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I've Got a Crush on Steven Tyler's Grandfather

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I'm not sure whether he keeps coming back or was never gone, but what's certain is that Steven Tyler of Aerosmith will be coming into America's living rooms on a regular basis as an American Idol judge. I remember seeing Aerosmith in concert back in my high school days, and it gives me great comfort that Tyler keeps on keeping on. As both a rock star and a grandfather, he'll bring a different perspective to the judges' table. But the genealogist in me is more intrigued by his grandfather.

When Tyler popped up again on our collective radar, I decided to take a peek into his ancestral past. Tyler, born Steven Victor Tallarico, is an interesting blend: one-quarter Italian, one-quarter German, one-quarter Polish/Russian, and one-quarter American mutt (but featuring enough surnames like Elliott, Tibbetts and Gardner to suspect a preponderance of English).

You might think that it would be the Italian portion of his family tree that would captivate me because there's a pronounced apple-didn't-fall-far aspect to it. Tyler's father, Victor Tallarico, is a pianist who led the Vic Tallarico orchestra for many years, and it was probably music that brought Vic's parents - Constance, a music teacher, and Giovanni, who was also a musician with his own band - together. Giovanni was a mandolin guru associated with the Royal Conservatory of Music in Naples before he came to America. He was also the manager of his talented brother, Pasquale Tallarico (take a look if you're curious whether Tyler resembles his great-uncle).

Pasquale was something of a teen idol before there was such a thing, and had a bit of a bad boy rep as can be seen from this 1909 New York Times article, "Pasquale Tallarico Gets Fame, Leaves Wife," that begins, "A pale-faced young man of 19, with a mass of hair arranged in the fashion of musicians, told Supreme Court Justice Gerard that he no longer loved his girl wife, Florence Agnes Tallarico, who is two years his junior."

So it doesn't surprise me that Tyler became a rock star. Given his roots, he almost had no choice.

Instead it was his Polish/Russian grandfather, Felix Blancha, who caught my eye. I'm half-Slavic myself, so know what it's like to deal with the constantly changing borders of Eastern Europe. Many people of our heritage grew up hearing an old joke about grandpa living in four countries, but never moving from the house he was born in - all thanks to the borders shifting around him. And that's what leads to the confusion over Felix's origin.

It took some effort, but I finally found his arrival on the President Lincoln in 1914. His journey was well timed; had it been any later, WWI probably would have prevented his immigration. Still, it must have been a rough trip for him since he was detained in the hospital at Ellis Island before eventually being released. On the ship's manifest, Felix claimed Bobruysk as his hometown. Bobruysk is now in Belarus, but his paper trail clearly indicates that he regarded himself as Polish - that, and his name.

You might think that Blancha doesn't sound particularly Polish and I'd have to agree. In fact, once I found it, I thought he must have Americanized it (quick rant: please do not fall for that tired myth about names getting changed at Ellis Island!), so went looking for fellows named Felix with surnames that looked like biały, the Polish word for white. With the similar letters and meaning, I figured he must have dreamed up the Blancha version, but the joke was on me.

I've often said that I like it when our ancestors make me work for it. I get bored when they're too easy to trace, but even so, I didn't anticipate the mind game that Tyler's grandfather played. I tried all the usual tricks for finding his original last name, but none of them panned out. Naturalization and court records kept his secret safe, but then I found his marriage record, and couldn't help but laugh. His real name was Czarnyszewicz.

I've delved into enough Slavic-language records to realize what he had done. Czarny is Polish for black. Felix had changed his name from Czarnyszewicz to Blancha -- from black to white. Sadly, Felix passed away in 1987, but if he were alive, I'd thank him for (finally) letting me in on his little joke.

(For guidance on winning the game of hide-and-seek with your ancestors, check out the just-released paperback companion to NBC's celebrity roots series, "Who Do You Think You Are?" The new season starts on Feb. 4th.)