The Finns Are Coming... The Finns Are Coming...

Ethnic Diversity in Hollywood

As Oscar fever amps up and many in our ‘hood prepare for Oscar parties (some of our neighbors are even going), the clarion call for racial and cultural diversity in film is still sounding across the land.  So, for all of you who are demanding your piece of the American pie and begging for your chance to fail at the American dream or simply to bring a more ethnic “face” to movies… I say, kippis! (Finnish for “skoal!”)  I’ve been there.

Growing up a second generation Finnish-American (just plain “Finn” in the pre-PC days) was a lonely lot… there were only 37 of us in the whole country: seven in rural Wisconsin (or was it Minnesota?) raising cows and making cheese, eight in Fargo, North Dakota running naked in the snow after their nightly sweat in the sauna, four in New England doing the cow and cheese thing… and, except for my parents, my brother and me, the remaining Suomilanders (all carpenters, including my grandparents on my father’s side), lived in Brooklyn in a section they called “Finntown” (3 row houses, side-by-side off Sunset Park). We lived in Bayside, Queens, where my schoolmates had last names like Ferraro, O'Toole, or Goldberg, along with the Jones, Smiths and Johnsons.  When I told kids my name was Ilona, they wanted to know what my first name was.

I yearned to be Italian --they had great food and their countrymen were always on TV in things like “The Untouchables” and “The Kefauver Hearings.” Or Irish – their food was not as good, but they were always in movies playing singing priests or dancing with mice. Or Jewish – their food was terrible, but they, too, were always on TV in things like “Your Show of Shows” and “The McCarthy Hearings.” I had no one to relate to or look up to, much like the groups protesting today. Where were the Finnish Sal Mineos and Troy Donahues to have a crush on, the Sandra Dees and Natalie Woods to emulate?  “What about Albert Salmi?” my mom would say. “Who?” you ask. Exactly!

Of course, there have been one or two world famous Finns: Sibelius, Nurmi (the flying Finn) and father/son Saarinens.  But a dead conductor, a dead runner and two dead architects didn’t exactly win a kid any bragging rights. And the single thing we learned in school about Finland was that it was the only country to pay the U.S. back for its WWII war debt. I didn’t get a lot of mileage out of that one, either. Once I commandeered my brother to sign my petition to get a Finn History course included in the curriculum.  In response, my class was assigned “Huckleberry Finn.”

At Christmas, my grandparents arrived from Brooklyn with tons of presents and loaves of Finnish molasses bread from their neighborhood bakery. I loved that bread and shared it with my friends, proud that it rivaled their soda breads and challahs. This was part of my heritage they could understand. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out that the Swedes in Finntown, who outnumbered the Finns 20-1, owned the bakery and laid claim to the bread. For one brief moment, I wanted to be Swedish.                                                                         

As I reached my teens and the health club craze took off, the Finns finally hit the jackpot.  Saunas! I personally hate saunas, but here was something tangible, identifiable. People actually stopped asking, “Oh, you’re Scandinavian?” when I would tell them my family (both sides) came from Finland. The only problem is that no one pronounced “sauna” right and it’s my mission to rectify this: sow (rhymes with cow)-na” NOT “saw-na”.

During those youthful years, I harbored a deep resentment that no acknowledged Finnish-Americans were ever seen in the movies (or even on television). There were no movie studios in New York then, so I decided to picket the networks. For days I stood in front of CBS’ New York headquarters in my mini skirt and Twiggy eyelashes alongside Moondog, the “Viking of Sixth Avenue,” whom I considered a cold climate kinsman. Dressed in flowing robes, Norseman’s helmet, holding his lance proudly, Moondog stood vigil on “network row” for many years and I was proud to share his corner as I held my sign of protest.

Some network ‘suit’ must have noticed me, because soon after, Arte Johnson was playing the first Finnish-American character on television. It didn’t matter that it was on “Laugh In” or that no one but my family could understand his “Finglish,” everyone just laughed because he was funny. The Finns had arrived.

But, my victory was short lived. The show was cancelled. I decided the only way to erase our cultural anonymity was to become a Hollywood writer--- work to change the system from within. I would strive to put Finland, hence Finnish-Americans on the pop culture map. I would become a role model for all those young Finnish-American children milking cows at dawn in snow-covered barns in the mid-west and New England or those trying to pass as Swedes in the five boroughs of New York.                               

As soon as I arrived in Hollywood, I joined a mass petitioning effort by the four people who comprised the Finnish-American Film Community and we imported action director Renny Harlin to U.S. shores--- the rest is history.  Even limo drivers in L.A. learned to say Esa-Pekka Salonen and Nokia. Doors continue to fly open for Finnish-Americans.  I have two features films in development hell, just like Italian, Irish, and Jewish writers. 

So, for all you protesters out there seeking your slice of the American pie… keep it up.  You CAN change things… just like we did.  SKOAL! …    I mean kippis.


On a serious note – ethnic diversity has taken a turn for the positive this year. Small steps, perhaps, but steps nonetheless.

Congratulations to.  Break a leg.

Irene DeBlasio February 04, 2012 at 11:29 PM
Isn't Artie Johnson Finn-ished? (Goodnight Lucy)
Ilona Saari February 05, 2012 at 12:52 AM
Goodnight, Gracie.
Willo Boe February 05, 2012 at 01:16 AM
I just found you with a Google Alert on Finns just now. I can relate to your being a second generation Finn. I am too and I am mad at my dead parents for not seeing to it that I knew the language. It was spoken all around me, it would have been easy. Ours was a small group in NW South Dakota. We were pretty isolated so the group stuck together and became THE FINNS. The Norwegians around the area swore there was a King of the Finns in our strange little group. I say strange because everyone thought we were. I loved being a Finn. They used to scare their hapless little children by telling them that the Finns would get them. My parents wanted me to marry a Finn. The only Finnish boys around were my cousins so I had to go to the Black Hills and wound up with a Norwegian.
MickMil February 05, 2012 at 02:01 AM
Another strong memory piece! You are my favorite Finn in the blogosphere. Good work.
Nina Malone February 05, 2012 at 06:06 PM
very funny piece Ilona. I suppose I have the same dilemma being of Turkish descent. It's hard to find a place that serves that delicious food (every once in a while I come across a small hole in the wall but it's always in Hollywood or somewhere too far to go when I have the craving) and Greek and Armenian isn't quite the same. I suppose I can claim the Carl's Jr. commercial--but do I really wanna?


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