theatre visionary with strong ties to Milford
Situated behind a stone wall at the intersection of Merwin Avenue and Abigail Street in Woodmont is the estate of the late Sylvester Z. Poli. Long-time residents of Milford are familiar with the local landmark. Not too many, on the other hand, may know much about the man who resided in the estate fronting Long Island Sound.
Poli, who was referred to by friends and associates simply as “SZ,” was a visionary who in the late 19th century saw the potential of live theatre and, therefore, legitimized vaudeville without the bawdiness for which it previously had gained notoriety. He was one of the first entrepreneurs to recognize the potential of the motion picture and he was responsible for helping launch the careers of such noted stage and screen stars as Al Jolson and James Cagney, among others. Poli also amassed a fortune by buying renovating, restoring or building theaters from New England to Washington, D.C. The famed College Theatre in downtown New Haven, for example, was once a Poli property. By the time he died in the spring of 1937 at the age of 80, he was a business mogul whose reputation was matched only by very few others. His Woodmont estate is a tribute not only to the man and his accomplishments but also to his foresight and to the entertainment industry he helped to flourish.
Sylvester Z. Poli was born on the last day of 1858 in Piano Lucca, Tuscany, Di Coreglio, Italy. Because he showed an early talent for sculpting and clay modeling, a well-known sculptor invited the 13-year-old to go to France and become the sculptor’s apprentice. Within a short period of time Poli mastered the modeling and sculpting craft and he learned how to sculpt in wax. Following 32 months service with the Army, he returned to Paris and his studies where his work was quickly noticed by a museum director who hired him to work in the institution’s historical wax collection. It was while he was at this museum that Poli became skilled in modeling from sketches. As a result, he was offered an opportunity to come to the United States. He sailed to New York in the fall of 1881 and never looked back. It was during his museum career in New York that he met his wife-to-be, Rosa Leverone, who was born in Genoa, Italy. “It was love at first sight,” Mrs. Poli confided. They were married three months later. Poli was 27 at the time. His wife was 16. They would become lifetime partners, not only in marriage but in business as well.
In late 1886, Poli was invited to relocate to Philadelphia to become chief modeler at the new Egyptian Museum. Two days after his new exhibit had opened, fire engulfed the building that housed the museum. His exhibit, however, miraculously survived the conflagration. It was relocated and became so successful that Poli took it on tour to other cities. He traveled extensively with similar shows until 1989 when he decided he had sufficient experience to open his own museum. He and a partner opened Robinson and Company in Toronto, a three-story building that featured a wax museum on the third floor, curios and a menagerie on the second floor and a variety show on the first floor.