Author: Barbara Tzetzo Gosch
“Varvara—someday I’ll take you back to where it all began.”
I grew up on the street where President William McKinley was fatally shot. The event that changed the course of American history happened inside the Temple of Music concert hall – an auditorium filled with electrifying color, built for the Pan-American Exposition.
By the mid 1940s when our family moved to what became predominantly a Jewish neighborhood, all that remained was the McKinley marker with a plaque signifying what occurred. Thus, from a young age and at a personal level, I discovered the powerful influences of political and cultural events in relationship to one’s sense of place – this provided inspiration and my passion to write.
Surprisingly, the first address I had to learn was situated in Buffalo’s Downtown thriving, bustling, Theater District – it was the address of our family business. Dad would teach me two rules I had to remember for safety. First, “Your last name is important.” He’d proceed to instruct me to say who I was in two different languages. While my name in this country is ‘Barbara,’ at the time, in Albania (where my parents came from) “Varvara” was used. Secondly, the address of “The Store,” as we referred to the family business, built in 1922. This is where all of my 1st generation relatives (and some second generation) lived together in the apartments above. For me, the youngest in the family in this country, this was akin to home, where everyone lived and worked together.
“Repeat after me,” dad said. “My address is 452 Pearl Street.” He then coaxed me on how to observe my surroundings by spotting landmarks, if ever lost. To this day when mostly traveled abroad, I’ve continued following this advice.
I was around six years old, when I learned the significance of my family’s business – I began looking forward to seeing my Albanian clan-type family that owned Tzetzo Bros., Inc., (wholesale candy & tobacco business) aka The Store. Originally, it had a small sign hanging out front, facing the back entrance of the impressive Shea’s Buffalo Theater, where famous celebrities and movies appeared. My dad recalled days when Rudy Vallée, the popular singer who introduced ‘crooning,’ had crowds follow him as he went into the Shea’s back doors. According to Arlan Peters, in Buffalo Theater Facts and Figures, “In 1942, Rudy and his Connecticut Yankees set a house record at the theater, grossing $42,000 in in one week.”
In terms of the entertainment industry, there was one celebrity I recall who stopped at The Store, to buy cigarettes. Who else but Johnny Roventini, a former actor, bellboy, who audiences knew as “Johnny of Phillip Morris” fame, and who became synonymous with the slogan, “Cal-l for-Phil-lip Mor-ray-issss.” Ironically, his popularity increased with the country’s most famous TV family, sitcom, “I Love Lucy.”
In the summer of 2015, when I returned with my two brothers, to visit the original Tzetzo Bros., building it had been declared “historic.” Furthermore, by the mid 1990s the business had greatly expanded, with two other wholesale building locations added throughout the years, to become the largest wholesale distributor of candy in Western New York. The business would go on to merge with a distributing company, to be renamed Wythe Will Tzetzo, and then First Source (learn more). Unfortunately, it sounds as if the pandemic got the best of the business after all of these years.
However, much earlier and when originally on Pearl Street, The Store acquired the building next door, the Riviera Restaurant at the time. In addition, The Prince Edward Hotel, (490 Pearl Street) known earlier as the Monroe Hotel – my dad thought was a good investment as well – to buy to house actors from the Shea’s Buffalo and smaller theaters. Prince Edward Hotel eventually became The Cabaret. Recently, I learned on Buffalo Rising the good news that the building is now home to Pour Taproom, a self-serve bar. Catching up on these latest developments led me to getting around to finalizing these writings after 6 years.
While on my trip to visit the old neighborhood, two other items of significance caught my eye, revealing that my saga hadn’t ended, yet. We noticed on a building next to where we stood, a sign read ‘Road Less Traveled’‘ (home to a local theater). The sign reminded me of my own personal journey into this neighborhood, at a time when everything seemed like an adventure.
Before departing, I noticed new occupants were carrying boxes into what was once The Store. I hadn’t yet noticed what businesses now occupied the old storefront. Taking a quick look at the boxes, I asked, “Mexican food?” As it turned out, they were just starting to operate their own restaurant specializing in Indian cuisine. I smiled thinking, “This is still America, where my dad first learned English peddling and working the theater aisles shouting, “Peanuts, Popcorn, Cracker Jacks & Chewing Gum…” Yes, and even “Tobacco!” in the early days of Vaudeville as Sophie Tucker sang.
It was a time when one room held seven immigrants. “Sometimes one had to sleep on the floor. ONLY six pairs of shoes to go around. Last one up was out of work. Not enough shoes to go around…” dad told me during our Sunday morning story hour, I eagerly looked forward to hearing as a kid.
It was while conducting my research on Pearl Street that I fondly recalled – as a child – if a parade was on Main Street, dad dropped everything for us so that we could all see the American flag pass by. It was because of that ingrained sentiment that I grew to understand: after being on the ship in steerage class, bound for America, why he cried at the sight of the Statue of Liberty.
For years… as a result of my own American Dream, I’ve wanted to become the first Albanian-American writer, as in non-fiction, from Buffalo – a city that I’ve loved and its motto, “City of Good Neighbors.”
Lead image: My brothers standing in front of “The Store” in 2015