Chicago’s film industry will never forget Bob Volpe, who passed on October 24.
A U.S. Army veteran, Volpe worked for nearly three decades as a Property Master with Local 476 Motion Picture Studio Mechanics union. During that time, he was instrumental in building the city’s reputation as a hotbed of production. His film and TV credits span from Sixteen Candles to ER, with dozens of well-known projects in between.
People who knew Volpe remember him as a talented professional, an effective mentor and, most of all, an incomparably kindhearted man.
“I worked with Bobby on set for thirty years,” says Local 476 President Bradley Matthys. “A good prop person gets inside the actors’ heads and always offers choices. It’s a job that takes particular skills, and Bob was blessed with all of them.”
Business Manager Mark Hogan, who worked on electric crews alongside property crews that frequently included Volpe, agrees. “Bobby was the top prop man in town,” he recalls. “Everybody wanted him.”
“We lost a great guy way too soon,” adds Chicago Med Unit Production Manager Jeanne Caliendo. “He was sort of the grandfather of all the prop men in Chicago.”
Volpe started his career in the days when Chicago was recognized mainly as a commercial town and the industry was dominated by the likes of Fred Niles Studio, Sarra Studios, and Studio Lighting.
Although he retired before Cinespace was established, his influence can be felt on sets throughout the campus.
Among the people he introduced to the profession was David Chamerski, Property Master of Chicago PD.
“When I was twelve years old, my father passed away in the middle of the night,” Chamerski recalls. “In the morning, Bob, who was engaged to my sister, said, ‘come on, you’re going to go to work with me.’”
Volpe took Chamerski on a tour through Niles Studios, which was located on the space that would later become Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios. He showed him the green room, toured him through the area where the intro to Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was filmed, and basically got him hooked on film and TV production.
“That’s when I decided that I wanted to get into the business,” Chamerski recalls. “Bob said ‘that’s fine, but you’re going to college first.’”
After earning a degree in graphic arts from Triton College, Chamerski picked up where he left off.
William Dambra, the Property Master of Chicago Fire, had been an electrician in the business when Volpe became a fixture in his professional world.
“Bob comes to me one day and says, ‘Hey Billy, you got the gift of gab, I want you to go to a meeting for me with a paper and pen and take notes.’”
At the meeting, Dambra agreed to complete a lot more tasks than Volpe, or any property master, would ever handle.
“Bob’s looking at the list and he says, ‘you gotta be kidding me, man,’” Dambra continues. “He laughed through it and we worked hard and got it done.”
One of the greatest lessons Volpe taught the future Property Masters was to respect everyone on set.
“He was actually the first guy to tell me, ‘your skills are good, but if you got a personality it’s even better,’” says Hogan.
On one occasion, when Dambra acted too quickly to speak with an actor, Volpe stopped the eager greenhorn and said, “don’t bother him now — he’s busy rehearsing his lines.”
Volpe’s helpful spirit continued even after filming stopped. “He always made it fun,” says Chamerski. “At the end of the night on Fridays, we would go to the prop truck because Bob was known to make bruschetta for everyone.”
Earlier this year, Volpe was honored as a Gold Card Member of Local 476, which is the union’s highest honor.
Recognizing meritorious service, the Gold Card is awarded only to individuals who are nominated and approved by a vote of the Local 476 board. Other recent recipients include legendary TV creator Dick Wolf and beloved Cinespace Founder “Uncle” Nick Mirkopoulos.
“We don’t do it often,” explains Matthys. “But Bob definitely deserved it. I am so happy that we were able to do that.”
Volpe is survived by a large and loving extended family.
Family and friends will be received tomorrow from 1 to 7 p.m. at the Conboy-Westchester Funeral Home, 10501 W. Cermak Rd., Westchester. Chapel Service and Eulogies will commence at 6 p.m. For more information, click here.