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On a crowded corner of 39th St and Seventh Avenue in midtown Manhattan, a roly-poly Italian-American man is selling Sopranos memorabilia to tourists from the back of a van. He has books, posters, New York licence plates with GOOMBAH and FUHGEDDABOUDIT on them, and signed colour photographs of scenes from the show. In one photo, Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini, who died last week, is standing with his lieutenants Christopher and Vito outside Satriale’s Pork Store.
Then I do a double-take: the man selling the merchandise is not some cut-rate midtown hustler – it’s Vito himself! (Or, should I say, Joseph Gannascoli, who played him.)
I queue for a signed photo, carrying that day’s copy of the New York Post with me. A big mistake. When Vito sees the rag, what comes out of his mouth could have been scripted for the show: “That motha****ing piece of **** paper!” he rants. “The **** they’re writing about James! What he ate, what he drank, how overweight he was… Makes me wanna…” I half-expect him to draw a weapon – perhaps a pool cue – and start smashing stuff up, but he finally calms down enough to sign a photograph for me and says he hopes I enjoy the tour. (Vito famously fell in love in Season 6 with a man, Johnnycakes, went on the run, and came to a violent end in an incident involving Phil Leotardo, a closet and a pool cue.)
It’s 10 o’clock on Saturday morning, four days since Gandolfini’s death of a heart attack in a Rome hotel room, and I’m here for the weekly On Location Tours‘ jaunt through the New Jersey sites of the acclaimed HBO television show. It’s the first tour since Gandolfini’s passing, and the mood is sombre. The 50-seat bus is full, several people having signed up late to pay tribute to the world’s favourite TV mobster. Half are from Britain, others from Europe, Australia and the United States. The four-hour trip will take us through the industrial wastelands so distinctive of the show – factory smokestacks, marshes, boatyards, rusty steel freeways – and will include stops at Satriale’s, the real Bada Bing strip club, and the ice-cream parlour that was the scene of the last enigmatic moments of the series.
Our guide, Marc Baron, an actor and singer who had small parts in 13 episodes of the series, and has led the location tour since 2001, begins with a tribute: “James was a lovely, generous, down-to-earth guy. Let’s celebrate him.”
Everyone agrees. In front of me is Michelle Craig, 26, from Glasgow, a “huge fan” of the show, on her first trip to New York, with her mother. “He died the day after we arrived,” she says. “I was so shocked.” She immediately signed herself and her mother up for the tour. Her mother has never seen an episode. Most others had booked two months in advance and thought that after Gandolfini’s death it might be cancelled.
After a brief introduction from Vito broadcast on the bus’s TV monitors (having sold his merchandise, he’s not actually coming on the tour), we make our way to the Lincoln Tunnel and New Jersey, the pulsating “Woke Up This Morning” our soundtrack, just as it is in the show’s opening credits.
I’ve been on dozens of urban tours in New York, and the guides are usually going through the motions; this is different. Baron clearly knows and loves the show, but he’s also an entertainer, with a wry delivery. “New Jersey is the Garden State because 40 per cent of the land is for farming,” he says. “Which is why it’s the largest producer of chemicals in the US!”
As we travel, he tells behind-the-scenes stories of the show and cast, and runs a trivia competition. “Who said of Ginny Sacrimoni: ‘She’s so fat, she goes campin’ the bears have to hide their food’?”
“Paulie Walnuts!” says a man behind me. He turns out to be John Thompson, from Newcastle, who proceeds to get most of the other questions right, too.
We learn that the show was cast by Georgianne Walken (wife of the actor Christopher Walken); that when Jamie Lynn Siegler – Meadow – first auditioned for it, she thought it was a musical; and that by the final season, when Gandolfini was earning more than $1million an episode, he cut large cheques from his own money for the cast and crew.
Our first stop is a now-shuttered diner in some seedy no-man’s land. Christopher (played by Michael Imperioli) was shot outside it in the second season, and the brilliance of the tour is that after we’ve see the location Baron plays on the bus a clip of the relevant scene. Later he points out the swampy marshland under a steel bridge where Christopher and Tony Blundetto famously had to dig up the decaying body of someone they once whacked. The ensuing clip has everyone on the bus in hysterics:
“Is that him?” Tony Blundetto says when a body appears in the mud where he is digging. “Well, it would be some ****ing coincidence if it wasn’t!” says Christopher.
Like Gandolfini, the show’s creator, David Chase, is an Italian-American from New Jersey, and every Italian-American character on the show had to come from Jersey or New York. The fictitious site of Satriale’s Pork Store, though, is in the predominantly Irish town of Kearney, our second stop. “Locals knew when the crew was in town because the Irish-American association next to the store was paid to hoist an Italian flag,” says Baron. I pop into Big Stash’s sandwich shop on the main street and order a salami sandwich. The walls are decked out with pictures of the owner, Mike Trivic, with Gandolfini. Trivic tells me: “He would come in here a lot. Right outside my door is where Christopher stole all the newspapers in the first episode.” The local Catholic church, across the street, doubled as Father Phil’s parish.
We drive through gritty sections of Newark, Harrison and Belleville, Baron pointing out sites used for Pussy’s auto-body shop, Tony’s gambling den, and AJ’s school. Baron plays a clip and asks us if we recognise one of the extras in a high-school scene with AJ. No one does. He tells us: “That young girl is better known today as Lady Gaga.”
In more upscale North Arlington, we pass the Tudor mansion used in the credits as Tony’s home, and a short while later pull up outside an ice-cream parlour. The music on the bus so far has been classic mob hits by the likes of Louie Prima and Jimmy Roselli – but now it changes to Journey’s power ballad “Don’t Stop Believing” – the song that played in the final moments of the show. We are at Holsten’s. The ice-cream parlour, which dates from 1939, became a cult destination for Sopranos fans after the final episode aired in 2007, and in the past four days it’s become the site of a remarkable pilgrimage. “I started getting all these calls and text messages,” says the co-owner, Chris Carley. “Then people started arriving. They haven’t stopped.”
Carley has placed a “Reserved” sign and a bouquet of flowers on the booth where Tony sat with Carmela and AJ in the anxiety-inducing final scene. We take turns to have photos taken in the booth. A card on the bouquet reads: “Rest in Peace, James Gandolfini. Love, Holsten’s.”
Holsten’s only became part of the tour after the series ended; the Bada Bing, on the other hand, our final stop, the strip club the men hung out in, has been on the itinerary since the beginning. We pull up outside a nondescript cinder-block building on the side of the busy Route 17. A roadside billboard reads: Satin Dolls, “the original Bada Bing” and under the main sign are the words: “Thank You Jimmy. Farewell Boss.”
It’s somewhat surreal to enter a dark strip club at 3 o’clock in the afternoon with 50 complete strangers – almost all of whom instantly recognise where they are without ever having been there. A shrine has been erected around the boss’s corner bar stool: a framed portrait of a downcast Tony, a white rose, a Sopranos baseball cap, and a “SOPRANOS” New Jersey licence plate. We have been warned that the dancers will not want to be photographed, but one is gyrating on a pole on the stage behind the bar, and another, Diana Lomoro, happily poses with members of our group by the shrine. “I was in three episodes,” she says. “It’s such a shock to know he has gone.”
I introduce myself to the manager, Bill Pepe, and we talk in the kitchen, where a bus boy chops potatoes with a meat cleaver. “I was at a benefit for the local police department when the news came in,” Pepe says. “Everyone stopped for a moment of silence. The police loved Jim.” He looks at the memorial by the bar and shakes his head. “It was a family atmosphere when they filmed here – and Jim was the captain.”
He assures me we have not seen the last of the club. Bill and five of his dancers are pitching a reality TV show, “The Real Girls of the Bada Bing”. I tell him I will look out for it. Then we troop out into the sunlight and head back to New York. I have a song playing in my head, “Don’t Stop…”
The Sopranos Sites Tour leaves on Saturdays at 10am, from the corner of 39th St and Seventh Ave: US$46. To book contact On Location Tours (001 212 683 2027; onlocationtours.com ).