1. St. Petersburg

Oscar-winner 'Green Book' stirs pride as St. Pete residents watch family on screen

Still from “Green Book.” (Dreamworks/TNS)
Published Mar. 2

ST. PETERSRBURG — Annamaria Carnahan never expected to see her family on the silver screen, much less in a movie that would go on to win the Academy Award for best picture.

As the St. Petersburg resident watched familiar characters and places flash across the screen at the New York City premiere of Green Book in November, she was overcome with emotion.

Green Book is about the relationship between African-American jazz pianist Don Shirley and Carnahan's uncle, Tony "Lip" Vallelonga, an Italian-American bouncer who chauffeured Shirley on a tour through the Deep South.

Related: Our own 'Green Book': How a black Times reporter chronicled his 1964 trip across the South

Carnahan's cousin, Nick Vallelonga, wrote the screenplay based on letters his father, Tony, wrote to Nick's mother while on the road. Vallelonga, along with co-writers Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly, won the Oscar for best original screenplay during last month's awards.

"I'm just so happy for him," said Carnahan, 59, who works as a pastoral assistant at St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. "I sit around and think, 'My cousin has two Academy Awards.' "

While Carnahan knew her uncle worked at the legendary Copacabana night club in Times Square, the story of his time with Shirley was mostly new to her. Other facets of the movie were oh-so-familiar: the layout of her uncle's apartment in the Bronx, where she and Nick often played as kids; her aunt Dolores' sweet nature and caring approach; her father's quick wit and banter with her mother.

"It's a surreal, weird thing to see your family up there on screen," Carnahan said. "I remember when they showed my uncle's apartment for the first time and thinking, 'I used to eat grilled cheese at that table.' "

Carnahan and her cousin grew up together in the Bronx before Carnahan's family moved to St. Petersburg when she was 8 years old. The two, only three months apart in age, would walk to each other's homes to play. They'd join together for Sunday dinners and trips to the zoo. Oftentimes, her uncle Tony, portrayed by Viggo Mortensen, was absent, either working overnight at the Copa or away on a job.

Carnahan, who has seen the movie about a half a dozen times following the New York premiere, was amazed by how accurately Mortsensen and all of the other actors portrayed her family. Mortsenson had her uncle down, she said, capturing all of his little quirks and expressions. She was captivated by Sebastian Maniscalco's version of her father, Johnny Venere, including his mannerisms and the way he had a laugh in his voice, even when speaking.

While she expected to see her father, uncles and grandfathers on screen, what most touched her were the few appearances of Jenna Laurenzo as Carnahan's mother, who died almost 20 years ago.

"The first time she spoke, I got tears in my eyes," Carnahan said. "It just hit me. That's my mother and father, young, up there talking to each other. That was very special."

Vallelonga has faced criticism for the screenplay, with Shirley's family saying he mischaracterized the pianist and never contacted his living family members while writing the script. The film was also maligned for telling the story of a prominent African-American from the point of view of a white man using racist references.

Carnahan would not comment on the controversy.

"All I know is my cousin worked hard and he told a beautiful story about two men and a lifelong friendship that was created," Carnahan said. "I just think it's beautiful."

Carnahan said Nick told her he worked hard with casting, hoping to come as close as possible to the looks and personality of family members.

Several of Carnahan's relatives are actors in the movie, portraying older generations. For example, Carnahan's cousin Frank Vallelonga plays another uncle, Rudy Vallelonga. That same Rudy, along with uncle Louis Venere, each portrayed their own fathers on screen.

Venere lives in St. Petersburg with his wife. Both flew to California for the Oscars, along with Quinn Duffy, who owns Joey Brooklyn's Famous Pizza Kitchen downtown and had a small role in the beginning of the movie.

Parts of the movie felt like going back in time, Carnahan said. From the photos on the wall and the style of lamps in the apartment, to seeing her cousins' bunk-bed tucked into the same room with her aunt and uncle.

The accuracy and familiarity of certain scenes brought a smile to her face. Take Aunt Dolores at the end talking about cousin Frankie climbing all over a television. Carnahan's mom quickly chimes in, "Are you nuts, Dee? ... He could have got electrocuted!"

"I started laughing so hard because I thought to myself, 'That would've so been a conversation between the two of them," Carnahan said.

Carnahan couldn't help but think what it would've been like for her parents and other relatives to see the film.

"I just know they had a big Oscar party in heaven," she said.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.


  1. John Hornbeck is critical of Robert Blackmon because of his profession and lack of a family. Blackmon calls that ‘insulting.’
  2. An man wades through flooded streets with bags of groceries in the Shore Acres neighborhood of St. Petersburg during Tropical Storm Colin in 2016. LOREN ELLIOTT  |  Loren Elliott / Tampa Bay Times
    The city plans to adjust its stormwater billing so homeowners with the most impervious surface area pay the most.
  3. Dr. Paul McRae was the first black chief of staff at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. Dr. McRae died on September 13, 2019. He was photographed here in the Tampa Bay Times photo studio for the 2008 Dr. Carter G Woodson Museum's "Legends Honorees" gala. BOYZELL HOSEY  |  BOYZELL HOSEY  |  Times
    ‘His extraordinary example paved the way for so many others.’
  4. Neeld-Gordon Garden Center, open at this location since 1925, is closing on Sept. 28. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    The development of Pinellas County and the arrival of the big box stores helped hasten the store’s demise.
  5. The old St. Petersburg High School on Mirror Lake in 1919 during the school's first year there. After it left the building in 1925, St. Pete High moved into its current home on 5th Avenue. University of South Florida St. Petersburg
    The city’s first high school has a history that stretches back a century with many moves along the way.
  6. Marquis Scott, 20, is a former Northeast High School football captain who his family says was trying to turn his life around. Then he was fatally shot while riding his bike, according to St. Petersburg police. BOYZELL HOSEY  |  Courtesy of Scott family
    Marquis Scott, 20, was shot while riding his bike. The Northeast High School football captain was turning his life around, his family said.
  7. Rendering of the new Shore Acres Recreation Center that will replace the current structure at 4230 Shore Acres Blvd. NE, St. Petersburg Wannemacher Jensen Architects
    The long-desired project is praised, but some neighbors worry about its proposed height and a new entrance and exit on busy 40th Avenue NE
  8. Less than a month after being fired, former St. Petersburg Housing Authority CEO Tony Love wants the agency to give him a job running its development nonprofit at the same $157,000 salary. That offer, part of ongoing negotiations over his severance, was rejected by the agency's board.
    Tony Love’s attorney tells the agency that fired him he wants full salary and benefits through 2020. The board rejects his offer.
  9. John Jonchuck returned to a Pinellas County courtroom last month to attend a hearing about whether he was entitled to a new trial. A judge on Tuesday ruled that he is not. SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
    Jonchuck was convicted of first-degree murder in April. He dropped his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe Jonchuck, off a bridge in 2015.
  10. A study found that two of the worst intersections in the country for running red lights are in the Tampa Bay area. Tampa Bay Times
    Two intersections are among the worst for running red lights