Few things rekindle family memories quite like watching home movies. When Jim Cairo wants to relive recollections of his late great uncle, he has his pick from a plethora of major motion pictures.
The Lake Zurich resident's relative was character actor Jay Novello. Novello's silver-screen career spanned from the 1930s to the late '70s. Novello, whose given name was Michael Romano, acted in more than 200 films and TV shows such as "McHale's Navy," "The Brady Bunch" and "I Love Lucy."
Growing up, Cairo didn't get to see much of his mother's "Uncle Mike" but was nonetheless enamored with the famous relative. "He was so proud of his Italian heritage and of being an actor," Cairo said. "I admired him dearly. All my life I've been collecting pieces of memorabilia from his life."
One ultra-special rolling relic Cairo acquired is Novello's 1966 Ford Thunderbird. Cairo first encountered the classy Ford in 1972 as 9-year-old boy on a family train trip to California.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Cairo said. "He (Novello) picked us up in the car wearing an ascot tie and the biggest smile." The family of six piled into the two-door T-Bird.
"My parents and my brother and I squeezed in the back. My sister sat up front on my aunt's lap," said Cairo. Novello proceeded to take the clan out for an unforgettable night on the town. "Everywhere we went, people would come up and recognize him. To me, this was simply unbelievable."
While Cairo saw his colorful uncle only several more times before his passing in 1982, he always clung to that the special family Ford memory. He never dreamed he would see the T-Bird again. That changed in April 2013.
An eBay listing from a seller in California claimed to be Novella's car, and said it was still in original condition. Cairo confirmed the authenticity and immediately purchased it, selling his own 1964 Mustang to fund the purchase. He learned Novello had bought the car new from Beverly Hills Ford. It didn't come as a surprise.
"He lived in Studio City, Calif., but everything he did was over the top," Cairo said. "He wasn't one to look for a deal or buy the cheapest car. He drove out of his way to go to an area known for exclusivity and high class."
Novello's eye was on a posh Thunderbird. He opted for a Town Landau model, which came equipped with swanky "S-bar" chrome pieces mounted on the vinyl roof and simulated wood grain in the dual consoles, door panels and steering wheel. A massive 7.0-liter, 428-cubic-inch V-8 was installed under hood, ensuring the actor would never be late to a soundstage or set rehearsal. Inside the sumptuous cabin are luxury options like power steering, windows and a trunk release.
After Novello's passing, the T-Bird stayed with Cairo's aunt. It then went to two separate owners before being purchased and shipped to Cairo. "On the day of its arrival I was like a little kid on Christmas morning," Cairo said. "I was simply in awe of it."
After giving it a thorough washing, Cairo drove the regal cruiser to his parent's home. "My sister came over and we all piled in for a family drive. It was like reliving that trip with my uncle in '72."
While being able to watch his uncle on film is a one-of-a-kind experience for Cairo, having a larger-than-life, tangible memento takes celebrating Novello's life to a whole new level.
"I feel like I fit in the car perfectly. It means everything in the world to me to own my uncle's actual car."