When I was kid, my favorite show on TV was Superman. I was convinced, of course, that there really was a Superman someplace. I was also convinced that one day I would marry Lois Lane.
I also thought that one day I might become a reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper and fight never-ending battles for truth, justice and the American way. Well, that almost happened, although my never-ending battle has been for truth, justice and the American way in the Alger Hiss case.
What I also remember as a kid, were the never-ending discussions about the show: which was the best episode; where did he store his costume when he was Clark Kent; where did he store his suit when he was Superman? How come there was never anyone in the alley when he changed outfits? How come the window was always open when he jumped through it?
There were also lots of arguments about how George Reeves died. Â Those in the know said he really did think he was Superman, and one day he jumped out of a window and fell to his death.
The truth was that on June 16, 1959, police in Brentwood, California found him upstairs in his home, dead of a gunshot wound to the head. The only real question was whether it was suicide or murder. Police at first called it a suicide, but there were indications that he was murdered. His death was the subject of a book called Hollywood Kryptonite and a pretty good Ben Affleck film, Hollywoodland.
Anyway, back to reality. A few years ago Inspector Henderson asked me to go to LA to find Lefty Louis who was committing a number of anti-American crimes for the syndicate and bring him to justice. While we were out there, Â my wife Lois and I stopped by Reeves’s home to pay homage to our dead friend. Here I am disguised as mild-mannered reporter Jeff Kisseloff.
This is one of my favorite pictures from the early days of television. Ray Forrest was assigned to cover the 1940 GOP Convention in Philadelphia. The convention was being broadcast back to New York over one of the first television networks, which was run by a very long wire and scotch tape, powered by a tag team of mice running around a wire wheel.
Ray, being NBC’s (actually WNBT)’s first and only announcer got the anchor job, which meant he was also station’s sole reporter, host and, as you can see, pollster/number cruncher. Here he is at the station’s very high-tech tote board. Click on the photo to enlarge it.
A while ago, I posted an entry on Frank Stanton and the blacklist. It’s here in case you missed it. One of the links on the post was to a pdf of the actual loyalty oath accompanied by list of unacceptable organizations. The list, however, was cut off about mid-point. I’ve since found a more complete copy, so as a public service, in case you either want to blacklist yourself or a friend, I’m including the complete list below in case it includes an organization that you or your friend belongs to. Remember, informing on yourself or on others is the American way.
The picture below was cut from my book, The Box (actually all the pictures were omitted, but, hell, that’s great for this blog). I’m not quite sure I understand the perspective of the shot, but let me tell you the story of the man who gave it to me. Ted Smith (for more on him, click his tag at the right) and his friend, Loren Jones were two of RCA’s earliest employees and most brilliant engineers. In 1990, I had started working on my TV book and the interviews, frankly, weren’t going that well. Then one day, I drove down to Philadelphia to meet Ted and Loren. Both men were then in their late 80s, but they were still so full of merriment and their stories about their work so vivid and exciting that as I drove home, I knew for the first time that I was going to have a book and that it would be a good one.
One of the stories they told me was that when RCA put it up its first antenna atop the Empire State Building in the early 1930s, the engineers formed a club called the Top Notchers. To be a member, you had to crawl through the trap door under the antenna, stand out there and fly a paper airplane to either Brooklyn or New Jersey. The paper airplane was the easy part. Getting the courage to stand out there wasn’t so easy. This is how Ted described it, “It was quite a feeling to go through that trapdoor and find yourself on top of the world. You couldn’t see the rest of the building because the sides sloped down. You were suspended in space on a six-foot-diameter surface of slippery stainless steel metal with four rickety iron posts and a chain around the kept you from going down.
This drawing of the Top Notchers’s first president will give you an idea of what it looked like:
Ok, here’s a real shot of it from below:
“There was a metal circle about six feet in diameter on the top. Going through it was a rod about half an inch in diameter with a cross on top. The Top Notchers had to cimb that rod and touch the weather vane atop that cross, which was about twelve feet up. I didn’t have the nerve.
“Joe Chambers was the engineer at WNW in Cincinnati. He had done a number of rash things as a flier and he wanted to try it. When he got to the top, he made one dive for the thin metal pole in the center, grabbed it and was too scared to even look around. He said later, ” ‘If you ever get back there, you’ll find my fingerprints in the iron.’ ”
Take a look at this great picture (click on it for the larger version), looking down from the antenna, and you’ll know why:
My friend Phil Rosner died today. Phil may have been the last survivor of the 1934 Austrian fascist attack on Vienna’s model workers’ housing, a prelude to events in Europe that would within a few years engulf the world. The attack made headlines around the world when Phil and a few hundred other workers defended themselves against the Austrian army, holding out for nearly a week before sneaking out to safety. He went on to fight the fascists in the Austrian underground and when the Nazis came to power he and his friends took up their weapons (and used them) to the fight against an even more vicious foe. Among other things, they organized a rescue operation involving a stolen Nazi staff car and officers’ uniforms that successfully saved the lives of scores of Jews. The things Phil saw and endured when the Nazis took over Vienna were so horrible that only toward the end of his life was he able to speak about them.
- Phil in Japan after World War II
After surviving torture and solitary confinement, Phil, whose parents were American, was deported here. During World War II, he volunteered to join the Army and as a paratrooper was dropped into the Philippines in the final stages of the battle. He later served in Japan for two years and returned to the States for good in 1948. The opposition to the fascists in Austria was organized by the Communist and Socialist parties. For that reason, Phil was a proud Communist through the mid-1950s. When the FBI came to his door in the early 1950s and accused him of being a Party member, Phil’s response was to say, “You got that right.”
He was a proud radical his entire life, proud of not only his actions in Austria but also of his union work in the United States. In his last few weeks, he also reminisced about being part of the unit that helped protect Paul Robeson when he was attacked by right-wing “patriots” after his concert in Peekskill, New York.
Phil was five feet tall and maybe 120 pounds, but he was the most courageous man I’ve ever met. I’ve started to tell Phil’s amazing story on this Web site. But I thought in his honor, I’d also post the cover to the IWW’s 1926 edition of its song book and the lyrics to “The Internationale.” If you click on the lyrics, you can even sing along with Marc Blitzstein and his version of the song from 1933.
For good measure, here’s Paul Robeson singing “Joe Hill,” probably sounding much the same he sounded that summer night in Peekskill in 1949.
During the course of my research for The Box, the one person who surprised me the most Â was NBC’s longtime censor, Stockton Helffrich, NBC’s censor. I remember taking the subway to Stockton’s house in Queens and thinking as a longtime civil libertarian that I was really going to dislike him. Well, not only was he a wonderful, warm fellow, but I came away from the interview if Â not in total agreement with his work, with a real respect for his beliefs and the way he went about his job.
Of course, part of Stockton’s work was making sure breasts were covered up properly and certain words didn’t make it onto the air (He did insist that Elvis be shot above the waist when he appeared on NBC but was not entirely responsible for the incident that prompted Jack Parr to briefly walk off his show in protest over the censoring of a Â joke that used the words “water closet.” If I remember correctly, Stockton was off that day.), but I also learned that he was fearless in taking on advertisers who insisted on their right to make unsupported and often outrageous claims. He also clamped down on scripts that he felt were racist or depicted mental illness in inappropriate ways.Â He lobbied forcefully, but unsuccessfully, to keep “Amos ‘n’ Andy” off television, though he was more successful in keeping astrology advertising off the air. Stockton (a direct descendent, by the way, of Richard Stockton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence whose role in the founding our country were so properly acknowledged when a rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike was named for him) also worked hard to limit the violence in NBC’s programming.
Stockton Helffrich behind a very suave mustache
Helffrich told me that his feelings about his work changed over the years. “I used to argue about this with the ACLU,” he said. “They took the position that there ought to be built into this thing self-obsolescence, that we should eventually cease to exist. As time went on, I began to find my own views broadening, and I came to that conclusion myself at the end of my career, that even a little bit of censorship is bad.”
For ten years, Helffrich published a weekly in-house report on the work of his office. They provided a literate, witty and often critical look at NBC’s programming practices â€” too critical for his superiors at the network who eventually put the kibosh on them. Sixty years later, the reports offer a fascinating and nuanced view into the thinking that helped determine what would be broadcast on commercial TV during its earliest days and in the years to come. Click on the page below to download two of his reports from 1948.
During the McCarthy period, a local grocer in Syracuse, New York took on the big powerful television networks and the Constitution of the United States and won. His name was Laurence A. Johnson, and his method was a simple one: he told the major ad agencies (which in those days controlled television programming) that if they hired talent that he decided (using the blacklister’s bible, Red Channels, as a guide) was a communist, he would post a notice on the shelves of his stores that the makers of that product sponsored a television program that hired “subversives.”
He never actually did that, mostly because if he had, no one would have given a shit, he would have been unmasked as a fraud and any power he had would have evaporated, but the threat was enough to force those pillars of Jello (actually, one of the first companies to fire artists off its shows) at the networks to cave.
When I wrote my television book, I went to see Frank Stanton who had been the president of CBS at that time. Sitting across from his desk, I asked him, “You, who had a reputation as a master pollster, why didn’t you at least test to see if Johnson had a following?”
Stanton almost literally turned purple in fury. “I had no choice! We would have lost all of our advertisers. I had to save the company. What would you have done?”
“The right thing,” I said.
He then sputtered something that I can’t remember, turned a few more interesting colors and threw me out of his office. The interview was over.
Imagine my surprise a few years later when I read in the newspaper that Stanton was being given a lifetime civil liberties award. Now, Frank Stanton did a lot of terrific things during his tenure at CBS, but this was the man who ran the blacklist; the man who fired those employees who didn’t sign a loyalty oath. I called the Times Arts and Leisure section and suggested there was a story to be written about this, and they agreed.
One of the first people I spoke to was Sig Mickelson, who had once been head of CBS News. He told me that Stanton literally handed him a list and said, “No one on this list gets hired.” What’s more, the list was still in existence,Â Mickelson said. It sat among his papers at the University of Texas. Here it is, the CBS blacklist:
I did a few more interviews, and then it was time toÂ see Stanton again, who was by then 91 years old. Maybe he never got around to reading the interview we did for The Box, which was a good thing, and because I was writing for The Times,Â he even invited me to lunch. Clearly, instead of screaming at me, he was going to charm me, but he gave me the same line: he had no choice, blah, blah, blah. At least this time he didn’t try to toss me out of the restaurant, although he did have a friend of his at Channel 13 try to pressure me not to write the story.
I then went to see Allan Sloane, who was then living in a small Connecticut house and breathing from an air tank. He was in Red Channels.
Sloane had been a terrific writer, but thanks to Stanton, he couldn’t get hired to drive an ice cream truck. I was writing the story. It came out on May 30, 1999. I heard that Stanton checked himself into the hospital that day. I’m a cold guy. I had no sympathy for him, and now his actions were part of the newspaper of record. Of course, it would have been nice if they had been part of the newspaper of record fifty years before.
Here’s the story.
And here’s a copy of the CBS loyalty oath. It’s blank, so feel free to print it out, fill it in and send it on to CBS, or just change the word “Communist” to “terrorist” and mail it to your company’s CEO or the FBI.
I spent a year in Israel from 1972 to 1973. After six months, I was qualified to have my own room (but not a bathroom) in a wooden structure that had five of these rabbit warrens, all Â the size of a prison cell and only slightly less depressing. In one corner of my room was a small bed with a lumpy mattress that had just been vacated by a French volunteer who kept a running tally of her conquests on the wall above her pillow. As if a dark, dank room wasn’t depressing enough, I had to be reminded every night when I crawled into bed and glanced at Â those figures on the wall that I wasnâ€™t getting any practice with my addition.
But then I got a radio, which in my spartan existence was a great luxury. This was a kibbutz that had two televisions for 750 people.Â The Israelis were fascinated by TV, especially American TV. Ironsides was the kibbutzniks’ favorite show. Â The other favorite was “Family Affair.” I remember a huge crowd in downtown Tel Aviv went crashing through a storefront window because little Buffy was inside on a publicity tour. One night we were watching the 1972 Olympics (before the tragedy) when one of the members tried to turn off the TV so the kibbutz could hold its regular meeting. He was nearly lynched. They weren’t going to miss their weekly dose of Perry Mason rolling around in his wheelchair.
So anyway, one day I came back to my room, all muddy from a day spent irrigating our chickpea field (which was blown up in the ’73 war), and there waiting for me on a table beside my bed was a big old wooden radio from the 1930s. I turned it on, and I remember the first song I heard on it was “Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul, courtesy of Dewey Hughes and his daily top ten on Voice of America. I was in heaven. For the rest of my time on the kibbutz, that radio, and the company of one Shari Jacobson, kept me sane.
Now it’s a year later, and I’m a freshman in college. There’s an auction on campus to raise money for something or other, and one of the items on the block is a big old Philco floor-model radio from the 1930s. Of course, I had to have it, and fortunately my bid of $10 let me take it home. That in turn set off some kind of mad compulsive disorder because within six months, I had an apartment full of big old radios. The best thing about them though was when they didn’t work, I’d take them down to a local TV repairman named Harry Smith to work on together. Harry was then 80. He could remember when the idea that the sound of a voice could be sent through the air was dismissed as pretty silly.
Harry, whose shop was pretty quiet, would growl when he saw me come through the door with my latest find. Still, despite his protests that he was much too busy to teach me radio repair, it was obvious when we’d we’d roll up our sleeves and pull the guts out of an old Atwater Kent, that he was enjoying it as much as I was. A few years after I graduated, I drove by the shop, hoping his old station wagon would still be parked in the rear, but the place was boarded up and the lot was empty. That was a sad day for me.
But it was during this time I also learned that Â radio was in my blood, (type-a-m), so to speak. Yup, open a vein and I bleed solder. Open a hole in my cranium, and you’ll find a #40 rectifier tube. It turned out that my grandfather, whose name was Lou Resnick, was in the radio business before the war. Those who know the history of New York, know that the World Trade Center was built over Cortlandt Street, which from 1930 to 1970 was known as Radio Row. Cortlandt Steet was the place to go if you were in the market for Â radios, parts or other electronic products. I didn’t know that my grandfather had a store there Â until after I started bringing radios home and my mother told me. I knew he had been in the electronics business. In fact, when I was a kid, he owned a tube factory, and my brother and I used to love to spend the day in the factory shoving little radio tubes into their boxes. (If anyone out there has a Best-Test or Triad tube, please let me know, as those were his.)
When I wrote my book on television, The Box, I interviewed a few people who sold TVs on Radio Row. They remembered my grandfather, and like me, didn’t care much for him. He wasn’t a very Â nice fellow. His favorite past time when we were kids was to tease us until we cried. Then he would call us names for bawling. I was probably five at the time. But if that was the worst thing he did, it might have been okay, but there worse â€” much worse. He did, however, teach me to play a mean game of gin rummy though, and I guess without my knowing it, he instilled in me a fascination for old-time broadcasting. Still, we really never had much to say to each other until I started to bring home radios and suddenly instead of arguing about Vietnam, we could communicate civilly over something we had in common. I’d like to say things got warm and fuzzy after that, but they didn’t. He was still who he was. When he died, I shrugged my shoulders during a shiva call and confessed to my aunt, “You know, I just didn’t like the guy very much,” and she said, “I’m so glad you said that, I couldn’t stand him either. Let’s get out of here.” And we did.
Anyway, it was fascinating to talk to the people who worked down on Cortlandt Street who remembered the business only slightly less fondly than they did my grandfather. Two of them were Bob Elliott and Jerry Fishman. Here are a couple of quick stories:
“Jerry Fishman: There were maybe fifty stores. People came from all over to get the best deals, no matter what it was. If It was for a goddamned nickel battery, he was lookin’ to pay four cents.
“Most of the people who operated on Cortlandt Street were mom and pop shopkeepers without much capital. If that store cost a hundred dollars a day, no matter what, that hundred dollars had to come in. The most important thing was to make the nut. If you had to take a five-dollar bill or a ten-dollar bill for something you did it. The hundred dollars had to come. that was the way the whole street operated.
“The door was always open, no matter how cold it was, because people liked to walk into an open doorway. And no matter how cold it was outside, you had to stand outside along the window and when somebody approached you had to start talking to him and entice him into the store and try to sell him something.
“Bob Elliott: The salesmen had a lousy habit. If they thought a customer was chiseling them, when he was walking out of the store, they used to spit on the back of his jacket, so if he went in the next store he would be marked. That was called ‘marking the noodge.’
“Jerry Fishman: Or throw snot on him. I heard of that. I never did it.”
There was another sales technique I accidentally learned about. When I was in junior high school, for some reason my we were handed a box of 16mm films that my grandfather owned. My mother was excited, because my grandfather took a lot of home movies, so it was a big deal when when finally found a projector and set it up one evening. My father loaded the first reel and we sat to watch with great anticipation, except what came up on the screen was a young woman without any clothes on, smoking a cigarette, and when she nodded to the camera and planted the cigarette in an orifice through which no woman can inhale, this is the conversation that immediately ensued:
Me: “Dad, that doesn’t look like grandma.”
Dad: “You two, get out of here, now!”
I learned while researching The Box (unintentional double entendre) that these films were used by the storeowners to entertain the company reps. Good old Grandpa. I still have those films by the way. Maybe one day, I’ll hold a Lou Resnick Memorial Fuck-Film Festival.
I also still have a few wonderful old radios. There’s a shot of one posted below. Here’s another: an Atwater Kent Model 30, one of the radios I worked on with Harry. It’s an early electric set from the mid-1920s. Still works, too.
A few years ago, I opened up my mailbox to find an Antique Radio Classified Catalogue. The catalogue always has an article or two in the front. This one had a piece about Cortlandt Street, but what nearly brought me to tears was one of the photos that accompanied the article. Here it is. On the upper right is the only visual evidence I’ve ever seen of my grandfather’s former prominence during a time and on a street that was so vibrant that those who were there thought it would last forever. Of course nothing does. Especially in New York which buries its history like a dog does a bone.
Click on the photo to transport yourself back 60 years in time.
In this week’s issue of The Nation, there’s an article about E.L. Doctorow’s new novel that seeks to explain the Collyer Brothers‘ story. You might know the name. Homer and Langley Collyer lived in a mansion in Harlem until 1947 when they were found dead inside, among tons of crap they had hoarded over the years. Â In fact, that’s how I first heard of them, because when I was growing up and my mother decided my room was too messy, she’d say something like, “It looks like the Collyer Brothers’ place in here.”
When the Collyer Brothers story broke, CBS television news was still pretty much a fledgling operation. One of its pre-war pioneers, Rudy Bretz, was then working as a cameraman for the division, and they sent him uptown to get some pictures of the place. Someone then took a picture of Rudy inside the mansion. Here’s the shot:
When I was researching my television book, I came across a series of articles in The New Yorker, profiling a local grocer named Harry Dubin. What was so unusual about Dubin that in 1947 made him worthy of a ten-page article in The New Yorker? He owned a television set, and the article was all about the author spending an extended period with Dubin and his family as they enjoyed this new electronic miracle. Â It was a marvelous story, typical of the magazine, puckishly fun, insightful and slightly condescending. I’ve uploaded a copy here. [It's a long file, so it may take a minute to download - well worth it though].
After I read the piece in 1993, it occurred to me that Â Dubin was Â young enough in 1947 to still be alive, Â so with fingers crossed I looked up his name in the phone book, and lo and behold, he was still living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I picked up the phone and called him. He laughed when I told him I had just read The New Yorker article and was charmed by it, and when I explained to him what I was up to, he eagerly agreed to be interviewed again.
A few days later, he greeted me warmly at the door to his apartment and led me into his living room. As I set up my tape recorder, he asked me if I had a copy of the article. I said I did He then asked if he could read it over to refresh his memory before I turned the machine on. Since this wasn’t a quiz, I gladly pulled the article out of my backpack and handed it to him.
“While I read this, you might enjoy taking a look at that,” he said, pointing to a small photo album, embossed with the words “Dubin at Work.”
I picked up the album and opened it, and my eyes nearly jumped out of my head. Inside were some 30 color photographs taken in and around the city in the 1940s. I had never seen such vibrant photos of the city in those years. In fact, I had never seen any color photos of the city in those years, yet here they were. It was such an interesting collection. Each of the pictures depicted a man in uniform intently doing his job, whether it was a street sweeper, gas station attendant or hansom cab driver. When I looked at them twice, I realized something, all of them were Harry!
Needless to say, while our subsequent interview was wonderful, the album left me speechless in delight. These were the most evocative photographs of old New York I had ever seen. Harry explained that all of them were taken by his son Ronald, who was then a teenager, after Harry managed to convince each worker to change clothes with him in an alley and let Harry do his job for a few minutes so the picture could be taken.
Eventually, Harry let me make copies of the album and I brought it to the attention of Jan Seidler Ramirez, an archivist at the Museum of the City of New York in the hope that she might be interested in adding them to the museum’s collection. Well, not only did she jump at them, the photos became a special exhibit at the museum in 1996.
I wrote a short piece about the photos and their provenance for American Heritage. Here’s the article, and here are two of the photos. I’ll keep adding more over the next few weeks, but these two will give you an idea of Harry’s brilliance while affording a view of old New York that you probably never thought still existed. I certainly didn’t.
Click on the photo to see the full-sized image.
Click on the photo for the full-sized image.