allegation was that the show negatively painted this entire ethnic group, which has a large presence in north Jersey, with the same brush: enmeshed in organized crime, a bunch of thugs, violent and crude, with a horrendous fashion sense, to boot. In fact, there was a brouhaha when Bloomfield’s mayor and council, objecting to The Sopranos’ depiction of Italian Americans, initially tried to stop the show from shooting at Holsten’s in early March. But the filming permit was ultimately issued by the town, and HBO came with its camera crews later that month. “My take is that the mayor brought his personal opinion in,” Holsten’s co-owner Chris Carley said. “It should have never gotten that far.”
FRIENDS & FAMILY
From the moment I first saw the opening credits for The Sopranos in 1999, I recognized my milieu, the familiar neighborhoods that I lived in and later covered as a daily newspaper reporter: the working-class suburbs with their densely packed homes; a land of “bathtub Madonnas,” those popular statues of the Virgin Mary ensconced in stone; the countless pizzerias and corner candy stores. It may not have mattered to viewers across the country, who don’t know a cannoli from a calzone, but the names of the streets and towns mentioned in the show were real.
And many of the locales were real, such as Tony’s home in North Caldwell, N.J., and Fountains of Wayne, the outdoor-furniture store in Wayne, N.J., that a rock band took its name from. Chase created art out of a landscape that was I was totally familiar with. If you live in northern Jersey -- which is as different from south Jersey as Newark is from Boise -- you would have been hard-pressed not to feel flashes of recognition, or have a link to, The Sopranos. Here’s an abbreviated laundry list of mine.
GYM RAT: Actor Frank Vincent goes to my gym, King’s Court Health and Sports Club in Lyndhurst, N.J. You know him as Tony’s archrival, New York crime boss Phil Leotardo. COURTHOUSE CONNECTION: At a Christmas party two years ago, I chatted with Gandolfini’s sister. She works in the Bergen County Courthouse in Hackensack, N.J. I used to cover the courts there. WIG-FLIPPING VIOLENCE: In episode 12 of the first season, Tony took a gunshot out in the street. I recognized the location: He was outside a wig shop right off Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair. That’s the town where I live in Essex County, the heart of Sopranoland. FAMILY HEALTH CARE: After Tony and Christopher have their car accident, Tony is supposedly taken to St. Clare’s Hospital in Denville, N.J. Several of my family members have had surgery at that facility. And Federico Castelluccio, the actor who played Furio Giunta, lives in Denville. BOYS ‘N THE HOOD: Chase grew up in a garden apartment complex, Richfield Village, in Clifton, N.J. Fresh out of college, I worked as a reporter for Clifton’s hometown paper, The Herald-News. Gandolfini himself grew up in nearby Bergen County in Park Ridge, N.J. JOHNNYCAKES TURF: My sister Karen recognized her hair salon during the episode when gay Vito Spatafore fled to New Hampshire. That’s because hilly Main Street in Boonton, N.J., filled in on camera for the rustic Granite State. Newsday TV critic Verne Gay last week wrote that in The Sopranos, “You could literally smell the Garden State through the TV screen.” Not the particular turn of phrase I’d use, but you get the point.
Alan Sepinwall, TV critic for Tony’s paper of choice, The Star-Ledger of Newark, credited The Sopranos with creating “a sense of place that very TV shows have,” authentically portraying Tony’s world. But not everyone liked that portrayal. “The population had a mixed reaction to it,” Sepinwall said. “Some people love it and are so excited that the places where they grew up are suddenly on TV, and people who look like them are [on TV]. And other people are embarrassed by the show. I’ve dealt for years with angry letters and calls from Italian-American activists who feel the show defames them.” In interviews Chase, who is Italian-American, always bristled at such criticism. Sopranos detractors were vocal in Bloomfield, creating a stir over the show shooting in Holsten’s. The mayor charged that the show slurred Italians, but the city attorney ultimately gave a legal opinion that the town didn’t have the authority to deny a film permit just because it didn’t like the show that was going to be shot. To the show’s critics, I say: Lighten up. It’s a fictional story.
And a PublicMind poll released last week by Fairleigh Dickinson seemed to back me up. The survey found that only 24% of New Jerseyans and 27% of the show’s viewers nationally believe The Sopranos depicted Italian Americans in a negative way. That poll, by the way, also found that 90% of New Jersey Sopranos watchers know the show is set in Jersey. My question: Is the other 10% comatose, not to realize the location? But PublicMind executive director Peter Woolley suggested that they might be from south Jersey, which, as I said, is another world. Only 56% of national viewers knew The Sopranos was set in the Garden State, so not everyone got the Jersey connection.
I did my own Sopranos tour, with photographer John Staley in tow, last week. We stopped by Pizzaland, which is in the show’s opening credits, in North Arlington, N.J. It had a sign in the door that said, “Closed for today, thanks to Sopranos.” The owner was busy making up 200 pizza pies, ordered from places as far and wide as Arizona and California, for people to munch on during Sunday’s Sopranos finale. We buzzed by the building in Kearny, N.J., that was used for Satriale’s Pork Store, where Tony and his crew hung out. It was never a real pork store, just a former auto-parts building, and it looked sad and abandoned, vacant and stripped of its signage and its familiar hanging pig.
The Sopranos shot another scene, also for the show’s final episode, at a Morris Plains gas station at the intersection of Routes 10 and 202. My sister -- who lives nearby, as do my parents -- was part of the crowd that gathered to watch. She saw Vincent, playing Tony's archrival, Leotardo, in a phone booth that the show set up at the gas station. I stopped at that Raceway station last week. Station manager Mohammad Arshad described and physically demonstrated for me what he saw the day of the shoot this spring. And I got a third account from a bystander, albeit second-hand, from the Satin Doll’s Rouz. My farewell Sopranos tour included a stop at Satin Dolls, where manager Rouz -- who said, like Cher, he only goes by a single-syllable name -- showed my photographer and I the exact spot at the Bing bar where Tony would sit. “I’ve met a lot of people from the cast,” Rouz said. “I like all of them. They’re all nice people, down to earth.” Satin Dolls was set to hold a party the night of The Sopranos finale. “People want to come to hang out for the atmosphere: You know, ‘I was at the Bing for the last episode of the show,’” Rouz said.
SURVIVING THE FUTURE
At Holsten’s, Carley and co-owner Ron Stark didn’t see any gunplay when The Sopranos shot its scene there, which included Edie Falco, who is Tony’s wife, Carmela, and Robert Iler, who plays their son, A.J. That would seem to bode well for Tony’s future. But, Carley and Stark cautioned that the scene shot in their soda shop could wind up on the cutting-room floor, or have been edited later, with footage added on to create a different story line that what they witnessed.
The first day The Sopranos shot at Holsten’s, a crowd started gathering across the street from the shop early on. When I drove by that night around 9 p.m., the devoted fans were still there. “People were outside from 7 o’clock in the morning to 2 o’clock in the morning,” Stark said. “And some people didn’t budge all day long.” According to Carley, “This one lady never left. She got there at 7, 7:30 [a.m.], and didn’t leave ‘til after midnight. She sat in her chair. Her husband brought her meals.” Both men were in the background, behind the counter, when the scene was shot. “Whether we get edited out is a whole other thing,” Stark said. “You hope for the best. You expect the worse. Then you don’t get disappointed.” Carley’s 83-year-old mother was also an extra in the scene, sitting in a booth behind Tony.
Several weeks later, HBO returned to Holsten’s to do some additional shots, and actually flew Carley’s mom back from North Carolina so that they could have continuity in the scene, he said. Stark knows that Satin Dolls, i.e. Bada Bing!, is a popular destination for Sopranos-fan pilgrimages. But he had a prediction. “I think that Bada Bing! is going to drop down to notch No. 2 [behind Holsten’s], and we’re going to take them out of first place: All right, maybe not,” Stark joked.
Meanwhile, the FDU PublicMind poll found that by a 2-to-1 margin, New Jerseyans and TV viewers outside the state wanted Tony to survive. And I’m with them.