Alfonse at work
Grandfather lit up a Salem and recalled the young Joan Crawford as we sat around the dining table. “She would do anything with anybody,” he said with a knowing wink. Grandmother shushed him with “Alfonse!” as she and Mom cleared the table.
Mom stamped her foot on the kitchen floor, interrupting the cat licking the butter stick on top of the table. Grandmother Levy laughed and recalled a story involving a cat and her Mother who had been a six-gun toting Texas constable.
A reelection ink blotter for Great-Grandmother Meeks
as Constable of Bexar County
My brother David excused himself to play the piano. The Scrabble board made its ritualistic appearance. Alfonse and Dad were serious players who squared off with a large dictionary staged next to the board to settle word disputes. David’s rendition of a Cole Porter standard filled the room as I resumed reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It was another family weekend concluded by dinner with Alfonse.
Alfonse was Mom’s stepfather. He married Levy in 1942 when she, Alfonse, Mom and Aunt Paula lived in Los Angeles. Levy had been previously married to a prominent cattleman named Paul Hill who was Mom and Paula’s father. As a sideline to his livestock business, Hill produced rodeos at Gilmore Stadium and at a Saugus stadium that later became a racetrack. He also owned a hot dog stand at Santa Monica during the 1930s. Hill continued to promote rodeos during World War II, often partnering with cowboy star Hoot Gibson. The Hill’s social whirl of friends included comedian Charley Chase and a young Walter Pidgeon who sang at their parties.
Paul Hill’s hot dog stand at Santa Monica beach with
Grandmother Levy standing at center
Universal scream queen Evelyn Ankers was the
featured guest star of this Paul Hill rodeo.
Levy hosted a radio show in Los Angeles during the 1920s and attempted to keep it a secret from her husband. Inevitably Hill found out and made her quit. It was considered demeaning for a successful businessman to have a wife who worked in those days even if the husband was a philandering drunk. Decades later, Mom told me about the time Grandmother caught her husband in a Santa Barbara hotel during a tryst and beat him with her make-up case. The marital Rubicon was crossed when the family discovered that Hill was having an affair with Grandmother’s best friend. Their 1938 divorce appeared below the fold of the Los Angeles Examiner. Mom and Paula were protectively shipped off to a convent — “It had a 10 foot wall,” Mom confided — before resuming their formative years in the City of Angels.
Grandmother, Mom and Paula moved around L.A. like a trio of gypsies. When Mom made her final West Coast visit in 2008, we tracked down 13 former houses and apartments in the Wilshire district and the flats of Beverly Hills that she lived in until departing the coast for good in 1946. When I asked why she moved so much, Mom said that she would locate a nicer house or apartment and would tell her Mother about it. “Call Bekins,” declared Levy as they prepared to move yet again.
Before the divorce, Levy and her daughters lived out in Saugus. The torrential flood of 1938 destroyed their house along with many of their possessions. It was a regressive economic year for the entire country and especially so for the Hill family. The Saugus ranch was repossessed after the flood with ownership passing to William Bonnell who eventually went into auto racing. Levy and her girls moved to an apartment in the flats of Beverly Hills. They took solace by visiting their uncle who lived out in far reaches of the San Fernando Valley.
Uncle Roy — he was actually Levy’s second cousin — owned a sprawling ranch adjacent to the Chatsworth reservoir. He had a menagerie of goats, horses, donkeys and a chimpanzee that wandered around more or less unattended. Roy Glover was a genial man who drank steadily and remained comfortably oblivious to the mundane. Mom recalled that he once drove halfway to California from Texas with the emergency brake set on his car. He defrayed the upkeep of his land by renting out cabanas that dotted the acreage. Grandmother and the two girls made weekend and summer excursions to Uncle Roy’s during an era when motoring from Beverly Hills to the far reaches of the eastern Valley was akin to a Roy Chapman Andrews expedition to the Flaming Mongolian Cliffs. Uncle Roy donated a parcel of his land to the city that became the present-day Lakeside Park. By the late 1930s, the Hill sisters became accustomed to the constant presence of Alfonse who began courting Levy in earnest after her divorce was finalized.
Mom & Paula at Uncle Roy’s during the early 1930s.
Alfonso Corelli arrived in New York City aboard the RMS Saxonia on November 22, 1922. Austrian-born in 1900, he was the eldest son of an upper middle class Jewish family. A violin player with aspirations of becoming a composer, he cloaked his Jewish heritage when he changed his surname from Neumann to that of Arcangelo Corelli, an admired Baroque composer and violinist. Alfonse made the ocean transit from Hamburg, Germany with his friend John Reinhardt. He and Reinhardt pooled their money, bought a jalopy in New York and drove across the country to the land of milk and honey. After working with Fox in Mexico, Reinhardt would direct several intriguing low budget Hollywood films. I learned of their friendship when David told me about it after I mentioned the Film Noir Foundation’s recent restoration of Reinhardt’s gritty High Tide (1947).
Alfonse began in Los Angeles as a cabbie and, according to his future business partner Fred Jacobs, sold Prohibition hooch out of his violin case in order to make ends meet. He transitioned into a sideline or mood musician during the era of silent films. While on working on movie sets, he became friendly with several notable performers including Evelyn Brent and Norman Kerry. He became close with Ruth Chatterton whom he would visit in Connecticut many years afterwards; we wondered later on if there was more than friendship involved with that particular relationship. Alfonse supplemented his earnings by working as a bit actor. He appeared in King of Kings (1927), was a strolling violinist playing for Great Garbo in The Mysterious Lady (1928) and also appeared in Weary River (1929).
He landed a job at Universal as an assistant to Dutch composer David Broekman who became his professional mentor. Alfonse learned about dubbing and editing while working closely with Broekman on All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). He also composed music for the studio. Some of his compositions turned up in The Criminal Code (1931) and Forbidden (1932). When Universal fired Broekman in a cost cutting move, Alfonse quit the studio in protest. He maintained a sense of prideful honor that overrode any concern about job security.
Alfonse in Hollywood circa 1930
He directed an orchestra that performed at the Carthay Circle Theater and at Marion Davies’ Santa Monica beach house for William Randolph Hearst. According to Alfonse, Hearst was a sentimental man whose favorite tune was the Moses-Tobani standard “Hearts and Flowers.” But there was a darker side to the venerable press lord. One of the orchestra’s musicians played on Hearst’s yacht in 1924 during the mysterious death of movie mogul Thomas Ince. He confided to Alfonse that he and the other musicians were paid off by Hearst not to reveal anything that occurred during the fatal voyage.
A company called Educational Pictures hired him as music director for a series of comedy shorts. He composed and conducted his arrangements for the “Baby Burlesk” series starring five-year old Shirley Temple who mimicked popular movie stars while cavorting about in oversized diapers. Although he was not one to toot his own horn, Alfonse claimed that he originated the title, Polly Tix in Washington (1933) for one of the Temple shorts. Another Corelli titular composition was Dora’s Dunking Donuts (1933) teaming Temple with comedian Andy Clyde. Although he was notoriously impatient with children, Alfonse respected the delightfully intelligent Shirley. He recalled that Mrs. Temple asked him what he could do to help promote her daughter’s career. He shrugged after discussing the experience during dinner: “What could I do? I was only the music director.” Temple would soon move on to Twentieth Century Fox and mega-stardom.
Dora’s Dunking Donuts (1933) Andy Clyde,
Dora Sykes and Shirley Temple at right
Jack Hays, producer of the comedy shorts, also ran a diction school for budding child actors. Alfonse was getting $25 per week from Educational Pictures– nobody was paid for two days of rehearsal before three days of filming—that was cut to $10 when he was reclassified as a “diction teacher.” He quit and petitioned the California State Labor Board to recoup $41.67 in back pay. In 1933, these seemingly trivial amounts of money constituted more than a living wage. Whenever the price of food was discussed, Mom frequently reminisced about dining at the Thrifty Drug Store on Wilshire during the Depression: “You could get a huge T-bone steak, served on a wooden plank with a big baked potato and green beans for 75 cents.”
Alfonse returned to Universal as an assistant to music director Charles Previn while continuing to appear in movie bits including Palooka (1934) and Postal Inspector (1936) a forgettable Bela Lugosi programmer. This particular role became retrospectively memorable to us because, despite excellent diction, his voice was dubbed. During dinner, Alfonse described Lugosi as a “nice Hungarian gentleman who struggled to speak English and got hooked on dope.” He worked in front of and behind the camera in Top of the Town (1937) an awful musical comedy starring George Murphy and Doris Nolan. In addition to portraying another violinist, he labored on the Moviola editing machine to synch the taps of dancer Peggy Ryan to the film’s soundtrack.
Top of the Town (1937) Alfonse can be seen to the right
of the orchestra standing behind Gertrude Niesen.
A high point was his collaboration with Leopold Stokowski on the Deanna Durbin hit One Hundred Men and A Girl (1937). As Previn’s chief assistant, he worked closely with Stokowski. Once again, pride intervened. In one of the slights that are endemic to the movie business, Alfonse was not invited to the film’s wrap party nor was he given screen credit. He quit Universal again, this time for good. David Broekeman hired him as a violinist in his orchestra on the Texaco Star Theater radio program and he also played in Raymond Page’s orchestra. He continued popping up in films including portraying Johann Strauss conducting The Blue Danube in Champagne Waltz (1937).
Deanna Durbin & Leopold Stokowski in One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937).
Grandmother’s sister, Lorraine, was tapped by Samuel Goldwyn for a screen test after making a splash in a Texas talent program. A radio singer, Lorraine Meeks had an appealing voice that was offset by an underwhelming physical appearance. Barely five feet tall, she was precariously balanced on a pair of severely bowed legs. Not surprisingly, she favored long dresses and accentuated high-heeled shoes drawn from a voluminous ensemble of footwear. Hoping that Goldwyn overlooked a genuine screen talent, Universal dispatched Alfonse in 1937 to check out Lorraine who was staying at the Hill’s current residence near the Miracle Mile. He grimaced upon meeting her, but was transfixed by Levy, maintaining forever after that it was “love at first sight.” He arranged a screen test for Lorraine primarily because of his infatuation with her older sister. His unkind assessment — “Better stick to radio” — did nothing to endear the pair to one another. I came to know Aunt Lorraine as a sweet, gentle soul who was blissfully unaware of her professional limitations.
Newspaper account of Lorraine’s Goldwyn screen test.
Aunt Lorraine with a few of her shoes
Observing the diminutive Lorraine next to her brother Curtis “Tex” Meeks was a visual dichotomy. A template for a Reader’s Digest “Most Unforgettable Character” profile, Curtis was an imposing 6’8” tough guy who doubled Gary Cooper in The Virginian in 1929, rode horseback for the Border Patrol and was a building inspector in San Antonio, Texas. He fought Jack Dempsey in a 1925 exhibition bout claiming, “I knocked him down and then he got up and knocked me down 25 times!” While accompanying him to the grocery store, he showed me a revolver stashed under the front seat of his car. Uncle Curtis assured me that while age might be creeping up on him, he remained prepared for all contingencies. Retired after breaking his back several times while inspecting derelict buildings, he whiled away his time making agate jewelry and painting bizarre-looking pictures of celebrities on the walls of the San Antonio home he shared with Lorraine. He deified his late wife Georgia and always treated us with affection.
Curtis Meeks pictured with bantamweight Little Kid Herman (far left), legendary
manager Jack “Doc” Kearns (with cap) and Jack Dempsey. Boxer Jack League
is at far right. Dempsey reigned as the world’s heavyweight champion for
six years when he fought Curtis in a 1925 exhibition bout.
Uncle Curtis at the border
Alfonse disparaged Lorraine almost as assiduously as he worshipped Levy. “She had a nice parlor voice,” he remarked dismissively while extending his plate for a second helping. Lorraine’s lifelong crusade for a show business career eventually bankrupted both herself and her mother. She never caught a break. At the age of 60, she landed a role in The Sugarland Express (1974). Attending the premiere, Lorraine discovered that her part had been cut out of the picture.
Aunt Lorraine, Jack Dempsey and Great-Grandmother Meeks
at Dempsey’s NYC restaurant during the 1950s.
Like Levy, Alfonse was also a divorcee. He said he married his first wife Alice primarily because she spoke German. Before the brief liaison dissolved, they had a daughter named Lotus born in 1924. He and Lotus would fall out due to what Alfonse believed was her licentious life style. When he discovered his daughter was involved with jazz saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, he figuratively disowned her. Lotus married director Robert Altman in 1954, appeared in his film The Delinquents (1957) and had two sons with him. Although he and his daughter remained estranged, Alfonse maintained a photo of Lotus on his dresser for the rest of his life.
Lotus Corelli portrait by Hesser
He became frantic to get his family out of Austria after the Nazis took control of the country after the 1937 Anschluss. Not knowing what else to do, he wrote a personal plea for assistance to President Roosevelt. Not only did he receive a written response from the State Department, the government expedited entry visas for his father, his younger brother Richard and wife Emmy. The rescue of his family converted Alfonse into a worshipful admirer of the 32nd President. A sure way to initiate an argument during dinner was to say anything even slightly disparaging about Franklin Roosevelt. When Dad remarked that Roosevelt probably didn’t review Alfonse’s letter; Alfonse vociferously insisted that F.D.R. personally intervened on his behalf.
We discovered that Richard and Emmy got out of Austria in the nick of time. Over dinner, Emmy remembered being forced to scrub the streets for the incoming Nazis. Richard was lucky to be alive. He was taken to the local police station with a group of other Jewish men who were being lined up and shot. He was waiting his turn for a bullet, when a Viennese policeman who knew Richard from their Masonic lodge spotted him. The cop pulled him out of line and quietly let him go. Listening to these stories personalized the reality of the Holocaust for me in a way that no book ever could.
Levy & Alfonse with Richard & Emmy in Las Vegas
As Alfonse drew close to Levy, several of his friends were assimilated into the Hill family circle. Most notable was a German actor named Arno Frey. Arno achieved career apogee during World War II when he was cast as a succession of Nazis in Hollywood war movies. Mom accompanied him to the Chinese Theater for the premiere of Underground (1941). The finale featured Arno, decked out in Nazi black with a swastika armband, conveying partisan leader Philip Dorn to the guillotine.
Arno was the Imperial Ruling Knight of the Hollywood Bohemia Club that he founded in 1935. Columnist Ezra Goodman described the club as “a group of show business folk dedicated to the feudal life.” According to Arno, the purpose of the group, modeled on King Arthur’s round table, was to allow show people “to completely forget the outside world, all the troubles and mundane worries and relax in a dreamland one day a week.” Alfonse’s Bohemian title was “Knight Cremona, the inconstant Fiddler.” It was long afterward I realized that the actor who played the headwaiter in In a Lonely Place (1950) was the family friend that I grew up hearing stories about. Arno gave Mom away at both of her weddings including her marriage to Dad at the Hollywood Lutheran Church in 1946.
Arno Frey (center) with Frank Buck in Tiger Fangs (1943)
Alfonse’s Hollywood Bohemian Club title declaration
One of Grandmother’s friends was photographer Edmund Bower Hesser who shot the first nude portraits of Jean Harlow in Griffith Park. “Karl” Hesser and his much-younger wife Eve lived in one of the cabanas on Uncle Roy’s ranch. One of Mom’s oft-told stories concerned a Hesser party she attended when John Barrymore, John Decker and other Hollywood luminaries dropped by. Barrymore, nearing the end of the line, was hauling around a suitcase filled with booze. He loudly complained about his agent — “The bastard has me by my very balls!” — while holding court with a rapt circle of admirers. Another highlight had Barrymore banging on a locked bathroom door while Aunt Lorraine cowered within. “Hurry up,” thundered the Great Profile. “What are you doing in there, unloading a bear?” Afterwards Lorraine essayed a feeble joke: “What did one ink spot say to the other? Are you blue?” Barrymore arched an eyebrow at Hesser: “Karl, where do you get these creatures?” At another get-together, John Carradine asked Mom if he could sculpt her in the nude. His offer was declined.
Hesser shot numerous portraits of Mom and Paula that I located decades later with his papers at UCLA. Mom did some extra work in Our Gang comedies as a kid and took lessons at Ben Bard’s acting school where she met and began her lifelong crush on actor Jack Carson. While cleaning out her condo, a vinyl recording of her performance in Clifford Odet’s Waiting for Lefty turned up. Aunt Paula was indifferent to Hollywood glitz even though her girlfriend’s father, actor Frank Puglia urged her to take up acting. Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn was an intermittent member of Levy’s bridge circle. He told Grandmother that he would gladly give her youngest daughter a screen test, but Paula had no interest. “All Paula wanted when she was 15 were a pair of cowboy boots and a dog,” said Mom.
Hesser Portrait of Mom
Hesser portrait of Aunt Paula
Alfonse exceeded the draft age for World War II military service, but felt obligated to serve his adopted homeland that rescued his family. He enlisted in the Army in 1943. Based on his civilian expertise, he was assigned to the Signal Corps and posted to Astoria in New York City. Levy couldn’t endure the prolonged separation and joined Alfonse to work as a civil service film editor as they took an apartment in nearby Sunnyside.
Remaining in Hollywood during the war, Mom married and divorced a Russian-born cartoonist named Igor (Bob) Maslenikoff who was Yul Brynner’s first cousin. Her recollection of hanging out with Yul (who sang and played the guitar) was a revered memory. After Hollywood High, she worked at Bullocks while also performing secretarial work. Needing some extra cash in order to visit her Mother and Alfonse in New York, she attempted to sublet her apartment to Buster Wiles, Errol Flynn’s stuntman buddy. She was stopped by a watchful Beverly Hills vice detective who was a friend of the family. “You have no idea what you’re letting yourself in for with Wiles, Flynn, Bruce Cabot and that crowd,” he told her as he telephoned the stuntman to advise him that the deal was off. Mom managed the trip to New York anyway and was treated by Alfonse and Levy to nightclubbing and cheesecake at Lindy’s before returning to L.A. Alfonse noticed in the paper that Broadway columnist Earl Wilson was out of town. He squired Levy and Mom into the Latin Quarter and announced he was a close friend of Wilson who said he could have his table. Ensconced at ringside, they got to watch Milton Berle who made fun of Mom’s alpaca coat.
Mom moved in with Paula in an apartment at Metropolitan Plaza near Park La Brea. Paula had gotten married to Uncle Simon in 1942 and when he returned from the war, a buddy who was also in the U.S Army Air Corps accompanied him. The pair had met on the troop ship out of Hawaii while playing poker during the transit to California. Major Erwin A. Rode married Mom two weeks later. After spending a couple of bone-chilling winters in Winnipeg, Canada while Dad studied to become an actuary at the University of Manitoba, they settled with Alfonse and Levy in Queens. Dad went to work at Prudential Insurance in Newark. After David was born, they moved to New Jersey where I made my appearance.
Post WWII at Metropolitan Plaza: Uncle Simon,
Aunt Paula, Dad, Mom and Aunt Emmy
After the war, Alfonse worked in New York as a free-lance composer and dubbing specialist. He did a stint with M-G-M, dubbing the Spanish versions of their films for the South American market. He worked closely with Carlos Montalban, the older brother of Ricardo before his days of TV commercials as “El Exigente, the demanding one” for Colombian coffee. Alfonse also composed and dubbed the music soundtrack for pioneer African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s final film, The Betrayed (1948). Mom remembered Micheaux as “an extremely gracious gentleman.” The filmmaker presented Alfonse and Levy with a signed copy of his book, The Wind from Nowhere that he adapted for the film and insisted that Alfonse receive screen credit for his excellent work. Alfonse, believing that the credit would be negatively perceived due to the endemic racism of the era, politely declined the offer.
Alfonse met Fred Jacobs when they were in the Signal Corps. Fred worked in Columbia’s dubbing department, followed by an assignment in the Office of War Information’s (OWI) music library and Paramount News after the war. Jacobs’ experience working with music libraries resulted in a partnership with Alfonse after a chance reunion in a New York recording studio. Corelli-Jacobs Inc. gained considerable traction when their nascent business became the U.S. representative of the DeWolfe Music Library of London.
Starting in a 10 x 10 room with a rented Moviola machine at 1600 Broadway, they moved to 723 Madison Avenue and eventually to 25 West 45th Street. Both men solicited clients, but Alfonse selected the music and performed the dubbing and editing. Fred handled the business end as Alfonse taught him the work. The painstaking work of dubbing optical sound tracks was turned on its head in the mid 1950s with the advent of magnetic tape. Alfonse insisted that they purchase a magnetic tape system that was the wave of the future. As Jacobs remembered, “It was scary as hell. We had to learn how to do our own magnetic tape transfers and we had no prior knowledge of anything like it.” When television commercials became prerecorded with synchronized soundtracks, Corelli-Jacobs married the vast holdings of the DeWolfe Library to the technical ability to quickly dub the soundtrack on film.
Alfonse sharing a laugh with Meyer DeWolfe
Dad always said that Alfonse would “work just as hard on a nickel job as one that would pay thousands of dollars.” I remember visiting the West 45th Street studio that was near the Metropole jazz club. Mom told me that when I was a baby, she took me by the Madison Avenue office to meet Alfonse and Grandmother for lunch. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin was leaving as we arrived. I can’t recall any details about my brief meeting with Tiomkin although I regret not being old enough to ask about his scores for High Noon and D.O.A.
Alfonse at the Moviola
At Corelli Jacobs on the mag tape machine
Alfonse always gave David and me $10 each for Christmas. He’d place the money envelopes on the Christmas tree and write our names in carefully scribed 3-D block letters. He presented Grandmother with a $100 bill— “a Benji”— for Christmas and her birthday. As David was a musician and was both older and closer to him, Alfonse additionally gifted him with a subscription to Variety. In addition to Scrabble, he liked to gamble and play cards. I learned how to play gin from him. He would always retain a drawn card with a sly look while voicing the disclaimer that it was “just on speculation.” Another game he taught us was “I Doubt It” where the goal is to be the first player to get rid of all their cards. Alfonse would always try to bluff us into not doubting him. To a child, he was intimidating. His harsh voice emanated from a large head that reminded me of a Aztec face sculpture adorned with Buddha-sized ears. Even though it was a kid’s game, he hated losing at anything. For a time, he played bridge at a Manhattan club frequented by German-speaking Jews. Annoyed at a bust hand, Alfonse sarcastically responded to someone soliciting donations for Israel, saying that he would gladly contribute if they shipped all the Jews out of New York to Tel Aviv. He was permanently kicked out of the club.
Although his continental mien was charming, Alfonse’s sense of humor possessed a sharp edge. He enjoyed embarrassing people with practical jokes. There was the oft-told family story how he put Knox Gelatin in Grandmother Meeks’ chamber pot. A friend who preferred a lot of salt on his food excused himself while dining with Alfonse and others. While the friend was gone from the table, Alfonse dumped over half the saltshaker into his bowl of soup. After the man returned and tasted his soup, he added more salt as Alfonse burst out laughing. A conceited little theater actor became another victim. To take him down a peg, Alfonse telephoned the man and pretended he was the film director Anatole Litvak, that he had seen his performance, that it was wonderful and he wanted him to come to Hollywood to star in his next picture. The man fell for it and was at the point of quitting his job and moving to the coast before he discovered it was a gag.
We adored our Grandmother. Levy was a humorous saint who loved us unconditionally. From reaching in her purse to hand out Juicy-Fruit gum and Ludens cough drops to taking me to movies and the New York World’s Fair, we always had a ball. A distinct memory was accompanying her to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes followed by North by Northwest and Sink the Bismarck! Other movies included Hatari! and a Charlton Heston double bill of Major Dundee and The War Lord. Grandmother occasionally spoke to the characters on screen during the movie much to the annoyance of the other patrons. “You better suck sorrow, honey. I told you he was no good,” she’d remark out loud to some jilted on-screen ingénue. People would shush her in the dark while I squirmed with embarrassment.
Early days with Grandmother and Grandfather
On weekends, we would drive into New York to see them or they would take the bus from the Port Authority and stay at our house. When we went to their apartment on Elmhurst Avenue, Alfonse would prepare the dinner. He opened the oven door so frequently that the meal was always served late. He would purchase a dessert cake and prepare the whipped cream. We had to go to the local Associated Market to buy him a container of cream —“Remember, it’s the extra heavy cream”— that he stirred with the velocity of an outboard motor. I can still visualize him, pacing around that tiny kitchen, sweating, in a sleeveless t-shirt with a towel over his shoulder, beating that cream to death. When done, he would flop into a chair and sigh, “I just can’t do another thing” as if he had divided up the fish and loaves for the 5000.
When we went out to dinner, it was usually to Canton Valley, a local Chinese restaurant in Jackson Heights. He had a favorite waiter, George, whom he would force to serve us even if we weren’t sitting in his section. We would sometimes visit Russell and Annette, their neighbors down the hall. The next flight down was old Mrs. Dessaurer from Hungary. Alfonse told us she was the former mistress of Emperor Franz-Joseph. On the ground floor was Alfonse’s doctor, Dr. Colleen who reminded me of George Reeves with his Clark Kent glasses. He and Alfonse were on good terms until they got into an argument and their relationship abruptly ended. For some reason, the apartment building and the elevator always reeked of roasted cabbage. David and I would walk to the corner newsstand next to the Elmhurst elevated subway stop to thumb through magazines and comic books. It was here I bought my first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland with a picture of a hooded Vincent Price on the cover.
After dinner, the adults played cards or Scrabble and we watched television. Alfonse’s program of choice was Jackie Gleason’s American Scene Magazine. The show’s format became indelible: Announcer Johnny Olson screaming “Live from Miami Beach, it’s the Jackie Gleason Show!” The June Taylor dancers would appear along with orchestra leader Sammy Spear resembling a faux Liberace in a wild assortment of sports jackets while conducting “Melancholy Serenade”. Frankie Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim would occasionally break into song when not performing in a series of repetitive skits with Gleason as Joe the Bartender putting his finger into a glass of beer. When Gleason strode out on stage with tie askew hollering, “Good night everybody” Dad signaled us that it was time to head downstairs to our Ford station wagon for the drive back to New Jersey.
Alfonse enjoyed Gleason, worshipped Jack Benny and was amused by Red Skelton although the comedian annoyed him by always laughing at his own jokes. He watched Al Jolson perform after he arrived in New York City in 1922. “There was no better live entertainer than Jolie,” Alfonse said emphatically. Doubtlessly drawing on his inner angst from years of doing the work while others got the glory, he loathed second bananas and sidekicks. “Just look at that ass kisser Ed McMahon with Carson, “ he’d say. “All he knows how to do is laugh on cue like a trained seal.”
It was entertaining to observe Alfonse while watching television. He typically provided a stream of insightful and often sarcastic comments towards whatever program, commercial or personality that happened to be on the tube. A particular source of pleasure was the Joe Franklin Show, a live TV talk program that aired in New York City for decades. While Alfonse disparaged Franklin as perversely obtuse, he always tuned in, because you never knew whom Joe might have on. From stars to unknowns, the inimitable “King of Nostalgia” was renowned for his wide-ranging conversations with an eclectic mixture of guests. A typical Franklin program might feature Ruby Keeler alongside a Ringling Bros. sword swallower and an unknown actor whom the host met on the street the day before. One day, Franklin had the producer of Brecht’s play Galileo on with an astronomer whom he asked, “Can you see the moon with your telescope?” Another time he quoted Theodore Roosevelt: “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” Joe didn’t read anyone’s book, or watch their latest movie nor catch the play that any of his guests appeared in. His spontaneous questions often elicited quizzical looks from guests. A teen-aged Leonard Maltin made his first television appearance on Franklin’s show as a film historian and was asked what his thoughts were concerning a recent Indonesian plane crash.
Alfonse, GM, David, Dad and Mom in the kitchen. David is wearing a Halloween mask of a wolf. Back in the day, Alfonse owned a pet wolf named Targi that was used in Werewolf of London (1935)
Dinner was stimulating even if the meal assumed the overtones of a culinary ritual. Alfonse was obsessed with food. Not in a gluttonous sense— it was his compulsive selection of the same menu items over and over again. The main course at our house always seemed to be standing pork loin or leg of lamb unless it was Thanksgiving (turkey) or Christmas (roast beef). Summer was London broil. Dad and Alfonse nearly drove Mom round the bend with their constant interference with the preparation of the meal. Mom put the meat in the oven and adjusted the temperature based on the weight and cut. Dad would peer into the oven and lower the thermostat declaring, “Jayne, you have the temperature too high.” Several minutes later, Alfonse would open the oven door and crank up the temperature past where it was originally set. Dad would soon return and adjust it down again. It was like a vaudeville skit repeated so often it became accepted as normal behavior. Meals were served as a backdrop to Firing Line-like debates between Dad and Alfonse over the cookery nuances of the main course. Alfonse’s judgmental attitude about food often overrode common courtesy. At a friend’s house for a meal, leftovers were brought to the table. He deadpanned to the host, “Are you defrosting your refrigerator?” Years afterwards, I asked Mom how she put up with it. She shook her head and laughed, “I have no idea!”
Thanksgiving in the mid 1960s. Grandmother mussed up her hair and was pretending to be a vampire.
Alfonse made a vegetable soup with a hefty hunk of bone-in beef floating alongside Bugs Bunny sized carrots and cabbage. I loathed it. He drowned his all-lettuce salad with enough vinegar to simulate a tear gas attack while hitting upon the idea of adding vanilla to the iced tea. “Doesn’t it taste wonderful?” he would ask. Initially, it was pretty good. But then he kept adding more vanilla along with greater quantities of sugar so that the tea began to taste like pancake syrup. Even though everyone eventually begged off his specialties, they were resolutely prepared and offered. “Don’t do me any favors, but you should try my soup,” was a typical Alfonse entreaty.
It became funny. David and I would glance at the iced tea pitcher or the salad bowl and then each other while attempting to suppress our laughter. His dessert of choice was a nut cake brought from the Peter Pan Bakery in Queens. On one occasion, the cake box was fetched to the table . . . and it was empty! We were mystified until a trail of crumbs led to our dog Pepe Le Moko (so named by Mom who believed he resembled Charles Boyer) who was resting in a corner of the kitchen with a distended belly. A large black & tan appetite machine, Pepe devoured the entire nut cake. It was one of the few occasions that Alfonse was at a loss for words.
The latest 60s rock and roll band: Alan, GM, David and Dad
Dinner conversation revolved around food and family, politics, the latest news, show biz and movies. In addition to Alfonse’s sporadic recollections, Grandmother and Mom would weigh in with their repertoire of Hollywood era tales. A typical story might begin with Mom saying to Grandmother, “Remember when Lionel Atwill was arrested for that orgy and you came home and made me throw away the dirty magazine we had hidden in the piano bench?” These tales were enlivened by their friendships with people who toiled anonymously in the vineyards of the studio system. Besides Arno, their intimates included Geraine Greear aka Joan Barclay who appeared in “B” westerns and several Falcon movies. Barclay’s fame (as we perceived it) was predicated by her appearances in The Corpse Vanishes and Black Dragons, a pair of low-budget 1942 films starring Bela Lugosi. David was nonplussed when we visited Barclay and discovered she remembered virtually nothing about Bela.
Another close friend was Mary Emery, a Mexican-born actress who appeared in a plethora of films as a juror or a dress extra in the tradition of Bess Flowers. Mary had a brief moment of fame when she appeared on several episodes of I Love Lucy as Desi Arnaz’s mother. An extremely sharp cookie, she visited us in New Jersey. Al Winter, colloquially known as “Ducky-Poo”, was a particular favorite. Winter was a minute cinematic fixture with a long resume of bit parts usually as a waiter. We would frequently spot him while watching the Universal Sherlock Holmes films on local television. Aunt Emmy’s uncle, Ludwig Stossel was a noted Austrian actor who appeared in Casablanca, House of Dracula among numerous other pictures. At the time, Stossel was appearing as the “Little Old Winemaker” in TV commercials for Italian Swiss Colony Wine. Mom and Paula’s girlfriend Vicky Lane starred as “Paula the Ape-Woman” in The Jungle Captive (1945) while surviving a brief marriage to actor Tom Neal. There was also actor Dewey Robinson, a neighbor who tilled a Victory Garden next door in Beverly Hills during the war. There were many more of their friends and acquaintances that labored in “the biz” as Grandmother called it.
Long time family friend Joan Barclay
Mary Emery with Desi and Lucy
Visiting with Mary Emery
Looking back, it seemed as though we grew up with many of these people. In an era long before one could look up actor credits on IMdB, we would search for our friends and favorites in films we watched avidly on locally televised movie programs including Million Dollar Movie, Dialing for Dollars, Chiller Theater or The Late Show. Whenever there was a scene with a group of society swells at a party, Mom would call out, “Look for Mary!” If it was a war picture, we kept a sharp eye out for Arno.
Alfonse’s health began to deteriorate in the mid 1960s. He suffered an aortic dissection when survival of this condition was problematic. The optimum surgeon was the famed Dr. Michael DeBakey who invented the aortic graft. Alfonse flew to Houston and DeBakey successfully operated on him. At his insistence, Grandmother stayed with him in his hospital room, sleeping on a cot during his lengthy convalescence. He had to pay all of the medical bills out of pocket, which put a major dent into his savings. In addition to filibustering De Bakey to have the bill lowered, Alfonse also sent a grateful thank you note and a box of candy to the hospital staff. In typical fashion, he specified which individual nurses would be permitted to sample his box of candy, requesting that the hospital “please notify me by mail when the candy is received.”
He recuperated from his surgery but a stroke waylaid him several years later. He bounced back again although he had to wear a partial leg brace and walked with a cane. Although not noticeably impaired, the stroke radically changed Alfonse. His mercurial personality turned bitter. Much of his charm disappeared as he focused his “woe is me” anger on Grandmother. They stayed with us when Mom and Dad spent a rare week in Florida. Alfonse berated Levy to such an extent that it became intolerable. During one particularly upsetting tirade, I burst out: “Leave Grandmother alone!” My outcry shocked him into temporarily backing off while terminating any closeness between us. Instead of a deferential grandson, I was now an insubordinate kid who embarrassed him. Grandmother appeared increasingly drawn. She avoided doctors like the plague but underwent a cursory examination during one of Alfonse’s periodic visits. The doctor told her that she exhibited symptoms of arteriosclerosis. Her response to the concern about her arteries was blunt: “Let them harden.”
June 10, 1967. It was the beginning of another summer. In the morning, we heard over the radio that Spencer Tracy died. Tracy and his films were discussed during breakfast and then I was off to a glorious day of baseball and swimming. I was standing in right field when I saw Dad’s car pull up. I knew instantly that something was wrong. After chores were done, my father never came looking for me on a summer day. I ran over and was startled by the look on his face. “You need to come home,” Dad said gravely, “Your Grandmother is ill.”
Levy suffered a heart attack. After frying some chicken, she said that she wasn’t feeling well and needed to lie down. Stretching out on the bed, she murmured to Mom, “I don’t know what I am going to do about Alfonse.” Shortly thereafter, she became intermittently non-responsive. Mom phoned the family doctor who summoned an ambulance to transport her to Overlook Hospital. My memory about the rest of that awful day was a kaleidoscope of trips to the hospital, phones ringing and friends visiting. They put a pacemaker in her, but it was too late. I knew she was dead when Alfonse wailed like a banshee from the kitchen as I sat downstairs, staring at the television set. Everyone went to pieces while I resembled a somnambulist. I broke down the next day when I took a bite out of a piece of her chicken and realized our Grandmother was gone forever.
Her funeral was the only time we’d ever seen my father cry. A sobbing Alfonse clutched the casket and had to be restrained. He stayed with us for a while and begged Mom and Dad to let him to move in permanently. Dad was initially willing, but Mom said no way. Long afterwards, she told me that if she had to cope with both my father and Alfonse, she would have ended up next to Grandmother in the cemetery. She compromised by telling Alfonse that he could visit us every weekend. And so he did.
Alfonse retired after his stroke, selling his shares of Corelli Jacobs Inc. for what amounted to a pittance. After Grandmother’s death, he remained in the Elmhurst apartment and with Dad’s help, purchased a used Pontiac Tempest. He hadn’t driven for decades, but the prolonged absence behind the wheel didn’t slow him down a bit. David accompanied him into New York on one occasion and it was a nerve-wracking experience. Alfonse created his own lane in order to bypass a line of honking cars entering the Lincoln Tunnel toll plaza. While careening down a Queens street, he clipped a mirror off a parked car and kept right on going.
He invariably parked under the basketball goal in our driveway, so I couldn’t shoot baskets with my friends until Mom asked him to move his car. Every weekend, he was asked not to park there, and every weekend he did. Mom figured it was payback for the time I yelled at him over Grandmother. Now he would sit in the kitchen, poring over the latest issue of Variety, paying particular attention to the obituaries: “Oh my God, Fred Swayne died.” He still played Scrabble with Dad, the salad remained doused with vinegar and the nut cakes continued to appear but he was joyless and I believe, tormented by guilt over how he had treated Levy in her final years. I was in high school, things had changed and the dining room was no longer always filled with laughter, stories and easy talk. We were all diminished without Grandmother.
Alfonse, Ra and Dad at the Scrabble board
For some reason, he insisted on sleeping in David’s room. David had to bunk with me whenever Alfonse visited. By this time, he had developed prostate problems and used a large jar as a chamber pot. He would wake up in the morning and walk down the hallway to the bathroom in his underwear, carrying the container with him. One morning, Mom was in the hallway with a painter, when Alfonse walked by. With his hair wildly askew, dressed in Jockey shorts and carrying a jar of urine, he resembled a golem from an impressionistic German horror film. Not knowing what to do, Mom said to the painter, “I’d like you to meet my stepfather . . . but the startled man had already recoiled as Alfonse shambled past him. Years later, whenever this story was retold, the laughter became hysterical; you had to have been there. One morning we heard him screaming from David’s room. When we ran in to find out what happened, we discovered that Pepe Le Moko leapt on top of the bed and woke him up during a nightmare.
Alfonse was hospitalized briefly in 1970 and then he didn’t call us or answer his phone. Mom and Dad went in to check and found him in bed. He had gone into a diabetic coma with his pill bottles, will and other personal papers lying next to him. An ambulance was summoned and he died several days later in a local hospital. We said Kaddish for him at the local temple and buried him next to Grandmother. When my parents returned to the apartment after his death, Alfonse’s will vanished as they discovered that Richard and Emmy had already been there. Many of his possessions were already packed for shipment back to San Pedro. In the end, it didn’t matter. Fred Jacobs remarked at the funeral reception that Alfonse taught him everything he knew about the music business. Corelli Jacobs Inc. remains in business to this day.
Grandparents grave site
At the time of his death, Alfonse was a difficult person for me to understand. Along with the wisdom accrued via the passage of time, I recently came across one of his papers that gave me an insight into his character:
Less David, the family I grew up with around the dinner table have all shuffled off this mortal coil. Sometimes I experience a melancholy dissonance when attempting to recall the details of a certain family story. It is particularly painful that I can no longer pick up the phone and talk with Mom who died earlier this year at 93. But there remains a veritable storehouse of vivid recollections. This is because so many family memories originated during dinner with Alfonse.