by Sue Ann Rybak
While its function has changed over the years, the Venetian Social Club at 8030 Germantown Ave. continues to be a safe haven, a place where people can feel secure and accepted.
The club was established in 1924 by artisans from the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region in northern Italy who had come to Chestnut Hill to work on homes built by Henry Houston and George Woodward, and it provided more than just a gathering place for these workers and their families: It was a bridge between the Old World and the New – a place where members could be themselves, speak the Friuliano dialect, celebrate the music and culture of Friuli, and support one another.
Many of the club’s early members had been lured to the area by the plans of Houston and Woodward to create a “new village,” and their designs required skilled masons, bricklayers and tile-marble-terrazzo craftsmen to quarry, cut and set the sparkling Wissahickon Schist stone and other materials to create many of the quintessential historic homes in Chestnut Hill today.
Chestnut Hill resident Helen Marcolina Henry, whose father Joseph Marcolina was one of the early members, said the club, which was built on the site of the former John Gilbert Elementary School, was begun as a men’s sports club, but its focus was always on families.
“It was a meeting place that was strictly ours,” said Henry, who preferred not to give her age.“Although the membership was never exclusively Friuliano, our neighbors, many of whom were Irish, German or from other parts of Italy, were always welcome to join.”
She said the club was just one of the many national clubs or organizations in Philadelphia at the time. She added that Pennsylvania Blue Laws forbidding the sale of liquor after midnight were in effect, and almost all restaurants and bars were closed on Sunday, so private club memberships were very popular.
“Growing up in the 20s and the 30s, you had two sets of friends – your American friends and your Italian friends,” Henry said. “As a kid you didn’t really know where you belonged, you had a foot in two civilizations. The club was great because you knew everybody – you weren’t necessarily friends, but you knew everyone. It was a place where you could be yourself, although we couldn’t get away with anything because there were too many eyes looking all over the place.”
She added that the card room was for men only.
“Woe to a woman or child who dared to venture into the holy of the holies – the card room,” she added, the place where men played Briscola, an Italian card game similar to pinochle, and drank cognac and other alcoholic beverages.
Chestnut Hill resident Rina Brun Fesnak, 89, whose father Angelo Brun was also one of the early members of the club, said she had a unique childhood because many families came from the same town in Italy.
She added that at least six students in her class at J.S. Jenks Elementary School were from the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region.
“Many of the men’s wives didn’t speak the language, so they mingled with one another and provided support for one another,” Fesnak said.
“There was no such thing as a babysitter back then,” she said. “Whenever they had an affair of any sort you went along with them. Our parents would be dancing and having fun with their friends while the children hung around the perimeter of the room, dancing or playing games.”
Fesnak said the club was where your father first taught you to dance.
“We did the waltzes and polkas,” she said. “We learned to do that before we learned to street dance,” she said, laughing. “We literally danced our shoes away until the wee hours of the night.”
Fesnak added that at Christmas all the kids in the neighborhood went to see Santa Claus at the Venetian Club.
“It was open to all the children in the neighborhood,” she said. “We would wait in line for what seemed like forever. They would always have a magic show or other entertainment, and we each got a box of hard candy. A lot of people didn’t have automobiles back then, so being able to see Santa around the corner from your house was a big deal.”
Fesnak said the members of the club were part of her extended family.
“A lot of the old timers, we would call aunt or uncle,” she said. “It was never Mr. or Mrs. And everyone spoke in their mother tongue.”
Chestnut Hill resident Bruce Marcolina, 58, said his grandfather Albert Marcolina Sr., was a retired steward of the club.
“In order to see my grandparents, I had to go to the club because they were always in there cleaning and sprucing up the place,” he said. “My brothers and I would go to the club almost daily just to run around the place. We were always there playing pool, shuffleboard or bowling in the bowling alley. Sometimes, we sneaked a pretzel or two from behind the bar.”
Marcolina said his mom would often send him to the club to retrieve his father.
“There always seemed to be a party going on – especially on the weekends,” he said.
Marcolina said the club hosted several events throughout the year including a children’s easter egg hunt, mothers’ day brunch, annual polenta and spaghetti dinners, and clam bakes on the site of the former Bocce Court.
“When I walked in everybody knew me,” he said. “I was always Albert Jr.’s son or Albert Sr.’s grandson. As soon as my father walked into the club, he would begin speaking Italian. As a kid, I wished that I could have learned to speak the language, but my father would say, ‘Nah, don’t worry about it. You’re an American.’”
Sam Filippi, 39, the Venetian Club’s vice president and a fourth generation member, reiterated Marcolina’s comment.
“As a kid growing up, you had no idea what the old timers were talking about because the younger generation didn’t speak the language,” he said.
Filippi said even then the card room was for men only.
“Even as a kid growing up in the late 80s, I was was scared to come back here,” he said, referring to the forbidden card room. “If I went over there, I would get looks. My grandfather wouldn’t be upset, but all the other guys would be giving me the look like you need to go.”
Despite all the yelling in Italian, Filippi said he couldn’t wait to become a member.
“On my 21st birthday, I had to come over here and have my first drink,” he said. “It was a rite of passage. Many dads couldn’t wait to get that membership for their son or daughter.”
Although women were always involved in the club, they could not become members until the early 90s.
In the late ’80s, the club lost a lot of members due to a “generational transition.” Many of the old timers died, and membership dropped from roughly 200 to just under 70. That’s when the club finally decided to allow women to become members.
Vince Bercaw, 49, the Venetian Club’s president, said since then the club has become even more family oriented. He added that while the club has always been a vital part of the community, it only recently began doing more community service.
“The club has become more socially responsible,” he said. “We host Red Cross Blood Drives and fundraisers for charitable organizations, including Ronald McDonald House and March of Dimes.”
Bercaw added that the organization also participates in the Ronald McDonald House Guest Chef program, which provides meals 365 days a year to sick children and their families who are staying at Children’s Hospital.
Helen Marcolina Henry said that while today’s members may not be able to trace their connection with the club back to their great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, the mission of the club remains the same today as it was 90 years ago.
She said its mission is to help build bonds of friendship and to create a community where everyone feels accepted and valued. Henry said it’s a place where you can be yourself and know you don’t have to face the world alone.
For more information about The Venetian Social Club go to www.venetianclub.org or call 215-247-9858.
This article was updated on Oct. 1. An earlier edition erroneously stated that Sam Filippi was the president of the Venetian Club and Vince Bercaw was head marshal of the Venetian Club’s Mummers Brigade.