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Flip Flop's Personal Jesus

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The Colorado History Museum's current exhibition, The Italians of Denver, celebrates the numerous contributions to local culture made by the proud immigrant families who came here from Italy and settled primarily in the northwest part of town. Yet for one painting in the exhibition — "The Agony in the Garden", shown here — the curator's notes are a bit skimpy.

The artist is identified as Clyde Smaldone. Although other prominent local Italian names, such as Ciancio, Leprino and Onofrio, receive extensive biographies in the exhibit, the Smaldone family gets ugatz. So let's set the record straight.

The painting is by Clyde "Flip Flop" Smaldone, a religious artist who perfected his craft during long periods of contemplation and seclusion. This Gethsemane scene was painted while he was a resident of the federal prison at Leavenworth in the 1950s, serving a seven-year stretch for jury tampering. Clyde and his brothers, Eugene "Checkers" Smaldone and Clarence "Chauncey" Smaldone, were the closest thing Denver ever had to an old-school crime syndicate; they ran gambling and bookmaking operations, dressed well and were occasionally linked to sensational crimes that were never officially solved.

They also gave generously to Catholic charities and ran restaurants — Frank Sinatra ate at Gaetano's in the old, old days. But people tend to remember the rough stuff; Clyde, for example, did some time in the 1940s for a bombing that blew a rival gambler's car apart but didn't kill him. Checkers died in 1992, Clyde six years later, at the age of 91, and Chauncey just last year.

One display in the exhibition attacks the discrimination Italian immigrants faced in America, including stereotypes about gangsters and the Black Hand. But if you're going to celebrate the Italian-American experience in Denver, it's good to see Flip Flop receive some recognition — even if his other achievements go unmentioned. –Alan Prendergast


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