Maury Z. Levy

Posts Tagged ‘philadelphia’

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 Read the rest of this entry »

‘If You Didn’t Buy Your Suit at Krass Brothers, You Wuz Robbed!’

In Philadelphia Magazine (1970-1980) on September 9, 2009 at 3:47 pm

By Maury Z. Levy

They were buying clothes like it was going out of style. The shirts were piled on the floor in the boxes 
they came in, and these guys who came in off of South Street were 
grabbing them like they were being given away. All the while Frank Sinatra leaned on the wall and smiled. A rubber chicken hung from the ceiling.

“That’s why it’s called the Store of 
the Stars,” Benny Krass said. “Just 
look at all those pictures on the wall. Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin, Eddie Fisher, Johnny Mathis. They’ve all been in here.

“When we opened this store, back in 1948, it had show business written all over it. My brother Jack, who is deceased at the present time, knew Sammy Davis Jr. and I knew Jack E. Leonard. Good old fat Jack. Say, did I tell you how Jack E. Leonard described this place? He said the decor was Early American Junk.

“And he was as right then as he is 
now. People keep saying to me, ‘Benny, why don’t you spruce the place up a little? A coat of paint, 
maybe.’ You know what I tell them? I tell them, look, we’ve got very clean bathrooms and the heat and the lights work, but the rest of the place, well, we’re not interested in selling furniture. We’re in the clothing business 
here.

“Jackie Gleason talked about this place on national television. ‘If you took the dust off the walls,’ he said, ‘he place would collapse.’ Good old Jackie. What a great pal. Say, are you 
going to Harlow’s party?”

Benny Krass is a self-made Philadelphia legend. He is currently in his 
second life. If you watch any television, you’ve probably seen him. His 
commercials only last ten seconds, but they’re what you call your hard sell. 
They are, of course, written and produced by Benny Krass, who is also 
the star. The first spot ran locally in 
1965 on the Johnny Carson show.  It
 featured Benny Krass pointing straight 
into the camera and yelling, “If you didn’t buy your suit at Krass Brothers, you wuz robbed!”

Over the years, the commercials have evolved into a highly technological folk art form. A couple of years 
ago, Benny Krass started using props. In one, he points at the camera, shouts, “If you don’t buy your clothes 
from Krass Brothers, you’re chicken!”, and is immediately bombarded by dozens of rubber chickens. One of the 
more memorable of the recent crop opens up with a shot of a stately coffin. And up from the dead pops Benny Krass, still pointing, still shouting, 
”If you gotta go, go in a Krass Brothers suit!”

“Those TV ads are hitting eight million people,” he says. “And you’d be surprised at how many people are coming back to the store. We lost a lot of people when everybody started moving out to the suburbs. But now they’re coming back because the prices out there are just too darn high. I recognize men who were brought here by their fathers. Now they’re bringing 
their sons back.”

Krass Brothers was a men’s store before there were men’s stores. This was back when you couldn’t walk down South Street without having a tailor run out of his shop, grab you by the back of the neck, pull you into the store and fit you up for a suit before you could tell him you were on your 
way to the drugstore. South Street then was the poor man’s Saville Row.

The Krass Brothers’ father had a shop just down the block. They were brought up in the business. They lived right on top of it. And the three of them, when it came time to go out 
on their own, set up shop at 937. It was like nothing anyone had ever 
seen before.

You couldn’t really call it a department store, and it was much too big 
to be just a men’s store. It was just a whole new world.

“We were one floor, one price,” Benny Krass says, “doing discount 
business with a basic turnover in merchandise that wasn’t sterile. It was 
always fashionable.”

If there’s a kid in South Philadelphia who grew up in the ’50s and 
says he didn’t buy a suit from Krass Brothers, he’s a liar. You got your first 
one at the boys’ store across the street and then grew up to the men’s store. Where else in this city could you get a whole suit for $39.95 with a belt in the back? Or this strange new style called Ivy League, with pants that didn’t have any pleats in the front.

Benny Krass was always on top of things, always ahead of his time. When he saw South Street was starting to go black, he didn’t move out 
like the rest of them. He stayed right there and made capital of it. The only thing that changed at Krass Brothers were the celebrity pictures on the wall. Krass Brothers became the unofficial outfitter for rock groups in this town, back when Philadelphia was the rock and roll capital of the world, 
and back when a whole group used to 
dress the same. Read the rest of this entry »

Soul on Ice: What You Never Knew About the Philadelphia Flyers

In Philadelphia Magazine (1970-1980) on September 9, 2009 at 2:29 pm

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THIS IS A HAPPY STORY. It’s the story of a lot of all‑American boys from Canada and a Jewish vegetable hustler from Washington and Kate Smith and Ed Van Impe’s jockstrap. This is a story of fire on ice and a lot of the people who struck a match along the way to help heat this town to hockey fever. But mostly this is the story of Ed Van Impe’s jockstrap.

That’s how hockey hungry the people who follow the Flyers in Philadelphia have become.

Frank Lewis is the trainer. He is also equipment manager, traveling pharmacist and official blade sharpener. Frank Lewis has been around hockey for a long time here. He used to be trainer for the Ramblers, who used to play at the Arena and were the forerunners of either professional hockey or the roller derby. Frank Lewis has come a long way to become trainer of one of the fastest rising teams in the National Hockey League.

It’s Sunday night, and down on the white glaze of the Spectrum, the Flyers are putting it to the Pittsburgh Penguins, while up in the stands, 14,620 people are yelling and screaming and jumping up and down. One of the calmer ones is Frank Lewis’s wife. When you live as much hockey as she does, you get to take certain things in stride.

It’s between the first and second periods when most of the people in the crowd have headed out to the refreshment stands to cool themselves off from the heat of a continuing flow of emotional orgasms. Helen Lewis sits back in her seat to enjoy 15 minutes of open air, interrupted only by the casual conversation of the well-appointed, middle-aged, maybe matronly lady next to her.

“Your husband sure must do a lot of housework for the Flyers,” the lady said, “keeping those uniforms so clean and everything.”

“I ought to give him some of my laundry,” Helen Lewis said. “The team’s got better equipment than we do at home. I haven’t even gotten around to buying an automatic dryer yet.”

“Well, my dear,” said the lady, “don’t look any further. I’ve got an old one in perfect condition that I was just about to get rid of. If you want it, it’s yours. I’ll send my car around to drop it off.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” Helen Lewis said. “Please let me pay you.”

“Well, there is one thing you could do for me.” “Sure, anything.”

“Well, your husband is very close to the players and he handles all their equipment, right?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, do you think he could get me a particular piece of equipment?”

“It might be a little hard, but I’ll ask him. Just what were you after?”

“Ed Van Impe’s jockstrap.”

Helen Lewis tried to keep a straight face. After the game she took her newfound friend down to the locker room area where she flagged down her husband, pulled him over to the side and told him the story. Frank Lewis didn’t bat an eye.

“Ask her if she wants the inner one or the outer one,” he said.

Helen Lewis carried out the orders. Her friend said she’d prefer the inner one.

“Wait here,” Frank Lewis said as he went into the dressing room. “Van Impe,” he yelled, I need your jock.” “Why?” asked the Flyers captain.

“Don’t ask questions, just give me the damn thing.”

Van Impe threw the supporter over and Frank Lewis put it in a plain wrapper and brought it out to the well-appointed lady.

“Oh, thank you so much,” she said. “You don’t know how much this means to me.”

“Don’t thank me,” Frank Lewis said, “thank Van Impe. What a great guy. He’d give you the shirt off his back.”   Read the rest of this entry »

“I Sign My Name with My Knuckles!”

In Philadelphia Magazine (1970-1980) on September 8, 2009 at 7:59 pm

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THEY HAD SLIT HIS THROAT SO many times now already, he was starting to get used to it. But cutting out his eye, that was something else again.

It was back in May in the next-to-last game against Boston, the Thursday before the Flyers won the Stanley Cup. Wayne Cashman, who skates for Boston, a team that used to stake its reputation on being rough and tough, was not being very nice at all.

Early in the game, he almost chopped off Bernie Parent’s head. A few minutes later, he swung his stick at Jimmy Watson. And then he punched Ed Van Impe in the mouth.

Finally, the Flyers put Dave Schultz on the ice. Dave Schultz is supposed to take care of these things. He is a policeman, an enforcer and a lot of other polite words. Mostly his purpose in life is to beat the shit out of people.

Wayne Cashman made some motions toward Dave Schultz. “He was going like this,” Schultz says, drawing a line under his eye with his finger. “I didn’t think he had to resort to that. I hoped he really wouldn’t try to cut out my eye.”

In previous meetings, Cashman had taken his shots at Schultz, usually with his stick and usually in the area of his head. He’d caught him in the throat at least once, but he’d never gone after his eyes.

Schultz had little choice but to do what he does. He grabbed onto Cashman’s jersey with his left hand. His left hand isn’t worth much on the ice. He is a one-handed fighter. Cashman got in the first few punches to the face.

“I’ll give the other guy those first couple shots,” Schultz says, “while I get a grip on him. Once I get my hand on his shirt, though, I take over.”

Schultz took over with a round of very hard right hands that snapped Cashman’s head back and filled his face with blood. Cashman tried to duck and wrestle himself inside, but Schultz went underneath and started scoring big with uppercuts. One of them knocked Cashman half­way into the air and he lost his balance and Schultz pushed him right over on his side and jumped on top of him and kept hitting him very hard about the head and body. By now, the ice was very full of blood, none of it Schultz’s.

The officials finally managed to pull them apart. It took two men to get Schultz away. Cashman finally got up. His jersey had been pulled all the way off and his face was very battered, but he was still standing.

“He must be pretty tough,” Dave Schultz said with a grin that still had some teeth in it. “Those punches would have killed an ordinary man.”

Then, before they finally got him off the ice to the penalty box, Schultz skated by the Boston bench to see if there were any more takers. It was an old custom of his that started three years ago when he was in the minor leagues, racking up a world’s record 392 penalty minutes in one season with the Richmond Robins.

The Robins were playing in Providence one night and Schultz got into a fight with their toughest man and knocked him out cold. He then made his motions to the Providence bench, looking for more action.

“You were going to take on the whole team?” he was asked.

“No,” he said. “I meant the whole town.”   Read the rest of this entry »

The Going Price of Speed: Roger Penske’s Indy 500

In Philadelphia Magazine (1970-1980) on September 3, 2009 at 3:21 pm

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ROGER PENSKE STEPPED OUT On the balcony before it came on. There were a lot of people in the suite and it was as good a time as any for some fresh air. There were some bigshots from Sun Oil and some diehards from Sears and some of Roger Penske’s friends from his several different lives in several different states. And there was Mark Donohue, Gary Bettenhausen and Bobby Allison.

Donohue sat right next to the set. It was a very bad angle, much too close to watch color television. The picture seemed like it was going to jump out at him. The station ran the tape over and over from every camera angle they had. It got worse each time. The room was silent now and only the faces spoke.

Art Pollard had pulled out of the pits at 9:37 that morning. He started to drive his car through the first turn at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The car was an Eagle, very sleek, very low-slung, the same car Mark Donohue was driving. As the car came out of turn one, at about 180 miles an hour, Art Pollard lost the groove. The car made a quick veer to the right and hit the concrete wall. The right wheels were ripped off. The car bounced off the wall and skidded all the way down to turn two, 1,450 feet away, first onto the grass of the infield and then back on the track, where it started flipping end over end with a lot of the parts breaking off and flying away. It came to rest like a pancake on the last flip to the griddle. Art Pollard, who was 46 years old and had a lot of family and friends, was still in the car. He was as good as dead. When the car blew up, the flames shot back and Pollard swallowed them. You couldn’t see that on television. The flames are invisible and odorless and tasteless.

Nobody in the suite said a word. Mark Donohue took his clenched right fist and banged it on the sofa. His face was very red. Bobby Allison turned away and dropped his head low and said a prayer to himself. Gary Bettenhausen tilted the tip of his Goodyear hat over his eyes so you couldn’t see him crying. Roger Penske walked back in from the balcony, sensing it was all over. The balcony of his suite overlooked the exact spot where Art Pollard died. Penske walked in and looked at his three drivers. There was nothing he could say. It was going to be one of those months.

THERE ARE TWO KINDS of people at Indy. There are Penske’s people and there is everybody else. The other 400,000 drink beer and yell and get very greasy. Penske’s people are different.

Earlier that morning, Gary Bettenhausen stood inside his green and white wooden garage very much alone. It was the first day of time trials, a series of races against the clock to see who would end up where in the descending position order of cars for the start of the race two weeks away. The talk around Gasoline Alley, the legendary name for the garage area, echoed the stories in the papers. This could be the day, the first day in history, that a car and driver would average over 200 miles an hour turning the two-and-a-half­mile oval.

That’s not what Gary Bettenhausen was thinking. Deep inside, he was remembering an anniversary. “It was 12 years ago today,” he said. “My dad died here.”

Gary was only 19 then. He had just started racing modified Go-Karts. His father, Tony Bettenhausen, was 44 and an old pro at Indy. He was a cautious man. He had promised himself and his family he would never ride in a car that wasn’t his, a car he wasn’t sure of. He kept the promise until 12 years ago today. A friend who had helped Tony Bettenhausen build a silo on his Illinois farm the past winter asked him if he’d take his car out on the Indy track on a shakedown run, just to test it out for him. He couldn’t refuse. Anyway, it was only for one lap.

You can buy a good cotter pin for a few pennies at your local hardware store. They say it was a bad cotter pin that began the end to Tony Bettenhausen’s life. An axle broke and the car hit the wall and turned end over end.   Read the rest of this entry »

Hard Ball: The Business of the Phillies

In Business Philadelphia on September 1, 2009 at 8:22 pm

giles0710THIS ONE BIT THE BIG ONE. WILLIAM YALE GILES, who had finally quit smoking for sure, for good, forever at 10:05 PM on Thursday, February 6, was sitting on the second row of the box next to the radio booth, the box where the owners sit in the dark through the chill of April and the light in August, chomping on an unlit stogie, a tightly-wrapped replica of a Lenny Dykstra chaw. Soon, the butchered bites were bouncing off his blue buttondown, down to the bare boards below.

Outside, over there on the green sponge carpet that poorly of for grass, his team is having a time of it. Looking very new in their bright red uniforms, they are up to the same old stuff. Tommy Greene, a pitcher of some promise, is having trouble doing what he does get paid a measly $255,000 a summer to do for a living. He is putting Cubs on base. If this doesn’t stop soon, the Phillies will have to bring in some help. Eventually, that means Mitch Williams, who earns $3,200,000 for pitching about an inning every other night.

But first, Ryne Sandberg, who used to be a Phillie, Ryne Sandberg, who will make over $7 million a year starting next year, is parking a Tommy Greene fastball over the left field fence for a three-run homer. As Sandberg rounds third, Bill Giles pounds his fist and mutters to no one in particular: “I traded him, you know. All our reports said he couldn’t hit well enough to play third and couldn’t field well enough for second or short. So I traded him.”

He bites down very hard on his cigar, which splinters all over his still-hot dinner of fried mozzarella sticks and shells with marinara sauce. It is not a pretty sight.

“I just get so ticked off,” he says, “I have to bite on something. I went to sunflower seeds after I stopped smoking, but the salt just made my blood pressure go sky high.” He brushes the stogie off his shirt and tries to smile.

THIS ISN’T A GAME ANYMORE, THIS SUMMER sport owned by men and played by boys. This is an industry. This is a business.

“It’s a game, it’s a business, it’s a religion,” Bill Giles says. “But it’s certainly becoming more of a business as time goes on. So many dollars are at stake now, compared to what it used to be. It’s kind of scary sometimes.

“The challenge used to be just trying to put the best team on the field you could. Now the challenge is trying to put the best team on the field and not go broke in the process.”

But are Giles and his management team really running this business like a business? Are they putting out a quality product while keeping their fixed costs down?

“Baseball,” he says, “is more of a people business than it is like other companies that are making nuts and bolts and computers and automobiles. Almost 80 percent of our expense is on people, which makes it more unpredictable. Who could have predicted that Lenny Dykstra would break a bone on the first day of the season? Or that Jose DeJesus would be out for the season?   Read the rest of this entry »

Independence Day

In SJ Magazine on September 1, 2009 at 4:38 pm

liberty_bellBack then, back when men were men and wars were wars, the seats on the Frankford El, the city’s first low speed line, were made of hardened cane. They ripped at your skin and tore at your pants but they could never break your spirit.

Every year, on the Fourth of July, we would put on our Sunday best, my mother, my father, my sister and I, and take the B bus and the El train to the cradle of liberty, better known as the Fifth Street El stop. There, we would join the thousands of other sweating citizens who didn’t have barbecue plans that day, to sizzle in the sun while bands played and politicians did what politicians do.

This was back when the Liberty Bell was still in Independence Hall, before they moved it to that barren building that looked like a bad Burger King. This was back when patriotism wasn’t considered corny, back when this country was considered to be the smartest country in the world.

I remember sitting on those folding chairs on what would become Independence Mall and looking at all the military men in crisp, clean uniforms, thinking that was a good thing to do, to be a soldier.

In the years that followed those lazy lemonade days, I would grow up way too fast. Just like all the boys I knew, I would quickly be facing manhood, highly eligible for the war that everyone said would be the last ground war of our lifetime. Read the rest of this entry »

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