The Pittston Tomato Festival was born from an idea by Val D’Elia because of his love of tomatoes and his knowledge of growing them. Who would have thought this hometown festival would be celebrating a 32nd anniversary?
It began when businessman Ken Scaz and a few friends took the idea to Mayor Tom Walsh with the concept that the morale of Pittstonians needed a boost of Pittston Pride.
Community comes together
Downtown Pittston, once a metropolis business district that housed dress shops, men’s clothing stores, shoe stores, two Five and Dime stores, J.C. Penney’s, photographer studios, two movie houses and more, had become a shell of a town with empty buildings, many of them earmarked for demolition. Maybe the time was right?
The first Pittston Tomato Festival was held in August 1984 for three days during the third week of August on Kennedy Boulevard where Burger King and CVS Pharmacy are currently located. Ken Scaz was named chairperson, and Paul McGarry and Wil Toole were in charge of vendors, all from the Greater Pittston area. The idea was to give local people and organizations the opportunity to raise funds.
Several local businesses and organizations answered the call. The Serridefalco Society sold sausage and pepper sandwiches (the sausage was purchased from Argento Brothers). The Second Presbyterian Church wowed the crowd with pasta e fagioli. Greeky Guarneri became known for his fruscha and cardoon sandwiches. Sabetelli’s Market introduced the original chicketta sandwich. St. John the Evangelist Church members manned a booth. The DAV Nino Montante Post and the Italian American Association of Luzerne County sold raffles. Sam DeAlba became a famous figure, spinning a wheel for the Rotary Club. Mae McHugh, noted union official, called bingo with the help of the ILGWU Retirees.
It truly was a hometown festival.
Recalling the Tomato Festival in the old days brings to mind a good friend whose heart was in this event. Bob Conroy was named the grounds chairman in 1984 and served until 2005, spending many hours on the lot wiring electricity and correcting mishaps along the way. The troubleshooter stayed on the job even when he no longer had the use of his left arm and leg. He was seen on his scooter riding the grounds and supervising. Bob was named grand marshal of the Tomato Festival Parade in 1999.
Racing with memories
The First Tomato Run, a two-mile run, sponsored by the Pittston City Parks and Recreation Committee was held at 10 a.m. on Aug. 26, 1984 on the MarkData parking lot. Carmen Falcone was chairman, and Sam Falcone, president of Falcone Beverage Company, sponsored the T-shirts. The committee consisted of Sandra Ostrowski, Roseann Ricotta, Mimi Shovlin, Bill Gladish, Ann Marie Stelma, Vince Gubitoso, Mary Rita Gayz, and this columnist, a councilwoman at the time.
The run was followed by the Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center Tomato Festival Criterium Bike Race sponsored by the Lackawanna Bicycle Club. Bikers raced on Main Street and Kennedy Boulevard circling several times, causing difficulty for residents who wanted to attend church services. The planning committee consisted of Will Toole, councilman Jim Kolmansberger, Mark Ercolani and Ann Bradbury. After a few years, because of the conflict on Sunday morning, both races were discontinued.
In 1999, the Tomato Festival 5K Run was reintroduced, with Jay Duffy serving as chairman and Jerry Mullarkey as co-chairman. It is a spectacular event to witness hundreds of runners competing to the finish line. This year, as in the past several years, Jay Duffy Jr. will serve as chairman in memory of his father.
My brain is filled with memories of the primary years of the festival, when it was still on Kennedy Boulevard and you could only take a few steps before running into someone you knew, either from home or out of town. Those kinds of joyous reunions still occur at today’s festival.
Entertainment had a local flavor with Joey “I” Infantino serving as chairman.
A renowned musician, Joey I is remembered for his love of music, quick wit and his infamous trombone.
Opening night always featured the famous Pacci Band with renditions of lively marches that created hand clapping, foot stomping and a great sense of pride. Other popular locals featured were the Glenn Michael’s Orchestra with Mickey Baldo attired in a white jacket conducting popular tunes of the 1940s era. Bobby Baird’s Dixieland Orchestra shook up the crowd, along with the Joey “I” Orchestra, Herbie Green’s Orchestra, Take Four with Charles Infantino and the High Lites, featuring the tenor and powerful voice of Pat Aita, all provided entertainment.
In years past, Turning Point with Diane Dixon rocked the closing of the festival Sunday nights with her dynamic voice and energy. The performance was followed by beautiful fireworks, filling the black sky with splashes of color and creating such pleasure to onlookers. The fireworks were discontinued due to an ordinance that stated no loud disturbances after 10 p.m. An up-to-date note: Diane and her husband have been the opening performers of the festival for many years.
Just in case you don’t remember or didn’t know, the Pittston City Police Department got itself all wet in a dunking booth, giving town folks the opportunity to dunk their favorite policeman or local official. The booth’s ad read “Come dunk us if you can.” Many tried but few succeeded. Brave officers included Ptlm. John Jugus, Sgt. Greg Policare, Sgt. David Roglich, Police Chief Ed Doran, Ptlm. Joe Viccica, state Rep. Tom Tigue and Billy Hopple, city electrical inspector.
Pittston loves a parade
I have been walking down memory lane with past festivals and would be remiss if I didn’t recall my favorite event — the parade. It was my pleasure to serve on this committee for five years under the chairmanship of Bill Burke before I became chairperson in 1990. How I loved it and still do
Events are not successful with the efforts of one person, but by the efforts of many people who choose to become part of the planning and work. The Tomato Festival Committee included Jim Deice, Judy Russo, Chet Montante, Sam Miceli, Gertrude Manganaro, Toni Reggie, Lou Calabrese, Ross Dominick, Debbie Lampman, Claire Ellen Hopple, Mary Chiarelli, and Jean Bantell.
Applause, applause to Jim Deice and Judy Russo who are now Mr. and Mrs. and have chaired the parade since the year 2000!
A ‘grand’ tradition
One of the exciting aspects of serving on this committee was the selection of the grand marshal. The first grand marshal to lead the parade was Joe Amato in 1990. Joe was the owner of Keystone Automotive in Exeter and a nationally-known drag racer. Joe rode in the parade with his drag car on a trailer. Following the parade, the drag car was parked in front of the Pittston Post Office for children and teens to get a closer look.
Riding in the parade gives one the opportunity to observe the reaction of people who come to enjoy. It is a wonder to see the expression on children’s faces as they smile and wave and so grand to wave to people you recognize enjoying the festivity. This year will mark my 32nd year riding in the parade.
Each parade has been special, but the one I cherish most is the parade of 2000, when I was named grand marshal. My husband Chet and I rode in an open car so proud of our hometown and the good-hearted people of Pittston. It was a happy day for my daughter Marilyn, who resided in Florida but came home to ride and enjoy the parade with us.
Congratulations to Thomas Sewatsky, treasurer of the Pittston Tomato Festival Committee since its inception, for being named the grand marshal of the 2015 Tomato Festival Parade. It is an honor most befitting to Tom, for he has given his talent, expertise, time and heart to our hometown event.
Committee members today
We’ve come a long way to the credit of the committees of the past and those currently serving. In 1998, the chain of command changed. Michael Lombardo, newly-elected mayor at the time, took over the reign and appointed Lori Nocito and Jim Zara as chairpersons. To this day, they are known as the dynamic trio.
Lori, a natural leader and calm in nature, has a vision of what’s to be done and follows through, while Michael and Jim are the hands-on guys who are often seen moving chairs, hammering stands, carrying ladders and climbing poles. In 1999, Lori was named chairperson of the Tomato Festival with Michael and Jim serving as co-chairpersons.
Food for thought
The festival has grown to accommodate thousands of people locally, out of town and state. There is something for everyone, especially the food with a wide variety on the menu, quite delicious and prepared by local vendors. One never goes away hungry or disappointed.
If you’re looking for tomatoes at the festival, be sure to stop at the Golomb’s Farm and Greenhouses stand at the entrance of South Main Street. Harold, Audrey and Harold Jr. have sold their locally-grown tomatoes and vegetables at the festival since the beginning. They are also original vendors of the Pittston Farmers Market held every Tuesday on South Main Street.
See you there
Thirty-two and counting! With the interest and dedication of the Pittston Tomato Festival Committee and patronage of our local people, who knows what number will be realized? Good luck and thank you to all those involved this year.
See you at the festival scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 20 to Sunday, Aug. 23.