Ah Christmastime…As Andy Williams and many other singers tell us yearly, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year! And it is…. This time of year is always a wonderful time to make memories, and to reflect on those memories years later. Here’s some that easily come to my mind!
Susie and I met in July of 1977, and right from our first Christmas together that December, I knew that she loved Christmas. That’s why, a year later when I had a permanent job at ABC, on Christmas Day of 1978, I managed to get her alone upstairs at my folks house in Bayside, and I asked Susie if she’d marry me, and then ran through the house, telling all that would listen, “She said yes!!!” That’s probably my best Christmas memory! Happy 43rd Anniversary of the day you said “Yes” Baby!
Unless Christmas Eve was on a Sunday, my folks always had to do at least one performance at the Metropolitan Opera. When I was small, after they’d gotten home from a show on Christmas Eve, was their time to do the tree, and set up presents and stockings. When I got older, we developed a habit of having Italian Cold Cut Sandwiches, and cheap champagne (them when I was younger, all of us as I reached my teens), while we opened Christmas presents. This made it easier for my folks to sleep in a bit on Christmas day, rather than have me wake them up at 6 AM! Because we’d started this years ago, Christmas Eve was always a day we celebrated with our version of the 7 fishes and then cold cut sandwiches at midnight. The Christmas Eve of 1979, Susie and I had only been married a couple of months, so that night, after I’d worked at WABC, we went to my folks house in Bayside for our traditional Christmas Eve. We left very late at night (really early in the morning) and headed home to our apartment in the Manorhaven section of Port Washington. Tired and wanting to be in our own house, we were happy to park in front of the small 4 apartment building we called home. The great memory of our first Christmas Eve together was not being with my folks, or the microwave oven they gave us for Christmas, but rather the fact that the front door of the building, which had never been locked and which we didn’t have a key for, was indeed locked! A great memory of our first Christmas Eve together (we eventually did get in after our banging woke up another tenant)! Christmas Eve is still an important day for our family. We no longer open presents on Christmas Eve, but we have traditions that we do every year! So for us, Christmas is a two day celebration. Christmas is the time for traditions!
Christmas of 1982 held many great memories, because our oldest Bill was less than two months old. Not that he knew what was going on, but first time Parents and Grandparents enjoyed it that year! The next year was also a great Christmas, but for entirely different reasons. My Dad suddenly died just 10 days before Christmas of 1983. It’s hard when you lose your Dad when you are 33 years old, and was sad for my Mom as they’d spent 35 Christmases as husband and wife, but now Billy was 1 year old, and had a little grasp of what Christmas was. I think the entire family concentrated on him, and while we had every reason to be sad, we weren’t, and had a great Christmas. The Miracle of Christmas?
Christmas of 1986 found us in our new home in Mineola, and our family expanded to five from three. Krissi and Kenny were born six weeks premature on November 20th, and our fervent wish was that our entire family would be together for Christmas. Krissi spent 18 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and Kenny spent 28 days in the NICU. Kenny had a little stocking ornament on his incubator that said, “Home for Christmas.” Our prayers were answered that year, and on Christmas morning ,our two little bundles of joy joined their older brother Billy for Christmas in our Mineola house! Our family was complete! By the way, Kenny still has that ornament!
So many wonderful memories of Christmases as the kids were growing and getting older. Memories of doing Christmas Eve dinner at my Mom’s or at our house with Susie’s folks, of having a leisurely dinner till the last minute, when suddenly the clock had run out, and we had to dash out of the house because we couldn’t be late to the kid’s Christmas Pageant at Church, and then the Service of the Carols. Then memories of coming home, of the kids getting into their jammies, and then the whole family continuing my Mom and Dad’s tradition of Italian Cold Cut Sandwiches and cheap champagne, and of watching Christmas Story and Christmas Vacation. As the kids got older, we even made it to the end of Christmas Vacation! Then they’d go to bed, and the real work started! Putting together presents that needed to be assembled, pulling Toys R Us tags off items that were going into their stockings (Santa didn’t shop at Toys R Us!), getting to bed way too late, and then getting up way too early! Of making the kids wait at the top of the stairs till Dad went down and made sure the house was all set up for Christmas morning. Then there was wrapping paper everywhere, and suddenly it was time to all get dressed so we could head to Susie’s folks or her sister Barbara’s house for Christmas, or getting the house cleaned up because the whole family was coming to our house! They were crazy, exhausting Christmases, where we operated with all together too little sleep and too much to do, but I wouldn’t change a thing about them! They are all the wonderful memories that live in your heart when you get older!
Let me leave you with one more memory that means a lot to us and our kids. The first year we were married, Susie found these leaded glass toasting flutes at Sterns Department Store. They have been a part of every one of our Christmases over the last 42 years. This year, through the magic of Ebay, I was able to find enough of them for sale that we just were able to send a set to every one of our kids and their spouses, plus have enough so that when we are all together, we will have them too! It’s our hope that this year Bill and Lori, Krissi and Mike, and Kenny and Chris will all toast Christmas the same way their Mom and Dad have for all their married life, and that they will have as great a life and memories of Christmases as we do!
So yes, perhaps another day older and deeper in debt, but I wouldn’t trade any of it for all the money in the world! May you and yours have a joyous Christmas, spent with family and friends that are like family, and make new memories that will warm your heart on Christmas for years to come! Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
On the occasion of last month’s celebration of Veterans’ Day, I posted on Facebook a couple of pictures of my Dad in World War II, performing in Irving Berlin’s all soldier show, This is the Army. I’m going to use this blog today to expand a bit on that post, and to also tell you a story that was a staple of my childhood, that today has a different ending than it did when I was a kid. Let’s start at the beginning…
My Dad, Frank Vincent D’Elia (so no…I’m not legitimately a third as I don’t have a middle name), was born on October 5th, 1910, on the lower east side of Manhattan. He was one of 13 kids in a typical big Italian family, and like many kids of his generation, never went to High School because he had to go out into the world and earn money to help support his family. My father was different from many folks in those days though, in that his chosen profession was to be an opera singer. (One of the questions I wished I’d asked my Dad when he was still with us was, “Why an Opera Singer?”) Jobs were hard enough to find, but finding a job as an opera singer was even harder.
From stories I heard growing up, like many performers, my Dad had many jobs that did not involve singing. From selling pretzels in the park to being a messenger for a Wall Street firm, to acting as “secretary” to his voice teacher, Madame Novelli, he did what he had to do! Long story short, that’s why he was very happy when he got to audition for, and then was offered a job in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, the Germans and the Japanese were edging the world towards war and this would impact my father’s life in a very large way.
Sometime in that first year of being a member of the Met chorus, he got his draft notice! After years of struggling and scraping by while supporting his family, he was finally at the point where he had a regular job, and now the US Army was going to change all that. He went to his draft board, looking to get an extension so that he could at least complete the season before reporting for duty. Ultimately, they did give him that extension, so he finished out his first season at the Met, and then went off to the army. (If you read the blog post, My Dad and His Family then you know the whole Draft Board story, if not, here’s a link https://rnewadventures.com/2020/10/06/my-dad-and-his-family/)
After kicking around at Fort Dix for a couple of weeks, my Dad was sure that he’d be sent off to some area where his background and experience would have no use to him. That’s why he was very surprised to be assigned to Camp Upton, in Yaphank on Long Island, to audition for Irving Berlin and his all soldier show, “This is the Army.” He passed the audition and joined the cast that included Broadway actors, movie stars, musicians from famous orchestras, and one singer from the Metropolitan Opera! For most of my childhood we’d be watching a movie or TV show, and my Dad would point out one of his “army buddies” that he’d traveled the world with in the show.
After rehearsals, the show opened at New York’s Broadway Theater (the same theater that gave us Mikey Mouse’s debut in Steamboat Willie) on July 4th of 1942, and was expected to run for 4 weeks. It was such a success that the run was extended several times, and eventually it ran to the end of September of that year. Since the show was loved by so many, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who saw it 3 times and wanted her husband the President to see it too, next up for the company was a National Tour, with all ticket sales going to Army Relief. Washington was their first stop with a special Presidential Matinee scheduled at Washington’s National Theater. The day after that performance, the entire company of This is the Army was invited to the White House to meet President Roosevelt, where festivities lasted late into the night! Another story I’d heard when I was a kid! When the National Tour ended in February 1943,This is the Army had earned $2,000,000 for the Army Relief Fund.
The next stop for the TITA company was Hollywood. Warner Brothers had offered $250,000 for the film rights of the show, and like the profits from the National Tour, this was donated to the Army, and the entire company spent 6 months in Hollywood making the Warner Brothers movie, “This is the Army.” Although, for the purpose of the movie, a sub plot was added that enabled Warner Brothers to include movie stars like Ronald Reagan (the only one of the “stars” who was in the service as an Army Lieutenant), George Murphy, Alan Hale, Sr., and several others. The musical numbers from the show were still intact and the performers in those numbers were still the soldiers. A camp for the 359 members of the company was set up near the Warner Brothers lot (with heated tents built by the Warner Brothers Prop Department), and each day, the company would march from their camp to the movie studio. As well as shooting the movie, the singers, dancers, and musicians all participated in regular army drills, as befitting soldiers in the US Army.
The real reason for the making of the movie was to raise funds for Army Relief, and towards that end, it was an unqualified success. It earned $9,555,586.44, which Warner Brother’s donated to the Army Relief Fund.
After their American performances, the company was reduced to a cast of 150 men, including my Dad. Their next assignment was to be shipped off to England, and play around the country for 3 months, but prior to that, they returned to Camp Upton on Long Island to re-stage the show taking into account the reduced cast. On October 21st, the company sailed for Liverpool aboard the Monarch of Bermuda. After 10 days of very crowded conditions, sailing in the dangerous North Atlantic, their convoy reached its destination. This is the Army played in London for Royalty and for American and Allied troops, and then embarked on a tour around Great Britain. On February 6, 1944, they returned to London and performed for General Eisenhower. At this point the cast thought they had reached the end of the road, and the show would be disbanded, and they’d all be sent off to regular Army units. However, after seeing the show, General Eisenhower thought that it would be a great moral tool for his troops, and requested from Washington that the show play to Troops at the front.
General Eisenhower’s request was granted, and a week later the This is the Army Company sailed for Algiers. This was to be the the first stop on their tour that would take the company around the world, and not end till October of 1945 in Hawaii, almost 2 months after the September Japanese surrender! Rather than performing for Army Relief Drives or heads of states, now they would chase the front, and perform for the soldiers actually fighting the war! Some of the places they performed were regal, and some just a thrown together stage in the jungle, and their audiences were now groups of soldiers who had just come out of combat and who would be heading right back into it after the show.
TITA Posters, The Original Cast Album, and pictures of Irving Berlin
After 2 weeks performing in North Africa, they sailed for Naples, Italy. In Naples they were billeted in the partially destroyed palace of Victor Emmanuel, and that’s where the story of The Box starts. This was not my father’s first visit to Naples. Back in the 30s, he had sailed from New York to Naples with his voice teacher Madame Novelli. Madame Novelli was originally from Naples, and they stayed with her family for several months while visiting . Among the members of the family was a young man about my Dad’s age, and the two of them became fast friends. Turn the clock ahead to 1944 and the American liberation of Naples. As soon as the “This is the Army” company got to Naples, my Dad looked for his old friends and found them living at the same address he’d visited as a young man. The war years had not been kind to his Italian friends, and my father did all he could to get them food and other supplies that they’d been without for years. One of the benefits of this was that my Dad got to eat with the family, and had home cooked Italian meals for the first time in several years. From my Dad’s stories, simple ingredients like SPAM in the right Italian hands could be turned into gourmet food, so this Italian kid from New York truly enjoyed his meals with his Italian friends!
The royal palace in Naples had been German headquarters in the city, and as such was a favorite target of the allied bombings. My Father would tell stories of sleeping in incredibly opulent surroundings with bomb blasted holes in the roof. The doors at the palace were about 10 feet tall and decorated with intricately carved and painted 4 inch by 10 inch panels. In a typical GI move, my Father pried one of these panels off the door as a souvenir. He told his friend about this and even took it with him to dinner one night to show the family. His friend said that he knew a wood carver and how would my father like it if he could get him to carve a box to match the panel, and use the panel as the lid? My Father liked that idea, and a plan was hatched. About a week later at dinner, his friend showed him the box. The wood carver had done an excellent job of matching the lid, and the carving was exquisite. All that was left was to paint the box to match the lid, and my father’s souvenir would be completed. He left them that night and promised to be back for dinner in 2 nights, and in turn, he was promised that the box would be ready for him to take. As they say, best laid plans.
On the afternoon of the second day, the “This is the Army” company was ordered to load their trucks and be ready to leave Naples within 45 minutes. The Allied forces were continuing up the Italian boot and their show was needed closer to the front lines to entertain the troops. There was no time to get to his friend’s house and no way to tell them what was happening, so that was the last of his stay in Naples, and of the carved box.
That happened in 1944 and was but a brief episode in all the escapades of the This is the Army troop, as they continued through Europe and eventually island hopped in the Pacific theater too.
So now turn the clock forward to the summer of 1971. I’ve just graduated from college and we’ve planned a 4 week trip through Europe. It starts at the Ford plant in Cologne, Germany where we picked up a new Ford Capri. We traveled through Germany, Switzerland and down one side of the Italian boot and up the other side. I very distinctly remember the day we got to Naples. After getting situated in the hotel room, my Dad went down to the lobby and found a phone book. He looked up the last name of his friend’s family and found a listing at the exact same address they’d lived at when he first met them in the 1930s. My Father placed a call and when a young lady answered, he explained who he was and asked for his friend by name. She said that he was looking for her Grandfather and that she’d get him. In a few minutes his friend, who he hadn’t seen or talked to in over 25 years, came to the phone. He couldn’t believe that this voice from his past was on the phone and was in Naples. One of the first thing he said to my Dad that day was, “Frank…I’ve got your box!”
That happened 50 years ago this past July, and was the culmination of a story I’d heard my Father tell all my life. Now his story of “The Box,” the souvenir that got away, had a new, and almost impossible to believe ending! My Dad died in 1983, but I must admit that I have continued to tell the story, and I guess keep him and his “This is the Army” stories alive. My Father was a great story teller, and after growing up on so many of these stories, and then finally seeing the movie, I’ve always felt very connected to this time in my Father’s life.
Oh…and the box? Well, for many years it resided on my Mother’s coffee table in her living room in Bayside, as it had since we returned from Europe in 1971, and it completed its trip started in 1944! When my Mom died in 2011, the box moved to our dining room hutch in our Mineola home. When Susie and I moved to Ocean City permanently, and cleaned out the Mineola house, our youngest son (Kenny…the performer and spiritual heir to my Mom and Dad’s profession) asked if he could have the box. It’s traveled around the country with him and his husband Chris, and now lives in their St. Petersburg, Florida living room. I hope it will always have a place of honor in our family, as a reminder of one of our family’s member of the Greatest Generation.
This is the Army was my Dad’s life for over three and a half years, and was how he fought the Second World War. My Dad made friends and had experiences that he talked about for the rest of his life. As well as entertaining thousands during the war, and making millions of dollars for Army Relief, This is the Army was America’s first integrated company in uniform! Up until I finally saw the movie at the Museum of Modern Art in the 70s, all I had were those stories of my Dad’s of this period of his life. Believe me, I heard lots of “This is the Army” stories growing up, but none of them was any more prominent that the story of “The Box!” His stories of This is the Army continued to be told for the rest of his life, especially every 5 years when the alumni of the company would get together for a reunion. Reunions my Dad relished going to until his death. Sadly, most of the folks that my Dad spent these years with are gone, and the reunions just a memory for those of us who heard our Dads talk about This is the Army.
Thanks Dad for your service!
One of the great sources that I had for filling in some of the TITA details was Alan Anderson’s book, “The Songwriter Goes to War.”
Here’s an excerpt from that book detailing a story my father often told about TITA in Italy – Click on the book cover below to open the passage…
Have you ever been in an Automat? Do you even know what an Automat is? Well, let’s turn to Wikipedia and see what they say…..
“The first automat in the U.S. was opened June 12, 1902, at 818 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia by Horn & Hardart. Horn & Hardart became the most prominent American automat chain. Inspired by Max Sielaff’s AUTOMAT Restaurants in Berlin, they became among the first 47 restaurants, and the first non-Europeans, to receive patented vending machines from Sielaff’s Berlin factory. The automat was brought to New York City in 1912, and gradually became part of popular culture in northern industrial cities.”
The listing further goes on to state that in New York City there were eventually 40 Horn and Hardart Automats, with the last one closing in 1991. Automats were prominent in New York City when I was a kid in the 50s and 60s. In fact, when the Metropolitan Opera was located at 40th Street, there was a basement level Automat on 7th Avenue, between 40th and 41st Street, and we went there a lot. It was a place to get a quick cup of coffee, or for a little kid to get a bologna sandwich!
If you’ve never been a little kid, with a handful of nickels, looking over what you could get in an Automat, then you probably weren’t a kid in NYC at the same time I was. It truly was the quintessential New York experience from back in the day. So much so, that in the 1962 movie ,That Touch of Mink starring Cary Grant and Doris Day, Doris Day’s best friend (played by Audrey Meadows of The Honeymooners fame) worked behind the scenes in a local Automat that was prominently featured in the film. Here’s a clip from that movie that gives you an idea of what an Automat looked like.
The two things in the Wikipedia quote above that surprised me were, (1) that the first Automat opened in Philadelphia and (2) that it was basically a copy of Berlin Automats using the machines that dispensed the food as produced in Germany. Who knew. As I said, the Automat seemed like the quintessential New York Experience! My personal relationship to this blog, and why the Automat will always hold a special place in my memory, centers around a story that my cousin Jeanne Pratt and I have laughed at many times over the 60 plus years since it happened to us.
My Mom’s parents were visiting New York from Chicago. This time, they also had my Chicago cousin Jeanne with them (the daughter of my Mom’s younger brother). One day, my Grandparents, Jeanne, and I were in Manhattan. We could have well been at Radio City Music Hall seeing the movie and show – something my Grandma liked to do. At some point in the day, we stopped in at an Automat. My Grandma always seemed to be picking up strays, and this day in this particular Automat, she picked up, what we used to call back in the day, a bum. He was dirty and smelly, and my Grandmother fell for his story that he’d been a famous brain surgeon, but when his wife died, his life fell apart, leaving him to beg on the streets. I think my Grandma was the only one to buy his rap.
She invited him to sit at our table, to the dismay of myself and Jeanne (she was probably 10 at the time and I was 8), who were not buying his tale of woe! Immediately, she dispatched my Grandfather, “ Go get him a cup of coffee Bill,” and off he went to one of the famous Automat coffee dispensers. Jeanne and I looked at each other, as the story unfolded as he drank coffee and regaled my Grandmother. I have no recollection of how we finally got to get away from him, but I’m pretty sure my Grandfather left with a few less bills in his pocket, at the insistence of my Grandmother!
While we don’t see Jeanne and her husband Walt that often as they live in Connecticut and Florida, and we’re in Jersey, the once or twice a year we’re together, invariably one of us will bring up the “Automat Incident.” Some 60 years later, we still both laugh, and shake our heads, and just acknowledge that, “That was Grandma!”
Wikipedia defines Bluetooth as “a short-range wireless technology standard that is used for exchanging data between fixed and mobile devices over short distances.” The first consumer Bluetooth device was a hands-free mobile headset that was launched in 1999. Those first Bluetooth headsets were large, but as the technology improved, the size dropped until Bluetooth Ear Buds became the norm. They are a great invention, that allow joggers, walkers, people at the beach, and others seeking privacy the perfect tool. No cords or huge headsets to get in the way of your activity, you don’t bother others near you, and small enough to be carried in your pocket when you are done with them. Back in the olden days, when I was still working at WABC, a set of Bluetooth ear buds made my twice daily Long Island Rail Road trips a bit more palatable. They were easy to use, small, and much better than a wired headset. They are indeed a great way to listen to music, podcasts, or the radio, if anyone still listens to the radio!
Then there is their other use…conducting a phone call while connected to your cell phone! I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of having someone at work, on the street, or in a store, say “Hello,” think they were talking to us and respond, only to then discover that they had a Bluetooth ear bud in one or both ears, and were in the midst of a telephone call! Sorry, but people doing that should be forced to wear a sign or some other outwardly obvious indication to those around them that they’re on the phone and that the rest of us should ignore all talk that comes from their mouth! I know that I have been caught multiple times, and frankly it is embarrassing once you are either waved off by the person, or you yourself realize what’s happening. There are also other issues I’ve discovered over the years. Here’s one, from my personal experience.
When WABC Radio moved to 2 Penn Plaza in early 1989 from 1330 Avenue of the Americas, the neighborhood around our new home was very different from what we’d enjoyed at 54th Street and 6th Avenue. Instead of being a block from ritzy Fifth Avenue with stores like Saks, across from the New York Hilton, and blocks from Rockefeller Center, we were now 17 floors above Penn Station and Madison Square Garden in a much older, undeveloped area. Rather than skyscrapers that housed Corporate America, we were across from the ancient Pennsylvania Hotel, 2 blocks from the Macy’s on 34th Street, and surrounded by small buildings with everything from Pizza places to Taxidermy Supply stores as tenants. New York City was a very different place in 1989, and on the average day, 5 people were murdered, there were 9 rapes, and 194 aggravated assaults. Then there was Penn Station in our basement!
The “New” Pennsylvania Station was basically a basement establishment, under 2 Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden, having taken the place of the beautiful McKim, Mead, and White designed train station in the late 60s. On any given day, Penn Station looked more like a portal to a third world country than a prime transportation hub in New York City. If you came to work too early in the morning, you literally had to step over people, as hundreds (perhaps thousands) of homeless folks used it as a flop house! Many of them were pushed out into the surrounding streets before the commuting day started, but Penn Station was still the home to many of NYC’s best crazies! We joked about it, but there were literally people walking around in tin foils “hats” so nobody (aliens, the CIA, you name the group) could read their thoughts. On a daily basis, I’d see folks giving others furtive looks, yelling at people who were just passing by, and of course, having long animated conversations and arguments with others that nobody else could see! I always said that you could always tell the crazies from the “normal” folks, as the crazies were the ones talking to themselves. Then came Bluetooth ear buds.
In the later years, before I retired in 2016, whenever I’d venture down the 17 floors and take the escalator underground to Penn Station, there were new rules. Now, it was much harder to tell if somebody was nuts or just on the phone. Some of the crazy people were very normal looking, but now, some of the “normal” people acted as crazy as the best of the crazies! Talking in a loud voice to nobody, having explosive arguments with nobody, and making extravagant hand gestures were no longer a clue. They could be crazies, or they could be folks on their cell phones! You decide….
I was prompted to write this blog, when I saw (and heard) a lady walking down our street yesterday as I sat on our front porch in Ocean City. She was all alone, and there was no one around, and yet, she was carrying on an extensive conversation, including using body language for effect! As with my experience long ago at Penn Station…on the phone, or crazy? Remember, when you avail yourself of the latest in technology, the rest of us don’t always know!