Italian Team of the Century- Frank Curcio

If you wish to see the whole Italian Team of the Century, it’s available at: http://www.italianteamofthecentury.com.au/final-team.php

By Tony De Bolfo

In an interview with a Melbourne sports journalist in 1995, the late Richmond ruckman Jack Dyer, known both infamously and endearingly as “Captain Blood”, declared Frank Curcio one of his greatest on-field adversaries.[1]

“He was a nice fella Curcio, a very nice fellow,” Dyer was quoted as saying. “We had a couple of brawls, but they were football brawls [and] they were forgotten as soon as they finished.

“On Saturday nights he [Curcio] used to go into the State Theatre to play the [double bass] violin. We thought he was terrific because he used to have a dress suit for the concerts. Sometimes we’d nick into the theatre to see him. It was a big thing for us.

“I can still remember people singing out from the sidelines. ‘Don’t touch his hands. He has to play tonight’.”

Francis Eduardo Curcio – musician, publican, wartime aircraftman, sales rep, SP bookmaker and Fitzroy’s first 200-game footballer – was born in Clifton Hill, a northern inner city suburb of Melbourne, on November 25, 1912. He was the elder son of Antonio and Carmelina Castella (nee Cadusch) Curcio, following two sisters Josephine and Livia, and preceding a sister Viola, brother Antonio junior and another sister Roma, the only surviving sibling.

Frank’s kinfolk generally agree that as a kid he was given more than a free rein.

“We all adored him, but he was a bit of a villain,” Frank’s niece, Jo Wright says. “My mother told me that he used to love walking across the top ledge of the Merri Creek bridge and could quite easily have toppled and killed himself. But this particular day he was caught crossing by a policeman who brought him home to my Nonna and he was grounded then and there.

“Now Frank was only a kid of 10 or 11 then and he used to sell copies of The Herald outside the old Clifton picture theatre for pocket money after school, but he couldn’t do it this particular day because he was sent to his bedroom for walking along the bridge.

“Anyway, Frank snuck out the bedroom window, like kids will, and he got down to the theatre the same night his mother just happened to be there. As she walked into the theatre, Frank strolled across and said to her ‘Do you want a Herald lady?”. She went to grab him, but he ran into the men’s toilets.”

Though his father, Antonio, was born just outside of Toulouse in 1883, Frank’s Italian origins can be traced back to his grandfather after whom he was named.

Francesco Curcio was born in Marsicovetere, about 60 kilometres south of Potenza in the Basilicata region of southern Italy, on November 29, 1855.

Two years after Francesco’s birth, Marsicovetere was severely damaged by an earthquake, which wiped out a quarter of the town’s population.

Francesco survived.

In 1875, Francesco married a local girl Giuseppina Evangelista. She would give birth to five girls and two boys, one of whom was Antonio.

At Clifton Hill, in applying for registration as an “alien” under the war precautions regulations of 1916, Francesco Curcio, fancy goods seller of 202 McKean Street, Fitzroy, declared that he arrived in the Commonwealth on New Year’s Day 1890. By the time he had submitted his application, Giuseppina had already died in Fitzroy on June 29, 1906, at 46 years of age.

Two years after Giuseppina’s death, Francesco exchanged wedding vows with another woman from his old hometown – Filomena Germino – who would give birth to three more children for Francesco – a son and two daughters.

Back home, Francesco earned a handsome reputation as a wandering minstrel, which probably explains why Antonio was born in southern France. As Roma (nee Curcio) Read says: “They [Francesco and his family] were all musicians who left Italy, I presume, because they hailed from a poor village and they had to rely on their music to earn a living. In the end they made it all the way to New Zealand, crossed to Sydney and came down to Melbourne”.

“Frank, his father and his grandfather were all musicians. I believe our grandfather taught a lot of family members to play. Some family members played violin, while another one played the harp, another the cello and Mum the piano,” Roma says.

“We lived up the top end of Rowe Street [North Fitzroy] at number 94. The house is still there, I went back a few years ago to have a look and I was surprised how small it seemed.

“One of the best memories of my childhood between the wars was when they all got together there to play at night on New Year’s Eve. There’d be my father, a couple of uncles including Uncle Joe (my father’s young stepbrother), who lived around the corner in McKean Street, as well as Frank . . . and most of them played violins.

“Then there was Uncle Tom Cerbasi on the harp and the Riccos from Rushall Crescent – Vince Ricco on the flute and Victor Ricco on the fiddle. There’d be about a dozen of them and they’d sit on the front verandah and play, and all the neighbours would come around, stand by the gate at the front fence and hear this beautiful Italian traditional music. We kids were supposed to be in bed, but we’d hang out the window to hear the music too.”

The Curcios were Fitzroy through and through. Their allegiance to the Lions (or the Gorillas as they were then known) went with the territory in the days when football was truly territorial.

For Frank, the bond with Fitzroy was probably forged well before he embarked on his first job as an apprentice mechanic and his boss just happened to be the great Fitzroy full-forward Jack Moriarty, who Frank always regarded as his mentor.

Frank rapidly earned an uncompromising reputation as a footballer with the Christian Young Men’s Society from which he joined the Fitzroy Football Club. Such was the respect held for the 85.5kg ruckman that in 1938 Curcio was named Fitzroy captain, replacing the legendary Haydn Bunton senior, then a neighbour in Rowe Street. In fact, Bunton used to visit the Curcio household to bathe in Condy’s crystals, which soothed cuts and bruises, but also doubled as a tanning agent. According to Jo, “he [Bunton] was apparently always well tanned and that’s why the girls loved him”.

For Roma, the colours maroon and blue also ran deep, from the time she lugged her books to school as an 11 year-old. “In those days you could play out in the street after school and Rowe Street was wide. Across the road, directly opposite from us, lived Haydn Bunton, then a young lad from the bush, who boarded with a lady named Mrs Crowther. Now Haydn and Frank would jog down to training at Brunswick Street Oval and every kid in that street would jog down there after them,” Roma says.

“Rowe Street runs from Rushall Crescent where the old United Kingdom Hotel was, right down to the Edinburgh Gardens where the football field was and everybody would walk down there to see the game of a Saturday afternoon.

“I can remember going to watch Frank play. They were the days of the Hughson brothers, Doug Nicholls, ‘Chicken’ Smallhorn and Clen Denning. Frank was a rugged player, a Jack Dyer-type, but I thought better than Jack Dyer. My father also liked to watch him play and he was very proud of course, because Frank was the first-born son and my father thought the sun shone out of him no matter what he did.

“Players could call Frank any name they’d want to on the football field, and you can imagine what they called him then. Mussolini was invading Ethiopia at the time and they’d call him ‘Mussa’, but that was probably a term of endearment, particularly from supporters in those days, and it never worried Frank. But if anyone called him a ‘dago’ that would really cut Pop to the quick, because in his mind a ‘dago’ was an uneducated savage.”

Mick can remember Antonio adhering to the old ways of his European heritage.

“Poppa [Antonio] also used to make his own salami, his own pasta and fig jam from the figs off his tree,” Mick says. “He used to get around in smooth clothes and talk in different dialects and I even heard him refer to other Italians under his breath as ‘bloody peasants’, which I thought was the pot calling the kettle black. But Dad couldn’t speak Italian, nor could his brother or any of the girls . . . and none of them ever married an Italian. Dad married Coral Stafford, ‘Josie’ married Bernard Eltringham, Livia married Maurie Sheean, Roma married Charles Read, the other sister [Viola] died young and Tony never married.

“In the finish, Dad went to Italy, but never sought out the place where his folks came from. I did the same thing I suppose. I went through Italy, but never even thought about looking the place up.”

Frank was only a boy of ten when his grandfather, Francesco, died in 1922, but together with his father Antonio, Frank continued to uphold the musical tradition by playing on at the various Melbourne theatres.

“Most of the theatres had their own orchestras in those days and I can remember as a kid going with Mum to see my father playing in the orchestra at the Capitol. The musicians in the orchestra would rise out of the pit to play either before the show or at interval and down they’d go again,” Roma says.

“Joe Curcio and Berty Curcio, my father’s brother, played in the orchestra at the State Theatre and Frank also used to play double bass violin in the Metro Theatre orchestra. I know that when I started going to dances, Frank used to play in a dance band at the St Kilda Town Hall. He used to pack his big bass into the back of the car and my girlfriend and I would get a lift down there and back home with him.”

Mick too remembers his father’s connection with the Metro. “I know that because that was where he met Mum, who was an usherette,” he says.

Coral Jean Stafford was Frank’s second wife. They married in 1938 after Frank divorced Phyllis Eva Andrews, with whom he had exchanged vows in ’34.

Coral hailed from the hills of Tasmania, one of 21 children according to Mick. Coral was only 12 when her mother died, and her father ultimately married her late mother’s sister.

“Life was pretty tough in Tassie . . . there was no work. They all came to the mainland to find work and I’ve taken quite a number of my aunts and uncles’ ashes back there,” Mick says.

“Mum and Dad first lived in a flat [believed to be in Miller Street] and then above a greengrocer’s shop in Gilbert Road, Preston. I’m not sure where Mum lived when Dad went to the war [he lived with Frank’s parents at Rowe Street] and I think my first brother [Frank] was born while he was away. I have no idea whether my father was called up, but he ended up in New Guinea around 1944 and he was involved with the armoury.”

For the record, Frank enlisted at North Fitzroy on March 2, 1942 (as serviceman No.51522) and while it’s uncertain when he was actually called away for active duty (and he played for Fitzroy in ’43) he was discharged from duties on October 26, 1945. By then, Frank’s commitment to God, King and Country had cost him an appearance in what was the Gorillas’ last Grand Final victory of ’44.

Frank and Coral Curcio raised three sons and a daughter – Frank junior, who was born in 1943, Christopher in 1945, Michael in 1947 and Jan in 1955.

Though Frank represented the Lions (or the Gorillas as they were then known) in three stints from 1932-’36, 1938-’43 and 1945-’48, Mick never got to see his father play. He was born the year before Frank hung up the boots.

“Dad used to tell me he was a champion and I used to tell him he was full of it,” Mick says. “I used to say to him, ‘Prove it, show me’, because all I had was the scrapbook. It really wasn’t until he was dead, buried and gone and I went up one night to accept his award as a member of Fitzroy’s Team of the 20th Century that I thought ‘Gee he must have been able to play’. To be quite honest, I never really knew how good he was until then.

“Dad never really mentioned anything about football or the blokes who he played with or against. He never mentioned anything about the war either. He wasn’t one to dwell on the past, which I suppose is a bit of a pity . . . ”

But Mick clings to precious memories of his days as a Fitzroy supporter.

“My involvement at Fitzroy was great. I was a Gorillas man and I’d go to all the grounds – the old Hawthorn ground, the St Kilda ground and of course the Fitzroy ground,” he says. “Dad was Chairman of Selectors by then and we’d drive down to the Brunswick Street Oval from Whittlesea in the old De Soto, down Plenty Road, through Northcote where the old cannons are and we’d stop at Poppa’s at Rowe Street. We’d then walk through the park and into the ground.

“Like most kids I used to trail behind my old man and when I got to the door of the player’s rooms this old bloke on the door always pushed me out, even though he must have known who I was. I used to give it a couple of seconds and then my old man would come out and needless to say I was in fairly quickly.

“I can remember the boys getting their rubdowns and getting dressed. I can still see Kevin Murray as a fresh-faced kid. Geez he looked like he was 12, but he must have been 17 and he still looks pretty fresh-faced too.”

Regrettably, Frank’s involvement with Fitzroy ended in acrimony.

“I don’t know what actually happened, and nobody from Fitzroy ever mentioned it to me, but Dad must have had a falling out with the president or the treasurer . . . Ward Stuchbury I think his name was,” Mick says.

“I’m not sure what caused the ruckus, but Dad walked out on Fitzroy and never went back. That was the old man all over. It must have happened around 1955 and as far as I know he’d been involved continuously at the club since his playing days, with the exception of the war.

“I loved football back then and I loved the team. I loved everything about it, but by the time I’d turned seven that was really it. Despite all the invitations, Dad never really went back to Fitzroy. He walked out, never mentioned the game again and the only Fitzroy person I can remember coming to see Dad at the house or at the hotel [at Whittlesea] was Alan Ruthven.

“I don’t know how many times in my life people have said to me, ‘Frank Curcio was a great player’ and ‘a hard man’. As a father he was a hard man too. I had quite a few battles with him, not that I didn’t respect him of course. I did.”

While Frank’s football career was marked for its longevity, his musical career was cruelly curtailed.

“He broke three fingers on his left hand playing footy for the Air Force side and I have no idea how it happened. But he’d never ever suffered an injury to his fingers in all the years he played footy for Fitzroy,” Mick says.

“When he left the service he got a job with Ampol as a sale rep because, as I recall, the Managing Director of Ampol had something to do with Fitzroy. Dad used to get around from ‘servo’ to ‘servo’ and I remember he used to stop in at the ‘servos’ around here on his way to the Fitzroy ground. He must have had old mates there. I know one of his mates had the Massey Ferguson place on the corner of Plenty Road and Bell Street, but I can’t remember his name.”

While Frank was committing his energies to Ampol, Coral was effectively managing the family hotel in Whittlesea. “It was six o’clock closing in them days and my mother was running the pub,” Mick says.

“Dad later threw the job in at Ampol and became the publican. My earliest memory of my father is when we had the hotel there. This was after Dad came back from the war with his fingers busted up and he couldn’t be a musician anymore.

“I know that Dad was also the SP bookie at the old pub on the corner of St George’s Road and Holden Street2 . That was his other stock in trade. Anyway the pub was on the corner with a lane beside it and, as usual, single fronted terrace houses running down the street.

“Dad used to stand in the yard of the first terrace place next to the lane, so that you could walk out of the pub, down the lane, into the backyard and place your bet. Every pub had an SP bookie in those days – otherwise you wouldn’t be in business. I can remember clearly walking out of the lane there with Dad, carrying a bunch of placecards and asking ‘What are these?’. ‘Give me those’, came the reply.

“I actually think that was where Dad got his start in pubs. There was never any trouble in the pubs because everybody knew that he had a quick temper. He was a publican for the rest of his working life before retiring to Queensland.”

The Whittlesea days were not happy ones for either Mick or his mother

“I said that Dad was a hard man and he was hard on Mum too. Mum was a darling. She spent all her time in the pub, working in the kitchen and cooking counter lunches,” Mick says.

“I’d get home from school at four o’clock and was told to drop my books and go straight into the bar. I’d then have to pour beers until half past six, sweep out all the bars and the toilets, head down to the cellar with the old man, have a bit of dinner, then head out at about eight o’clock to try and do some homework. As a consequence the schoolwork suffered and everything suffered . . . ”

After a time at the Whittlesea Hotel, Frank and the family moved on to Newmarket, then Phillip Island and various other hotels dotted along the Mornington Peninsula.

Jo said that when she and her husband relocated to McRae to assume duties as caretakers of the lighthouse, Uncle Frank often used to pay a visit to the cottage because he was managing a pub at nearby Mt Martha.

“At one point he was running The Sundowner at Seaford, but he used to call it ‘The Gundowner’ because he got held up in the bottle shop down there,” Jo says. “He had a gun pulled on him and he was getting on in years when that happened, but he still managed to disarm the bloke.”

In the late 1950s, some years after the birth of their fourth and last child, Frank and Coral separated. Frank then formed what was a 15-year relationship with another woman, June Flanders, eventually marrying her after Coral died in August 1973.

When June, Frank’s third wife, died not long afterwards, he struck up a relationship with another woman almost 30 years his junior with whom he worked at the hotel in Seaford. The pair later relocated to Queensland, where Frank had previously taken June on holidays to afford her some respite from her asthma.

Mick says that while a lot of people have talked to him in glowing terms about his father’s playing career, the same cannot be said for his life in general.

“He was a vain man, he loved women and women loved him, which is fine if you’re single, but it had a bad impact on all of us,” Mick says.

“Why was he the way he was? I’ve thought about this a lot. I believe that Dad was absolutely spoilt by his father. He was one of a family of two boys and three girls, but he was the golden child. Dad never told me this, but his sisters did. They said he got everything and maybe he quickly learned in life that whatever he wanted he could get.”

Mick’s brothers Frank and Chris were already residing on the Gold Coast when their father relocated. “Dad went up there because he had an apartment and he always planned to retire up there,” Mick says.

Frank died on the Gold Coast on Remembrance Day – November 11, 1988 – but his remains were returned to his place of birth. His funeral took place at St John of God’s Church Clifton Hill, opposite St Thomas’ school where he once attended, and he was then interred with his second wife Coral at Fawkner.

A healthy core of Fitzroy people turned out at the funeral to pay their respects. Amongst them was a former teammate of Frank’s, Clen Denning, who was also a surviving member of the Gorillas’ ’44 Grand Final triumph and the only senior league footballer to boot six goals with his first six kicks on debut.

In October 2005, 95 year-old Clen, said of Frank: “He was a very good player, Frank. A top player. He was one of those fellows who could hold his own with anyone really. He wasn’t frightened of any other ruckman, Dyer included. As far as he was concerned they were flesh and blood like anybody else”.

And little sister Roma? “Well, Frank was fun-loving, he had his faults, but he was a happy-go-lucky fellow,” she says.

“He had an outgoing personality and he liked people.”




[1] Jack Dyer was interviewed by Ken Piesse for the April 1995 edition of Football Australia.

2 site of the old Aberdeen Hotel, now an apartment block.

Comments

  1. Hello, I was fascinated to read of this story. I am a distant relative of Frank Curcio but up until now I did not know much about him. His father and my grandfather Amedee were brothers and both musicians who very much known in the Italian circles at this time. I would very much like to speak to the author of this article, to see whether he in fact can put me in contact with Michael Curcio so that I can connect with him and discuss my family further. Can you please help me with this?

    Regards
    Pam

  2. Glenda Clarke (curcio) says:

    Congratulations on a great story. I too am related and often heard stories from aunts of the musical afternoons on the verandah of 202 McKean st. Growing up, my family followed Fitzroy- we were not a family of staunch footy die-hards but we held allegiance to Fitzroy in support of the family’s connection to the team.
    Your story brings to life those long dead (and not so long dead) Curcio’s of old.
    Thankyou

    Regards
    Glenda

  3. Tony De Bolfo says:

    To Pam and Glenda,

    Do feel free to make contact with me in respect of Frank Curcio – adebolfo@bigpond.net.au.

    Kindest regards,

    Tony

  4. Noeleen Reynolds says:

    Frank was a friend of my parents, I always remember him as the publican of The Isle of Wight Hotel (Phillip Island) where I now live. He was always a real generous and friendly guy. I was only a child at the time but I was still aware of his strong presence. His ex wife (Coral) Jean as we knew her was my mothers best friend….Auntie Jean, Michael and Jan were close friends. What an interesting story this is and I was very happy to stumble across it, Cheers all Noeleen Reynolds (Hayes)

  5. brian cadusch says:

    Too all concern, what amazing story,Mr Curico lived life too the fullest..My dad J.V.Cadusch always talked to us kids about what a great footballer he was,and can remember the pubs as well..Dad’s brother uncle John played for Fitzroy..
    Yours Brian Cadusch….Kerang 3579 vic 0488176702
    I live in Kerang and am Vietnam Veteran,and live on a T.P.I pension…thanks once again for a great story,and will pass on to the family..

  6. John Harms says:

    G’day Brian, Great to hear from you. Thanks for taking the time to send in a comment. Would love to hear more of your own family’s footy story.

  7. brian cadusch says:

    Thanks john,,
    you know about my dads brother John who played for Fitzroy,he played 7 games he was recruited from Malvern East in1936..Peter Cadusch and fill you in about uncle john..My dad played footy herein kerang,it was called the Line League then in those days ,along the Railway line,,ie Tragowel,mincha,macorna,pyramid hill dingee etc…My dad according to the elder gents he was a grat cricket player who once took 8/0,in country week ricket,not too bad team all out for 11,i believe.Wrote to ken piesse about dad but neve r got a reply,it was i beleive in the papers,cant find it,yet again i am a novice in this bloody game of internet..My late brother Wayne was a v/good player here for kerang rovers was killed with 2 others kerang boys,he was supposed to have played the next day in those days the kds would travel back to kerang to play.Iplayed footy and played the next saturday backfrom home in the Vietnam war,,,excuse the spelling ,,,Brian

  8. Dave Binotto says:

    Dear Tony,

    Dear Tony,

    Thanks for such a well researched article. Frank was my Nonna’s elder brother and reading your article brought back so many memories of my grandmother’s stories of her childhood and the music. So much so I wrote a song called ‘Ricco’s Cafe’ dedicated to the restaurant the Ricco family owned within The Windsor Hotel and where they would all gather and play. I can say at least the music passed down thru the generation but not the footy so much even though we are die hard Carlton fans ! All the best and thanks once again. I’m so pleased I finally my cousin Melissa showed me your article… P.S. Hi Glenda !! It’s been such a long time and hope you are well xo

  9. Hi Tony (and David)

    Mum (Norma Binotto, daughter of Adelina Curcio) remembers it all, and loved your article. Antonio is Adelina’s much-older brother, and so Frank was mum’s cousin. 202 McKean Street has brought back many memories. Thanks Tony

    Melissa Skilbeck

  10. Jamie-lee Curcio says:

    Hello,

    I am Frank’s Granddaughter. What a very interesting read! He is greatly missed and highly spoken of within our family.

    If anyone has anymore information about his life i would love to hear more

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