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Rail City resident has seen, made music history
by Emily Umphrey — Special to the Tribune
Dec 10, 2013 | 1741 views | 2 2 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Richard Ballerini
Richard Ballerini
Richard Ballerini, known to his friends as Richie, is keeping the classics alive with his weekly performances of tunes from the golden era of music at Pietro’s Italian Restaurant in Sparks.

Ballerini was born in Tuscany, Italy, moving to the United States when he was 8 years old, around the same time many others were immigrating from Europe in hopes of making a better life.

When they moved, he stopped in New York for two years before ultimately moving to San Francisco because his mother had seen pictures and thought it was beautiful. They moved into North Beach, which was a primarily Italian neighborhood at the time where they didn’t have to speak English to communicate.

“So my brothers and I all learned to speak English better than (my parents) ever did. They didn’t really have to learn,” Ballerini said. “They stayed within the community. We had to go to public school, so we had to learn English and then we would come home and have to switch back to Italian.”

Ballerini started performing in school doing Drama and Debate as another way to learn English and overcome his fear of audiences and talking in front of people.

He eventually received a scholarship to San Francisco State College. Then he went to work for the American Conservatory Theater, where he worked for two years with a group called the Committee — which later became Saturday Night Live — when they were an improv group on Broadway in San Francisco.

Over time, Ballerini, along with the band he was playing with at the time, moved to Las Vegas to try and make it in the music industry, though he hadn’t yet discovered his talent for singing.

“Back in the days when there were big bands, almost all of the large bands had a banjo player in them,” he said. “A good old fashioned four-string banjo player. And I just always liked the sound of the Banjo so I learned how to play.”

In fact, it was by pure coincidence that Ballerini would find his calling as a singer.

“I started singing one night when our front man didn’t show up for the gig. And they said ‘what are we going to do’ because we were all just musicians and he was our front man. And I said well, I know a couple of his songs and next thing I knew I was doing the songs that night and I continued doing them from there on in.”

Ballerini was playing Las Vegas in his early 20’s when Dean Martin discovered him on stage.

“Dean took me under his wing so to speak much in the same way Frank (Sinatra) did with Sam (Davis Jr.),” he said. “Dean was very instrumental in helping me move from the small clubs on the Las Vegas strip into the casinos and later working with him and Frank, Sammy, Bing Crosby ... When Dean started the Dean Martin Show, he asked if I would come work for him.”

Dean Martin’s contract with NBC stipulated that he only work one day a week — on Fridays because that was the day they would tape. Rehearsals with the band and the guest stars, however, happened Monday-Thursday with Ballerini acting as a stand in for Martin during rehearsals, singing with some of the biggest names in music at the time, for the entire nine-year run of the original Dean Martin Show.

Years later, shortly after limited gaming was legalized in California, Ballerini received a call from one of his friends asking him to come and be Entertainment Director for a casino in California. The general manager of the casino convinced him by reminding him that he knew everyone in Vegas at the time.

So Ballerini found himself packing and moving to San Diego ready to experience something different.

From that casino he moved to another casino, Twin Pine Casino where he worked and performed for seven years.

From there he went to another casino briefly before ultimately coming to Reno, making Sparks his permanent residence in 2009. Then, a friend asked him to run a nightclub.

“He figured if I could run a casino with 3,000 people, I could surely run a little nightclub.”

Expanding on his life, and the people he met and the jobs he had, Ballerni said, “Looking back now (going from performer to hiring performers) was a great thing because I was on both sides of that stage. I was the one doing the hiring and at other times I was the one being hired in the casinos. So it made it much more easy for me personally to relate to all the performers who came in and make sure whatever their needs were they were taken care of, in a timely fashion and to their liking so they could give the best performance they were capable of.”

He never did end up hiring the people he had performed with in Vegas, he says, because by the time he was running casinos most of them were retired.

It didn’t take long for him to find Pietro’s Italian Restaurant. He was introduced to the owner Pietro by a friend, at a birthday party where he continues to sing, going on five years now.

“I like it here. I really do,” he said. “We don’t have quite the same hustle and bustle here in Sparks as we do over in Reno ... I really like it here.”

Ballerini can be found performing for the Sparks Farmer’s Market in the summer as well as every weekend at Pietro’s on Victorian Avenue from 6-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 6-8 p.m on Sundays.
Comments-icon Post a Comment
December 11, 2013
Very nice man and neighbor. Love listening to him sing those classics :) Great food at Piertros also
Dino Martin Peters
December 13, 2013
What an amazin' tale of the gracious generosity of our most beloved Dino. Know that the reflections on Mr. Ballerini's relationship with Dino are bein' shared this day with all the pallies gathered 'round ilovedinomartin.
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