By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“It was always my dream, America. I first came to New York with 10 bags and a huge attitude that I was the new star. I was very spoiled in my country from being a celebrity.”
(The Weeklyspoke with several people at the Los Angeles press office of the Greek Consulate. None could verify Vitali’s celebrity status in Greece, even after making inquiries within Athens arts circles. Similarly, the president of the Greek Film Center in Athens said he had not heard of Vitali. Once again, Chronopoulou defended her friend by saying that Vitali was once well-known among Athens’ community of actors.)
“So I walked in and said, ‘Okay, here I am!’” Vitali continues. “When I first got to JFK, I got in a cab without a clue to where I was going. The driver said, ‘Where to?’ I spoke no English, I said ‘New York.’ He said, ‘Buddy, this is New York, where are you going?’ I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. I kept saying ‘New York, New York.’ He took me to Manhattan. The only place that I knew from the movies was the Plaza Hotel. I couldn’t afford it, but I had to stay there the first night. I came with a lot of money. My corporation was very successful. But when you start your life in a new country, things are not easy, even a closet full of money is not enough. It’s never enough.”
Vitali lived in both New York and Chicago and says that he performed in small theaters within those cities’ Greek communities before he arrived in Los Angeles in the fall of 2001.
Act 2, Scene 1
In April 2003, Vitali took in a one-man show starring Butch Hammond at the Tamarind Theater on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. Shortly after, he called the theater’s co-owners, Nick Alan and Tom Kendall, about buying the Tamarind.
After 16 years of renting, producing and co-producing at their theater, Kendall told Vitali that the pair was “entertaining just about anything right now.”
Alan negotiated a deal that was part purchase, part sublease with an option to buy. Alan and Kendall would retain possession of the building and serve as a bank for Vitali’s monthly mortgage installments and operating costs. Meanwhile, Vitali would own the theater’s producing wing, the Tamarind Actor’s Studio, and thereby take over as the theater’s artistic director.
“He wanted the contract signed on June 18 because of numerology and astrology or whatever,” Alan explains. “We thought that was odd.”
Vitali immediately started remodeling the theater, replacing the marquee and installing an ornate chandelier in the lobby. For his own dressing room, he had a florid “V” engraved on the door.
That summer, Vitali approached English director Di Trevis — one of the first female directors employed by Richard Eyre at London’s National Theatre — to work at the Tamarind. Trevis, in turn, contacted the theater’s managing director, Brett Baker, and told him she was interested in re-staging a production she had directed at the National entitled Berliner Cabaretin repertory with Harold Pinter’s one-act Ashes to Ashes. The latter, a two-character play, would feature Vitali and Diana Jellinek, an actress with Broadway credits. Baker accepted Trevis’ offer to produce the repertory.
And though Vitali paid his mortgage and operating costs through 2003, a contractor simply named “Chance,” who was helping with the reconstruction at the time, says that Vitali had a habit of reneging on paychecks. “I got my money, but a personal assistant of his got smoked for a bunch of money.” (That assistant, Theresa Patten, confirms that she was not paid her final check. There were also disputes over payments with contractors hired to paint the theater’s interior, with the production’s constumer, and the billboard and brochure photographer.) At the same time, Vitali was leasing a brand-new Jaguar.
Vitali was clearly unpopular on the bustling block, with many locals speaking about his imperiousness and how he belittled local restaurant staff. Birds owner Mary Preston shrugs all that off, though she did say that one day the actors entered her restaurant through the fire door in the rear and helped themselves to soft drinks because “Francesco said it was fine.”
Vitali denies ever saying or approving such a thing.
“These people misunderstood me,” he explains. “People who never met me in person all have an opinion of me, because of stories. They think I’m Onassis, arrogant. I always felt a big negativity there. I never had this problem in Chicago or New York. Even in other parts of Los Angeles. I adore Los Angeles. That’s one of the reasons I chose to be here. But I’ll give you an example: I’m going every day supporting your business, eating in your restaurant, and you never come to spend $25 to see one of my productions. I did 11 productions in the year I was there. [Vitali’s account includes independent production companies renting the theater.] The neighbors were completely indifferent. I don’t think that they wanted me there. I understand.”
October 2003. In what some consider a moment of cosmic comeuppance, as Vitali steps into the street from the sidewalk, a backward-speeding car driven by a valet strikes him and knocks him to the ground.