Birthplace: Kenosha, WI
Did You Know?: Ameche’s father, Felix, was a volatile man who even carried a revolver to bed. Felix would witness many murders and knife fights as co-owner of his Kenosha saloon, Amichi & Rinelli’s.
In the 1988 film “Things Change,” an 80-year old Don Ameche played the role of Italian-American shoe smith from Chicago. “I knew my accent was authentic,” Ameche told the Boston Globe in an October ’88 interview regarding his role. “It was my Papa’s.” Ameche made his film debut in 1935, and by the late thirties, had established himself as a leading actor in Hollywood. A spot in “Things Change” was one of many Don took in a well-received eighties comeback. “ I feel I had a big advantage in that role because my father was Italian. He didn’t come over until he was 25; he had an accent all his life.”
Born May 31, 1908 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Dominic Felix Amici was always called “Dom” for short, and eventually adopted the Americanized “Don”. Parents Barbara and Felice adjusted the family name as well, which slowly changed (as shown on school records) to the sound-it-out spelling of “Ameche.” His father immigrated from Italy to Philadelphia in the early 1900’s, “[He] came from a long line of farmers in the Marches, northeast of Rome,” Don explained in a Chicago Sun Times article. Felice, known to everyone as “Felix,” made the long voyage from the Marches town of Ascoli Piceno (the lower calf of the Italy boot) and after staying with his cousin for a short time in Philadelphia, headed westward to Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Five years later at age 31, Felix married a German-Irish Scot named Barbara Hertel. She was only 16. “[My mother] was from a mining town near Springfield, Illinois. Papa never told us anything, but I always figured he bought her. I don’t mean in a bad way. In those days people were poor and they just sold their daughters.” With anti-saloon and dry campaigns for prohibition in full swing nationwide, the Italian immigrant opened a bar. “When I came into this world” Don tells of his father, “he had saloon affiliations of the lowest class you could find in La Salle, Illinois and Kenosha, WI.”
The Ameche family quickly grew, exceeding Brady Bunch numbers by two. “We were eight children, 4 boys, 4 girls,” he notes. The family of ten continually moved in and out of houses in Kenosha’s Italian district before finally settling on 22nd Avenue, Howland Avenue at the time. A large household would be the only factor comparable to the lovey-dovey sitcom Bradys as Don and his siblings received little affection and attention from the hardworking Ameche parents. “Neither of my parents ever told me they loved me,” he told Friendly Exchange in 1980, “But I just learned to live with it. When I got to be 40, I just thought things out and said, ‘This is what mama is and this is what papa is.’ As I grew older, there have come to me a tolerance and understanding that they both did they best they knew.”
Boyhood memories of his father, always referred to as “Papa”, would appear in nearly every personal interview the actor gave as a grown man. “Papa was an infinitely volatile man,” he says, “He wore a .38, even to bed. He kept three revolvers in the back bar and two baseball bats. When I was 7 or 8 years old, he threw two people out who were fighting. One of them, the older man, stabbed the younger man to death right on the sidewalk.” Don continues, “And one day, his bartender killed a man. Papa fed him beer, cut him in the stomach, took him into the Sheriff’s office, and got him on self-defense. Papa was a Deputy Sheriff too. This was the kind of place he ran, and he really ran it.”
Aside from occasionally witnessing deaths outside his establishment, Felix earned money with a small side job as well, speculates Ameche. “Even as a boy, in 1915-1918, I somehow knew that he was smuggling Italians into the country at $500 to $1000 a head, but we never talked about it much at home.” Extra-curricular activities became a constant for Don, as he tried to steer clear of his father and the saloon, because frankly, “it scared the hell out of me.” He joined Franklin School’s junior basketball team as an elementary escape, became involved in school theater productions, and welcomed the idea of attending boarding school in Dubuque, Iowa for the remainder of his schooling.
Aside from the hot-tempered father, who would lose his tavern around 1919 after Prohibition was enacted, he was relieved to get away from the city he grew up in. “Being born an Italian in a city like Kenosha was a brutal time. They really looked down on us because Kenosha then was Sicilian. Early in my life, this hurt the hell out of me,” he explained to Detroit Free Press in 1988. Don flourished as an Iowan eighth-grader, especially after showing interest in acting. One of his early mentors, Reverend George Stemm of St. Birchman’s Boys Academy in Marion, recalls being impressed with the young Ameche; he had a feeling that this boy’s smile, grace and voice would lead to great things. Later, at Columbia (now Loras) College in Dubuque, the yearbook described Ameche as one of the most promising actors at the school. While studying there, Don would meet his future wife, a girl named Honore Prendergast.
By age 22, Don was back in Kenosha. Roughly one decade after losing the family business the Ameches suffered a harder blow– along with the rest of nation — as the Great Depression began in 1929. The six youngest children were left to fend for themselves and each other. “I had to take over the whole family,” recalls the second-oldest Don “I educated every one of my brothers and sisters.” Following his father’s wishes, Don entered higher education intent on becoming a lawyer. He began at Marquette University in Milwaukee, hopped down to the prestigious Georgetown University in Washington D.C for a bit, and eventually settled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Don became enamored with the idea of the acting soon after joining the university’s Wisconsin Players theater group. It was here, Ameche met future costar Ralph Bellamy, and Yewell Tompkins (a.k.a Tom Ewell), who would later star with Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1955).
Reporter Earl Wilson of the Wisconsin State Journal details the story of Don’s lucky break– his first paid acting job. “A distraught theater manager — who had just learned that his leading man was in an accident and couldn’t go on — remembered Don as a student actor. Within hours, Don was backstage learning his lines, and within hours, made his professional debut. He never went back to law school.” Don remembers the evening as well, as it had made him instantly popular with the previously unwelcoming fraternity houses. “When I got the lead in the play The Devil’s Disciple, the day after opening, I got bids from eight fraternities. I turned them all down.”
Much like hometown Kenosha, the fraternity brothers had always snubbed Ameche for his Italian heritage — and with sights now set on acting — Ameche was ready to leave UW-Madison anyhow. Vaudeville and radio came calling and Ameche fit right in. He toured with Texas Guinan on the vaudeville circuit, and then joined a stock company. Back in Chicago, he began a radio career in 1930 on “Empire Builders“, a program broadcast from Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. By 1932, Ameche had become the leading man on two other Chicago-based programs: the dramatic anthology First Nighter and Betty and Bob, considered by many to be the forerunner of the soap-opera genre. In 1935, Darryl F. Zanuck, the producer of the 20th-Century Fox found Ameche and jumpstarted what would become a long career in film, mostly as a romantic, dashing hero alongside great female stars like Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Joan Bennett, Gene Tierney, Loretta Young, Claudette Colbert, Dorothy Lamour, and Rosalind Russell. One of the most memorable quotes Ameche ever gave: “Zanuck never did anything but be nice to me. Oh yeah, maybe he chased Alice Faye around, but a lot of people chased Alice Faye around.”
Another of Ameche’s stand-out roles came with a critically acclaimed lead role in the 1939 film, “The Story of Alexander Graham Bell”. He was so identified with the role of Bell, that school kids allegedly answered “Don Ameche” when asked to name the inventor of the telephone. The rest of America adopted a new term for telephone for quite a few years after when they answered their “Ameche”. The father of four sons Ronald, Dominic, Thomas and Lonnie, and two adopted daughters, Connie and Bonnie, husband, radio star, star of stage & screen, Ameche won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Cocoon, and was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1992. Shortly after filming “Corrina, Corrina” with Whoopi Goldberg, Don Ameche died of prostate cancer on December 6, 1993 in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Biography by Katie Dylewski