“Ma loved when I sang and danced for her. But there was one song she really liked. The words are, ‘I’ll make up for everything the world has done to you. I’ll make every little dream you’ve ever dreamed come true.’”
In 1945, five-year-old Vincent Tozzi won a contest hardly anybody could see – a tap dance contest broadcast over the old Johnny Olson Radio Show Talent Contest.
“I wish you folks at home could have seen Vincent. He turned a cartwheel and darn near wound himself around our ABC microphone,” Mr. Olson informed his listeners.
The young hoofer was featured in Collier’s Magazine.
But grown-up Vinny Tozzi has been blessed with the ability to see what’s invisible to many of us – people in need of help.
It’s a truism that the way to lift ourselves from loneliness or depression is to “do” for others. I asked Vinny – who lives with his dog, cat and cockatoo in a compact cottage smack in the middle of Vieques’ busy town of Isabel Segunda – if this is the reason he has become a one-person philanthropist.
“No,” he answered without hesitation. “I’m a happy person. I always have been. People tell you to live every day like it’s your last one – and I really do.”
Why, then, does he devote so much of his energies to fund-raising for outreach programs like Incubadora, a private foundation that funds and supports start-ups … to mentoring young people in the Reach for Success program … to donating to two local bands and the Humane Society?
“They’re there, and they need help,” is his simple answer.
Vinny Tozzi, the one-person philanthropist of Vieques.
His mother used to read a book a day, Vinny says, and was supremely intelligent. “She was the Hillary Clinton of Hell’s Kitchen. So even as a young man, I was a feminist.”
A graduate of Manhattan’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts, he spent his life traveling far from his Hell’s Kitchen roots – from Provincetown to Los Angeles – forging a career as chef and baker.
A photo of Vinny back in the day graces his book of poetry.
But he always kept his sight on those who needed help. In Los Angeles, for example, he wangled the Getty Museum to transport some 300 special needs people and host them at the museum’s grand opening.
And in his 18 years as a resident of Vieques, he hasn’t flagged.
On February 14, for instance, he will present his eighth Valentine’s Day dance -- Vieques Baila -- at the Coloseo Municipal, a performance space big enough to house a full-court basketball court.
It costs Vinny about $2,000 to mount the production. Even with that, he still has to recruit as many as 300 volunteer workers. It’s a production that demands months of planning, canvassing for donations from merchants, and recruiting talent for the dance show.
The annual fund-raiser kicks off at five o’clock with a reception followed by a dinner show featuring dance and singing acts, a children’s steel drum band, and the Plena Bomba troupe, which uses body movement to guide drummers. The capstone of the evening is a dance competition.
Past funds have gone to the Vieques Humane Society, to special needs children, and to the child care center. Funds from this year’s dance are earmarked for performing arts for Vieques children.
Walking to lunch with him at El Yate, a waterfront restaurant that serves comidas criollas, it seems that everybody in Vieques knows Vinny Tozzi and greets him with a traditional Viequense handshake, an hola or a como estas.
In the heat of the Caribbean’s noonday sun, he recalled the time when he felt the sharp reminder of angina in his chest and prayed, “Please, Lord, not here. I want to die coming out of Saks Fifth Avenue.”
“Ma used to say of my old tap shoes, ‘Look how hard you danced!’”
Vincent Tozzi’s biography, I Already Am, is available online at: http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/AdvancedSearch/Default.aspx?SearchTerm=%22I+Already+Am%22
His volume of poetry, A Gamut of Poems, is available online at: http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/AdvancedSearch/Default.aspx?SearchTerm=%22A+Gamut+of+Poems%22
In my next blog, “Culture of Competition”