In photos: Laurina Ecobelli and granddaughter Lora Lee in an undated photo; siblings Tom and Lora Lee Ecobelli; and a poster for the film.
Many in the Capital Region know the Ecobelli family name thanks to decades of Italian American cooking and Laurina, the generous woman behind the former Ballston Spa restaurant, Ecobelli’s Tam O’Shanter Inn.
“She knew everybody in town and almost everybody worked for the restaurant at one time or another,” said Tom Ecobelli, one of Laurina’s grandchildren.
“She was helping out people left and right. . . . After she passed away we heard so many stories of abused wives that came forward that she helped, people who couldn’t pay their mortgage. Really quietly, she never talked about it, she just did it. She was just a warm, loving person.”
That’s how many might think of her today, but what most don’t know is her courageous story of perseverance despite sexual abuse. For the past decade or so, Tom and sister Lora Lee Ecobelli have been working to bring an adaptation of Laurina’s story to life through a screenplay called “Chickadee.”
“In 1920s New York, a pregnant 13-year-old Italian girl refuses to remain silent and brings her abusive stepfather to justice in a sensational trial,” reads “Chickadee’s” logline. It runs close to the truth.
Laurina was born in 1906 in New Jersey as Laurita Inzine. When she was a young child, her father died and her mother was left destitute. Laurina and her sister, Elizabeth, were sent to an orphanage in Hoboken. However, their mother soon remarried and was able to reclaim her children from the orphanage.
Their new stepfather referred to as “Pietro” in “Chickadee,” moved them to Fonda, New York with the intent to start a farm. Instead, Pietro spent much of his time drinking and gambling, leaving Laurina and her sister to work in a textile mill in Amsterdam to support the family.
Pietro was also abusive and gave Laurina scars that she carried with her throughout her life. He started sexually abusing her when she was 12 and eventually raped her, which resulted in a pregnancy.
“She went through a hard time accepting the baby and then she just completely turned around, accepted her, faced her fears and her abuser,” Tom said.
In 1921, at 15 years old, she took her stepfather to court in Montgomery County.
“At first, I don’t even think her own mother believed her . . . [But] she never wavered. She stood up for herself and it must have been terrifying because she was interrogated, his attorney really went after her. She still never wavered,” Lora Lee said.
The case was covered by local newspapers at the time, including the Gazette, which noted the selection of the jury on Aug. 4, 1921. Later on, the Gazette also reported that the stepfather tried to flee the area when he learned that his stepdaughter was bringing charges against him. He was arrested in another state and brought back to Montgomery County.
“There was one particular article [that] said that when he came in for the arraignment, she took one look at him and passed out. Then [she] still found her strength after that to testify which is pretty incredible. . . . For her to do what she did was extraordinary,” Lora Lee said.
Her stepfather was found guilty of criminal assault and sentenced to several years in Dannemora.
Laurina went on to marry Donato Ecobelli, who was from Benevento, Italy. They lived in New Jersey for many years while they raised two children. They later went on to open Ecobelli’s Tam O’Shanter on Route 50 in Ballston Spa.
Tom, an actor and screenwriter, and Lora Lee, a writer, and actress, grew up right down the street from their grandparents in Ballston Spa. However, it wasn’t until several years before their grandmother passed away in 1982 that Laurina decided to give them her journal where she documented what happened to her.
“She came to Tom and I and gave us the journal and said ‘This is a very sad story but I want you to read it because it may help other women who have had similar situations,’” Lora Lee said.
The journal starts: “I am writing this story so as to advise some mothers who remarry and neglect their duties to [the] children of first marriage.”
In 1995 Lora Lee turned the entries into a stage play, which was produced by the Guild of Italian American Actors and performed off-Broadway, as well as in the Bronx and Westchester County.
Audience members frequently told her that she needed to expand the story so she started working with Tom to develop a screenplay in 2011. Because of their connections with the entertainment industry, they were able to bring in professionals like actor Chris Cooper and Emmy-winning director Sylvia Caminer. Producer Michalina Scorzelli and actor Christopher Gaunt are both also on board with the project.
“We’ve regrouped this year. We have some new people helping us. Our choices are to produce it ourselves or to get a larger production company to come on board and produce it,” Tom said.
The Ecobellis are still seeking funding for the project, which will require a multi-million dollar budget. They hope to film “Chickadee” in the Capital Region, specifically in the areas where Laurina grew up.
“It’s never about the tragedy. We’re concentrating on her strength and the inspiration that she gave others more than just the tragedy,” Tom said.
Since the #MeToo movement has garnered so much national support in the last few years, the siblings can see the film resonating with audience members today and offering a positive story of strength and resilience.
“Everyone has a story like this. Sometimes they’re told, sometimes they’re not. To let go of the stigma of it and to bring it out in the open is our sole purpose,” Lora Lee said.
For more on the film visit aquabelll.wixsite.com.