Page 1: Biography
Vitetta, John Baptist
Musician, tomato grower
Musician, tomato grower
Musician, tomato grower
This biography, written by Shirley Tunnicliff, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Born on 16 April 1876 in Grumento Nova, Potenza province, Basilicata, Italy, Giuseppe (Joseph) Vitetta was the eldest son of Antonio Vitetta and his wife, Maria Rosa Giliberti. He had, at least, two young brothers, Vincenzo (Vincent), born on 28 December 1881 and Giovanni Battista (John Baptist), born in 1888. Music was part of the brothers' inheritance, their father having been a professional musician, and their maternal uncle, Domenico Giliberti, a violin teacher. Joseph played the violin, Vincenzo the flute. When Joseph and Vincent were 13 and 8 respectively they emigrated to Wellington, New Zealand, where they earned their living as street musicians. With the advent of silent movies they made a career playing accompaniments in cinemas, first at the King's Theatre and later at the Empress (formerly the Adelphi).
On 5 November 1894, at Wellington, Joseph Vitetta married a young Italian singer, Orgarita Millanta; they were to have two children, Maria Rosa (Rosie) and Luigi Cesare (Louie), who were taken by their mother to Australia shortly after Louie's birth in 1897. Joseph and Orgarita subsequently divorced, but Luigi returned to Wellington and lived with his father, attending Mt Cook and Kilbirnie schools. In 1903 Joseph and Vincent assisted their mother, now a widow, and younger brother John to join them in Wellington. There John joined his brothers as a musician, playing the harp in what became a well-known trio in theatre and cinema. By 1914 they were part of the Wellington Professional Orchestra. All three had become naturalised citizens in 1908.
In 1915 the Vitetta family moved to Nelson. The entry of Italy on the Allied side in the First World War in May enabled the Italian immigrants who had been arriving in the city for the past 10 years to identify with and gain acceptance from the local community. In September the Vitettas took part in a patriotic procession in aid of Italian widows and orphans.
Joseph Vitetta and his brothers soon established a reputation for their music. In August 1915 they performed at a film evening in aid of the Sick and Wounded Soldiers' Fund, and a week later 'our well-known and popular orchestra' played at a film show at the Nelson School of Music. Vitetta's String Band also played 'several charming selections' at a function sponsored by the Suter Art Society and the Red Cross.
During the 1920s the Vitetta brothers, like many of Nelson's Italian settlers, began growing tomatoes. Joseph was the first grower to use a sterilisation plant in his hothouse. In experimenting with this new method of soil disinfection he worked with the scientists at the Cawthron Institute; papers by Theodore Rigg and Elsa Kidson gave him full credit for his contribution. Tomato growing became the brothers' full-time means of earning their living from about 1930 when the advent of talking pictures cut down their work as musicians. They also produced and marketed their own brand of tomato sauce.
In July 1931 the Italian consul visited the Nelson Italian community. To welcome him, the Vitetta brothers organised a social evening and personally provided the music. During the evening it was decided to form the Club Italia to provide a continuing opportunity for the enjoyment of Italian culture. Vincent Vitetta was elected chairman. The club celebrated Italian festivals, and while keeping Italian culture alive also supported local community activities and fostered good citizenship, thus helping the integration of Italians into Nelson life.
For 26 years the Vitettas' mother dominated their adult lives and cared for their domestic needs. Joseph's daughter, Rosie, returned to New Zealand as a young woman, and took over the household after her grandmother's death in 1929. She, too, was gifted artistically, playing the piano and the mandolin, singing in local choirs and exhibiting her paintings in the Bishop Suter Art Gallery. The family house in Trafalgar Street was a centre for social gatherings with a large music room where they all played and sang. The Vitettas provided music for every Italian wedding and stood as godparents for a whole generation of Italian infants. They were all involved with the activities of St Mary's Catholic parish, John being the first organist and choirmaster, and Rosie devoting herself to charitable work. The brothers were remembered fondly for their warmth and generosity, particularly for offering hospitality and employment to new immigrants. Their love of opera was such that they are said never to have missed a visit to Wellington by overseas companies during the years between the wars. All three were keen bowls players, Vincent being one of the best in the district.
When the Vitetta brothers retired, about 1951, they seem to have lost their zest for life and rapidly declined in health. Rosie faithfully nursed them until they died: John on 15 November 1954, Vincent on 16 June 1956 (both unmarried), and Joseph, who had been bed-ridden for three years, later that year on 17 October. Rosie died, unmarried, in 1967. For 40 years the family had been at the centre of Nelson's Italian community and had played a large part in the city's musical life.