Monday, October 10, 2016

Tutta la Famiglia!

By C.J. Hirschfield

For many decades, the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club has taken its annual Italian Day celebration seriously. But at last week’s party, the club, which meets every Thursday morning at 7 a.m. and supports Children’s Fairyland and the lake’s Necklace of Lights, really outdid itself.

The guest speaker was Lorenzo Ortona, who had become Italy’s consul general in San Francisco and the northwest United States only two weeks earlier. It turned out to be an Italian-American love fest, made even more magical because of a “six degrees” story that links the new consul general to Children’s Fairyland and to a special event at the park that will take place this week.

The consul general arrived at LMBC to find a big crowd in a room resplendent with green and red balloons. Frittata and biscotti were served, and shots of amaretto were offered to enhance the coffee. Local realtor Paul Valva sported a T-shirt that read “Life’s too short not to be Italian.” Raffle baskets contained pasta, sauce and wine. Before receiving their baskets, winners had to speak a word of Italian. “Gina Lollobrigida” was judged acceptable.  

C.J. Hirschfield (far left), Lorenzo Ortona (center, in gray suit), and members of the LMBC.

And who better to arrange this love fest than local caterer and LMBC Vice President Mike Miraglia, an Italian-American who describes himself as “a full-blooded Calabrese”? Asked what it is about Italians that makes them so special, Mike replied: “Our heritage, our food, our faith, fun—and, most importantly, our family.”

Which brings me to the Fairyland connection.

On Saturday, Fairyland will be holding a ribbon-cutting event to celebrate our Pinocchio set, which originally opened in 1958, sponsored by the Italian American Federation of the East Bay, Inc. The recent restoration was undertaken in memory of Mario and Erma DeLucchi by their Piedmont family: Diane, Neil and Brian Goodhue.

Our restored Pinocchio.

As part of the celebration, we had, months earlier, invited the office of the consul general, unaware of the LMBC’s invitation to him to speak at their breakfast. Fairyland’s longtime bookkeeper, Missie Morris, had overheard us talking about the celebration, and informed us that her daughter Windsor was a close friend of Lorenzo’s journalist wife, Sheila: they met a decade ago as college students in Rome and have remained in touch ever since. After the Ortonas arrived with their two children, Windsor and her family hosted them for a week before they settled into their new home, and shuttled their kids to swim dates.

With that “family” connection emboldening us, we again reached out to Lorenzo Ortona. Unfortunately, he has to attend a meeting in Washington, D.C., that day, but Sheila will be there as his representative.

Before coming to San Francisco, Lorenzo had served with the Italian embassy in Israel, promoting technology transfer and the expansion of cooperative scientific and commercial development for the global economy. At the breakfast club event, he wished a spirited “L’shanah tovah” – happy new year – to his new Jewish friends in the audience.

He also spoke appreciatively of the generosity of the Italian-American community in the U.S. to help survivors of the earthquake in central Italy that occurred in August. San Francisco restaurants have been serving the signature pasta sauce from Amatrice, with proceeds going to this town, which was particularly hard hit. That, it struck me, was another “family” connection – global family.

New blocks created for Gepetto's workshop by Fairyland's art and restoration department.

After his presentation, I had the opportunity to give Lorenzo a tour of Children’s Fairyland, America’s very first storybook theme park. He could not have been more gracious. As I showed him the Pinocchio set we chatted about the international popularity of a story of a wooden boy who wanted to be real. He also enjoyed meeting Fairyland events director Jessica Martin, whose mother is from Italy.

The club wrote a thank-you to the newly minted consul general, and he was effusive in his appreciation of the club.

“You are a wonderful group of people,” he wrote, “full of energy and positiveness.”

Well, Lorenzo, you are clearly part of our Oakland family now, and you can feel free to visit anytime.

To learn more about the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club – including how to become a member – visit the club's website

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park.

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