Tuesday, July 22, 2014

It's Howdy Doody Time

We got our first black and white TV, a 17-inch RCA console, probably in the mid-fifties. In our viewing area we received just seven channels, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13. There was an antenna on the roof and/or a pair of "rabbit ears" on top of the television to help improve reception. I can honestly say there were more shows worth watching on those lousy seven channels than on the one thousand channels I get today. TV Guide magazine these days is about the size of the Manhattan phone book; in the fifties, TV Guide was like a pamphlet. The weekly schedule didn't change all that much and we didn't want it to...every family had its favorite shows, and they came on the same time every week.

Comedy was king in the fifties, with Milton Berle leading the pack. Other great comedy shows featured Sid Caesar in Your Show of Shows, The Jack Benny Show, The Red Skelton Show, and You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx. Although Milton was king, my two "personal best" awards would go to Jackie Gleason's Honeymooners and I Love Lucy with the brilliant Lucille Ball. These two shows, unlike some of the others, are timeless and just as funny today as back then.

Westerns too had a strong run. Shows like Wagon Train, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Gene Autry and Death Valley Days. Every kid wanted to be a cowboy.
My Aunt Anna, a wonderful seamstress, made me a "horse" consisting of an old table, long and narrow, that she upholstered so I wouldn't hurt myself when I leaped into the saddle (my children thank you for that Aunt Anna) and a horse's head that she fashioned to attach to the top of the table/horse. I played cowboy in my basement where I kept the horse. One game I liked was to tear a long, thin strip of newspaper, stick it into the limestone cellar walls, and light it with a wooden match, pretending it was a dynamite fuse. I would then jump onto my horse and make my getaway before the explosion. I enjoyed this game until one day when the lit "fuse" fell out of the wall and started a small fire. My mother smelled the smoke and rushed down to help me put it out. My dynamiting days were over.

TV quiz shows like The $64,000 Question (remember the isolation booth), Twenty One and Tic Tac Dough were a sensation until the roof came crashing down. The gravy train derailed in September of 1958 when disgruntled former show contestants went public with accusations that the results were rigged and the contestants coached. The smoking gun was provided by an artist named James Snodgrass, who had taken the precaution of mailing registered letters to himself with the results of his appearances on Twenty One predicted in advance of the show's air dates.

Ed Sullivan, Perro Como, Dinah Shore, Martin and Lewis...all these personalities and more hosted TV Variety shows. The format was a popular one with guest stars of the day making appearances with the host. The longest running variety show in history was Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town which ran from 1948 to 1971. Ed looked like he had just been embalmed, but the man knew talent. Headliners like Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Sonny and Cher, The Smothers Brothers, and many more, made their careers on Sunday nights at 8 o'clock. And Ed gave you variety...everything from opera stars, circus acts, magicians, nightclub and movie stars, acrobats, and of course, the silly Senor Wences and Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse.

For the young, we had kiddy shows from the primitive Junior Frolics with Uncle Fred on Channel 13 to the sublime Wonderful World of Disney. This series spawned the Davy Crockett craze of 1955 with the miniseries about the historical American frontiersman, starring Fess Parker in the title role. Millions of dollars in merchandise were sold relating to the title character, and every boy wanted a coonskin cap for Christmas. Disney also gave us the Mickey Mouse Club, which brainwashed millions of "Mouseketeers" to pester their parents for a trip to Disney's theme parks, which were just getting off the ground. Other popular shows were Howdy Doody, Captain Video, Lassie and Captain Kangaroo.

Last but not least came the family sitcoms....big ratings getters in the fifties with shows like Make Room for Daddy (Danny Thomas), Father Knows Best (Robert Young), Burns and Allen, Amos and Andy, Ozzie and Harriet, My Little Margie, Our Miss Brooks and literally dozens more. The fifties were the golden age for TV sitcoms. They had a quality of innocence about them...controversy was avoided at all costs with the object being to simply entertain. Some of my fondest family memories are of sitting together with the whole family and laughing at these great shows.

Understand that television was a big deal for us. There were no computers, video games, cell phones or I-pods. For children of the radio generation, TV was a wondrous gift from on high.

Who cared that it wasn't color, high definition, plasma or surround-sound; we sat around that flickering black and white screen like cavemen around the first fire.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Monday, July 21, 2014

Festa Italiana!

My boyhood parish church, Our Lady of Lourdes in the East New York section of Brooklyn, held a carnival every year to raise money. It was a schoolyard affair with the usual kiddie rides, and rigged games of chance (wink, wink) under canvass tents. It was OK, but not nearly as much fun as the authentic Italian street feast held annually in the parish where I was baptized, Our Lady of Loreto. Pacific Street was closed to traffic from Sackman Street near the church entrance to Eastern Parkway, a main area thoroughfare that led to the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and the upscale neighborhood of Park Slope where my lovely wife was raised.

The street feast was an Italian tradition that immigrants to America recreated as a way to remember "the old country." Throughout Italy, street feasts were common in every town, usually sponsored by the church, most likely as a celebration commemorating the patron saint of the village. It is the very essence of what it means to be Italian. Our Lady of Loreto was predominantly an Italian parish with at least one Sunday Mass always said in that language. It was only natural for these good people to cling to their heritage by staging these feasts or "festas". They may have passed their American citizenship tests, and couldn't be prouder of their new country, but underneath, in their heart of hearts, they would always be Italians.

The feast lasted about 3-4 days...usually Thursday through Sunday. The excitement in the neighborhood was high, after all, this was the poor kids' Disneyworld. There were truck-mounted rides like the Whip, the Ferris Wheel and the Moon Swing. They had games of chance like the spinning wheels where you put your dime on a number hoping to win that shiny new toaster for Mom, or trying to toss a small wooden ring onto the glass neck a Coke bottle, and of course the rows and rows of fish bowls filled with colored water into which you tossed ping-pong balls. If you won, you got to keep the goldfish, which had a life expectancy of about 15 minutes after you got it home. It then got flushed, or as we referred to it, "burial at sea!"

That there was food goes without saying; this was an Italian feast! The next time someone invents a new appetite suppressant pill, I have a sure-fire way of testing it. Let the test subject take the new pill. Then bring him to an outdoor Italian feast and find a stand where sausages and peppers are cooking on the grill. Make sure the sausages have been cooking for at least an hour, and are just starting to caramelize. Position the test subject downwind from the stand for five minutes. If he can resist begging the owner of the stand to sell him a sandwich at any price, then the pill may be considered effective. Most people will cave, as you can readily see in Exhibit A above.

For dessert after your sausage and pepper hero, you must have some Zeppolis. There are two kinds of Zeppolis: one is a pastry shell cut in half, filled with rich yellow cream and topped with a cherry. Traditionally, they are served around St. Joseph's feast day in March. (These may be purchased in Italian bakeries. Don't have your cholesterol count taken within 24 hours of eating one.) The other kind of Zeppoli is the type served at the feast, basically, dough fried in very hot oil, placed in a paper bag and sprinkled with powdered sugar. You shake the bag to coat the hot Zeppolis with sugar, and then shove one into your face. If you don't get some powdered sugar on the tip of your nose, you're not eating them properly.

The feast also featured music, the kind of Italian songs that can be played on simple instruments by old men wearing grey cardigan sweaters with a DiNoboli cigar stub in the pocket. If there was some extra money in the budget, the church would erect a makeshift bandstand that would give any OSHA Inspector palpitations. Sometimes they marched while they played, usually leading the women's Rosary Sodality in the procession carrying the statue of the church's patron saint. Pinned to the statue was money... ones, fives, tens or twenties. Once in a while you would see a rare hundred dollar bill, probably pinned there by a repentant sinner. As corny as it may sound, these old songs, played and sung with real feeling, had a haunting effect on me, as if something was reaching through the centuries and pulling me back to the land of my ancestors. 

The San Gennaro feast in New York City's Little Italy (the few blocks that are left of it) has become well known, and tourists flock there to see an authentic Italian feast. I hate to tell them, but they're too late. It may have been a true neighborhood celebration many years ago, but it has become too commercial, and lost all its ethnic identity. The last time I went it had a distinctly corporate flavor. I'm glad to have my memories of Our Lady of Loreto's genuine festa Italiana.


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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Jimmy Gets His License

In the 1950s, just like today, every teen aged guy's dream (well, maybe in second place on the teen aged guy dream list) was to get a driver's license. It was embarrassing to pick up your date and head for the subway or the bus stop...not exactly guaranteed to move you up the cool scale in your date's eyes. Let's face it, all the really cool guys in the neighborhood drove great cars. Even a dweeb could get girls if he had a hot car. I remember an older guy named "Spike" who was baby-faced, chubby and crew cut, not exactly a James Dean lookalike, but he drove a sleek, yellow and black Mercury with skirt fenders, illuminated wheel wells, and of course the fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. What red-blooded girl could resist.

When I turned 17, there was no such thing as "Drivers Ed" in high schools. My father never got his driver's license, so where was I going to learn? I decided to try a driving school, and found one on Pitkin Avenue. It was a small, storefront operation that was run by one guy. When he was out giving lessons, he locked the place up until he got back. I don't remember what he charged, but it couldn't be much. The driving school's "fleet" consisted of one car, a '57 light blue and white Dodge sedan the size of a 747; its tail fins were actually bigger than a 747's.

The lesson was supposed to last an hour, but the owner of the school was going through a nasty divorce from his wife, and the minute we pulled away from the curb, he started ranting about what a tramp she was and how he never should have married her. This was not a short gripe session, but a full-blown, psychotic rant. I really didn't need him to teach me how to drive, so I just kept going, with us often winding up in Long Island. We'd get back a couple of hours later, the driving instructor felt better after venting about his no-good wife, and I got in a couple of solid hours practice on the big Dodge.

When I was ready to take my driver's test, the instructor met me at the test site, which I think was at the deserted end of Pennsylvania Avenue where Starrett City is now located. The applicants lined up at the curb waiting for the test administrator to call their names and go out for their road test. There was a space at the curb of maybe 50 yards between the cars returning from their tests, and behind them, the cars still waiting to pull out for theirs. I was second in line to be called. The test administrator got into the car immediately in front of mine. The driver of the car floored the accelerator, covered that 50 yard gap in a flash, and rear-ended the car in front of him. The test administrator calmly got out, wrote something on the lunatic's test application form, and cooly waved me up. I guess those guys had seen it all.

I did better than the guy before me. I signalled for turns, kept both hands on the wheel at "10 and 2" executed a perfect U-turn and finished with a flawless parallel park. They weren't supposed to tell you if you passed or not, but the test administrator, relieved I guess that I didn't crash the car, said: "You did OK kid". I was beside myself with joy. The two weeks or so it took for that license to come in the mail seemed like forever. When it arrived, I was overjoyed; no more subway dates. Well except for one small detail...I now had a license, but no car. This was a mere technicality, as I soon talked my unsuspecting father into going halves with me on a new '61 Chevy Impala. 

Kids today start taking Driver's Ed at age 16 or earlier, and Daddy usually provides them with a car by the time they graduate high school. It's almost an entitlement in their minds. They could never understand what having a car meant to us back then. We washed it every Saturday, waxed it under the el where it was shady, and tricked it out with any accessories we could afford. The car became an extension of our personality, not just transportation, but a magic carpet that carried us to exotic places filled with wondrous things we never saw much in the neighborhood, like trees. If you don't believe me, go to a classic car show and ask any owner to tell you about his "baby". Be prepared to stay a while.

(Originally posted 9/6/09)


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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Back to School

Soon the schools in New York begin a new year. It got me thinking about how it was for me going back to Our Lady of Lourdes for a new term after another glorious summer. I may have written about this already, but since I don't have the energy to check, I will just press on. Unlike most kids, I never really minded returning to school. I always had a very busy summer, what with day camp at PS 73 and hanging out in the long evenings playing ring-a-levio, kick the can, Johnny-on-the Pony and hide and seek, my days were full. There was also swimming at Coney Island and Betsy Head pool, family picnics on Sundays, Saturday stickball games and a thousand other things kids did in the Fifties, so come the end of summer, school felt like a welcome change.

Getting up in the morning was not a problem for me; that came later in life when I had to wake up for work. I had a routine...breakfast was usually cereal and milk, sometimes coffee if Mom had it made. (I'm sure our teachers appreciated kids arriving to class wired with caffeine.)  I read the backs of cereal boxes as carefully as most executives read the Wall Street Journal. Then I would get dressed in slacks, white shirt and blue tie, our school uniform. In the pioneer days before school buses, I made the 15-minute walk to school, sometimes meeting a friend or two along the way. Today we have this ridiculous system of busing kids miles from their homes for a better education instead of fixing the local schools. But I digress.

As I approached the school, I would always stop at the candy store on the corner of Aberdeen Street and Broadway where we hung out before entering the schoolyard. A nice older couple ran the place and were very tolerant of us since we spent our nickels and dimes there. In the schoolyard there would always be a ball game of some sort going on, or the girls would be jumping rope. These activities allowed us to expend one last burst of energy before having to sit still at our desks. Finally we lined up by class, two by two, in size order, and marched into the yellow brick building. Our new teachers would be waiting to greet us at the classroom door. The day started with the Pledge of Allegiance, sadly, no longer recited in most schools. 

This was Catholic school, so there was little time for pleasantries. We plunged right in, moving from subject to subject, often distracted by the Indian summer breezes that wafted into the open windows. We stayed in the same room, the routine broken only when the music teacher (Miss Hessian) or the art teacher (Miss Frankie) would come into our classroom to relieve the monotony of math, English, religion and history. From fourth grade on, I was a member of the school safety patrol and was required to get to school early so I could help younger kids cross the street. By eighth grade I was Captain of the safety patrol and had to arrive extra early to be sure everyone was at their assigned post.

Besides getting an excellent education at Lourdes, I was on the baseball, basketball, swimming and track teams, and in the school marching band, so I spent a lot of time after school working on my athletic and social skills. It was especially nice reuniting with those kids I never saw over the summer. Most of the teachers were caring and competent, and the Franciscan Brothers also doubled as coaches on the sports teams. Brother Jude (second from right) was a major influence on my life, and a friend and I had lunch with him a few years ago near his 80th birthday. Still sharp as a tack. Some people knock Catholic school but for me it was the perfect fit. I can never repay those good teachers for what they taught me...not just about academics but about life.


Children's Craniofacial Association   http://www.ccakids.com/ 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Summer in the City

This morning, while walking along the boardwalk at South Beach, I glanced up across the water at the horizon and was greeted with a wondrous sight. Long strips of fleecy, horizontal clouds just hanging in the brightening sky, back lit by the rising sun to color them bright pink and purple. That has nothing to do with the subject of this post, but looking at it made me wonder how anyone can doubt the existence of a higher power. It was a wonderful way to start the day.

From the time I was about 10, and for three or four years thereafter, I attended summer day camp at P.S. 73, a junior high school on MacDougal Street in Brooklyn. My mother went to the school as did her famous classmate, the Great One, Jackie Gleason. Summer Camp for kids today usually means some serene, bucolic place in the country, with dorms, counselors and singing songs around the campfire. My summer camp was the city version...concrete, brick buildings and traffic whizzing by on Rockaway Avenue.

I really didn't want to go, after all, summer was my time; no school, no homework and out in the street from dawn to dusk. I'm sure this is what worried my mother. She couldn't watch me every minute, and for sure I was a handful at that age. We would ride our bikes from my block in Brooklyn to Howard Beach in Queens, a distance of about five miles along some of the busiest streets you can imagine. Clearly, Mom wanted me under closer supervision.
Once at summer camp, I flat-out loved it. What kid wouldn't. They had other kids my age to play with, a great arts and crafts program (to this day I can weave a mean lanyard) and best of all, SPORTS. Every day we got to play softball or football in the school yard. They had organized track and field competitions in which I eagerly participated. Their sports program was run by a man named Norm Drucker whose full-time job was refereeing in the National Basketball Association. I guess the pay for refs was so poor in those days that he had to supplement his income with a summer job. Or maybe he just wanted to help city kids stay off the streets.

During those years there was a TV show called Junior Champions hosted by Marty Glickman, the great Olympic athlete and sportscaster. They selected kids from local day camps to come on the show and compete for prizes. I had recently fractured my left wrist in a camp high jump event, and was sporting a hard cast on my left arm. Despite that, I was lucky enough to win a basketball lay-up shooting contest and walked away with a new bike (see 9/23/08 post, "The Dream Bike").

That's not the point of this story. While waiting to go on camera, all the kids who were competing were being briefed by a staff person on what to do while on-camera. I guess I was around 12 at the time, a raging pile of adolescent hormones. Anyhow, the person briefing us was a tall, stunning redhead. After talking to the group, she came over, sat down next to me, and put her arm around my shoulder. I could feel the blood rush to my cheeks. She looked at me and began speaking: "You want to be a hit on the show, don't you?" she asked. "Y-y-y-yes" I stammered" She went on: "You want your family and friends to be proud of you" she whispered into my ear. "Y-y-y-yes" again was my clever reply. "Then you'd better zip up your fly" said red.
No hole was deep enough for me to crawl into. That was my first brush with women; its a miracle I didn't enter the priesthood then and there.

One final thought on day camp. Maybe once every week they would take us on bus trips to various places, like the beach at Far Rockaway or to Highland Park. For a local kid like me, this was like a week on the French Riviera. As if the bus ride wasn't enough, for these outings we got box lunches consisting of a sandwich, a container of milk and a piece of fruit. This was my introduction to mayonnaise. Living in an Italian-American home, I had never seen a jar of mayonnaise. The tuna we ate was the imported Italian type, canned in oil so powerful that any sandwich made with it could soak through a brown paper bag in ten seconds flat. At camp we got egg salad and tuna salad sandwiches made with mayonnaise! What gastronomic delight was this? To this day I love mayo, but what can I say about my first taste....ambrosia.

A belated "Thank You" to men like Norm Drucker and Marty Glickman who helped make summers memorable for boys like me. As for that redhead, well I forgive you, but I hope you never need a kidney.

(Originally posted 11/7/2008.)


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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Preppies vs. the Hoods

If you saw the movie "West Side Story" you may remember that one of the plot lines was the friction between two street gangs, The Sharks and The Jets. There were gangs around for sure in the Fifties in our neighborhood, but they couldn't dance like the gangs in this movie! In my neighborhood we saw an interesting phenomenon around the time Pat Boone started to become popular. Up until then, guys tended to dress in regular street clothes, or if they identified with James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" like I did, they wore black leather jackets, dungarees (not jeans) and motorcycle boots. Although I sported the "hood" look, I was a fraud. I was just a regular guy trying to fit in.

When Pat Boone arrived on the scene, I noticed a change in the way guys were dressing. Pat was the personification of the clean-cut kid, the anti-Elvis, and parents and kids alike embraced him. Maybe Pat could help stem the tide of Rock and Roll, the devil's music. Maybe if our kids had someone popular they could emulate, we still had a chance to save their souls. In my high school, black jackets and boots began to disappear as button-down shirts and white bucks or saddle shoes took their place. Long hair with duck-tails got cut and hair was styled more like Pat's, parted neatly and combed to the side. Dungarees were out and chino pants with that little belt across the ass were in. The Preppies were taking on The Hoods and winning.

I resisted, mainly because I thought Pat Boone was not even in the same league as James Dean. He was polite instead of sullen; neatly groomed instead of a slob; and sang songs about lolly pops and moonbeams...I hated him. But soon my friends began to switch sides. I hardly recognized them in their sissy shoes and school sweaters. I held out as long as I could, but as the hood clique faded away like Neanderthal man, I became more and more conspicuous. Nobody wanted to hang out with a hood anymore, even a fake one. Teachers looked on hoods as trouble back in the day when they still had some actual authority to make your life difficult. But the straw that broke the camel's back was when most of the good looking girls moved into the Preppie camp. I had no choice but to cave.

When I asked my mother if I could but some new clothes, she resisted because money was tight. When I told her I wanted to try button-down shirts and chinos however, she muttered her thanks to Our Lady of Mount Carmel and we went to Mays Department Store. Now I show up in school in Preppie garb and I felt like my worlds were colliding. The Preppie crowd was suspicious of my sudden conversion, and my hood friends looked at me like the Benedict Arnold I was. I didn't belong anywhere. Although I still harbored hood sympathies, by sheer strength of will, I out-prepped the Preppies. My acceptance came when I was allowed to sit at her cafeteria table with Sheila, Jewish American Princess and Queen of the Preppies. Ironically, having finally earned my white bucks, it slowly dawned on me that this was really not my crowd. Luckily, graduation day arrived and I went out into the world still not quite sure of who I was.

I guess the person who finally helped me find myself was my wife. After dating on and off for a few years, I realized that what I wanted in life was to spend the rest of it with her. I proposed and gave her an engagement ring while on a carriage ride in Central Park. This move was right out of the manual: "Romantic Gestures for the Clueless". Happily for me she accepted and has helped shape who I am ever since. Any good qualities or instincts I may have probably came from her. My bad points I attribute to the Hood-Preppie conflict that raged in me during those formative teen years. She has been at it for nearly 48 years now and still has work to do. I am very lucky that she never gave up on me. 

(Originally published 7/11/11)


Children's Craniofacial Association

Friday, July 4, 2014


If you were around in the fifties, you may remember that L.S.M.F.T. stands for "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco". Lucky Strike (or Luckies) were one of the many cigarette brands that thrived after WWII. Even during the war they sent Luckies in the new white package to troops overseas with the slogan: "Lucky Strike Green goes to war". The original Luckies pack was green in color, but during the war, chromium (an essential ingredient in green ink) was in short supply, so Luckies switched to a white pack and never changed back. No, no, don't thank me. I am here to enlighten.

Cigarettes were still glamarous in the fifties. Every movie star, from tough-talking gangsters to beautiful leading ladies happily puffed away on screen. It's no wonder that most kids couldn't wait to light up their first cigarette. Smoking was a rite of passage for us. I started smoking around age 11 or 12. I would snitch one from my father's pack or (germophobes please stop reading here) pick up a butt in the street that still had a few puffs left in it. What, you didn't have any disgusting habits?

Cigarettes were boldly advertised in the fifties...even doctors promoted them. There were ashtrays in every room of every house. Unlike today when smokers have to sneak into an alley for their fix, smoking was permitted everywhere: airplanes, office buildings, theaters, even hospital rooms; you were free to have a smoke pretty much anywhere. Of course a pack of cigarettes cost about a quarter back then, so two packs a day was no big financial burden. The last time I checked, to buy a carton of cigarettes you needed a co-signer for the loan.

Ad agencies were at their creative best when selling cigarettes. Some of the more memorable ads from the fifties:

The dancing Old Gold pack.
Dennis James was the spokesman
for this brand.

Use of celebrities in ads. You can't see it clearly in this small picture, but that's future President Ronald Reagan hawking Pell Mell cigarettes.

Baseless scientific claims were another favorite tactic. Here Arthur Godfrey trumpets "Scientific Evidence"on the effects of smoking Chesterfields.

One of the most successful and long-running ad campaigns was for Marlboro. The "Marlboro Man" became the new yardstick for manly good looks. Guys who smoked Marlboros could identify with the rugged cowboys of the old West. I dumped my old brand in a heartbeat to proudly join the swelling ranks of the Marlboro Men.

I know it's not a popular notion today, but I enjoyed smoking. There was nothing like a cigarette with my morning coffee or after a satisfying meal. If they could figure out a way to make cigarettes harmless, I'd run out and buy a carton of Marlboros in a minute. That is if I could get a co-signer for the loan.

(Originally published 10/16/08)


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