MY PERSONAL STORY Scene Five: I think I Just Turned Pro

Picking up where I last left off, while I was at Lea Grammar School I pretended to make movies.  I would take the round piece of cardboard from the inside of a toilet paper roll and hold it up to my eye.  I panned from the sink to the bathtub  to the towel rack and things like that.

One day the circus came to town; not any circus, but Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. I always knew when the circus was in town because I could see the circus train from my vantage point on the Chestnut Street Bridge by the U.S. Post Office, parked near the Skulkill River on side-tracks just south of 30th Street Station.

This particular year The Greatest Show on Earth, a 1952 drama film, was being photographed by Paramount Pictures while the circus was playing Philadelphia.

The film was produced, directed, and narrated by Cecil B. DeMille, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Its storyline is supported by lavish production values, actual circus acts, and documentary with behind-the-rings looks at the massive logistics effort which made big top circuses possible.

The film starred Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde  as trapeze artists competing for the center ring, and Charlton Heston as the circus manager running the show. James Stewart  also starred as a mysterious clown who never removes his make-up, even between shows.

In addition to the film actors, the real Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus’ 1951 troupe appears in the film, with its complement of 1400 people, hundreds of animals, and 60 carloads of equipment and tents. The actors learned their respective circus roles and participated in the acts.

It was pouring rain.  The circus took up residence on a vacant field in South Philly.  I remember seeing all the huge arc lights on elevated risers that illuminated the interior of the circus tent.  Parked nearby were trucks with Paramount Pictures painted on the side.

The midway was full of side shows which my parents quickly steered me passed.  The midway was a muddy quagmire.   From an opportunistic vendor my parents overpaid for a brown plastic “poncho” that was nothing more than a big bag with a clear window so you could see out.  But with the three of us squeezed inside our breaths fogged the window and you could hardly see a foot in front of you. Needless to say, this particular night provided one of the most exciting experiences of my young life, and that faraway place, Hollywood, California beckoned to me.

After Lea School, I attended all-boys Central High in North Philadelphia, a long distance from where I lived in West Philadelphia. Central High had very high academic standards.   I took a test and immediately went from Lea Grammar School instead of going to junior high, directly to Central High School, skipping Junior High all together. I had to take a bus, an elevated train known as the “El” that on its way to center-city went underground, the Broad Street subway, and then a trolley car followed by a long walk to the campus. I was Co-Photo Editor with Martin Neff of the school newspaper, The Centralizer, a nationally acclaimed award winning newspaper. I had graduated from small Kodak cameras to a Speed Grafflex, the  camera that press photographers used in many Hollywood movies, but I didn’t wear a fedora with a press pass stuck in the hat band.  Hey, I was only 15 years old.  Fortunately Central had a first class darkroom where I spent many hours honing my skills.  A lot of minipulation could be done to the raw photographic image and I became very good at it.

What I wasn’t good at was buckling down and studying, and I didn’t do very well at Central High School, and, in fact, flunked Latin, not once but twice — a required language if you wanted to become a medical doctor. And my parents were set on my becoming a medical doctor.   Because I felt my life wasn’t in my hands, I pretty much turned my back on getting an education.  I had to have an algebra tutor who lived in Germantown, so there was more traveling by subway, bus, and trolley car.

I also played Junior Varsity football and was pretty good at it.  I carried a duffel bag with my football equipment on all of those public conveyances, no easy task.  Many times as I dragged my heavy duffel bag into the crowded  subway car, it got wedged  between the doors that were closing and the train couldn’t  leave the station.

Central High was one of the few schools in the country — perhaps the only one — that had a working planetarium. Maybe it was because the Fells Planetarium was housed at the Franklyn Institute  in Philly.

While at Central I used my new 16mm Bell & Howell movie camera with an attached floodlight  bar to film the annual Christmas Party held at Central High for the Widner School for Crippled Children. This was the first time I had  used my 16mm camera.  I shot a one hundred foot  roll of B&W  film,  approximately two and one-half minutes worth, and contacted WPTZ, a television station in Philadelphia. They said to deliver my exposed 16mm film to them, which I did.  But in truth it was scary and I was afraid my footage might be out of focus, under or over exposed, or just blank!  Low and behold, my mother received a telephone call around dinner time from WPTZ, and they told her I would received thirty-five dollars, which she agreed to, and they said to watch the local news in about one hour.  It was thrilling for my family and me to see my black and white footage “professionally” shot, narrated by the local TV News anchor on our tiny 16″ RCA TV screen, which was housed inside a luxurious wooden cabinet because my Mom didn’t want to look at the “big eye” staring back at her when the TV was off.  That “big eye” stared at me too, but I knew right then and there we would somehow have a life-long relationship.

MY PERSONAL STORY will continue…