O.K., it snows in Syracuse. And winter lasts far longer than anyone other than devoted skiers and snowmobile enthusiasts would like. While it is New York State, it’s not THAT New York. People from other areas of the world think the whole state is paved and looks like Brooklyn. Not so. And they expect that ‘fagitaboutit” accent you hear from Robert DeNiro ( whose father and grandparents were from Syracuse) and so many movie gangsters. Nope. Travel north from New York City and take a left at Albany and everyone starts speaking differently. It’s a Great Lakes accent with a flat “a”. More like Cleveland or Chicago than NYC. And there’s farms, lakes, Republicans and all sorts of different things. The Syracuse area is approximately 280 miles for “The City” or 15 light years. Many people I grew up with two hundred years ago never made the trip.
I’ve lived on both ends of the state. Long Island and Baldwinsville, New York ( The Pheasant Dog Capitol Of The World AND the home of one of, if not THE BIGGEST, carp fishing tournaments in existence !! So put that in your hat with ear flaps and smoke it.). But my most formative years were in Central New York. The years of puberty, first date, New York State Regents exams, hanging out, sexual awakening, and, well, more sexual awakening.
This was an era of Cold War bomb drills when we crawled under our desks or leaned against someone’s back in the school hallway, to protect ourselves from a hydrogen bomb that would have blown us all to smithereens if dropped, regardless of where we were. The time when Kennedy got shot and the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan. When hair was short and no one ever even saw a joint. A couple years later, hair was long and everyone was stoned. A.M. radio with Dandy Dan Leonard and Tricky, Dicky Snider The Music Provider. Not to mention famed sportscaster Marv Albert who was spinning songs like “Tan Shoes and Pink Shoelaces” on WNDR. Two and then later three T.V. stations. There was a N.B.A. basketball team; a local boxer (Carmen Basilio) who defeated Sugar Ray Robinson and held both the welterweight, and middleweight championships of the world; a Syracuse football team that won the national championship with the first African American Heisman Trophy winner; and a nightclub that featured some of the greatest entertainers of the era. And that’s where I’ll start my memories of from growing up in the Syracuse area.
The Three Rivers Inn:
At the meeting of the Oneida, Seneca, and Oswego rivers, in the small village of Phoenix, was a nightclub who’s talent lineup could rival any of those in Las Vegas. Owned by Dominick Bruno, cousin to Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno but with no other known connections to organized crime, The Three Rivers Inn, featured talent like Sammy Davis Jr., Liberace, Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin and the McGuire Sisters. While not overly impressive on the exterior, inside it was cavernous. Attached was a motel that housed the entertainers and there was one known instance of “Satchmo” Louis Armstrong sitting outside smoking a joint. Later on I read that he smoked marijuana every day and also took a laxative. How the two are related I don’t care to know.
The center McGuire Sister, Phyllis, dated Sam “Momo” Giancana, notorious Chicago mob boss. Giancana used to accompany the singer to Syracuse and, while she was performing, he went to The Clover Club and Andre’s Tic Toc Club on South Salina Street to enjoy Jimmy Cavallo and The House Rockers, a pioneer R&B band.. No idea if his buddy “Old Blue Eyes” ever joined him. Later” Momo” was gunned down. I think he ordered a shot and a beer. Don’t know if he ever got the beer.
How I remember the club was on Sunday afternoons, “Dandy Dan” Leonard of WNDR radio hosted a Teen Canteen. Local bands, like Don Barber and The Dukes, Little Bernie and The Cavaliers, and Ronny Dio and The Prophets would play for dancing. Dio went on to form a group called “Elf” and followed Ozzy Osbourne as lead singer for Black Sabbath. Ronny Dio was inducted to the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame with that group.
The admission was ridiculously cheap and included Coke and Sloppy Joes. In addition, many teen stars appeared. I saw Frankie Avalon, Brenda Lee, Jay and The Americans and many more. I distinctly remember a group called Tiko and The Triumphs, who had a song entitled “Motorcycle.” “Tiko” was not like the other singers of the period. Very short and lacking the traditional pompadour, he strummed a guitar, which was odd for the lead singer in those days. “Tiko” later came to my attention by his real name, Paul Simon. It was there that Paul Anka kissed my wife on her cheek for her 15th birthday. Of course, she wasn’t my wife then. We’re talking Syracuse, not West Virginia.
Performing in local bands at this same time were two future Hall of Fame inductees, Lou Reed of Andy Warhol’s favorite band, The Velvet Underground ,and Felix Cavaliere, of Joey Dee and The Starlighters ( Peppermint Twist) and The Rascals (Groovin’). Both were Syracuse University students. That makes 3 future Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Famers playing in local bands in the early 60’s. That ain’t nothin’!
The New York State Fair
There was good and bad in late summer for most of us.
The Fair was coming, Save your money. “What days are you going?” “How you getting there?”, “Any new rides?”
The Fair, if you went with your parents, had two distinct sections. The first was the animal barns and the exhibit buildings. There was The Center of Progress, or some such name, where guys sold Chop-O-Matics to people who used them twice and then put them away, never to be used again. And there was the Dairy Building with its’ free chocolate milk and butter sculpture. My father had the same joke every year; “I wonder if it has a Parkay floor?”
And then there was THE MIDWAY. The rides. The ridiculously evil food that I believe I free-based. The sideshows with a woman who had “Feet so big, so large, she has never worn shoes in her entire life”. And a wild woman who sat in a cage with snakes crawling over her. There was a hermaphrodite and the tent he/she was in had a curtain down the middle because women had to stand on one side and men on the other. Today, we’d never separate the sexes but we’d also never put a person like this on display. Shades of The Elephant Man. Weird..Also, a fat woman and a tattooed man. We used to pay to see them, but now they’re dozens of them walking everywhere.
But the highlight for me, and for many other pubescent boys, was the girlie shows. They’d line up the girls on the stage outside and extoll the virtues of each. One was “Chesty” O’Brien, enough said. One did the baseball dance, “each base is covered but once she starts dancing, you never know who’s going to steal home”. ( I’m still not sure what that exactly meant).
Of course, there was a rule that you had to be 18 to enter. No exceptions. Strictly enforced. I got in at 14 and everyone else I knew who entered was underage. I guess rules are made to be broken if you can get a sucker’s money.
And we were suckers. They would stop the show and sell postcards that, when the lights went out, they promised a new light would shine that would show you the smuttiest pictures you’d ever seen They sold pens that would do the same thing. Nothing happened. Nada. I know because I spent a fortune on those things. Had to start school in my old shoes because I spent the money given to me to buy new ones.
Saturday in the Fall! Orangemen Football- In those days they were still Orangemen. National Champs in ’59. The immortals- Jimmy Brown, Ernie Davis, Floyd Little, Larry Csonka, John Mackey, Jim Nance. Those were the days! But Archibold stadium was tough. Cold rain would beat down on you. The hard concrete was murder on a pre teen with no tush to speak of. And, believe me, nobody really wanted to speak of it. But that was a Saturday afternoon to remember. We’d pay $1 a game for a book of tickets to sit high in the end zone. But the university was, and is, a very big part of the community and just being there was a great experience. Let’s Go Orange!
Up until the early 60’s we had an NBA team. The smallest city in the league, but Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain would play and then walk the streets to get back to the Hotel Syracuse. No limos. Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, all the greats were there. And we had Dolph Schayes with his 2 handed set shot and raised arm salute when he swished one. John Kerr, Larry Costello from Minoa, Dick Barnett. A couple of years later I met former star Hal Greer and asked him if he preferred playing in Philadelphia ( the Nats became the ’76ers) or Syracuse. His only answer was, “Have you ever been to Syracuse?” Ouch. As they said in 2001 Space Odyssey, “Thanks Hal”.
Before McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut or anything else, we had Heids. Hotdogs and coneys (known to the uncivilized world as white hots). Move down the line. Order your drink (preferably chocolate milk); any extras ( never ordered the fries or a pickle or anything else). Then give your order. Singles, doubles coneys whatever. Then the attendant would mark something unrecognizable on a paper plate and the guy at the grill knew what it meant. I never could decipher that code.. Some Liverpool only hieroglyphics, but they knew what it was. Then you’d go to the mustard vat. There was no dispenser in those days. Just a big vat with a paint paddle. And as you were applying the condiment, someone would always say, “I saw someone spit in that last week”. Charming. A cultured group, we were.
I always thought they missed the boat with the ice cream shop next store that was open only in the summer. The should have called it Dr. Jekyll’s.
The Magic Toyshop
Who needed Mr.Rogers? We had Eddie Flum Dum. I don’t think that was his real name but I may be wrong. And his partner Merilee. She was the smarter of the two and she didn’t wear a stupid outfit like Flum Dum. It obviously was a kids’ show that lasted many years. They read stories, danced, played games and talked to Mr. Trolley, who was some guy with a paper trolley on his head and a table that disguised his body. Very hi tech. Then there was a woman who should be remembered in sports memorabilia. Her name was Jean Daugherty, and she was The Play Lady. A sweet woman. She grew up in the Tipperary Hill area of Syracuse, which was obviously home to many Irish folks and sported the only traffic light in America with the green positioned over the red.
Jean had a brother named Duffy who played and coached football at S.U. and went on to be a very successful head coach at Michigan State. In 1966, Michigan State and Notre Dame were #1 and #2 in the nation and were to play each other. The game ended in a tie and Duffy said the immortal line, “A tie is like kissing your sister”. So, in Syracuse, “A tie is like kissing The Play Lady”.
Today a giant mall located on Onondaga Lake has replaced downtown Syracuse. But in my day ( like I really had a day,) Salina Street was bustling with stores, restaurants and theaters. There was a department store (Edwards) with a Tea Room where women dressed in their finest and wearing white gloves would go for lunch when they broke from their shopping. Stores named Dey Brothers, Witheralls, Flahs, The Addis Company, Wells and Coverly and many more.
All now just trivia questions for aging Central New Yorkers. But you used to eat at the luncheonette in Walgreens before going out to the corner and catching your bus. Or watch first run movies at the Loews or Shine’s Eckel theaters because those were the only places in the area where they would show. Eat at restaurants like Tinos or The Villa, which sold its’ own sauce in a jar ( “Mama, si, Villa sauce is for me”). Today, Destiny Rides again, But back when men were men, and so were a lot of the women, downtown is where you needed to be.
OK, so it was Mike Price with a cape and some stupid makeup. But he was Elvira before we had Elvira ( minus the you-know-whats). Dressed as a vampire, every weekend he’d come on TV to host a movie. Then he’d go into the different communities and appear at dances and other events.
Now I read on Facebook how we old folks were taught manners, and to respect our elders and all good things. But I saw kids push and shove poor Mike; put gum in his hair and generally torture the poor man. Personally, I think we were as big of jerks as the kids today, and if there was Facebook back then, our parents would have been complaining the same way. Ole’ Baron put out a record. Trivia quiz- can you name it?———– Times up. “The Transylvania Twist” by Baron Daemon and the Vampires. I don’t know anything about the Vampires, but I bet they sucked.
Genny, Schultz and Dooley
It would be just wrong if I talked about my years in Syracuse and didn’t mention beer. I not only knew the Gennesecret but blabbed it all over the area . I remember Genny at the Fair with her Royal Lipizzans. She even winked at me. And, like the Heids story, there was always someone who claimed to have taken a whizz in Hemlock Lake. Some say they stopped making the beer because the horse died. (Pause for raucous laughter.)
I was at a Christmas party in Atlanta, Georgia one year and on the mantle of the hosts’ house were Schultz and Dooley. The hostesses’ father originated the idea for Utica Club. Of course it was a ripoff of Bert and Harry Piels of New York City’s Piels beer, but what did we know? And having duel citizenship with the U.S. and Ireland, I always thought Schultz was a pain in the ass for the way he treated poor Dooley. Damn Krauts. But it never stopped me from imbibing. God bless the three of them!
Winter: I remember walking backwards down the street so the wind didn’t hit me head on. I lived 3 house from the schools and would wet my hair and comb it to look just like Elvis ( or so I thought) and by the time I got to school,my hair was frozen. My sister was knocking those huge icicles off the upstairs window and it came crashing through the downstairs window next to where I sat. It could have killed me. And getting in a snowball fight and finding out the other guy was like Roger Clemmons and could throw ninety miles an hour. I’d hear the ZAP! on the tree and decide to negotiate a truce. And always praying for a snow day to get out of school.
But Spring ( when it got there), Summer, and Fall could be gorgeous in the Syracuse area. And it was a nice place to grow up. Maybe we weren’t chic, but we did alright. For an area that wasn’t densely populated, we had plenty of things available to us. I’m still in contact with a number of folks from my youth and married to my high school sweetheart. Lord knows, I live and die with The Orange ( no longer Orangemen). Physically, Thomas Wolfe may be right when he says you can never go home again. But mentally, I visit there often and always enjoy myself. As John Mellencamp says, “That’s when smoke was smoke and groovin’ was groovin'”