Salvatore Reina, Pharmacist & Entrepreneur

Coit Tower, NorthBeach from Russian Hill, 1955
Coit Tower, NorthBeach from Russian Hill, 1955 (Photo
Salvatore Alan Reina, Il Cenacolo’s 4th president, was born in the Ybor City section of Tampa, Florida, in 1899, the fourth of seven children. His parents had emigrated from the province of Agrigento in Sicily. In 1900, Tampa had a population of 16,000, over 40% of them foreign-born or the children of immigrants (Cubans, Afro-Cubans, Italians and Spaniards). In this thriving Latin world, Salvatore grew up speaking fluent Italian and Spanish, which would serve him well down the line. The Italians there were overwhelmingly Sicilians, and most of the Sicilians hailed from hilltop villages in the Val di Magazzolo in that same Agrigento province. The economic base of Tampa was tobacco, with 129 factories producing fine Havana-style cigars, and the town was a center of immigrant labor militancy. There’s a book on the history of the Ybor City Italian community, and it mentions a certain Salvatore Reina (the same name as Sal’s father), establishing a dairy farm in 1894. We know from Homer, Sal’s only son, that his grandfather engaged in the grain and animal feed business, a close cousin to cattle raising. Maybe, they’re one and the same person.

In any case, in 1910, the elder Salvatore, on the recoil from a business setback in Florida, relocated his family to San Francisco and established a grocery and liquor store on Russian Hill near the Guadalupe Church.

Salvatore Alan Reina was educated at the Hankock Grammar School, Lowell High School, and Heald College. From age ten, he started learning the pharmacy business by part-timing at the Gloria Pharmacy. In 1920, with a $5,000 loan from William Rustici, who owned Sunset Produce, Sal established the Venice Drug Company at 785 Comubus Ave. near Greenwich. In 1946, he relocated the drugstore to larger quarters at 532 Columbus Ave., between Stockton and Union Sts., the present site of the Rose Pistola Restaurant. When Sal Reina got into the pharmacy business, there was no dearth of Italian pharmacists in San Francisco. A 1925 compilation found in the Cenacolo archives lists 99 Italian-American pharmacists and 18 Italian-American apprentice pharmacists in the city. During nearly fifty years of activity, before he closed his business in 1969, Sal was responsible for training a series of local pharmacy graduates (among them, Edward Genochio, Arthur Bruschera, James Bruschera, and Albert De Luca).

The Venice Drug Company was the largest of the eight to ten drugstores serving the North Beach community. (Some of you might remember the Anchor, Rossi, and Beneficenza pharmacies.) Besides prescription medicines and over-the-counter remedies, the store did a brisk business in wines (mostly Dago red), liquors and tobacco (the infamous toscani), as well as the Three Horsemen of the Esophagus (Brioschi, Branca and Bisleri), the Killer Bees, also known as the Liquid Plumbers of the Italian Intestinal System. The Venice Drug Company had district exclusivity for Kodak cameras, film and photographic supplies and for a number of high-end cosmetic lines. At its height, it gave work to up to six fulltime employees and was a transition between the traditional apothecary shop and modern super-drugstores a la Walgreens and Long’s.

In the early 1960s, when Angelo J. Scampini, a cenacolista di santa memoria, organized the Columbus Savings & Loan Association, he invited Sal to join its board of directors. Sal’s network of business, political and social contacts in the North Beach and wider communities was rightly considered an asset to the fledgling bank. After his retirement in 1969, he was given a desk on the floor of the local branch at the intersection of Columbus, Stockton and Green. Sal’s function was basically as a PR man: greeter, magnet of good will, clearinghouse of information, and neighborhood ombudsman. He served there for a honorarium of one dollar a year, until Imperial Savings of San Diego, which in the meantime had purchased the bank, told him that his services were no longer required. This was in 1988. It was a very sad day for Salvatore Reina and marked the end of an era for North Beach.

Both before and after his two retirements, Salvatore Reina was very active (too bad we don’t have an English equivalent of attivissimo) in the business, cultural, civic and political life of the neighborhood (the “Little City,” so to speak) and the wider metropolis beyond. His two most notable achievements along these lines were as chairman of the North Beach Merchants Off-Street Parking Committee and of the North Beach Citizens Library Committee in the 1950s, in which he spearheaded the successful campaign for a city parking structure on Vallejo St. and a North Beach branch of the San Francisco Public Library. Sal was big on underground parking facilities. Two of his failed projects in the 1960s were a parking garage under Washington Square and an Italian Cultural and Trade Center at the site of the old Milano Theater at the intersection of Powell, Union and Filbert Sts., with (you guessed it!) underground parking.

A lesser known failed project was Sal’s backing of Kansas governor Alf Landon in the 1936 national election. As president of the First Voters’ Republican Club of San Francisco, he declared that Landon’s election “would secure to America a government not by a huge tax-spending bureaucracy, but by those who will bring back to us a sound administration, uncontrolled by the Socialistic doctrines we have seen developed by the Washington government.” The club’s address happened to be 785 Columbus Ave.

Among Sal Reina’s other affiliations, which demonstrate the breadth and openness of his interests and involvements, were the Spanish-speaking El Buen Vecino Club (as president), the Chinatown-North Beach Development Committee (as co-chairman), the Chinese Cultural Foundation (as a director), the San Francisco Symphony Foundation (as board member), and Planned Parenthood.

Within the city’s Italian community, Sal was ubiquitous. At one time or another he was on the board of directors of the Italy-America Society and the Italian American Chamber of Commerce, both now defunct. He was also president of the Italian Welfare Agency (1958-63) and of the Leonardo da Vinci Society (1969-75). Sal continued to be an active board member of those two organizations until shortly before his death at age ninety-three in 1992. The Welfare Agency had looked into the possibility of an Italian retirement center which never came to fruition. Out of this experience arose a less ambitious project spearheaded by Carina, Inc. Founded by Sal Reina in 1976 and named for his lovely and charming wife, the former Nell Beltz (affectionately called Carina), the non-profit organization funded Casa Costanzo in the former Riviera Hotel above the Fior d’Italia at the corner of Union and Stockton Sts. Inaugurated by Vice President Walter Mondale in 1979, Casa Costanzo provided housing for low-income Italian-American seniors.

For his efforts on behalf of Italian culture, his humanitarian endeavors and his neighborhood boosterism in the best sense of the word, Salvatore Alan Reina was awarded the Stella di Solidarieta’ by the Italian Republic in 1956 and was feted in North Beach on at least two gala occasions. On January 24, 1981, during a tribute dinner at Bimbo’s 365 Club, appropriately entitled “A Man for All Seasons,” Mayor Dianne Feinstein declared it to be “Sal Reina Day in San Francisco.” Then, on the evening of November 1, 1990, right here in this very building, the Italian Welfare Agency bestowed upon him its yearly Humanitarian Award.

It should be remembered, though, that Sal Reina’s exemplary qualities of kindness, graciousness, generosity, and genuine human concern were not channeled only through formal organizations. Both at the Venice Drug Company and later at his ample desk with Columbus and then Imperial Savings, Sal engaged in one-to-one retail humanitarianism. He imparted advice and counsel to numberless individuals, newcomers and old timers, who came to him seeking a guide for the perplexed. One of my closest friends, Roger Signoretti, who immigrated to San Francisco from Italy via Venezuela in 1960, was told that he could count on Sal to give him a lead in finding a job. Roger went down to the drugstore, and Sal told him to go over to the engineering department at P.G. & E. (Roger had experience as a draftsman) and ask for an Italian whom Sal had placed there some months before. Roger got the job on July 14, 1961, and worked there until 1992, when (most unfortunately) he relocated to Medford, Oregon, upon retirement. When, in the late 1980s, Roger was my guest at a Cenacolo luncheon and met Sal, after lo! those many years, it was an old homecoming, a rimpatriata, with hugs and thanks. Pure serendipity, because I had no inkling of the relationship between the two of them.

Homer tells me that his dad’s two enthralling hobbies were rowing on the San Francisco Bay and Il Cenacolo. Sal was a believer in the Latin adage, mens sana in corpore sano, and since 1938 had been a member of the South End Rowing Club. He rowed on weekends until he was ninety years old.

Sal’s other absorbing pastime and passion was Il Cenacolo, which he joined in 1932, only four years after the club’s founding. In our archives, we have a great Moulin Studio group photo taken of a Christmas dinner on December 18, 1939, in our suite at the Fairmont Hotel, Guido J. Musto presiding. A forty-year-old Sal is seated there at table, suited-up, slim and handsome. Musto, our second president, served in that capacity for eighteen years. The closest anyone has ever approached him in tenure is Salvatore Reina, who presided over the club from May 1952 through June 1964.

During Sal’s presidency, membership varied between about 100 and 150 dues-paying members at ten dollars a year. There were also honorary members and another category called “contributing members,“ those who lent support to the organization in one capacity or another. Curiously, Tom Vano, one of our two longest continuous members, was first elected a contributing member at the board meeting of November 7, 1955, for having put together a photo album of the club’s second Opera Outing, for which he was paid $35. The Cenacolo’s material assets during the Reina presidency increased from $2,900 in May 1952 to $7,300, as of the last directors’ meeting over which he presided in May 1964.

The club’s programs and activities included the usual Thursday luncheons, initially at the Green Room of the St. Francis Hotel, with a guest speaker on the first Thursday of each month, an annual business meeting and dinner, and an annual Christmas party in the Red Room of the Bohemian Club. The speakers at the luncheons spoke in Italian or English. There were a number of presentations by the successive Italian consuls general (the Baron Filippo Muzi-Falconi, Pierluigi Alvera’, Alessandro Savorgnan). To give an idea of the postwar environment, on June 23, 1952, Minister Plenipotentiary Giusto Giusti del Giardino (no, it’s not a made-up name!), on a mission to ease immigration restrictions in the US, Canada, Australia and South America, explained to the gathered Cenacolisti Italy’s problem of “over-population.” (Today, Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in the world and, since the 1970s, has been a country of net immigration.)

I’ve culled the minutes of the board of directors’ meetings, meticulously kept by the recording secretary, Joseph J. Corrao, and I found four lasting innovations initiated under the leadership of Salvatore Reina. In 1952, Renzo Turco, at the time the only surviving founder of the club who was an active member, wrote “The History and Purposes of Il Cenacolo,” as a preface to the roster of members, which was for the first time printed and distributed. Turco’s account, with modifications, is still our club’s official introduction. Secondly, starting in May 1955, the board decided that all Thursday functions be at the Fior d’Italia Restaurant, then located on Broadway. In fact, the luncheons, board meetings and annual business dinners were from that point on held there. (There were, by the way, periodic discussions of finding permanent “club rooms” for Il Cenacolo, like the old arrangement at the Fairmont Hotel–the University Club was mentioned–but the idea was dropped because of the costs involved.) Under Sal’s leadership, non-Italian board members were first added: in 1957, John Page, followed by Dr. Felix Pearl, MD, in 1958, and Nicholas Boyd in 1963. (Thank God for our non-Italian Italophiles!)

Finally, in the Summer of 1954, the Cenacolo organized its first Opera Outing at the Monte Rosso Vineyard of the Louis M. Martini Winery. The club had sponsored annual picnics since 1933, functions which had fallen by the wayside during the dark days of World War Two. There was also a longstanding relationship between Il Cenacolo and the San Francisco Opera Company. Fostered by Sal Reina’s love of musica lirica, on October 9, 1952, there was a luncheon in honor of Italian members of the company, at which fourteen participated, including Salvatore Baccaloni and Italo Tajo. On Sunday, August 22nd, 1954, our first Opera Outing was held with 150 members and guests. The next year, there were 160 in attendance, excluding the opera stars and their families. Since then, we’ve never looked back.

Salvatore Alan Reina continued his active participation in the Cenacolo until his death. He sponsored me for membership sometime during Ercole Caroselli’s presidency in 1977-79, for those are the first luncheons that I remember.
In conclusion, I would like to quote from the testimonial when Sal was awarded the Italian Welfare Agency’s Humanitarian Award in 1990: “If any man can be considered to have integrated in exemplary fashion personal accomplishment and entrepreneurial success, together with cultural interests, and the spirit of service to his community, it is certainly Salvatore.” Amen.

© 2024 Il Cenacolo, Talk by Andrew M. Canepa  April 27, 2006

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