There’s a story that Sylvester Zefferino Poli once worked a street corner collecting pennies as his pet monkey danced to organ grinder music. While this may not be 100 percent true, Poli did, in fact, emigrate to New York in September 1881.
Born on New Year’s Eve and raised in Piano di Coreglia, Italy (Lucca/Toscana) by his mother who made and sold cakes and candies and his father who was a church organist, Poli left home at 13 with a French sculptor for Paris to learn the trade of modeling with wax and clay. Completing his studies, Poli worked with a gallery and modeled kings, queens, presidents and groups from sketches and photographs into wax figures.
In 1881, he came to America and worked for a New York museum. Five years later, he was chief modeler for the Egyptian Museum in Philadelphia. In the aftermath of the Chicago Haymarket riots he created wax figures of the seven anarchists who were under death sentences. Each figure was wearing their actual clothes. Poli took his collection on tour and decided to establish combination museums and theaters for his collections and high-class vaudeville shows. From 1897 to 1926, Poli built theaters throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Performers included Al Jolson, Mae West, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Will Rogers, Bo Jangles, Sophie Tucker, Fred Allen, George Cohan, and Harry Houdini. Poli always believed in morality and clean shows and never tolerated anything unfit for public presentation.
In 1928, Poli reportedly sold his chain of theaters for $30 million.
He died at 79 at his Villa Rosa summer home in Woodmont, CT during the Memorial Day holiday. Over the years, Poli owned or controlled 30 theaters, three hotels, 2 building sites, and 500 offices. At one time, Poli controlled more theaters than anyone in the world. Not bad for an Italian immigrant who potentially began his career as an organ grinder with a dancing monkey.