By Michael D. Minichiello
This month’s West Village Original is Vincent Livelli, born in Brooklyn in 1920, baptized at St. Anthony’s on Sullivan Street, and raised in Greenwich Village. A former professional dancer, he held jobs as cruise director on ships for over 20 years where he pioneered the growth of on-ship entertainment. Despite being hearing impaired since he was a child, Livelli also learned five languages which, not surprisingly, he claims was a great asset during his career. He currently lives on Perry Street.
As a child growing up in Greenwich Village, Vincent Livelli had to overcome a hearing impairment that neither his family nor teachers were equipped to handle. So he learned to be resourceful. “At night I would put the radio under my pillow and was able to absorb the music while lying down in bed,” he says. “My father would say, ‘Shut that that damn thing off, I’m trying to go to sleep!,’ but I was married to the radio. Because of my impairment, it was easier for me to absorb drumbeats and that’s why I was drawn to Cuban music. I felt touched by the drums. I would call it ‘divine music’: music from outer space. That’s because sound waves never die. Light waves diminish, but sound waves have been known by scientists to exist forever.”
This early exposure to Cuban rhythm and music would lead Livelli—as a young man in the late 1930s—to a Cuban dance hall called the Park Plaza in East Harlem where the house orchestra was called The Happy Boys. “I would go and hang out there,” he says. “They thought I was a cop because I was taller than anyone else! One night they asked me why I didn’t dance and I replied that I didn’t know how. I couldn’t even dance the Fox Trot back then. So a heavy woman named Estella took me out on the floor and that was the first step I took into the world of dancing. I went on to teach Latin dancing—bolero, merengue, tango, rumba—all over Miami in the 1940s. I had ended up there from attending the University of Miami. It was easy to find work because all the hotels had to have a Latin dance team. Everybody wanted to learn it. From there it was just a step to teaching dance on cruise ships and eventually I graduated to cruise director.”
What was it about the life of cruising on ships that appealed to Livelli? “I like to say that it’s ‘yoga afloat’,” he replies. “When you’re on a ship you’re calmly moving in a way you don’t normally do. While the feeling on land is hurly-burly, on the sea it’s extraordinarily calm. You’re also eating beautiful food and you’re surrounded by pure air. If you can stand the boredom, it’s a wonderful life!” He laughs. “I stood it because the job provided me with comfort, money, food, commissions from merchants, and romance, which meant dancing under the stars. That sort of life is exquisite. I also felt I was there to make people happy because without happiness what is life?”
By the time he retired, Livelli had sailed on 64 ships, been around the world, and visited 60 countries. “I went on the untrodden path before there was one!” he says. “The ships started to grow in size and amenities, too. My first ship—the SS Dominicana, which did winter cruises out of Miami—wasn’t even air-conditioned. At the end of my career ships were many times bigger and offered all sorts of entertainment, much of it thanks to me. I think I had a beautiful life and that’s why I’m able to boast a little. Travel makes you happier than anything else that I know.”
Livelli wonders if he’s “not a true Villager” because he left for many years after high school, living abroad or on ships instead. But since settling back down here, he’s changed his mind. “It’s where my heart is,” he admits. “I actually find the Village more exciting and interesting than in the old days, when it was just rough. Now we have all these well-dressed actors, models and show business people living along these expensive streets. We’ve also become very polite. We didn’t used to be that way when we didn’t have tourists in the neighborhood. Now it’s full of them. You say “Greenwich Village” anywhere in the world these days and people know of it.”