New York Times

Show Biz Pride and Shame; Hotel’s Hyphen

Books About Danny Aiello, Filipino Natives on Coney Island and the Waldorf-Astoria
19 October 2014

Sam Roberts

Danny Aiello once proclaimed, “I want to be loved,” and the 81-year-old actor does his best to endear himself in a genial autobiography shaped with the help of the journalist Gil Reavill. The number of acknowledgments alone reveals him as a loving guy.

Born on the Upper West Side to immigrant parents and deserted by his father, Mr. Aiello appeared in such films as “Bang the Drum Slowly,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” where he played the crusty Brooklyn pizzeria owner Sal, and was nominated for an Oscar.

His memoir is called “Danny Aiello: I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else” (Gallery Books). But a second subtitle on Mr. Aiello’s book alludes to his roles as a shoeshine boy, high-school dropout, union organizer and bouncer at Budd Friedman’s old Improvisation comedy club on the West Side before making his first film when he was 40: “My Life on the Street, on the Stage, and in the Movies.”

“It sounds like a riddle, but it’s the reality of my life,” Mr. Aiello writes. “When I’m playing a character, only then do I know who I am, only then am I complete.”

Few stunts in show business remain as shameful as the exhibition of Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmy, in the monkey cage of the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Even less familiar is the transplanting of a group of 50 “headhunting, dog-eating savages” from the Philippines a year before for display at a Brooklyn amusement park.

In “The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century” (New Harvest), Claire Prentice has produced a well-researched and engrossing account of the Igorrotes, who made a fortune for the capricious promoter Truman K. Hunt.

He paid them $15 each to volunteer for his human zoo in a spectacle, if not the spectacle of the century, coinciding with an American propaganda campaign to prove that the Filipino natives were not ready for self-government.

“Ultimately,” Ms. Prentice writes, “this is a story of a hero turned villain that makes us question who is civilized and who is savage.”

The pending sale of the Waldorf-Astoria (note the original hyphen) for nearly $2 billion to a Chinese insurance company is as good a time as any to revisit what was the largest, tallest and most expensive hotel that had ever been built when it opened in 1931. You can do just that, for the most part visually, in “Waldorf Astoria,” part of the Images of America series (Arcadia Publishing), by William Alan Morrison.

The lingering hyphen in the hotel’s name is no coincidence. It was legally stipulated to suggest the tenuous family ties when two hotels, John Jacob Astor IV’s Astoria and William Waldorf Astor’s Waldorf, owned individually by the sometimes warring cousins, were conjoined on Fifth Avenue, where the hotel stood until 1929 when it was razed and replaced by the Empire State Building.

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