I dearly loved the kids I spent most of my early life with: the 93rd Street Gang. We were not your typical New York City street gang except in a few very select ways. We always left the block in a group. Even though on only one occasion do I recall ever being threatened by a group outside our neighborhood, and that was just hyped-up bluster, we preferred not to leave the hallowed macadam and concrete of East 93rd Street, between Flatlands Avenue and Avenue L. And we really only hung out between Avenues J and K. In other words, we lived on stoops belonging to the Kriegels, the Phillipses, the Sullivans, and, rarely due to Isaac, in my backyard. That backyard part changed dramatically after Pop built his screened-in patio.
I always looked up to my dad as an athlete and a man of faith, but I never really saw him as a carpenter until he got the idea to use the east wall of an old shed to create an elaborate lean-to that featured three sides made of wood-framed storm windows in the winter and wood-framed screens in the summer. It was a work of genius.
I never knew from where Pop got the idea for the screened-in patio, maybe from a magazine. I suspect the plans were drawn by one of Pop’s three engineer brothers-in-law. But Pop built it, with very little outside help. It was a true work of art, as well as a work of Art.
The roof was sturdy enough to hold three or four kids playing on it. The windows were secure enough to withstand a couple of serious hurricanes. The patio even extended enough past the old shed to allow a storage area to be built that provided an off-season home to the screens and windows. Genius.
More than all those things, the screened-in patio gave the Gang a refuge from the weather when it was inclement and from Isaac all the time. The patio was enjoyed on summer nights by the Gang, on Sunday afternoons by family and Mom and Pop’s friends, and on Sunday nights after church by the kids from Grace. We held our “carouses” there when we weren’t carousing at the parsonage.
Being denied almost every worldly pleasure our non-Grace friends enjoyed, the one thing we got was an after-church gathering—a carouse—about once a month, where we could really just be normal kids. Okay, we couldn’t swear, and at the parsonage we couldn’t even listen to Top 40 music. But the silly icebreakers, the serious talks, and the snacks were worth it. Add the Beatles and the Stones to the mix, at least in the screened-in patio, and it was almost heaven for kids who thought heaven was only for them.
No, we were not your everyday street gang. Add the Catholics to us Grace kids and we were something else, but something good. So we never left our friendly confines except as a group. And we would stand up for each other against any outsiders, no matter how hard we fought among ourselves. Those are gang-like things, right?
There were some less-than-gang-related activities, however. Somehow, Billy Knudsen got hold of a Super 8 movie camera and the Gang became filmmakers.
The Soupy Sales Show was hip enough to attract guests like Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. It featured pies in the face—Soupy’s trademark—as well as sketches kids laughed at but only grown-ups understood. The Gang loved Soupy, none more than me.
I bought every piece of Soupy Sales merchandise I could get my parents to spring for. I had a big Soupy button I wore to church proudly. But the piéce de résistance was my oversized “official” Soupy bow tie, bright red with white polka dots. I actually wore it to school one time, but the teachers made me take it off: too distracting. Not too long ago, I think I saw it in a box somewhere. I’ll have to look again.
As much as I loved Soupy Sales, he and his show provided me with two of the greatest disappointments of my young life. The first was all on Soupy himself. The second I’m sure he had little to do with.
One year, during the successful run of his New York television show, Soupy was forced by the network to work on New Year’s Day. He was not happy, so he decided to do something outlandish, but not intentionally bad, on his show that day. Because Soupy regularly broke down the “fourth wall,” he spoke directly to his viewers; that is, the predominantly little kids who tuned in every day, even on New Year’s. Soupy simply instructed his young fans to go into their parents’ bedrooms (assuming they were sleeping off New Year's Eve), remove the green, wrinkly papers from their purses and wallets, and send them to him at the address shown on their TV screens. He really didn’t mean it seriously, or so we who believed in him believed.
Soupy may not have taken himself seriously, but his little fans certainly did. Within days the network was deluged with hand-printed envelopes containing cash. Soupy announced on air that all monies received would be donated directly to charity. A very embarrassed WNEW wanted to suspend Soupy, but a groundswell of fan support—presumably his young adult and teen fan base—held the network in check.
I was in-between, maybe 13 or 14. I knew Soupy was kidding, and it didn’t bother me at first. Then I heard about little kids, who trusted their idol, stealing money from their parents’ rooms. It didn't feel right. He should’ve known better. I didn’t know then why he did it. Maybe it would have mattered. I don’t know. I was just disappointed in my pie-faced Soupy.
If idols are false gods, that would have made Soupy Sales my false god. But the Real (if you’re so inclined to believe) One bestowed on me an even greater disappointment that year.
Have you ever wanted something so strongly you started to believe you deserved it? And then the more you wanted it you almost felt it was already yours? That’s how I felt about the full-scale rideable replica of a nineteenth century high-wheel bicycle that was first prize in a contest held by one of Soupy’s sponsors. All I had to do was enter, or write a short essay, which would have made me even more confident, aspiring reporter that I was.
I sent in the requisite box top, index card, essay, whatever and, like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, waited for my prize. I dreamed about that bike. I truly expected to win that contest. Why? Because I had prayed about it.
I prayed about it every day before, during, and after The Soupy Sales Show. I imagined myself seated over that giant front wheel high above the kids with their 26” Raleighs and Schwinns. I knew the bicycle was mine.
The contest ended. I waited to receive news of when the high-wheel was coming, or at least a congratulatory letter telling me where to pick it up. Nothing.
It was God’s fault.
Dammit! I’d prayed as hard as anyone ever prayed for anything. Okay, maybe not as hard as Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but God didn’t answer his prayer either.
Something died in me the day I realized the high-wheeled bicycle wasn’t coming. No, I didn’t lose my faith, but I was severely disappointed in a God I thought would do anything for me. You might call that being dis-illusioned; that is, having my illusions about God removed. To a thirteen year-old it just plain sucked.
After Soupy Sales there was Batman, who was big everywhere. The 93rd Street Gang had to capitalize on that, and this time we had a plan.
Setting up our Batman movie took days, maybe even a week. We had starring roles to cast, which went to Eddie Gentile (Batman) and Billy Knudsen (Robin). Our movie would include all the male villains from the TV show that we could think of: the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, even a one-episode minor bad guy called False Face, who always wore a mask and a black turtleneck with his trademark FF on the chest. We needed the lowest rung on the Gang’s ladder for that role: me. Still, there must have been an unspoken lower rung. In spite of Cat Woman’s popularity on TV, and with two talented female Gang members available—Judy and Susan—we stuck with an all-male cast.
Casting cameo roles, so vital to our movie, took a bit of inspiration. We needed someone older, but not ancient, to play Commissioner Gordon. Since my brother was still living at home, he seemed the perfect choice. His military bearing gave him the right look for a street-wise career cop. Since I had the only house and yard big enough to pass for the Wayne mansion, the role of Alfred fell to Pop. With utmost dignity he followed the script to the letter and brought Bruce Wayne the batphone when the call came from the commissioner. Pop was an awesome Alfred: so dignified, so proper, with a little twinkle in his eye.
The plot, as in all our films, was tentative. Still, the plan called for a bank robbery, a police chase, and a major fight scene. It could never happen today. But in 1966, the necessary events actually transpired, with a little luck.
First, we needed a bank robbery. Well, Canarsie had a lot of banks, but which one would allow a half dozen teenagers with a camera to film a robbery? The first one we asked, it turns out. Try that in the 21st century. We were given permission to film the bad guys entering the bank in costume and then leaving the bank with bags of loot, which we provided. No customers were in any way put out by the filming.
Second, we needed a police chase. We planned to ask or beg a police officer to chase us on foot, but as we stood around the bank setting up the shoot, two NYPD vehicles happened to pass by. Our camera operator was johnny-on-the-spot and captured the whole scene, which was spliced into the film to make it look like the cops were chasing us. It was perfect.
The scenes where Commissioner Gordon called Batman and where Alfred delivered the batphone went off perfectly. Our remaining challenge was getting the superheroes into Police Headquarters. It only took a little persuasion from our cameraman, the only one of us not dressed in a ridiculous costume. He simply walked up to the Desk Sergeant of our local police precinct, explained what we were doing, and received permission to film Batman and Robin running into and out of the police station. It was as easy as robbing a bank.
The battle royale between the heroes and villains took place in the dunes of Seaview Park by Jamaica Bay. Some films are known for their elaborately choreographed fight scenes, such as those in John Wayne movies like McLintock. Ours was just an excuse to roll around in the sand. Barely waiting for a stage punch, we dove into the dunes; we rolled down them, somersaulted down them, and sometimes fell down them for no apparent reason. Eventually, all us villains were incapacitated and justice prevailed.
Today, our effort would have been posted to YouTube, and maybe someone would notice and next thing you know we’d be pseudo celebrities. In 1966, when the movie premiered in Eddie’s basement, and then went on the road to a few more basements and dens, we were genuine celebrities, stars of the highest magnitude, at least on the block. At least in the neighborhood. And that’s where it really counted.
Someone once said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” That is no less true in Brooklyn than in Zimbabwe. Read about neighborhood parenting in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.