On the Monday show

“The biggest April Fools’ Day joke that anybody has done in Vancouver”

That time an Italian community newspaper caused commotion at a train station

“Medals of honour rarely get hung around blue collars,” Marcello Di Cintio observes on today’s episode of CANADALAND. “Nobody bestowed Italians like my grandparents, who laboured on construction sites and in dry-cleaners, any awards.”

He points out, however, that the pages of Canada’s ethnic newspapers have long offered a modicum of celebrity to the otherwise uncelebrated.

“The Vancouver Sun won’t cover the annual banquet of the Ladies Club. The Province won’t run a story about a couple celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary. But the organizers of the Calabrian cultural society dinner might find their names in Marco Polo,” he says. “If they are lucky — or especially assertive with the photographer — they might even get their picture in the paper.”

On this week’s CANADALAND, writer and reporter Di Cintio traces the strange and surprising history of Il Marco Polo and its predecessor publications in Vancouver’s Italian community — a saga filled with the exact sort of larger-than-life characters and events you would hope:

One such incident involves an April Fools’ Day prank played by L’Eco d’Italia in the spring of 1962, when the paper announced that Italian actress Sophia Loren and director Vittorio De Sica would be passing through Vancouver the following Sunday (which happened to be the 1st of April). L’Eco claimed the stars were making their way from Los Angeles to Banff via train and would be pulling into Vancouver’s Great Northern station after 4:00 p.m.

“Our phones in the office started to just go wild: ‘When is it coming in? Is it for sure?'” former L’Eco staffer Pia Tofini-Johnson recalled in a 2017 interview for the Vancouver Public Library’s Story City project. “And then I said, ‘Well, we just phoned the railway station’ and that they confirmed it. Because they caught on to the hype and said, ‘It must be true, because everybody is talking about it.'”

Three hundred people showed up, according to a Vancouver Sun report the next day.

“All the parents would come with the little kids dressed to the nines, all in their Sunday bests, because they thought they could maybe even get discovered by one of the agents,” Tofini-Johnson said, proudly noting that even the Italian consul general showed up with flowers.

She said she paraded around with a sign on a stick reading “Welcome, Sophia.” At the appointed time, she dropped it open to reveal a fish — symbolizing Pesce d’Aprile, the Italian April Fools’.

“And then I ran,” she said. “They wanted to kill us.…It was the biggest April Fools’ Day joke that anybody has done in Vancouver.”

Just over a week later, on April 9, Loren became the first performer to win an Oscar for a role not in English, for her part in De Sica’s Two Women.

Top image includes a headline from the April 2, 1962, edition of the Vancouver Sun, as well as a circa-1950 photo of the Great Northern Railway station via the City of Vancouver Archives.

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