By Robert Heide
It’s Christmastime 2020 and I am finding myself walking down the street singing
“Have Yourself a Merry little Christmas –
Keep the Yuletide bright.
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight –
so have yourself a Merry Little Christmas now!”
As I write this I am also thinking of the Covid Virus that is on the news with so many positive and dying. It is as if we are in a mystery play where we are being stalked by a ghostly character named Death. Whatever is going on —another Great—worldwide—Depression with millions out-of-work, economic crisis and racism which finally is being addressed head-on in the Black Lives Matter movement. Incidentally, the Merry Little Christmas song was originally sung by Judy Garland to the child star Margaret O’Brien in the wonderful film Meet Me In St. Louis. In any case I want to take this moment to wish everyone at WestView News, editor George and the staff—Happy Holidays—and, yes, a New Year 2021 is upon us and we all must persevere in these good and bad times.
And so with this as an introduction of sorts I decided I would travel backward in time—to some of my memories of better days. Of course I think of the 1940s World War II decade when I was a boy growing up in the small town of Irvington, New Jersey—a suburb of Newark—which had a wonderful summer attraction called Olympic Park. Signs proclaimed the “WORLD’S LARGEST OUTDOOR POOL.” There were rides galore, a bona-fide “Midget troupe” (some had played Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz) and a weekly circus. The town itself, laid out on a hill, featured many Warner Brothers movie theaters, old fashioned ice-cream parlors, bakeries and five and ten cent stores. Recently I was reminiscing with a childhood playmate, Norma Edgar, who also grew up in Irvington. We still hang out in Greenwich Village.
In 1949 Norma and I got on a bus which took us to Times Square where we saw two Broadway stage hits— Harvey, a play about a man who lives and converses with an imaginary rabbit. It starred Joe E. Brown. The top ticket price was $5.50 for the matinee; and that same night we saw High Button Shoes, a super Broadway musical that had a five-year run starring Phil Silvers and Nanette Fabray. Norma and I also recalled V-J Day—August 15, 1945—when Japan surrendered. We joined the cheering and dancing crowds on Springfield Avenue. The War was over. The boys were coming home. In those halcyon days I would also sometimes go to New York with my mother and my Aunt Alma. My favorite moment back then was sitting in the second floor of the Times Square Automat having baked beans and coffee from the lion’s head spigot and looking out the window at the super-big Camels sign of a soldier blowing out enormous smoke rings into the air. My other mind-memory-trips include visits with my parents for dinner at Toffenetti’s, followed by a show at Radio City Music Hall with its famous Rockettes and also in the 1940s era, going with my cousin ‘Sonny’ on leave from the US Navy. Sonny, in his sailor suit, took me to see one of my favorite movie stars—Carmen Miranda—LIVE—at the Roxy Theater. Other ‘uptown’ treats were going to Rockefeller Center where I stood in awe gazing at the giant Christmas tree just above the ice-skating rink. Years later at the restaurant at that same skating rink I had dinner with filmmaker Kenneth Anger the author of Hollywood Babylon the cult classic sex-scandal book about the movie business who introduced me to Rich Conaty, the host of The Big Broadcast on WQEW where he played the classic pop songs of the 20s and 30s providing a nostalgic mind and music trip for listeners for decades. There were the famous New York department stores to shop in as well as visiting the great one block square architectural wonder Saint Patrick’s Cathedral for a Christmas experience complete with painted plaster camels and wise men with a crèche in a manger and with wreaths and Pointsettias in every corner.
Part of my life has been living on Christopher Street for so many years that I’ve lost count (a joke!). In my imagination I often go back and recall the Village in the 60s and 70s when it was a bohemian enclave—think of the 70s Paul Simon song: “Thirty dollars pays your rent…on Bleecker Street.” On Macdougal Street—at Bleecker at the San Remo Café, a beautiful bar and Italian restaurant, I spent many nights, and one particularly memorable night in the company of Edward Albee, Leonard Bernstein, Judith Malina, Billy Name, Simone Signoret, and Maxwell Bodenheim. The beat poets and musicians hung out at the Gaslight Café a cellar coffee shop at 116 Macdougal Street. I met Jimi Hendrix there. Bob Dylan played guitar and sang and in 1962 recorded the album Live at the Gaslight. The beats included Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Taylor Mead, Jack Michellin, and Gregory Corso. I think now and yes, I am a member of the Beat Generation myself. Also, often hanging at The Kettle of Fish, right next door, was LeRoi Jones, Diana Di Prima, and Wavy Gravy.
Most memorable for me in the Village were the theaters including the Provincetown Playhouse, the Cherry Lane, where a few of my plays were presented, the Circle Rep on Sheridan Square, and the Caffe Cino, the coffeehouse theater on Cornelia Street where I did two plays, The Bed and Moon. A favorite place across the street from the Art Deco Women’s House of Detention (torn down in 1973) was Sutter’s Bakery on the corner of Greenwich Avenue and Tenth Street. At Sutter’s I loved the fantastic cake made with mocha icing and filled with apricot jam. The oft-seen opera diva Dame Joan Sutherland bought boxes of butter cream cookies and other pastries. Often I went there with the director Ron Link and Bette Midler, to whom Ron had introduced me. Ron directed several of my plays including Why Tuesday Never Has A Blue Monday. Once he and Bette were talking about doing a Broadway musical entitled My Name is Rachel Lilly Rosenbloom and Don’t You Ever Forget It! but she decided later not to do it. Bette Midler, also known as ‘The Divine Miss M’ first appeared in Tom Eyen’s Miss Nefertiti Regrets at Café La Mama. She lived at 36 Barrow Street where often she would be sweeping the sidewalk in front of her house wearing toreador pants and stiletto point, backless high heels. Midler’s fantastic over-the-top career, which included an Academy Award nomination for playing Janis Joplin in The Rose and starring in the movie of Gypsy, started at the Continental Baths where accompanied by Barry Manilow she sang to a gay crowd wrapped up in steam bath towels. She went on of course to many Broadway shows including Fiddler on the Roof and her wildly successful Clams on the Half Shell revue and, also, in 2017 won a Tony in Hello Dolly. My favorite Midler hit song has always been Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B which she did as a tribute to the Andrews Sisters. The 1940s Andrews Sisters trio are a big part of my New York Christmas memories—and here are some lyrics from one of their hits just in time for this 2020 Christmas Season:.
Here Comes Santa Claus
Here comes Santa Claus
Right down Santa Claus Lane.
Robert Heide has written many articles over the years for readers of WestView News. His latest book Robert Heide 25 Plays is available on Amazon.