Or perhaps I should say ‘Opening The Floodgates with George’ for sitting down with this actor, photographer, printer, poet, musician, singer, and artist as in one who finds art everywhere in life, I find myself pinned back in my chair by the tangential tales unleashed by my simple question: Would you tell me about your early life, George?
George lives in his studio or has made a studio out of his home; take your pick. Everywhere, and that means not a space is left bare, are photos, books, cameras, a piano, an alto sax, theatre programs, books of poetry and books on everything in the world. Who needs the internet? There’s a cat named Mimi and tripods and backdrops and lights and filters and things more arcane than in an alchemist’s den.
Did I mention George studied existentialism at the University of Miami? Perhaps that accounts for his refusal to tell a linear story.
So when I asked about his early life he rushed from the room and returned with a shoe box filled with black and white photos. “I idolized my father”, he said, pulling out ageing black and white photos. “Here’s my Uncle Anthony Schiavone (George King) entertaining at my parents 17th wedding anniversary party. And here is my Father George Schiavone Sr. (Joe King) singing and embracing my mom (Josephine) at the same party. I guess I was 13 or 14 in this photo. The Anniversary party was held in our apartment at 665 Schenck Avenue in Brooklyn, NY. My phone number was Nightingale 9-2845. My aunt Betty's was Applegate 7-8825 and that’s some real trivia.”
George’s father was also George and he was a nightclub singer as Joe King, part of the King Bros with George’s uncle Anthony who sang as George King and the third brother was any piano player who could sing. The King Brothers played all the Manhattan nightclubs, the Catskills, Miami and Boston in the nineteen-fifties. Uncle Anthony played the speakeasys in the twenties. George tells me how well his father dressed when he left for his performances and how nicely he smelled. “Like Salvador Dali”, he added, leading to a tale of photographing the passports of Claudia Cardinale, Salvador Dali in The St. Regis Hotel and Andy Warhol in the Village for Holiday magazine. That was the essence of Dali, “a beautiful smell”. Dali, in turn, insisted on repeatedly telling the crew that George Schiavone was a “beautiful young man”. “ Like Burton… but better.”And somehow we got back to George’s schooling. He and his parents and his sister Deanna lived in an ethnic neighborhood, and George grew up wanting to be a star, just like his father, until when he was in high school his mother urged him to try something more secure than show business. He had started taking photos when he was twelve and that same year he got a job via Joe King’s acquaintance who owned The School of Modern Photography. His first assignment was in Manhattan, taking photos for a millionaire who was suing the owner of his building on 57th St. right next door to where Marilyn Monroe lived. “What an experience… here I am a 13 year old with pegged pants and a pompadour waiting to be picked up by this millionaire in his Chesterfield coat in his limousine on Madison Avenue and 57th St… a grouchy old guy he paid me on the spot. I liked that.” After high school it was eight year’s of night school at City University majoring in English literature and psychology leading toward a law degree, until he realized he couldn’t remember names. He had been selling art studio services to advertising agencies during the day but was more involved with the art than the selling, so he concentrated on school and did some waiting and bartending in the Catskills resort area of N.Y. He was drafted in 1962, serving as an artillery surveyor, a tank gunner and then as a singer with the Fort Knox General’s Chorus. After his discharge he moved to Greenwich Village where he resumed his love of photography. For the next few years he served his apprenticeship in various photography studios. In 1968 he was living in Greenwich Village and working for Horn/Grenier, the top NYC Production studio of the time. He was picking up free lance jobs like photographing for the Clairol account and married the Girl Friday of Clairol’s creative director. He finally opened his own New York studio at 27th and Broadway. Times were tough. Wrong time to start a business.
So George, his wife and newborn baby boy moved south to Florida. More adventures, and then soon George Schiavone was the photographer for the Burdines Department Stores, shooting full-page ads every day. Lucrative work, and George, now divorced, moved into a 15 room mansion on the Miami River. Fabulous parties, fabulous models, high fashion photography. And then parent company, Federated Stores, shut down Burdines. During this time Michelle Pommier (one of George’s best models) formed The Agency South model agency with George’s stylist. It was later to become The Michelle Pommier Agency.
His credo: “You have a dream, I’ll make your dream come true. If you don’t have a dream, I’ll dream a dream for you.”
And he adds, “Creative people are wonderful lunatics… but the stock photo business killed the photo assignment business and creativity was replaced with the menu mentality.”
After several years of Award Winning work with top Art Directors like Frank Shulwolf and some of the top ad agencies in South Florida George went into semi retirement in his studio in Hallandale. Which, because he isn’t an idle man, didn’t last very long as George successfully auditioned for his first acting gig: a junkie trombone player in “Sideman”, Joe Adler’s very successful piece at GableStage.
Since then he has worked steadily on the stage and anyone lucky enough to have seen him as the old man in Alliance Theatre Lab’s Fool For Love can see just how far he’s come with his new passion.
He continues his photography, of course, shooting for both GableStage and Mosaic theatres. And such work it is.
I’d gone to George’s place in the Design District armed with 33 what I thought were penetrating questions. I got to pose one only and that didn’t get answered, but what I got in one afternoon was a fascinating three hours with a fascinating man and the realization that George Schiavone is truly an artist.
His afternoon’s performance concluded with his showing me his father’s hand written fake book, containing all the words to all the standards of the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. This was the Bible of The King Brothers and George held it with the reverence it deserved. And then he sang to me, crooning his father’s old songs, one after the other. And you know what? George Schiavone has become the star he always wanted to be.