Twenty years ago, Emil Kolar died so that The Sopranos could live. The low-level Czech criminal was the first character to be killed onscreen in the landmark HBO series – shot four times in the back of the head by budding mobster Christopher Moltisanti, the violence interspersed with close-up flashes of gangster poseurs Humphrey Bogart, Dean Martin and Edward G. Robinson – and his unexpected, idiosyncratically executed murder was the first sign that writer-director David Chase’s series was not going to be like the mafia entertainment of decades past. Nor was the show – a mix of intense drama and outrageous comedy, of pop-culture allusions and philosophical meditations – going to be like anything else ever made for television.
Later in that pilot episode, which premiered Jan. 10, 1999, Emil Kolar was buried deep in the Meadowlands of New Jersey. And two decades later, it was in the Meadowlands where Emil Kolar and every other ghost of The Sopranos was resurrected. At least for a weekend.
At the tail end of November, about 12,500 people gathered at the Meadowlands Exposition Centre for the first-ever SopranosCon, a supersized tribute to the series about a mob boss, his psychiatrist, his family, and his “Family.” Over the course of two days, SopranosCon attendees were treated to autograph and panel sessions featuring 55 cast members, from the most famous and prominent (Dominic “Uncle Junior” Chianese, Tony “Paulie Walnuts” Sirico) to the most obscure (Mike “Jimmy Bones” Memphis, Jayson “Coffeehouse Manager” Ward Williams).
There were vendors selling ziti, gabagool, zeppole and all manner of fried foodstuffs familiar to the Sopranos household. A maze replicated the experience of being lost in Pine Barrens, the setting of the darkly funny fan-favourite episode of the same name, complete with abandoned van and ketchup packets. There were meticulous recreations of Dr. Melfi’s psychiatric office, the Bada Bing strip club, the Holsten’s restaurant booth where the Soprano family enjoyed a last supper of Cokes and onion rings.
Also: trivia contests. Cannoli-eating contests. Costume contests (Chicago’s Dylan DeVito’s Artie Bucco getup, which came equipped with arugula seeds “smuggled all the way from Italy in my shaving kit!” narrowly beat 14-month-old Brooks Lach of Catham, N.J., whose parents dressed him as a pint-sized Uncle Junior). Roped off in the centre of the floor was the gleaming white Cadillac Escalade that Tony Soprano used to zip around New Jersey. There was stand-up comedy from Tony “Larry Boy Barese” Darrow, whose jokes opened along the lines of, “So this Polish guy goes to the doctor ...” There was a set from the British rock band Alabama 3, performing the show’s opening-credits song Woke Up This Morning for the first time in America in a decade. Plus Tony Soprano sneakers. Tony Soprano T-shirts. Tony Soprano coffee mugs. Tony Soprano paintings. Tony Soprano tattoos, US$100 a pop. And Goldee, an honest-to-goodness racehorse who was referred to throughout the weekend only by his onscreen moniker, Pie-O-My.
Looming over all this was the spectre of James Gandolfini, the actor whose tremendous presence so defined the shape and weight of The Sopranos that fans still cannot quite accept that the man is no longer of this world. To help remind everyone at SopranosCon of this disheartening fact, a towering photographic mosaic of Gandolfini, composed out of thousands of images of Tony Soprano in action, stood in the middle of the convention floor. Any time a panelist hopped onto the event’s main stage, they were greeted by Gandolfini’s penetrating gaze from on high. (“As everybody here will tell you, he was the sweetest and most generous man, and oh god, he’s watching over us now, his eyes right over there,” exclaimed Kathrine “Charmaine Bucco” Narducci.)
But after two days wading through SopranosCon – motto: “For the Fans, By the Fans” – it was difficult to discern the line between irony and sincerity. As envisioned by Chase and his collaborators over the course of seven seasons, The Sopranos was not exactly a loving ode to Italian-American life. There was a fondness for the importance of family and for certain traditions, and a real appreciation of cultural history, but the series was primarily a vicious satire – a sharp and subversive deconstruction of the American Dream and the depths we have all sunk to in order to achieve it. Its heroes were sociopaths. Its themes were deeply depressing. It was also, in direct opposition to most popular entertainment today, explicitly against the notion of fan-service.
You wanted more internecine mob warfare? Chase would give you domestic drama instead. You wanted to know what happened to that Russian who disappeared in Pine Barrens? Too bad. Does Tony live or die? The series finale offers no answer. Yet here were 10,000 superfans who travelled from across the world – as far as Amsterdam – to celebrate the most fan-reticent of series.
What would Tony say?
LEAVE THE GUN, TAKE THE GABAGOOL
SopranosCon was the brainchild of three Tony diehards: Rhode Island’s Michael Mota, Long Island’s Joe Fama, and Baltimore’s Danny Trader. The trio connected earlier this year after Mota, a self-described “internationally renowned entrepreneur” who’s watched the entire series about 25 times through, shared images online of a few small-scale Sopranos events he’d previously organized.
Very quickly, the trio got to work putting together an unprecedented $400,000 super-con to mark the series’ 20th anniversary – and timed to catch the buzz of Chase and director Alan Taylor’s forthcoming prequel movie, The Many Saints of Newark, which will be released in September, 2020.
“We all have one passion: The Sopranos. And I said, ‘Let’s go big. Let’s make magic happen,’” Mota said the evening before the convention opened. “I’ve been dreaming of this for a long time.” That dream might have died as quick and ugly a death as Mikey Palmice, Ralph Cifaretto, Phil Leotardo, or any number of dearly departed Sopranos mafiosos were if not for Mota’s friend Federico Castelluccio, who played Tony’s ponytailed henchman Furio Giunta.
“I’d done some stuff with Michael over the years and after he told me the idea, I said, ‘I’ll reach out to whoever you want me to,’” said Castelluccio. “In the beginning, it was slow going. The cast wanted to know if this was real. I told everyone that Michael and these guys are legit – and that they put some of us in the series to shame with how much they know. Vincent Pastore [Big Pussy] was the first one to join, and from there people started signing on.”
While SopranosCon was missing several key players – including Michael “Christopher Moltisanti” Imperioli, Lorraine “Dr. Melfi” Bracco, Edie “Carmela Soprano” Falco, Aida “Janice Soprano” Turturro, and Steve “Tony Blundetto” Buscemi – the event secured two essential endorsements: A statement from Chase (“It’s fantastic to see such support for the show and I hope everyone has a wonderful time”), and a visit from Deborah Lin, Gandolfini’s widow. (HBO was not involved, but was invited to the event, according to Mota; organizers were careful to not infringe on any of the network’s trademarks, though it’s unclear how WarnerMedia executives might’ve reacted to one of the con’s vendors selling bootleg Blu-rays of recent blockbusters.)
Attendees, some of whom paid as low as US$50 to attend a single day and some as high as US$2,500-plus for weekend packages (which included access to the “VIP after-party” at the Satin Dolls strip club, a.k.a. the original Bada Bing, via a fleet of school buses), didn’t seem to mind any cast absences. Both days featured long, excitable lines snaking around the convention floor for Sirico, David “Richie Aprile” Proval, Drea “Adriana La Cerva” de Matteo, Vincent “Johnny Sack” Curatola, and, most of all, Chianese, beloved for his performance as the cranky boss-in-name-only of New Jersey.
“This is a testament to the beautiful marriage between David’s words and the actors’ performances,” said Chianese, who flew in from his home in London to sign autographs, pose for photos, and perform classic Neapolitan songs for the crowd. “People remember the show as a memory that kept their families together every Sunday night, and being a part of that makes me happy. Michael, Joey and Danny, they’re creating memories here.”
The sheer number of cast members, and one horse, helped deflect from the many moments that the event edged into Fyre Festivallike territory: promised “VIP” dinners vanished quickly on Saturday night, there were few ATMs on-site, panel discussions were routinely delayed, and crowd control was a fantasy. (Mota sent attendees a defensive e-mail the day after SopranosCon closed, writing that “The reality is it’s IMPOSSIBLE to have met everyone, it’s IMPOSSIBLE to talk to every cast member and it was IMPOSSIBLE to have a sit-down dinner ... In life, I personally have learned you can’t make everyone happy. Especially at this time in history, it is harder and harder to do so.” Asked by The Globe if the event was financially successful, Mota responded only that, “We are still calculating, but we won’t lose money.”)
And, as with any commemoration of a piece of entertainment two decades removed from the air, there was more than a fleeting wisp of sadness to the weekend. For many of the actors attending, The Sopranos was the peak. Some are still working steadily, but others are selling marinara sauce ($39.95 for an autographed bottle of Vinny Pastore’s Italian Sauce) and cookbooks (Shut Up and Eat! by the late Tony “Carmine Lupertazzi” Lip was hawked by his sons Frank and Nick “Real-Life Oscar-winning Writer of Green Book” Vallelonga).
There was an endearing quality to the weekend’s sloppiness – one panel discussion between long-time friends Pastore and Narducci morphed into an informal chat featuring Proval and Curatola, who just happened to be hanging around – but also a lingering melancholy that, as Tony once told Dr. Melfi, we came in at the end. That the best is over.
Or maybe, as Dr. Melfi might then tell Tony, sometimes a celebration is just a celebration.
“I don’t care about the autographs, I just want to see these guys and thank them,” said Vincent Randazzo, a produce-industry professional who travelled in from upstate New York with his best friend from college, actor Taylor Gleeson. “You think you’re the only the one who cares about the show, and then you see the line out the door here. And you try to sell the show to your friends, your girlfriend, your family ... so when you meet someone who gets it, you’re instantly friends.”
There is something about the show that engenders this kind of supremely devoted audience – something that today’s prestige television, which wouldn’t exist were it not for The Sopranos, doesn’t inspire.
“The Sopranos has bad episodes. But what it reached for was a lot higher. It has this raw, visceral energy that other shows don’t have. An ambition and danger,” said Gleeson. “Is anyone going to go to a Breaking Bad convention in 20 years?”
(Game of Thrones, the only series that could reasonably lay a claim to making as big a cultural impact post-Sopranos, was on the receiving end of a wealth of insults over the weekend. “Everyone knows that Carmela was the original mother of dragons!” Narducci exclaimed at one point.)
The crowd was also surprisingly mixed in age. Jess Lenza, 27, and her sister Sam, 26, of Pennsylvania certainly weren’t old enough to watch the show during its original HBO run – they discovered the series via streaming. “It’s timeless, and it’s easy to see why people are still obsessed with it,” said Jess, who’s seen the show seven times over. “I find new ideas in it every time.”
“I’ve developed this theory on the life-cycle of popular culture,” Matt Zoller Seitz, television critic for New York magazine and co-author with Alan Sepinwall of The Sopranos Sessions, told the con’s audience during a Saturday afternoon panel. “Ten years after a show comes out, it feels dated. Twenty years after, it’s a period piece. The show came on and is set at the end of the 20th century, and yet the things it’s talking about haven’t changed at all. There’s a concern about waste, about everybody buying too much, eating too much – the garbage and sewage that’s taking over our world. It’s aged extremely well.”
DON’T STOP BELIEVIN’
Seeking respite from the throngs of men (and the occasional woman) in Adidas track suits, I left SopranosCon on its second day to make a private pilgrimage to Holsten’s, the wood-panelled ice cream shop and diner in nearby Bloomfield, where Tony may or may not have been killed in the series’ final seconds.
A corner booth, jukebox set to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin', is marked as permanently “reserved” for the Soprano family. My waitress said she never watched the series, but is accustomed to handling the obsessive fans and twice-a-week tour buses that come rolling down Broad Street.
I popped a few onion rings into my mouth – “best in the state,” according to Tony, and I have no reason to doubt him – and thought about Gandolfini, Chase, and why I’ve been compelled to watch the show over and over (10 full-series revisits, a number I thought was abnormally high until this weekend). It is easy to look back at The Sopranos and appreciate its influence over how television works and looks today, about how the current Peak TV boom and its attendant streaming war owes a blood debt to David Chase and company. But there was more, too – a feeling that can’t be captured on a convention floor or in a costume contest or in a queue for selfies. A feeling that the world may never see another creation as complex, compelling and frightening as Tony Soprano.
In the washroom of Holsten’s – the same washroom that actor Paolo “Man in Members Only Jacket” Colandrea curiously entered moments before The Sopranos forever cut to black; and yes, Colandrea was at the convention, too – I noticed a small scrawling of graffiti on the wall. “Miss you, T. Soprano,” it read. “He lives on.”