By Nino Pantano
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A crowd of over 50 guests of family and friends celebrated Labor Day, Sunday, Sept. 1, at the home of Charles and Roseann (Pantano) Lesko in the Richmondtown section of Staten Island.
It was a perfect way to rejoice in the 99th birthday of their much-loved Uncle Cologero (Kelly) Pantano. Kelly, who resides with his daughters in Bay Ridge, was a founder and organizer of the Shoe Salesman’s Union and owned a shoe store in both Brooklyn and Staten Island for many decades.
Kelly’s daughters Valerie and Veronica and son-in-law Anthony Panebianco (Butch) accompanied Kelly to his special table which was decorated with many colorful balloons. Kelly’s beloved wife Kitty passed away several years ago. Kelly’s brother Phillip was the owner/manager of the Hollywood, Cotillion, Imperial and Embassy Terraces in Brooklyn. Uncle Phil, who was a World War II veteran and will be 96 in October, sat at Kelly’s side, with longtime friend and neighbor George Orlando, who was thrilled to be reunited with Phil and Kelly.
In World War II, Kelly rendered valuable service in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and vividly recalled a visit by the ailing FDR in 1944 in his final presidential campaign. When he was but a boy, Kelly sold copies of The New York-Brooklyn Times in a contest, beating every youngster in NYC and winning a bicycle and meeting with other “Newsies” with President Coolidge in Washington, D.C. The family sold the bicycle to keep financially afloat. As a young adult and active union member, he was “arrested” countless times for picketing on behalf of shoe salesmen!
The rain that was forecast never arrived, so it did not rain on Kelly’s parade. We all shared Kelly’s birthday celebration outdoors with open bar and at least 12 trays of delicious Italian food from nearby Nucci’s caterers.
After a day of swimming and activities with much food and libation, a shoe-shaped birthday cake was taken out and we all sang “Happy Birthday”! Kelly gave a touching speech and said that in his mind he is 21, but his knees don’t cooperate.
However both Kelly and his brother Phil did dance briefly, recalling the days during the Great Depression when the four Pantano brothers -- Ralph, Sam, Kelly and Phil – tap-danced in the streets for pennies. Kelly’s daughter Veronica and my sister Maryann joined Philly and Kelly in the “Lindy Hop.” Nick Esposito used his beautiful tenor voice in “Core ’n Grato” and “O Sole Mio.” Roseann’s vibrant daughter Chef Cathy Bartolotta, also celebrating a birthday, was present with her daughter Alexandra (Alex), a prize-winning dancer; and Cathy’s handsome and debonair companion Nik Karceveski, who hails from Macedonia, charmed all.
Grace Dolce sweetly sang a few songs a la Etta James and scored a big hit. Charlie Lesko as MC used all of his acting skills from his performances in Staten Island theater. It was Kelly’s daughter Valerie’s birthday as well and several others. It seems like there were a lot of September birthdays stemming from snuggling up on chilly December nights.
We were delighted to see longtime neighbors Robert and Angela Coffaro from Carroll Gardens.
A versatile keyboard and accordion virtuoso, Leo from La Strada Restaurant in Staten Island, kept the audience in wonderful spirits as he played international and Italian romantic favorites. I sang “Santa Lucia” and “Torna Sorrento” at the request of my uncles with Leo’s wonderful accordion accompaniment, as well as “Happy Birthday.”
We all posed for an official photograph in the palm garden -- a gift of landscaper Rick Pantano, who is our Uncle Phil’s son.
The Casa Lesko is like a Tuscan Villa. Its vast gardens and hedges, cut out to form the name “Lesko.” recals “The Great Gatsby” in its décor and in these truly grand celebrations. Roseann and Charlie, married for over 50 years. are truly the lord and lady of the manor. Next year’s gala party for Uncle Kelly’s 100th should be spectacular! My wife Judy and I, along with many others, can hardly wait.