MY PERSONAL STORY Scene Six: The Long Drive Ahead

     My first car wasn’t a junker.  Instead it was a brand spanking new powder blue & white 1956 Chevrolet convertible with a powder blue rag top, a shiny chrome spotlight on the driver’s side, dual rear antennas,  and  dual glasspack mufflers that purred like a lion.  You can see versions of this car, every so often, being sold for big bucks on Mecum Auto Auctions on the  HD Channel.  What you won’t see on any of these cars is the chrome plated racehorse that I attached to the hood of my Chevy.  The reason for this was because I was employed by the Golden Triangle of Racing,  in the state of New Jersey.  The triangle represented the three thoroughbred race tracks located there:  Garden State Racing Association in Cherry Hill, N.J.Atlantic City Race Track in Atlantic City, and Monmouth Race Track in Monmouth, N.J.

     I was a photographer and I worked in the Security Departments taking I.D. pictures of the jockeys, trainers, and horse owners.  I was overqualified but, heck, I was working as a professional photographer, and this was a summer job, so I got to live in Asbury Park and Atlantic City, as well as meet legendary jockeys such as Bill Hartack and Eddie Arcaro, and the owners of the famed Calumet Farms in Kentucky.

     Let me backtrack a little, while still a senior at West Philadelphia High School, I joined the Navy.  My mother got upset because I was going to miss my high school graduation ceremony and contacted the Navy Department.  And the next thing I knew, I was being whisked in an official gray U.S. Navy car to my graduation ceremony at West Philly High School.

     Afterwards I went with my girlfriend Loretta to see Sammy Davis Jr. perform with the Will Mastin Trio at the Latin Casino in downtown Philadelphia.  The irony is several years later I became the stage manager at the Latin Casino when the nightclub moved to escape the Philadelphia Blue Laws (nto being able to serve liquor, spirits or beer on Saturdays after 12am midnight), to Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

     I honestly don’t remember how I got back to Navel Air Station Willow Grove, a few miles outside Philadelphia, but I got back in time for morning reveille.

     That summer (1957) I went through boot camp and was assigned to Naval Photographic that was a designation in Wing Staff, most of my fellow recruits were assigned to squadrons such as Anti-Submarine, etc.

To be continued…

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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…

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MY PERSONAL STORY Scene Four: I get a Polaroid Land Camera Model 95

The red velvet curtain has been closed for too long and it’s time to present a new scene. I’m going back in time to first grade at H. C. Lea (Grammar) School in West Philadelphia.  Wanting to see Santa Clause was a big thing and I had an unflappable determination to see the jolly old man. There were lots of toys I wanted for Christmas.   I’ve decided to include a personal hygiene mishap in MY PERSONAL STORY because it reveals the desire of this little kid to do something he wanted to do, in spite of the obstacles (poop) that got in the way.  The “accident” happened in 1st. grade and went unrecognized by everyone except me. Yes, my teacher did smell something unpleasant but I was a “rug boy,” and having just unrolled the rug onto which a classmate had hurled the day before, the timing was perfect and I escaped detection despite the load of freshly minted poop in my pants.

Nowadays, kids talk about “poop.”  “Poop, poop, poop.”  All “poop,” all the time. This word is often mentioned in popular children’s books particularly aimed at little boys. When big boys with big toys go and gamble this word undergoes a metamorphosis. When I stand at a table playing Craps in Las Vegas, sometimes I wonder if some gambler way back when rolled the dice, lost, and shit in his pants. And the game of Craps was born. Imagine if you will, if Craps had been named Poops.  Next time when you’re gambling you’d be standing at the Poops table playing Poops.

Sorry – I couldn’t resist.   Getting back on track, when the “accident” happened I was six years old. My Parents were going to take me to see Santa Clause after school that day. So, there I was riding in their car on a mission, and the dried poop in my pants wasn’t going to stop me. Now I come to the point of this story, and I think you’ll understand the reason for my scatological diversion because to this day I won’t let obstacles stop me from achieving whatever I’ve set out to do.

During another Christmas season, when I was one year older, my Mom took me to to see Santa Clause at Gimbal Bros. Department Store in Center City Philadelphia. A radio show featuring Santa Clause was being broadcast on station WIP.  I sat on his lap and  he asked me if I had been crying.  I said yes, and he asked me the reason why.  I replied, “I dropped my choo-choo train engine down the toilet but my Mother fished it out.”  Needless to say my dear Mom was very embarrassed and reminded me about it for years.

During yet another Christmas, when I was in fifth or sixth grade, my parents gave me a Polaroid Land Camera Model 95, which allowed the user to develop a finished B&W picture in one minute.   You would snap the picture, then pull a paper tab containing the undeveloped picture.  You would wait for one minute, then peel off the paper backing to  see the finished picture.  The final step was to coat the picture using a pink strip of soft material containing a chemical that preserved and protected the picture from fading.

Armed with my new Polaroid Camera, I became the photographer for the elementary school newspaper, The Lea Echo.  This was in addition to my being on the audio-visual squad — H.C. Lea (Grammar) School’s main projectionist.  I wanted to take  a picture at a baseball game.   What if I could photograph a student sliding into home plate and the umpire calling the runner safe?  Well, it happened but I wasn’t in the right position of snap the magic action moment. I stood behind the catcher and umpire, and was blocked from seeing the action.   So I decided to stage the photo with a bunch of kids after the game ended.  The Camera had a very slow shutter speed and the lens was standard focal length, so I stood with the camera on the baseball diamond in the pitcher’s lane a few feet away.  The picture I took, a sports action moment at a schoolyard baseball game, a moment frozen in time, looks like it was taken in real time by a professional photographer.   I have it on the wall of my office today.

I was a good photographer but a lousy musician.  My Uncle Eddie who gave me a musical instrument every Christmas, gave me an accordion one year.  It was half the size of a standard accordion.  I was in Cub Scouts and there was some kind of talent night.  I remember coming out on the stage, staring into the spotlight and trying to get through the Western-themed song, “Home on  the Range.”  I performed miserably and barely got through playing the entire song. I didn’t like being in front of an audience.  I decided I was never going to be a performer.  Yet the stage fascinated me, and would play an important  role in my future.

Today’s story gets me through my Grammar School years, and I along with you, will soon graduate to high school and…

MY PERSONAL STORY will continue…

MY PERSONAL STORY Scene Three: Formative Years

Heart murmur.  Not being able to play with other kids. My Mom, the Nurse, being overly protective. My little cousin Frankie, dying at an early age from a disease that my uncle Frank, a Medical Doctor, my Doctor, thought Frankie caught from someone at his in-home office.  I remember going to Frankie’s funeral  — my first –and riding in the procession sandwiched in the front seat between my Mom and Dad, peering through the front windshield past the sticker that said “FUNERAL” at my Uncle Frank’s car, which carried Aunt Olga and cousin Glava, and the hearse in font of them carrying the casket to Roosevelt Cemetery in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I was sad and scared seeing Frankie’s tiny  casket being lowered into the ground.

My Uncle Frank introduced by Dad, who had a pharmacy at Jefferson Hospital, to my Mom who worked as a Registered Nurse there.   She was Valedictorian in her high school graduating class. She wanted to be a doctor, but her family was poor, and although she was offered a scholarship, she couldn’t accept it because she had to help support her family in Skullville, New Jersey, not far from Mays Landing and Atlantic City.

Uncle Frank treated patients at his in-home office and also paid visits to homes — that’s what Doctors did in those days. Tragically, my Uncle Frank died at an early age from a heart attack, probably because he blamed himself for his son’s death. I clearly remember that day, my folks receiving the phone call and racing out of the house to go and help him. I stood at the window, crying, because I didn’t want to be left alone.  I heard a siren wailing and knew it was a medical vehicle for him.  Not long after he passed on, I had a private conversation with Uncle Frank because I felt awful that I was selfish and cried about being left alone at the house the night he was struck down.

As a child I didn’t speak until I was almost three years old — what I did do was invent my own language.  Later in life, my Mom told me one of the words I said was “Dum dum,” which meant water.  I recall being a slow reader.  In first grade we sat on tiny chairs in a circle and read from books like “Fun with Dick and Jane.” My teacher always went around the circle clockwise from child to child to give each one a chance to read.  The next time we had a reading class we would continue clockwise in the same direction from where we left off the day before.  But I had a plan.  Every day I changed my seat and sat to the right of the kid who had read the day before. The reading circle hardly ever got around to me. When it looked like I might actually be called on to read, I would raise my hand and ask my teacher permission to go to the bathroom.  I managed to pull off this ruse for quite a while.  In first grade, one of my classmate’s was Leon Brown, a black boy, who was affectionally called Bunky and my constant rival for the daily “best dressed” award.  I was painfully shy, I remember my aunts and uncles always asking, “What’s the matter with Johnnie?” Although I didn’t speak very much I watched and listened.  At H.C. Lea(Grammar) School in West Philadelphia I became the captain of the audio visual squad. This meant skipping classes and avoiding homework, the tradeoff for my showing educational movies: carting the equipment around, setting up the beaded screen and threading the Bell & Howell 16mm sound projector. I was a good projectionist because I figured out the reason for the loop was so that each still picture could come to a complete but brief stop in the film gate behind the lens and the optical sound track was advanced 19 1/2 frames in front of the picture so it could roll continuously over the drum where it was read by the optical reader. Somehow this all got melded together inside the Bell & Howell projector and became a “sound movie.”  These movies were generally boring but I loved to watch them just the same.

MY PERSONAL STORY will continue…

MY PERSONAL STORY Scene Two: Bitten by the Showbiz Bug

The curtain rises and scene two begins in 1944, maybe plus or minus one year.  I had developed a heart murmur from pneumonia, so I was constantly being monitored by machines to evaluate the seriousness of it, due to the fact that my Mother was a registered nurse, my father was a registered pharmacist.  (His six brothers and sisters, with the exception of one brother, my favorite uncle, whose death certificate stated he was a pharmacist’s assistant — many years later my father confessed to taking the test for him — were either doctors, pharmacists, or had married pharmacists.)  With all of doctors’ tests and medical speak floating around my house, my imagination ran wild.  Here I was thinking I was going to die at an early age, maybe at any minute! You might wonder why all of this is important.   Well, the simple fact is this 5-year-old boy had lots of drama in his life.

Enough.  No More Medical Stuff.  Time for Some Theatrical Drama.

The Goldman Theater was located one block west of Broad Street and one block north of Chestnut Street in center city Philadelphia (City of Brotherly Love), close to City Hall with the famous statute of William Penn on top of it.  I remember the Goldman Theater vividly.  The letters spelling the name of the theater were huge. Here, I had a scare that seemed worse than my fear of an early demise.  “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” produced in 1938 was playing, and my parents took me to see it.  It was a large movie house and I recall sitting in the center section on the right-hand side. There were many fun moments between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, painting the fence and things like that.  But then, holy shit!  That cave!   Pirates carrying lighted torches, and one particularly mean-looking guy with a brass earring.   His evil stare penetrated my brain as if I had been shot,  and shadows danced on the walls of the cave like devils celebrating the victory of Evil Forces over Good .  Tom and Huck were about to die, and me right along with them.  It was so-ooo real!  I started crying, screaming, a piercing  animal sound that echoed off the walls of the movie theater.  I was also kicking my feet and flailing my arms.  My mother and father hustled me  out of the theatre, and I remember carrying on even when we were outside on the street. What I had just experienced was real and that was that.  I don’t know how  many weeks after that, one of my uncles, a pharmacist of course, told my parents that he knew the owner of a movie theater, and I could go into the projection booth, where I would  see the projectors and film reels spinning on them.  So I went there with my parents.  It wasn’t scary because I wasn’t going into the theater’s auditorium, just a little room upstairs — the projection booth — whatever the hell that was.  There was a big metal door leading to the projection booth because highly combustible Nitrate film had not been outlawed yet.  Inside, I stared.  What iron monsters those two projectors were!  Those amazing mechanical devices clicked and clacked and a flaming carbon arc caused bright light to be emitted through the lens in front and then through a tiny square window.  Holding my mother’s and father’s hand, I ventured closer to the projector and was held up in the air so I could peek through that tiny square window the beam of light was passing through.  My God!  Spewing out of that iron contraption was a movie!  I could see with my own eyes the images on the screen were coming from the projector, and came to the conclusion the images on the screen weren’t real!  It was an unforgettable, seminal moment in my life, and the beginning of a passion for the magic of the motion picture that consumes me to this day.   Now the curtain closes, but rest assured in the very near future there will be new reels spinning on the projectors and the curtain will open again.

MY PERSONAL STORY will continue…

MY PERSONAL STORY Scene One: Entering a Brave New World: My Mother as an Actress and My First True Love

Like those who have preceded me and those who have come after me, on July 18, 1939, I was born into this world. I might have been nine pounds, I might have been ten pounds, but I wasn’t much less or  much more than that.  At a very early age, while I was in a crib I developed pneumonia. I wouldn’t swallow my medicine until a Doctor Muchatz, mustache, fedora, overcoart, came to to see me. The good Doctor scared me half to death and ordered me to take my medicine, which I did. Little did I know Doctor Muchatz was an actress, my mother, a Registered Nurse at the city’s most prestegeous hospital. I can remember my tiny chest being packed with a thick goop called Antiphlogistine, a Medicated Poultice something akin to a mustard plaster — it was like being in a body cast but I don’t remember complaining about it.  Perhaps I was too sick. I had a satin cat named Minnie Memow.  I loved Minnie. She wasn’t that small, and I’m not sure why she was named Minnie.  Perhaps this satin cat was named after Disney’s Minnie Mouse.   I hugged that damn cat tightly to my sweaty little body, day after day,  and dripped mucus and slobbered all over it, so my dear Mother shedding the persona of Doctor Muschatz kept having to replace its’ stained satin cover with a clean new satin skin.   I guess this was my introduction to the theatre — Vaudeville , with a performer  and a puppet.  And so the first scene ends and the curtain closes.

MY PERSONAL STORY will continue…

MY PERSONAL STORY Prologue: 2010! Hello World!

It’s a new decade, with new adventures, new challenges.  To go back a few years, on New Years Eve 2000, my wife and I were passengers on the Sea Lion, a Linblad Expeditions ship, which is now in partnership with National Geographic, exploring the Sea of Cortez. A few minutes before midnight we  left our ship on Zodiac rafts and landed on an uninhabited island, where we were met by crew members dressed in tuxedos, holding silver trays with champagne glasses which they handed to us when we waded  ashore.  It was a glorious celebration, a huge bonfire, a pig roasting on a spit, all the champagne you could drink, and billions of twinkling stars visible in the night sky.  This was the beginning of a new decade, and you could wipe the slate clean and start over.  The only worry was Y2K, but fortunately the meltdown of the world’s computers was over hyped and didn’t happen.  This uninhabited island seemed very safe, so the world seemed safe.  I was in total denial that my view of the outside world  from the perspective of this uninhabited island  — peace,  love, good health — was only an illusion  In reality, there would soon be 9/11, the economic downturn, and a long list of problems facing every American Citizen.

So, I’ve started to write this Blog to inspire you  a little bit, to make you laugh a little bit.   You will read about a determined young man from Philadelphia who came to Hollywood and didn’t know anyone but persevered and fought his way into the motion picture business as the Old Guard was being pushed aside and Studio System was about to collapse.  This is MY PERSONAL STORY and it’s 100% true…