This interview originally appeared in Issue #43 of Weird NJ.
The Livingston/Roseland area of the 1970s wasn’t quite what it is today. Where there are now office parks and pricey developments, there were once woods, trails, farms and open space—enough for the local kids to partake in long rides on dirt bikes. Among them were a few of the younger Boiardo grandsons: Mario and Michael Balestro. And one friend of Weird NJ, whom we’ll call Frank P. to protect his identity, sat down recently to tell us how he befriended Michael and became a regular at the Boiardo estate, as well as his encounters there with Richie “The Boot” Boiardo.
Joanne Austin: How did you come to know the Boiardo family?
Frank P.: It was 1977, and we used to ride dirt bikes in a place we called the Quarry in Roseland. It’s now called Nob Hill. And I’m from Livingston, so it was right through Becker’s Farm, and one of our favorite activities when we were younger. We were on our dirt bikes, and I remember Mike Balestro coming down the hill. Somebody I was with said, “That’s the guy who lives at the Boiardo estate.”
We got to talking and he said, “Are you guys hungry?” He seemed like he was lonely, almost. He wanted us to come with him. There were three or four of us, so we went back to the house. I think he had leftover spaghetti in the fridge that we ate, and then his father came home. I could hear his voice like it was yesterday: “Michael, you know you can’t have anybody here.” He made us go, and he was kind of upset, which we all were: we wanted to check the place out.
After, I talked to a friend of mine, actually a friend of my cousin—we’ve got some people the same “family” as the Boiardos. I mentioned that I met Mike and what happened. A couple of days later, Mike calls me at my house (even though I never told him my number) and said, “You can come up, but you can’t bring anyone with you.”
And we got to be really good friends from then on. I want to say from ’77 to ’81, I was probably there almost every day.
JA: What were the things you saw there? I think a lot of people are like me, they’ll stop at the bottom of the driveway (on Beaufort Avenue) and not drive up the hill or anything like that, but we’re always curious about what you see when you go up the hill.
FP: I always came in the back way, because the mansion was off limits. You didn’t go by there.
JA: But you have to go up the driveway to get the mansion?
FP: Yes. Off of Beaufort, you’d come up. The driveway coming up from that way was beautiful. The way the trees grew, it was like a tunnel going up the driveway, with those old lampposts, and you made that left, and you come to all the busts and Richie on his white horse. And when you made the right to go straight, there was a dog in a cage, Rocky, who would probably eat you if he was out of the cage.
JA: What kind of a dog was he?
FP: He was a German shepherd. There was Rocky and there was Queenie. Queenie was loose, walking around, a friendly dog. She’d come up to us and we’d pet her. But Rocky was not a friendly dog. And I say that because—and I didn’t know his name until after I saw it in the paper when they had this big arrest of all these Mafia people, and the number one guy, his last name was DeVingo. He was the guy who would walk the dog when me and Mike would walk down to the mansion. And he would go, “Sic ‘em, sic ‘em!” And the dog wanted to eat us and DeVingo was laughing, holding the dog back, and we would run away.
I guess Mike never had a lot of visitors, so when Richie the Boot was out walking around and saw Mike with anybody—usually it was me at the time—he’d say, “What’s it, your birthday?” And he’d pull out a silver dollar and give it to us. Then we’d have Mike’s father drive us to the mall, because back then silver was $50 an ounce. We’d get $50 for that coin at the mall. So we would hit him maybe up once a month.
JA: He always had a silver dollar? He just gave one to you, though, right?
FP: Just one. And I feel bad, hitting him up. Because Mike would say, “Let’s get some money and go to the mall.” And we’d hit the grandfather up, and Mike said, “Don’t worry. He has a garbage can full of them.” That is what he told me.
JA: What else do you remember about Richie?
FP: I remember he loved the birds. He always fed the birds. His house had a birdhouse…
JA: Were there peacocks?
FP: I never saw the peacocks. That must have been before. But there were doves. Because when me and Mike went down there with the BB gun, and we didn’t even get near the mansion, and DeVingo said, “Don’t even think about it.” Mike had his nice BB gun, and he said, “If your grandfather sees you, it’s going to be all over.” No more silver dollars.
JA: Did you ever see Richie on one of his horses?
FP: No, he was…
JA: Oh, by that point, he wasn’t riding horses any more.
FP: When I first met Richie the Boot, he was still driving. This black Plymouth Belvidere, I think it was. Maybe a ’65 or ’66. And we were on our motorcycles. And he passed us going about 100 miles an hour on Beaufort Avenue, and we told Mike’s father that he almost killed us, which he did. And that was it. The car was parked in Tootsie’s (one of Richie’s daughters) garage.
My parents never drove me up the driveway; I never went down the driveway except if I was with Mike. He would rip his dirt bike down the driveway, skid across Beaufort, almost get hit by cars, and then come flying back up. The grandfather would call his father and say, “Could you make him shut that thing up?” Then we’d have to go back into the woods. Why Mike ever did that, I don’t know. He was crazy with that.
Frank said that the mansion and all of the other houses on the property were made of stone, “Like fortresses.” The property also included a bomb shelter, as well as a generator building that housed what Mike told Frank was a six-cylinder locomotive engine that could power the whole place. There was the massive pool, which had gone into disrepair by the time Frank came around, and empty stables under the last house on the compound. A road took you further up the hill, where there were orchards, a pump house, tennis courts, and a family chapel with a steeple that Mike’s older brother Mario had turned into a target for his shotgun. There was also a building that Frank referred to as “the Restaurant.”
FP: It was buried halfway underground, because the roof was a little higher than my head. You’d walk down the stairs into it; it was a big, rectangular structure. Men’s and ladies’ bathrooms, big Coca-Cola coolers, a Viking six-burner stove, so they had big parties up there. There was a big table, by the big outdoor grill that I think people may have thought was a crematorium. You could probably fit a person on it, but it was just a big grill, with this big, long table.
The road continued beyond the chapel and the restaurant. If you went right, it became a stone road that led to the Nike Missile base. Off in the woods was a building that technically was considered a hunting lodge. But Mike, true to imaginative kids everywhere, had a different name for it: the Hell House.
FP: While exploring in the woods on the way to the Nike Base, we found a house set back in the woods. It was just like the restaurant: it was half buried, so the roof wasn’t that high off the ground, with barbed wire around it, and engraved in the stone by the front door was an “RB,” so I guess Ruggerio Boiardo. It was a small house, two little rooms, one room with a kitchen and a fireplace. There was a table with a couple of folding chairs, and there was one room with two beds.
Mike called it the Hell House, because it looked like there was blood on the walls, which we found out later was food coloring or paint, but Mike had a good story going. He said that when things got a little heated up, that’s where his grandfather would go to lay low for a little while.
We made a little fort out of it, and it was nice in the wintertime. But eventually it was gone: I remember somebody came and took all of the pipes out of it. There had to be some kind of heat in it because somebody came and opened the walls and took out all of the copper pipes. I heard who might have done it but I never confirmed. Somebody trashed our fort getting the pipes.
If you went left on the same road, it led to a trail that would take you to the Quarry. The Quarry set a natural boundary to the Boiardo property, but for trespassers and Boiardo grandsons alike, there was Louie to contend with.
FP: The caretaker, Louie, who had one eye, while we were in the woods talking or doing whatever we were doing, would hear us and he would just start shooting. We’d hear bullets whizzing over our heads and Mike would go, “Louie, what are you crazy? It’s me!” And that happened more than once, and I never got shot at before or after that, but it wasn’t good. I think it was only a .22 but still, it was a little disturbing. He could have shot up Richie the Boot’s grandson, you know? It wasn’t smart. But just to think of discharging a weapon in Livingston and then no one came to say anything about it. That wouldn’t happen today, either.
By 1979, the myth of being shot at was pretty much over. People would be coming up. We’d be up there (at the Quarry), we would camp out, and people, I guess from Nob Hill, would see our campfire and they would come up to see what was going on and not even worry. I don’t think they even knew where they were going.
It had to be 1980 when and a bunch of us camped out up there. That was the last time that our whole crew got together and spent time up there. In high school, Mike had a party and somebody hit the dog, Queenie. And that was the end. The grandfather was still alive. Once the dog got killed, nobody went up there. That stopped everything.
Frank and Mike kept in touch over the years, but drifted apart. The Balestros eventually sold their home and moved to a nearby house in Livingston. Mike, who had weathered the untimely deaths of both his mother and his brother, fought his own demons, and in the summer of 2006, his roommate murdered him. Frank prefers to remember him this way:
FP: He was a good guy. Gentle, soft-spoken, and played the guitar like nobody’s business. A big Led Zeppelin fan. He could play Zeppelin like Jimmy Page—it was unbelievable how well he played. And being in a family like that, he got what he wanted. On his 16th birthday, his father took him and got him a Gibson Les Paul starburst like the one that Jimmy Page had. And boy could he play it. He played every day.
Frank visited the estate a few years back, when a friend was doing renovations on the mansion. He didn’t get to see much, but it was more than he saw as a teenager.
FP: It was spectacular. The dining room, the furniture—I can’t even explain it. It was like something that should have been in a museum. And the ceiling was painted like DaVinci did it. It was really unbelievable. Every window was stained glass with “RB” and the family crest. It was unbelievable.
He even got to see Richie the Boot’s old Plymouth, which was still parked in Tootsie’s garage, Sadly, due to the deterioration of the garage roof, it was covered in bird droppings.