What can be said about being on the earth for 100 years? Imagine the life that is lived, recorded, experienced. Does everyone live every day? Truly? Allowing oneself to be immersed in what they are passionate about? I would challenge that. So few, in these days, seem to have the ability to slow it down–to really exist in moments as they come and play out. This weekend, however, I was the fortunate one to have been able to spend time with Rita Acciavatti, on the evening prior to her 100th completed trip around the sun, which was Sunday, June 27th. And, truly, what a woman.
Born in Vancouver, B.C., her parents then moved to Nanaimo. A lover of music, Rita quipped that she came into the world with her affinity for performance already evident, “I arrived singing. It is my passion.”
She was 17 when she landed her first paying job as a singer with a Big Band at the Club Seracco. Beaming as she related this moment of triumph, her quiet pleasure in reliving this event was palpable. She met the man who would be her husband during the World War, when he was stationed in Nanaimo. They had gone together for “a year or so” when they married and then, shortly thereafter, moved to the Sault, which is where her husband was from and where his family was. She recalled her introduction to the music scene in Sault Ste. Marie, back then.
“When we had gotten to the Sault, my husband brought me to the Palm Gardens to hear Len Ciashini and his band, the Continentals.”
Her love of music lead her to wonder if they were looking for a singer. Her husband, who was acquainted with Len, brought Rita to the sign shop that he owned and operated. The meeting went well, and Rita was asked to sing with the band’s piano player. And she was hired.
Around this time, Len’s brother, Ned had moved back to the Sault from Toronto. Also a musician, he started a band and began to play at various events, such as the dances held at the Armories. Rita was one of the only singers. She became known professionally as “Rita–the Girl with a Beat”. Her talents as a singer had her performing with various bands, including that of Tony Dionisi, with whom she sang “quite a bit” throughout 1947 and 1948. As her reputation grew, Rita was offered a radio show — “Rita and the Tunesmiths” broadcasted on CJIC, AM radio.
Throughout her life, she kept singing until she eventually ended up with the “Happy Days Band”, a group that played mostly at the Legion. She kept singing with them until 1986, when she decided to retire. Of her retirement, she laughed softly and said “I just didn’t want to stay too long at the Fair.”
When asked what she considered to be the secret to her success, to her longevity and youthful demeanour, she was thoughtful, but lighthearted.
“What comes into my head, tends to come out of my mouth. So many of my friends are now either in nursing homes, or have passed. Now, I spend time with younger people. I would say, try to learn something new every day. Keep your mind occupied, and interested. Go to a dance. Listen to music. Music is wonderful. It keeps you focused on other things–good things. Oh, and eat your veggies and fruits.”
When asked about her thoughts on the pandemic, as I was interested in her perspective given that she has lived through so many world events, she was not terribly concerned about illness. “I worry about people getting it.” She acknowledged that COVID has meant that she has had to stay home for much of the time. “Apparently, I am high risk.” she said with a laugh, “I wonder why?”
Certainly, the current state of our community has meant a very different celebration from what her family wanted for her. However, the plans for a bigger event are underway, once restrictions have loosened a bit further. On Sunday, June 27th, a small celebration was held in her daughter Laura’s home. However, plans are for a bigger party in the later summer that will include grandchildren and great-grandchildren, whom she has missed very much, not having seen them since the beginning of the pandemic.
A final word from this incredible person, that sums up the brief conversation that I had with her on a Saturday afternoon, is what I will leave you with.
“I just live day by day and thank the Lord that I am still here.”
Happy, happy birthday to you Rita. Speaking with you was a most sincere and singular pleasure and I look forward to meeting you in person one day soon.