Sons of the Don10/5/2016
Luigi “Cock-eyed Louie” Fratto took the name Lou Farrell when he moved to Des Moines in 1934. He quickly became Des Moines’ most notorious “mob associate.” Among other things, he used his considerable connections to get a federal permit to distribute Canadian Ace beer. That was after an Alcohol Tax Unit investigation advised that he was “not a proper man for a federal beer permit,” citing 21 previous arrests. A Deputy Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service granted the permit anyway. According to biographer (“The Original Teflon Man”) Alan May, “This incident amazed the frustrated Alcohol Tax Agents.”
In another incident of Italian moxie, after a gambling raid on Farrell’s Sports Arcade on Grand Avenue, all charges against Farrell were dismissed by C. Edwin Moore, a judge who had served as a character witness for Farrell on another case just a few months earlier. Moore would become an Iowa Supreme Court justice a few months later.
I asked Lou’s sons, Willie and Tommy, plus Tommy’s son Frankie, to have lunch recently and discuss the states of the Italian-American community and entertainment plus the revival of Des Moines. They chose Noodle’s, an Italian café just a few blocks from where the elder Farrell’s grew up on Caulder Street. The café, owned by Farrell’s cousin Pete Leonetti, is covered with records of southside history. Tommy explained several photos on the walls.
“We are all cousins — Farrells, Cataldos, Cordaros, Leonettis, Mauros, Rands, Randas and Rendas. Jenny Renda, who owned Aunt Jenny’s restaurant on Southwest First, was the inspiration to almost every Italian restaurant that followed,” he said.
“Growing up here in the 1950s and ’60s was a totally different experience. Daycare meant that you went outdoors because someone else would take care of you. Our (late) brother Frankie was more rambunctious than the rest of us. To calm him down, Aunt Edith would tie him to a tree. Today, she’d be arrested, but the lesson was learned,” added Willie, known as “The Godfather of Comedy.”
“When it snowed, Dad would blockade the street so that all the kids could sled in the road,” added Tommy. That sounded like the larger than life persona who was Lou Farrell. Dinners at home usually included several guests from many walks of life — “police chiefs, politicians, priests, governors and labor union leaders (including Teamsters infamous boss Jimmy Hoffa) were regular visitors. The Harlem Globetrotters once played basketball in our driveway.”
Like many mobsters, Farrell went to work for the U.S. Navy during World War II, raising millions in war bonds and personally recruiting 75 sailors. That created a lot of good will that the current family feels has been covered by his previous notoriety.
“He was a community leader. When I was born in 1946, more than 1,000 people signed the baby gift registry — not just Italians, but Cownies, Pomerantzes and Hymie Weisman. Even Boston Globe columnist Ted Ashby was there,” said Tommy, showing the scrapbook of that birthday party.
Like their father, all three Farrell-Frattos use two last names to accommodate different environments.
“When I am performing in Atlantic City at the Borgata, it’s like a Sopranos convention. The audience is all wearing track suits and people used to ask me, ‘How can you be Italian and have an Irish name.’ So now I am a Fratto out there, though, to tell the truth, needing an Irish alias is sort of proof that you are an authentic Italian American,” joked Willie.
All three men have spent most of their adult life in the entertainment business. Tommy owned six clubs and restaurants in Chicago and another six after moving back to Des Moines. Some of the latter were groundbreaking. Jukebox Saturday Night and Blue Max brought top talent to town when that was rare. Crazy Horse was perhaps Des Moines’ first strip club.
“The bar that got me in the most trouble though was The Extra Point, which Tommy opened when I was still in high school. I’d go there for lunch and my blood alcohol content was always higher than my GPA,” Willie added.
When Tommy ran the Blue Max, an early visitor was Glen Frey of The Eagles.
“He came in because someone told him I might be able to help him locate an old girlfriend he knew from out west. It turned out that Willie, (late brother) Johnny and I had also all dated her. Frey became good friends though. He even came to my house the next year for Thanksgiving,” Tommy recalled.
Willie’s first standup comedy shows were at the Mainliner where he opened for Fabian and Tommy James, and the Ingersoll Dinner Theater. At the latter’s show, he handled a heckler so well that The Des Moines Register’s review mentioned he had “the good looks of Tony Danza and the charming wit of Freddie Prinze Jr.” “I left for Hollywood within a week,” Willie recalled.
When Johnny died earlier this year in Hollywood, he owned several interests in state-of-the-art hologram technology, including exclusive rights to apply it to adult entertainment in America. Last week, Tommie and Willie attended a high-profile technology event in Las Vegas where they had meetings with several high tech CEOs about leasing rights. One hologram they hoped to sell was of Harry Carey singing to a Chicago Cubs crowd.
Frankie, who opened the Liars Club before Court Avenue became a nightclub center, and The Gas Lamp before Western Gateway’s revival, is family point man on their next big project on Ingersoll.
“Des Moines has done great things the last 20 years. The one thing that the city still lacks is a multifaceted venue that can — with moving walls and flexible furnishings — be a dinner theater, a movie house, a live music venue, a comedy club, a wedding reception venue and a meeting place,” he explained.
Frankie says his vision is to remake the long dormant Ingersoll Theater into an Art Deco/Minimalist Contemporary venue modeled in part after the Boulder Theater in Colorado. He wants to enlist Suzette Candies to run an old-fashioned movie house concession. His dad wants to open a nearby Chicago Italian Beef sandwich shop, modeled after the one he had in the Randolph Hotel earlier this decade. Uncle Willie will book the comedy acts. Uncle Johnny might well be raising the dead.