By Martin Iacampo, Sr.
Written for a movie or cable TV series
Story by Martin Iacampo, Sr.
At the turn of the century there were over 30 Luna Park amusement complexes across the world. Coney Island in New York had the biggest one, Pittsburgh close behind; there were even parks in Melbourne, Australia and Osaka, Japan. One of the largest and most successful was in Cleveland, Ohio.
The story Luna Park is a true story about a kid named Benny Iacampo that crossed the pond to the “Land of Opportunity” from Campobasso, Italy in 1914 with his father Carmen, searching for the same thing that all of the other immigrants were looking for; a better life. Little did young Benny know, he may have been better off back in the old country where he knew the rules to the game of life.
Much of the story takes place around Luna Park where people from the Cleveland proper came, was well as some from all over the country to enjoy the rides and amenities that the park had to offer.
The Park was characterized by its architectural structures: Italian Renaissance, Egyptian, Gothic, and Japanese, which was lit by thousands of incandescent lamps and a pool which marked the center of the Park along with dozens of rides including a carousel, a Ferris wheel, a Shoot-the-Chutes, Jack Rabbit and Pippin roller coasters, a fun house, a roller rink, and a dance hall.
Directly across the street from the park on the North East side of 110th and Woodland was a rough and tough area known as “The Bloody Corner” because of all the killings that took place by rival gangs, mainly the Porello and Lonardo gangs that wanted to take control of the city’s rackets.
Benny grew up in this environment and at one point because he witnessed one gang member slit another member’s throat and kept his mouth shut when questioned by the cops; he gained the respect of the mobsters and was “hired” to run odd jobs for them to pick up a few dollars.
In the process he meet some very interesting characters like Packy (Bob Hope) East who was a regular at the park, Lou Wasserman, Jesse Owens, Frank Mannetti, Frank Brancato, Frank Milano, Black Sam Todaro and many others; some of which were questionable character and some stand-up citizens.
Because of Benny’s personality, his outstanding good looks and his size, 6’ 0” at the age of 15, he was a target for every bully in the neighborhood. At one time or another they all found out not to mess with the kid from Campobasso!
At the age of 15 Benny’s mother died suddenly and his father Carmen who was a 5’ 4” pit bull decided to take his daughter Connie and go back to the old country to get a young wife because “no man should have to wash his own socks”.
Benny accompanied his old man to the barber shop to get cleaned up before the trip. Actually there was a group of three going to the barber shop, Benny, Carmen and “Uncle Louie”. Uncle Louie was a pistol t hat Carmen carried with him at all times and was not afraid to use it.
Carmen and Benny were the only ones in the barber shop and came across a new barber they never saw before. While in the barber chair the barber and Carmen got into a “ball breaking” contest that eventually got out of hand and before it was all over Carmen pulled out “Uncle Louie” from his belt and from under the barbers cloth shot the barber with a poor sense of humor right between the eyes sending the barber flying across the room landing at Benny’s feet. Needless to say Carmen got on the first boat back to Italy with his daughter and never paid the price for blasting the guy that was going to give him a very close shave. Benny refused to go with his father.
About a year later Benny got a letter from the young lady Carmen married when he went back stating that Carmen was found dead in a water well. It was never clear if the old man was drunk and fell in the well or if the brothers of his new bride killed him and threw him in there. Uncle Louie was finally put to rest.
At one of the speakeasies he worked in Benny got tied up with a couple of Italian kids his age that wanted to make a quick buck. They had it set up to “knock over” a joint in Akron, Ohio and rob the slot machines and set up their own operation.
At first Benny did not want to go along with the crew but he got a little drunk one night and they talked him into the caper. Naturally the poorly planned job went horribly wrong resulting in one kid being killed by the cops and the other three amature criminals including Benny got sent to the “cross bar hotel”.
Mansfield prison turned Ben’s life around. He became a trustee and driver for the warden. On day they were out of the car walking and the warden stopped, turned to Benny and said “Ben, I left my gun in the glove compartment, go get it for me”. Benny looked at his boss, smiled and went back and retrieved the loaded pistol.
Upon being released from prison the warden gave Benny a recommendation to go see his friend Frank Converse that was the head of Local 18 in Cleveland and owned Grate Lakes Construction Company. Frank had half of the right side of his face blown off because he would not get in line. A few years later because of the potential Converse saw in Benny he put Benny on as an assistant to Local 860 a laborers local that Converse was the guardian of. Benny made his boss a promise to keep the union clean, a promise he never slacked off on. “Benny, you can and have to break bread with them but never sleep with them; once you sell your soul you are finished”.
Luna Park and the Mafia grew to prominence at approximately the same time and there were any number of young lions hanging around the periphery of both Luna Park and the underworld then: one of these young turks whose early, rough life put him in and out of the Park, was 6'3", 235 pound, Ben Iacampo — who would one day become a legend known as “Big Ben”, one of the few “honest business agents” in the Labor Union world (and most particularly in the powerful Local 860), who stood up to the mob in Cleveland during that period.
Father William O Donnell was one of a kind. He was the lord and mater of Mt. Carmel. If a person did something he didn’t like he would deliberately pass them up for communion. He was always in a hurry no matter what he did. He drove fast, ate fast, drank fast and administered communion like a black jack dealer in Vegas.
One Sunday afternoon in the late 1940’s Benny’s two sons Benny Jr. and Marty were serving as altar boys at a baptism; in came the two couples, the mother and father of the baby and the god-parents dressed like they just came out of Mafia Gazette and the roaring 20’s, carnations and the works. The god-father was hold the little one and everyone was grouped around the baptism fountain when “OD” came charging back, “Hello hello, lets get the show on the road”. OD tells the god-father to say the Our Father, the god-father said he didn’t know it. OD said “if you don’t know the Our Father how are you going to baptize this kid”. “I don’t know what to tell you priest, I don’t know it”. OD, “I am going to make this easy folks, if the guy doesn’t know the Our Father I am not going to baptize this kid”! The mother of the child got berzerk screaming, “my baby is going to hell”. The god-father gets into OD’s face, grabs him and drug the overweight red-headed priest into the school yard with the father of the baby close behind. The god-father held OD while the father beat the hell out of the priest. OD never did baptize the kid.
At the heart of the story is Big Ben, his best friend, Father “Big Red” O Donnell, an Irish priest who was assigned to Mt Carmel an all Italian parish had a “hit” put on him by the neighborhood residence “What the fuck is an Irish priest doin coming to our parish”? OD’s housekeeper served as his mistress, he always drove a new Caddy and ruled his Italian parish with an iron hand . . . and Anthony “Tony Lib” Liberatore, a rising mobster, FBI informant and a double agent for leaking info to other mobsters. Tony Lib also climbed the ranks in Big Ben’s union local.
Among Benny’s good friends was another guy that had to work hard trying to keep the mob out of his union. Both men Hoffa and Big Ben had to meet these challenges head on. Most of the time they came out on top but as the old saying goes; “some you eat the bear and sometime the bear eats you”! We know the answers.
Big Ben, his family and friends, are certainly the center of our story, but the large and dramatic supporting cast had violent connections which would have far reaching ramifications that lasted well beyond Luna Park.
Father “Red” O Donnell / had a love hate relationship with Benny but they remained friends to the end.
Antoinette Pistilli Iacampo / Benny’s wife who stuck with him through thick and thin; sometimes there were a lot more thick than thin.
Anthony “Tony Lib” Liberatore / charismatic man that could charm the pants off of Mother Theresa, lead a double life.
Shondor Burns / Cleveland mobster invented the sun roof.
Jimmy Johnson / a monster of a black man and a ally of Benny’s – owned a bar in downtown Cleveland called the Derby Hat – married to an Italian girl- had several run ins with the boys – found dead in the truck of his car in Detroit with his “family jewels” stuffed in his mouth.
Danny Greene / out of control crazy Irish mobster that loved Benny and was hated by the Italian mob – Danny knew of the difficulties Benny was have and offered “to remove the stone from his shoe” as a favor – Benny declined the offer
Frank Converse/ Benny’s mentor and the head of Local 18 got half of his face blown off by the mob because he wouldn’t play ball with the boys.
Sesal Engelburg / cell mate of Tony Lib blew himself and half of his neighborhood while putting a package together to deliver to a non-union contractor.
Pat Ranallo / Teamster BA who got run over by a non-union driver, almost lost his leg
Sam Busacca / Babe Triscaro’s son in-law and BA for the teamsters
Babe Triscario / head of the teamsters in Cleveland
Tom Arconti / Benny’s long-time friend, head of the state wide union
Tom Ferritto / Benny took his job later in life and was accused by his daughter that Benny was responsible for Tom’s demise
Mayor Dennis Kuscinich / boy mayor of Cleveland who got on the wrong side of the mob and the waste collectors. They put a “hit” out on him.
Frank Brancate /Cleveland mobster, had 30 notches on his pistol handle for the murders he committed in his time.
Jack White / heir to the throne, head of the Cleveland Mafia.
And many more
In many ways it is a redemptive story, since it wasn’t until after serving a 5 year stretch in the “Crossbar Hotel” during his early years that Big Ben got scared straight and turned his life around. Jimmy Hoffa played an important part in Big Ben’s union life, but Ben’s on-going, life-long fight with mobsters like Danny Green, Anthony Liberatore, Shondor Birns, Frank Brancate, Jack White and Frank “Mr. Frank” Manetti was sometimes political, sometimes legal and sometimes literal.
Those battle alone would be interesting enough but his life also included other remarkable people: early friends like one of his laborers from the early 30s who borrowed $20 and still owed it to him - Jesse Owens: and a young entertainer, boxer and dance instructor named Packy East, whose whole life involved hard hustling in and around Luna Park. Packy left when the Park burned down. First going to New York and then on to Hollywood, where he finally made it in the talkies as Bob Hope.
Sex, murder, drugs, and even a botched assassination attempt of Mayor Dennis Kuscinich (according to the New York Times, the hit man for the Kuscinich job is believed to be connected to the assassination of JFK), these were all part of Big Ben’s story.
Benny was in the middle of this mix of characters and circumstances always walking a tight rope trying to keep his union clean and mob free.
Big Ben’s appetite for food, liquor and brawls were bigger than life. These things plus the double crosses, murdered friends, bombs under porches, trucks and cars and Ben’s decades long fight against Parkinson’s (for which he received one of the first L-dopa treatments in the country) ultimately took their toll.
Small pieces of this story have been told, but few have seen or heard the complete sage which covers an enormous canvas of blood, betrayal, love, loyalty, hate, revenge and occasional justice, which disclose the oft hidden underbelly of Midwestern American life. Luna Park is a true story, based on the struggles against the mob, Parkinson’s decease and life itself, by Big Ben Iacampo.
Registered with the WGA
Sir Yes Sir
Martin has also the author of a book called “Sir Yes Sir” about his experiences at Marine Corps boot camp, Parris Island in 1958 when ass kicking was still the order of the day.
Sergeant Grant screaming in the recruits face: “Boy do you like me boy”? The recruit was deathly afraid if this sadistic drill instructor and didn’t know how to answer so he took a chance.
Recruit who’s knees were knocking as he stood at attention knew he was screwed either way so he took a shot, “Sir Yes Sir I do like you sir”.
Sergeant Grant nose to nose and toes to toes with the terrified recruit: “Boy likin is lovin and lovin is fuckin and you aint fuckin me boy”!
The recruit got so shook up he pissed in his pants and was one of the first recruits to be sent home through the main gate of Parris Island in disgrace.
Sir Yes Sir depicts how the Marine Corps made men out of boys; the strong survive and the weak get rolled over.
Marty lost many battles to the crazed DI’s but eventually won the war.
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