Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"Meet Me in ....." Cedar Grove?

Margaret O’Brien is coming to Cedar Grove, New Jersey. Unless you’re of “a certain age” and a long time movie buff like me, you might not recognize the name. If I mention that she played Judy Garland’s little sister Tootie in the 1944 classic “Meet Me in St. Louis” you’ll remember her.

She’s coming to town on December 6th to host the Hollywood Canteen, a benefit for wounded American soldiers. The program will include a tribute to Abbott and Costello and a salute to the Big Band Era.

Margaret O’Brien appeared in many MGM movies during the 1940s, and I must have seen most of them. This little pig-tailed girl with the serious demeanor was the biggest child star of my generation. She was my Hannah Montana, my Dakota Fanning.

Margaret O’Brien continued her career as an adult but to many people she’ll always be known as the child who had the ability to cry on cue. It’s been reported that she once asked a director, “When I cry, do you want the tears to run all the way down, or should I stop them halfway down?”

Before the age of mass media, neighborhood movie theatres played a big role in a movie’s promotion. They enticed audiences by placing black-and-white stills from the current film out front in display cases. I remember the excitement I felt when I arrived at the Farragut Theatre on Flatbush Avenue and discovered someone of my age was in the movie!

Back then the 25-cent admission entertained us for a full afternoon. After the lights lowered and the curtain parted, we laughed at Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam. Then we gripped our seats as we watched the cliffhanger of a serial featuring Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon or George Reeves as Superman. How was our hero going to get out of that tight spot? We’d have to wait until next Saturday to find out. The RKO newsreel played next. Though world leaders’ photos appeared in newspapers, this was the only place we saw them in action. Finally, after the coming attractions, the first of the double features began.

In those days, the Hollywood stars seemed so remote from our everyday lives. Today, as we know, everything about the famous is splattered across newspapers and television. Yet, it’s easy to recapture the mood of that earlier time, of Hollywood in the 1940s. All you have to do is tune into Turner Classic Movies. Little Margaret O’Brien will be there, and she’ll be crying.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

It’s not quite winter yet, but the weather’s brisk enough to don a jacket or perhaps an Irish cape. Or maybe not.

In the mid 1980s my sister Nan and I enjoyed ten days on Ireland’s stunning western coast, motoring from the Dingle Peninsula all the way to Donegal. After a visit with our cousin in County Galway, she took us to the old McGowan homestead in the town of Bohola in County Mayo where we spent a delightful morning getting to know our distant relatives. We stopped in at the church famous in our family as the one that Grandpa had repaired, not manually, but by raising the necessary funds after he had immigrated to Brooklyn in the late 1880s. It is far from the quaint village church that I had imagined. Nan and I realized then that the story of the church’s restoration handed down by our parents and grandparents was not an exaggeration at all.

After five or six days of bright sunshine, Ireland finally lived up to its reputation as a rainy country. It poured and poured without let-up. So what do you do in a case like this? Nan and I were near a Waterford crystal shop so, of course, I bought four beautiful wine glasses. After that we spied a woolen shop, so in we dashed. Here we found perfect gifts for our friends and families – fisherman’s knit sweaters, tweed caps, scarves and more. Then Nan noticed a rack of capes in all colors. She tried on one made of hand woven woolen cloth in lovely shades of rose and blue. We both loved it, but she purchased it and brought it back to Albany. It hung it in her closet for years, never worn.

A couple of years ago, as Nan was “de-cluttering,” she gave me the cape. I’ve worn it only once.

Election Day Thoughts

Today I came across a paper I wrote thirty-six years ago while in graduate school. Re-reading my take on the Autobiography of Malcolm X, the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (often referred to as the Kerner Report), Michael Harrington’s The Other America, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age, I recognized that the racism, poverty, and substandard education described in these books are still present in pockets of this country. But I was also struck at far we’ve come.

When I wrote that paper, Barack Obama was just eleven years old. At that time, did anyone ever imagine that this bi-racial son of a white mother born in Kansas and a black father from Kenya would ever emerge as a candidate for president of the United States?

November 4th is Election Day. It is also my granddaughter’s fifth birthday. I am hopeful her birthday will be remembered as a historical day for America.


A few years ago Halloween became the second largest holiday – in retail terms – in America. You see the evidence as early as September when shops change their store displays to pumpkins and autumn leaves. There are the costume shops, the catalogues that feature costumes you can purchase for children, the Halloween party invitations, and the large bags of candy filled with small individually-wrapped pieces, the better to distribute to neighborhood kids.

When my children were growing up, parents still made the costumes from an assortment of things you’d find around the house: two eye-holes cut in old sheets for scary ghosts, princesses from Mommy’s “dress up” clothes and costume jewelry, hobos with a bandana tied around Grandpa’s cane that swung over their shoulders, and assorted materials to make up pirates, cats, and the popular comic strip or television heroes of the moment.

Go back another couple of decades and you’ll discover trick or treating missing on Halloween, at least in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Growing up in Brooklyn during the 1940s and ‘50s, Halloween meant orange construction paper to make our own pumpkins and dunking for apples. I don’t recall anyone dressing up on Halloween in my neighborhood.

We did have a similar tradition but it wasn’t associated with Halloween. Those to whom I’ve mentioned this tradition say they’d never heard of it. So I wonder – was it just a Brooklyn tradition? Did it exist in the other boroughs?

It was this. On Thanksgiving morning, while your mother was preparing the stuffing for the turkey, peeling potatoes and setting the table for the feast that was to come, children dressed up in raggedy clothes – old dungarees (jeans, to some of you), perhaps Daddy’s old flannel shirt, and an old hat. We’d smudge our faces to look like “bums” and we’d carry around one of our mother’s pillow cases.

My little sister and I would ring our neighbors’ doorbells and when someone came to the door, we’d open the pillow case and ask, “Anything for Thanksgiving?” If we were lucky, we’d get an apple or an orange or perhaps a few pennies. Looking back, I surmise that the reason behind this tradition might be two-fold: first, to get us out of the way while the Thanksgiving preparations were underway and second, the more noble reason, to instill a sense of gratitude on this truly American holiday. This is the one day of the year that has no ethnic, religious, or national boundaries. If you live in this great country, you give thanks for your blessings.

A Walk on the West Side

After a stop at the renowned Zabar’s – (Have you ever seen such a variety of breads and cheese?) – my friend Landra and I meandered over to Riverside Drive last week. On the way we noted the changes on the Upper West Side since she lived there in the 1970s. And I hadn’t walked through the neighborhood in a couple of decades. The architectural details on stately old apartment buildings seemed all the more impressive when contrasted with more recent additions to the neighborhood.

Riverside Park seemed greener now and its grounds better kept than ever before. What had once been a haven for drug users now was a respite for city residents. On this warm autumn afternoon, people sat on benches gazing at the Hudson, mothers watched their children in the playground, and dog-walkers managed to juggle five, six, even seven leashes at one time.

Taking the path along the river - widened and lengthened to accommodate both bicyclists and walkers – we arrived at the 79th Street Boat Basin, where some of the same houseboats have been docked for years. From here, you see tall apartment buildings lining the New Jersey shoreline up to the George Washington Bridge. My friend recalled how when she first moved to Riverside Drive, the view was one long green vista with only a house or two in sight.

Further down the Hudson we noticed the red smokestack of an ocean liner docked at one of New York’s few remaining piers and wondered about its origin. Late that afternoon as my bus curved away from the Lincoln Tunnel, I looked across at the city lights and saw tugboats guiding the liner away from its dock. The next day I learned it was the Queen Elizabeth 2, sailing from New York for the last time, destined soon to be a hotel in Dubai.

On my ride home I thought about another evening many years ago when tugboats guided the first Queen Elizabeth from the Cunard pier. I recalled my excitement as the ship sailed past the Statue of Liberty and I headed for a long-dreamed-of month-long tour of Europe. As the bus rumbled along New Jersey’s crowded highways, I remembered sitting on a tour bus as it neared Paris and the excitement I felt as I looked from the window and saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time.