We know him today as Dean Martin, world famous crooner and pal of Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. But he was born Dino Paul Crocetti, in Steubenville, OH, the son of Italian immigrants Gaetano and Angela Crocetti. His father was a successful barber who had immigrated from Montesilvano in the Abruzzi Region of Italy. His mother Angela immigrated from the Naples region.
“Dad grew up in a close-knit neighborhood that served as an extended family,” says his daughter Deana in her family memoir Memories are Made of This. “With his cousins John, Archie, and Robert, he played bocce ball and baseball in the lots behind their houses and swam in the Ohio River. There was church every Sunday, where Dad and Uncle Bill were altar boys; Boy Scouts, where he was the drummer; and the Sons of Italy social events. Until he was five years old, Dad spoke predominantly Italian, but that changed when he started going to school.”
As a child Dino loved to sing popular Italian folk songs and ballads around the house and at family gatherings. He took singing lessons in Steubenville from the mayor’s wife, Corrine Applegate. But perhaps he found his greatest teacher in a movie theater in his hometown. “When a Bing Crosby movie ever came to Steubenville, I would stay there all day and watch. And that’s where I learned to sing, ’cause it’s true, I don’t read a note. I learned from Crosby, and so did Sinatra, and Perry Como. We all started imitatin’ him. He was the teacher for us all.”
The Steubenville of Dean Martin’s youth was a smoky town of steels mills and coal mining on the Ohio River. During Prohibition Steubenville became a town of bootlegging, prostitution, gambling, and nightclubs. Men from the tri-state area came to Steubenville to enjoy its illegal pleasures.
There were a dozen pool halls and cigar stores in Steubenville that had back room gambling. As a young teen Dino hung out in the pool halls, becoming a streetwise gambler who could handle himself in a fight. He and his friends earned cash delivering cases of bootleg whiskey to Canonsburg, PA.
Dino dropped out of high school around 10th grade to box as a welterweight under the name ‘Kid Crochet,’ for ten dollars a match. “We used to call him Punchy,” says his lifelong friend Mindy Costanzo. “The guys in town here called him ‘Punchy’ because, his first fight, he got knocked out on the first punch,” adds Rose Angelica, organizer of Steubenville’s annual Dean Martin Festival. Dino carried with him scars from brow cuts, a disfigured little finger on his right hand, and a split lip from his boxing matches. “I liked it but it didn’t last long,” Martin later said of his boxing days. He used to say of his 12 fights, “I won all but 11.”
Dino Crocetti quit the fight business to take a job at Weirton Steel. “I couldn’t breathe in that place,” Martin told his daughter Deana many years later. “I have nothing but respect for those guys. They’re tough, but it wasn’t for me.”
In 1934, Steubenville resident Helen Bonitatibus, whose family was friends with the Crocetti family, formed a band that included the young Dino. She played the accordion, Dino played the drums, and her brothers, Mario and Larry Camerlengo, played violin and saxophone. “We played mostly Italian songs,” she said of the experience.
Dino left the mill to take a trip to California with his pals where he visited Hollywood and dreamt of becoming a movie star.Returning to Ohio in 1936, Dino joined the Steubenville gambling industry. Cosmo Quattrone hired him to be a dealer in the back room gambling parlor of the Rex Cigar store. He dealt blackjack, ran the craps games, and was a croupier. “He’d wear shoes that were two sizes too big for him,” says Rose Angelica, “and he’d stuff silver dollars in ‘em when he stole money from Mr. Quattrone.” Dino hummed as he worked, to patrons’ delight.
Flush with cash and well dressed, Dino and his friends spent their off hours going to live band dances around Steubenville. “I was working Walker’s Café in Steubenville,” said emcee/entertainer Louis ‘Lou King’ DiSario of Philadelphia, “and a guy comes to see the show. The bartender tells me he was Dean Martin, the ‘stickman’ for the gambling house club. The stickman pulled the dice back on the table. After my act, he introduced himself and we spent the night talking about the business.”
At the age of 17, Dino took the stage before a crowd at Craig Beach, near Youngstown, where the George Williams Orchestra was playing. One of Dino’s friends asked the bandleader if Dino could sing a number. The bandleader gave him a shot, letting Dino sing the Italian song “Oh Marie.”
Urged by his friends, Dino continued to go on stage with dance bands at the weekly dances. He became known to all of the orchestras and was welcomed to the stage. Getting up on stage frequently to sing with the club bands at his friends’ requests, Dino developed a repertoire of old standards, Italian songs, and Bing Crosby song tunes. He developed an easy rapport with audiences.
In 1939 Dino was working as a dealer, roulette stickman, and croupier at Youngstown’s Jungle Inn. He continued to join bands onstage there (still as an amateur) whenever he could, and that’s when a bandleader from Columbus, OH, Ernie McKay, first heard him.
McKay gave Dino his first paying singing job, hiring him at $40 a week. McKay billed him as “Dino Martini” (based on the famous opera singer Nino Martini) and took him to Columbus for a steady gig at a dance hall above a chop suey palace. “The State Restaurant,” said the Columbus Evening Dispatch of one of their shows, “will have its final Saturday afternoon football party this weekend as Ohio State closes its gridiron season with Michigan at Ann Arbor. The McKaymen, with their ‘Singing Strings Trio’ and vocalist Dino Martini, will entertain football stay-at-homes at the luncheon, dinner, and supper sessions.” This was the first time the future Dean Martin’s name ever appeared in print.
At age 22 in 1940 Dino was hired at $35 a week by the Sammy Watkins Orchestra to be the featured singer for their long running engagement at the posh Vogue Room of Cleveland’s Hollenden Hotel. “That Italian name has to go,” said Watkins—and renamed him ‘Dean Martin.’ Dean protested, saying that Tommy Dorsey just had a hit with his new record, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” with a clearly Italian-named singer, Frank Sinatra. “A freak shot,” Watkins said.
Dean’s first performance in Cleveland got a national write up in Variety. “Watkins has acquired a new vocalist, Dean Martin, who backs a personable kisser with a low tenor and agreeable manner.”
In 1942 the Sammy Watkins Orchestra won a spot on the nationally broadcast NBC “Fitch Bandwagon” radio show. Broadcast live from WTAM in Cleveland, Dean sang four songs that were heard across the country. He continued to work here and there nationwide in clubs and hotels, seldom making more than $300 a week.
Then, in September 1943, Martin broke his contract with Sammy Watkins, moved from Cleveland to New York City, and signed an exclusive contract with the MCA talent agency. They booked him as a last minute replacement for Frank Sinatra at New York’s Riobamba Room, and his career as a national star started to lift off.
Sources: Dean Martin entry at Pittsburgh Music History website
‘Memories are made of this,’by Janice Kiaski, Weirton Daily Times, June 23, 2011
Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, by Nick Tosches, Dell Publishing, NY, 1992
‘Ten Things Dean Martin Took from Northeast Ohio,’ by Vic Gideon on Cleveland.com
Memories Are Made of This, by Deana Martin, Three Rivers Press, NY, 2004
Big Bands and Great Ballrooms, by John Behrens, AuthorHouse, Bloomington, IN, 2006
The Palm Beach Post – Aug 30, 1959
Special thanks to Julie Gavran for her research assistance on this article.