“I bet you can’t guess what this is,” says Gildo Spado.
He holds up a round metal object whose center pole is surrounded by rods of different lengths. Is it the frame for a fancy lampshade? Or could it be a funky cake pan?
Before I can answer, he brings out a violin bow and starts playing it, sending forth scary, swooping sounds.
He explains that it’s a waterphone, a musical instrument invented in the 1960s that caught his eye and his ear.
Before its eerie echoes end, Gildo starts picking out a tune on a banjo. He recently bought the instrument to cheer up a friend, but he ended up keeping it.
A few minutes later, he’s in the hammock that divides the main living space from the kitchen.
But he’s not lying down – he’s using it as a serendipitous swing, grinning like a boy who successfully skipped school.
Gildo, a photographer and model who is equally at home behind and before the lens, is doing all these activities to court the camera’s omnipresent oculus.
With flair, he unfurls a blue scarf and artistically drapes it around his neck – it’s his signature, and no portrait of him is complete without it.
Another thing: He simply has to change his T-shirt – it won’t do to be seen wearing the same one in every single shot.
Gildo, who is 6-foot-2, wears his white hair and grizzled goatee with exuberant elegance. He bears an uncanny resemblance to The Most Interesting Man in the World of the Dos Equis beer ads.
He’s a pro at posing.
He and his camera have captured Kodak moments in 35 countries.
“I’ve probably taken over a million shots,” he says. “And I still have almost all the negatives.”
Andy Warhol, Sophia Loren, Donald and Ivanka Trump, Reggie Jackson, Calvin Klein, Henry Kissinger, Jack Lemmon, Kathleen Turner, Richard Branson, Pavarotti and Ed Koch have all sat for him.
“What was Andy Warhol like? Andy was Andy,” Gildo says cryptically. “Pavarotti – I was assigned to get a photo of him signing his book. He wouldn’t look at me. Finally, he said, ‘Go over there.’ As soon as I did, he looked up and gave me a big smile. He was a diva – he wanted me to get his best side.”
Gildo, who was born in Astoria, grew up five doors away from his grandmother’s house, which is now his. She came to this country from Istria, in Croatia’s city of Pula.
“I used to come here to watch horror films on her black-and-white TV,” he says. “She liked to keep the rooms dark. The shows scared me to death.”
When Gildo took over the property, he tore down the walls and created an open-plan living space that’s filled with enough natural light to take professional photos. He painted the walls the color of ripe pomegranates and decorated them with souvenirs of his travels.
He kept her 1920s buffet, which serves as a TV stand, and the matching china cabinet in the front room. The set’s dining table is in his “man cave” in the basement.
Gildo’s proud to note that his father, who was from the former Yugoslavia, painted the Triboro Bridge in 1936 and the Kennedy Airport hangars in the 1960s and 1970s and that his mother, who was born in Astoria, worked for the Bulova Watch Co. and Steinway & Sons.
“She had a better Astoria accent than Christopher Walken,” he adds.
Gildo got his first 35-mm camera – a Nikon – when he was 13.
“I looked through the viewfinder and saw my canvas as an artist,” he says. “I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t dance, I couldn’t draw, but my camera became my best friend. We would go on adventures together.”
After graduating from FIT, Gildo got steady work as a photographer’s assistant.
“I learned by the school of hard knocks,” he says.
He was working full time for a fashion catalog when, one day, he was called upon at the last minute to sub for a photographer who didn’t show up.
“For the next 12 years, I worked in three different studios,” he says. “I also did freelance shoots for press and publicity.”
Soon, he was hanging out with models at hot spots such as Studio 54.
Freelancing is either feast or famine, and Gildo has experienced large portions of each.
“I’m a diversified artist,” he says. “In addition to photography, I do modeling and I’m a little landlord and a little investor. I do as much as I can to earn money except playing the piano or driving a cab.”
He is, among other things, the president and a board member of the Queens World Film Festival. A licensed citizen tree pruner, he worked with a Greening Western Queens crew to plant more than 60 trees around the Triboro Bridge.
In addition, Gildo leads photo tours for tourists from around the world.
“I help them get the essence of New York and take their photography up a notch,” he says.
Right now, Gildo’s working on another in his series of “memory projects.”
In 1951, four years before Gildo entered the world, his parents took a freighter to Cres, the Adriatic Sea island his father was from.
His mother brought along a box camera and took nearly 200 photos of every person they met.
Gildo made the same trip in 1974 and is organizing a show of both sets of shots for the museum there.
Regardless of what he’s doing, Gildo stops to shoot one photo per day. He just bought an iPhone X, and it’s always in his pocket, ready to be his third eye.
He can’t think of a more interesting way to spend the rest of his life.
“I like what I’m doing now, and I will continue,” he says. “Artists don’t retire – they reinvent themselves. I plant seeds all over the universe. Some sprout and some don’t.”
Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020.
Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling