Christmas in the City

Well, it’s that time of the year, when Hallmark and almost all other networks are hot and heavy into Christmas movies. Watching them recently has made me think about Christmases way back in the 50s when I was a kid.

My Mom’s due date was just before Christmas of 1949, but apparently I had other ideas, so I missed what could have been my first Christmas, and cheated my Dad out of a tax deduction on their 1949 taxes. At 9:15 PM, on Monday, January 2nd, 1950, I was born at Physician’s Hospital in Jackson Heights, New York. It was a neighborhood hospital that has since closed, in the Queens neighborhood that my folks lived in, and that I grew up in. If it’s possible to say this in New York City, I was born in my home town. My Mom, Lilias Chalmers Sim D’Elia was 33 years old, and my Dad, Frank Vincent D’Elia was 39 years old at the time of my birth. Both of my folks were members of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Chorus, and from her stories, this was a very different time for mothers-to-be in the workforce. Being concerned about losing her job because of her pregnancy, my Mom worked every day from the time she found out she was pregnant till I showed up. In fact, Saturday, December 31st, she did both a matinee and an evening show at the Met, and less than 48 hours later, I joined the family, and made my Mom and Dad first time parents.

The story I always heard was that when my folks got married in 1947, they were lucky to get a sublet apartment from a friend in Jackson Heights, as apparently in post World War II NYC, apartments in their price range were not easy to come by. It was a 4th floor walkup apartment in one of Jackson Height’s many Garden Apartment complexes. It had been a somewhat fancy one bedroom, one bath apartment in it’s day. It even had a dining room, and looked out over what had been manicured gardens. That dining room became my bedroom, the gardens became overgrown and neglected, and the neighborhood changed, but we lived in that sublet apartment until I was 18 years old, when we moved to Bayside. Our apartment was just slightly off Roosevelt Avenue on 84th Street, so a feature of the apartment was also the #7 elevated line running by the windows! The 82nd Street stop of the #7 train was just a 2 block walk away, and my folks could be at the Met just off Times Square in Manhattan after a 20 minute ride, so it was a very convenient distance away from work for them and it was the first home I knew.

I’ve seen lots of pictures over the years, so don’t really know when I actually start remembering Christmases, but think it was probably about 1953. Our apartment in Jackson Heights was pretty good sized, but the living room also contained a baby grand piano, a big console TV/Radio/Record Player, a large mahogany dish hutch, a couch, coffee table, an armchair, and a small pump organ. I’m sure the furniture worked out better when they’d had a dining room, but my arrival had taken that out of the equation, but we always had space for a Christmas tree…a real tree

Now, you may ask, did we drive out into the country (that would have been Long Island) and cut our tree down? Well, my Dad was a product of growing up in NYC, and didn’t even get a driver’s license till after I was born, and a car was several years later, so no. In those days in Queens, you got a tree in the neighborhood, either at an establishment that had popped up in a vacant lot, or you bought one that was leaning up against the front of the A&P or Dilberts grocery stores around the corner on Roosevelt Avenue. It was just like in the movies, but our trees never came with a wooden X on the bottom! My Mom and Dad would then carry it home, up the four flights of stairs to our apartment. I don’t know where the tradition came from, but the tradition in our house when I was growing up was that your folks put the tree up, but Santa was the one who decorated it. I remember one incredible year when it seemed to be magically decorated in minutes, but I’m sure I’d probably fallen asleep, and it just seemed like minutes! Ahhh, that Santa!

Speaking of Santa, a visit with the jolly round man was always a part of my holiday, usually at Macy’s on 34th Street, sometimes between a Met matinee and evening show. My memories are of that Toyland/Santa Village being as grand and incredible as it always looks in movies, and the toy department in Macy’s being huge. From large Lionel Train layouts, to every new toy you could think of! Of course, without the internet, we were a lot less informed than I’m sure our three Grandkids are today, but somehow, we knew about the latest from Remco, AC Gilbert, American Flyer, Lionel, or Fisher-Price, and they were always on our Christmas Lists.

One of my first Christmases, “Santa” brought me a red pedal fire engine, that I enjoyed for many years. This was also the first of the “problem” gifts I received at Christmas! Late this Christmas Eve, after my folks had done an evening performance at the Met, they opened what must have been a huge box, to assemble the truck. As my Dad put it together (probably with my Mom reading him the directions), he made an unfortunate discovery! There were only 3 wheels in the box! My Dad, ever resourceful, figuring that I should at least be able to sit in it on Christmas morning, fashioned an empty cigar box as a substitute wheel. FYI…before they went to sleep early on Christmas morning, they discovered that the missing wheel had rolled out of the box and was lodged behind the couch….Christmas was saved!

Christmas morning I found that Santa had set up a Lionel freight train under the tree, and that became a valued D’Elia Family heirloom. With a Pennsylvania Railroad steam engine (that actually puffed smoke) with coal tender, and then a box car, tanker car, gondola car, and ending in a light-up caboose, it made many passes around that tree until it eventually years later became a part of my yearly train set-up. That same little old Lionel train also made many revolutions around Susie’s and my tree in Mineola, and got to be played with by our three kids, and today it resides in North Carolina with our oldest son Bill, so the next generation of D’Elia kids can marvel at 1953 Lionel excellence!

Oh, and the presents I remember, besides that Lionel Train set. There seemed to be lots of building toys, like sets of Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, and I remember getting them all, and building incredible edifices. There were trikes and as I got older bikes (one that I couldn’t try on Christmas Day, because Santa had gotten a defective version). There were lots of Dinky Toys, and there were accessories for my trains. One year, the hot present was a slot racing set, a Lionel version of which I found under the tree…but only one car worked Christmas morning! There were also two-way radios, a crystal radio set, and other small electronics that probably were my early entry into my life in radio, but that was as far the electronic’s industry entered into those early Christmases of my life…so different from our kids and Grandkids! One “electronic” game I remembered getting was Tudor Electric Football Game! You set up the players on the field, plugged in the cord, turned it on, and a motor vibrated the playing field, and the players “magically” moved across the field…but not necessarily in the correct direction! I remember that one year I got a kid’s version of the very popular Polaroid Camera – magic! Then there were the “toys” that might seem questionable looking back from today’s world view. Things like my AC Gilbert Chemistry Set, where if you closely followed the instructions, you could produce a test tube full of truly noxious smelling material, with an odor that took days for your mother to get out of the apartment. Or the Wood Burning Kit, that allowed a young child to use a soldering iron type of tool to burn designs into balsa wood! But the worst had to be the Lead Soldier Kit, that came with molds, little lead bars, and a little plug-in electric hot plate and pot that you used to turn the bars into molten lead, that you then poured into the molds to make the soldiers. Today, that would be a lawsuit waiting to happen!

One of my main Christmas Eve memories, that I’m sure started as a convenience for my Mom and Dad long ago, is a tradition of long standing in our family. Now remember, most Christmas Eves my Mom and Dad would be getting home after 11 PM, having just done at least one opera performance (and 2 if the Eve fell on Saturday). Sometime, before I was aware of it, they started having their own quiet time celebration as they decorated the tree, assembled gifts, and set everything up. There was some food and a drink or two as they both played Santa for me (amazing how Santa and my Mom had such similar hand writing). When I got older and got to participate, the tradition became Italian Cold Cut Sandwiches and André Champagne, before I’d scurry off to bed, to get up way too early. Eventually, the opening the presents part of Christmas became a part of that Christmas Eve celebration too, as then on Christmas morning I could get up as early as I wanted to play with my gifts, while my folks could get some shut-eye, as they probably had to do a show that night! Now, we don’t open presents on Christmas Eve, but the tradition of Italian Cold Cut Sandwiches and André was a staple of our kids growing up, was something we continued to do as they became young adults, and is still something Susie and I still do, as do the kids in their own homes! It’s something that Kenny has even tried to duplicate when he’s been away from home performing on Christmas Eve, either on National Tours or even Cruise Ships! Funny how Family Traditions sometimes get started, and then endure!

So I’ll be thinking of my folks, and the Christmases of my childhood, and all those wonderful Christmas memories as we eat our sandwiches this December 24th, and probably shedding a tear or two thinking back to when I was a kid, and when Billy, Krissi and Kenny were little too! Christmas is a time for memories, and Susie and I are very blessed to have so many wonderful ones, shared with family and friends that are like family…people that we truly love! Hope you get to bathe in your Christmas memories this year, and even make some new ones! To quote the immortal words and sentiment of Clement Moore’s classic story, The Night Before Christmas………

“Happy Christmas to All, and to All a Good Night!”

This is the Army and the Story of the Box

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

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.

My Dad is the soldier on the far right

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…

Another excellent source for this period in Irving Berlin’s life, is a series of articles from the National Archives and Prologue Magazine. If you’d like to read more about this period of American History, here’s a link to the first part of the series on This is the Army.

If you’d like to see the whole scene that the picture at the beginning of this blog is taken from, here’s a link

If you’d like to see the whole movie, through the magic of the Internet, here’s a link to Irving Berlin’s, This is the Army

The Automat

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!”

My Dad and his Family

While the usual purpose of this blog is to write about adventures that Susie and I have in our life, occasionally I may deviate from that norm, because of a subject that interests me, and that I think deserves my attention. This is one of those subjects, and will contain some family info that is probably good for my kids to know.

My Dad, Frank D’Elia (no, my Mom and Dad were not too clever in the naming department), was born in New York City on October 5th, 1910. He died a couple of months after his 73rd birthday, back when our first born Billy was just a year old. That would make the year 1983, meaning that my Dad has been gone for almost 37 years. That’s the end of the story. Let me go back to the beginning of not only his story, but of the D’Elia Family in America.

According to records we’ve found in Ancestry.Com , my Dad’s Father, my Grandfather, Francesco Vincenzo D’Elia was born on January 16, 1872 in Tegiano, Italy, a little mountain town about 90 miles outside of Naples. As an aside, in 1971, when I graduated college, my Mom and Dad and I traveled for 5 weeks in Europe. We flew from New York to Cologne, Germany, where we picked up a little red Ford Capri, which we drove all over for the next 5 weeks before having it shipped home. We went down one side of the Italian boot, and up the other, and when we were in Naples, we journeyed one day to Tegiano. In the summer of 1971, Tegiano was still a sleepy little mountain town, and not one that was used to seeing tourists. When we drove into town in a bright red sports car, and my blonde Mom got out of the car, we could tell that there were lots of eyes on us from behind curtains. Thankfully, my Dad spoke fluent Italian, so we went to the church and he spoke to the priest and inquired about his family. While we may have felt isolated being D’Elias in America, turns out that almost everyone in Tegiano shared our last name, even the parish priest. My Dad gave the priest whatever information he had on his father, and it was enough for him to tell which of the D’Elias he was related to, and to tell my Dad that the last of his relatives had moved to South America..or so he said. It was interesting to step back in time, because with the exception of a couple of cars, I doubt Tegiano had changed much since my Grandfather was born, almost 100 years before.


I knew the story of my Grandfather having two families, and my Dad being part of the second one, but didn’t know as many details prior to Ancestry. I also hadn’t heard of all these children, so I assume that some of the babies died shortly after their birth, as all the children from the “first family” were born in the 1800s, and were thus considerably older that those in the second family. The first born, “Joe” (born in 1893), was dead before I was born, but always was revered as the family’s “Older Brother”. He owned a taxicab, and was one of the more mobile members of the D’Elia Family in those early days. The daughter Mary, who was born in 1895, was my Aunt Mamie, a wonderful lady who lived with her husband Frank in Lynbrook when I was a kid. They were fun people, but I don’t think either of them was even 5 feet tall! They got club soda delivered in squirt bottles and always let a little kid (me) play with it! The next daughter, Rose, was born in 1897, who was my Aunt Rose who lived up in the Bronx when I was a kid. So, there were three children who were under 7 years of age when Rafaela died in 1990. The two names that I didn’t know, and assumed died in childbirth or shortly after, were Anna in 1896 and Angelina in 1900. No details, but since Angelina was born in 1900 and Rafaela died in 1900, I’m going to assume the two events were connected.

Now, let’s go back to a bit of “Family Lore” before we delve into some more facts from Ancestry. I’d always heard from my Dad and his brothers and sisters, the story about how my Grandfather married the babysitter, and started family number 2. Turns out, it’s true. My Grandmother, Anna Marino, was born in New York City on December 24, 1886. Not quite a year after the death of his first wife, my Grandfather married Anna on July 11, 1901. The story I’d always heard is that one day my Grandfather went to my Grandmother’s Catholic School and told the Mother Superior that he was there to take Anna Marino out of school. When she asked him why, he said that he’d just married her, and she had to stay home and take care of his children. If you haven’t done the math yet, let me help you. On July 11, 1901 when they got married, Anna had not yet had her 15th birthday! He was 29 and she was 14 on their wedding day!! Obviously, a different time!

Together they had eight children in the following order. Margaret (my Aunt Margie) was born in 1907, followed by Cono (my uncle Coonie) in 1908, then my Dad in 1910, followed by my Aunt Jean in 1912, Raphaela (my Aunt Ray) in 1914, Antoinette (my Aunt Nettie) in 1917, my Uncle John in 1918, and the baby of the family, my Uncle Tom in 1923. My Dad always said that he was from a family of 13, but I could never understand that, because when I added the 3 from the first family, and the 8 from the second, I got 11. Adding in the two children that there are no records available beyond their birth, we get to the number 13.

My Father was born in Manhattan, in Little Italy on October 5, 1910. At the time of his birth, his Dad was 38 and his Mom was 23. I don’t have a lot of details of those early years beyond stories I heard from my Dad. I know that he was baptized at the Roman Catholic Church of the Transfiguration on Mott Street, which today is in the heart of New York’s Chinatown, and that serves a mainly Chinese community. It has been a Catholic Church since the middle of the 19th century, calling itself the “Church of Immigrants”, and over the years has served Irish, Italian, and now Chinese populations in the area.

Over the years, I heard lots of stories from my Dad, about his growing up years. I know that my Grandfather was a Junk Man, and my Dad said he rode around with a horse and wagon picking things up. Not sure how secure an occupation that was back then, but can’t imagine the family was doing very well financially at all. I remember stories my Dad told me about his Mom having to go down to the green grocer, and buy day old produce, and soak it in cold water to bring some life back into it. I remember him telling me that he painted a huge room in the house one day with just one can of paint, that he kept extending, so the color of the room changed as he painted. The D’Elia Family’s story sounds like one typical of the Depression Era, but it apparently never stopped them from having children, as 5 more kids came into the world after my Dad!

By the 1920 Census, the D’Elias were living in Brooklyn and there were now 7 children in the family. Money continued to be tight, and after completing 8th grade, my Dad left school, and worked to help support the family. I heard stories about him selling pretzels in the park, and I know that he worked for a number of years as a clerk/messenger down in the Wall Street area. In later years, he was a wonderful tour guide for that area that he’d walk daily doing that job. This was, however, not to be his life’s work.

I have no idea how, and now I’m very sorry I never asked him why, but my father from a young age decided that he wanted to be an Opera Singer, not a normal expectation from someone from his neighborhood or standing in life! He started singing lessons very early with a woman who believed he had the talent to indeed be an opera singer, and she took him under her wing. Her name was Madame Novelli, and although I never met her, I heard stories about her from an early age. She really thought my Dad had something to be nurtured, and she practically adopted him, played a huge part in his life and in him becoming who he grew up to be. I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic when I say that she saved his life! I’d heard not only my Dad, but the rest of his family talk about “Madame” in reveered terms.

In 1936, my Dad’s father died at the age of 64, and was buried in the huge Catholic Calvary Cemetery (365 acres) in the Woodside section of Queens. There are two stories I remember hearing from my Dad concerning this period of the D’Elia Family’s life. Both made a lasting impression on me. The first had to do with what my Dad did after he lost his father. He was 26 years old at the time, and I’m going to assume very Italian! I say this because the story is that every day for weeks, he’d travel by bus from the family’s home in Brooklyn to visit his father’s grave. Rain or shine, nice weather or bitter winter snows, if he could get there, he went. The results? He caught pneumonia, and was very sick. I don’t know if he told me that story to point out how the older Frank thought his younger self to be foolish to have done what he did, but that’s the message I was left with, and why we’ve only been a brief handful of times to my father’s grave. In my mind, my Dad lives in my heart and my thoughts, and not in a box in a piece of ground. I can visit him any time I want…and I do!

The second story had to do with how distraught my Grandmother was at the death of her husband, and how the family needed to move out of their Brooklyn apartment and the neighborhood where everything reminded her of her late husband. In what was probably a huge move, they crossed the Brooklyn/Queens line, and rented a house just off Metropolitan Ave in Forest Hills. This was a much needed development in the family’s life, and a way to try and get out from under the grief of their father’s passing, but couldn’t have been easy, as the D’Elia Family was still in the throws of the Depression. I’m not sure what, if anything, anybody else in the family was doing, but know my Dad had some WPA work, singing on radio shows and the like, in addition to doing a little work with Madame Novelli as her “secretary”. Just as everything was settling down, another huge problem was thrown in their path. They had spent everything they could scrape together to make this move and to afford the rent on the Forest Hills house, and after a month, the landlord said they had to move out because he wanted to sell the house!

Faced with this new dilemma, my Dad took the bull by the horns, and arranged to buy the house for his family! Madame Novelli came to his aid, over representing the “work” he did for her, and making it into a full time job. It was enough to get a bank to approve a loan, and now the D’Elia Family was safe in their new home…if my Dad was able to come up with the monthly mortgage payments! But life goes on!

Late in the 1930s, my Dad auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, and was hired as a member for the 1940/41 season at the huge sum of $75 a week. The season was short in those days, running only from late fall to early spring, but $75 a week must have felt like a fortune to him. What with the recent family home purchase in Forest Hills, NY, I’m sure that this job and it’s paycheck took a lot of pressure off him. However, the outside world entered his life in the form of a draft notice. He went down to his local draft board to try and get an extension through the end of the Met’s season, and was told by the gentleman he spoke to, “It’s you kind of jerks that wouldn’t sign up if Hitler was marching down Fifth Avenue!” I have no way of knowing if this really happened, but the way my Dad told the story, his reply was, “If Hitler is marching down Fifth Avenue, I doubt if a short fat Italian Opera singer is going to make much difference!” True or not, he got his extension, and was able to finish his first season at the Met!

Knowing the way the government worked, my Dad expected he’d have a gun in his hands and be shooting at Germans in short order. I can just imagine his surprise when he was ordered to Camp Upton on Long Island and detailed to Irving Berlin’s All Soldier Show, “This is the Army.” He spent the war performing on Broadway for six months, spending six months in Hollywood making the movie of the show, and then the rest of the war traveling the world, performing for soldiers up and down the Italian peninsula, all over Africa and the Middle East, and island hoping through the Pacific. Sometimes they were in big theaters, sometimes they were close to enemy lines, performing on makeshift stages. Their mission was morale, and at the end of the war, the entire company received awards for having done much for the morale of the soldiers, sailors, and marines they’d performed for.

He was mustered out of the US Army, just in time to start rehearsals for the Met’s new season, and after 4+ years in the service, had no clothes that fit, and came to work that first day in his uniform. And that was the day he met my Mom, but then that’s a story for yet another day!

Ocean City, NJ..Part 1


My Mom and Dad on the 32nd Street Beach in Ocean City in the 50s

Are you lucky enough to have a special place, a sanctuary, where you can go to recharge your batteries, or to hide from the world?   A place that’s populated with family or friends that feel like family?  A happy place that just getting to, no matter what your mood, makes you feel happy?  Well, Susie and I do, and it’s Ocean City, New Jersey!  Ocean City is located on a barrier island, accessible from the New Jersey mainland by 4 bridges.  It is the largest and northern most city in Cape May County, deep in the heart of the southern Jersey Shore.  But never confuse our Jersey Shore, for the Jersey Shore you see on television.  What we love about the place is that in the summer it’s a thriving summer resort, when the population swells to 150,000, but in the winter time is a lovely little town with a resident population of just under 12,000.   What we really love is the friends and the life we have there, and the feeling of happiness that washes over us every time we drive across the 9th Street Bridge!  Ocean City is now our forever home, and here’s how we got here!

 Our family’s association with Ocean City started the summer of 1955, when I was 5 years old.  My Mom and Dad sang in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, and although the job of a singer in the Metropolitan Opera Chorus may seem glamorous, in the early 50s the Met’s season was less than 30 weeks long.  That meant that my Mom and Dad only got paid for 30 weeks of work a year, and we survived the rest of the year courtesy of New York State Unemployment Insurance.   Not exactly the kind of financial background that led to summers in the Hamptons, but when I was 5 years old, a financial background that allowed us to spend most of that summer and the next 5 at the shore! 

 Another married couple who sang at the Met were from Philadelphia, and as such knew the Jersey Shore very well.  So well that their family had a home in Ocean City. Founded in the late 1800s by 4 Methodist ministers as a Christian seaside resort, Ocean City in the mid 50s was still a dry town and a place where businesses closed because of Sunday Blue Laws.  They called it, America’s Greatest Family Resort and did all they could to prove that it was true.  A great family friendly boardwalk, two and a half miles of white sandy beaches, and a small town attitude were what they were selling, and we were buying!  Of course, based on my folk’s finances, we weren’t buying too much, but I sure enjoyed those summers!



3220 Asbury Avenue

Their friends Walter and Kathy’s family had an old summer cottage in the 3200 block of Asbury Avenue, and Dorothy, their next door neighbor, rented rooms.  Well, we spent those wonderful summers in Ocean City in a rented room and as so many folks say when they look to save money on a resort room, all we did was sleep in it!  Two different days of each week my Mom and Dad would need to head back to Queens to sign up for that week’s unemployment benefit.  On Tuesday my Dad would take an early bus from the Public Service Bus Terminal on 9th Street, be at the Unemployment office for his 1 PM appointment, and then head back to Ocean City late in the day.  Every Wednesday afternoon we’d drop my Mom off at the bus terminal and she’d do the same thing, but since her appointment time was first thing Thursday morning, she’d spend the night at our apartment in Jackson Heights, and then sign for her check the next morning and be back in Ocean City just after lunch.   They did that every week we were in Ocean City and netted a combined amount that was under $80.


The Public Service Bus Station on 9th Street in Ocean City 

Looking back on it now, I’m sure that as a family we were on the lowest rung financially of folks who were summering at the beach, but we were summering at the beach, and frankly, we may have been doing it on the cheap, but I never knew it!  Our days were spent at the beach in the sun and the waves.  An inflatable raft that was bought at Hoys was my prize possession, and it entertained me every day better than the most expensive video game!  A sandwich wrapped in wax paper and as a real treat, a 2 cent pretzel from the beach stand at the 32nd Street Beach schmeered with mustard, and I was happy.  My only concern was how long after eating did I have to stay out of my beloved Atlantic Ocean! 

 By the time night came, I was exhausted from a day in the waves, and I’m sure more FCA5D283-AE28-4639-B1E2-FE76B994E017interested in sleeping than eating, so simple fare for our evening meal was fine with me.  It could be pizza or a hot dog during an occasional outing on the boardwalk, or a quick meal cooked in our communal kitchen.  What I do remember was nights sitting on the big front porch of the house watching the world go by on Asbury Avenue.  Dorothy’s house was just across Asbury from Campbell’s Seafood take-out, an Ocean City landmark for many years, and I’d amuse myself watching the customers head in and out of the parking lot.  This really became a sport on Fridays, as this was back in the days of meatless Fridays for Catholics and Campbell’s business would double!  Even the adults watched those nights!

 Occasionally there were special nights when dinner was a night out at Watson’s on 9th Street, or Chris’ Seafood Restaurant and Fish Market on the bay at the foot of the 9th Street Bridge, or perhaps Sim’s on the boardwalk.  Honestly, I do not remember much about the food at Watson’s, but I do remember that anytime you went there for dinner, you had a long wait, and I’ll always be able to picture in my mind people sitting in white Adirondack chairs waiting to be called for dinner.  I remember Sim’s as the typical seafood restaurant of the 50s, where I only ate fried flounder!   The one I do remember is Chris’, not so much for the seafood which was caught on their own boats and sent all over the country, but for what happened after dinner.  Everyone who ate there got a ticket for a free sightseeing ride on on of their boats, and the one you always wanted to be on was the Flying Saucer!  A 75 foot wooden converted PT boat from World War II, the Flying Saucer would take up to 125 passengers on a ride out of the inlet and then for a wild wave jumping trip into the ocean.  Now that was the way to end a meal!!


After six glorious summers spent in Ocean City, my folks started working at the Cincinnati Summer Opera, and our summers went in another direction.  After that, there were occasional trips to Ocean City, but just for a day or two. We never again spent the summer at the beach.

To be continued….don’t you hate when they do that!


Summers at the Beach

imageIn 1955, when I was 5 years old, we first came to a Jersey Shore town I have come to think of as my home away from home, Ocean City, NJ. Growing up and still living on Long Island, over the past 61 years I have been asked time and time again, “You live on Long Island, and you go to a Jersey Shore beach?”. Well, the story is simple. In 1955, both my Mom and Dad were singers in New York’s Metropolitan Opera’s Chorus. In those days, the Met’s season was very short…something like 40 weeks including rehearsals and the spring tour. The rest of the year, they got by courtesy of New York State Unemployment Benefits. So, with all this time off in the summer, and having a 5 year old child, it was the Summer of 1955 that they took the advice of people they worked with in the Met Chorus, and the D’Elia Family journeyed to Ocean City.

Walter and Kathy were another married couple in the Met, and my Mom and Kathy had been friends in Chicago. Walter, on the other hand, was a Philly boy, and his family had a summer cottage on Asbury Avenue and 32 Street in Ocean City. They arranged for us to rent a room next door in Dorothy’s “boarding house”, and for the next 5 summers, Ocean City, NJ was our address! I grew up on the beach and boardwalk of Ocean City, forever forming in my mind the image of a beach town in Ocean City’s likeness.

The story of our connection to Ocean City picks up in the spring of 1980, shortly after Susie and I were married. After those first 5 years, my Mom and Dad started working more during the summer, and our trips to Ocean City were few and far between. After being away for years, in 1980, Susie and I came down to sample the new gambling Mecca, Atlantic City, and our trip included a wonderful trip down memory lane for me in Ocean City, wandering through town and on the boardwalk, and that was the beginning of an ongoing relationship between Ocean City and our family.

Every summer, since 33 year old Bill’s first in 1983, the D’Elia Family has spent part of every summer in Ocean City! When his younger sister and brother, Krissi and Kenny came along in 1986, we continued our tradition of having babies on the beach and boardwalk of this great town. Some years we were able to rent a house for a week or two, some years it was a couple of day’s stay in a motel, and other years we camped in our Pop-Up trailer just off the island on Route 9, and made day and night trips to our beach town. Then, 11 years ago, in January of 2005, something changed for us. Thanks to a fortuitous real estate deal in Las Vegas, Susie and I found ourselves in a position to live out our dream, and we did! For the past 11 years, we have been proud owners of our dream home, on Pennlyn Place in Ocean City, NJ. Since then, weekends, spring weeks, summer weeks, holiday vacations, and whatever time we could steal have been spent here.

Then something else changed for us on January 29th, 2016…I retired and joined Susie, who had already left the work world, and now our time was ours, and less others. Now, what would you do if you owned a beach house? Yep, spend as much time there as you could!! So the past 4 months have found us traveling as much time as possible to Ocean City. Our trip down to Florida in late February did take some time away, and unfortunately the rather cold spring we’ve suffered through, and some ongoing health issues with Susie’s Mom has prevented us from having the kind of first spring in Ocean City I dreamed about, but all in all, it has been great! We no longer have to travel back and forth on the weekend, the beach is still only 500 feet down the street, so we go whenever we want, our great neighbors and friends are still steps away, and our life is settling into the routine we’ve dreamed about for years. It’s mid June, our daily dress is shorts, T-shirts, and flip flops, and we’re already tan…what could be better!!

One of the best parts of having a place that you love is being able to share it with people you love, and this past weekend was a banner example of that! Early Saturday morning, our oldest son Bill, his wife Lori and our two beautiful grandkids Layla and Henry joined us at the shore. They brought with them our favorite daughter, Layla and Henry’s Aunt Krissi, and the family was almost complete!! (Just missing youngest son Kenny, who is presently performing on a cruise ship in the Caribbean…not a bad deal!) It was a great weekend!

We could get very use to having these little shoes in our house!

We could get very used to having these little shoes in our house!

Layla is a little over 2 years old and such a beautiful little person. Henry is just shy of 8 months and starting to crawl. What a wonderful continuation of family tradition to see these two beautiful children in a place that I still so remember their Dad in at their ages. After the excitement of Layla exploring the house, finding her room, and helping Daddy unload the car, it was time to get changed and get to the beach. First there was a trip down to the water, and although it was cold, Layla would have stood there all day. Each time the ripple of water would wash over her feet, she laughed and splashed and loved it. Then it was sand castle time. She and Daddy dug a big hole, Dad went and got the obligatory pails of water, and Layla had a great time dumping them into the hole. Then all thoughts of sand castles disappeared and Layla discovered it was more fun to stand in the hole and have Daddy bury her legs in the sand. Meanwhile, Henry was busy keeping Aunt Krissi, Mommy and Grandma on guard, as his real desire seemed to be to get down on his knees and crawl all over Pennlyn Place Beach! And what was I doing you may ask? Taking pictures, watching the unfolding family tableau, and smiling ear to ear!

By afternoon, it was time to get the kids back to the house and prepare everyone for a trip to the boardwalk. On Layla’s agenda was some french fries (perhaps this little girl’s favorite food), and rides! Sounded like a solid plan to me, so as soon as the 7 of us were changed, off we went! One of the great parts of the location of our house, is that we just need to walk down the block, get on the boardwalk, turn right and walk 6 blocks south, and we’re at the commercial part of the Ocean City Boardwalk! As we walked by Wonderland Pier, Goofy Golf, Johnson’s Pop Corn, and the Old Time Photo place, my son Bill’s plan became clear. “How ‘bout we head down to Hamburger Construction Company and then go next door to Playland?” Playland is one of the two large amusement park areas on our boardwalk and Hamburger Construction Company has been a favorite meal stop for the D’Elias since Bill was Layla’s age!



The kids have a great stroller that both Henry and Layla can ride in, and that made the mile or so trip down the boardwalk easier, as it would have taken a toll on those little legs of our Granddaughter…lord knows it was taking enough of a toll on her Grandparents’ legs, but we did survive and landed at Hamburger Construction Company! As we sat down, stretching across 2 booths in the back, suddenly I was back in the early 90s, and was sitting there with my kids and not my grandkids! That’s the great thing about Ocean City…some things just never change! The cheese steaks, chicken cheese steaks, french fries, birch beer, and even Layla’s hot dog were exactly like I remember when it was our little kids ordering. Heck, the same guy is even still manning the grill…he’s no longer the young life guard looking stud I remember, but it’s him! About the only thing that seemed different was the Garbage Fries that Bill ordered. A paper plate of fries, cheese sauce on top, and then it’s topped with cheese steak meat and fried peppers! Looked good…but I didn’t try it!

imageThen it was time for the rides! First was the Merry-Go-Round, where Layla, Mom, Dad, and Aunt Krissi selected horses and enjoyed their ride, while Grandma and Grandpa watched a sleeping Henry. Layla’s next choice was the helicopter that Daddy went on with her. Luckily, there was a bigger seat in the back for Dad to sit in, and Layla loved going round and round, especially when Daddy showed her that if she pulled the handle back, the ship went up in the air! After that, she and Dad sat down at a water gun shooting game called Stinky Feet, and they won a stuffed tiger for Layla. Then Layla and Aunt Krissi went on a ride that spun and went up and down and Layla was all smiles…Aunt Krissi not so much! Next, Layla picked the surf buggy car ride, and everyone could go on this…even Henry. Layla liked it…no comment from Henry! (Grandma and Grandpa babysat the stroller!) After that it was a ride on the train, but as it only made a small circle, that didn’t seem to be a favorite….I think Henry slept through it! The last ride was another car ride that she wanted Aunt Krissi to go on with her. It looked harmless enough, but when it started up, we realized it was a new incarnation of a ride that her Dad loved when he was little that was called The Whip. Layla loved it as the ride “whipped” you around the corner and she laughed at every spin. The look on our daughter’s face when she got “whipped” around at every corner gave us the clear indication that Layla enjoyed it more than Aunt Krissi!!

The Merry D'Elia Family at Playland

The Merry D’Elia Family at Playland

Then it was inside to the arcade and a few games before we headed home. Daddy showed Layla one of his favorites that has not changed a bit since he was her age, the Shooting Gallery. Populated with tomb stones, crows, old bottles, rail road signs, and even a “green guy in a box” (a younger Billy’s description), the object is to hit the electronic bullseye with your rifle “shot” and make things move or make noise. While Daddy was transported back in time by taking his turn with the rifle, Layla didn’t seem to be thrilled and moved on to play some Skee Ball with Mommy and Aunt Krissi. Meanwhile, Grandpa decided to put a $10 bill in the coin changer…I’ve still got about $8.50 in quarters…anyone need change?


“Sit on the couch Grandma, next to me.”

The kids (and the old folks) were getting tired, so after a brief stop over at Kohr Brothers for some ice cream, it was back to the house. Why is it that when you are walking like this, the return trip always seems longer? Could it be that it was late afternoon and the temperature had been steadily rising and the sun was out in full force? Could it be that we’d just spent several hours walking all over the boardwalk and Playland? Could it be we’re not used to keeping up with a two year old? Well, whatever the reason, we all made it home in one piece, and everyone started showering and changing. Grandma was done first, and was sitting on the front porch couch when her favorite Grand Daughter came out all sparkly clean in her cute jammies and put her little chair right next to the couch so she could sit with Grandma. As the rest of us would come and go, Susie would occasionally get up to do something and Layla would say, “sit on the couch Grandma, next to me.”.

Layla had a little bagel with “dip dip” (cream cheese) and Henry had a bottle, and before long we had two pooped kids who were ready for bed. There were kisses and hugs all around, and the little guys went off to bed. Then it was time for the adults to decide what to eat for dinner (take-out seafood won out) and what card game to play (May I was the game of choice). Unfortunately, the day had taken it’s toll on us too, and we never got through the entire game before it became night-night for us too!

I woke up the next morning to the smell of coffee, and as I opened the bedroom door, Layla looked up from picking up her little shoes in the living room and said , “Grandpa’s up”. Just thinking back to that moment and hearing those words, I have a big smile on my face. You love your kids with all your heart, but there is just something about that little girl, her beautiful face, and adorable voice. She owns my heart!

Unfortunately, Henry hadn’t had a good night and was all stuffed up and on top of that, Daddy’s work phone had been exploding because of the Orlando shooting, so it looked like Sunday was going to have to be cut short, but in the end, that didn’t matter. We loved having two of our three kids and our daughter-in-law with us and we really loved seeing the littlest D’Elias on our beach and boardwalk, and seeing the D’Elia Family’s love of Ocean City continue for another generation! All around just a great time, but Susie and I both agreed that having children is definitely a young person’s game. We were exhausted, but as our summers at the beach go on, these kids (and hopefully more) will get older and they will love visiting Grandma and Grandpa at the beach as much as we love having them!! If our plans work out as we hope, by this time next year, this Ocean City house will be our permanent home, and there will be lots more visits in the future as we all grow older. Till then, we have great memories of a wonderful weekend to start off our first summer at the beach!