Leader of the band

South Valley Symphony percussionist Martin Groen shares a laugh

When Al Navaroli was 12 years old, his mother came home from
South Station in Boston with four train tickets.

I’m going to California,

she said.

Those who want to come with me can come. The rest of you can go
to hell.

It took four days and three nights on the train to get to Union
Station in Los Angeles.
When Al Navaroli was 12 years old, his mother came home from South Station in Boston with four train tickets.

“I’m going to California,” she said. “Those who want to come with me can come. The rest of you can go to hell.”

It took four days and three nights on the train to get to Union Station in Los Angeles. A short time later, Bellflower, California, became the first West Coast home of the Navaroli family: Al, his sister Lucy, father Alexander and mother Jennie Quagliozzo, born in Italy, raised in Scotland and feisty as the day was long.

His mother “ruled the roost” but his passionate Italian father gets the credit for a love of music that has seeped into every pore of Navaroli’s soul.

“The move from Boston was toughest on my dad. He left all of his paisano friends there. He missed bocce ball,” Navaroli remembers. “He loved opera. He would listen to all of the Italian singers and sing along and he would just break down and cry. ”

It’s a tradition that continues in Navaroli, 73, the current vice-president and head cheerleader of the South Valley Symphony. Though he does not sing and has never played an instrument, music fills Navaroli’s heart and, occasionally, overflows his eyes.

The language of music rolls off his tongue – like “Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, ” and “Organ Symphony No. 1 on a Ruffati Organ” – but even the words “Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2” render him speechless and tear-filled.

“It’s Mahler’s way of expressing his belief in resurrection into heaven – 75 minutes of emotion that you can hear and feel,” he says. “It’s hard to explain it. Just thinking about it makes me very emotional.”

It’s Navaroli’s passion for music and for Gilroy that has helped move the symphony into prominence in South County, especially in the past five years.

“Al is tireless in promoting the symphony,” says Jean Lance, secretary of the symphony board of directors. “He is absolutely fearless about approaching people and, when it comes to asking for money, not everyone can do that. He does it in such a nice, smoothing way.”

She gives credit to both Navaroli and Bill Flodberg for increasing the public exposure and the financial support the symphony now enjoys. “He is interested in the symphony and he truly loves music and knows so much about it,” she says of Navaroli. “He’s a real asset to both our organization and our community.”

Navaroli’s fondness for Gilroy comes from a lifetime of memories. Shortly after his family came to California, he developed asthma. A cousin who was living in the Milias Hotel on Monterey Street said, “Come to Gilroy, Alfred. The air will do you good.”

His father found work at Gentry Foods, a processing plant, and his mother at the cannery. In 1944, they moved into a small apartment in an alley behind Eigleberry Street and then later into their own house at 373 North Church St. They bought it for $3,800, and Navaroli looked at the stars through the roof during a major remodel.

Life in Gilroy was good. Navaroli spent his teen years meeting friends at Shillings Ice Cream Parlor, just north of the old Strand Theater in downtown Gilroy. Or hanging out north of town at Dot’s Chicken Patio (now known as Pinnocchio’s Pizza #1).

“Dot’s was a swinging place,” remembers Navaroli.

He played baseball and basketball at Gilroy High School and did his homework in the evenings while listening to “Hour of Melody, KSFO – 560 on your dial” – a radio program sponsored by Hale Brothers Department Store. He also remembers Saturday and Sunday nights spent at the home of his father’s friend, Ercole Pelliccione, a fellow countryman from Abruzzi who farmed outside of Gilroy. The two families would gather around a 17-inch black-and-white combination TV/radio/record player (“the hottest thing in town”) to catch the new talent on the Ed Sullivan Show.

“My appreciation of music really started then,” says Navaroli. “I loved them all.”

Upon graduation, Navaroli enrolled in business classes at Hartnell Junior College in Salinas where he also pitched for the baseball team. He lived in “the cold, damp city” for a while but “got homesick for Mom’s cooking” and so bought a commuter car and moved back to warmer Gilroy.

“One day, I was cruising the strip (Monterey Street) in my 1952 Plymouth when I see this chick sitting in Shillings,” says Navaroli. He knew Emma Chiesa from high school and decided to ask her out to the Fox Theater in San Jose. Emma took Navaroli next door to the Strand where her mother was the theater manager, and made him ask for permission.

“She looked at her daughter and said, ‘Go, you damn fool. Go!'”

They married at the Carmel Mission in 1954 and raised a family in Gilroy while Navaroli pursued careers in Salinas.

He earned “$47.96 gross per week” at his first job at PG&E, where he started in the mailroom. In 1956, he was offered a better position at Bud Antle, a produce shipper in Salinas. He had many learning experiences at Bud; it was the first company in California to sign an organized labor contract with famed activist Jimmy Hoffa. After years of running the business operations, Navaroli’s boss Bud Antle asked him to learn a new skill: traffic control. The shipping of fresh produce had become very important in the nation and Bud aimed to be at the forefront.

In 1965, Navaroli and another Californian pioneered the practice of exporting lettuce and celery to Europe on ships.

“The idea came to me from World War II wives who lived in Europe, but couldn’t get fresh lettuce,” says Navaroli. He realized that ships’ coolers could keep lettuce at a perfect 33 degrees over long periods of time. “Our first shipment went from San Francisco to Sweden. We hand-wrapped each head of lettuce in 20 cartons. They were in good shape when they arrived,” he remembers.

A year later, Navaroli took his first trip abroad, 37 days and 13 countries, to promote fresh lettuce.

“When I got off the ship in the United States after 37 days, I kissed the ground, went to chapel, and then had a McDonald’s hamburger,” he says. “I was so thankful to be home.”

While Emma held the reins of raising their four children at home, Navaroli became an ambassador for fresh produce, traveling to Scandinavia several times and eventually to Hong Kong where the housewives were used to boiling all produce before eating it.

“It was a challenge to convince them that they could eat produce fresh and that it would be healthy and not contaminated, like they were used to,” Navaroli says.

On his days off, usually Sundays, Navaroli started taking in concerts around the world. One of his best memories is of hearing Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. A man on the street sold him a ticket for about $6. Unknowingly, Navaroli had bought an extraordinary seat: on the stage, facing the conductor.

“I’ll never forget the man who sold me that ticket,” says Navaroli. “I was a part of the music.”

In Gilroy, he is also a part of the music. After making it through a couple of health scares – bypass surgery and a bout with cancer – and retiring after 31 years at Bud, Navaroli felt lucky and decided to give his time and energy to his community. Though he earned all of his income at a Salinas company, Gilroy is home. He has been a member of St. Mary Church since 1945, a Dispatch subscriber for more than 40 years and is finishing up his ninth year on the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission.

He heard the South Valley Symphony 10 years ago, at a concert featuring “only 7 string players. I knew we could do better.”

Navaroli speaks passionately about the need for more string players, to balance the sound and bring out the strength and complexity of classical music. Ideally, he hopes someday to have 50 to 60 musicians on the stage, 35 of them playing string instruments.

The symphony is a volunteer community orchestra, where local musicians learn and perform works by famous composers such as Verdi, Vivaldi and Mandel. Though it has been in existence for more than 30 years, it has gained prominence in the last five years, due to the support of the board and cheerleaders like Navaroli.

“Al’s passion is the symphony,” says Arline Silva, a fellow board member who has worked with Navaroli for years. “He is dedicated to building up the orchestra, especially violins, and his musical knowledge is quite extensive … He’s a joy to work with.”

Navaroli believes he is bringing opportunities to the community.

“People in Gilroy are starving for this type of entertainment, for this type of culture,” says Navaroli. “We aim to give it to them.”

In July, new officers take over the South Valley Symphony leadership spots. Navaroli will leave his position of vice president, but plans to take on special projects. First, he plans to help rewrite the bylaws so that the symphony is prepared legally for any donations and opportunities for growth that come its way. He also plans to work toward bringing more guest artists and perhaps local college students into the performances.

“The amount of musical talent in our area is astounding,” he says. “Without a doubt, the symphony adds to the quality of life in our town.”

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