Man With a Million Stories: Charlie Lanzillo Turns 100, Remembers Chelsea

When Charlie ‘Honey’ Lanzillo was growing up on Chester Avenue, there was always a way to make a few cents around the neighborhood.

In what was then a predominately Jewish city at the time, the way for a non-Jewish kid to put a few pennies in his pocket every Saturday night was to carve out a territory and go around turning off the lights, and blowing out the candles, of the Jewish families in the area – as they could not perform those actions due to religious restrictions.

Guest of honor Charlie Lanzillo at his 100th birthday celebration at Homewood Suites, Chelsea, Sunday, pictured with his great-grandchildren (front row) Mason and Max Marotta; (back row) grandson Mathew Marotta, daughter Susan DeSantis, son Charles Lanzillo Jr., grandson Rick Marotta, and daughter Joan Lanzillo Hahesy.

“That’s what all of us boys did,” he recalled during an interview with the Record on the eve of his 100th birthday, which was Jan. 7. “We would go into the house and put out the candles and the lights every Saturday morning. They would leave two pennies on the table. You just walk right in and put it out and the pennies were always on the table. We used to look forward to that. No one locked their doors. I would get to do about four houses, jumping over fences to go to Cottage Street, Bellingham Street, Chester Avenue and Watts Street.”

That and many more memories captivate anyone willing to sit and hear Lanzillo talk about living his entire life in Chelsea.

He remembers the Lower Bridge that swung around to get to Charlestown – long before the Mystic/Tobin towered over the City.

He worked for 27 years laying out hot lead type for the Chelsea Record when the offices were located at 35 Fourth St.

He’s even had the same phone number for 79 years – a story unto itself.

“In the old days on Chester Avenue, we had party lines, so you couldn’t use the phone if your neighbor was using it,” he said. “You had to wait for them. Our number was Chelsea 32114J, but the girl across the street was always on the phone and constantly using it. My wife, Dorothy, went and complained and they gave us our phone number. I’ve had that same phone number now for about 79 years.”

Lanzillo was born in 149 Chester Ave., and grew up in a household comprised of an Italian father, Louis, and an Irish mother, Catherine. He said he lived nearly all of his life in that house prior to moving to Admiral’s Hill in 1982, and then to the Cohen, Florence, Levine Estates on Admiral’s Hill two years ago.

“It’s a great street,” he said. “I was on the second floor and when I got married I moved to the third floor.”

Lanzillo’s father, Louis, was the first Italian firefighter on the Chelsea Fire Department, and that wasn’t by merit, he joked.

“His father was the first Italian on the Chelsea Fire Department,” said his daughter, Susan DeSantis. “Back then, they were all big, strapping Irishman and my grandfather was small and he looked like a kid compared to those guys. He got on because my grandmother was Irish. Her brother was an alderman – Mike Smith – and he made sure that Louis gone on there. It was a story about who he knew rather than what he knew. Now there is a long line of Lanzillos on the Chelsea Fire Department and on other fire departments too.”

Lanzillo said his father came from Italy and had a store in the North End. They had a house built in Chelsea by Mr. Romano of Revere. They made their own wine and lived the Italian life on Chester Avenue, recalled Lanzillo.

As a kid, he remembers roasting potatoes in the City Dump, which was at Highland Park and was always on fire.

“We always had so much fun doing those kinds of things growing up here,” he said. “We would find potatoes and take them down to the dump at Highland Park and roast them over the fire. They were good. The skin was nice and brown.”

He was even part of the long-forgotten ‘Knot Hole Gang’ with the Boston Braves baseball team. Any kid under 16 who wanted to come to a game could get in for free if they signed up for the club. He and his Chelsea friends watched many Boston Braves games, and always fondly remembered being part of the “gang.”

He attended the Shurtleff School, and graduated from the old Chelsea High in 1939.

Lanzillo had a distinguished service in the Air Force during World War II, which was the only time he left Chelsea. He served on Tinian Island in the Pacific, flying on the ‘Dinah Might’ aircraft. He also had the task of sending off the bombers that dropped both Atomic Bombs on Japan in 1945.

“The first one we didn’t know anything about – no one knew what was happening,” he said. “The second one we all knew about and we were terrified. Everyone was scared it would blow up on the island before the plane left. That would have been the end of the island and all of us.”

Lanzillo came back home via San Francisco, then took a train back to North Station in Boston – then home to Chelsea.

While raising his three children on Chester Avenue with his wife, Dorothy (Bouvier), Lanzillo worked for the Chelsea Record – where he spent 27 years. He set hot lead type at a time when the Record was a daily publication. He recalls coming home with lead all over his pants and dirty from a hard day’s work.

“I never wanted to leave Chelsea,” he said. “I loved walking to work, and playing marbles with the kids on the street on my way there and coming home. I loved being close to the family and not having to go far.”

While at the Record, he recalled a few “newspaper secrets,” including one time that he saved his mother-in-law from some embarrassment.

She was very fond of visiting Walter’s Cleaners on Congress Street, but it wasn’t for the cleaning or the laundry. In fact, Walter was ‘Walter the Bookie,’ and Lanzillo said his mother-in-law had a soft spot for placing bets with the bookies around Chelsea.

However, one day while she was at Walter’s, the police raided the joint.

“She was so mad when they raided it and she got caught there,” said his daughter, Joan Lanzillo-Hahesy. “She told them in a French accent she had been coming there for 40 years and they couldn’t arrest her. My father came to the rescue in the paper. The police log had her name in it from being arrested, and he was able to re-arrange the letters in the lead type so that you couldn’t tell it was her name. Again, it wasn’t what you knew, but who you knew.”

Lanzillo survived colon cancer when he was in his 50s, and he’s had two knees replaced and two hips replaced.

These days, his favorite meal is chocolate, or some sort of candy – and everyone said he is a great addition to the Estates.

“He’s a gentleman – sweet, kind and polite all the time,” said Yuri Velez, executive director of the Estates. “He’s been a wonderful addition here to our community.”

And beyond that, Lanzillo has been – and still is – a treasure to the Chelsea community, carrying stories of how life once was here in the city – stories that few know about or remember.

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