How Dino Crocetti of Steubenville became pop singer Dean Martin

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 23, 2016

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.”

Dino & William Crocetti. Photo collection of Adri Barr Crocetti.

Dino & William Crocetti. Photo collection of Adri Barr Crocetti.

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.

Often called "Steubenville's favorite son," the late entertainer Dean Martin (pictured above at 17 while still known as Dino Paul Crocetti).

Often called “Steubenville’s favorite son,” the entertainer Dean Martin (pictured above at 17 while still known as Dino Paul Crocetti).

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.

Early fan photo, signed 'Dean Martin.'

Early fan photo, signed ‘Dean Martin.’

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
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.

One Response

  • joe dagostino says:

    I want to thank you for correcting that a stickman is a CRAPS dealer, not roulette, as noted in the obituary and copied EVERYWHERE on the internet.

    Thank you!!! — Joe D’Agostino, former craps dealer, trained by an old man from Steubenville.

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If I couldn’t talk I’d bust

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 22, 2016

“Yes, I am working on a part time job as cook, but you don’t need to ask what I’m doing the rest of the time. What don’t I do? I get up early and sometimes wash out clothes or clean house. You’d be surprised at the dirt these roomers bring in; they never think of wiping their feet on the mat. My mammy gets dinner ready for the girls when they come home from the mill, but she won’t wash up the dishes. She leaves them for me to wash when I come home.

“And then the family expect me to get supper. Sometimes I find my mammy and my youngest sister–they always sleep together and are just like twins–layin’ on the bed waitin’ for me to git ‘em somethin’ to eat. After supper me and another sister go out and work the garden until dark. So you see I don’t have time to git lonesome.

photo by Doris Ulmann

“I hardly get time to go to church either. My family was Lutherans in the old days, but there ain’t no Lutheran church here and we are all mixed up; we go to different churches–when we go at all.

“One of my sisters bought a good second-hand auto and we sometimes spend Sunday visiting our relations in the country. They always have plenty to eat, and I like a change of vittles sometimes. And it’s good for sore eyes to see somebody else wash the dishes.

“One church we don’t go to is the one down there by the mill. They have lively times down there, they tell me. When I go to church, I want it to be like a real church, and when I go to the movies I want somethin’ else.

“I’d go to church oftener if I had the right kind of clothes; but when I have a nice dress I may not have a good hat or decent shoes, and when I have a good hat and shoes maybe I haven’t a nice dress. I don’t care very much about clothes, but I like to look as decent as anybody else. So I go to church when I feel like it and when I have respectable clothes; and it’s nobody’s business but my own.”

Miss Ophelia Mull
Brevard, N.C.
Interviewed June 26, 1939
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940

Related Posts: “First thing we got rid of were the oil lamps” (NC oral history)
“A good room cost $1.50 a night and a corner room $3″ (NC oral history)
“Leo Finkelstein. Pawnbroker. Mensch.” (NC oral history)
“All our folks was farmers” (NC oral history)

Ophelia+Mull Brevard+NC Lutherans appalachia appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

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William King Museum of Art to build Cultural Heritage Collection gallery

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 17, 2016

Born in 1828, Jesse Vestal was a Washington County, VA, potter in the Great Road tradition, best known for his large, inscribed stoneware vessels. One of his most important works dates to 1849, and was the first piece acquired by William King Museum of Art as part of its Cultural Heritage Collection.

Vestal's Poem Jug. Collection William King Museum of Art.

Vestal’s Poem Jug. Collection William King Museum of Art.

This brandy stoneware jug, in particular, is considered Jessee’s masterpiece because of its elegance, as well as the incise script carved on its surface. In January of this year, the “Poem Jug” was displayed in the Backcountry Makers exhibit, which was based on local Appalachian heritage scholar Betsy K. White’s book of the same name. The poem reads:

Long and lazy
little and loud
fair and foolish
dark and proud
a splendee branda jug


At the same time, the Museum was interviewing for the Director of Advancement position, a role now filled by Bristol native Chase Mitchell. Chase is the great-great-great-great grandson of Jesse on his mother’s side, and recognized the “Poem Jug” when he came to the Museum to interview for the position. He likes to think that the presence of his relative’s work was a good omen, saying, “I think getting hired on at the Museum and having the opportunity to preserve not just the region’s, but also my family’s cultural heritage is a sign of good things to come.”

Chase is currently leading a project to raise money for the development of a gallery that will permanently house the Museum’s Cultural Heritage Collection, which includes the Vestal jug. To learn more, please visit or call (276) 628-5005 ext. 108. Online crowdfunding site for the project:

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Decoration Day

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 16, 2016

An important tradition symbolic of the vital place of family in Appalachian life is Decoration Day, usually held on a Sunday in June. Families gather at rural churches and cemeteries to honor the memory of deceased family members.

A few days earlier, neighbors and kin gather to mow the cemetery grass, clean the graves, and prepare flowers. Homes are opened to accommodate family members returning from far and wide, communal meals are prepared, and folks gather to make a little music.

On Decoration Day, special preaching and church singing pay homage to the dead and bring families and communities closer together. The service is followed by “dinner on the grounds,” with large quantities of food cooked by local community members. Graves are decorated with flowers, visited, and stories told of humor, love, and remembrance about family members buried there.

Image ULPA 1979.33.0374/Jean Thomas, The Traipsin' Woman, Collection/University of Louisville Photographic Archives.

Image ULPA 1979.33.0374/Jean Thomas, The Traipsin’ Woman, Collection/University of Louisville Photographic Archives.


Timing of the event reflects Appalachia’s agrarian heritage. Mid-June was a time when crops were planted and growing, but long before harvest, mountain weather allowed for outdoor activity and made travel easier, and flowers were in bloom for decorating graves.

It was a betwixt and between time when mountain folk could reflect on their shared family and community heritage. Decoration Day is also a ritual for healing rifts and wounds among living family members. For all families, Decoration Day is a time and place for reconnecting kinship networks and remembering core family values. The tradition of Decoration Day in Appalachia is an old one, but it is a living tradition.

Source: Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage

Decoration+Day appalachia appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

4 Responses

  • Joan says:

    I miss those old traditions. However, the weekend before Memorial Day I took my black shepherd for a walk at Emigrant Lake, near the old cemetery. The parking lot at the cemetery was filled, as was the road leading up the hillside. Youngsters, oldsters and everyone in between were emptying out of cars, pickups and just good old guy “rigs>].” Out of hatchbacks and backs of trucks and rigs came lawnmowers, weedwackers, rakes, shovels, and various kinds of cutting implements. With some unspoken plan, the work group spread out over the hillside, mowing, wacking, and tending to graves. There was no food laden table, but the camaraderie of people talking about a shared and honored task was like music. Thanks for reminding me of that lovely day.

  • tipper says:

    The Decoration Days have been going on around my part of Appalachia for the past few weeks. I’m hoping to go to one next weekend-that I have to travel by boat to reach : )

  • […] in de Appalachen. Eens per jaar in de lente trekken families naar de graven van hun voorouders voor Decoration Day. Alle graven worden schoongemaakt en voorzien van verse bloemen en […]

  • latasha says:

    I’m in north east TN. I’ve never heard of this but it will now become tradition! I love these old traditions so very much. they need to come back!

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The shack out back

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 15, 2016

Tennesseans called it the “la-la.” Elsewhere known as the john, the shanty, the shack, the throne, the shed, the relief office—it was the humble outhouse. The little buildings “out back” were as important as any building built before indoor plumbing. This was the building you located as soon as possible when you came to visit, and if your guest was the preacher, you invited him outside on some pretext so he could spot “the necessary room” without asking.

During the 1930s the WPA built thousands of outhouses across America. Three-man teams would spend an average of twenty hours on the construction of each one. Where possible the farm family receiving the new outhouse would pay for the materials (about $17 per outhouse), while the WPA supplied the labor free.

These were outhouses like America had never seen before. The American Red Cross developed the basic design. This design featured an enclosed, vented pit for the waste, was fly and vermin proof, and afforded a standard of cleanliness and sanitation that earlier generations would have considered effete. building had a concrete floor and a carefully carpentered seat with a close fitting lid to exclude flies. Although many design variations existed, the two basic designs were single seater and two seater.

The two seater was preferred by large families—the second seat had a smaller hole to prevent children from falling through—by those who liked company, and by those who needed a place to set their lantern at night.

“To the right of the narrow entrance was a complete collection of fishing equipment ranging from rods and reels to every size, shape and color of lure imaginable. Directly above these hung an array of ingenious traps which proved to be the scourge of every muskrat and mink for five miles up or down river. In the rear of the little edifice stood two tall bushel baskets containing an endless conglomeration of treasures ranging from outdated articles of clothing to ancient magazines.

“The latter provided amusement and literary driblets for the perusal of the lackadaisical visitor who wished to bide his time informatively. And we must not overlook that standard piece of equipment without which the outhouse would not have been an outhouse–that savior of the toilet-paper-destitute family–the good old catalog. Where would we have been without it? Why do you think the mail-order house was such a thriving success?”

Robert E. Dalton
born Robert E. Lee Dalton, 1938,
in Itman, Wyoming County, WV

And those crescent moon cutouts on the door? That goes back to Colonial times. In a time when few people could read, the crescent moon was the symbol for women while the star cutout was for men.


WPA +outhouse American+Red+Cross appalachia appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

One Response

  • HistoryJoe says:

    Great story. The inflation calculator says that would be about $250 today, but to get the labor for free must have made it a pretty good deal

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