Published on January 29th, 2014 | by Spencer
Watch The Pallino Reveals Bocce Subculture
Summary: A compelling look at one town's annual Labor Day bocce tradition.
It’s a backyard bocce tournament of epic proportions, with over 200 teams battling it out, year after year, for the prestigious title of Backyard Bocce Champs. Every Labor Day, Bocce troupes travel from all across the land to Toluca, IL in an annual pilgrimage dating back to 1948. Never heard of Toluca? Fret not fellow bocce Brigader. Not until just recently did I become aware of the Midwest’s best kept secret. And now I have the pleasure of sharing it with you.
“Watch The Pallino” is a documentary that highlights everything I love about bocce. The camaraderie between teammates, the rivalry between opponents and all the beer drinking shenanigans in between. Mmm, beer. I mean, bocce.
So how did a small town in Illinois evolve into a haven for bocce in the Midwest? Around the turn of the century, native Italians found themselves willing to relocate just about anywhere to find work. When coal was discovered in Toluca, Italian immigrants were among the firsts residents to call it their home. The Italian settlers appreciated the opportunity to mine and provide for their families. But a long tiresome week in the mine left them seeking a way to unwind on weekends. Miners sought a game that could be played at a local tavern, pint of beer in hand. So they did what they did best. They played bocce. And over a century later, the bocce scene in Toluca still thrives today.
Watch the Pallino takes us on a bocce filled journey, exposing the main character of the story, its residents. One such resident is a woman who brings wonderfully foul mouthed fun to the Toluca backyard bocce scene. Think Ray’s mom in Everybody Loves Raymond but a much sharper tounge, and a stronger fondness for cigarettes, and bocce. And beer. I call her Momma Bocce. Momma Bocce’s one liners make the perfect companion to any backyard bocce match. “If bullshit was music, you’d be a brass band!” Preach on Momma Bocce. Preach on.
In another fascinating moment, we’re taken to the birthplace to the Toluca Bocce scene, the neighborhood tavern. And who would have thought, it’s a pretty damn good place to pick up a bit of bocce wisdom. In a seemingly eureka moment local bar patron, bocce enthusiast, and not to mention, priest of Toluca draws paralells between the unpredictability of both bocce and life. It’s a pretty deep analogy, but it definitely got me thinking about the uncanny similarities.
Perhaps my favorite moment of the whole film happened seemingly by accident. In an interview with some of Toluca’s elders, a rogue bocce ball strays off course toward the group of men, currently giving an interview to the camera. Without missing a beat, the Italian elder pauses the interview, picks up the ball, and after determining where it came from, delivered a perfect 100 foot lob back to the player who lost it. His aim was nothing short of dead-on, and a stunning example of the formidable bocce talent, young and old, residing in Toluca.
Mind officially blown, I reached out to Stephanie Foerster, director of Watch The Pallino to find out more.
Backyard Brigade: You dedicated this film to “the old guys of Toluca”. My best guess says this expert bocce marksman was one of those old guys. But you also dedicated the film to your grandfather, Gordon Mastalio. I’m intrigued to know more about him.
Stephanie Foerster: My grandfather is 91 years young and is one of the town’s historians. He delivered oil to farmers and town residents for many years and is a long time ham radio operator. He is a great storyteller and is probably the reason I took such an interest in Toluca in the first place. My grandmother acts as the “fact checker” when he starts telling a story–she has an amazing memory and fills in the gaps for him!
BB: Toluca sounds like a fascinating place. What is your history with the city and its annual Labor Day bocce tournament?
SF: I’ve gone to Toluca on Labor Day for as long as I can remember. Before the documentary, I had competed just a few times and always felt like there is much more to the game than meets the eye. The Labor Day celebration is really special–the tournament, the beer tent, the carnival–getting to see the people I know and those that I recognize–there’s always a surprise or two. There was an Elvis impersonator a few years in a row, and also a mechanical bull. Nowadays they hold “Toluca Idol”–there’s always something quirky and entertaining happening!
BB: Toluca’s annual Labor Day bocce tournament sounds nothing short of massive. What has it been like seeing the tournament evolve year after year? Does the tournament attract many out-of-towners?
SF: It is a crazy few days–people come from out-of-town and the surrounding area as much for the bocce as the atmosphere. It is run in pretty much the same way it has been–the same megaphone, same finals match under the lights–same great food and plentiful beer.
BB: I found it interesting that Tolucans seem to add an interesting twist to the game, taking 2 big steps in any direction after the pallino is tossed. Is this a regional gameplay element unique to Toluca? And does it impact the gameplay?
SF: Since it’s off-court play, those steps can be a great help if you tend to throw short! Some people leap like Baryshnikov!
BB: Does Toluca still have untold stories worthy of a film sequel?
Watch The Pallino pulls back the curtains on Toluca, IL revealing a subset of American bocce culture that I never knew existed. This Labor Day, I would enjoy nothing more than to experience their festivities first hand. If you’re into bocce or just into drinking, hopefully we’ll get to experience it first hand.