CORONA — After more than 40 years of making clothes for the neighborhood, a local tailor is hanging up his sewing needles.
Mario Cutrone, 83, has operated the Corona Heights Cleaners on 108th Street — across from William F. Moore Park, also known as Spaghetti Park — since 1983.
Before that, he worked for years in other neighborhood shops, making clothes for an influx of new immigrants.
“They go so fast,” he said, of the years he spent making clothes and raising his family in Corona. "So many years...so many years continuing."
A sign in his window now says the shop is closing, and all clothes should be picked up by April 30.
Cutrone came to Corona from Bari, Italy in 1960, when he was 27.
His older brother, John, was already living in the neighborhood with his wife. There was plenty of work for a tailor, he was told, and he soon found a job at a factory on West 11th Street.
His sister-in-law showed him how to take the subway to Union Square, and he arrived at the Catania Factory, where the boss spoke the same Italian dialect as he did.
“He said, ‘What do you do?” And I said, ‘What do you want?’”
On his second day he took the train by himself, clocked in and sat at his sewing machine, sewing collars on jackets and seams inside pants.
“Lunch hour they [blew a] whistle,” he said. “I don't understand, so I keep on sewing."
He moved into an apartment on 37th Avenue and learned English by watching cartoons with his niece and nephew, he said. He occasionally socialized with the neighborhood’s most famous resident, Louis Armstrong — whose music he had danced to back in Italy.
Cutrone met his wife, Carmela, at the factory and they married in 1962, spending three days on a honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel, he said.
After leaving the factory in the '60s, he worked for years at other shops before getting his own tiny storefront on 108th Street in 1976.
In 1983, he bought the current Corona Heights Cleaners shop further up on 108th Street, where he had more room to grow — and sew.
Cutrone rented tuxedos out of the basement and offered dry cleaning, and he made alterations on two large hand-made tables that were built by a relative for his first shop.
A large window in his shop looked onto William Moore Park, better known as Spaghetti Park, the gathering spot for the Italian immigrants in the neighborhood with a bocce court, grills and a large Italian flag.
He made clothes for everyone, including the “wise guys” who hung out at the park across the street, he said.
“They understood who I was,” he said.
His wife died in 2008, but he still lives in a house around the corner.
Cutrone can still mend a collar and build a jacket from scratch and can tell a person's size just by looking at them.
He still returns to the shop at night if he has any unfinished work, but his knee bothers him, he said.
His children, who both live on Long Island, also told him to take it easy, he said.
"I never stopped," he said. "I know a lot of people. It's very hard to stay away."
Some of his most loyal customers don't want to see him go, either.
Across the street, at the famed Park Side restaurant, the shop's closing will be felt by the waiters, busboys, bartenders and maître d' — all who don tuxes and suits while serving the famous food, and most get them at Mario’s.
“Anytime a busboy needs a bowtie, a shirt — he says here, take it,” said Mohammed Huda, 56, who’s worked behind the bar at the Park Side for 18 years.
“He never takes money. He’s good to us, and we’re going to miss him.”
Alfredo Chiesa, 54, the longtime maître d' of the restaurant, said he’s been a customer for 27 years and estimates that Cutrone has sewed “hundreds” of pieces of clothing for him — closets full of suits, tuxedos, sport coats and pants.
“I don’t have a clue what to do with him gone,” Chiesa said. “We may not let him retire.”
Cutrone said he isn't sure what he'll do with the free time, but he hopes someone buys the shop as it is and keeps it open.
"We figure it out," he said.
He'll spend more time with his children and three grandchildren, he said. And he may even pick up an old pastime.
"Dance? I don't think I can dance," he joked. "It's been a long time now!"