The Rise of Sylvester Poli
by Rafaele Fierro
On a beautiful August night in 1910, a crowd gathered at 10 Howe Street in New Haven to celebrate. Mayor Frank Rice and his wife were in attendance as were other important figures from the city. Sylvester and Rosa Poli’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary attracted politicians, corporate heads, lawyers, and doctors. The New Haven Evening Register called the gala event “one of the handsomest entertainments ever given in the city.” The Poli’s turned their lawn into “enchanted gardens with hundreds of Japanese lanterns” lit while an orchestra played music into the wee hours.
Sylvester Poli had become a recognized and respected entrepreneur. He ultimately owned 28 vaudeville and movie theaters throughout New England. Waterbury’s Palace Theater and New Haven’s Bijou Theater were his creation. He built other movie centers, seating well more than a thousand, in cities known for their blue-collar character. Bridgeport and Hartford housed his film palaces. Worcester, Massachusetts and Scranton, Pennsylvania provided Poli entertainment too. No wonder his anniversary brought together so many—more than 100 in all--from New Haven and beyond. The night’s festivities could be likened to the pomp and circumstance surrounding King Louis XIV ‘s Versailles.
But no monarch was honored here in 1910. Oak Street, in New Haven’s working-class Italian section, was just around the corner. Though it stood in marked contrast to the evening’s pageantry, walls or gates did not segregate the poor from the affluent Poli, a self-described commoner who came to America with virtually nothing. He enjoyed living among the working poor. They worshipped together at St. John’s Roman Catholic Church, a short distance from his home. Poli, moreover, understood that his clientele, the people who made him what he was, often were not men and women of means. Movie going in the first half of the twentieth century tended to be affordable even for those with little disposable income (it cost about 25 cents to see a film as late as the 1930s).
The New Haven businessman’s ascendancy occurred opportunely as Northeastern cities began burgeoning with industry. Thousands of immigrants found wage labor promising them a better life, but it did not always pan out. Factory work was long, difficult, and grinding. Conditions were sometimes deplorable. Movie going offered the urban masses a brief respite from life’s daily toil. Poli also viewed himself as their guardian, the adhesive that bound members of his community together and a powerful antidote to the crime and poverty plaguing poor neighborhoods.
World War One and later the Great Depression best illustrated Poli’s relationship with the working classes. He helped establish a National Guard Company of young Italian soldiers that joined the second regiment during the Great War. In 1915, the Italian language newspaper Il Corriere di Connecticut and the New Haven Times-Leader reported extensively on Poli’s efforts, which not only underscored his heavy involvement in the Italian community, but also undermined Yankee charges that Italians exhibited conflicting loyalties. During the Depression, he organized a benefit in collaboration with the Jewish Welfare Society and the New Haven Register to assist the city’s poor. Not surprisingly, not only politicians, lawyers, and businessmen attended the Poli’s 1910 anniversary party, but also garage owners, carpenters, and clerks.
The night’s celebration was revealing as much for who was not present. Few Yankee names appeared on the guest list. Yankees found Poli’s ethnicity reprehensible, but because his entrepreneurial roots were in Vaudeville--a new form of marketable entertainment they derided--made him even more contemptible. According to historian Douglas Rae, author of City: Urbanism and Its End, Poli’s near universal admiration reflected the decline in status of the New England old guard. Yankee perception was that their culture was “progressively diminishing.” It is not a coincidence, for instance, Yale graduate and eugenicist Madison Grant published his Passing of the Great Race in 1915, around the time that Poli and his ilk rose to power. To Yankees, the entrepreneur symbolized a rapidly changing New England, and not for the better. Notwithstanding their predilection for disliking outsiders, people of all stripes admired Poli,
The theater magnate’s popularity even overcame the Italian North-South cultural divide existing on both sides of the Atlantic. While a solid majority of the state’s Italians hailed from southern Italy, Poli himself came from Tuscany to the north. By the start of the twentieth century, Connecticut’s northern Italians formed an organization called the Northern Italian League to distinguish themselves from southern Italians, and to make sure that Yankees understood the vast cultural differences between the two people. Yet few cared from where in Italy Poli came. A great paradox of his life was that as he became a renowned figure, he continued to have the common touch, able to traverse class, ethnic, and cultural lines.
The great theater mogul retired in 1934 after which time large companies, including the Loew’s Group, began purchasing his establishments. Others were torn down or remade into restaurants. A few remain; most have since disappeared. Later urban renewal projects would raze New Haven homes including 10 House Street. In their place developers built North Frontage Road.
Poli did not live to see his home’s destruction. He died in 1937, arguably the worst year of the Great Depression. Movie going became more popular than ever as an escape from the cruel world of economic calamity. That same year the film A Star Is Born, featuring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, was made. This was fitting because Poli played a key role in making many actors into stars for the American public, as he himself became a behind-the-scenes celebrity to average Americans. A star was dead, but to this day not forgotten.