No one loved American comic heroes more than our earliest immigrants. Across the board, almost without exception, the neighborhoods of our new Americans fell in love with the bigger-than-life characters who single-handedly were there, on this good earth, for the sole purpose of protecting them.
At a time when little or nothing was known about birth control, each ethnic group took a special pride in their ability to procreate. The more kids there were, the more necessity for heroes and the widespread practice of hero worship.
First, the comic book depiction of these wonderful bully busters was quickly followed by radio, television, and then the movies.
As young kids in our neighborhood, we placed these gladiators on altars suitable for the greatest leaders the world would ever know.
Superman, the Lone Ranger, and Batman were the most important protectors of their time. And the silver screen was alive with the heroic likes of Tarzan, Tom Mix, Hop-Along Cassidy, Roy Rogers, and even detectives like Sherlock Holmes, and the inimitable Charlie Chan. All took their respected places on our worship parade. Amazingly, what began a century ago is still going strong today – look around you, there’s still Batman, Superman, and all the rest who were originated in and at a time when they were as purposeful as any army.
But, what the comics gave all of us was of the greatest importance. And, even more importantly was what the immigrant families gave themselves with those comics – a down to earth richness of purpose. Survival was the most cipherable drive of the day; to make it in the good ol’ USA was indeed a credo.
And surely, what each and every family had was the family itself. No matter how the day went, there always seemed to exist a comic release. We talked about everything imaginable.
Most families didn’t have a phone. Word of mouth was never taken for granted. By that I mean that wherever you looked on the street, conversations were taking place. Often the conversations would be raging; arguments over who interpreted Dick Tracy the “right way.” What about that Captain Marvel? Who the hell cares about Tarzan anyway? The schmuck lives in a jungle — but that Jane is some little shtick. If I had a wife like that, I too would be swinging from a tree…
The corner candy stores were the gathering grounds for all the neighborhood big shots. These were the guys who knew absolutely everything about everything. Without question, dependent on the age of those gathered in discussion, there were four main topics: comics, sports, the movies, and girls.
On December 21, 1937, the animated feature film Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs was released for distribution. History reports: it was an instant hit. Adjusted for inflation, it remains one of the all-time box office smash hits. And, it wasn’t just a financial success – it took the residential neighborhoods by storm. Men, women, and children joined in on a seemingly never-ending discussion. Everywhere you looked an impression of the Snow White characters was taking place.
The main dialects in our area of Brooklyn were Italian, Irish, Yiddish, and a sprinkling of German. Try to imagine the humor in listening to a woman with a rather heavy accent delivering the Evil Queen’s lines: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”
At the film’s opening, the Magic Mirror informs the Evil Queen that Snow White is now the fairest in the land. The jealous Evil Queen orders a reluctant Huntsman to take Snow White into the forest and kill her…
So on and so on… you get the idea. But now, a new ingredient to our corner — music in all its glory! Snow White was not only being discussed, but it was also a living, breathing, neighborhood musical.
One of the first songs I was able to sing and whistle as a four-year-old child was….
The bottom line was simple – we talked to one another. What a concept, don’t you think? People actually having conversations. No phones, no televisions, and many families were not yet privy to radio. The neighborhood had a variety of service providers. The Iceman, the Coal Man, the Milkman, the Junkman, and many other men who, more often than not, could all whistle the tune “Whistle While You Work.”
Can you imagine a man dragging a block of ice up four floors? Coming into our modest apartment, setting a forty-pound block of ice in our icebox, and all the time smiling and whistling?
“How are you today, Mrs. Kalmenson? Have you seen Snow White?”
He spoke English, or American as many of them called it with a rather heavy Irish brogue. My Mother was one of those who was multi-lingual, but free of accent. As he left the apartment, he complemented my Mother on how wonderfully clean her home always was. With a charming lilt to go along with his handsome smiling face, it was communication at its highest level. Or, perhaps I should say “blarney.”
I find myself thinking, and mainly wondering, if there would have been any chance for me to be in this business of mine, if I were to have grown up in today’s era. Would I be able to recapture what I was never privy to? I think not.
Texting is not listening nor is it enjoying the charm of a beautiful smiling face. I grew up admiring the looks of women and the way they sounded whether mad, or happy. The charm of listening to this marvelous dialect of Beatrice Burke (my nanny) was the epitome of Ireland at its very best.
Always, it was the talk. The face-to-face talk. Looking into the eyes of the person you were communicating with and – think about this – sometimes not having to say a word.
My Father purchased his first automobile in 1939. It was a two-door 1937 Chevrolet. No power steering, no air conditioner, heater, or defroster, no power windows, and it held five people comfortably, regardless of what their dialect happened to be.