Thursday, July 31, 2014


The Strand would eventually morph into the trashy and verboten Greenbrier Theatre

I was born in Kanawha Valley Hospital in 1941 and grew up in Charleston. I no longer dwell there, but get back occasionally to visit family. Wish I could do it even more often. Almost every photo I see of Charleston on the net triggers a petite madeleine or two. . .or more. I had a Charleston Daily Mail paper route downtown in my late adolescence. And I can recall every stop on that route as if it were yesterday. I had several subscribers in the Security Building on Capitol Street. On the ground floor there was a concession stand and the man who ran it was blind. He informed me one day that he could FEEL the difference between all paper currency denominations. Blew my mind! There was a barber shop in the basement but I always patronized the Lyric Barber Shop on Lee Street whose schtick was a very light-skinned troupe of barbers who snipped away at a strictly white clientele. A couple of doors down from the Security Bldg stood Frankenberger's, a men's clothing store. If you told me back then that the day would come when there would be no more Frankenberger's I'd have thought you were out of your mind. To a pre-adolescent such as I, it seemed timeless and eternal (I think it folded sometime in the eighties). The very nice woman who ran the boy's department was Mrs. Satterfield. When I was nine or ten I was in a filmed TV commercial for Frankenberger's that, for some peculiar reason, only ran one time. . .very late at night on WSAZ. Almost at the corner of Quarrier and Capitol Streets there was a Planters Peanut Shop with a mechanical be-derbyed Mr. Peanut in the window. He tapped on the display window glass with his cane every few seconds year in, year out. I can still recall with vivid sense memory the sound this made. Eventually he/it tapped a hole right through the window and so the operators of the place scotch-taped a quarter over the hole and he tapped THAT. Eventually I worked for my two big teen-year heroes, L.T. Anderson at the Charleston Gazette and Bob Turley at 'KAZ Radio. The records mezzanine at Galperin's, the first escalator in Charleston (at the "new" Stone and Thomas Department Store) , the "dirty" movies at the forbidden Lyric and Greenbrier, etc. I could go on and on. I guess I'll save some of it for some other long dark night around the campfire. Or another blog post.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Friday, July 25, 2014

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Elaine Stritch R.I.P.

My favorite joke of all time can be told in less than thirty seconds, preferably from the lips of Stritch from whence I first heard it at 3 a.m. on some talk show re-run in the long ago before time. To wit: A nonagenarian couple goes to a judge and say, "We want a divorce." "How long lave you been married?," he queries. "Seventy years," they say. "Why did you wait until now?," he asks. They reply, "We wanted to wait until the children were dead." Bud-a-bing! Strich was on Johnny Carson one night and left the panel and moved center stage and sang "My story is much too sad to be told" (First line of the verse to "I Get a Kick Out of You.") BLACKOUT Cut to commercial. Then back to Carson, and Stritch has returned to the panel. Doesn't get much hipper than that! Segment was recalled for me by my friend, singer Kurt Reichenbach.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Ray of Hope

I often go to sleep at night wondering why the great Ray Jessel (this era's Abe Burrows), in addition to his wonderfulness, also seems to be AMERICA'S best-kept secret. Well. . .all that changed almost in an instant a few night's ago when he showed up on AMERICA'S Got Talent and blew the lid off the joint. He made the cut of this audition episode and will clearly hold a very special place in AMERICA'S heart by the time this latest AGT cycle is over. A standing ovation from the audience and the panel. Maybe there is still hope.

Friday, July 04, 2014

More (recycled) Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

(from my memoir Early Plastic)

In the 1940s my parents had leftover traces of the Roaring Twenties in their systems, and they continued to engage in weekend fun and games. Sometimes they dropped me off to be looked after by a nice, reliable black family that lived near my father's office. It was one thing to be taken care of by a black "mammy" in your own domicile, quite another to be cared for by the woman in her own home. The peculiar form of proselytization known as Separate-But-Equal was a concept next to impossible to grasp for any six-year-old, especially if they've spent time in the home of loving black people.

If you grew up during a certain period, especially in the south, you were aware of Dinah Shore's "tragic mulatto" status the same way you knew about polio. Poor Dinah could never open her mouth to sing on TV without someone in the room drowning her out with words to the effect they knew someone who knew someone else who had a friend in Tennessee, where the singer was from, who just knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that America's Singing Sweetheart was part black, but hadn't known it until she gave birth to a baby of a tell-tale color, and secretly had to give it up for adoption. More than realpolitik debates over school integration was this racial idee fixe that had hung in the air for as long as I could remember.

After my father died, my mother, sister and I moved out of the house my parents had built and, after staying with Mama Smith, my grandmother, for a while, moved into a [Charleston, WV] housing project: Washington Manor (universally pronounced by those who lived there, "May-nor"), a place I remember most especially for its racial lunacy. The apartment windows where whites lived faced out on the black section and, conversely, windows in the black section exclusively looked out on the outside white world . In the five years that my mother, sister and I lived there, I never saw a single black face except from my window. The idea was to reinforce racism. On me it had just the opposite effect. I became deeply wrapped up in the notion of the "other." Making matters stranger was the official management policy of immediate expulsion from the projects at the merest hint of racial fraternization. One night when I could countenance the madness no longer, I awoke at two in the morning, slipped out of my pajamas and into my jeans, climbed over the fence dividing the two halves and defiantly stood, quaking, in the black part of the projects for several minutes before scurrying back home. The next day I spent half-waiting for some sort of axe to fall over my furtive symbolic gesture, but nothing ever came of my somnambulist experiment in, quite literally, crossing the color line. Washington Manor was a utilitarian, bunker-style affair where even the floors and walls of the apartment interiors were made of concrete. I can still recall lying on the floor, my cheek pressed against the cold hard blood red enamel that covered the floors and chipping off little flecks of the disgusting looking stuff with my fingernails. I thought if I hacked and hewed away long enough I'd hit hardwood. Wall-to-wall carpeting was strictly forbidden but if you were well enough off, like we were, rolldown rugs were permissible.

note: the above noted dividing fence was next to the incinerator in the accompanying photo


Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Meditations upon the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

Something this immigre from the Planet of the Goyim seldom does is engage in discussions about racism with his African-American friends and associates. Whenever I do, Lenny Bruce's classic routine, How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties leaps to mind: "Hell of a guy. Hell of a... there'll never be another Joe Louis. Hey ya got a cigarette on ya?". I sense that my black buddies have had it quite up to "here" with such badinage so, instead, I'll usually engage in some alternate conversational gambit along the lines of, "Did you get any interesting mail today?"

The last time I did cast aside my moratorium on the topic, I found myself reminiscing to my "colored friend" Sharon about the confusion that befell me as an adolescent white growing up in U.S. racist territory in the 1940s.

The drilling of hate from my family was finally pointless, I told her; it fell on deaf ears. It all seemed so very at odds with the teachings of the Methodist religion to which we belonged, i.e. "love thy neighbor," "do unto others. . ."etc. Too, beyond the mere coral conundrum, it just didn't make sense to my adolescent mind that god would create a stripe of homo sapiens that was only three-fifths human as the law, in many states, still defined African-Americans back then. I WAS allowed to play with black kids from nearby segregated neighborhoods, but not permitted to "bring them into the house." How terribly liberal!

One time, in an act of total desperation Mom told me that she wasn't really my mother, nor was Dad my "real" father. Instead, it seems that one night my folks had been driving through my hometown's (Charleston, WV) segregated "Triangle District" when a black woman had run out into the street and thrust just-born me into the car while my folks were stopped at a traffic light. But instead of freaking me out ("I ain't no n-----r, I ain't no n----r"), I thought that this was just about the coolest---was there "cool" back then?---thing I'd ever heard. I was only seven or eight when this faux info was imparted to me, but I quickly got hip---was there "hip" back then?---that I was being had. Too bad it wasn't true. (This pathetic ploy, by the way, was from an attendee of one of the best women's colleges in the country. No mere redneck she. . .or so it would seem.)

I palavored on-and-on to my above-noted friend Sharon a bit more, then brought it to an end with the observation that there were probably many, many other young Caucasians in the south (and even north) who found themselves in a similar ethical quagmire growing up in those (more)  racist times. "Yes," Sharon shot back almost immediately, "but they could always climb down off the cross if they chose to do so."

I still haven't stopped laughing.