East Falls Historical Society Oral History Interview
Interviewee: Harry Prime (HP)
Interviewers: Wendy Moody (WM) and Ellen Sheehan (ES)
Date of interview: November 13, 2011
Place: Epicure Café, Conrad and Bowman Streets
HP: (tape begins mid-sentence) …. because the alternative was Germantown and I didn’t want to go there. So I choose Roman because my dad went there.
ES: So how did that get you to Roman?
HP: I had to take this thing to him which from Bonner to him saying “Sign it” and we’ll let him go to Roman. So I got him to sign the damn thing, and all the time I’m sitting there looking at him…and he signed the damn thing and that’s how I got into Roman but I had to go through a summer of back and forth with the Diocese heads and I was the only kid from St. Bridget’s that went to Roman out of that class. Everyone else went to North Catholic including people like James Stevens (?), who became a doctor, Jim Fiedler, Fiedler’s Drugs down there on the Ridge – he was a classmate of mine – and Al Dugan, who was down on Allegheny Avenue there, and James Doyle – they were all in my class and they all went to either North Catholic or Germantown and I held out for Roman and I was the only one from that class that graduated from Roman. Here’s another thing: the first year I was there I was a total stranger because all the kids that were at Roman in that class when I went in were sent there from their diocese – like I would have gone to North Catholic. All the kids from like Precious Blood and Our Lady of Mercy and Holy Child and all – the feeding ground was to send them to Roman – so, in other words, if you went there you had a lot of guys you were in grade school with but I was the only one – I was the solitary guy, you know.
ES: How did you do? Did you graduate with honors?
HP: Not only that, but they voted me vice-president of the class the first year and I was vice-president for all four years. And the only guy who beat me out was the football hero from Holy Child, or one of those parishes up Broad Street. His name was Bill Howlett – great football player; God bless him.
WM: Let’s just do a little more on this form – what was the name of your wife? What was her name?
HP: Marie Etpley– she died in 1974. Now that was my second marriage. I was married, like, in ’42.
ES: This is Ellen Sheehan with Wendy Moody recording an interview with Harry Prime, the great singer, November 13, 2011 at the Epicure Café, Bowman and Conrad Streets
HP: It was getting better every year – we got to be 18 or 19 – we were that good that we weren’t playing 18 or 19 year old teams – we were in the Philadelphia League, playing against veterans like Wissanoming and Kurbaw and Rayfield - good teams - Kensington. They were men teams, we were boy teams. I wanted to be a ball player. But my mother was a widow. My dad passed away. I had another brother, who wasn’t in great shape. He seemed to catch everything. He had yellow jaundice, appendicitis, he was always ailing, John, a great guy. He loved baseball as much as I did but unfortunately he couldn’t play as well so John became the score keeper for our team. And we had a heck of a good team.
And you were the catcher?
HP: I was the catcher and the captain of the team.
What was the team called?
HP: Well in the beginning, when we first started, we were 13 to 16 years old. We were the East Falls Trojans. And then when we got to puberty, 17 or 18, we realized that Trojans had a connotation that wasn’t very nice. We decided to call ourselves East Falls. When we got into the Philadelphia League, we dropped the Trojan part of it – no nickname - we were just good old solid East Falls. But the point I want to get at is I had to get a job. I was cheating on my mother by not working because she was working at Aspen Hill, as my father did. Working to get us through school as any mother would do. And it was kind of an obligation that when I got old enough and big enough I’d get a job. The first job I had was at 1218 Vine St. for a company that I don’t know if you remember them or not –they delivered the film – did you ever see those big green metal boxes - movie reels - outside movie theaters? It was called Poorlacker (?) Delivery Service – it later became Highway Express Lines. That was the first job I had – I made $13 a week and my job was filing invoices. It was a delivery service to theaters a hundred miles from Philadelphia - Reading, Harrisburg, Jersey, Delaware. So that was my first job. And then that job it kind of got nasty - well, the general manager was a guy from East Falls, lived on Tilden St., by the name of Larry Daily. One night - I use to gather up the invoices I didn’t finish during the day and I’d take them home like a kid doing homework. They had to be filed in numerical order. It was a stack of invoices this high and real thin tissue type paper. I use to take the stack home rather than stay in the office because I had a twilight baseball game. So one night I’m getting ready to leave and he says to me “where are you going? Why don’t you stay here and finish those invoices.” I said “I’ve got to play ball at night.” So he says: “Ball! You need a good kick in the ass.’ And I said “If you do your ass will be on the floor.” I was eighteen. And he said “What do you mean!” and I said “You heard me – you don’t kick me in the ass!” So that was the end of my delivery service. That was 1938. I lasted for about six months. It was all over after that.
And then you worked for “Kelly for Brickwork”
HP: My mother knew Jack Kelly so she said “why don’t you get a job with John B. Kelly.” So I worked for “Kelly for Brickwork” as a timekeeper. I would work a lot of places for a short time. I worked at Midvale Steel; I worked as a crane operator. I worked at Sun Ship Yard. The big thing was I was so determined, by 1941 the guys were being drafted and I was constantly being turned down and it was getting to be annoying because the guys I played ball with were being drafter but I was turned down because I had a couple of episodes one summer after I was hit in the neck by a foul ball right in this area here (pointing to neck). The adrenal gland runs right up there and apparently it has something to do with equilibrium or adrenalin. People don’t seem to know what I’m talking about. Every time I got to the guy who would tap your knee with the little hammer, he would say “what’s this about your fainting episodes.” It never happened after that but he said “well you could be leading a brigade somewhere and you never know when it could happen again.”
They sent me to Washington D.C. – Kelly did – outside of Washington in northern Virginia there – right outside Washington – tremendous building thing going on because of the war – they knew it was going to be – Hitler was running all over Hungary and Germany – different places – and it was inevitable that we would be involved. So the government started building places in Arlington, Burlington, Seminary Heights – and that’s when I went down to the Washington D.C. area. And it was in that – during that interim in 1942 when I was there that I met a girl who was working in Virginia – in Arlington and Alexandria – and we had a real quick romance – one of those frantic things where you thought you met the girl of your dreams and she was almost 10 years older than me which was bad to begin with, but a lovely lady.
What was the name of your first wife?
HP: Her name was Mary Lee Bivens.
How long were you married?
HP: She had been married before and we married in September of 1942 and were married till 1954. I married Marie in 1957 and that lasted until she died in 1974, seventeen years.
And your children are from which marriage?
HP: The children are from the second marriage. The first marriage was with Mary Lee. There were three: John, Harry and the oldest is a girl Befinia we call her Fini. There were three from my first marriage.
And from the second?
HP: Kevin, Greg, Rick and Kim. So there were seven kids involved.
Can we go back a little bit to your childhood here in East Falls? If we have time I want to ask about your memories of EF, places like the library, the Bathey, Dobson Mills, etc.?
HP: This place was Clayton Brothers Meats & Groceries. One end was the meat dept. That was Willie Clayton, a little bowled legged type guy. He was the nicest of all the Clayton’s. Harry was taller, wore glasses. He ran the dry goods area – the cookies, cakes, the canned goods. He was the guy when kids came in there with a note from their mother, they wanted to give it to anyone but Harry because he would say “What’s this! I can’t read this!” There was always something wrong. But he was a nice old guy, God bless him. Friday nights were always busy. The service was great. They had a closed truck and they would take orders from what we called the people up in the Manor on Queen Lane because that was new to us - the whole development up there. These were people of means to us and they were all elegant people, well-educated.
It was just another world, but it was good business to a store like Clayton Brothers because the merchandise was so fresh. There were delivery trucks every day. They would go down to the wharf for their produce and bring it up two, three times a week. And when you came in here to get something, when you asked for a steak, they’d go into the freezer and carry out a whole side of beef and put it on the block, take a big saw and they would saw it and then they would cut the fat off and they’d have a steak this big. There were 2 butcher blocks, and when you step up here, that’s where the dividing line was (pointing) for what I call Harry Clayton’s area, and that was all dry goods.
Did people from all parts of the Falls use the store?
HP: Most of the people were lifelong customers from Sunnyside all the way over to Crawford or Scots Lane, and, from that way, from Ainslie St, past Tilden, and then Queen Lane - a lot of the people on Queen Lane, being from what I call a better background. It didn’t mean they were better people, but they were far more educated, I think. Most of them were professionals. They had Germantown and Chelten Avenue right there – Allen’s - wonderful area! Germantown & Chelten was a beautiful area for shopping. There were men’s stores; there were three theaters that they used to go to. In other words, Germantown took a lot of what I call the Warden Drive trade from East Falls and the School House Lane trade. But this area was mainly for the blue collar people of East Falls from Scott’s Lane all the way over to Ainslie Street. That was about the dividing line – Tilden, Ainslie, and then you had another class of people. But those people found that this grocery store was a lot better than the grocery stores they could find anywhere they went because everything was so fresh and then to make it even more intriguing, they delivered for them. All these people up there, they didn’t even know, half of them, what they looked like. But Mrs. Oakley is on the phone: “Yes, Mrs. Oakley?” and say, “This is my order for the day. I want 9 strips of sirloin steak, sir” and we would help. There would be huge boxes – like cardboard boxes – and you’d pick up a slip and say “This is the Stromeyer’s order.” And you’d fill that out – you’d get what you could - bread, cookies, baking powder – you would help them load that box up.
So you were an employee here?
HP: No, I wasn’t an employee, I was a volunteer because I got free cookies, and it was something to do on a Friday night. We used to listen to the radio because everybody was a boxing fan in those days, even the Methodists. And the hero of the day – the guy that everyone was talking about - was Joe Louis, the “brown bomber.” I think I know enough about boxing than anyone, because it was my dad’s favorite sport.
He took me to the Phillies ball field, Baker Bowl, many nights to see championship boxing bouts. That’s where they used to hold them in the ball parks, Baker Bowl, Shibe Park. And I saw all the great fighters, like Kid Chocolate, Benny Bass, Billy DeAngelo, Gus Derazio, Ali Tor, Paralyzing Paul Perone from Cleveland, Pledo Lacatelli from Italy, Frankie Click from California. I was always listening for the fight – Gillette had a boxing bout - every Friday night, Don Dunphy: “And we’re here at Chicago Stadium tonight and, for their second encounter, a paralyzing puncher from NY’s east side, Rocky Graziano fighting the iron man of steel from Gary, Indiana, Tony Zao. What fights they were. Friday nights we stayed opened to fill these orders and the floor was full of boxes. Pete Brocius was the driver of the truck. He lived right up on Henry Avenue.
Where did you go for entertainment?
HP: Every day we went to Dobson Field with our gloves. That was the only place we could go. Right across the street during football season we used to play tackle football right out to the billboards, where the Hohenadal beer trucks were parked at night. There was a garage over there. We used to play football over there or on the field. But every day I practiced baseball. Couldn’t wait to get my school clothes off and we played every night. We practiced after school and then go back at night and play. They were the sports, baseball, football and boxing. Basketball wasn’t played until a guy by the name of Joe Foulkes set a scoring record. He played for the Philadelphia Warriors. They played at the Philadelphia Arena, Market Street, which later became famous as the place where Dick Clarke filmed “Bandstand.” I saw many boxing matches at the arena, at 46th and Market.
Memories of East Falls? The Library?
HP: If we weren’t in here at Clayton’s on a Friday night, we were at the library taunting the guard who worked there. He wore big glasses and had a mustache. His legs were as bowed as anyone I have ever seen in my life. We use to go up and say things to taunt him and he would say “Aaar, get out of here.“ This was part of our Friday night entertainment. I don’t know what his name was. We weren’t reading we were just waiting for something to happen and he would come in and go after us. There were a lot of steps and watching him trying to chase us. We were agile and we wouldn’t go down the step but jump over the side. We would run across the street to the Kelly property. P.H. Kelly lived where the school is. That was a wonderful place. He had a huge lawn, big enough to play football on. We played there. There was a guy named Johnnie McCann, who lived on Conrad St. He was an excellent athlete. I don’t know how he ever wound up with a nickname. He had a younger brother named Jimmy and when he was little he couldn’t say his name so he called him “Dimmo,” Dimmo McCann. Everyone had a nickname in those days, Sonny, Dimmo, iceman so and so. There was “Torch” Gotwols, we called him “Torch” because he had red hair.
What about the Bathey?
HP: If you could get in there, one day was for boys and one day for girls. It was small, but if you wanted to take a dip, it didn’t cost you any money. It was a public swimming pool. You couldn’t get in the place. Most of the time when you took a dive from the side of the pool, you hit people, it was that crowded. I never liked the Bathey. I use to go over the Falls Bridge, under the tunnel of the B & O Railroad, you would come up to Chamounix Lake. The story was it was 1000 feet deep to scare all of us kids. You would walk by the lake and come to wonderful Woodside Park with its roller coasters, the Wildcat and a ballroom where you could dance. There was soda pop and a Midway. You could throw darts at the balloons.
What about the movies?
HP: Yes, I think it is a grocery store now, isn’t it? It was at Frederick and Midvale. It was small but you were there every Saturday and for a quarter they would start with a Mickey Mouse cartoon, and then an “Our Gang” comedy short, another short and a feature. It was a thing that people couldn’t wait to go to the Falls Theater. I remember one, a comedy by the name of “El Grendle the year 2010.” In 1930 that was an eternity away. They showed spaceships and dammed if they aren’t exactly like they are today. How they had the vision to see 60, 70 years in advance. When I see the space ship today, I think of that old Grendle movie, the guys looked like they do today. The uniforms, someone had enough visionary talent that they could picture what it is today.
Any memories of Dobson Mills, the old railroad station?
At the Dobson Mills most of the workers were from England, Ireland or Scotland. They were weaving, with looms for stockings before synthetics came in like nylon. There was a whole generation of people who came in the 1920’s or earlier. Some went to New York, but a lot came to Dobson Mills. They all lived nearby. We called it “Bunny row” because they were all Englishmen. Right along Conrad which we called 35th St. Then they named 33rd Street Vaux. They were getting fancy on us and we didn’t know.
What about the railroads?
HP: The railroads were so handy and it was only 40 cents. The conductor would tear off your ticket and you could be at 12th and market in 15 minutes. You couldn’t believe how fast you would be there. You would leave EF, then 22nd St., then North Broad, Columbia and Reading Terminal. Four stops to Reading Terminal. Down the steps and right across the street was a good bar.
Did you belong to any organizations like the Young Men’s Literary Institute?
HP: We use to go there for dances. If there was any in this area that’s where they were playing, but there were only a handful of people who played basketball.
What about boxing there?
HP: They had boxing and everybody liked boxing. They would have bouts over here on Hunting Park Ave. called Blue Ribbon and a man who lived right up the street here named Bear Connelly was a boxer and He was a policeman in the 39th district over on Hunting Park Avenue. He opened a gym down by the river in back of Cassidy’s garage, off Midvale Avenue. I was a gym with training and if you were interested in a career, Bear would take you under his wing and teach you. There were about 3 or4 boys that I remember, a kid by the name of Tommy Brill, from Eveline Street who got pretty good. They were amateur. Every year the newspapers put on the “Golden Gloves” fight. It was a big tournament. All weight divisions from feather weight to heavy weight. Tommy Brill was a good boxer. I don’t know if he ever won, but he always did well in the “Golden Gloves.” Billy Conrad was a good fighter. Then Bear talked me into it because I was winning boxing bouts at what we called “Sea Scouts” at St. Bridget’s.
Where was that held?
HP: In the parish hall on Stanton St. Fr. McMann was in charge of that. The sea scouts wore what navy guys wore. We would go to Edington for summer camps. We had boxing matches on Friday nights. And I would meet most of the guys. I was 12-14 and doing pretty good. Word got around to Bear and he approached my mother on the street one day and my mother was pretty audacious. She was like an Irish marine and she went to Bear and said you ever get my boy - don’t talk to him about it. Well she finally consented and when I was 16 or 17 I boxed twice at the Blue Ribbon Bouts. I won my first bout and the next time there was a kid who later became champ at 126 lbs. His name was Tommy Porte. I got in the ring with him and he dammed near killed me. I came home with a big shiner and my mother looked at me and said “That’s it.” That ended my boxing career.
Tell us about working for “Kelly for Brickwork”? Did you know John B.?
Charlie Kelly was Jack’s brother. He served no other purpose but to shake things up on the brick line. He knew how to taunt and aggravate people. He was like a labor boss, straw boss. He had a car that he drove like a maniac to get from one job to the other. Kelly might have ten jobs in the Philadelphia area and he would shoot up to Warminster. There was a housing project they were building up there that became a terrible emporium of drugs, prostitution and there were jobs in the inner city for the underprivileged, housing projects, Abbottsford, and Charlie had all these visits to make every day. Never wore a coat, just a shirt and he would pull up and he’d park his car at a crazy angle. He was so out of control. One day he walked up to the workers. You know, you put the mortar on and then put it on the line and there was a line and you had to keep up with the line because they kept moving the lineup. If he saw a spot where the line dipped he was right there. One day, I was there and keeping up and I had the time book. Charlie said to this guy, “What the hell do you think you are doing?” “What do you mean, Charlie?” Look at how far behind you are. He rips the guy for being slow. The guy said “Well Charlie, Rome wasn’t built in a day.” “The only reason why not was because I wasn’t on the job.”
Did you know John B and his son?
HP: Yes, very well and the son also.
Tell us about them,
HP: They were nothing but the best. I had high regard for them. They were not easy to deal with. They were Irish. The mother was Margaret Major, she was a health expert and she was German extraction. That’s where the blond came in and the kids they were raised, you could see where they were all. I would go to mass purposely to sit near them. I was keen enough to know where they sat. Jack was big. In those days a guy 6’2 was a big guy. He would walk in and the next would be Margaret and all the kids, Jack and Grace and other sisters. He was like the Van Trapp Father and when they would come in I made sure I sat right behind them. Grace would be there and I would look at her and say Good Morning Grace and she would say Good morning. I later lost track of her, I worked for her dad but very seldom saw her except the Kellys were kind enough to flood their tennis courts in the winter and anyone could skate there. They were very good people, strong, I can’t believe that they all died so young. John B. died exercising on the Drive. A couple of years before I was the master of ceremonies at the Lansdale Country Club and John B. Jr. was there. We had an interesting time talking about – East Falls. Grace was young when she died in an automobile accident in Monaco. The one thing I remember about Grace, She was a striking beauty. When people bring up who was the prettiest girl in movies a lot of names are mentioned, Ave Gardner, Lana Turner, you don’t see anyone like them today, Hilton and druggies, infamy is there middle name. But Grace was striking. She was in a play written by an uncle of hers called “Craig’s wife.” I was on WCAU at the time and I was around time maybe between bands but they got in touch with me and wanted to know if I could come down to see the show and Grace would be my host. So I jumped at that. It was her first venture into show business, “Craig’s Wife” at the Old Academy. Her personality was cold like stone standoffish but confident. They were strong. If you were half bombed you didn’t want to tangle with them.
You mentioned that you knew their chauffer, Ford.
HP: Ford was well known about town. He used to come down to Clayton’s to get stuff. Everyone knew Ford. When you would see this big limousine coming up, with Ford at the helm, you knew. If I were to pick a character from the past, do you remember Rochester from the Jack Benny Show? He was a Rochester, gabby and friendly and nice. Ford would come down in his big limo and he would come in and talk to you and but the big think he use to do was to pick up the booze at the state store at the corner of Ridge and Midvale there. There used to be a state store right at the bottom of (Indian) Queen lane. One day I was talking to him and he said “Man, that Prince Rainier is visiting the Kellys.” I said “What’s happening?” He said “I can’t keep enough Jack Daniels up there. I come down two, three times a week to buy Jack Daniels. The clerk In the state store said “Who the hells drinking all this Jack Daniels?” Ford said to him “It’s this fellow from Monaco. That Prince Rainier you can’t keep him in enough Jack Daniels.”
We want to ask you about your career but that will have to be another interview, if you’re willing to come back for a second interview. But just focusing on East Falls, tell us about holidays. What were your traditions for Christmas, 4thof July?
HP: 4thof July was the best - if there was any kind of a celebration it was 4thof July. In a small community like this, from Ridge & Midvale on up there was Grace, Falls Presbyterian, St. Bridget’s, Methodist, Baptist, That’s about five, isn’t it? And they all had their own celebrations. Everybody became a bugler. Even is played- (sings) “My old man’s a clever old man, boom-ba-boom. ”Every once in a while the director would say,” OK, My Old Man.” You would play that every couple of blocks. There would be a parade, then the women with the baby carriages and all this bunting around, red, white and blue. The streets would be lined with people watching. “Here come the Methodists” and they would come by. “Here come the Baptists” and then the next. Whatever you wanted to be, you could be converted that day. What they would do when they finished they would go to Conrad, down by the railroad tracks to Scotts Lane. Well that’s where it all stopped. Then we would go to Medical College, Henry Avenue, or cut it short. The parades would end up at the picnic grounds. Most of the picnic grounds were up in the area of McMichael Park. Past the reservoir. The Lutherans use to have theirs right behind the church.
Were there fireworks?
HP: Oh, yes. We use to sit out in the street, Bowman Street and Woodside Park which was right over there. You could see the Ferris wheel at night. We would sit on the Belgium blocks. There would be rows of kids, mothers would be out there standing in their aprons. There would be about 50 people in the middle of Bowman St. At nine o’clock we would see the first one. Every Friday night they would have fireworks. But on the holiday they were even longer. And there was more of an assortment of them. Kids today - my son, Kevin, has two boys, 12 and 10. I can’t believe how much time they spend inside the house playing these war games and computer games and TV. They’re talking to kids in other parts of the country.
You mentioned about the streets being paved. When did that happen?
HP: I don’t remember when they were paved, but the blocks were delivered by carts pulled by horses. You would hear the hoses clopping on the blocks. Most of the deliveries were made by a horse drawn wagon, the bread man, the ice man. When they paved them everything changed. The hucksters had a hard time because their wagons were old. They all had a theme song. There was a guy by the name of Parks, Charlie Parks, and he would come to the bottom of the street and yell, “Yo, Parks, Parksie’s here.” All the women would come out with their aprons on and say “How much are those?” They had seafood from the shore, crabs and fish.
What other kings of hucksters were there?
HP: There were produce hucksters, all pretty much the same.
What about Christmas? Were there any special traditions?
HP: Well I told you about the 4th of July, how every church was represented and you couldn’t wait for the parade to start. You couldn’t wait for it to come. My brother and I would be up there and my mother would see we were in bed by 10:30-11:00. The next thing you would hear in the distance, (sings) “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” They would get closer and closer. I’ll never forget how thrilling it was to hear all the choirs of the churches. They had beautiful voices and they had all been trained for this event. They were caroling but they worked on it for so many weeks. It was thrilling. You would jump back In bed and couldn’t wait for Santa Claus to drop by.
Did each church come separately?
HP: Most of them had a caroling group. I don’t know about St. Bridget’s but most of the protestant churches did. The Gotwol boys were heavy into singing. Webbie had an excellent voice. Torch was the youngest; that was Harold. He died at such an early age. I went to see him laid out and almost cried as I stood at the bier. He was such a strong guy and he could hit a baseball and pitch. Then there was Earl. My brother, John, who passed away two years ago, he loved Earl. Earl and he were great buddies. They were the same type, quiet, easy-going, nice looking, compassionate. Earl could run like the wind. He hit a lot of balls to right field and when he got a hit between the center fielder and the right fielder, it was a pleasure to watch this guy run those bases. I was a catcher and I was like a lead can. I was a good catcher, but I wasn’t fleet of foot, as most catchers aren’t. It’s the kind of job that, if anything, will slow you down eventually because you’re up and down on the legs and you’re making them too damn muscular.
May I ask you one last question before we stop? Could you try to name the stores going up the street – any stores you remember from your youth – either on Conrad or Midvale?
HP: Well I remember this way (Conrad). The thing I remember about this town – this (Clayton’s) was a great store for meats and groceries with a tremendous meat section and the grocery part back here. But I thought to myself “Wow,” when I thought about it, “Right up the street beyond Division Street – there’s a little street there – Division – I guess it’s still there – you could almost span it with your arms, but there were people who lived up in there and the next thing would be a barber shop – that was Felix’s Barber Shop with the Herrara’s – Freddy, Gilbert and Felix – and then there was another store exactly like Clayton’s – Sowden’s Market right on Conrad. So there’s this place – meats and groceries, there’s Sowden’s meats and groceries, and then you go down Midvale Avenue and there was a place that was excellent - everyone down in that end of town went to it – Stubblebine’s. Great meats and groceries. So in that little area there were three outstanding meat and grocery places that you could go to. Clayton Brothers, Sowden’s and Stubblebine’s.
Were there restaurants?
HP: The only restaurant I remember – now there was a place up here called O’Quinn’s Bar. On Friday he had delicious filet of sole, scallops – a lot of good seafood. Right on Conrad – I notice the front is all bricked up now. That was a wonderful drinking establishment. A good men’s bar, and in the back they had tables for dinner. In other words, if you wanted to eat, you could eat at these places where they served booze. The ladies weren’t out in the bar. They used to have sign called ladies entrance. Sorry to tell you that, girls, but that’s the way it was in those days.
How about McMackin?
Yeah, Tom McMackin - he was another one. He was on one corner which later was occupied by a guy named McPeak. McPeak took over McMackin’s corner, and McMackin moved across the street to the east corner and the place was more updated. I’m sure Tom has passed on by now, because he was ….. I last saw him in 1960 and he was at least 45, 50. That would make him like, what, 110?
(pause on tape) ….. originally it was a pharmacy run by a guy named Jimmy Buchanan, who later was up on Queen Lane – up there by the hospital – he moved up that way because of prescriptions – it was good for that. When Buchanan moved out, there was an Englishman by the name of Jeffrey Walkden who made it into a bakery and they were very popular because, for the first time in their lives, most people in this town saw things like English scones and tasty treats like lemon tarts – an English bakery with the best bakery stuff you ever tasted. I don’t know why they went out of business but, you know, everyone has reasons why.
And Rowland’s came later?
HP: Then Rowland’s (corner of Conrad and Indian Queen Lane) took over after Walkden’s Bakery.
She’s still living – we interviewed her – Jean Rowland.
HP: Really? I guess he’s dead?
HP: (looking at a photo of Clayton’s Market – he lived above it) ….. This was Major’s ….they had our deck on top of them for a roof. In other words, you could sit out there….but we were on the top – up here – and it had no roof. But it was great in the summer – you could sit out there and catch the rays. The entrance was right there – 3479 Bowman. (looking at photo) This looks like a beer keg – you know what it probably is? Either molasses or pickles.
You were too young to know the Dobson brothers or their daughter Bessie?
HP: I knew Bessie because there was a wedding up there – somehow there was the name Sis Altemus (Mary Elizabeth Altemus) – she was either a daughter or an adopted daughter of the Dobsons – she was somehow related to the Dobsons. And the big talk around town was – the people that were there - that was when the mansion was right off of Henry Avenue there - I guess it’s still part of the Women’s Medical grounds – that was all Dobson property where the Medical College was. And they had horses and they had this and they had that. But the big thing around town was when that wedding – Sis Altemus – I remember my mother talking about it – was that among the honored guests that day were Fred and Adele Astaire. A lot of people don’t know that Fred Astaire was at that wedding.
Where was the wedding held?
HP: Up here on Henry Avenue. At the church (St. James the Less) but the big soiree was at the mansion.
That was 1930?
HP: I don’t know when it was. It was in the ‘30s. I don’t know exactly what year it was – I got this from my mother.
She married John Hay Whitney.
HP: That was it then. (pause)….. He was president of Philco Radio at that time. The Barker Building over on Chelten Avenue and Germantown? They were all members of this club called the Pencoyd Club and it was on Sumac Street – right as you come up out of the station at Sumac Street – Wissahickon. And they bought this old mansion set back with a big yard – a pompous-looking place and they put a bar in there and they hired my dad as what they called the “steward” – that was the name – proper name. And my dad would leave for work every night when most of the men were coming home. Kids used to say to me “What’s your dad do?” I said “He’s a salesman.” Well he had this big valise that he would carry. He’d get on the train and it was only one stop – East Falls, Wissahickon. Five minutes away. All he had to do was walk to the train station, 15 cents it cost you on the train. The next stop, get off and you have a short walk up to the lawn and you had to push a buzzer and they could see you but you couldn’t see them. They’d let you in and, oh boy.
So I used to go up there all the time because my dad didn’t like the barbers up here – didn’t like Herrera’s – didn’t like the way they cut my hair. He said “I got a guy up on Sumac Street – I want you to come up there all the time for your haircuts. His name was Sabo. He was famous – all scissor work. In those days they used to shave the back of your neck with the razor, and my dad said “I want a guy who does all scissor work.” Sabo. Sabo.
But anyway, my dad used to take this booze from our house – up on the 3rd floor – he had a big, huge closet – you’d open the door and there were two big kegs up there filled of booze that guys would bring to our house. It would come from Florida to a guy, a distributor in Jeffersonville named Freddy Carr. It would go from Florida to Freddy Carr, and Freddy Carr would bring it to our house, and my dad would have it, eventually, in this big keg. And every night he would go up and he would take a rubber hose, drop it in this thing, and he used to take it up every once in a while and he’s say “Here Harry, you stir it” and I’d go “Oh boy! That booze!” (laughter) It could have been gallon jugs, or half gallon jugs or whatever and it filled the suitcase up and that was the supply for the night. He walked out like a G-Damn traveling salesman! And the kids would say “What’s your dad do???”
East Falls Oral History Project
Interviewee: Harry Prime (HP)
Interviewers: Wendy Moody (WM) and Ellen Sheehan (ES)
Interview: April 10, 2012 at Epicure Café, Conrad Street, East Falls
Transcriber: Wendy Moody
WM: It’s April 10, 2012. We’re sitting in Epicure Café on Conrad Street with Harry Prime, Ron Astle, Tom Leschak, Ellen Sheehan, Wendy Moody, and Joanne Pejeau (?). We are doing our second interview with Harry Prime, a (former) East Falls resident and Big Band singer.
So, Harry, thank you for coming. Today we’re going to focus mostly on your career. We wonder if we can begin by you telling us when you first discovered you had a voice.
HP: (laughs) Thank you Wendy for the nice words – it’s nice to see good friends again. I’ve known Tom now – well, we talked about a year ago, but we’ve been face to face friends for the last six months or so
And my dear friend Ron Astle brings me down. I’m looking down Bowman Street here at 3512 where I was born and raised until my dad died in 1932.
WM: Can you tell us a little about that? You had told us about that but not on tape – the dramatic story of your father at the dinner table?
HP: He had a heart problem and, as you might expect, in ’32 there wasn’t a lot that they knew about, as they do today – things that they could do to keep your blood down, thin it down, and prolong your life. And handle it a lot differently. So he was on digitalis – I’ll never forget that – that was as far back as ’32. That’s when the doctors would come to your house – he’d carry his little black bag in. Dad was bedridden – he was only 38 – but he was in bed for about two or three weeks with this problem that they were treating him with – I’m sure it was something today they could put a name to it. In those days, “Give him some digitalis and bed rest.”
So anyway, the doctor cleared him to go back to work after two weeks in bed and, as I say, he was 38 – a vigorous guy. We were at the dinner table - the first night he went down to have dinner with us. When I say “we” I mean my mother, my brother John, and myself. My dad – with my mother on one side – my mother here, my dad up there, and the two boys on the side – and we’re having a nice dinner and all. My dad was a real sports nut. In fact he used to take me to see boxing bouts. Boxing was so big in those days compared to now – there was no basketball, there was no ice hockey. It was baseball, boxing, and then football. Those were the three things in order. Boxing was really big. It was right after Dempsey, Tunney,
Luis Firpo, Jack Sharkey, Young Stribling. So anyway, we’re all down here, and we’re at the table this night; my dad was up and about. And he had eaten whatever was on the menu that night. A lady across the way had made him a jar of jelly. We were friendly with this lady – “Give this to your dad” and he had a jar of jelly that he really liked – homemade jelly. So he said to my mother “Marie! Pass me that jelly. I want to try that jelly now.” And my mother held the jelly out to him and as he reached - I’ll never forget it – his face went right onto the table and then he rolled and he’s lying there on the kitchen floor and I’m 12 and my brother is 10. Right here – 3512 Bowman.
WM: What a dramatic story.
HP: Yeah, and between my mother, my brother, and myself we dragged him into the parlor – through the dining room into the parlor, which was right on Bowman Street. Got him somehow on the couch. And in the meantime I had – there was just a railing separating 3510 from 3512 and the people next door – their name was Brooks – Marian Brooks – and I knew they had a telephone so I quick went in there and screamed “My dad is having an attack. Can you call the doctor on the phone?” He was there within 10 minutes – it was a local guy - Dr. Kall or Dr. Rabb or some local doctor. And he was there and he did whatever he could – he put a stethoscope on and he’s checking his vitals and, to make a long story short, he died on that couch that night. That was when we lived at 3512.
You asked me to describe that and I just told Ron as we were coming down “That’s where my mother and dad are both buried. Right up the road there at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.” I feel bad about one thing – so many families visit graves of loved ones and I’ve never been back to see where my mother was. I don’t know many people who do it anymore. But it used to be a family thing on a birthday or Memorial Day.
WM: Let’s go back a little bit. From the age of 12 you had no father so it must have been difficult for your family. At that point did you already know you had a voice? Did your father know you had such a good voice?
HP: It was around that time because I was living on Bowman Street when a favorite nun – I hasten to say it but we had a great relationship – her name was Sister Anthony Joseph. And I’ll never forget that beautiful face. Sister Saint Joseph. And she had a beautiful face and she could sing a little bit and she used to sing and I, for some reason, from the time I was a kid I had two loves: baseball and music. I loved music and I loved lyrics. For some reason I always enjoyed the ability to write something poetic, or that rhymed, and good diction and things were always, as a kid, you know…. So when they had plays at St. Bridget in the old hall on Stanton Street, Sister Anthony Joseph used to say “Harry come on up here. I know you know these songs.” And that’s when it all started, when they had school plays and minstrel shows at St. Bridget’s School I was always in the forefront because all the other boys would say “We don’t know how to sing! That’s sissy stuff!”
After I became an eighth grader, I did my last show at St. Bridget’s maybe 1934 and after I left St. Bridget’s I went to Roman Catholic High School, Broad and Vine, God bless it – it’s still there and it’s still functioning – and I believe it’s the oldest Catholic high school in the country. I’m not sure. I know in Pennsylvania it probably is.
WM: Did you get any formal music training?
HP: No. Not until I was on the Chesterfield Show which was 1945 when I was 25 years old. The producer of the show – a guy by the name of Bill Brennan – and I liked him because my mother’s name was Brennan. Her maiden name was Marie Brennan. And Bill Brennan, knowing I was a neophyte – I had never been on the air before as a singer, or even talking. And this was coast to coast! You know when they say “Chesterfield’s great new singing star, Harry Prime!” and the whole country is listening and you had never made a record – you’re a complete neophyte – my legs were shaking so bad (laughing).
So I had no training at all and this Bill Brennan said “Harry, we’re going to send you to a music coach. I want you to take a course.” This is what I did for about eight weeks – I took a course in what they called Solfeggio, which means intervals. You didn’t learn to sight read where you could pick up a score and just sing the notes, but you learned all the signatures – BEAD for the flats and sharps and F-A-C-E – and all the reason for the notes and the most important thing was it helped you learn a melody and keep it in tune. (starts singing intervals).
WM: You could actually sight read a piece of music – you could look at a piece of music and…
HP: No. He didn’t want me to sight read. I was glad he didn’t because even Sinatra couldn’t sight read but he could learn a tune as fast as I could, which was rapidly. Sight reading did something to you which stiffened your style. It restricted you a little bit because you were so fundamentally “right” that it didn’t allow you to put a little of your own thoughts into the melody.
WM: I wanted to get into this later, but since you’re talking about it, we wondered how you developed your very unique style of singing. You put a lot of emotion in it and good phrasing. I just wondered how that came about. Was that something taught to you or something within you?
HP: With me, first I had a guy that I liked – you have a vocalist and you say “Wow, I’d like to be able to sing like that” and I worked on Bob Eberly’s style of singing. He was with the Jimmy Dorsey Band. And he had all those hit records with Helen O’Connell – “Tangerine,” “Green Eyes,” and “Amapola” – all those great songs, and he was the guy that I first started trying to emulate. Bob Eberly. And then I heard Sinatra who came along a year or two after Eberly – first the Tommy Dorsey Band, then Harry James – or maybe it was the other way around. Harry James then Dorsey. He started doing things – I noticed his emphasis was on telling the story of the song which immediately grabbed me because of my love and fascination with the words. The lyric of a song and the story that it told and how you delivered it. So I went from Eberly to Sinatra and I took a bit from each one.
Then all of a sudden comes the guy who sounded like I wanted the combination of the two to be and it was Dick Haymes. When Dick Haymes came along I said “That’s the sound I want.” And from the time that he was in a few movies before Sinatra ever thought of a movie – things like Diamond Horseshoe, State Fair – he was a big star in the movies, Dick Haymes, and on records. Then I had a new guy to fashion my sound after.
Then it got to the point where people in the business whose opinion I respected said “Harry, you don’t have to sound like Haymes, Sinatra, or Bob Eberly. How about your own sound?” You know, you have the combination of all of them.
From then on, I never tried to emulate, but that was the beginning of what I wanted to sound like. And I took a little bit from the Solfeggio lessons, which kept me in tune and able to still hold the note longer, whereas if I were a sight reader, everything would be bum, bum – right on the beat. And I didn’t like that restriction; I liked people who could take liberties, but still sound good and make the guy who wrote the song happy. I always thought, if I - there were a lot of them (composers) who came into the room, who wrote songs and I’d do a tune, you know what I mean….”Boy, Harry, that’s great! That’s the way I want my song to be sung”
WM: You mentioned that some people told you to develop your own style. I wonder who that was – did you have a manager or a coach. Who was encouraging you? Who was your mentor?
HP: It was the people on the Chesterfield Show that wanted to polish me up a little bit, you know what I mean? You could tell I was a neophyte the first night. I could have milked that audience a lot more than I did. When I think of the chancethat I had – today, if you gave me that chance with all the accumulated knowledge and the things that I learned, I would have been a star in about ten weeks! Because I know all the angles now about what to do, who to cultivate, but I was just a dumb kid from East Falls.
ES: Harry, do you remember what song you sang first on the air?
HP: Yes! It was a song from a musical called Christmas in Connecticut with Deanna Durbin, and the song was This Heart of Mine.(starts singing: “This heart of mine was doing very well, The world was fine, as far as I could tell….”) A pretty song. I did that – there were two tunes that I did - and the other was a sure-fire hit, Laura. So I did those two tunes.
You couldn’t go wrong because the arrangements were great, and I had this marvelous Chesterfield Band behind me – all the great players. Like the trombone section was Will Bradley, Buddy Morrow, Warren Covington, and Billy Roush – four of the best trombone players ever. And then the trumpet section was Doc Severinsen, Jimmy Maxwell, Bernie Privin – just great. All you had to do was sing in tune and gather a little confidence as you went along, and with that kind of background and the nice relationship I had with the orchestra leader – a guy by the name of Paul Barren, it was wonderful. I only did the last thirteen weeks of the show, but it was probably the highlight of my life, but the bad part about it is that from then on, I said “I’m going to get back to that status again where I have my own radio show” but things in the world changed so rapidly that no matter what I did I couldn’t get back because there were….
For example, with the advent of television everything changed. Everything changed, because people, in my opinion, started learning by looking instead of learning by listening. They tuned out sound. They didn’t really care about the sound and the beautiful words – all the things I had cherished when I was coming along. It didn’t mean a damn thing to the audience, as long as they had what I would call visual pleasure – a guy like Presley came along – and if you brought Presley into a music department - when I went on the Chesterfield Show in 1945 - and said (to Presley) “Sing us a couple of songs” we would have looked at one another and say “Next!” (laughter). Because the guy wasn’t a great singer – he didn’t have that much emotion in his sound – but when people saw him, they developed all this stuff in their mind of what he was, and he was nothing. I thought he was a clown with those sideburns and mutton-chops and all.
WM: So backing up from the Chesterfield Show, Harry, can you tell us again how you got your start? You mentioned you were working for Kelly and entered a contest?
HP: Now we moved up here, from 3512 (Bowman) to where we are now, this building - and the address was 3479 Bowman because that’s the 3500 block, this is the 34, and up to the reservoir is like 33rd. So my mom moved from that house - my brother and I and my mom. And of course my dad was gone.
I was going to Roman - she got me through those four years at Roman while she was working at a place on Scott’s Lane called Ashton Hill Asbestos. A lot so when high school was over – I had no problem, I didn’t miss much time – I was the only one from St. Bridget’s in the class of ’38 because I wouldn’t go to North Catholic. I wanted to go to Roman. You’ll find that in my makeup – just like I loved anything that had to do with well-spoken words all my life. I used to come home from athletic events just to hear a guy like Fulton J. Sheen – remember that priest that spoke? – because he was so eloquent. And Franklin Delano Roosevelt was eloquent. And I loved it in music. That’s why I thought so highly of Sinatra – he treated that lyric so beautifully and there were certain words that he said that no-one else said the same way and it separated him from a lot of the other singers. There were other singers who might have had a better voice, but no one treated the song as well as he did.
WM: So you had graduated high school…
HP: So I finished high school – my mom was still working at Ashton Hill and I tried baseball again. I still had a couple of tryouts – Connie Mack looked at me. I was chosen on an All-Star Team in Philadelphia as the catcher, and four of the guys, the pitchers, that I caught on that 1938 All-Star Team, four of them were in the Major Leagues – not for long, but they were in there. The guy who was known as the Clown Prince, Max Patkin – Max Patkin was a pitcher from West Philly High. He was signed by Cleveland. Another guy from Umbria Street in Manayunk, his name was Sam Lowry - he was signed by the Philadelphia A’s. Another guy by the name of Bill Hoffman was signed by the New York Giants, and then the topper of them all, from North Catholic High, by the name of Walter Masterson, was signed by the Washington Senators. All in that year of 1938-39. And they all played on that team where I was the catcher.
So I gave it a real shot but the thing working against me all the way was I was only 5’8’ and a half, 5’9”, and I weighed 150 pounds. But I was a hell of a catcher – I could throw, I could hit – I couldn’t hit with power but I was a 300 hitter and as a catcher you’re not supposed to be a great runner, and I wasn’t. So I had these little things but Connie Mack looked at me and said “Harry, I love the way you play.” I’ll never forget him standing in the stands looking at me with a big, starched collar and he was the only manager that ever wore a business suit. He never wore a uniform. Cornelius McGillicuddy. Connie Mack. “Harry, you have all the tools, but how much do you weigh?” And I looked at him and I said “165” and he looked at me and he said “Harry, I wasn’t born yesterday.” (laughter) He said “On your best day you never weighed 165.” I said “Well, no, but it doesn’t matter with me. The heat doesn’t bother me.” He says “Harry, we’re talking about 154 games, which it was then. In mid-summer. There’s no air-conditioning.” You didn’t have air conditioning. You had one uniform which was a heavy muslin things. Philadelphia A’s. These guys have workout suits now – the materials are totally different, and they have all kinds of drinks in the dugout. They have air conditioning in the dugout. And they travel by plane. Everything in those days was either a bus or a train. I’m talking 1938.
So everything was against me. I finally gave up the whole thing after I had a tryout with Brooklyn and they told me the same thing. “We love you but you’re too small to be a major league catcher.” And that was it. I was sadly disappointed because it was my first love.
Then I turned to my second love and I started singing again a little bit and I took the job with Kelly because my mom needed help financially. She had worked after my dad died. So I took a job with John B. Kelly as what they call a timekeeper. Now we’re up to 1940. Because I gave baseball a real try for a couple of years after I graduated high school. And my mother was decent enough to say “You don’t have to go to work. If you think you can make it as a ballplayer go ahead.” I tried it for two years and the same thing happened. Too small – you got all the tools but you’re too small. And I was a catcher, and I couldn’t do anything else. I wasn’t fast enough for other things. But I was a hell of a catcher.
So I took the job and, eventually, I was in Washington D.C. because the war had just broken out in ’41 and after some desperate attempts to get into the service watching a lot of my teammates that I played ball with around here go in the service, and seeing their mothers and then I’d say “How is Bill doing?” “Oh he’s in Fort So-and-So” “What are you doing here?” Well, you don’t know how I’m trying to escape the wrath of the mothers around here….like they were going to write letters to the Draft Board and say “Why isn’t he in the service?” But I had sustained an injury to what they call the adrenal gland and I had a couple of blackouts from it. And after treatment – about two years it took me to get over these blackouts – I never had one since after they did what they did to me. But they wouldn’t accept me in the service because I had these blackouts.
I did every damn thing that I could – I went to the CBs because I knew a little bit about construction, I went to the Navy, the Coast Guard, the Army didn’t even want to look at me. I remember one guy saying “Do you realize that you could be at the front of a group of men and you would go into a blackout and all those men would be killed…?” Anyway, I did the next best thing – I went to Washington because everything was a war effort
And Kelly was building all these beautiful housing developments across the river in a place called Alexandria, Virginia. Over the Potomac. And he was building a place called Seminary Heights. Big housing project. And I was the head timekeeper on that job.
And while I was on that job – this was in the summer of ’42 – we ate at one of the many places on the highway down there – called the Hot Shoppes.
Did you ever see those orange Hot Shoppes? And all the guys that I ate with were from Philly, and we’d come home on the weekends. But there was a girl who started coming in to the Hot Shoppe by herself every night. And we would sit at a table like we’re doing here and this girl would come in and sit on a stool. And I’d say “Man, look at that; that’s a hotshot there.” Anyway, after ogling this girl and being taunted by the other guys – “Man, she’d throw that cup of coffee right in your face if you approached her” I said, “Well, watch.”
So one night I got up enough courage to go over and I sat alongside her and I said “Good evening, how are you?” She said “I’m fine.” And I said “You know I can’t help but notice you come in here each night; I was just wondering: What’s your name? You have such a pretty face.” She said “My name is Mary Lee” “Oh that’s a beautiful southern name” and so on and so forth. Finally, I said I wonder if there’s some weekend I’ll stay down here and we could go out and dance and have a good time.” And she said “I don’t usually do things like that when a man comes up to me like you have.” “Well can I at least have your phone number?” She said “Well I’ll think about it.” The next week I did the same thing, two weeks. She finally gave me her phone number. So I called her and then we had a date, and we had another date the next week and I didn’t come home. My mother was frantically saying “What’s going on down there, bah, bah, bah!?”
And it was one of those things where there was nothing more involved than a few kisses – it wax platonic – nothing going on, but from the gitgo she said “Look, I don’t know what your plans are, what you have in mind, but there are certain things that I do not do unless I’m married.” So I said “Wow, what a choice.” And in the meantime I’m going “Oh boy, I’m hungry for …” (laughter) Damn, if the next week I didn’t say “Well, let’s go.” We went and got a blood test – I only knew her three or four weeks – and we went to Fairfax, Virginia September 1942. And we were married by a Justice-of-the-Peace in Fairfax, Virginia. When I called my mother and told her that, I know that that shortened my poor mom’s life. She was so upset. After all those years of working and everything, I’m out there bringing money in now, and then I go and get married after knowing a girl three weeks. And if push came to shove I would have to say it probably was a big mistake because she was 28 and I was 22. Mary Lee. A beautiful girl. A good woman. She had been married before and I had nothing more than a few little romances with girls around here and on Allegheny Avenue. Again, I was a neophyte.
ES: So Harry, were you singing at that time?
HP: It was in my mind and I was always singing around the house. We lived in Alexandria for a while. Then I decided to come up here and see my mom – broke the ice – and God bless my mom, she became a friend of this Mary Lee – she liked her. And then the next thing you know, we’re going to have a baby. Oh boy, my mother went out of her mind. So I had to go back to Virginia because nothing was happening here – it was either work for Kelly in Virginia – I wasn’t making enough money with Kelly so I took a job working at the Union Station, which is the big station in Washington D.C. And they have a huge postal department right alongside the station. So I took a job from 11 to 7 in what they call the East-South Rack – did you ever see these racks with the big pouches where the heavy mail goes? And at that time there was so much mail going from the White House, the Army, the Navy, all these big brown manila envelopes, and you had to know what pouch they went into. And, me being an old ballplayer, was perfect. I had 24 bags that went up like this – they’d bring over a whole tub of these envelopes about this big and I’d take them and boom – I knew the rack.
WM: That’s an interesting connection. Tell us about the contest where you got your start.
HP: What happened was, I got tired of this night-time job. I had to take a bus and then get on a trolley on F Street and go over to the Union Station. And the trolley was like a destination point; it would fill up there at 14th and F Street in Washington. And one day I’m sitting there and look out and see this club called The 400 Club. And it has a big sign out “Do you sing? Dance? Tell jokes? Come join us for Stardust Night – Monday night.” And I said, “You know what? I’m going to go there next week.” So you had to go there Monday afternoon to audition and there were about 50 people there trying – and they only picked four for the night. Well they picked me, for one. Anyway, to make a long story short, I won the whole thing. And the prize was a week engagement at the club.
WM: What did you sing for that?
HP: I sang (starts singing) “I’ll Get by, as long as I have you” and the other one was (singing) “Long Ago and Far Away.”
WM: Jerome Kern.
HP: If you listen to the tunes that I sing, they all have great lyrics. Jerome Kern. Those were the two tunes that I did when I won that.
WM: And you worked there…
HP: I worked there for about four weeks and the owner of the place was a cigar-chomping guy by the name of Joe Moss. And Joe Moss said “You’re wasting your time here, kid. I want you to make an acetate at United Recording Lab in Washington. It was like an old vinyl record. Licorice pizzas, we called them. So I made this acetate and Joe Moss sent this thing to New York to a guy by the name of Joanie Kape (?). His name was Kaperstein but he shortened it to Joanie Kape, an agent. Another cigar-chomping guy. And Joanie Kape took that acetate of me singing “I’ll Get By” and “Long Ago and Far Away.”
And the next thing you know, I get a call in the 400 Club from Jimmy Dorsey’s office – a guy by the name of Marshall. George Marshall was Jimmy Dorsey’s agent – one of his many agents – but he ran his business office in New York – and he wanted to know if I could join the Jimmy Dorsey Band at Miami Beach at a place called The Frolics. You can imagine me – I mean, I won a contest working throwing mail off, I win the contest, I work for four weeks, I make an acetate, it gets up to New York, they hold the phone over the record and Jimmy says “Where the hell is this kid?” And they said “He’s at a club in Washington D.C, - the 400.” And he said “I gotta have him! I gotta get that kid! He sounds like Eberly.” So the traces of Bob Eberly were still there.
WM: What happened next?
HP: Well Joe Moss talked to me and said “Look, you go to Florida and meet Jimmy Dorsey and see what happens.” And I took a train out of Alexandria, Virginia with one suit to my name and I got a hold of a guy who worked at the post office with me – a wonderful Black guy – his name was George Johnson. But he and I were real friendly. He loved music and he knew I could sing. I used to sing at the post office all the time and he said “Oh, man you can sing.” I went to his home one time because he had a great collection of records and I noticed “Man, you have a lot of good clothes.” He said “I’m a clothes horse. I love good clothes.” So when I needed a suit to go to Florida I went to George and I said “I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do. I don’t have a really good suit. And he said “You come to my house and you pick out the one you want out, and you take it to Florida.”
That’s the suit I took to Florida and when I first met Jimmy Dorsey I was in that suit. And when Jimmy met me, all of a sudden his problems with his boy singer, which he was having – that’s why he wanted me – he was also a Philadelphia guy by the name of Teddy Walters – good singer, guitar player, and far better equipped at that time – experienced – than I was. I had no experience at all. And Jimmy said “Look, I want you to sit around if you will. I’ll pay you. What were you making in Washington? I said “I don’t know – 50, 60 dollars a week.” “I’ll give you $60 a week if you’ll just sit alongside the band every night. We have four weeks to go here.
So for four weeks I sat alongside the Jimmy Dorsey Band and learned all the songs, waiting for this Teddy Walters – let me put it bluntly – to fall off the wagon. He was heavy into drugs but good-looking, a good singer. And the guys in the band were propping him up because they liked him. In other words, they kept him straight for those four weeks out of loyalty to him while I’m sitting there, and they’re looking at me like I’m waiting to step in… So that’s how it all began for me.
When they left, the big engagement coming up was at the Café Rogue of the Hotel Pennsylvania. We went up the coast and we were only at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York for about three nights – the famous Pennsylvania 6-5000 where all the bands were. That was the mecca. I’m sitting there – I knew the book by then. One night “Where’s Teddy Walters?” “I don’t know; I haven’t seen him today” Jimmy called me and said, “When he gets to New York, that’s his source.” Do you know what I mean by “source”? That’s where he gets his drugs. And sure enough he didn’t show this night.
Jimmy comes over to me panicky and says “Do you know all the songs?” “Yes I do, Jimmy.” He said “Well, we have three broadcasts tonight – WOR, NBC, and CBS, do you think you can sing these songs?” I said “Yes, I know them all.” He said “I’m depending on you.” So 11:30 comes – the first air shot – and I’m up there and I did two vocals in half an hour. One of them was “Tenderly.” (Harry starts singing “The evening breeze….”)
What was your impression of Jimmy Dorsey?
HP: He was a lovable, likable, but completely dependent on his brother Tommy, who he was constantly warring with. Jimmy was a lightweight guy, laid-back, but a great guy. And he loved to drink and he loved to party, but he was a hell of a musician. Boy he could play that saxophone and clarinet. The guys in the band loved him. I was very impressed with Jimmy.
On the other hand, Tommy was just the opposite. When you were in Tommy’s presence, He dare not do anything out of line because he was bigger than Jimmy – a strong guy – and not easy to get along with. Especially if you made mistakes. “Give that sucker his money” – he was a tough one. But if you did the right thing, there was no better guy in the world. If you sang well or played well, Tommy was your friend for life.
WM: How long did you sing for the Dorsey Band?
HP: I sang with Jimmy Dorsey that one night and then the next night I go in and Teddy Walters is back. So there’s this conflict. And he had both of us – Teddy knew what was happening. In the room, that second night, was a guy by the name of Martin Block who was the king of all – the Make-Believe Ballroom, which set a precedent for all DJs for playing records. He had a show on CBS called Music That Satisfies. A 15 minute radio show. Remember it was all radio then. And most of the shows were 15 minutes packages. And on NBC Chesterfield had Perry Como with a show called The Supper Club with Perry Como and the Mitchell Ayres Orchestra. And on NBC they had Paul Barron and a guy by then name of Johnnie Johnstone – a show called Music That Satisfies. Johnstone balked when it came time to sign the papers for the last thirteen weeks of the show and went to Florida and laid on the beach and said “I want more money. I want Como money.” In other words Como was making more money for his fifteen minutes on NBC than Johnstone, who by the way was married to Kathryn Grayson, a beautiful actress.
So what they had to do on Music That Satisfies was get people who were in town that would do the thing as a guest for a week. Well when Martin Block heard me with Jimmy Dorsey’s Band, he said “That’s the guy I want to replace him (Johnstone) and put him on permanently as a great new singer.” It was a great gimmick – out of nowhere comes this Horatio Alger story of a kid who never sang before in public and he replaces Johnstone – Chesterfield’s great new singing star.
WM: And that lasted how long?
HP: I did the last eleven weeks. The guy who did the show the week before me was Frank Sinatra, as a guest. He, at that time, had nothing really going for him – there was no movie career. He had just left Tommy Dorsey and he was looking for work.
WM: We’re running out of time, Harry. So just a few quick questions. One of them is, what were some of the famous places where you sang – you mentioned Atlantic City?
HP: Steel Pier in Atlantic City, Sunnybrook Ballroom up in Pottstown for local flavor, The Ritz Ballroom in Hartford, Connecticut with the best dancers I ever saw in all the years I traveled. I never saw better jitterbuggers in my life than Hartford, Connecticut, The Ritz Ballroom. Among the great places were the Chase Hotel in St. Louis, the Palladium in Hollywood was a great job for four weeks – you’d look out there and all the big movie stars and sometimes you’d be lucky enough and they’d call you over to have a drink with them. You almost felt like you were in the movies because you were there for four weeks and every night the place was filled with movie stars. Dancing and ogling the band. So those were the main places – the Chase, the Palladium,
the Steel Pier.
WM: Were you allowed to pick your own songs?
HP: No. You could make suggestions but it depended on the guy you were working with. Ralph Flanagan was not a very receptive person. He was mainly an arranger and very cold to vocalists. He did beautiful things, but I would be singing – he did the arrangements - and he would be going to the guys in the band “Blow, blow” – in other words, drown him out - he had no sympathy for making that nice sound that Dorsey did with Sinatra. He was very sympathetic to vocalists. Tommy Dorsey appreciated how important it was that the vocal was comfortable and nice and relaxed. Flanagan was so concerned with the arranging that he did that he didn’t give a damn how little you could hear the vocal. He was a very uncompromising guy – that’s all I’ll say about him.
WM: And the last question: How did your career affect your personal life? Was it a positive?
HP: No. It was bad. That Mary Lee – we finally were living out in Levittown Long Island – the first Levittown – and we had been married ’42 to ‘54 and I left the Flanagan Band and she talked me into going to her hometown outside Richmond, Virginia. A place called Providence Forge. Biggest mistake I ever made in my life. I went down there and I had nothing in common with those people. They were nice enough, but it was all country music. It was all the kind of taprooms with straw on the floor and guys came in with cowboy hats and cowdung on their boots. It was just not my type. Within a year it was apparent that it was over. From the beginning she told me – maybe I shouldn’t say this, but, what the hell, she’s dead and I’m down here. When I’d say to her “I love you” I’d say, “Can’t you say I love you?” and she’d say “I’ll learn to love you.” I’ll learn to love you – that’s what I kept getting and I thought, oh boy, I’m in trouble here. This was from the beginning. Not a good sign.
ES: Harry, will you do another interview at some point?
HP: Sure I will, if Ron can stand it. But he’s a great guy. I don’t know what I’d do without him.
WM: Your memories are so vivid and so amazing. So much fun. Thank you so much.
HP: (Starts singing “If I Love Again”)
Oral History Interview
Interviewee: Alice Reiff (AR)
Interviewers: Ellen Sheehan (ES) and Wendy Moody (WM)
Date: June 5, 2019
Transcriber: Wendy Moody
AR: Today is my husband’s birthday.
ES and WM: Oh! Did you do something special?
AR: I had a tree put in.
WM: Today is June 5, 2019, Ellen Sheehan and I (Wendy Moody) are at the home of Alice Reiff on Ridge Avenue, having an oral history interview. We thank you, Alice, for letting us come.
So why don't we begin by you telling us your full name, including your maiden name.
AR: My full name would be Alice Barbara Coine Reiff.
WM: And your address on Ridge?
AR: 4256 Ridge Avenue.
WM: And your date of birth?
AR: Aug 27, 1926.
WM: And where were you born?
AR: Media (PA)
WM: Can you tell us a little about your parents? What are their names?
AR: My father name is William James Coine, Sr. and my mother is Mary Ellen Ruddy Coine.
WM: Where was your mom born?
AR: In County Mayo, Ireland.
WM: And your dad?
AR: In Fitchburg Massachusetts
WM: And your church affiliation?
AR: St. Bridget.
WM: Were you another religion before St. Bridget?
WM: Can you tell us about that?
AR: I remember going to a non-denominational church when we lived in Penn Valley and when we moved to East Falls I started going to the Grace Church at Calumet and Ridge Avenue.
WM: Can you describe the church?
AR: Just that it was beautiful and they had wonderful programs. They had a Sunday School.
WM: That's not the church that became Falls Presbyterian?
AR: No, that was further up; more away from the city. Bessie Dobson owned that church and she decided to build the church at Vaux and Midvale and she donated that ground to Fairmount Park. And I notice that the builder seems to be taking it over and I don’t think that’s…
WM: Where exactly was that? Ridge and where?
AR: It was next to the Anchorage. Remember the Anchorage?
ES: Where they built those townhouses.
AR: The new townhouses.
WM: So way up there…..
AR: 4400. I called Fairmount Park and tried to have them look into it, because on the other side, towards us, there was a little park and I remember going there with my first son for a picnic. And then the Anchorage got a lease using about half of that – one half was green, towards Kelly Drive, and the Ridge Avenue part was for parking. And I notice now that construction has taken it over.
WM: What is the Anchorage?
ES: It was a restaurant and a place where everybody went to dance.
AR: They had an outdoor patio. They had live music and we could go up and sit on a bench and listen.
WM: What do you think happened to Grace Episcopal? Why did they close? Why did they take it down?
AR: The project came and they were losing members. It was pretty bad around here. When we first moved here in 1950 they had all little, Heimlich’s, stores and you could do all your shopping here in East Falls. Just walk. But now everything has changed.
WM: Can you describe Ridge Avenue when you came? What stores do you remember?
AR: I remember Heimlich’s. Because they were about five storefronts there?
WM: And what kind of store was that?
AR: They had clothing.
WM: A department store?
AR: Yes, a department store.
WM: What’s there now?
ES: Wouldn’t it be right on the corner at the bottom of Eveline (and Ridge)? There’s a day care center there now.
WM: What else do you remember on Ridge? There was a hardware store?
AR: Yes, there was a hardware store on the corner of Ridge and Midvale.
ES: Well our neighbors on Indian Queen Lane owned it – there name was Lochter. Do you remember Ruth Lochter and Abe? They owned the hardware store. And it was owned by her father – I forget his name –
AR: I remember Ruth.
WM: Were there other stores or restaurants? Was there a 5 & 10?
AR: Yes, on the corner of Ridge and Midvale.
AR: Just 5 & 10.
WM: A grocery store?
AR: There was Sam’s.
WM: Where was Sam’s?
AR: That was the second building in from Midvale.
ES: Next to the Major.
AR: Yes, Major drug store
WM: And what was going up Midvale? What do you remember?
AR: There was a restaurant where you could get…
ES: Do you remember Pete’s?
AR: Oh that was further up. Pete’s Bar. That’s still there but it’s closed.
ES: I think there selling it now.
AR: Oh they are? Did the wife of the owner die? I think she lived upstairs.
ES: Yes, she did. You’re right. Mazzio?
AR: Yes! Pete Mazzio.
WM: Was there a butcher? Was that Stubblebine’s?
AR: Oh yeah, the meat store was on Midvale.
WM: Where did you shop?
AR: I shopped everywhere in East Falls, because if you didn’t have a car…
WM: So it was a thriving business district. And was the trolley active?
AR: Yes, and then that went away and the buses came.
WM: Tell us about the project. So were you here before it was built?
WM: Describe that in the whole process of what you remember: when it came, when it left, and the impact.
AR: I remember when it was proposed. a group of us went to protest – I guess City Hall, and of course John B. Kelly was a lot stronger than we were and that place went up.
ES: Why do you mention John B. Kelly? What do you remember about that?
WM: Was he for it?
AR: He did the brickwork.
ES: He built projects up and down.
WM: So what was there before the project?
AR: They had a factory here – Klein and Whiteman’s?
ES: Powers and Weightman.
AR: Powers & Weightman, yes.
WM: Did that come all the way down to Ridge?
AR: It came down – well I think they built the church and the houses on either side of the driveway to the church. And then it was their building and then when the projects came in, they put up offices so that people would have places to work. But it didn’t turn out that way.
WM: So the project, can you describe it? There were two high risers – were there low buildings as well?
AR: Yes, 2 high risers and low buildings. And when it opened, St. Bridget School – there were like 100 children in a class. My son was going to St. Bridget.
WM: And what was the impact of the project on St. Bridget? Did some of the children go there?
AR: Yes, most of them – it was so crowded.
ES: Well they had a school – the East Falls School.
AR: Oh that’s right – they did have a school there. But apparently there were a lot of Catholics who moved in. At first it was doctors, interns, from MCP (note: Medical College of Pennsylvania) that were living there and they would move out and they moved in – other people who didn’t know how to take care of things.
WM: Lower income people?
WM: So you saw changes.
AR: After that happened, the fire department was up there all the time. At Christmas time the kids would put their Christmas trees in the elevator, set them on fire, and send them up to the top floor. But the buildings were so well built that nothing caught on fire. They were award-winning buildings and it just seemed sad. The view from their balconies looked over at the high-priced apartments across the river. Beautiful view of the park.
WM: Were you ever in the projects?
AR: When they first opened we got to visit it. But my son had friends who lived there.
ES: What was the impact on you – on your property here? Was there any impact?
AR: Well we could see the neighborhood failing but we always had hope for it. And my husband worked at School House Lane and the railroad and he could actually walk to work.
ES: So what company was there?
AR: Wood Specialty Company.
WM: And what was that?
AR: They made precision wood. They did a lot of printer blocking and I remember being in the doctor’s office and there was a printer’s block there and I turned it over and there were my husband’s initials! She said she bought it at an antique dealer.
ES: So he made it!
AR: Yeah. He had to sign anything that went out to make sure it was right.
WM: Did that company close when the housing project was built?
AR: No, they stayed – the owner died and his wife took over and it was very unpleasant to work there and I started keeping track of our expenses and I said to Jack, you have retire before this job kills you. So he left early.
ES: So what years did he work there?
AR: 1946 to 1988. He was a loyal employee.
ES: What is there now?
AR: It’s empty.
(phone call interrupts)
AR: That’s what happens when you own a property
WM: There’s so much we want to talk to you about, but before we leave the housing project, I just wondered, what did you notice about the shopping district over the years when the project came in?
AR: Well everything went down. People were being mugged and nobody wanted to come down to Ridge Avenue I remember sitting in a Community Council meeting and the people in front of me were talking about the ShopRite we had and the good prices, and she said she would never come down on Ridge Avenue. And here I lived on Ridge Avenue!
WM: Did you feel unsafe, personally?
AR: I did not. I knew enough never to carry a purse.
WM: And so one by one the stores were closing down?
AR: Yeah. And even up here, where there was a girl who worked – she lived on Eveline Street and she worked here – she’d come home for lunch for her children, and she got mugged a couple times and she just had to quit.
WM: Tell us what you remember about the day they were imploded.
AR: Well I had tickets for the implosion.
ES: You had to have tickets?
AR: Yeah, for the other side of the river and that’s where Mayor Rendell was. It was sad. I always thought that maybe it could be made into housing for the elderly. But what’s there now has been good.
WM: It looks like it’s well maintained. It’s mixed income and working well.
AR: And they have very strict rules. One offense and you’re out, which is a good thing. And they use our little park.
WM: Well we want to talk about the park, but just going back to Jack, can you tell us when you met Jack and when you were married?
AR: I met him in1939 when we moved to East Falls. I met a girl and she had a birthday party for me and invited all her friends for me to meet. And that’s how I met him.
WM: What were you doing in East Falls?
AR: We moved here. Our family.
WM: Where did you move to?
WM: This house? Oh. And why did that come about, from Media?
AR: Well we lived in Penn Valley and the house burned down and we had to move and we moved here. And I hated it.
WM: You lived here with your parents in this house?
AR: Hm mm.
ES: Did you father work nearby?
AR: Well my father was a chauffeur and he ended up with a job in Chestnut Hill and the family moved to Chestnut Hill but I was already married.
WM: And you were, again, I don’t think we had it on tape, how many children did they have?
WM: And you are…?
AR: Number 3
WM: From the top or bottom?
AR: Top. There are five bedrooms in this house and one bathroom so you wonder how we did it. Today you have to have a bedroom with a bath.
WM: When you married Jack did you move right to this house?
AR: No, we had an apartment and my mother-in-law had a thyroid condition - she went in to have surgery – her blood pressure was high. So they sent her home and I was taking care of her and she died suddenly in her sleep and that was in 1948.
ES: So was that the year you were married?
AR: We were married in ’47.
WM: Did you move to her house?
AR: No we kept our apartment.
WM: Where was that?
AR: Down the Ridge. 4100.
WM: Did you work?
WM: What children do you have?
AR: Two sons. One was born in 1948.
WM: What’s his name?
AR: John J. Jr.
WM: And the other?
WM: Born when?
AR: 1958 – we waited a long time (laughter)
WM: Now your sons were going to St. Bridget?
AR: My first son went to St. Bridget, graduated and went to Roman. My second son started St. Bridget and got sick and missed the first grade. So I looked into sending him to private school so he went to Waldron Academy.
WM: Now your husband, you said, was born here. Do you have any memories of things he talked about growing up? Where he played? What he did?
AR: We, he used to fish in the Schuylkill and I think they also swam in the Schuylkill.
ES: Did he talk about the Bathey at all? Or did your children swim at the Bathey?
AR: Yes they learned to swim at the Bathey
ES: Oh did they?
WM: Did Jack have any stories of Gustine Lake or what else he did as a child?
AR: He was a good skater and they used to be able to ice skate up there. And he remembered the inn that was in the park.
WM: Falls Tavern?
ES: There were inns built in Inn Yard Park. That’s why its call Inn Yard Park. It’s the name of somebody – Bobby somebody’s inn…
AR: I think it was called Rivage.
ES: Rivage, ok. Well, Rivage was up this way.
AR: It went through a lot of different names, I think.
ES: Oh the one where the party was for the Kellys…. Riverside? Was that the name of it that, do you remember?
AR: I remember Rivage and I actually have a picture of it.
WM: Oh good. We’ll have to look at that. So tell us about the evolution of the park. When you first lived here, what was there?
AR: It was a park, and in the summer they had 2 college students – one a boy and one a girl.
WM: What year are we talking about?
AR: That would have been 1939. And it was wonderful. The children in the area would spend all day there.
WM: What would they do?
AR: They had a lot of programs. The thing I remember best is them teaching chess.
WM: Was there a building in the park? Was this done outside?
WM: Was the fire station there?
AR: That was built – rebuilt about 1958 and I have a picture of the program. I made a copy and took it down to the firehouse and they actually framed it.
WM: How nice. So was the old one in the same location and they rebuilt it?
WM: Were the basketball courts there?
AR: No they came later. Somebody thought it would be a good idea to have the inner city – that’s what they called it - and the projects to get together and play together. It didn’t work for a while.
ES: How did you become involved in the park?
AR: The park really went downhill. They stopped the supervised play – in fact they were running out of money and they weren’t even cutting the grass. The Fairmount Park Commission started a Friends Group and when I found out about it I applied and was accepted.
WM: When was this?
AR: About 1997.
ES: So were you made director of the Friends…
AR: Well you could take the title of President or Coordinator. I ran that up until my husband went blind and it was just too much pressure for me.
WM: What kind of changes did you make at the park?
AR: Well I also started Arbor Day in the park and we had our first one in 1996 and that was a way to get trees for the park.
ES: So you raised money for the trees?
AR: Well they were donated because we had Arbor Day.
WM: Donated by the Horticultural Society?
WM: Which schools came to Arbor Day?
AR: In the beginning it was St. Bridget, Penn charter, and Mifflin – they were the three schools. And now we invite Penn charter, Wissahickon Charter, and Mifflin. And this is the first year we were rained out! It was our 24th
ES and WM: Oh dear!
ES: So what kinds of things did you do on this day? Did you have personalities come and do speeches?
AR: Yes. We tried to keep it short because the children are so young. But we gave out an award each year – well, some years we didn’t.
ES: For a student?
AR: No for people that …
ES: Contributed to the park in some way?
AR: Yes. Keith Shively and Tom Williams gave them away.
WM: Didn’t they read a book to the children about trees every year?
AR: We gave them a book. One year we gave each child a book and every year we gave each teacher a book for the library. Cynthia (Kishinchand) picks that out. She does a wonderful job.
WM: And what about the new equipment there? How did Inn Yard Park evolve?
AR: Well I heard about the Community Design Collaborative and I applied for a grant and I received it. And they had architects that volunteer their time, and I invited members of the East Falls Community Council and Development Corporation. We sat around this table and talked about the plans. And then they drew up the plans and they also included parking and that upset me because I didn’t want parking. I was fighting to keep it open space.
WM: You mean behind it, towards the river?
AR: They were going to put it on both sides.
ES: They were going to do some sort of parallel parking along this Ridge Avenue.
AR: They did the cut-ins. And they were going to take a slice of the park and I didn’t want them to put parking there because kids run out, chasing the ball, but I lost that one. But I guess I won the one along – they were going to cut in and park this way (gestures) and we had a friend and her daughter was down in Avalon and they parked that way. She was riding her bike and the guy pulled out and killed her.
ES and WM: Oh my.
AR: That always broke my heart and I thought of that every time they suggested it.
WM: Who uses the park now?
AR: The whole neighborhood.
AR: The design that they did for the park – we didn’t approve it because of parking and the expense. But we did want to have the paly equipment so we had 2 girls that stepped up to volunteer to do it. I figured we should have someone who has children to work on it. So they went to Tom Sauerman (note: President of EFCC), and he was a big help in knowing the right people to contact and they put in that little park. And I wasn’t happy with the fence around it but the kids love to run – the little ones - did you ever see them running? I thought it would be better to have a fence on Ridge Avenue, but the mothers can sit there and do this (indicates cell phone) (laughter) – and not pay attention to their children.
WM: You’re also involved in Tree Tenders?
WM: Tell us a little about that – how that began and your involvement.
AR: Well Sallie Maser and Lloyd Russo started the Tree Tenders.
WM: About what year?
WM: Good memory Alice, my goodness!
ES: Sallie Maser and who?
WM: Lloyd Russo - he taught up at Textiles. And how did you get involved?
AR: Well, Sallie Maser asked me if I wanted to join, and I had been reading about it and I thought, what a wonderful program. So my husband and I both went to the meeting – it was up at - was it still Textiles then in ‘95? Probably. And that’s how it started.
WM: And what was your role in it? Were you planting trees?
AR: Yes, planting trees and cleaning up tree pits. Then we decided that’s not what we’re about – cleaning other people’s tree pits (laughter) so it got into planting trees and I did take a role of coordinator of it. Cynthia Kishinchand stepped up and has been the head of it since.
WM: Are you still involved?
AR: Yes. Actually Arbor Day is a Tree Tenders event – it’s not a Friends of the Inn Yard Park, but we host them. Everybody thinks that were putting it on but were just hosting Tree Tenders.
WM: So Friends of the Inn Yard Park is still in existence?
WM: Who’s in charge of that?
AR: Jen Arnoldi. And she’s so busy. We’ve been storing all the equipment that’s used for Arbor Days and cleanups on our property, and I’ve been telling them, ever since my husband got sick, that were not going to be here forever and we need a little garden house.
ES: Exactly. So are there plans to build something that would be a shed?
AR: Well they’ve been dragging their feet. They all agree we need it. So after my husband died….
WM: What year was that?
AR: The last day of 1997 – the 31st
WM: That long ago? 1997?
AR: Well it was only a year and 5 months ago.
AR: 2017; I’m sorry.
WM: Yes, I thought it was more recent. I’m sorry we didn’t get to interview him. How old was he when he died?
AR: He was 92 and today he would be 94.
WM: So he was born in 1925?
AR: After he died a lot of people donated in his memory for the garden house and my grandson actually hired the architect. I’m so grateful to him. So we have all the plans, and we put down a deposit of $5000 and still nothing’s happening! So I don’t know why. I call them every once in a while but it’s not my place…
ES: You want to see it accomplished.
AR: It’s been a month since I called. I wrote a grant with $1000 towards the architect and my grandson doesn’t want the reimbursement until everything is paid for. He just wanted to do that because he knew how much that meant to me.
ES: Is there anything that you regret about the park – the fact that they have the playground equipment there and the basketball court – have any of those things been a problem?
AR: Well, the basketball courts, they have lights there. The firehouse was in charge of them. They would be turned off, and then at night the fellows would say, turn them on. And if they didn’t, they would damage their cars, so of course the lights went on and they would be playing all night.
WM: Shining into your house.
AR: Yeah, we had to keep the windows and the blinds shut.
ES: Is it noisy too?
AR: It’s run properly now. They came up with a system where it’s locked, and the fire department does not have access to it. And it goes off and on at certain hour. Then for a while, they would drive their cars in and shine their lights and play their music but that stopped too. Everything’s gotten so much better.
ES: What do you think that’s due to?
WM: Tell us a little about your house. You said it was built in 1849. What else do you know about it?
AR: William and Amanda Shronk. He was a fisherman.
WM: Oh yes, did he live here!
ES: Oh no! Is this the Shronk house!
WM: I didn’t know that; how exciting!
AR: A man by the name of Lukens was doing his family history and knocked on the front door, and here it was his ancestors who lived here.
ES: The Shronks.
AR: So I showed him the whole house.
ES: He must have been thrilled.
AR: Yeah, and I got a picture of him standing on the front step.
WM: There was a famous story of Geoffrey Shronk catching thousands of catfish in one day. Now, who else has lived here? Do you know?
AR: The Shronks lived here until 1911 and it was inherited by a Rinehart – and I don’t know the exact connection but I think she was a Shronk. She lived in upper Roxborough and she rented it out. I know the Staffords lived here, and the Homewoods. And then we moved in, and the Hillenbrands bought the house after the war, and then he lost it or sold it to the Skolskys who we bought it from. They moved up to Blue Bell.
WM: What’s the construction of it?
AR: The front part is all stone. At the turn of the century they added the kitchen, and the porch, and the bedroom and bath.
WM: So interesting. So I had heard you were a seamstress. Tell us about that.
AR: Well I always loved to sew. And all my friends would– if I made myself something, they’d say “Would you make me one?” So it started out that – I said to Jack “I don’t know how to get out of this” - I was sewing for everybody. And he said “I know how you can get out of it – charge them!” (laughter)
WM: So you had a business from your house.
AR: I guess you could call it that.
ES: I heard you made your husband’s and sons’ suits, and you made wedding dresses, everything. Do you still sew?
AR: Only repairs. I haven’t been feeling too good and I was just in the hospital - my pacemaker wasn’t functioning properly. So they had a specialist come in and reset it and I feel so much better. I’ve had it for two years and this is the best I’ve felt.
WM: Were there other tailors or seamstresses in East Falls? Any businesses?
AR: Well, the tailor shops all did repairs. There was one across the street, and one on Midvale, and one up on Stanton Street.
WM: So it was quite a thriving business district. I wish I had been able to see that. Did you tell us where you went to school?
AR: I went to Bala Cynwyd Public School. Their kindergarten teacher had her doctorate degree. It was a really good school.
WM: High school?
WM: Any memories of that?
AR: The war just started then.
ES: When you started, the war was starting at that time?
AR: When I was there, I remember it starting.
WM: What was the impact of the war on you and on East Falls?
AR: Well, I guess the same as it was for everyone – we were devastated that all the young men were being drafted.
ES: Were any of your 10 or 11 siblings involved in the war?
AR: My oldest brother was a P.O.W. and then he was released and he was rehabbed in Atlantic City. He invited us to come down. And it was such a gorgeous hotel and that was my introduction to filet mignon.
ES: You celebrated!
AR: Well they served it to his guests. Beautiful tablecloth…
WM: Was Jack in the war?
WM: Where was he?
AR: He was stationed on Long Beach Island – we didn’t know at the time, but the Nazi’s submarines were sinking our ships.
WM: He was in the Navy?
AR: No, he was in the Army. Anti-Aircraft. He was protecting shores. But after the war was over you heard of all these things and it really got scary.
WM: Did you use the ration books for gasoline?
AR: Yes. And for clothing. And shoes –I remember most.
ES: I think meat was rationed. What do you remember about holidays in East Falls? 4th of July? Christmas?
AR: The parades that St. Bridget had on the 4th of July. They’d come down Stanton Street, down the river, and Fred Schrotz was a pilot and he would fly over and drop a wreath into the water.
WM: They had a picnic at the river?
AR: They would have it up at McMichael Park.
WM: Were you part of the parade?
AR: No, I never participated.
ES: After the war or before the war when they had these parades?
AR: I’m not sure, if it was during the war.
ES: Were there fireworks?
ES: And what about Christmas? What was your tradition?
AR: We would decorate, and decorate outside. We had a pear tree, and then the squirrels started eating the wires so we ended up we stopped doing that.
WM: Was there caroling going on, or any community events?
AR: Yes. But nothing much on Ridge. At one time they used to put lights up at Ridge and Midvale, and Jack’s uncles were electricians and they were involved in that.
ES: Did you belong to any community organizations? You did mention East Falls Community Council. Any social organizations or neighborhood ones?
AR: I used to volunteer at St. Bridget’s for the hot lunches and I’d have to have my sister come and give my son lunch because he didn’t want to stay. (laughter)
ES: So you were up there giving lunches while your sister…?
AR: And then the East Falls Development Corporation. They asked me to be a member and I was the Treasurer until 1998.
ES: That was a big responsibility I’m sure.
AR: I was the Treasurer at LaSalle High School when my son was a student.
ES: Oh really. So you were involved with St. Bridget School as a parent, and also LaSalle?
AR: And Waldron.
WM: And the Development Corporation and Inn Yard Park and Tree Tenders. Good for you Alice! (laughter)
ES: And making lunches at St. Bridget.
WM: Did you have any interactions with the Kellys?
AR: I met them, but that’s about all.
WM: Did you meet them at church?
AR: Yes. They always went to church, and it’s a shame now; I just read in the Nowthat St. Bridget’s might be getting ….that would be sad…
WM: It really would.
ES: What did you get from that article on St. Bridget?
AR: I was heartbroken.
ES: Because there’s fewer people attending.
AR: I can see that most of the people there are elderly, and once we’re gone, who’s going to be there? And that’s coming true. The children… well I do know a couple of young people – well, on Love Your Park day, we found a set of keys and there was a thing on there for Stanley’s Hardware and I called and spoke to the manager and asked if he could possibly give me the person’s name – because it was, house keys, car keys, the whole thing, on a great big clip. So he gave me the number and I called her and here she lives on 3722 Stanton Street, so she came down to get the keys and she brought another young girl with her - and here she had a box of strawberries as a gift!
WM: How sweet.
AR: And gave me a great big hug.
WM: Of course; what a good deed.
AR: The girl who was with her, her sister, is now dating my grandson.
WM: How ironic. So what changes have you seen in the community. You’ve been here, let’s see, about…
AR: 69 years,
WM: What do you think of East Falls now and what changes have you seen?
AR: So many. I’ve seen it at its best, I’ve seen it at its worst, and now it’s coming back. I see all the development along the river and I think people will be coming back to appreciate the river for what it is. I always loved the river and I couldn’t understand why people weren’t interested in it. But they are now.
WM: They are. How do you think the neighborhood came back after the project – you said you’ve seen it at its worst - how do you think it rebuilt itself?
AR: It didn’t get bad overnight and it’s not going to get better overnight. It’s going to take time.
WM: But you’ve seen lots of improvements.
ES: Did we talk about sports? Were your boys involved in any sports or teams when they were growing up?
AR: They played in the Inn Yard Park. They used to have teams, but then they didn’t have backstops. The balls would come over, but I finally got them to put in a backstop and they could play in there and hit the balls and the balls wouldn’t come in our house.
ES: You’ve done so much for this community by taking care of that park all these years, Alice.
AR: I just love the park (note: Inn Yard Park) and it breaks my heart to see them taking park land.
WM: That’s terrible. Where did Jack go to school?
AR: St Bridget. He went into the service when he was 18.
ES: Was that during the war then? He was born in 1925 so he was just a teenager I guess?
AR: When it started. When he got in it, at the last… I think there was a year and a half after he was in.
ES: He went to Roman Catholic?
AR: No, he went into the service.
ES: He didn’t go to high school?
ES: So he went right into the service. And where was he employed? Did we find that out?
AR: Wood Specialty.
ES: Oh yes, so he worked there.
AR: It was supposed to be a part time job, but it ended up…
WM:Is there anything else you’d like to share about East Falls or about yourself?
ES: You’re a very talented lady – all the things you’ve done – you’re renowned in the neighborhood for your sewing, your attention to the park, for so many volunteer things that you’ve done. That’s a wonderful legacy to leave behind.
WM: You’ve made it a better place.
AR: Thank you, that’s why I want the garden house so badly because once we go, there’ll be no place to store these things and people will lose interest I think.
WM: Who’s in charge of getting that built?
AR: Jen Arnoldi is now the coordinator. And she’s actually an architect, but she’s so busy.
WM: If we see her, we’ll give her a nudge. Well, thank you so much, Alice, for all your time and memories. We appreciate your adding to the history of East Falls.
END OF INTERVIEW
Note from Ellen Sheehan:
The owner of the hardware store was Ruth Curson who inherited it from her father, Max. Sophie Curson, the high end store at 18 & Rittenhouse. was a cousin to Ruth. Ruth Stubblebine was a sister to Leroy Shronk. Delores Hillenbrand lived next to Alice.
EAST FALLS HISTORICAL SOCLETY ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
Interviewees: Catherine (Kitty) and Joseph Rocks (KR) (JR)
Interviewer - Ellen Sheehan (ES)
Date: December 31, 2006
KR: My name is Kitty Rocks and I lived in East Falls on East Park Drive. I don't remember my address there.
KR: That was on Ridge Avenue. I lived on East Park Drive for a few years and then we moved to Ridge Avenue, 4308 Ridge Avenue. We were there until I got married. Right? I went to school at Breck School for a little while and then I went to Mifflin School.
After Mifflin School, I went to Germantown High School. I belonged, at that time, to Grace Episcopal Church, which was right next door to where we lived on Ridge Avenue. We belonged to a bugle corps. It was the Veteran’s Post that had the Bugle and Drum Corps. We went on parades and things like that. We practiced at Ridge and Midvale at Palestine Hall. We would swim and ice skate at Gustine Lake and play down at the ball field at the Inn Lot. We would go over to Woodside Park, go through the park, walk over there and go to the park and also Crystal Pool; swam there. I’m one of ten, so we did a lot of walking. We didn't have a car. We did have a horse stable right across the street from us - Ace Riding Academy. One time we went horseback riding and Joe hurt his back. Remember Joe? We rode down in the park. Across the Falls Bridge and you would get into the park.
ES: That must have been an expensive entertainment.
KR: The owner was our boarder. He lived with us. Max, I forget his last name.
ES: It was Ace Riding Academy.
KR: And he's the one who ran it. That worked out good.
ES: So the name of the man who owned the Ace Riding Academy was..
KR: Max Gunther. Max had homes for the people who worked for him and that was called "Labby Hill."
ES: And that brings us to Joe Rocks...
JR: I was born in West Philadelphia and was baptized at Our Lady of Victory Parish over there. Then my home was at 3737 Calumet St. East Falls.
ES: How old were you when you moved here, Joe?
JR: I was real young, maybe one or two years old.
KR: They didn't have electricity.
JR: No, they didn't have electricity at the time. Foster was the plumbing supply, and then seven garages going up Calumet Street toward the (?) ...and then there was Murphy's in the corner house, then Rocks, then Sigwarts going up the hill. I attended St Bridget' School for eight years. I came out of St Bridget's School in 1939 to join the seminary, the Marist Fathers, up in South Langhorne. I only 1asted a year up there and then I was supposed to go to Roman Catholic but they were filled and they shipped me to North Catholic which meant taking three trolley cars to school every day. And then after high school, I was only out a couple of weeks when "Uncle Sam" said "We need you." That was in 1943. I ended up in the Navy – I was 18 years old and I had boot camp up in Sampson New York.
ES: And who was the person from Fast Falls who was your buddy up there?
JR: There used to be a saloon up from Ridge and Midvale called Welshes Bar right next to the Acme store there. Joe Welsh and some of the other guys from East Falls rode the train to Sampson NY and I didn't see Joe Welsh after that. After the training up there, 1 can remember them shipping us on a train from there down to Norfolk and we stopped in Fairmount Park just below my Aunt Betsy's house in the Park. I'll never forget that.
KR: He took a leaf off and sent it to me.
JR: I sent it to Kitty. After a couple months down in Norfolk, Virginia, half of our unit went to the battleship New Jersey and I went on a train ride with the other half out to San Francisco, fourteen miles, Tanforan Race Track. It was a training center there until we were going to be shipped overseas. We got on a boat there in San Francisco and we had a stop at Midway until the Marines went through Guam and then they continued on to Guam and there we were. I was there for 18 months. Our job was to set up the naval operating base and I was a yeoman there taking care of a lot of paper work and whatnot and then after that we came home and the young lady that I had met before I went overseas, was my girlfriend then, I was still in uniform; I asked her to marry me.
KR: We lived on Ridge Avenue, 4200 after we were married.
JR: It was during Lent and mom chased us up to see the good Father up at St Bridget's and luckily the good Father was Fr. Donnelly and he was a navy chaplain and he had just gotten out of the service and he said it was Lent and he said, "Sure, I’ll marry you" So there was no problem there and we got married and I’ve been married to that woman ever since. She's given me the best years of my life. We have been married over 60 years.
KR: Joe, East Falls… she's interested in East Falls!
ES: No, this is great. So, you were married in the priest's house?
JR: It was Lent, and on account of it being Lent, we got married in the priest's house. And Kitty got baptized.
ES: And you converted?
KR: After he went back, Father said" Look, I'll marry you and you can take the instructions. Come up and see me when he was in the service and take instructions - and I did.
JR: Her first Communion was Christmas Day, if you recall. That was
JR: 1946. March 13, 1946 we were married.
ES: What was your address after you got married?
JR: 3216 Ridge Avenue. We had a third floor apartment. The little Italian guy, he couldn't… but anyway, we had the third floor apartment and we were very happy there for a couple years and I think we had Joe there.
KR: Joe and Kathy.
JR: Joe and Kathy
ES: Did you stay in East Falls?
JR: We moved in with her mother for about a year. 0ur first car that we owned, we sold to put down on a house at 58th & Greer Terrace in Southwest Philadelphia. It became part of Transfiguration Parish.
ES: What year would that have been when you left the Falls? 1950?
KR: Well, Joe was born and he was born in 1947, so probably, Kathy was born in 55.
ES: Tell me something about the Merck Labs that were near you.
JR: Well, that was the guys, Billy Lockland and Bernie McCoy; we were inseparable. We called ourselves the "XYZ" gang. The Merck Chemical flourished during the First World War and when the Second World War came around, they opened up some parts of it. That was our playground.
KR: A lot of people from the Falls worked there.
JR: Today the headquarters is in Rahway, New Jersey.
KR: Isn't there a Merck here in Pennsylvania?
JR: Not to my knowledge.
KR: Some of the people we knew were transferred over there.
JR: I think you are getting confused with Smith, Kline, Beecham.
KR: No, there is a Merck here.
JR: I'm not going to argue with you; I'm getting too old.
ES: Joe, that will never happen - you too old to argue?
JR: In my life, when we were young, they had Woodside Park on the other side of the river -about two miles from the other side of the Falls Bridge - that we used to walk to and swim at Crystal Pool.
KR: There were fireworks every Friday night.
JR: In the summertime, they had fireworks. We used to sit up on Labby Hill to see them.
ES: What was your work during that time, Joe?
JR: I was making, for three or five years, I was making storm windows over on New Queen Street in the Germantown section and then left there to make helicopters with Frank Piesecki.
He started a business out in Delaware County and I worked there for three and a half years and the Korean War was turning down and I had a brother in the fire department. I went down to visit him on a Sunday night. It looked pretty good to me. 1 came home and asked my wife if it would be all right if I take the Fire Department. It was about a thousand dollar reduce in pay but in the 26 years I put in the fire department and all the experiences, many of them sad, on account of Fire Department work but it was a very touching experience in my life. I used to come home and preach to my wife and kids about the safety of various thing. And then, as Joe got a little older, 56 years old, I felt as though I couldn't keep up with the young guys in the Fire Department - I retired from the Fire Department and joined a wonderful Montessori school out in Gladwyne and I’m still there, 82 years old now.
ES: And they can't do without him! They won't let him go.
JR: It's part time work now, and twice for about six to eight weeks in the Fall and six to eight weeks after New Year. We have a little Carpentry/Woodworking shop wth the kids that want to join it and we have various things that we do.
ES: Do you know who one of the founders of the Gladwyne Montessori School was?
JR: There were four ladies and one of them was the wife of my boss, Frank Piesecki.
KR: Which he didn't know - it was a coincidence. His wife started the school.