Giovanni De Rosalia: Playwright, Poet, and “Nofrio”
by Joseph J. Accardi *
Giovanni De Rosalia was born in Sicily in 1864 and moved to New York City sometime before 1907 where he became popular among Italian immigrants in the Teatro Italiana di Varietà. His original farces featured the character “Nofrio,” a Sicilian immigrant bumpkin who found himself embroiled in one comic situation after another. De Rosalia played the role of Nofrio in addition to authoring and directing the plays. Between 1916 and 1928, he recorded nearly two hundred of his popular skits. Those recordings sold nationwide and gained him a loyal following. He published numerous plays and farces, as well as a few collections of poetry during his lifetime. Nofrio’s legacy is preserved only in special library archives and in private collections. I hope you enjoy these images gathered from my research, which began with a handful of 78 r.p.m. Nofrio recordings belonging to my grandfather Giuseppe Accardi.
In 1907, De Rosalia recruited actors for a classical drama company. He abandoned “serious” theatre after a while, but continued his pursuits as a Sicilian dialect actor and writer, creating “siciliana newyorkese” farces, featuring Nofrio as the protagonist.
Many of De Rosalia’s Nofrio skits were published by La Follia di New York, a popular Italian American entertainment newspaper. Though only a handful of his works still exist today, they constitute a significant contribution to the literature of Italian American theatre.
The popularity of Nofrio and his antics reached its peak during the mid-1920s. Giovanni De Rosalia & Company appeared frequently in various theaters around New York’s immigrant district. His troupe provided hours of entertainment to enthusiastic fans who crowded the playhouse nightly. This theatrical review is from a 1925 edition of Il Progresso Italo-Americano newspaper:
Alle Teatro 14 Strade. Oggi si repete la brillantissima commedia dal titolo ‘Nofrio sensalè di matrimonio’ che ieri sera attiro una folla enorme. Giovanni De Rosalia con la sua compagnia fu applauditissimo.
(Translation: At the 14th Street Theatre. Today is an encore of the brilliant comedy entitled Nofrio the Matchmaker that last night attracted an enormous crowd. Giovanni De Rosalia and company were applauded most enthusiastically.)
The troupe performed continuous shows, sometimes going from 8:30 p.m. until 2:00 a.m., featuring music, dance and an occasional film.
Not only a talented playwright and actor, De Rosalia was also a skilled poet who published Sicilian and Italian verse. Among his early works was a book entitled Raccolta di brindisi per ogni occasione in dialetto siciliano (A collection of toasts for all occasions in Sicilian dialect). Written in verse, some are clever tributes for holidays like Easter or Christmas. Others are poignant toasts for special occasions such as weddings or graduations. It was published in 1916. A poetry collection, Amuri chi chianci: versi siciliani (Love that cries: Sicilian poetry), was published in 1923.
De Rosalia was very successful in making his farces widely available on disc, recording nearly two hundred titles between 1916 and 1928. These were not the full-length sketches he and his company performed on stage, but instead were skits pared down to about three minutes each and featuring only two or three characters to advance the plot quickly for the 78 r.p.m. format. For a brief time in the early 1920s, De Rosalia even issued records on his own “Nofrio” label.
Most of Nofrio’s two hundred recorded farces were made on the Columbia, Victor, and Okeh record labels. These ethnic recordings are now quite rare and few have survived over the years. A favorite one is Nofrio Spara Lu Jocu di Focu (Nofrio shoots off his fireworks), recorded in 1923 on the Columbia label and pictured here in its jacket cover.
Giovanni De Rosalia died without fanfare in 1934. Today, only a few of his works, printed and recorded, can be found in private collections and library archives.
Sicilian language scholar Art Dieli collaborated with me on translations of Giovanni De Rosalia’s popular comedy sketches. See the original Italian and Sicilian text of those skits here:
Nofrio Locandiere (Nofrio the Innkeeper)
Nofrio Senzali di Matrimoniu (Nofrio the Matchmaker)
Nofrio Si Deve Tirare (Nofrio Backs Down)
For the English translations, go to the Sicilian-American Theatre page on Art’s excellent Web site. If you like the Marx Brothers, you’ll enjoy these Nofrio farces.
- Il Progresso Italo-Americano. (New York: Barsotti & Polidori). Italian language newspaper, published 1880-1989.
- Spottswood, Richard K., Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942. Volume 1, Western Europe. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990).
- Very special thanks to Art Dieli, Sicilian language scholar, for his translations and enthusiasm.
- Special thanks to Dr. Emelise Aleandri, author of The Italian-American Immigrant Theatre of New York City (Arcadia Publishing, 1999) and Little Italy (Arcadia Publishing, 2002) for her advice and contributions. Emelise was the Artistic Director for Frizzi & Lazzi, The Olde Time Italian-American Music & Theatre Company in New York City. Nofrio Locandierie was staged by Frizzi & Lazzi in NYC on February 11, 2003 for a fund raising program called “Love Sicilian Style” on behalf of the American Italian Cultural Roundtable, Inc.
- Thanks also to J. Kirk Bonner, Sicilian language scholar, for his interest.
- None of this would have been possible without my grandfather Giuseppe Accardi and his collection of Italian/Sicilian music and dialogue on 78 r.p.m. records.
* The complete article, Giovanni De Rosalia: Playwright, Poet, and Nofrio by Joseph J. Accardi, was published in the Summer 2001 issue of Italian Americana (Vol. XIX, No. 2, p176-200), a semi-annual historical & cultural journal devoted to the Italian experience in America. It was published in cooperation with the University of Rhode Island and the American Italian Historical Association.
© Joseph J. Accardi