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He's known the world over for his heyday with Dawn, but that glittering 1970's whirl was just one chapter in Tony Orlando's rich life. Orlando began his showbiz career as a teen heartthrob with the single "Halfway to Paradise" and had a second successful act as a record company A&R man before he was lured back into the limelight as a performer. Fans from the l960s to the present day have loved his voice, his stage presence and his hits, like "Knock Three Times" and "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree."
Now, Tony has written an autobiography as warm and heartfelt as his songs. Halfway to Paradise is rich with stories from the music world-from doo wop to the disco era, from early recording with Gerry Goffin and Carole King to recent concerts in Branson, Missouri and across the United States. It's also full of behind-the-scenes detail of how it felt to be at the top of the entertainment heap-with his #1-rated CBS show, Tony's life in front of and behind the camera was grand, but sometimes not all it seemed. Orlando succumbed to one of the familiar antidotes to the pressures of a big life: drug use, with its predictable toll on family and friendships. And even as his career was soaring, he was unable to save his best friend Freddie Prinze from a fatal downward spiral.
With a return to roots-and to the close-knit family that has always sustained him-Tony restored the order and creativity that have allowed him to thrive through four decades of exuberant entertaining. Halfway to Paradise is a wise, funny and spirited life story, and a must-read memoir for fans.
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Tony Orlando lives in Branson, Missouri, and performs across the country.
Patsi Bale Cox is the co-author of many books, including the autobiographies of Tanya Tucker, Loretta Lynn, and Jenny Jones. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
Chapter 1On West Twenty-first StreetLong before I ever heard the word “star” I understood the concept. I recognized it the first moment I followed my father down Seventh Avenue through New York’s garment district. The year was 1947 and I was three years old. The streets were crowded with men pushing long carts of dresses and suits and furs from design houses to storage facilities or from warehouses to trucks waiting to deliver New York’s finest to stores across the country. While I only somewhat understood what the garment industry was about, I thoroughly understood that my father was one of its stars. His name was Leo Cassivitis, but in the garment district he was known as Label the Furrier.It was a heavily ethnic business; the owners of most of the great furrier companies were Jewish and the workers were Greek. My father was Greek, but his foreman position at Stone Furs at 333 Seventh Avenue, made him an important man, important enough that the Jewish men who owned the company fondly called him “Label,” their word for Leo.He would walk tall and proud through the streets, dressed handsomely in a cashmere coat, expensive tie, leather belt, and the smart-looking sandals that were considered high toned at that time. My father was a handsome, charismatic man, a natty dresser. Rugged and manly, yet soulful. He looked like Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago long before anyone had seen the 1965 film.“Label!” a cabbie would shout. “How are you today?”My father would tip his hat with the air of royalty. “I’m very good, thank you, Manny,” he would answer.Or maybe it would be a fellow with a pushcart or a woman opening up a shop on the street. They all called to him as if he were very important, and he was. When he entered Stone Furs on Seventh Avenue, he was in complete control of all the Greeks who spent their days cutting the pelts, stitching them together, and producing fine fur coats for the wealthy women of New York’s Park Avenue or Boston’s Beacon Street. The people who worked for him loved and respected him. He was known to be a fair man. Strong, tough, a man of rules, but always fair. He saw to it that the product was impeccable and that his employers made money. Those two things made him not just important, but invaluable.My father was a deeply complicated man. All that he was affected me then and even now. First, his star status dazzled me as a child. How could anyone ever live up to Label the Furrier, to whom the wondrous garment district saluted? Father’s heritage was very much a part of him. He, like most Greeks, had a great sense of pride in his native country. He spoke the Greek language flawlessly and believed it vital that he did, to the point of having gone to school to perfect it. The language spoken by second- or third-generation Greeks, diluted and Americanized, was not for Label Cassivitis. He wanted perfection. But his heritage was much more than a desire to speak the language fluently. If anyone was ever the quintessential Greek man, it was him.Years later, when I saw Anthony Quinn portray Zorba the Greek, I realized that in many ways I was watching my father. Both were proud and grand, boisterous yet brooding, complicated and opinionated, gentle and cold, determined even when afraid, confident even while insecure. And the funny thing about my father was that he was all that every day.And so the man I idolized made it very difficult for me to quite comprehend him as a person. I primarily saw him as a celebrity. I perceived him as such until the day he died. Others did as well. No matter how old he was, when he walked into a gathering he was a formidable presence, literally sucking the air out of the room. All eyes were directed at him even when the occupants of that room were real stars! I remember cohosting the Mike Douglas Show once in the mid-seventies. One of the guests that day was, ironically, the great film star Omar Sharif. Leo Cassivitis walked into the green room where Omar and I sat talking and Omar looked up startled, partly at the similarity in looks but partly at the way Father dominated.“Oh, my God!” Omar said. “Who is that?”“It’s my father,” I said with a smile. “He does resemble you, doesn’t he?”“I’m moving over,” Omar said with a laugh.Later that day, when the show had taped and Omar and I again talked privately, he told me he had felt electricity fill the room when Father came through the door. He had been charmed just as I had been throughout my life, and just as the workers at Stone Furs and the cabbies and shopkeepers of Seventh Avenue had been.My father’s stature follows me still. I feel it to this day when I travel through the country. Father traveled with me for much of the seventies and off and on in the eighties and nineties, and people remember him. I’m just amazed at how many people ask about him decades later-skycaps in Philadelphia, doormen in New York, bell captains in Los Angeles. The funny thing is, I’ll have to look at the man a moment, then realize how much time has passed. It will be a guy my father spent time with in airports or hotels, and the man will now have gray hair, and is maybe a little bent over. After all, twenty-five years have passed.Just this past year, as I was checking in at the Tropicana in Atlantic City, a doorman walked up and reintroduced himself. I hadn’t been at the Tropicana in a couple of years, but the doorman asked if my dad was out in the car. When I told him that Dad had passed away a year earlier, the man actually got tears in his eyes. That was the effect this man had on people.Sometimes, after I’ve dressed for a show and checked myself out in a mirror, I still see myself trying to be as classy as Leo.My parents had a brief, off-again, on-again marriage. That shouldn’t be a surprise, because according to my mother, Ruth Estanislaw, she basically told him to take a hike the day he first approached her. Mamma had known Leo Cassivitis for years, since their families lived in the same building, and Leo was a great friend of her brother, Orlando. Then one day, when Mamma was about to turn seventeen, she stopped by the local candy store, her future husband came over to the jukebox and asked her what songs she’d picked.“That’s none of your business!” she shot back, a bit of Puerto Rican fire in her voice.Even with a shaky beginning, Leo won her over. He was hard to ignore. He was the jokester, the prankster, the guy everyone wanted to be around. But, as Mamma says, she married him for the wrong reasons. In those days a young woman couldn’t wait too long before marriage, or she’d be called an old maid. And Mamma was seventeen.I was born on April 3, 1944, three years after they married, and were living on West Twenty-sixth Street. I was named Michael Anthony Orlando Cassivitis. Michael, in honor of my paternal grandfather, a Greek restauranteur, and Orlando, in honor of my mother’s brother. Uncle Orlando was in the navy when Mamma was pregnant with me. He’d called and said, “Name the baby after me!” Mamma said, “No! That’s a horrible name for a baby! I’m calling him Michael.” But she relented and went for Orlando as a middle name.My parents were married seven years, but only lived together for about two of those. Each time they separated Mamma and I would move in with the whole Estanislaw family at a brownstone at 221 West Twenty-first Street. Divorced or separated women didn’t usually get apartments back in those days. If something happened to their marriages, they moved back home, especially if they came from strict Puerto Rican families like the Estanislaws!I was two when we moved to West Twenty-first Street the first time, and four when they separated for the last time. Mamma decided it was time to take a trip west and visit Uncle Orlando in Long Beach, California. We took a train to Chicago, then changed to the Santa Fe El Capitan. I remember very little from the first leg of the journey. It was when I saw the El Capitan that I came alive. It was silver and red, with an Indian chief painted on the side. I can still remember the excitement of standing there with our little suitcases, hearing the conductor shout, “Allllll aboard.”The dining car was like something from one of our movies. The white linen tablecloths were starched and pressed. The plates elegant, and the waiters all very still and professional. Again, I had that Sunday suit on, and knew to mind my manners.The most impressive thing was when we came to the desert and saw those colors, that sweeping landscape. Sundown made the trip through the desert seem even more magical. I’d stare out and think of the western movies I’d seen, which had all been in black-and-white. Now, on the El Capitan, I could see them in living color. And I could imagine myself in them, too. I could see the image of a white horse running across the land, of riding across the desert in some sort of western adventure. It was wonderful.I love New York. It has given me many dreams, many aspirations. The West, however, gave me color and awakened my imagination.Not long after Mamma and I returned to New York, my parents got a divorce. I remember very little of what led to it, just a quiet that fell over the household of Leo and Ruth Cassivitis. I never felt that Leo stopped loving me or that I was a problem in their marriage, as so many small children feel. Even when they divorced and my mother and I moved in with her family, I believed Leo loved me.After the divorce, Mamma and I moved to West Twenty-first Street for good. We called it a “sharing apartment,” because everyone shared the seven rooms, the food, the love. With the addition of Mamma and me, we numbered ten in that apartment. Mamita and Papito—Juanita and José Estanislaw, my maternal grandparents—my aunts, Eda, Elsie, Delores, and my uncles, Joey, Orlando, and Johnny. Those people were the ones who made me feel safe and secure even after a divorce in the late 1940s, not an event many ethnic families liked to see.I can still see that apartment with the hand-crocheted doilies, little painted figurines, and religious icons placed on end tables. I can hear the hissing of the exposed pipes, smell the chilies and onions cooking. In fact, if there is one thing beside the closeness of family that I remember about that brownstone apartment, it was the smell. People think of tenements as dirty, stinking places, but back then those apartments were clean and neat and the smell you associated with each doorway was of food. You could tell someone’s ethnic heritage by the smell of the dinners they cooked. We Puerto Ricans might have chicken, rice, and beans cooking with onions and chili peppers. Or potato meat pies or a sanocho cooking in the pot, a stew so named because it means “burnt by the sun.” Sometimes Mamita made pasteles, a Puerto Rican treasure made with bananas, chopped meat, and olives, and somewhat similar to the chili rellenos you find in Mexican restaurants now.I’ve always loved the Christmas season, and on West Twenty-first Street the holiday was defined by two things: religion and food. Some small gifts were exchanged, but presents weren’t the main point of Christmas. It was a time to celebrate Christ’s birth, and cook so much food that we could have fed the neighborhood. The whole family participated in the cooking as well as the eating, with Mamita in charge of it all. New Year’s was another big event in the household, a great night for singing. I still like to close my shows with “Auld Lang Syne.”Our entire family was musical. I honestly believe if they’d have put together a group of some kind they could have been as popular as the Jackson Five later became. To hear my aunts harmonizing was to believe you heard the angels singing. To this day, when I am onstage interacting with the audience, I am reminded of my Puerto Rican family, of parties at my aunt Delores’s when we all sang together. There were the aunts, uncles, cousins, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. Sometimes I think that I try to relive those days every time I step on the stage.But Papito didn’t think music was a safe profession. So even though my uncle Orlando was a great opera singer, my grandfather tried to discourage any of us from the world of career musicians. Papito knew it was a tough business for females and suspected it was almost as bad for men.“Get a real job,” he always advised. “Learn a trade.”Papito wasn’t the only one against Orlando going into show business. When he had an opportunity to sing at the Roxy, Uncle Orlando’s wife was dead set against it. That’s why he and his wife ended up moving to Long Beach, California, and raising a family of five.Papito was a very wise man, and one who taught me many things, including my first understanding-or attempt to understand-death. I remember one morning when I was around seven years old, I was awakened by Papito leaving the house. I slept on a foldout couch in the living room, and when I opened my eyes I saw Papito standing in the doorway. For some reason, his walking out the door scared me. Maybe it was because my father had left, I don’t know. I started to cry and he came over and sat down on the sofa bed with me. When he asked me why I was crying I admitted that it made me afraid when he left the apartment. Papito sat there and looked at me for a long time. He patted me on the head and said, “Michael, I’m coming back. But you must know that I am an old man, and I won’t always be here. I could die any time, and you must not stay afraid when I’m gone on a long-time basis.”I hugged him and he said, “Michael, if I can tell you one thing that I hope for you it is this: Don’t be just one of the crowd. Don’t follow along with people. You make your mark whether I’m here to see it or not.”I can hear him saying that as if it was yesterday. “Don’t be just one of the crowd.” Those words are part of what kept me from joining the street gangs in nearby Hell’s Kitchen and they kept me from completely messing up my life even during the times when I was coming close to doing so.My father was the star, but Papito was my hero. He could have been anybody’s hero. He had been a high school teacher in Puerto Rico, he enlisted in the military to fight for America, and then, on returning, he became a professional boxer and ended up being the champ of Latin America. Gene Tunny finally beat him. After his defeat, he decided it was time to move to the United States, and brought his wife and nine children to New York City, where he first found work as an elevator operator. Finally, he was working three jobs. He delivered milk in the early mornings, then went to his elevator job, then ended the day playing music. Using the stage name Leon Stanley, he played trumpet in Desi Arnaz’s band before starting his own group, a band that found jobs at clubs like the famous Coconut Grove. He was an innovator, too. Papito invented a double-lip mouthpiece that enabled trumpet players to play very high notes, and one of the first horn players to use it was none other than Harry James.My mother had to work at a variety of jobs, from packing biscuits at the Sunshine Company to cashiering at the Horn & Hardarts automat. Remember the Hardy Girls? Mamma was one. Like her father, my Papito, she once worked as an elevator operator at a store. It was big news on Twenty-first Street the day she transported actress Piper Laurie. Same with Margaret Sullivan. In my mother’s absence, Mamita became like a mother to me. Mamma was always thankful fo...
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