Town dedicates street to James Gandolfini

MINJAE PARK
Last updated 13:59 03/12/2013
Dave Gibson
MCT
REMEMBERING JAMES GANDOLFINI: Family and former Sopranos cast members including Steve Schirripa, Dominic Chianese, Tony Sirico and Vincent Curatola, turn out in Park Ridge

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As a teenager, James Gandolfini would hang out with friends on Friday nights at the Ridge Diner, on Park Avenue between his house and his high school.

Many years later, the man known to millions as Tony Soprano brought his son there and told him tales of his childhood.

Last weekend, the busy intersection by the diner was closed off to dedicate a stretch of Park Avenue to Gandolfini, the "son of Park Ridge," as the mayor called him. He died in June of a heart attack.

Park Ridge residents remembered Gandolfini as the skinny kid who performed at the Little Theater at Park Ridge High School and who later became a humble star, but remained devoted to his family. Gandolfini also appeared in numerous films, including the recent hit Enough Said.

Joining Gandolfini's wife, Deborah Lin, and son, Michael Gandolfini, were Sopranos director Timothy Van Patten and cast members Steve Schirripa, Vincent Curatola, Tony Sirico, Dominic Chianese, Vincent Pastore and John Ventimiglia. Several town, county and state politicians also showed up.

The heavy turnout - hundreds thronged the intersection - prompted a joke from Mayor Terence Maguire that played on The Sopranos mob theme.

"We thought maybe we were going to get a mob," he said. "It looks like we did."

The speakers, including Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan and Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, noted Gandolfini's generosity, especially toward veterans' causes, such as the Wounded Warrior Project.

Michael Gandolfini, his 14-year-old son, added a more personal note, saying he would "never forget going to the Park Ridge diner and eating there" with his father.

"He just told me every story about every place here," Michael, from Los Angeles, said after the ceremony. His father "definitely made a point of coming here," to Park Ridge, he said.

He added that his father, a graduate of Park Ridge High School and Rutgers University, "would be more honored than anything to be known as a true Jersey guy," as Gov. Chris Christie called him after his death.

At the urging of the crowd, Chianese also took the stage. "All I can say is I thank God that Jimmy Gandolfini was in my life," he said.

Besides dedicating the street, the Borough Council declared Sunday "James Gandolfini Day" in Park Ridge and read a proclamation honouring the actor.

The idea for the dedication came from an online petition started last summer by a former borough resident. The petition gained hundreds of supporters online.

For some, Gandolfini would always be the tall, lean boy who appeared in school plays, but didn't seem destined for an acting career.

Don Ruschman, Park Ridge mayor from 2001 to 2011 and a longtime neighbor of the Gandolfinis, recalled how a young Gandolfini would come over to their house through the adjoining back yards when their daughter Pam, a year younger than Gandolfini, would have friends over.

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He and his wife, Vi Ruschman, said they "never" expected his stardom.

"Skinny, skinny, skinny," Vi said of Gandolfini, who was about 7 when they first got to know him.

Her husband said he didn't have specific recollections of Gandolfini because "he was just one of the kids." But decades later, when, as mayor, he introduced the star as the guest of honor at a breast cancer awareness event - without knowing Gandolfini was the boy who used to live next door - the actor recognized him.

"His first words were, 'How's Pam?'" Ruschman said.

Mike Meidanis, owner of the Ridge Diner for 40 years, said Gandolfini as a boy would come with his family for breakfast every Sunday, always sitting at one of the big, round tables.

In a March 2004 New Jersey Monthly cover story, Gandolfini was asked where his hangouts were as a teenager. "I hung out at the Ridge Diner in town," he replied. The magazine cover, signed by Gandolfini, hangs on the wall.

Even after he moved away and his mother died, Gandolfini would come to the diner with his sisters and father.

"He was a humble man. He was so kind to everyone," Meidanis said, and never turned away fans seeking autographs. "You could never tell he was a big star."

-MCT

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