Looking back “Anniversario numero 36” coming up for the Museo ItaloAmericano in San Francisco, reminds me that actor Charlton Heston and his wife Lydia Heston were Charter Members of the Museo ItaloAmericano when it first opened its doors in 1978, atop Malvina’s Caffé, in a gallery space generously donated by the late Franco Bruno. Mrs. Heston, a real Italophile and excellent photographer, had studied Italian with Museo ItaloAmericano’s founding Director Giuliana Nardelli Haight.
This year, 2014, marks the thirty-sixth anniversary of the Museo ItaloAmericano, the only museum in the country devoted exclusively to Italian and Italian American art and culture. Established in 1978, the Museo ItaloAmericano is a non-profit institution. In its early years it was located in North Beach, San Francisco, above Caffé Malvina, and then in Casa Fugazi. In 1985, the Museo moved to Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, where it occupies a 5,000 square feet facility designed by Teresa Pomodoro. Museo ItaloAmericano, Fort Mason Center- Bldg. C, San Francisco, CA 94123.
In 1979, when Commendatore Edward Galletti specified that all proceeds from his testimonial dinner be donated to the Museo ItaloAmericano in order to launch the “Friends of Italy” Exhibit, Lydia Heston’s beautiful colored photographs of Venice delighted Museo viewers with their fresh look at this much photographed city.
Charlton Heston and his wife Lydia made several visits to the Museo and also appeared on the “Re di Cuori” TV program hosted by Alvaro Bettucchi on Channel 20, Sunday evenings. Lydia was interviewed in English by host Alvaro Bettucchi, who in addition to his Italian television program on Sundays, was a high school principal, excellent musician and the fellow who helped bring “The Italian Games” to South San Francisco and the Bay Area.
Charlton Heston was a tall handsome actor who delighted female fans but also captured male audiences with his two-fisted bravado in early westerns, costume epics and historical spectacles (Pony Express, 1953; The President’s Lady, 1953; Moses in the Ten Commandments, 1953; Judah in Ben Hur, 959; John the Baptist, Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965; Michelangelo, The Agony and The Ecstasy, 1965; and The Greatest Show on Earth, 1963.
Heston was born October 4, 1924 in Evanston, Illinois and attended Northwestern University. He spent three years in the Air Force and on his discharge, he and his wife Lydia Clarke acted and directed at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theater in Asheville, North Carolina. From there, they went to New York. On Broadway, he appeared in Anthony and Cleopatra. In 1956 he played the title role in the New York City Center revival of Mr. Roberts. His TV credits included Macbeth, Of Human Bondage, and Julius Caesar. Explaining why he was chosen for the title role of Ben Hur, the athletic actor quipped: “I happen to be one of two men in Hollywood who can drive a chariot. Francis X. Bushman (the silent screen star) is the other, but he is a senior citizen now.
Charlton Heston was as conscientious off the set as on, and served six terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild, a post that provided two of his predecessors (George Murphy, Ronald Reagan) with a springboard into politics. Heston, however, disclaimed any ambitions for a political career himself. “I’ve played three presidents, three saints, and two geniuses,” he said, “That should satisfy any man”.
Signora Lydia Heston, a fine photographer and fine friend to the then fledging Museo ItaloAmericano, lost her husband Charlton Heston, on April 5, 2008. Following is an excerpt of the open letter he wrote to family and friends, when he was first diagnosed with the onset of Alzheimer disease in 2002:
“My Dear Friends, Colleagues and Fans: My physicians have recently told me I have a neurological disorder whose symptoms are consistent with Alzheimer’s disease. So...I wanted to prepare a few words for you now, because when the time comes, I may not be able to. I’ve lived my whole life on the stage and screen before you. I’ve found purpose and meaning in your response. For an actor there’s no greater loss than the loss of his audience. I can part the Red Sea, but I can’t part with you, which is why I won’t exclude you from this stage in my life. For now, I’m not changing anything. I’ll insist on work where I can; the doctors will insist on rest when I must. If you see a little less spring in my step, if your name fails to leap to my lips, you’ll know why. And if I tell you a funny story for the second time, please laugh anyway...