LOWELLVILLE, Ohio (AP) — Before donning a giant papier-mache doll costume and dancing while fireworks erupt from the outfit’s arms and head, Frank Speziale likes to have a beer and relax with friends.
Speziale has been the man beneath the doll for Lowellville’s much loved "Baby Doll Dance" for the last 37 years.
The dance is a featured spectacle each night of Lowellville’s Mount Carmel Society Festival.
During the dance, Frank whirls around inside the doll while fireworks explode along the length of the dolls arms, spraying sparks and bathing the dance area in smoke before a final volley of rockets fire out of the costume’s head.
Now 59 years old, Speziale — who has a tattoo of the red, white and green-dressed baby doll on his left arm — said he’ll keep dancing as long as he’s able.
"I grew up with it," Speziale said. "I was raised in Struthers, but all my family is from Lowellville. My uncle was the one who actually built the costume, and I wound up taking it over from him."
He said he knew from a young age he wanted to be under the baby doll.
"I told my grandma when I was a kid I was going to be under that doll, and she said, ‘Oh no you’re not.‘ But hey, here we are," Speziale said.
While the spectacle may seem bizarre to the uninitiated, it has its roots in 13th century Italian villages.
Speziale said villagers used to burn dolls to ward off evil and cleanse their spirits of any negativity from the previous year.
The ritual — which has been a feature of every Mount Carmel Society Festival since it began 123 years ago — has evolved over the years.
Speziale said in the earlier days of the ritual, the dolls were burned in totality, and in the recent past, the fireworks were less controlled than they are now.
Today, the fireworks are carefully contained, and the costume — which is more than 75 years old; essentially, a family heirloom to Speziale; and a cultural artifact for the village of Lowellville — is spared from total destruction, though it did have one close call several decades ago.
"When my uncle passed, there was talk that the costume was just going to be burned," Speziale said. "My grandfather stopped the burn and said, ‘No, no, my grandson is going to take it over.‘ and I’ve been doing it ever since."
Speziale said his first time dancing was the most "nerve-wracking thing he’d ever done" and that the week before, he couldn’t keep any food down.
"I’ve never been more nervous in my life," he said.
Though the dance is beloved in the community, Speziale wonders if anyone will be willing to take it over when he hangs up the costume.
He may not need to worry, however, as there’s at least one young fan of the event who’s eyeballing his chance to don the costume.
Giovanni Catone, 6, has been attending the festival every year of his life. He adores the baby doll dance, and he’s got a plan to take over: first, he said, he’d learn to play the trumpet and join the Mount Carmel Society Band — which has been performing at the event for more than 90 years — and then, once he’s put in his time, he’ll make his move.
"I got to lead the baby doll one time," he said. "When I get older, I’m going to be under the baby doll."
That’s music to Speziale’s ears.
"It’s tradition," he said. "And you just don’t break tradition."