Loretta (Di Domenico) Balla, owner of the Seaview Hotel in Oak Bluffs, died May 28 at the Royal Nursing Center in Falmouth with family and friends by her side. She was the wife of the late Dr. Ernesto A. Balla, prominent physician and surgeon in New Bedford where he practiced for 60 years.
Born Lorenza Maria Agnes Di Domenico in New York City on August 25, 1911, she was one of eight children to immigrant Italian parents. A favorite story she loved to tell was when her father was to receive his nationalization papers. When her father was asked where Canada was, he replied, in his heavy Italian accent “up a U.S.” She intervened and explained to the judge, that he meant on top or north of the United States.
She sang with her brothers Jasper and Jerry in the early days of radio. She dubbed Italian movies with English subtitles and English movies with Italian subtitles. During WW II she worked concessions and as a hatcheck girl at the La Rue Restaurant, a prominent New York high society entertainment spot on East 58th street. When it was discovered that there were two Lauras, the manager changed Laura to Loretta and it stuck. During a benefit for Britain, Hollywood stars like Bing Crosby dropped by to entertain, and during one of his performances she was asked to join him. Other prominent stars frequently stopped by the restaurant, like James Cagney, who on many occasions would tell stories of the Vineyard.
While at the La Rue, she meet and married her first husband, Albert Brito. So the story goes, he was a driver to a prominent Mafia kingpin. The marriage didn’t last and they divorced. Soon after she gave birth to her first child, Richard. She left New York and moved to New Bedford where she was introduced to Dr. Balla through friends. They were married on Valentine’s Day, 1945. Two years later their daughter Joann was born. They were together until his death in 1986.
She purchased the Seaview, with its grand ballrooms and elegant chandeliers, in the mid-forties. The women wore evening gowns, and the gentlemen tux and ties. For the next 40 years, she would run two cottages and the 50-room hotel with help from many Islanders and from her family; including her late sister and brother-in-law Antoinette (Nettie) and Joseph Auletta of Holtsville, N.Y., and their children Rosemary and Jack. She would greet guests and escort them to their rooms and she could be heard singing as she returned to the front desk
In addition to the Seaview, she owned many properties including land in Gay Head. At one time she and Dr. Balla owned the Corbin house in Ocean Park, now known as the Corbin-Norton house.
Summers in the 60s and 70s, drew crowds at the Seaview to drink, talk, and listen to local musicians and bands. Many got their start playing at the Seaview, like Chip Taylor Smith and The Visitors, who sang, “Rockin’ the Seaview,” recorded in 1981. On many occasions she would sing her signature song, “Ukulele Lady.” While she entertained in the dining hall, Johnny “Seaview” Perry tended the bar. He always wore a cowboy hat, mixed the best drinks on the Island, told jokes, and talked about horse racing. Before the 1 am closing time, Loretta would ring the bell to announce last call and walk around with her baseball bat, pounding on tables; as a last resort she would pull people up by the ears to get them out on time.
The Seaview was not just a gathering for local bands. The Seaview hosted birthday parties and wedding receptions, one for Nancy Cronkite, the late Walter Cronkite’s daughter. Every year she would spend many countless hours and hundreds of dollars hosting a “Toys for Tots Christmas Party” for Vineyard kids. Each child would receive gifts, refreshments, and a visit from Santa.
Once a week or so she would visit the Doctor, as she called him, in New Bedford. While waiting for the ferry she would eat at her favorite breakfast spot, The Black Dog Tavern in Vineyard Haven. She would order the same breakfast, two eggs any style, home fries, choice of bacon or sausage, toast and black coffee. Manager Joey Hall added it to the menu and called it The Loretta. It’s still there.
She befriended many people. She referred to one long-time friend, Jeffrey Heal of Rhode Island, as her second son. They were friends for over 30 years until his death in 2008. Gaelin Hereford, who tended bar from 1981 to 1989, recalls, “It was wild and crazy, but we had fun.” She also befriended animals, dogs, and cats.
Loretta sold the hotel in November of 1986, then split her time between her small home in Fairhaven and West Palm Beach, Fla., where she loved to gamble on cruise boats. Starting in the late 90’s she lived in Fairhaven year-round, enjoying trips to Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, and visiting family in Long Island. She was an avid Red Sox watcher, read the Boston Herald, Cape Cod Times, and the Vineyard Gazette, and regularly played the lottery and scratch tickets, winning many times. She sold her Fairhaven home in 2003 and moved to Mashpee until a fall forced her to seek rehab at the Royal in 2006.
A private service was held graveside. She is survived by her son, Richard Brito, and his wife, Diane Vose, her daughter, Joann Balla Carvalho, granddaughters Nicol Carvalho, Natasha Carvalho, Vanessa Burnes, and several nieces and nephews.