Merry Christmas, Mr. Fellini

What do Christmas, Federico Fellini and my grandfather have in common?


And it was the last Christmas he was away, shortly after this drawing was made my grandfather was injured and was eventually discharged and made his way home in April 1945. Drawing from the “Funny Face Shop” in Rome, 1944.

My grandmother received this charming drawing all the way from Italy in December 1944. Which, coincidentally, happened to be around the same time that my grandfather was injured at the Lamone River in Italy. For some reason, it was only recently that my mother noticed the information on the reverse of the image. According to the stamp on the back of the drawing, my grandfather got it from the “Funny Face Shop” on Via Nazionale in Rome.

Imagine our suprise we we learned that the “Funny Face Shop” was once a wartime venture of Italian film director, Federico Fellini!

Before he was world famous film director and screenwiter, Federico Fellini drew caricatures for a living during the chaotic period that followed the liberation of Rome in 1944. Fellini first came to Rome in 1939, ostensively to go to University. However, that was not the case. After a few missteps, he eventually began working for Marc’Aurelio, an Italian satirical magazine. During his time at Marc’Aurelio (1939-1942) Fellini connected with other writers and screenwriters, and he eventually began to write for radio and films. After the fall of Mussolini in July 1943, the situation in Rome became desperate – as portrayed in the film “Rome, Open City” or “Roma città aperta” [More about that later].

By June 1944, when the Allies liberated Rome there were shortages of everything. The social system had broken down, and there were people who didn’t have a place to live or food to eat. Federico Fellini struggled to find work. There was no work in film, radio drama or newpapers – all fields that Fellini had worked in previously. So Fellini decided to fall back on his “boyhood career” as a portrait artist when he and Demos Bonini opened a portrait shop called “Febo” in the Italian town of Rimini. Together with a few writer and film friends (among them Vittorio De Sica) Fellini opened a caricature shop (una bottega della caricatura) called the Funny Face Shop on the busy Via Nazionale. At the shop they drew thumbnail portraits and caricatures (by Fellini himself) of the Allied GIs for delivery overseas.

Though American soldiers were the shop’s main customers, soldiers from other Allied countries also visited the shop. One such Canadian soldier was my grandfather Pete, who was serving with the Seaforth Highlanders. Sometime in the fall of 1944, my grandfather was in Rome and visited the Funny Face Shop and posed for the drawing above.

Fellini outside his “Funny Face” shop on Via Nazionale in Rome. A sign placed by Fellini outside the shop said: “Watch Out! The Most Ferocious and Amusing Caricaturists Are Eyeing You! Sit Down, If You Dare, and Tremble!”

Fellini and the other artists at the Funny Face Shop created a series of vignettes or “scenes” of amusing situations: a soldier at the Coliseum that killed a lion, or in Naples on a small boat that fished a mermaid, or a soldier at the Trevi Fountain. Each situation was reproduced in multiple copies where the head of the soldier consisted of an empty oval space. The soldiers would arrive in the shop, choose a scene and then pose for Fellini to add the soldier’s caricatured features to complete the scene. In my grandfather’s case it was a sentimental Christmas scene that included a quick sketch of my grandmother.

Detail of drawing…an original Federico Fellini!

The shop became a meeting place for the soldiers – Fellini likened it to a saloon in the old west. One evening when the shop was crowded with soldiers in sauntered film director, Roberto Rosselini. He was here to talk to Fellini about his new film project on the life of Don Morosini. Rosselini wanted Fellini to collaborate on the screenplay and convince his friend, actor Aldo Fabrizi, to take part in the project. That film about the life of Don Morosini became the Italian neorealist film, Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City). The rest, as they say, is Italian neorealism history.

Shooting for Rome, Open City began January 1945. The film was possibly still in production by the time my grandfather returned home to Vancouver in April of 1945.

My grandmother and mother (3 1/2) greet my grandfather at the CPR station in Vancouver, April 1945. This photo was taken for The Province newspaper.


Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any other “Funny Face Shop” drawings. However, more of Fellini’s later drawings and caricatures can be seen here.

Fellini’s drawing of Aldo Fabrizi, star of Rome, Open City (1945)







Alvin Lesk and his Victory One Man Band

The first time I saw this intriguingly odd photo on the City of Vancouver Archives website, I was inspired to know more about the photo and Alvin Lesk and his Victory One Man Band.

Alvin Lesk with his dummies of public figures on the north side of the 600 block West Georgia Street. Photo COV Archives, CVA 1184-60 - Jack Lindsay, Vancouver News-Herald

Alvin Lesk with his dummies of public figures on the north side of the 600 block West Georgia Street. Photo COV Archives, CVA 1184-60 – Jack Lindsay, Vancouver News-Herald

The photo depicts Lesk and life sized effigies representing the leaders of the Axis and the Allies. The photograph, dated February 1942, is from a series of photographs taken for the Vancouver News-Herald newspaper by photographer Jack Lindsay.

I made a trip to the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch to search the historic newspaper microfilm reels to see if I could find the photograph in a February 1942 edition of the Vancouver News-Herald. It wasn’t long before I found the image (or a version thereof) in the Thursday, February 19th edition of the Vancouver News-Herald. Unfortunately, the image that appears in the paper has cropped out Alvin Lesk and only focuses on his effigies.

Photo in the Thursday, February 19th 1942 edition of the Vancouver News-Herald.

Photo in the Thursday, February 19th 1942 edition of the Vancouver News-Herald.

Here is the caption that accompanies the newspaper photo:

Here’s Alvin Lesk’s ideas of how the war should end — Churchill, Uncle Sam and Stalin standing erect over the crumpled beaten forms of a cartoonist’s version of the Axis trio — a frustrated Japanese, a sobbing Hitler and a dour mouthed Mussolini. Lesk has built life-sized effigies to enact the scene and has them on display on Georgia Street, near Granville. He originally planned to put the fascist chieftains in a jail on a trailer, but couldn’t find parking space.

When I discovered that Lesk had originally planned to put the Axis leaders in a jail, the sign that the Churchill effigy holds then makes a little more sense:

This is where We would like the Axis Gang, Help put them there! Buy the new Victory Bonds!

The Canadian Encyclopedia entry on Victory Loans states that “Victory Loans were Canadian government appeals for money to finance the war effort in WWI and WWII” through the purchase of Victory Bonds.

Save to Beat the Devil - Canadian World War II Poster. Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-30-1220

Save to Beat the Devil – Canadian World War II Poster. Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-30-1220

Victory Bond sales were slow in Canada at the beginning of WWII, so after “the slow-moving second war loan of 1940, the Victory Loan returned with the panoply of colourful posters, patriotic pleas and vast sales apparatus which had become familiar in WWI”.  Alvin Lesk and his One Man Victory Band were just one example of a local patriotic plea for citizens to buy the “new” Victory Bonds.

Though I had some success finding the photo in the newspaper, I wasn’t very successful finding out anything about Alvin Lesk himself. The city directories of the time only listed a Vera Lesk, who was a musician. I suppose it is possible that they were related, but it would be hard to say definitively. I also checked the Vital Statistics for BC and could only find evidence of members of a Lesk family that lived primarily in New Westminster. Vera Lesk appears to be related to those Lesks. I found no evidence of Alvin Lesk in the BC Vital Statistics.

So for now, it seems that Alvin Lesk himself remains a bit of mystery. He must have felt very strongly about supporting an Allied victory to put so much energy in creating his effigies and promoting the sale of Victory Bonds. I wonder how many Vancouverites were motivated to buy Victory Bonds by Alvin Lesk’s Victory One Man Band and creative street display?


Fun Fact: Author Pierre Berton was the News-Herald’s first city editor.