By Cary Shuman
Family and friends are remembering Mario Zullo, a member of one of Chelsea’s most prominent families, as a respected business owner and a larger-than-life figure for decades who knew people from all walks of life and every corner of Chelsea.
Mr. Zullo, who had nine brothers and two sisters, died on Sept. 30, 2016 surrounded by his loving family. He was 90 years. He was the son of Christopher and Angelina Zullo.
There was a touch of irony that Mario died on the week the Jewish New Year was being observed. Growing up on Maverick Street in a city with thousands of Jewish residents, Mario had many Jewish friends who shared his love of life, knew his close-knit family well, and enjoyed the sport of boxing as much as he did.
Mario became the Chelsea connection to Rocky Marciano, the Brockton Bomber who became the heavyweight champion of the world and retired with an undefeated record. Mario served as Rocky’s publicist and confidante and the champion’s visits to Chelsea were frequent. It was Mario who brought the then-world champ Marciano to Chelsea for the Columbus Day Parade in which he and the champ occupied a convertible with then-Mayor Andrew P. Quigley.
Former heavyweight champion John Ruiz, the first Latino to win the title, also came to value Mario’s career advice and guidance.
Mario’s personality and street-smart eloquence – sometimes using Yiddish expressions – were infectious. His cleaning store, Park Cleaners, was a place to receive not only great service from Mario and his beloved wife, Elena, but to receive advice and discuss the issues of the day.
Daughter Judi Festa and her husband, William “Chuck,” and daughter Diane Zullo are proud members of the family living in Peabody. Mario’s sister, Barbara Libby, a well-known volunteer at the Chelsea Senior Center, is the lone surviving sibling.
Mario’s nieces and nephews, Angela Zullo, Michael Zullo, Richard Zullo, and twins Paul Zullo and Lisa Zullo, the children of former amateur boxing champion Michael “Mickey” Zullo and Jeanette (Fantasia) Zullo, were among the local carriers of the family’s charm, charisma, and mystique. The Zullos were generous, personable, and kind, and like their uncle and parents, the Zullo children’s warmth was genuine and welcoming to people in all communities.
Mr. Zullo had three grandchildren, Alana Rikeman, Giana Festa, and Joseph Breda.
He attended Chelsea High School and entered the U.S. Navy. He started a dry cleaning business handling the needs of the nearby Chelsea Naval Yard. He was in the dry cleaning business for decades, opening his first store in Chelsea. His store was at the corner of Park Street and Everett Avenue, just a few doors down from Kirshon Paint.
The love of his life was Elena (Cianfrocca) Zullo, who died in 2014.
“It was love at first sight,” said Judi. “They had their wedding reception at Revere City Hall. They were always together.”
Mario struck up a friendship with Rocky Marciano, who knocked out 90 percent of his opponents and held the championship from 1952 to 1956. A world-renowned figure, Rocky chose to spend a lot of his time away from the ring with Mario, whom he trusted and considered a real friend.
“Mario went to every one of his fights,” said Judi. “Rocky would train at Grossinger’s in New York and he wanted Mario to be around him.”
Part of the strong connection with Rocky was attributed to Mario’s comfortableness with people of all backgrounds.
“Mario was comfortable with people no matter what their status or caliber was,” said Judi. “When he met somebody, they wanted to be around him. The Jewish people loved him. They invited him to the synagogue and to celebrate the holidays.”
One time on a family trip to Las Vegas, Mario took a seat next to two multi-millionaires – one a businessman and the other a movie producer.
“By the time the show started, Mario had them eating out of his hand,” said his daughter. “I cannot even tell you how people just gravitated to him.”
Judi said she and her sister inherited their father’s outgoing personality and ability to connect with people. Mario was the center of attention at family gatherings, she related.
Judi said Park Cleaners became Mario’s platform, working alongside his beloved wife.
“He solved everyone’s problems at the store,” said Judi. “He made friends with everybody and knew how to make people feel important. John Ruiz became one of his buddies. Whenever you went in to the store, Mario and his wife were together. They were great dancers, too.”
Mario loved Chelsea with all his heart. “He and Andrew Quigley had a great relationship. They were very close,” said Judi. “There was a great photo in the Chelsea Record of Mario, Andrew, and Rocky riding down Broadway in a controvertible during the Columbus Day Parade.”
Mario was healthy through his later years but following a bout with pneumonia, he became a resident of a nursing home in Peabody.
“Mario’s care at the nursing home was awesome,” said Judi. “He was like the mayor of the nursing home. He would go around meeting people. I used to bring him cookies and my sister would bring him things.
“The other residents would tell me, ‘we love your father, he always has those cookies.”
From his early days on Maverick Street to the final days of a wonderful life, Mario was always giving to others and making people feel good about themselves.
That’s the Mario Zullo that Chelsea will never forget.