Any list of famous writers from Brooklyn would fill a decent sized phone book. And any list of books set in Brooklyn would be almost as large. I’ve read plenty of both but there are many more I’ve missed. So, the posts I’ll be making about Brooklyn books will be far from a definitive list. Think of them as tips from your friendly Brooklyn librarian.
It would be remiss of me not to begin with the very first “Brooklyn” book I ever read. (Hell, it was the very first book I ever read cover-to-cover!) And, I’ve reread it many times since – most recently last Tuesday. In fact, it’s the overdue book mentioned above – overdue for over 60 years! If you haven’t read it then all I can say is, “I pity you!”
“Psssst, hey kid, ya wanna read a really doity book?”
As you drive into Brooklyn across the Brooklyn Bridge a large sign looms up at you. It screams, “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” If a driver doesn’t take that exit they are taken onto the Gowanus Expressway and thence over the neighborhood of Sunset Park where the spectacularly downbeat novel Last Exit to Brooklyn is set. In the 1950s, the period of the novel, that sign should have screamed, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
In the 50s, the waterfront of Sunset Park was a land of perpetual night – a slum rotting in fetid shadow beneath the elevated Gowanus Expressway. The Mafia had killed the docks, Robert Moses had killed Sunset Park by cutting it in two with his hideous highway and the Dodgers had killed Brooklyn by moving to L.A.
Hubert Selby Jr. knew this coz he was a Brooklyn boy born right next door to Sunset Park in Bay Ridge.
Selby’s book consists of inter-locking tales of losers, junkies, sadists, pimps, hookers and trannies who fight for scraps in a nightmare world of gangs and gang-bangs.
I was raised in the 1950s just a few blocks away from this world. I even swam in the public pool there. But, I knew better than to venture into the Terra Incognita below the highway. Many years later, I met a Yorkshireman who had lived in a sleaze-bag hotel in Sunset Park during WW2. He was outfitting ships to British standards that had been built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He told me that the whole area was full of crap games, gyp-joints and whorehouses all making a fortune from the servicemen and dock workers.
In the 1980s, I would spend pointless, penniless weekends meandering around Brooklyn by bike. I was drawn to the derelict and rotting factories of Industry City that lined the waterfront in Sunset Park. I thought, “Damn, this would make a great film set.” And, that’s exactly where, a few years later, much of the movie of Last Exit to Brooklyn was filmed.
That film is good but doesn’t capture the daring style and outrageous vitality of Selby’s prose. Plus, by 1989, much of the shock value of his book’s subject matter had been lost. But, when it was first published in 1964, Last Exit to Brooklyn was an outrage and banned in several countries. I haven’t been impressed by Selby’s other work but anyone interested in the lower depths of Brooklyn life and the heights of “outsider” American literature should read Last Exit to Brooklyn.
In 1965, I read it as a 15-year-old while working as a messenger in Times Square. The guy who sold it to me could have been arrested. I made sure that its instantly recognizable cover was always visible sticking out of my back pocket as I made deliveries. And, I made sure that same cover was visible as I read Last Exit to Brooklyn on the subway. I didn’t live in a artist’s garret in Greenwich Village but it was fun to pretend that I did.
The Christmas blues of 1970 morphed into the January blues of 1971. I and my fellow “cultural casualties” of the 1960s having dropped out of college and dropped far too many psychedelics were facing the prospect of a lifetime of blue-collar work in the Post Office. Yeah, yeah, it was a job-for-life with uniform and pension but not quite what we had envisioned for ourselves just a few years before. Back in college we were going to be actors, writers, musicians, poets, painters, philosophers even. But, the luster had faded from our Age of Aquarius fantasies as it had from the few sorry strands of Christmas tinsel that hung from atop the mail sorting coops.
We were a motley crew but not without our talents and charms. Alex was a half-assed genius and chess master. Mark was a poet and literate in Latin. Murray was a killer wit and killer blues guitarist. Sandy was trying to decipher the hidden codes in Dylan’s lyrics. And, Charles, our only Black member, was trying to convert everyone at the Post Office to 7th Day Adventism and vegetarianism. We were all from working class families and had discovered to our shock and horror that unless something miraculous happened we would not escape the gravitational pull of our caste. So, we embraced our fate.
As if on cue and without any spoken agreement, we took to wearing plaid, flannel work shirts, tattered jeans, garrison belts and battered work boots. We cut our freakish hair back to a moderately radical length. Less Woodstock. More Workers of the World. We trimmed our facial hair to Lenin length. And, we embraced the Grateful Dead’s album Workingman’s Dead as if it were written only for us. After all, we were nothing if not workingmen.
One of the worst aspects of being a trainee mail-sorter was that we weren’t guaranteed hours. If the mail dried up we were sent home. And, this often happened shortly after we had clocked on for our graveyard shift. There we’d be in midtown Manhattan at Midnight having planned to be up all night and having ingested amphetimines to help us be up all night but suddenly with no reason to be up all night. Luckily, Alex lived in a nearby East Side tenement so we’d pick up some munchies and beer and head over to his pad, there to smoke hash and listen to Workingman’s Dead till dawn’s early light. Or, at least, till Alex’s neighbors banged on the walls. We named ourselves the Dead Workingmen. (Okay, not that clever but we needed all the help we could get.)
Suddenly, it became embarrassingly clear that Tony, one of our Supervisors, was madly in love with Sandy. I don’t think this burly Italian knew he was gay and he certainly wasn’t swishy in any way. But, goddamn, he was as queer as a three-dollar bill for Sandy. Lovesick Tony was eager to demonstrate to Sandy how powerful he was by how many favors he could do for him. One big problem. If he gave Sandy a break he had to give it to all of the Dead Workingmen or his cover would be blown. We teased Sandy mercilessly about his conquest but he still generously connived to use his charm over Tony to the group’s advantage i.e. without “coming across” for the Italian Stallion, Sandy kept him sweet on our behalf.
Some nights Sandy would persuade Tony to let us get lost for a few hours. We’d head over to Alex’s while still on the clock and then sneak back in at 8AM to punch out. Some nights at Sandy’s behest Tony would let us hide and sleep on the filthy mailbags piled out on the loading dock. Other nights he’d put us on parcel sorting duty – a welcome break from the din and dementia of the sorting coops. We’d stand before rows of open mailbags and practice our basketball jump shots tossing boxes into the bags. Sometimes we even read the addresses and aimed for the right mail bag. Sometimes we even made a basket. But, truth to tell, we didn’t give a shit. We had come to hate the mail itself. Mark once tickled his throat until he vomited into the tray of mail he was sorting. (I know, I know, disgusting. But, you gotta understand that 99.999999% of the mail we were sorting was junk mail. And, the rest was going to Reverend Ike!)
Time Clock Confidential
I don’t know if anyone actually punches a time clock anymore. But when I first joined the world-of-work as a teenager, I was angered by the demeaning nature of this act. I was even more angered by the grown-ups who loitered by the time clock waiting for it to tic to a specific second so they could get a few paltry shekels more in their meagre pay envelopes. I was embarrassed for them and hated how they compared stories of time clock victories and defeats and of famous “time clock jockeys” of yesteryear. ThePost Office was full of these lifers who stared in amazement and clucked with disdain as I strode past them and punched out without even looking at the hour hand. Wage slaves. Not me.
Meanwhile back at the Tony-Sandy love affair things became waaaay too strange and sad for this trainee mail-sorter. It happened one night when members of the Dead Workingmen were surreptitiously tapped on the shoulder and told to report to Tony’s office. There we discovered the other invited guests were the usually unfriendly Supervisors. Tony had set up a movie projector and hung a sheet on the wall. He greeted us conspiratorially then locked the door, turned off the lights and showed us a stag movie i.e. the type of fuck-film that was usually confiscated if sent in the U.S Mail. I wondered if this film had been caught by an eagle-eyed postal dick and turned over to Tony.
As the silent, grainy, 8MM black and white film unspooled on the stained sheet, the air in the room became noxious with nervous laughter, unfunny quips and cigar smoke. We’d been invited to a classic “smoker.” The film showed a singularly unattractive couple reclining on a singularly uncomfortable table and fucking in a singularly unenthusiastic manner. Watching their coitus was as erotic as watching the piston action on a Ford V8. But, I sensed that a bizarre male-bonding ritual was at play. The Supers wanted to show us that they weren’t such bad guys after all. Hey, they were like our fathers and uncles – just a bunch of older working-class fellas who liked watching fuck-films with a bunch of younger working-class fellas. This secret screening was an olive branch extended across the generations and a sort of test.
Would we make the grade and join their ranks of Merry (albeit horny) Mailmen?
Also, except for Charles, we were all White as were the Supers. I sensed they wanted to find racial solidarity with us since they spent so much time with obese Black women with whom they shared little cultural interest. Least of all watching fuck-films.
I’m sure that shrinks would highlight what they’d claim was clear homo-eroticism in this sweat-lodge soiree. But, I don’t think that was what was going on with the Supers. Except for Tony. He turned on the projector, pushed me aside and sat next to Sandy. As the couple built to their inevitable climax we all watched in silence. Except for Tony. He giggled and elbowed Sandy while peppering him with questions in hushed rabid whisper.
“You believe the size of the cock on that guy.”
“Wait. Wait. She swallows the whole thing.”
“Look at that bush. You like hairy twat, Sandy?”
“Hey, Sandy, you ever put it in a girl’s ass?”
Then, after the “money shot” in which the on-screen stud splashed his semen all over his fair maiden’s belly Tony gushed – “Yeah, that’s the good part, right, Sandy?”
The Supers must have overheard Tony’s pillow talk but they didn’t react. Meanwhile, the Dead Workingmen shared looks of amused horror. Mainly horror. Then the lunch horn barked, the lights came on and with eyes cast downward we bolted out of there muttering, “Holy shit, what the fuck was that?!”
Shortly after that night I was fired for telling an especially sadistic Supervisor to go fuck himself. The union jumped to my defense assuming that I wanted to keep my job. At the mediation meeting the union rep was dumbstruck when I told all present that the United States Postal Service could sort my job where the sun don’t shine. I thought about throwing the porn party in their faces but didn’t coz I knew that would make big trouble for Tony and the Dead Workingmen I was leaving behind.
Ten years later while walking in the middle of nowhere on Staten Island, I ran into Murray. (What are the odds?) We recognized each other even though he was now as obese as his female Black co-workers. Yes, he was still at the Grand Central P.O. but he was now a Junior Supervisor. No, he wasn’t playing guitar anymore. It was an awkward encounter and a painful one for him. Murray and I had come from similar working-class backgrounds, two Brooklyn boys who had arrived at the same point via similar paths. Then our paths diverged. I had followed my dream of being an actor. He had buried his of being a musician. We exchanged phone numbers and promised to get together. We never did.
As Brooklyn boy Lenny Bruce quipped, “Bela was a junkie for ten years, cleaned up and dropped dead.” And, it’s sadly true that Lugosi had become addicted to morphine while undergoing medical treatment. It took him many painful years to kick the habit.
His was a classic case of a film career that started at the top and finished in the sub-basement. Think about it. From Tod Browning’s Dracula to Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. Ouch!
And, insult to injury, after a horror movie career spent sucking hind tit to his competitor Boris Karloff, Bela took over from Boris in the Broadway comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. Getting sloppy seconds was bad enough but Bela had to play a character whose facial scarification was based on Karloff as Frankenstein. The biggest laughs in the play were built on that gag. (I wonder if they did a re-write so that the crazed brother Jonathan was said to resemble Lugosi as Dracula. If not… double ouch.)
When not appearing in a succession of bargain-basement horror films, poor Bela schlepped around the world in Dracula drag appearing in fleapit revivals of the stuffy old play. An actor friend of mine worked with Lugosi in one such production and reported that the company rehearsed the play without Bela who was only contracted to appear for the final dress rehearsal. And, at that, he would do only a quick walk through of his scenes. Count Dracula actually appears in surprisingly few scenes in the stage version. And, Bela sure didn’t need the rehearsal, he’d been doing the same tired moves for decades.
The cast was assembled on stage awaiting Lugosi when the theater’s hydraulic lift suddenly cranked into action and slowly raised the floor of the orchestra pit. There stood Bela in full Dracula splendor. The cast formed a receiving line and Bela walked down it shaking and kissing hands while clicking his heels and repeating “I am Lugosi.” He thoroughly charmed the pants off one and all. But, during the performance, my friend was surprised to see buckets of ice in the wings. And, saddened to see Bela thrust his pin-cushion junkie’s arms into the ice to reduce his pain.
Some critics dismiss Lugosi as a one trick pony but I think that’s unfair. He created an iconic film character that is instantly recognized around the globe and not many actors can say that. He was deliciously evil as the hunchback Ygor in Son of Frankenstein. And, he was terrific in The Black Cat and in the criminally underrated Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. If only he had lived, Bela could have feasted on the movie memorabilia boom of the late 50s and 60s. And, I gotta believe that Roger Corman would have cast Bela in his Edgar Allen Poe movies. He would have been perfect casting and big box office along side Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr.
But, hey, they can’t all be gems…
In 1952, our hero was forced/enticed into making the “Poverty Row” comedy-horror flick Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Now, I am second to no one in my affection for all things Brooklyn and for movies that feature guys in a gorilla suit but even I have my limits. (It’s on YouTube if you dare.)
Bela actually managed to walk through this turkey with style and wit. But, this former Shakespearean actor who had worked with Garbo must have been thinking, “How the fuck did I end up playing second banana to a team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis imitators and a schmuck in a gorilla suit?”
It was the summer of 1960 and my family was walking past Coney Island’s World in Wax Musee when the barker shouted out, “See the rapist Caryl Chessman in the gas chamber!”
“What’s a rapist?” I innocently asked my mother.
“Uh… ummm… a man who forces himself on a woman,” she flustered.
“Oh,” I replied with no idea of what she meant.
Soon after that we shared another awkward moment of sex education. It happened one night while I was watching TV. She and her friends were in the next room chain smoking and “gassing” when someone on TV mentioned “impotence.”
“Hey, Ma, what’s impotence?” I shouted into the room full of Catholic housewives.
Long frozen silence from the stunned women.
“Unable to perform like a man,” my mother eventually shouted in answer.
“Oh,” I shouted in return and (again) with no idea what she meant.
The World In Wax Musee was owned by one of Coney Island’s great characters, Lillie Santangelo. Caryl Chessman wasn’t the only predatory sex fiend rendered in wax in Lillie’s macabre collection. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were in there, too; along with “full moon” killers, “vampire” killers, “bathtub” killers, “screwdriver” killers and Richard Speck the sub-human filth who tortured, raped and murdered eight student nurses in Chicago. Speck escaped Chessman’s fate but unfortunately enjoyed his life in prison. He even had a half-assed sex change and acquired a set of phoney tits. These helped him attract and suck every swinging Black dick he could get his lips around.
Chessman and Speck both had scores of bleeding-heart intellectuals, rootless cosmopolitans and Hollywood champagne-socialists pleading their cases and screaming for their release. But, to no avail. Both of these pieces of utter shit died behind bars. Hehehe.
Meanwhile, back at the Wax Musee, Lillie also had an entire exhibit dedicated to Lina Medina, the world’s youngest mother, a Peruvian girl who gave birth at the age of five. The jury is still out on which of her loving male relatives raped the child.
Fast forward to 1981
I was directing an off-Broadway play and told my designer that I’d like our stage set to look and feel like the World in Wax Musee because it was the most frightening space I’d ever been in. The brutal artlessness of the exhibits made it so. Its dioramas-of-death captured a bottom-feeder, off-hand brand of sex-violence that even the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer could not match.
It was the very cheapness of the materials and mannequins used that gave the murder scenes their terrible power. The ill-fitting clothes and ill-posed limbs evoked nothing of reality. Yet, it was this very absence of life, movement or any hint of reality that made the mannequins seem ready to burst into murderous life. It was the gouts of ketchup-like blood splattered on the walls and linoleum; the flickering fluorescent lights and the chicken wire that separated the viewer from the crime scenes that chilled to the bone.
There was something especially unsettling about a cheap dummy sticking a screwdriver into another cheap dummy’s neck or hiding under a female dummy’s bed. It was beyond the stuff of nightmares.
Lillie also had a Hall of Fame where you really needed a score card to tell the players apart. I suspect Lillie had only one Caucasian head mould and one Negro head mould coz Elvis looked like Harry Truman looked like John Glenn looked like Popeye. And, Muhammad Ali looked like Jackie Robinson looked like Louis Armstrong looked like Buckwheat.
Anyway… my designer visited the Musee and later cursed me for scarring her for life. While there, she spoke with Lillie who mentioned that she needed a new recorded announcement to draw a crowd but didn’t know any actors who could make one. Her budget was $10. My designer told Lillie about me and that’s how I got to spend an afternoon wandering around the World in Wax Musee (by my lonesome) gathering ideas and composing my spiel. (I have never looked over my shoulder so many times in my life!) P.S. I did the gig for free.
Lillie let me sit in her office to write my script. I noticed that she had a large ashtray on her desk filled with artificial eyes, ears and fingers that had been plucked or melted off. (I confess that I stole one of the fingers. I like to think it came from the hand of Red Foxx but it might have belonged to Hickman the Fox who kidnapped, murdered and dismembered a child in 1927.)
Lillie didn’t play my recording for long because she shut the Musee’s doors soon after my visit. (Jeez, I didn’t think I was that bad!) But, I wasn’t surprised when she cIosed. I had been there on a summer weekend and I’d had the Musee to myself for hours. Lillie had even tried throwing a few phrases of Spanish and Ebonics into her pitch in an attempt to draw in Coney’s new demographic but, alas, it was not to be. The writing was on the Musee wall.
In 1986, Lillie’s entire collection was sold at auction for a tidy sum – there has always been a lucrative market for circus and side show collectibles. And, her Musee was second in size and importance only to Madame Tussaud’s in London! Along with the dioramas-of-death, 100 wax heads found in Lillie’s attic were also sold. The auction catalogue listed heads of Babe Ruth and Frank Sinatra. But, how could they tell? Those heads could easily have been Leopold and Loeb or Abbott and Costello.
On the stoops of 1950s Brooklyn, the subjects debated included sex, race, sex, religion, sex, baseball, sex, politics, sex and the price of pork bellies on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. But, once the Russkies got the “H” Bomb and thus trumped our “A” Bomb the most hotly debated topic was nuclear proliferation –
“Lissen kid, when World War Three breaks out, Brooklyn goes first.”
“How come?” I gulped.
“How come? Ya kiddin’ me? The Navy Yard!”
Now, it must be said that the Brooklyn Navy Yard played a major, nay, indispensable role in the victory of World War Two. Brooklyn was/is justly proud of its contribution. But, with hindsight and considerable regret, I confess I’m not convinced that by 1955 Brooklyn would have been #1 on Moscow’s hit list. In 1945? You bet yer ass. 1955? Mmm… maybe not.
Today, I would consider it a boon to humanity if Moscow nuked Brooklyn. I long to see its galleries of ironic art incinerated; its ubiquitous nannies and au pairs obliterated; the yummy mummies who employ them turned to dust; the metrosexual soyboys of Williamsburg and Bushwick reduced to atoms and Brooklyn’s stoops and vestibules left standing naked against the angry sky – the buildings to which they’d been attached blown all the way to Canarsie. Then, out of the rubble, tiny antennae will feel, push and emerge as King Cockroach reclaims the county of Kings.
Like most kids in Cold War Brooklyn, I spent a considerable amount of time cowering inside a “fallout shelter” i.e. stuffed under my school desk. Our nuns at St. John the Pederast School took these survival drills deadly seriously. They demanded fingers on lips and hands on rosary beads until the all clear. (These sirens were a major part of the soundscape of my Brooklyn childhood but, for the life of me, I can’t remember when their blaring stopped.)
In October of 1962, during the darkest days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was only twelve but already a political junkie so I was understandably scared shitless. The morning after JFK’s famous speech to the nation when nuclear holocaust seemed moments away, my mother called her six children into the kitchen and explained that we might not ever see each other again but that we shouldn’t worry coz we’d all be “going together in a flash” – she at home, we at school and our father in his Wall Street office. Then in the throaty melodramatic tone she’d learned as a wannabe actress, she read a poem to us. It described New York City under nuclear attack. I found the description of the waters of New York harbor flooding into the canyons of Wall Street particularly harrowing and was glad that my father worked on a high floor there. Then I crawled to school sure that I’d never see lunch again let alone my siblings. I took some solace in the fact that the Yankees had just beaten the Giants in the World Series and would (like Cagney in White Heat) go out “top of the world, Ma!”
I’ve since learned that the world wasn’t as close to nuclear Armageddon as I thought at the time. Various back channel assets and deep state actors on both sides of the standoff had agreed to not blow each other to smithereens. So, as JFK and Khrushchev blustered and bluffed, the fate of the world had already been taken from their hands, sealed and saved.
Thanks for visiting my blog. It is a sampler of my murder-memoir Boy Outa Brooklyn. The best way to enjoy it is to start at the first post and read chronologically. I hope you’ll find it both hilarious and horrifying.
I will also be posting about the best books, movies and songs about Brooklyn. And, sharing my practical and off-beat travel tips. If you enjoy my blog, please follow me. Hover your mouse in the lower right corner of the screen and a pop-up box will appear. Enter your email address and you’ll never miss one of my posts. Your address will not be sold or shared and you won’t be pestered with any sales cons.
Okay, so it was the mid-1970s and I was acting in a play in Indianapolis which is in mid-Indiana. Always looking to pick up some spare change, I auditioned for a commercial slated for local TV. Make that slated for “late-night TV.” Make that “low-budget TV.” Very low budget. The ad was for a local tuxedo rental joint. Let’s call it PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ. All tuxedo rental joints in America are called PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ, or TOP HAT. It’s the law.
I got the gig coz I was a size 38 regular so any tux off the rack would fit me. And, funnily enough, the ad called for me to wear 38 different tuxedos while reciting the same spiel 38 times and using identical vocal inflections and identical hand gestures.
“Hey, come on down to PUTTIN‘ ON THE RITZ and we’ll put a ritzy tuxedo on you!”
Then thanks to “state of the art” circa-1975 video editing, it appeared that all 38 tuxes changed on my body as if by magic. (Stanley Kubrick eat your heart out!)
Now, mind you, this was the mid-1970s aka the decade style forgot. (Do you remember that unfortunate 1940s fashion revival, or the dreadful Liza Minnelli in Cabaret look? Or, how ‘bout those “street urchin, shoe shine boy” get-ups? What the fuck were people thinking?) So, true to the fashion zeitgeist, all 38 tuxes were made of crushed velvet. (It gets worse.) Crushed velvet in lime green, shocking pink, powder blue, canary yellow and zebra stripes. (Wait, there’s more.) The cut of the jacket, ruffled shirt and massive bow tie suggested a Mississippi River boat gambler. Sort of Yancey Derringer on a bad day.
The owner of the shop was nervously watching the shoot and the clock. But, I was a fast line learner and more importantly a fast clothes changer so he took a liking to me. While adjusting one especially vomitus jacket on my person, he confided in reverent, hushed tone, “Jackie Boy, this is our most popular cut. We call it the Tony Orlando.”
Being seen on TV, even just late-night, local TV, made me a local celebrity. All the decrepit old ladies living in the decrepit old apartment building we actors called home treated me like I was a movie star and argued over whether I was more handsome in blushing peach or midnight purple.
And, the married couples who made up most of our audiences were also ritzy dressers. They favored the matching he/she leisure suits that were then all the rage; matching leisure suits in lime green, shocking pink, powder blue, canary yellow, blushing peach, midnight purple and (yes) zebra stripes. Anytime I had to look directly at the audience, I put on welder’s goggles!
During and just after World War Two, Brooklyn became America’s surrogate home town. In the war movies, every tank and submarine crew included a much-loved, wise-crackin’, skirt chasin’ guy from Flatbush. The comic Phil Foster carried this tradition into outer space as the most unlikely astronaut in history. In the 1955 low-budge flick Conquest of Space, “Flatbush Phil” stares out the space ship porthole as it circles the Earth and shouts, “Hey, deres Brooklyn. How ‘re da Dodgers doin’?”
I think Brooklyn’s much loved and easily imitated Brooklynese accent helped make the borough a shared joke that bonded military units and the folks back home. Do you remember when anytime someone announced on a radio or TV program that they were from Brooklyn the audience would break into instant laughter and applause? I’m not sure anyone even knew why they did that. But, it might have been down to a shared folk memory. After all, this was a time when 1-in-4 Americans could trace their family back to Brooklyn! (Probably 3-in-4 wanted to chase them back there!)
Meanwhile, the tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley, always on the lookout for a hit, mined the instant folksiness, humor and sentimentality of Brooklyn. Whipping out their “June – Moon” rhyming dictionary they produced delightful ditties like Give Me The Moon Over Brooklyn by Matthews & Shand. (Believe it or not, Guy Lombardo did a very catchy version of it.) And, Same Moon Shines In Brooklyn by Felsen & Peters.
Another sweet, nostalgic tune is In Brooklyn by John Benson Brooks and Stanley Adams. Benson Brooks later composed the brilliant jazz-blues piece Alabama Concerto. Adams wrote lyrics for Hoagy Carmichael and Visitor Herbert. All the songs mentioned were written in the midst or the shadow of WW2.
The centre of pop music songwriting in New York moved uptown from Tin Pan Alley on W. 28th st. to midtown’s Brill Building. But, so many of the composers and lyricists who worked there were from Brooklyn that it should have been called the Brooklyn Building. Just read the list below and you’ll see that the “Sound of Brooklyn” became the “Sound of America.”
Neil Diamond, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Hal David, Howard Greenfield, Neil Sedaka, Mort Shuman, Doc Pomus, Barry Mann.
Brooklyn and her bridge have been featured in countless movies, stories and songs. My favorite song about the bridge was written for Sinatra in the 1947 MGM musical It Happened In Brooklyn. It was penned by the legendary team of lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer June Styne.
Their lilting tune and snappy, slightly sentimental lyrics effortlessly capture the look and feel of the bridge and the city. Here’s a taste of Cahn’s lyrics :
If you’ve been a rover Journey’s end lies over the Brooklyn Bridge Don’t let no one tell you I’ve been tryin’ to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge
My favorite recording of Brooklyn Bridge is by Mel Tormé. (It was later sampled for a duet with Barry Manilow!) I came to appreciate Mel Tormé late in life. I’d dismissed him as just another finger-snapping lounge-lizard. How wrong I was! The man was a musical genius. Don’t believe me? Listen to his arrangements and vocals with the Mel-Tones. Get a hold of his original California Suite and his several albums with the brilliant arranger Marty Paich. If you enjoy pop, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, show tunes, swinging jazz and vocal harmony groups then you are in for a treat.
A great place to start is Mel Tormé Sings Sunday In New York. Come to think of it, that’s another under-rated song about New York! Cute movie, too!