The City I Love: Simonetta lets hands tell his story
He had a short brush with Gotham, but said he never could have handled being Broadway Joe. Leave that for the other guy, that famous football player. Still, he once took the measure of stage star Liza Minnelli and hung out after hours at a high-end New York City nightclub named Bo Jangles with the likes of Cher and English modeling sensation Twiggy.
Sew what? Sew anything. Hang on, I’ll explain.
If you were Joe Simonetta’s pal back in the day, then you were in good hands, really good hands. A builder, an artist and a car-kit maker, Simonetta’s hands have kept him busy and successful for decades.
There’s little documentation as to whether Joe ever fumbled the ball while running for the Pittsfield High football team during the mid-1950s, but my guess is the 165-pounder never once put the football on the ground. Some people succeed in life because they are wired well from the neck up. But guys like Joe give each day that hands-on approach and grace their work with a luminous touch.
Simonetta, I believe, neither fumbled the football nor opportunity in life.
Simonetta, 75, is part of this year’s Pittsfield Interscholastic Football Hall of Fame induction class that will formally accept kudos from the Monday Morning Quarterbacks Club on Monday evening at 6 at the Berkshire Hills Country Club.
Simonetta graduated from PHS in 1957 and had captained the football team the previous fall. His final two years at PHS were under coach Nick Morris, whose son, Nick Morris Jr., played left halfback to Simonetta’s right halfback slot.
The elder Morris and the young Simonetta didn’t always see eye to eye, especially off the field.
"I owned a 1947 Indian Chief motorcycle back then," Simonetta recalled, "and I used to give young Nick a ride every day after school to Clapp Park where we practiced. Coach Morris didn’t want to see neither me nor his son on that bike."
Could you blame the coach? One accident could have wiped out half of his starting backfield and severely compromised the work of quarterback John Seely. By the way, those Indian Chief motorcycles are considered classics and sell now for thousands of dollars, Simonetta said.
But it’s Joe’s hands that tell his life story. He joined the Navy Reserve while in high school -- a fairly common practice at the time, he said -- and was called to active duty with the CBs (construction battalion) two days after graduation.
Because he had learned to be proficient with the drums -- those marching parade types -- he spent most of his two years of service playing with a Marine military band.
"I had never played in a band," he said. "Nothing organized like that. It’s just something I learned on my own growing up."
That "growing up" took place on Onota Street near West Street. Pitt Park was the playground where Simonetta said, "we got along really well and played everything."
Did we say his hands tell a story. He took art classes at the Boys’ Club where he flourished. Some of his best work, he said, came when he was ages 15 and 16.
"I did portraits, and just about everything else," said Simonetta, who had a show of his painted works this past December at Berkshire Medical Center.
But it’s sewing, of all things, where Simonetta made his name. He owned Pal Joey’s on North Street for 20 years and then continued to operate the unique clothing shop when it was located at the Pittsfield Plaza on Route 20.
He turned a coin or two making vests for motorcycle clubs, including the Hell’s Angels. Sewing leather was something that came easy, and he continues to sew and profit from his work to this day. It was through the Hell’s Angels that he met Minnelli.
"They actually served as her bodyguards back then," Simonetta said. "They asked if I would sew a leather jacket for her. So, I went down and measured her, and then went back to New York when it was completed and presented it to her.
"She was very nice. I think she was doing the Broadway play, "The Rink," at the time. We went out after the show to a nightclub and there were all sorts of celebrities at the place. But that’s not me. What was I going to talk about with those people?"
Pal Joey’s exhibited a wide range of clothing during its run, some of the line made by Simonetta.
Those buckskin hippie jackets that were popular during the 1970s were made by Simonetta, who also cashed in on the Cabbage Patch doll craze of the 1980s.
"I went over to England and bought hundreds," he said. "I came back here and sold them all. But I did that in 1985, and the height of it all was in 1983. If I had gone a couple of years earlier, I might have ended up being a millionaire."
A city lifer, Simonetta attended Briggs, Bartlett and Tucker schools, and was class president at North Junior High before entering PHS. After his time in the service was complete, he spent two years at the Worcester School of Business. He remains physically resilient. He suffered a serious heart attack 25 years ago and six years past beat lymphoma, a condition which at one point had him diagnosed at an advanced Stage 4.
He’s building a house for his daughter and is now on his fourth vintage car kit, He assembles the vehicles in the garage of his Route 20 home.
The football honor, he said, is gratifying, but he wants everyone to know that "it’s all about those teams and not me. I could not have achieved what I did without their help."
He fondly remembers play 27-x, a running play called twice that resulted in two long Simonetta touchdown runs against St. Joe in the 1956 clash won by PHS.
Credit the team, he said. Other helping hands, you might say. Something he knows about.
Joe Simonetta: A life and a work still in progress.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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