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Howard Beach resident Arnie Migliaccio said a casual late-night walk in 1943 past some barracks in Davisville, R.I. led to an opportunity he had been waiting for all his young life.
Migliaccio, then 22 and a new Navy recruit, had been looking for a chance to play the drums since he began playing the cello as a child. And it was that night that luckily for him the regular drummer in the Navy's band could not play and the band leader asked him to substitute - only days before he was to ship out for duty.
The band leader, George Liberace, was the brother of famed pianist Wlacziu Valentino Liberace. He accepted Migliaccio into the big band and the rest, as they say, is history.
Now Migliaccio, 81, has his own big band called the Arnie Mig Orchestra that plays between 30 and 40 shows a year throughout the borough and the rest of the city. The 15-member band most recently played at St. Helen's Church in Howard Beach as part of a continuing 13-year tradition for Migliaccio, who started up the band in 1982.
"George always told me, 'Give the people what they want. Give the people dance music,'" he said. "Music is my life."
Migliaccio, a Howard Beach resident since 1965, started his first band after joining the New York City Auxiliary Police force in the 106th Precinct in 1982. He said he was frustrated at the lack of big bands in the Howard Beach area and decided to recruit people from all over the city to form a traveling group.
He then formed his own 15-member band that includes veteran trombonists, saxophonists and trumpeters. Migliaccio said when his band plays tunes from his era, such as "Moonlight Serenade" and "In the Mood," the older set goes wild.
"Women throw us kisses and men just go like this," he said, putting his arms above his head with two thumbs up. "We're not a jazz band, we're a dance band."
The band plays a regular gig at TJ Bentley's in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn every fourth Sunday, Migliaccio said.
Migliaccio, who recounted stories from gigs throughout his past, has a house dotted with pictures of his wife Blanche, three sons, one daughter and seven grandchildren. Another picture, lit on the wall at the top of the steps from the entryway, is of his father who came to America in the 1890s and became an Italian comedian known as Farfariello.
Migliaccio said his father first gave him a cello in 1937 when he came back from Italy and sparked his initial interest in music. This interest, however, took a back seat after Migliaccio was discharged in 1945.
It was then that Migliaccio met his wife, the daughter of a baker, and took a job for five years in Brooklyn with his father-in-law at Alba Pastry on 18th Avenue.
He then went back to school and earned several advanced degrees in electronics and used those skills to land a position at Columbia University's electronics research laboratory.
Migliaccio, who went on to open his own scientific business in Harlem in 1972, decided in 1980 that he wanted to do something different and go back to focus on music. It was then that he started his band with the NYPD's auxiliary force.
"I have always done what I wanted to do," he said. "I just cannot stay idle."
This determination to stay busy has led Migliaccio to organize other groups of people and pursue his other interest in restoring old cars and military planes. From these interests, Migliaccio and the National Parks Service have started a museum dedicated to World War II-era plans at Floyd Bennett Field.
He works there several times a week with a core group of volunteers restoring old and semi-destroyed airplanes from World War II.
Migliaccio even brought his interest in collecting and restoring things home, where he used to have a collection of 11 MG cars.
"My wife said, 'If you don't get rid of these cars, I'm going to want a divorce,'" he laughed. "I love creating something new out of something that was demolished. That gives me such pleasure."
But even with all the good times generated by his new interests and bands, Migliaccio still fondly remembers his original big band during his 2 1/2 years of Navy service and how he was able to secure a post in the armed forces.
Migliaccio lit up when he recalled how he and his fellow band members were playing on the South Pacific island of Guam for troops when they turned around and noticed six Japanese soldiers watching them perform. He said the group, playing on a flat bed truck that would travel from one location to another, continued on until a firefight broke out between Allied and Japanese troops after the Allies noticed the enemy forces.
Originally from Bensonhurst, Migliaccio said it took his writing a letter to President Roosevelt for him to convince government officials to accept him into the armed forces.
"I was the only one left in the neighborhood," he said.
Migliaccio, who had had a hearing problem since he was a child, had been rejected from fighting in World War II until he took Roosevelt's letter to his local draft board. It was then, he said, that an official from the newly formed Construction Battalion, known as CB's, decided to accept Migliaccio into his unit.
And despite transfers from bases on both the West and East coasts, it must have been a bit of fate and coincidence that landed Migliaccio in Davisville that night in 1943.
"That was a wonderful group. We were so close," he said. "It was like family."
Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.
©2003 Community Newspaper Group
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