Maury Z. Levy

John Facenda: When Times Were Tough

In Philadelphia Magazine (1970-1980) on September 9, 2009 at 8:19 pm

By Maury Z. Levy

The Italians call it polenta. And if you mix it up really 
good with a big heavy spoon, you really can’t tell what 
it is. Which is probably better because all that mattered 
was that it went into your stomach and that it filled you 
up and that it kept you warm.

In the later days, when times were good, they would 
make it with bits of pork and bits of sausage and bacon 
and things like that. And real milk. But that was a good 
time off. In 1934, in West Philadelphia, on Chancellor 
Street near 55th, they mixed it with water and leftovers 
and bits of scrap they stole from the dish of the dog. But 
you couldn’t afford to stop and think about where it came 
from or what was in it. Only that it kept you from going 
hungry and that it was cheap. A lot of this doesn’t mean 
anything if you were born in the past 30 years or so. Sure, maybe the new Depression has you worried about 
the price of meat. The people who lived in this town, or 
tried to, back in 1934 didn’t worry much about the price 
of meat. Actually, meat wasn’t expensive. But it didn’t 
really matter, because when you’ve got no money in the 
first place, when you’re forced to steal a couple of lumps of coal to keep the furnace going, when you’re the 75th 
guy in the soup line and the kitchen closes in 20 minutes, 
you tend not to worry about such worldly things as the 
price of meat.

A lot of people suffered in 1934; they suffered from a 
lot of things. They were bad times, times a lot of people 
would like to forget but can’t because growling stomachs 
leave scars. And just in case you think you’re having it 
really rough now because the price of gasoline for your 
second car has doubled, maybe it wouldn’t hurt you to 
look at some of the pictures that follow, or listen to a 
report of the times by a man whose reporting has made 
him a legend in Philadelphia, a man who lived through 
and worked through and managed to survive 1934 and 
the few years before and the many years after.

JOHN FACENDA WAS GOING to school then, to school at 
Villanova on a scholarship because that was the only way 
he could afford it. His father, an engineer, a professional 
man, wanted his son to be one, too. But Facenda’s voice 
became his profession. He was destined to become the top 
newsman in town at WCAU. But then, to earn some pocket money and to help 
keep some polenta on the table, he was working two jobs while he was going to school. He figures he put in a good 
90 hours a week between the old Public Ledger and his first announcing job at wit’. He was making $18.75 a week 
in radio. He remembers it well. Reporting the strike stories, the labor violence, 
the political convention. He worked hard for his money, for his $18.75. 
”Today,” he says, “a booth announcer 
makes that much for saying ‘Sears sale starts tomorrow.'”

Facenda remembers the bad times and the good times, but mostly the bad 
times. And how people rallied to make 
them good. “It was the most difficult 
thing in the world,” he says, “although 
nobody really thought that they were 
poor because everybody else was in the 
same boat. It wasn’t a question of any 
disparity between a Cadillac and a push cart. It seemed that everybody 
had the push cart.”

Facenda says that one of the things 
that impressed him most as a boy 
growing into manhood was how hard 
it must have been for parents in those 
days. “To go to bed not knowing what 
you were going to put on the table 
the next day for the kids. And to wake 
up the next morning realizing there 
wasn’t enough food to go around, I can even remember my mother sacrificing her own meals so the kids could 
eat. She would say she had a little
ageda, a little acid in her stomach, and 
that she wasn’t really hungry anyway, only because she knew there wasn’t 
enough for all of us, for her and for my father and. for my six brothers 
and sisters. I’ll never forget that, 
watching my mother go hungry so the 
kids could eat and grow. The memory 
has helped me realize the fact that there are a lot of things besides bread 
alone that man lives by.”

The Facenda family came to Philadelphia from Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1926, the year of the Sesquicentennial, a year when the good times 
rolled. And when things got tough, everybody pitched in.

“A couple of the girls were old 
enough to work in the department 
stores, making peanuts,” he remembers. “And that helped keep us going. 
But the old man became ill, and that 
made it even rougher.”

Young Facenda saw the Depression 
take a heavy toll on his father’s spirit 
and health. There was little work for 
engineers because no one was building very much. And his health fell on 
bad times and he got old. But John 
Facenda tries not to remember that. 
That was one way a lot of people 
made it through the Depression, living the good with the bad, but trying 
to remember only the good. His memories of his father are good and proud.

“He was one of the most handsome 
son-of-a-guns I’ve ever met in my life. 
Six-foot-four, blond, blue-eyed, spoke 
three or four languages, played four 
or five instruments. He was quite a 
man. I’ll always remember him like 
that.”

The Depression was an economic 
state—an unbeatable one, it seemed at 
the time. But coping with it was a state of mind, if you had the mind to. 
”There was a tremendously warm 
feeling among all the people we knew
in West Philadelphia, because we 
were all in the same boat, everybody 
was struggling, but still in all, there was a great deal of kindness and courtesy and understanding among the people. Particularly neighbors.

“They all pitched in together and 
shared. If somebody made some bread 
and you didn’t get a loaf of it, you 
got half a loaf. Thank God they gave 
you that. Or if someone made a big 
pot of soup, everybody got a few ladlesful.

“And the pathetic sight of just seeing so many people without things. 
Grown men and women, proud men 
and women, having to ask for handouts to survive. The children didn’t 
mind it so much because they didn’t 
know any different. Everybody was in clothes that were hand-me-downs. I don’t think I ever wore a pair of 
pants or a shirt that was bought for me.”

There was little money to spend on such luxuries as clothing. And things were getting tougher. Facenda had to 
drop out of Villanova for a while because he couldn’t afford it, even 
though he was on scholarship.

“The tuition in those days was a 
small amount,” he says, “but there still were the necessary fees for drafting, chemistry and physics. And an athletic fee. And I couldn’t even go 
to a football game because I had to work on Saturdays. And I couldn’t 
engage in any of the social aspects of 
campus life because I didn’t have the 
money or the dress for it.”

His father, when he could get the 
work, made $65 a week as a construction engineer. “But most of the time 
they were tearing buildings down and 
making parking lots out of them. An awful lot of people who were engineers took jobs as floor walkers in department stores. All these great men who had built bridges to Alaska and 
railroads to South America were reduced to whatever would pay them 
an honest dollar.

“There wasn’t any real resentment 
of the government. There couldn’t be. 
At least they tried to give people apples to sell on the corners. At least the 
soup kitchens were open.”

At a time when material things were hard to come by, the church became a gathering spot, a last outpost 
for hope. “My mother and father were 
very religious people, as were my 
older sisters and brothers. They found 
quite a bit of comfort in that. Certainly more so than today. Because 
now the churches are starting to question their own usefulness. In those 
days, they never did. But it was hard. 
There were pennies in the collection 
plate on Sunday. They couldn’t do a 
hell of a lot with that.

“A lot of people found comfort 
from within, and from each other. My family had always been close-knit, 
but those times helped bring us even 
more together.

“At nights we would listen to the radio for a little while and then usually play some games. We used to 
play some sort of a word game, because my father, God love him, had 
more sense than we did. To keep us 
interested, to keep our minds off 
our growling stomachs and tattered 
clothes, he would invent a game of 
cards. He wrote a subject matter on 
each card. We would sit around the dinner table or sometimes in the living room and we would each take a 
card from the deck. And when it got to be your turn, you had to talk on the 
subject matter of the card for a minute. You would ad lib on it in both 
English and Italian. No one could 
offer anything unless it was constructive. It was not a time for negative 
talk.

“That kept us occupied and it kept 
us together. A lot of other families 
broke up. Men had to leave the area 
to find jobs. Children ran away from 
home to seek a better world that 
wasn’t there. But we got by.

“Gasoline was selling very, very 
cheaply then,” Facenda says, “but 
who had a car? Bikes were very prevalent. And a lot of skates. The kids 
got them because there was no traffic 
on the streets.

“Most entertainment was cheap 
then, too. Movies, especially. They 
were great escapes. And people who 
wanted to get away from the reality 
of what was happening to them and to their families went to the movies. 
But we never went that much. Even 
though it was only 15 cents on Saturdays, we had more important things 
to do with 15 cents. When we did go 
out, we sometimes went to a baseball 
game. Admission was cheap there, 
too. We’d sit in the bleachers at old Shibe Park on a Saturday afternoon 
and we’d watch Jimmy Foxx pop them 
onto 21st Street. It was a different 
world. It was something to cheer 
about.”

John Facenda reported the sports news back then, back in the days of 
one-man radio operations. But he re­members the harder stories the most. 
The formation of unions and the severe labor violence that followed. The 
economy and where it was going. 
Those were the big stories of 1934. 
Sure, there was unrest in Europe, but 
that was so far away. “What counted was what went on in your own house, 
on your block and in your neighbor­
hood. The world was a lot smaller 
for a while.”

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