ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW FOR THE EAST FALLS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Interviewee: Robert P. Levy
Interviewer: Ellen Sheehan
Date of Interview: May 10, 2013
This is Ellen Sheehan interviewing Robert Levy, May 10, 2013 at his office 711 Montgomery Ave. in Narberth.
I just want to ask you about your family.
My mother was from Chicago and she moved here when she married my father in the 1920’s, because I was born in 1931 and that was in March.
What was her name?
Paley, Blanche Paley
She lived in the house for quite a while?
Yes, she did. It was funny. My grandmother Paley lived across the street. She was Goldie. We gave them her house when she passed away. We gave the house to Textile. I don’t remember the year. She moved to Chestnut Hill after her husband died. She lived at the bottom of Crefeld St.
Textile used it as?
They named it the Paley whatever it was. They called me up one day, someone from Textile and said “it needs a new roof.” I said “That’s not part of the agreement.” I wasn’t about to put a new roof on it. They said “Well, it was your house and if you don’t do it we might change the name. I said, “Go ahead and do it. Everybody who’s involved is dead and I don’t give a s… what you call it.” So he got very upset. I called Roger Hillis. Do you know who he is?
No, I don’t.
Roger Hillis was the overseer at Penn Charter for many years. I don’t think he still is because he’s older than I am, but he’s a great guy who lives out in Blue Bell somewhere. Roger was president of PNC bank. He was a big banker in town. Probably rated as one of the best bankers in the country. He was very big at Penn Charter. I called Roger and told him what happened. Roger called the president of Textile and told them what he knew. The guy got fired! I didn’t want to do that but he was really upset. I said “I’m not going to put a new roof on and Roger said, “Of course not!” So then when my mother passed away I was going to give the house to Textile, but I’m still mad at them, you see, so I gave the house to Penn Charter. Then Penn Charter sold the house to Textile for a very reasonable price.
I don’t care what they did with it. Actually, I had offered it to Penn Charter for years because I thought it would be a good lower school for them, but they really didn’t want it. Now they tell me they wish they had taken it because it would have been great.
You were born in that house?
I was born in the Rittenhouse Plaza. My parents lived downtown. I lived there for a few years. Maybe I was 4 or 5. Then we moved to Chestnut Hill to my grandparent’s house. Then we moved here when I went to Penn Charter. I went to P.C. in first grade so I was probably about six when we moved there.
What year would that have been – ’37?
I was born in 1931 and graduated in ‘48. I went to school in ‘36.
I graduated from P.C. in ‘48. I played tennis there and I wasn’t doing much but I did some things.
Did you play any sports?
I wasn’t very good at football so I didn’t play football.
What was your association with the sports center there at PC? Didn’t you and Jack Kelly help to fund the sports center there?
We built the gym building the one that’s there now. They have a building there now called the Dooney building. I worked as a coach with him. I really didn’t spend a lot of time after I graduated because I went to Penn. I played tennis for Penn; I was in a fraternity there ZBT. I was active in that and I was on the radio station WXPN. I am still on and I used to do play by play for all their sports.
What was your degree?
I don’t know - AB in fine arts. After I graduated – Penn is a big place. I have been a trustee there for a long, long time and I enjoy it but P.C. was closer and I was closer to it. Jack Montgomery was there. Jack Montgomery was a great guy, and Jack Montgomery I remember a friend of mine, Klenk, it think it was Billy who died before Gene. He was treasurer of Philadelphia.
I remember Klenk.
Billy was his brother. He went to PC but he passed away young. I remember going to PC for somebody’s funeral and Montgomery was standing there and he knew everyone’s name, “How’s your wife, kids, etc.” He had a phenomenal memory. They have a reputation of getting 99% of the kids into the college of their first choice – which they do! There is no question it is a great school. Of course, if you’re not going to get into Harvard, he’s not going to let you apply to Harvard. He controlled it. If you want to go to Penn, but I wanted to play tennis. My father went to Penn and the tennis coach was a friend of mine, Wally. He’s dead now. He wanted me to come to Penn. In those days you couldn’t play as a freshman, but he said you will play as a sophomore. So I did for three years on varsity and I enjoyed it. I joined the radio station so I was pretty active at Penn.
Tell me about your mother?
She went to Friends Central. I know that she told me that. She moved here because her father was in the cigar business. La Palina Cigars. It was a big cigar company in those days. My grandfather moved to Philly and started La Palina Cigars. In those days cigars were big and this was one of the biggest cigar companies in the country. My mother moved here with him and met my father. She went to Friends Central and he went to Penn and they got married.
Tell me about your father?
He went to Southern High. His name was Leon. He went to Southern High because every time we drove by there he would say “that’s where I went to school.” Now South Philly was the place to be in those days. He and his brother, Ike, they came from South Philly. Then he went to Penn. I don’t know if it was as hard to get into then as it is today. Then he went in to radio business. He started as a dentist. He went to dental school at Penn and one of the buildings is named after him.
The Leon Levy Building?
Yes, it is the research building. He was a dentist and Barbara Stanwyck was one of his patients. Through Ike, his brother, who was friendly with Manny Saks - he’s been dead for years and years, they really got friendly with the Hollywood crew. Frank Sinatra stayed at our house.
Did you know him? What was he like?
He was a good guy. We were very good friends. I remember we had a girl in Debbie’s place (his secretary) in those days and she loved Sinatra. He was appearing at Atlantic City. I said to her “Do you want to go?” She said, “Yes!” So I called and got her a front row table and we went to the show. He came across the stage and sang right to her. She was really blown away. I forget her name. All those people came to our house, Bing Crosby, Sinatra, everybody stayed at our house.
What was his business exactly?
He was a dentist but he wasn’t making any money so he opened a radio station. And that’s now WCAU He started WCAU which eventually became a TV station. We started the radio.
So he played their music?
Yes, but that’s not how he knew them. He knew Manny Saks and Manny Saks knew everybody.
Was he an agent?
I guess he was and all the Hollywood people knew him. They were at the house all the time. Sinatra stayed there a lot. Grace Kelly was at the house all the time. Sinatra was always there.
He was supposed to marry Ava Gardner there.
Yes, and I’ll tell you what happened. My parents went to London for something and the last thing they said to me was, “Now, don’t get into any trouble. “I had this friend of mine Ronny Phillips, he’s dead now but he was a great guy. We decided - the reporters were all hanging around and they didn’t want to get married there because of all the reporters around so they moved the wedding to Manny Saks’ house on Warden Dr. not Warden Drive but one of those streets off Walnut Lane in Germantown. So you go over Walnut Lane and turn right and go around the circle there, I forget the name of the street. So Manny was very close and he knew everybody and when the wedding was taking place. So Ronny and I - we said let’s get these reporters off the wedding. I dressed the butler in a tuxedo and I put the maid back there in the back of the limo in a wig and Ronny drove the limo. We went down to the bottom of School Lane and somebody yelled “there they are.” They chased after us and we went into the house. All the reporters got out and they were getting married about a mile and a half away. They were furious; they were livid.
So you didn’t attend the wedding?
No. But it was fun.
Did you meet Ava Gardner?
What was she like?
I don’t remember. I was a young kid. I was only eighteen, or nineteen.
What about Grace Kelly?
Grace Kelly grew up down the street from us. We were very close. My father was very, very close to the Kelly family. As a matter of fact, my father started a business with Jack Kelly. I was just reading (shuffles some papers)
So you knew Grace Kelly. Was Grace your age?
No, she was a couple of years older. The guys ahead of me at PC used to date her, so I would hear about her. Her sister, Lizanne, was my age and we were very close. We were friends until she died a few years ago. She was a great lady and her husband, Don, was a great friend. I was very close to both of them. When Mr. Kelly started Atlantic City Race Track, my father was his partner. They were very close. Jack Kelly, Sr. died and my father took over.
What do you remember about Mr. Kelly?
I remember him very well. Jack and I were very close to the same age. He was a little older then I was but we were friends until he died.
Did he spend time at your house?
Oh, yes, we spent time at each other houses. In the summer the family would go to Ocean City, so Grace would stay at our house if her parents were in Ocean city. I remember one night, I had a friend over and she came in with a date. We didn’t like the guy she was with. He was sort of a jerk. I don’t remember his name but we were sitting in the room where she came into and we wouldn’t let them alone. We just stayed there. She was nice.
What was Grace like?
Well, she was a kid. She wasn’t a movie star. She went to Steven’s School and my sister went to Steven’s School. But she was older and in those days you dated girls who were younger, you didn’t date girls who were older. It wasn’t even thought about. So she was very pretty.
How did you meet your wife?
I met my wife in Florida in Boca Rotan at a New Year’s Eve party with her family. I got invited to.
What was her name?
Feldman. She was from New York.
Your daughter married a Feldman.
No relation. She lived in Forrest Hills.
What was her first name?
Does she have a nickname?
Cissie. We are married 57 years. I was 24. In ‘55 we got married. We lived at the Presidential Apartments on City Line for three years and then we moved to our present home in Bryn Mawr and we have been there ever since.
How many children do you have?
We have five children and 13 grandchildren so it’s very nice. We see them a lot. Wendy lives in California with her husband. She doesn’t have children. Bobby and Kit live here and the other two live in Lexington, Kentucky. Angela has five kids and is married to a millionaire. They own a horse farm there. Their daughter just applied for admission to Penn. I told them make sure you mention the Farm, but I’m sure she will get in.
I want to ask you about another house your family owned in East Falls, back in Fairmount Park behind the Goldie Paley house.
Oh, the big house. That was Goldie Paley’s house originally. Now wait a minute, that was Ike’s house, my father’s brother and he stayed there until he died. They sold it. I don’t think my grandmother ever lived there. She built the house on the corner of the property near the Henry Ave. Bridge.
Were you ever in that house?
Oh, yes. It was a big house.
A student at Philadelphia. University, who is now with the Vineland HS, told me it was Art Deco style inside.
I don’t remember it. It was a big house and I spent time at my grandmother’s house at the pool. Buddy Herr lived on the other side of us. He owned the Blum Store.
Do you remember Sallie Maser?
Oh sure, that’s his daughter. We have the same birthday, March 30. We are not the same age but we have the same birthday.
She was going to come today but couldn’t make it.
How is she?
She’s wonderful. She lives now at Cathedral Village.
Is she married?
Her husband, Marvin died some10 years ago. She sold the house on Timber Lane and moved to Cathedral Village, a retirement village in Andorra.
I know where it is. There is one out here, Beaumont.
Sally wants to meet you.
Sally’s my friend. I haven’t talked to her in years. Absolutely!
She used to call over the fence,” Bobby, can I swim in your pool?”
Yes, she could. She was a great girl. Sally Herr was very nice. Buddy Herr was great and I used to bet football games. That’s how long ago I remember. Every week we would get together and I would take $5.00 of his action. We would have fun. Her father was a great guy. His wife, Sarabelle, was nice too. Everyone in the neighborhood was nice. Rendell was down on Warden Drive.
Did you know him?
Yes, and who else? John Fuller was a friend of mine from Vaux Street. He died several years ago. His wife, Liz, is still a friend of mine. Did she remarry?
No, I know her as an actress at old Academy. They have a daughter, Sarah.
She is a nice person.
Did you attend church in East Falls?
I was never Bar Mitzvah or anything like that. My parents sent me to Hebrew School, but I didn’t want to learn Hebrew
Tell me about your employment?
After I got out of school, I worked a little bit for WCAU. My father brought a company called Delaware River Terminal and Warehouse. It was on Allegheny Avenue up by the river. He thought the real estate was a good buy and they were in the lumber business and they would store lumber. The lumber would be taken off of lumber ships and we would store it. The dealers who owned it would come and take the lumber. It was a pretty good business; we made some money, but the trouble was it was worse than it is today. The labor unions were strong and the labor costs were getting out of sight. So I just said we can’t do this anymore and make money. Leon Hess, did you ever hear of him?
Hess Oil. Well Leon Hess was a good friend of mine and he was married to Dave Valance’s daughter. Dave was a good friend of my father’s. Valance was the guy who prosecuted the Lindbergh case. Leon Hess came over and looked at the property one day. He said, “I don’t have any money. The most I have is $100,000.00 dollars. He passed away and was worth a couple hundred million. He said, “I think you should go into the storage business. He put a little bit in, maybe $50, 00.00 or $100,000.00. We got a client; we owned almost 40 acres and the lumber business didn’t have a future because the labor costs were too high so we found a tenant who was in the oil business. The two guys were Miller and Kaye; I don’t remember their first names. The name of the company I don’t remember. They built oil tanks and they paid us. We had two gigantic and two or three little tanks at one corner of the property. Other people saw this and decided we should go into the chemical storage business. At the other end of the property we built storage tanks for chemicals. Our first tenant was Bethlehem Steel. We worked hard to get Bethlehem Steel. We got them and from there it just blossomed.
Bethlehem Steel was a good tenant so everybody knew if we had Bethlehem Steel it was the place to be. We grew very big. We sold half of it to Tate and Lyle of London, England, back in the ‘80’s and we kept the other half. We grew even faster with them and we became the largest privately owned storage facility on the East coast. We did very well and sold it to GATX, General American Transportation. They called me up and said, “I hear your place was for sale.” I didn’t know anything about it, but we ended up in a bidding war and got a pretty good price for it. We sold it to GATX and the English company Tate and Lyle was having some trouble with the sugar business. They were the largest supplier of sugar in the world. They were having problems with the sugar business; it wasn’t very good so they wanted to sell because they needed the cash. Ever since then I have had a couple of things. So we did well.
So you have your business here at this office?
No, I just pay bills here and Roxy (his secretary) comes in 2 days a week. She has been with me for thirty-five years. She takes care of things like the horses. But I only have three or four now.
Race horses. Philadelphia Park or New York. I had one race in New York the other day. Came in third, and I have two races at Philadelphia Park. I own pieces of them. Nobody owns them outright. We had one who won the Belmont a few years ago with a horse named “Bet Twice.” He was second in the Derby, second in the Preakness and won the Belmont. Which was great! In those days that particular year they had a bonus for the most points in the three races. We won that, we had to win the Belmont to win that and we did. So we got a million dollars extra. (Shuffles Paper) You still lose money! We had a horse called “House Buster” He was a very good horse. He won fifteen of 22 races and was a champion sprinter in the country in ’89 and ’90.
Where do you stable these horses?
At the race track. A man named Jimmy Croll trained them. He’s dead now. His daughter and wife are still friends of mine. They lived in Monmouth Beach in the summer, but they can’t get back there; their house was wrecked in Sandy. So they’re living in Florida. Lovely people. Nancy’s very pretty and nice. I was very close to the Kelly family because of all that.
What stands out in your mind about East Falls?
I never was active in East Falls. We moved to Bryn Mawr after we were married. There is nothing that stands out. I wasn’t that active in East Falls, because we moved to Bryn Mawr.
Your father died first?
He takes a call from his wife. Pause.
That’s my wife. She knew you were coming.
My father sold WCAU for an astronomical amount of money. Eight million dollars and that was a lot of money in those days. So he was fine.
You had sisters and brothers?
I had one sister, Lynne, and she passed away three years ago. She lived in New York. She was married to Chuck Barris. He was emcee of “The Gong Show” and other game shows. Chuck and I are still good friends.
Do you remember the Dobson’s of East Falls?
No. I have no knowledge of them.
I gave the house to Penn Charter. I wasn’t giving it to Textile because they weren’t very nice. They lost out. They got it eventually. I thought it was perfect for them.
Have you ever visited the house?
Oh yes, I went there one day. I was driving by and thought I’d just stop in. They knew who I was. I think it was the Admission office. The woman took me through. They spent a fortune on it because it needed it. It was gorgeous and they did a first class job. I was very happy and told her so.
Do you know the president there, Dr. Spinelli?
No. I’ve never given them money, just the house. I’ve given money to Penn and Penn Charter.
Tell me about your grandson, Alex.
Well, Alex is a great kid, but I have 13 grandchildren.
Well, I only know Alex and Peter and Carolyn. I taught Alex and Carolyn.
He works for Omar Blake, a City Planner. That’s what he wanted to do. He works very hard. Omar use to be a developer at Penn and he developed all of West Philly.
Well I am going to end our talk now. Do you know anything about the Roxboro House next door?
The big yellow house?
Well it’s white now.
Well it was yellow.
Did you know any of the Wisters, Mosey Bown?
No I knew a musician named Rosenblume, with the Philadelphia Orchestra who lived there.
Now it is the Arlen Spector Library.
Good. Arlen was a good friend of mine. He lived right there on Timber Lane. Arlen and I were close. Rendell and I are still close. I kid him all the time because I supported him. Now that I am on the board of Penn National I wasn’t allowed to support any candidate. I could give him money directly; no, we weren’t allow to do that either. We couldn’t do anything politically. Being on the board of the gaming commission, we couldn’t do anything politically. Saved me a lot of money. It was a great thing. Rendell put the law through when he was mayor. Who do you think was the first person he calls for money? I asked him, “Who put the law through? “Oh, shit, I forgot, I said “you put it through, so don’t you call me.” He laughed. We are very close. He’s a good guy. I love Eddie. There were a lot of people on that street I knew. John Fuller on Vaux and somebody across from me on Vaux. Ravenhill Academy was right down the street.
I guess you dated girls from there?
I didn’t date many Catholic girls, but I did. I remember one. Another guy and I stole a Ravenhill bus for a night.
Did you get in trouble?
No, they didn’t know we took it!
It was great. It was a good school. It was all girls. I knew a lot of girl who went there. It’s not still there is it?
It is still there in all its beauty. It is now part of Philadelphia University.
Penn Charter is still there. Penn Charter is doing great.
I don’t know if it’s doing great, but they’re always asking for money. Their endowment is better than anything they have ever had.
I coached football there. When I graduated college, I was bored. I was working at the station but I didn’t have enough to do. Bill Talerico was the coach at Penn Charter. He put me with the freshmen. I coached the JV. He left and Ray Dooney came over and Ray Dooney offered me the varsity and I said “sure.” I’d rather be the assistant on the varsity than coach the JV.
But that wasn’t a full time job was it?
No. I would go over about 3:00 PM
Did you get paid for that?
No In those days they gave the assistance coach $1,000.00. Not much, but I enjoyed it.
You’re very active, with your interests, work, horse…
It’s what keeps me alive. I have friends that don’t do anything and they die.
Do you come to the office every day?
Debbie’s here every day and she’s good. That helps. I might come 3 or 4 days a week. I might come every day but only for a few hours. I’m not here 9 to 5 or anything like that. I work about 30 hours. Debbie takes care of everything.
Interviewee: Robert P. Levy (second interview)
Interviewer: Sallie Herr Maser
Date: May 27, 2013
Bob: My parents had an apartment in New York and they would go there 2-3 times a year. My father was on the board of CBS. I stayed there when they weren’t there. We had good times in New York and there were great restaurants. Do you remember the Blum Store? It was an upper class store.
Sallie: On Chestnut St., a great store. Equivalent to Nan Duskin. My grandparents owned the store. Their name was Kessler. The people who owned the store before them called the store Blum and they just kept the name. They lived in Klapper, Pennsylvania. They were my mother’s parents.
Sallie: I smoked but gave it up in 86 when Marvin got sick. I smoked in college.
Bob: Doctors always ask me, “Do you smoke or drink.” No, all the people I knew who did, are dead.
Tell me about William. S. Paley. Do you remember him?
Sure, he was my uncle. I was with him the day he died. He was sick with kidney problems. He had a dialysis machine in his home. How many people have their own dialysis machine? I had to leave because he had to have a treatment. I was a young adult about 30 years ago.
What was he like?
He was tough. I did a lot of broadcasting. He wouldn’t let me work for him. I did play by play at Penn, WXPN - a big station and after that when I left school, Jim McKay and I did play by play for ABC. He would never let me work for CBS.
Was that because you were with another station?
It was because I was a nephew. He didn’t believe any family members should work there.
I have a story to tell about your mother. She called up my mother one day and said, “Sarabelle, My upstairs maid just quit. But I didn’t let it bother me. I just pitched right in and drew my own bath.”
Well maids were quitting all the time. She had a lot of help. She had a cook, a chauffeur and a kitchen maid to start with. She had a downstairs butler, a downstairs maid and a few others running around there. I don’t know how she put up with them.
Did you live there then?
Bob: Yes, they had their own section. She built them their own section to live in. My sister was living in New York. She was married to Chuck Barris, emcee of “The Newlywed Game” and “The Gong Show.” She was married to him for 14 years. She was going out with a guy, Roy Negal. Roy Negal was a Sig Ep at Penn. My parents loved him. He was related to the Borden’s from Philadelphia. Chuck was a Borden.
What did your parents think when she married Chuck Barris?
My parents liked Roy Negal better but they liked Chuck.
(Sallie tells about a Penn party where a fella ripped apart a telephone book).
Bob: We had a lot of fun at Penn parties. One time we took a guy’s car apart and put it back together in his room. We had a lot of fun.
Bob: What was your connection to Penn parties, Sallie?
Sallie: I wasn’t allowed to date until I was sixteen. I went down and met a lot of guys.
Bob: Sallie was a good looking girl.
Sallie: I had a little white dress with a white mink collar. I remember that.
Bob: I was thinking about all those gentile girls from Springside. Springside, Germantown Friends and Stevens. Grace Kelly went to Stevens where my sister went. She’s a lot younger than Grace. After I graduated, I went to Penn and played tennis for four years at Penn. Afterwards, we went into the lumber business on the Delaware River. I was working there and coaching a few hours after school at Penn Charter. I enjoyed that. I got attached to Penn Charter. They I became a trustee to Weidner.
Where is Weidner?
Weidner is in Chester. It was called PMC. Pennsylvania Military College, but it wasn’t a military college. It was where I met Mr. Dixon.
Fitz Eugene Dixon?
Yes, He and I shared a plane. He, Ed Piszek and myself. Ed Piszek owned Mrs. Paul’s. We shared a plane and used to go to Florida together. He used to say I was the only Jewish friend he had. On day he said, “Ellen,” that’s his daughter, “is getting married.” Now she had been married before. She got married on a Saturday and divorced on a Tuesday. Literally 3- or 4 days. So I said I wished her luck. He said she’s marring a Jewish boy – it was tough for him to get it out. He didn’t have any money. But they are very happy and have been married for 30 some years now. I think it’s wonderful.
Discussion about an art piece at Mr. Levy’s office.
Bob: We would find things to do. I loved East Falls.
It’s been discovered, you know.
I know. I was talking to someone the other day that is moving to Netherfield Rd. It’s a great block. When we moved to Bryn Mawr, we got a one block road too. Five houses on either side, so there is not traffic. Netherfield is like that.
Tell me about Cissie.
My wife spends most of her time with the dogs, we have four. She spends a lot of her time at Moore College of Art. She’s on the board there. She paints. She has a big show coming up in August. It’s in Saratoga Springs, a seven hour drive. I’m going up there because my horse is being inducted into the hall of fame there. It’s a big thing. Not many horses get inducted into the hall of fame.
What is your horse’s name?
“House Buster” on August 10, a big, big event. I am excited about it. Everybody in the family will be there and Jim Murphy’s driving up from Florida, people are coming from California. The TRA, (Thoroughbred Racing Assoc.) has a board meeting that morning. They moved the meeting to early morning so that everyone can go to the ceremony.
Tell me about the Sinatra wedding.
My parents went to London and said “Don’t get into any trouble. The wedding was to be at Ike’s house across the street. The reporters somehow thought it was to be at our house, which is a reasonable thing. So the reporters were hanging around. Ronnie Phillips was spending the weekend with me and he and I decided to put the butler and maid in the back of the car. I was driving and he ran alongside saying “there they are” so the reporters would follow. We went to our house and they were all looking in the windows. Well, the wedding was moved to Manny Saks. You remember Manny Saks?
Of course, I do.
He lived off Lincoln Drive. So they moved the wedding to Manny Saks’ house and nobody knew where that was. We kept the reporters busy all day and in the meantime the wedding was over and gone. Sinatra was at our house all the time. He performed at the 500 Club because the owner was Skinny D’Amato, Sinatra’s friend. The only place he would perform in Atlantic City was the 500 Club and you couldn’t get near it. When he was In Philadelphia, we had a guest room and he stayed there. He wasn’t as famous when he was singing as he was when he became an actor. Ave Gardner stayed there too.
So they got married that day. Did they stay married?
For a few years. Nobody in Hollywood stays married for long.
How about the pool they built next door to me.
You mean at Ike’s? That was a nice pool. We had a lot of fun at that place.