The young mother’s patience is wearing thin. Her two young boys simply won’t leave the fountain. While the river rocks beside the giant clam fascinate the older one, the young one stares in wide-eyed wonder at the mermaid.
It is worthy of a good stare: the unusual mermaid sports two tails in order to straddle the merhorse – the equine has gills and its body ends in a fish tail – and the frozen scene of merhorse rearing up at the sight of the angry, hissing clam as its nude rider grips the reins, well, it looks like something out of a fantasy movie.
“Or a theme park,” says Neil Park of the Etobicoke Historical Society. “And no one in the family really knows what, truly, the inspiration was for [the sculptor].
When the mother’s Uber arrives, she’s had enough: the two tikes are ordered into the car.
But I haven’t had enough, so Mr. Park and I stroll the short distance from 90 Cordova Ave. to 1276 Islington Ave. to look at the less fantastical and more Henry Moore-ish fountain in front of that building. This one, also by Alfio Bartoletti, consists of a graceful arch with an attached disk; four bowls simultaneously contain and eject water.
It’s at this fountain that Mr. Park’s journey into learning about Mr. Bartoletti’s incredible life began. A number of years ago, a curious passerby contacted the Etobicoke Historical Society about the fountain. But, since the little plaque was tarnished, the person wasn’t able to make out the name. They e-mailed: “All I see is Fio Bartolet.” Since a Google search turned up nothing under that name, Mr. Park came out to investigate and, using his thumb as a tiny squeegee, uncovered a few more letters.
An online mention of a 32-page book, Alfio Bartoletti: Film Studio Artist, by Mario Bartoletti, and an obituary for the author, provided Mr. Park with the names of children and grandchildren. He struck gold when a granddaughter in California wrote back and sent him an e-copy of the book. “You’re not going to find it in any library or anything, it was just for the family,” says Mr. Park.
It turns out the developer of the two apartment buildings, the Fidani family, were related to the Bartolettis. Both families were from Porto Civitanova on Italy’s Adriatic coast.
Born in 1900, Alfio Bartoletti studied art in Padua and Florence and then moved to the University of Rome in 1921; there, he found part-time work in the Italian film industry. After a run-in with Mussolini’s Blackshirts, he immigrated to Buffalo, where he opened an artist’s studio. After it failed in 1929, he borrowed money from his uncle in Toronto to move to Hollywood.
In Hollywood, he found a wife, Rosa Thomas (from B.C.), fathered two sons, and found work sculpting set pieces for films such as The Scarlett Empress and The Hurricane. During the Second World War he’d work on airframe plaster casts for Convair and Lockheed. After the war, he returned to glitz and glamour via films such as Tycoon, Arch of Triumph and Wake of the Red Witch, which saw John Wayne battle a large, Bartoletti-created octopus.
Unfortunately, in 1949, Mr. Bartoletti was blacklisted after failing to show up at an employee screening of The Red Menace. While he was busy at work on plaster castings, it was assumed he must be a communist sympathizer. So, in 1953, the Bartoletti family relocated to Toronto. In Toronto, he’d design a bronze plaque to commemorate swimmer Marilyn Bell’s historic crossing of Lake Ontario in 1954 (on the CNE grounds), create a large trillium for the Royal York Hotel’s Ontario Room and help restore the crumbling plaster at St. Lawrence Hall.
After a brief stay in Jamaica and some work for the first James Bond film, Dr. No, Mr. Bartoletti returned to Toronto and was hired by ornamental plasterer Balmer Studios, where he probably did the work for his cousin, Orey Fidani, who built the two Etobicoke apartment buildings in 1964 and 1965.
The 1960s, Mr. Park and I surmise, were a good time for art and architecture to form alliances even without the family connection. With Expo 67 and the Canadian Centennial in the air, there was a shared belief that the two not only went hand-in-hand, they made for a better world.
Shaking Mr. Park’s hand and thanking him for such a fascinating story, I head north to see what’s become of the better world that an “all electric” neighbourhood provided in 1963. Also to be found at etobicokehistorical.com, Denise Harris’s story of Albion Grove Village – a subdivision behind the apartment towers at Albion Road and Martin Grove Road – may not have a Hollywood connection, but I’m on the hunt for the Oscar-like medallions that read “Live Better Electrically” above every doorbell.
While I’m unable to spot any, I think of how every one of these homes sported electric heating, 100 amp service, an electric water heater, and (mostly) electric appliances, but that, six decades on, that many of those things have likely been replaced or renovated away, much like the little medallions. I do, however, enjoy discovering some of the house models that were on offer by Jobert Construction; in addition to the ubiquitous side- and back-splits, there is one that sports an ornamental bit of post-and-beam roof that makes for a bit of rain protection over the front door.
And, as I open my car door to leave, I remind myself that local historical societies do amazing work, and they are deserving of our support.