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Nino Luciano, WWII vet, construction firm owner, opera singer, dies at 98

Nino Luciano.

Nino Luciano. Credit: Luciano Family

A first-generation Sicilian immigrant from Brownsville, Brooklyn, Nino Luciano lived a life to rival the experiences of Forrest Gump.

As a board member with the local Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Luciano, who died in Aug. 21  at age 98, approved $100,000 in funds needed to publish the infamous Pentagon Papers that helped expose the "secret war" being waged by the United States in Vietnam. And he'd once persuaded his wife, Pat, to smuggle a gross of baseballs into post-World War II Italy — to the confoundment of Italian customs agents — where he was coaching Milan in the new pro baseball league.

Luciano had been a football star and champion handball player back at Boys High in Brooklyn. An avid sailor, he'd learned with the Sea Scouts, then braved all kinds of weather deep into old age, with his family finally forced to "take away the keys" after he'd tied himself to his 28-foot ketch and sailed out alone onto Long Island Sound in the middle of January. At age 89.

He was the man whose firm, New Again Construction, once remodeled the famed Tavern on the Green; who'd earned a shot on a 1986 cover of Newsday after his company rebuilt the 260-year-old Matinecock Meeting House in Locust Valley when the Quaker gathering place was destroyed by fire in 1985.

All of which, no doubt, pale in comparison to the recording of Luciano singing "Recondita Armonia" from "Tosca," and "Questa o Quella" from "Rigoletto." That recording, which can be found on YouTube, is from 1950 — the same year Luciano twice auditioned at the Metropolitan Opera. It was made in conjunction with the Met's "Auditions of the Air"  WABC radio show with host Milton Cross.

The Metropolitan Opera archivist who heard the recording last week noted he'd listened to the best opera singers in the world for the past 40 years and said of Luciano, "I thought he was pretty good, actually."

That assessment by archivist Peter Clark was supported by an audition card from the Met's archives, which noted Luciano, a young tenor from Carmine Street in Little Italy, was a "gifted young singer," adding he "should be heard again."

"He was something," his son, Nino Luciano Jr. of Sea Cliff, said last week. " . . . He wasn't perfect. He could be hot-headed and if you disagreed with him he'd take it personally. But you couldn't not love him, the way he was. He lived a really colorful life, all the things he touched."

But, Nino Jr. said, it "tortured" his father that he'd never become an opera singer of renown. "He'd always say, 'Nino, can you believe I gave up … singing in my 30s to go into construction?' Now that I think of it, you've got to wonder."

Nino Luciano was born May 12, 1921, in Brownsville, the son of a stone mason from Santa Ninfa, Sicily. After he graduated from Boys High, he took work as a draftsman-in-training at the Brooklyn Navy Yard before joining the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.

According to the Milton Cross show, Luciano and his "untrained voice" were discovered when a superior heard him singing while scrubbing down a hallway on the orders of his corporal during basic training in Miami. The superior arranged for Luciano to sing for hospitalized troops, and after the war, where he served in England drafting maps, Luciano returned to the states and attempted to pursue a career in opera.

First, though, he married Roselle "Patricia" Rubino, who was an advertising copy writer.

The couple moved to a small apartment on Carmine Street and there Pat coaxed her husband into taking an aptitude test at New York University. The test revealed he had an ear for music.

Luciano used his GI Bill benefits to attend the New York College of Music, then auditioned at the Met for Max Rudolf on March 13, 1950, and for John Gutman, the assistant to Met legend Rudolf Bing, on Nov. 27, 1950.

After the second audition, Gutman suggested the Met might want to hear Luciano again — but in a different role.

Guessing he needed more training, and at the urging of his voice coach, Alberto Bimboni, Luciano left Pat in Little Italy and went to Europe. He first coached baseball in Milan, where he was rejoined by Pat. Later, he took work as a tenor with the opera company in Gelsenkirchen, West Germany.

There, he sang with future Metropolitan Opera performer Elfego Esparza, a bass singer from Texas, who later became the godfather of Nino Jr. He also sang with future star Giorgio Tozzi, who performed more than 500 times with the Met.

Returning to the United States in 1956, Luciano and his wife and then 1-year-old Nino Jr. moved to Elmont, where they lived with Pat's parents before buying a home of their own in Carle Place. Luciano started his construction company, but he kept his hand in music.

Luciano co-founded the Long Island Opera Showcase and he and Pat began a program called "Fun With Productions," which brought abridged versions of well-known operas, operettas and musical comedies to children's audiences across Long Island.

Back in 1966, Newsday even wrote about their performance of Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" at Prospect Avenue Park in East Meadow.

As Nino Jr. said of his dad this week: "He literally brought some culture to Long Island when it was a wasteland. Pop would say, 'We'd cut out a lot of the [stuff] and get down to some good songs."

Luciano continued to run the troupe and his construction firm, stepping up his involvement in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, first in Plandome and later at Shelter Rock in Manhasset. He not only voted to help fund publication of the revelatory Pentagon Papers, but he also helped establish a student activity fund to aid local youth and raised money for women's literacy nonprofits. 

In 1983, Luciano and his wife bought a home on Prospect Avenue in Sea Cliff, overlooking the Sound. 

Throughout, Nino Jr. said, his father maintained his wry sense of humor. Nino Jr. recalled how his father convinced his mom, whom he called "a staunch pacifist," that he needed to bring their son, as a rite of passage, to the famed Ali-Frazier II fight at Madison Square Garden. This was in 1974, and Luciano told his wife the tickets cost an incredible $250 each, Nino Jr. recalled. It turned out, Nino Jr., said, his dad actually spent $500 apiece.

"We show up. I've got [Hall of Fame football player] Calvin Hill sitting in front of me, Sinatra off to one side. There's this big white guy with a scarred face sitting next to me and I tell Pop, 'That's [heavyweight boxing contender] Jerry Quarry.' Pop tells me, 'Say hi. Shake his hand.'

"He keeps pushing me and finally I reach out and say, 'Hey, you're Jerry Quarry' and the guy looks at me and goes, 'No, I'm [expletive] Chuck Wepner.'

"My Dad, all he could do was laugh." 

Predeceased by his wife of 67 years, Luciano is survived by son Nino Jr. and his wife Liz, as well as grandchildren Michael and Sarah.

A private memorial gathering for Luciano, who was cremated, was scheduled for Saturday in Sea Cliff.

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