The Rise of Neighborhood Noir

Garbage Wagon – Loaded and Empty, January 26, 1938, Wenzel J. Hess (PhillyHistory.org)

The “Philadelphia Gothic” genre enjoyed a major breakthrough in the 1840s thanks to riots, crippling poverty, racial and religious discrimination and the lurid literature of George Lippard. But the genre’s debut goes back to the 1790s, when Charles Brockden Brown mongered his brand of Philly-based fear.

As we said in a recent post: Philly Noir has always been with us. So what other literary stopping points are there along that gritty, smoke-veiled alley?

Enter John T. McIntyre, the Northern Liberties native who left school at eleven and graduated “into the streets.” For a time, McIntyre hauled “buckets of cow’s blood from an abattoir across a lot to a tannery” and did “pretty much nothing” until the age of twenty in 1891 when he began a balky writing career for newspapers and theater. His first stab at fiction, The Ragged Edge: A Tale of Ward Life & Politics, appeared in 1902 and begins:

Weary horses dragged ponderous trucks homeward, the drivers drooped upon their high seats and thought of cans of beer; a red sun threw shafts of light along the cross-town streets and between the rows of black warehouses. (3)

“McIntyre’s analytic eye examines the neighborhood drama to its minutest detail,” writes Ron Ebest, “the campaign, the clubs, the bars, the weddings, the wakes—complete with keening mourners—the schools, the churches, the houses and streets down to their dustiest brick.”

They turned into a quiet street leading toward the river. A cellar door opened, and a broad barb of light shot across the sidewalk; from the midst of this rose a pallid, spectral form, and stood looking calmly into the night. But it was only a baker, clad in his spotless working dress, popping out of his overheated basement for a breath of air. A great stack, towering skyward, and vomiting a blazing shower of sparks into the night, showed that they were nearing the mill. The huge, low, shed-like buildings lifted their corrugated walls, like the beginnings of greater structures; a knot of men were gathered about the wide doorway; they had limp, damp towels twisted about their necks and all smoked short pipes. Rows of puddlers, naked to the waist, their bodies glistening with perspiration, stood before the furnaces “balling” the molten metal; from time to time one would drench himself with water, and once more face the Cyclopean eye glaring so angrily upon him. (219-220)

900 North Front Street, October 20, 1915. Alonzo D. Biggard, photographer (PhillyHistory.org)

Beyond rich descriptions of the city, Ebest praises McIntyre’s “uncanny ability to replicate speech. So skillfully does he render Irish dialect, Irish-American pidgin, urban slang, and Yiddish-inflected English that complex conversations between multiple speakers can be read and followed without such guidelines as ‘he said’ or ‘she said;’ McIntyre’s people are recognizable by the sound of their voices.”

A red-faced, bare-armed woman opened a door in Murphy’s court and threw a pan of garbage into the gutter. Her next door neighbour was walking up and down the narrow strip of sidewalk, hushing the cry of a weazened baby.

“Is Jamsie not well, Mrs. Burns? “inquired the red-faced woman.

“Sorry the bit, Mrs. Nolan; he’s as cross as two sticks. It’s walk up an’ down the floor wid him I’ve been doin’ all the God’s blessed night. Scure till the wink av slape I’ve had since I opened me two eyes at half after foive yisterday mornin’.”

“Poor sowl ! Yez shud git him a rubber ring till cut his teeth on; it’s an illigant t’ing for childer’, I’m towld. (32)

“I am an incurable Philadelphian,” McIntyre liked to say. “I know it. I know the people. I’ve lived with them and they are part of me.”

“Mr. McIntyre’s people are the teamsters, the saloonkeepers, the corner grocer, the secondhand dealer, the undertaker, the sewer builders, the contractors and their gangs, and the families of all these people,” wrote the Chicago Daily Tribune. “The book is written in the language of the tenement house district and the conversation…abounds in the racy and picturesque vernacular of the race-track, the saloon, and the political club.”

The saloon was the only all-night establishment in the neighbourhood. It glittered with clusters of electric lamps and broad, gilt-framed mirrors; a marble- topped bar backed by pyramids of glasses and bottles stood upon one side.

They talked in a desultory way for some time, consuming much beer and many plates of sandwiches. Dawn stretched a grey hand through the window and dimmed the clusters of lights; and when they ranged along the bar for the last drink, the streets were filling with people hurrying toward their work.  (224)

Southwest Corner – 15th and Carpenter Streets, February 15, 1917 (PhillyHistory.org)

But Ragged didn’t make waves in literary circles. It would be another thirty-four years before McIntyre received major recognition, this time for Steps Going Down, his Depression-fueled novel also embedded in Philadelphia.

“It is the world of the rooming houses that exist handy to the burlesque theatres,” wrote Robert Van Gelder in The New York Times, “a world removed from the established order and largely inhabited by persons who at some time in their lives have developed the habit of trying to live by their wits, but have imperfectly mastered the procedure. The houses are drearily furnished, poorly lighted, damp and cold in Winter, hot and noisy in Summer; the rooms are painted in dirty, sickish green; the air heavy with the odors of slatternly living. … The men play pool, drink beer, find cocaine handy if they can get it and brood a great deal over lost opportunities.”

And the talk, “the sharp-edged talk of the wise guys” according to Van Gelder, is “here more artfully caught than in any book I have ever read…”

Percy Hutchinson, also in The New York Times, also applauded McIntyre’s ear for American dialogue. His characters “do not speak so much as volley forth words and phrases as a machine gun spits bullets. A foreigner knowing this book could be excused for concluding that American speech is a continuum of explosive sentences, and conversation a marathon contest in repartee.”

A novel ripe for Hollywood?

According to one of McIntyre’s obituaries in 1951, Hollywood lacked “the nerve to turn a John McIntyre book into celluloid. They were ‘too true to life.’”

[Sources include: John T. McIntyre The Ragged Edge: A Tale of Ward Life & Politics (New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1902); “Good First Novel,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 4, 1902; “John T. McIntyre,” Book News: A Monthly Survey of General Literature, November 1902, Vol. 21 No, 243 (John Wanamaker: Philadelphia, New York, Paris); Robert Van Gelder, Books of the Times, The New York Times, September 3, 1936; Percy Hutchinson, “Mr. McIntyre’s Story of the American Underworld: Steps Going Down by John T. McIntyre,” The New York Times, September 6, 1936; “John T. M’Intyre, Novelist, 79, Dies,” The New York Times, May 22, 1951; Ron Ebest, “Uncanny Realist: John T. McIntyre and Steps Going Down (1936),New Hibernia Review, Vol. 8, No. 3 (2004) pp. 86-99; Kevin Plunkett,Noir Town; The hard life of John McIntyre, the legendary Philly novelist nobody’s heard of,” by Kevin Plunkett. Philadelphia City Paper, March 16-22, 2006]

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The Rowhouse Boom: Populist Victory or Philadelphia Noir?

Looking West on McKean Street from Front Street, July 20, 1901. (PhillyHistory.org)

The proudest moment for the Philadelphia rowhouse was in Chicago, of all places.

A two-story “Workingman’s House” was “put up at the Columbian Exposition,” reported Talcott Williams in 1893. And “there’s nothing more wonderful in all that marvelous Exposition than this proof that the laws, the habits, and the business of a city of one million people can be so arranged that even the day labor earning only $8 or $10 a week can own the roof over his head and call no man landlord.”

Williams noted that Philadelphia’s 80,000 rowhouses of the previous six decades had dramatically refashioned the city. “Philadelphia is not a city of palaces for the few, but a city of homes for the many—which is better,” he wrote. “It may not be “magnificent, but it is comfortable.”

Seven out of eight families in Philadelphia lived in “separate houses.” By comparison, in New York “only one family in six lives in a separate house…”

More than a matter of a family enjoying the “daily blessings” of “its own bath-tub, its own yard, its own staircase, and its own door step,” according to Williams, this was nothing less than “one of the world’s great industrial miracles.” He imagined the modest Philadelphia rowhouse as a declaration of independence in brick and mortar, a moral, populist victory that earned the city both domestic and civic superiority.

Philadelphia’s expanses of two-story rowhouses, claimed this oft-cited passage (also from 1893) “typify a higher civilization, as well as a truer idea of American home life, and are better, purer, sweeter than any tenement house systems that ever existed. They are what make Philadelphia a city of homes, and command the attention of visitors from every quarter of the globe.”

Looking East on McKean Street from 2nd Street, July 20, 1901. (PhillyHistory.org)

Southeast Corner, 25th and Kimball Streets, May 11, 1916 (PhillyHistory.org)

But for all the praise, there was a definite downside. Even Williams admitted that “street after street of small-two story brick houses looks rather mean and dingy,” noting that cobblestone pavements were bound to appear “rough and dirty.” But, he concluded, it’s “better to have bath-rooms by the ten thousand in small homes, than to have brilliant fountains playing in beautiful squares.”

No denying the “monotonous architectural effect” caused by endless miles of rowhouses. According to city planning pioneer Andrew Wright Crawford in 1905, the real estate developers were to blame. “In order to build the greatest number of houses on a street, they “want it straight and rectangular. They don’t care for the persons who are to live in these houses afterwards, and still less to they care for the good of the city as a whole.”

“This idea has been carried out with unremitting perseverance,” stated Crawford. All natural undulations had been leveled “throwing [a] severe mantle of unloviness” over the city’s many neighborhoods. “It is too late for Philadelphia to profit much by the broader intelligence of the present time,” admitted Crawford, “but it is possible that other cities and towns may learn something from her misfortune.”

2400 North Bancroft Street, November 12, 1959. (PhillyHistory,org)

It wasn’t as if Philadelphians hadn’t been warned early and often.

Visiting from industrial London in the 1840s, Charles Dickens described Philadelphia as “a handsome city, but distractingly regular. “After walking about it for an hour or two, I felt that I would have given the world for a crooked street.”

In the 1830s, Thomas Hamilton visited and noted “the traveler is at first delighted with this Quaker paradise,” but “every street that presents itself seems an exact copy of those which he has left behind.” Hamilton’s patience wore thin and he soon felt “an unusual tendency to relaxation about the region of the mouth, which alternately terminates in a silent but prolonged yawn.”

“Philadelphia is mediocrity personified in brick and mortar,” he wrote. “It is a city laid down by square and rule, a sort of habitable problem,—a mathematical infringement on the rights of individual eccentricity, —a rigid and prosaic despotism of right angles and parallelograms.”

As early as 1790, none other than Thomas Jefferson advised those contemplating designs for the nation’s next and permanent capital to avoid Philadelphia’s “disgusting monotony”—a complaint that Jefferson claimed was shared by “all persons.”

By the 1940s, when novelist Jack Dunphy set his tale of the unpleasant life and desperate death of John Fury in working-class South Philadelphia, he employed the city’s endless rows with their familiar, expressive, depressing power. As Fury walked home from yet another hard day on the job as a coal-wagon driver, he crossed “Washington Avenue and walked down Nineteenth Street past Mifflin Street and Snyder Avenue until he came to a narrow side street. The street crushed between bigger streets was a poor affair, similar in width, to an alley. Its houses smothered close together, jammed two stories high, and with small wooden porches hung on their fronts, looked like stony red-faced criminals serving a life sentence. Stuck together and dependent one upon the other, they seemed to live in constant fear that someday and somehow one would be pardoned and leave and so jeopardize the rest of them. They stood then, these square red bricked houses, and there were many of them in Philadelphia, tortured row upon row of them, doing penitence and allowing life with its worn semblance of freedom to crowd within them.”

No coincidence that “Philadelphia noir” became a thing in the 20th century.

Actually, it always was a thing.

[For more posts on the Philadelphia rowhouse, see “The Quintessential Object of Industrial Philadelphia;” “How Philly Got Flat: Piling it on at the Logan Triangle;” and “The Philadelphia Rowhouse: American Dream Revisited.”]

 

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Pearls on Ridge

Ridge Avenue, West from 2064, December 6, 1960 (PhillyHIstory.org)

Ridge Avenue, West from 2064, December 6, 1960 (PhillyHIstory.org)

“Did you know,” asked the Tribune’s Joe Rainey in July 1931, “that never in the history of theatricals has one playhouse presented to the amusement lover as many stars as the Pearl Theatre…in the past six months?”

“A vaudeville and picture house” at 21st Street and Ridge Avenue, the Pearl opened Thanksgiving Day, 1927. First up was Lottie Gee, “the scintillating star of ‘Chocolate Dandies,’ ‘Running Wild’ and ‘Shuffle Along.’” Edith Spencer performed her “clever, original and unique song and dance numbers.” The audience enjoyed Sheldon Brooks, the Okeh recording artist, as well as the Taskiana Four, “melodic harmonizers without peers.” Don Heywood and his New York Syncopators were joined by Beano, “The Dancing Phool” and Watts and Ringold provided a comic finale before the “feature picture:” Tom Mix and his horse Tony in “Silver Valley.”

“Come end enjoy vaudeville and photoplays at their best,” promised the Pearl. “Watch our shows each week grow bigger and greater. Nothing in the history of amusements in Philadelphia has even equaled our effort for novelty, variety, comedy, ensemble, beauty and importance.”

The Pearl paired up Wilbur Sweatman, “The Colored King of Jazz with “The Loves of Carmen” starring Delores Del Rio. Soon after came Clara Bow in her Paramount production, “Hula,” directed by Victor Fleming. But not before a live feature with heavyweight pugilist George Godfrey, “The Black Shadow” and Wilbur De Paris with his band.

A seat in the orchestra? Fifty cents in the evening, thirty cents for a matinee. Balcony seats? Thirty five cents in the evening, twenty cents for a matinee.

“Meet your family, your girl or boy friend but do not stand outside or in the lobby. Meet them where you will be comfortable while waiting in our Salon on our Mezzanine Floor.” The ushers—and the Pearl’s want ads said only “light colored” and “good looking” applicants need apply—would welcome you.

“One of the greatest dispensers of rhythm in the land today,” Cab Calloway, stood for a long run, from January to July, 1931. “Night after night, millionaires have been seen rubbing elbows with the colored patrons…when their desires have carried them to this uptown house to see the paramount colored performers of the land under the spotlight. Many have driven from sixty to one hundred miles to see some of the sable actors and actresses who have made history for themselves…”

“Colored people didn’t have to go to a white house to see a stellar attraction.” Instead, “whites had to come to a colored house”—and according the Tribune, “it looked as if they liked it.”

“All races and classes have apparently been willing to form lines sometimes two blocks long just to gain entrance and see the ‘Duke,’ the ‘Cab,’ (and) the ‘Bojangles.” Ethel Waters, Bennie Moten and his band, Nina Mae McKinney (the star of “Hallelujah”) and Earl (Snakehips) Tucker who had recently headlined at the Lincoln downtown at Broad and Lombard. Audiences applauded George Dewey Washington, Eddie Green, Tim Moore, Chick Webb, Miller and Lyles and Butterbeans and Susie.

The 1,400-seat Pearl and the other Ridge Avenue Jazz emporiums are all gone. But there’s no stopping memory. On Saturday May 6th, Jazz history advocate Faye Anderson will lead a “Ridge Avenue Stroll Through Philly’s Jazz History” starting at the site of the Blue Note at 15th and Ridge. You’ll spot her holding a sign proclaiming “This Place Matters.”

The 13-stop stroll, organized by PlanPhilly as part of their Jane’s Walk series, will visit and recall the entire set of star-struck sites, from the Nite Cap, the Bird Cage Lounge, Butler’s Paradise Café, Ridge Cotton Club, Checker Café, Mr. Chips Bar, Irene’s Café, and, of course, the Pearl on Ridge.

[Sources: Irvin R. Glazer, Philadelphia Theatres, A-Z (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986); The Philadelphia Tribune: “Joe Wood to Manage New Pearl Theatre.” Nov 17, 1927; “Want Ad, November 18, 1927; “Lottie Gee, Edith Spencer and Sheldon Brooks Open The Pearl,” November 24, 1927; “New Million Dollar Colored Theatre,” (Advertisement) December 5, 1927;  “The Pearl Theatre,” December 8, 1927;  “Snappy Show At Pearl,” December 20, 1927; “Where to Go and What to See,” May 14, 1931; “Theatres: Did You Know That?,” by Joe Rainey, July 2, 1931; and “Jules Bledsoe at Pearl,” May 10, 1932.]

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Burning it up at The Lincoln: From “Mini The Moocher” to Hitler in Effigy

Lincoln Theatre, Southwest Corner of Broad and Lombard Streets, January 11, 1932 (PhillyHistory.org)

Lincoln Theatre, [formerly The Dunbar] Southwest Corner of Broad and Lombard Streets, January 11, 1932 (PhillyHistory.org)

In the Spring of 1919, “Marian Dawley and a few other girls of color…went to the movie theater at 59th and Market Streets.” They lined up to buy tickets and were told “all tickets for colored people have been sold.”

They left “disgusted,” according to the Philadelphia Tribune.

Other than The Standard Theatre on the 1100 block of South Street, audiences of color had few options for entertainment. “The white theatres are and have been for some time drawing the color line,” pointed out the Tribune. “We have but one theatre owned and controlled by our race in this city, and when it is full, which is at every performance, there is practically no place for our people to go.”

But change was coming, readers learned. “In a few months the new Dunbar theatre will be completed at the corner of Broad and Lombard Streets.” This theatre, The Dunbar, will be “owned and controlled by citizens of color” to serve the city’s African American theatregoers, which, as a result of the Great Migration, was estimated at 50,000.

“The Quality Amusement Company, of which Mr. E. C. Brown, of the Brown and Stevens, Bankers is the head” soon had “ten Negro Theatres…in cities including Savannah, Richmond, Washington (Howard) New York (Lafayette) and Chicago.” Philadelphia’s promised to be “the finest theatre in the world owned, managed and controlled by colored people.”

“It was a grand spectacle December 29, [1919] to see the thousands of happy souls, men and women, boys and girls, as they wended through the streets of Philadelphia and filled every available space in the new Dunbar Theatre…  The colored citizens of Philadelphia have something really their own,” something “that they will be and are proud of and can boast about” something “wonderful, marvelous, almost inconceivable, yet so true.”

Within The Law,” starring Cleo Desmond and Andrew Bishop filled the 1600-seat house twice daily for a solid week. And thanks to the Lafayette Players, the productions kept coming.

John T. Gibson, owner of the Standard Theatre responded by cutting his ticket prices. Gibson, according to A History of African American Theatre knew that the Dunbar’s parent company “had overextended itself by building the $500,000 Douglass Theatre in Baltimore, as well as the Renaissance Theatre in Harlem.” And in September 1921, just a few months after the “Shuffle Along” premiered at the Dunbar, Gibson bought the theater.

As the stage of choice, “Gibson’s New Dunbar Theatre” hosted the full array of African American talent: Will Marion Cook’s Internation Orchestra and Entertainers in the Quintessence of Jazz; the Ethiopian Art Theater’s version of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” fresh from its run on Broadway;  The  Lafayette Players productions of “The Shoplifters” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame;” the Manhattan Players’ “Cat and the Canary; “Sunshine Sammy;” “Runnin’ Wild;” “Swanee River Home;” “Struttin’ Time;” “Come Along Mandy;”  Mamie Smith; and “The Chocolate Dandies,” featuring Josephine Baker’s first Philadelphia appearance.

The Great Depression forced the sale of Gibson’s Dunbar to new (white) owners, who added a giant marquee, dubbed it The Lincoln and continued to bring in the talent including Duke Ellington and his Orchestra and Cab Callaway, “the Heidi Ho King and his original Cotton Club Orchestra,” who brought “Mini the Moocher” back to life once more. The Lincoln stage saw “Fats” Waller, Louis Armstrong, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Earl Hines, Ethel Waters, as well as other headliners.

From the beginning, the theater played a critical role in addition to serving as the city’s most desirable stage for African American performers. The Lincoln was often dedicated to race relations, human rights and political protest.

In 1920, the Bramhall Players, an interracial troupe, presented Butler Davenport ‘s “Justice,” described as a “race drama.” Where “Uncle Tom’s Cabin “went far to free the Negro’s body from bondage” “Justice,” claimed one review, “will go far to liberate the white man’s mind from prejudice.”

Three years later, more than 3,500 packed a mass meeting in the theater to protest “The Shame of America” and support passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill.

And in December 1938, The Lincoln hosted a public meeting denouncing “Nazi Germany’s persecutions of racial and religious minorities” warning that “such actions are sympathetically received in some quarters in this country.” About 500 attended the event, sponsored by the United Committee Against Racial and Religious Persecutions. It began with a march up South Street, from 5th to 15th and then to The Lincoln, where “an effigy of Adolf Hitler, replete in brown shirt swastika and mustache…in front of the theatre…was publicly burned.”

Such was Broad and Lombard’s well-earned niche, once-upon-a-time.

[Sources include: “All Seats For Colored People Are Sold Out,” Philadelphia Tribune, March 8, 1919; Philadelphia to Soon Have a New Colored Play House, Philadelphia Tribune, November  8, 1919; “The Dunbar Theatre has Swung Open its Doors to the Public,” Philadelphia Tribune, January 3, 1920; “Phila. Has “Something New Under the Sun,” by Anny Boddy, Philadelphia Tribune, January 3, 1920; The Crisis, 1920, vols. 21-22, Advertisement for  “Justice;” “Anti-Lynching Bill Support Asked,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 3, 1923; “Hitler’s Effigy Burned by Crowd,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 6. 1938; and Advertisements for The Dunbar and The Lincoln, 1920-1936 in The Philadelphia Inquirer. ]

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Joe Sweeney: Legend of Boathouse Row (Part IV)

Vesper Boat Club, April 8, 2003. The club’s motto is “All together!”

When the Penn AC Olympians came back to Depression-era Philadelphia, they got jobs as builders and beer salesmen. Beer gave them their wages and also their strength.   “These were Depression era guys,” Joe Sweeney said of the men who would become his coaches and had grown up hauling kegs around. “They used to take the trolley from West Philadelphia, bring a lunch bag, row, eat lunch, and then go home.  All  were beer salesmen and worked for beer manufacturers. They’d go around to bars, take orders for beer, had to buy a round for everyone in the bar. I got to like them because I was from their old neighborhood. I got that whole culture thing.”

After he graduated from La Salle University in 1964, Joe Sweeney joined the Penn AC Rowing Association, the rowing club most associated with the “Irish mafia” godfather John B. “Jack” Kelly.  As an up-and-coming rower and building contractor, Kelly had spent his formative years at  the venerable Vesper Boat Club. In the 1920s, he and a group of his Irish-American friends founded the Pennsylvania Athletic Club and built a magnificent clubhouse just off Rittenhouse Square. Sadly, the club was completed just after the stock market crashed in 1929, and Penn AC had to move to more modest quarters.  Still personally flush with cash thanks to New Deal building contracts, the Democratic Party powerbroker and head of “Kelly for Brickwork” approached Vesper with a proposition: in exchange for a name change, Penn AC would give financial support to Vesper’s rowing programs.

Vesper turned Kelly down.

Undaunted, Kelly then set his sights on West Philadelphia Boat Club, which had fallen on hard times and only had about 4 active rowing members.  West Philadelphia happily agreed, and it changed its name to the Penn AC Rowing Association. Over the years, Penn AC became a hub of Catholic high school rowing. From this club, Curran and Dougherty coached generations of students from West Catholic High School, LaSalle High School, Cardinal O’Hara, and St. Joseph’s University.

Belfield, the former Wister mansion and home of the President of La Salle University. 5596 N.20th Street, October 14, 1957.

Patriarch Kelly took a liking to Joe Sweeney, the up-and-coming novice Lasalle rower and Navy vet. Sweeney, although he had never rowed before coming to college, quickly proved to be a skilled and powerful oarsman.  Shortly before his death in 1960, Kelly gave Sweeney a job with the Parks Commission. Kelly’s son John B. Kelly Jr. (known as Kel) carried on his family legacy, both as a rower and coxswain for Penn AC.  Kel had honed his athletic prowess under his father’s tutelage and as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. In the 1947, Kel won the Diamond Sculls Regatta at Henley, the same aristocratic contest that  his father could not enter because, supposedly, he had worked with his hands as a bricklayer.

“I got to know the family and I was of the age where young Jack was competing and I was in some races he was in,” Joe remembered.

He also got to know Jack’s beautiful sister Grace, who occasionally came back to Philadelphia from Hollywood.  When Grace was a girl, Kelly had used his position as president of the Parks Commission to get a playhouse built for her behind Belmont Mansion.  “Grace Kelly used to study her lines and performances in a bar on City Avenue called The Wynnewood,” Joe remembered. “We would stop there while on the rounds with the rowers and coaches who worked as beer salesmen.”

Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly in the 1956 movie High Society, based on the 1940 play The Philadelphia Story

When Kelly came back to Philadelphia after it was announced she would be marrying Prince Rainer II of Monaco, she of course paid a visit to Boathouse Row. As the star of the 1956 film High Society made the rounds with the Philadelphia rowing community, Joe Sweeney served as her chaperone. By the 1980s, Joe Sweeney was Commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, and traveled with Kel to Hong Kong to be the first Westerners to compete in the Crown Colony’s dragonboat races.

On the way to Hong Kong, the twenty men from Philadelphia had a layover in San Francisco.  They used their downtime to train, running up and down the city’s hills. “At the top of one hill, we stopped and rested,” Joe recalled, “and there was a residential brick building being built. Young Jack started to describe how a brick building was like a strong family.

“You have to have strong family connections,” Joe recalled Kel saying. “Each course was a family, each individual brick was a person. Great Irish malarkey.”

The men of Philadelphia won the silver in the Hong Kong dragon boat regatta, the first Western team to win a medal in the race’s history.

When Jack Kelly Jr. died in 1985, Joe served as the usher for the Monaco side of the family at the memorial service.

Grace Kelly (1929-1982), the Academy Award winning actress who became Princess of Monaco, in an MGM publicity photo from 1954.

Joe Sweeney, “History: The Saga of a Philadelphia Rowing Club,” Penn AC. http://pennac.org/about-us/history/, accessed March 27, 2017.

Interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.

 

 

 

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“Shuffle Along” Broad Street

Southwest Corner, Broad and Lombard Streets (Gibson Theatre), July 6, 1927. (PhillyHistory.org)

Dunbar Theatre (a/k/a Gibson Theatre), Broad and Lombard Streets, Southwest corner. July 6, 1927. (PhillyHistory.org)

“Fourteen Thousand Negro Actors in This Country Now Performing,” read a headline at the start of the 1922 theatrical season. “In vaudeville alone there are more than six hundred acts, of which are about sixty are now in Europe. There are twenty-two Negro minstrel shows touring the south.” According to Billboard, “368 theaters in the United States [are] devoted entirely to the colored race.” Among them, in Philadelphia: the Standard near 11th and South Streets, the Royal near 15th and South and the Nixon on 52nd Street. Plus the only theater built, owned and operated by African Americans: the Dunbar at Broad and Lombard.

From the moment it opened at the Dunbar on April 11, 1921, Eubie Blake’s “Shuffle Along” demonstrated the power of the African American Jazz Sensation. “A ball of merriment rolling at aero-plane speed,” “Shuffle Along” would complete its run on Broad in Philly and return again before opening on Broadway in New York where critics raved. “The biggest hit New York has witnessed in years… a breeze of super-jazz blown up from Dixie” that would, over the next 60 weeks, establish a 500-performance legacy before going on tour.

“Whether you like jazz or not,” admitted the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Leopold Stowkowski in 1924, “it is a modern featurization of our hectic times and it is with us to stay.” Eubie Blake suggested that jazz’s “flash and fire” generated “flamboyant effectiveness” both artistically and commercially. It offers up “ingredients of freshness in a world where there must be freshness constantly.”

“Shuffle Along” would become the gold standard for American musical theater and for the Dunbar. Time and time again, managers would mount jazz and vaudeville productions hoping for another hit. They promoted “Liza” as the “musical thrill that won’t let your feet behave,” the “logical successor to ‘Shuffle Along.’” They opened “Carolina Nights” with choreography by Charlie Davis, the “dancing cop” from “Shuffle Along.”

In the first half of the 1920s, Dunbar audiences would enjoy “Creole Follies,” “Harlem Follies,” “Ebony Follies” and “Charleston Fricassee.” They came out for “Come Along Mandy;”  “Runnin’ Wild;” “Banville Dandies Revue;” Jimmie Cooper’s All Colored Revue “Hotsy Totsy” and Mamie Smith and her “Syncopators’ Revue Cyclonic Jazz Band.” None took off quite like “Shuffle Along.”

“There is no color line in the theater” proclaimed one Inquirer critic, claiming the broad and sustained appeal of “Shuffle Along” as proof. Yet there was a color line, possibly even several. Racial discrimination by mainstream theaters was one of the reasons the African American community built the Dunbar in the first place. And as quickly as the blockbuster “Shuffle Along” found a home at the Dunbar, after the extended Broadway run, it would return, but to greener pastures on Broad Street. In May 1923, “Shuffle Along” opened for a four-week run not at the Dunbar, but at the Forrest Theatre, then at Broad and Sansom Streets, a mainstream venue with a much larger stage and, more to the point, 400 additional seats for eager ticket buyers. Ironically, the success of African American productions would undercut the success of the Dunbar.

Old Forrest Theater, Broad and Sansom Streets, October 14, 1916. (PhillyHistory.org)

Old Forrest Theater, Broad and Sansom Streets, Southeast corner. October 14, 1916. (PhillyHistory.org)

And this time, “Shuffle Along” came to Philadelphia with the 16-year-old Josephine Baker on its chorus line.

“When the best part of a capacity house singles out one little girl in the chorus and gives her attention every time she appears,” raved a critic, “it shows the recognition of qualities as stars are made of. There is a girl like this in the all-colored musical success, ‘Shuffle Along,’ at the Forrest Theatre. She is a sturdy youngster with a winning way and comedy that asserts itself in everything she does. She is one of the happy-honeysuckles and her name is Josephine Baker. Jolly as she seems to be in her work, the stage romping is serious business with Josephine. … Miss Baker has been in the professional only a short time but she has done much during that period. She knows how to make people laugh and how to sing and dance.”

Would Josephine Baker ever debut at the Dunbar?

She would. In November 1924, Baker performed in “Chocolate Dandies,” another Eubie Blake show. “With snap and zest and to the tune of much musical melody, ‘The Chocolate Dandies’ ‘strutted their stuff’ into Philadelphia… The lid was off and it was a race all evening” and the double-jointed “Josephine Baker carries off the honors.”

When “Chocolate Dandies” closed, it was Baker’s last appearance at the Dunbar and her next to the last appearance on Broad Street. In February 1928, after Baker had relocated to Paris and performed at the Folies Bergèr, a clip of her famous “banana skirt” dance made its way into a film travelogue, “Paris by Night,” being shown at the Academy of Music at Broad and Locust Streets. No matter that the film had been “viewed by more than 150,000 people and 15 cities without creating criticism on its alleged impropriety.” One Philadelphia “patron” had lodged her complaint about Baker’s “lack of garb” and the censors deleted Baker’s performance from all subsequent screenings.

It wouldn’t be the last time official censors would have their way with African-American artists and their work on stage in Philadelphia.

[Sources include: “Dunbar Theatre To Open Monday, December 29th ,” The Philadelphia Tribune, December 27, 1919; “Shuffle Along,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 12, 1921; “Shuffle Along: Biggest New York Hit,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 11, 1921; “There are Many Colored Thespians,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 17, 1922; “’Shuffle Along:’ Breezy Musical Show Scores a Big Hit at the Forrest,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 8, 1923; “She Is a Real Comedy Chorus Girl,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 20, 1923; “How a Jazzer Views Such Music,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 23, 1924; “Chocolate Dandies Score at Dunbar,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 25, 1924; “Paris Night Life Scene Cut From Travel Film,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 19, 1928.]

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Joe Sweeney: Legend of Boathouse Row (Part III)

Boathouse Row lighting ceremony, April 8, 2003.

Boathouse Row lighting ceremony, April 8, 2003.

After that rough introduction the to LaSalle rowing program, Joe Sweeney did come back to Crescent, again and again. He discovered that coaches Joe Dougherty and Tom “Bear” Curran were not just founts of rowing wisdom, but also had some remarkable rowing stories from their younger days.

One of Joe Sweeney’s favorites was the story of the Reich Chancellery theft.

***

The American “Big Eight” that won the gold at Liege, Belgium in 1930 consisted of Charles McIlvaine in bow; Tom Curran, 2; Jack Bratten, 3; John McNichol, 4; Myrlin Janes, 5; Joe Doughert, 6; Dan Barrows, 7; Chet Turner, stroke; and Tom Mack, coxswain.   In the final, the Penn AC “Big Eight” beat Italy by two lengths, and Denmark by six lengths.  During their trial runs, the Philadelphia Irish “Big Eight” made 2,000 meters in an astounding 5 minutes and 18 seconds.  According to Joe Sweeney, “there was considerable speculation that this might be the fastest eight ever seen.”

The Philadelphians of Penn AC teammates tried to repeat their time to enter the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, but they sadly lost to crews from the University of California and the University of Washington crews, respectively.  In 1936, the men of the Penn AC eight went to Berlin to participate in the controversial, high profile Olympic games of that year.  Although they didn’t make the US eight, the Penn AC men rowed in various smaller boats.

There, they faced a few challenges.  The first had to with equipment. The University of Washington crew (of The Boys in the Boat fame) brought their own boat with them: a magnificent cedar-and-mahogany eight handbuilt by the British-born master boatbuilder George Pocock. Yet the other American rowers, including the Penn AC boys, had to make do with quads and pairs loaned to them by the Germans.

The brand new LZ-129 zeppelin "Hindenburg" flying over the Berlin Olympics. Built for the transatlantic run between Frankfurt and Lakehurst, New Jersey, she would make 12 round trips that year. She exploded while landing in Lakehurst the following May. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.

The brand new LZ-129 zeppelin “Hindenburg” flying over the Berlin Olympics. Built for the transatlantic run between Frankfurt and Lakehurst, New Jersey, she would make 12 round trips that year. The 800 foot long, hydrogen-filled airship would explode while landing in Lakehurst the following May. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica.

The Nazis had their own agenda: proving the athletic superiority of the Aryan race. at the expense of the foreign teams.

“The rowers swear they were sabotaged,” Sweeney said.  Tom Curran and Joe Dougherty, who rowed in the Penn AC pair, didn’t even make it to the finals.

The second problem was that their coach, Frank Mueller of Vesper, was a German national who was terrified of being detained in his native land and being conscripted.  He stayed behind.

The young men of Washington won the gold at the 1936 Olympics in their American boat, running the Langer See course in a mere 6:25.4, beating out Italy at 6:26, and Germany at 6:26.4.  Bringing their own boat across the Atlantic probably made that .4 second difference.

Rowing at the 1936 Summer Olympics on a German stamp. Source: Wikipedia

Rowing at the 1936 Summer Olympics on a German stamp. Source: Wikipedia

After the games were over, Dougherty, Curran, and the Penn AC boys stayed in Berlin for a week to take in the sights of the Germany capital, which on the surface seemed radiant and prosperous, a shining symbol of a renewed Germany.  Little did they know of the concentration camps, the incarceration of political dissidents, and the Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jews of their rights as citizens. The highlight of their week in Berlin was a tour of the Reich Chancellery, recently renovated and expanded by architects Paul Troost and Leonhard Gall in a sleek, somewhat sinister Art Deco style.

While touring Adolf Hitler’s private office, the story went, Tom Curran spied an elegant pen set on the Fuhrer’s desk.  While no one was looking, he swiped it, and took it back to his room at the Olympic village.  That night, a group of men wearing black jackets, swastika armbands, and high jackboots showed up at the Penn AC dormitory, waking the men up.

Hitler's office in the New Reich Chancellery, completed in 1938 and designed by architect Albert Speer. The ceremonial office that the Penn AC crew visited was in the old Reich Chancellery. Source: Wikipedia.

Hitler’s office in the New Reich Chancellery, completed in 1938 and designed by architect Albert Speer. The ceremonial office that the Penn AC crew visited was in the old Reich Chancellery. Source: Wikipedia.

It was the Gestapo.

“The pen set is missing,” the lead Gestapo officer snapped at the Americans. “We want it back.”

Joe Dougherty, who was the captain, took a guess that it was the “bad boy” of the group who committed the crime.  He turned to Tom Curran and ordered him to hand the pen set over to the Gestapo.  Curran went back to his bunk and gave it to Dougherty.   The stern, starchy Philadelphia Penn AC captain then solemnly handed Hitler’s pens back to the Gestapo officer.

He turned to Curran and punched him square in the jaw. Curran fell to the floor, groaning in agony.

Dougherty then said to the Gestapo officer, “Are you satisfied or are you next?”

***

“I’ve heard that story from two or three other people,” Joe Sweeney said of the coaches he got to know twenty years later when he towed at LaSalle. “They were gentlemen. They had their own ethics. Really good guys.”

IMG_0213 (1)

Joe Sweeney being interviewed at the University Barge Club, November 9, 2016. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Sources:

Joe Sweeney, “History: The Saga of a Philadelphia Rowing Club,” Penn AC. http://pennac.org/about-us/history/, accessed March 27, 2017.

Interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.

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Joe Sweeney: Legend of Boathouse Row (Part II)

Crescent Barge Club (right) and Pennsylvania Barge Club (left), January 3, 1984.

Crescent Boat Club (right) and Pennsylvania Barge Club (left), January 3, 1984.

After spending several years in the Navy, Joe Sweeney came back to Philadelphia in the late 1950s to go to college on the GI Bill. His widowed mother continued to work as a nurse, rising to become the head of Student Health Services at the University of Pennsylvania.

The day he started his freshman year at LaSalle University, Joe swung by Boathouse Row, across the Schuylkill River from his old Powelton Village neighborhood. He had shown up on campus dressed in his Navy uniform. The Christian Brothers gave him a suit to change into on that first day of school. Dressed in his new outfit, he was on the way to pick up his mother at Penn, but had an hour or two to kill on the way home. He knew that LaSalle’s rowing program was based out of the Crescent Boat Club, a Tudor-revival structure on the eastern end of the row. He walked into the boathouse and saw a group of young men (he was a decade older than the other Lasalle freshmen) gathered around coaches Joe Dougherty and Tom Curran, both “Boathouse Row gods.” Dougherty, a “straight-laced Irish Catholic” as Sweeney remembered him, had rowed in the American “Big Eight” that set the 2,000 meter record at the 1930 Olympics at Liège, Belgium. They were also part of the “Irish Mafia” that hung out at the neighboring Penn Athletic Club (“Penn AC”) over cards and whiskey: the Kellys, the McIlvaines, and other Irish-American patriarchs were prosperous but couldn’t join any of the elite downtown clubs. Tom Curran, the “bad boy of the group,” had also rowed with Dougherty at Liège.

John B. “Jack” Kelly, powerful contractor and prominent Democratic kingmaker, was the godfather of the group. He had famously been denied entry at the Henley Regatta’s “Diamond Sculls” because the rules stipulated that which excluded anyone “who is or ever has been … by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer”. The rejection kindled a competitive fire in Kelly to not only push himself harder as an athlete (he was also an excellent boxer), but also his son Jack Jr, a Penn graduate who won the Henley “Diamond Sculls Challenge” in 1947 and 1949.   Using his enormous bricklaying fortune, Kelly Sr. built up the rowing program at the Pennsylvania Athletic Club.  He also mentored many aspiring young, working class Catholic rowers so they could compete toe-to-toe with the scions of Philadelphia’s Protestant gentry.

When Joe Sweeney entered Crescent that day, he had stumbled into the heart of Boathouse Row’s Catholic community. It was gritty, no-holds-barred competitive.

“Hey kid,” Dougherty shouted at Sweeney as he walked in the Crescent door, “would you like to row?”

One of the LaSalle eights was missing a man. Sweeney had never rowed in his life. He didn’t have a change of clothes, so he jumped into the eight in his Christian Brothers suit.

Sweeney not only had no idea how to row sweep, but he also learned to his horror that Coach Dougherty had his kids row at only one speed. “Full power upriver. Full power down river. No pieces.”

Yet Sweeney didn’t shirk.  “In the Navy, I did what I was told,” he said. “I was so sore, my legs were cut up, Grease all over my pants. I looked up at Tom Curran and I said, ‘you son of a b***h.”

Curran smiled back at Sweeney.  “You’ll be back!” the old Irishman said.

Witchita State men's eight at the 1990 Dad Vail Regatta.

Witchita State men’s eight at the 1990 Dad Vail Regatta.

 

Source: interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Censor Mayor

Mayor S. Davis Wilson at Controls of First Car - First Run - New Subway Cars (Dedication) September 16, 1938 (PhillyHistory.org)

Mayor S. Davis Wilson at Controls of First Car – First Run – New Subway Cars (Dedication) September 16, 1938 (PhillyHistory.org).

The “People’s Mayor” or “political chameleon”? From his flamboyant, convention hall swearing in during a “howling snowstorm” in January 1936 to his indictment less than three years later, Philadelphia’s mayor wielded power with flair. As historian John Rossi put it: “Hardly a week passed that didn’t witness some dramatic gesture” on the part of Philadelphia’s Mayor S. Davis Wilson.

He battled in the courtroom and in the Press with the city’s privately owned utilities, claiming the people were being robbed. “I’m going to wipe out the whole system” he boasted in a hallway argument with a young Richardson Dilworth, lawyer for the PRT (Philadelphia Rapid Transit) before promising to punch him in the nose.

(“Like hell you are,” Dilworth replied, as he shed his coat. “I’d like to see you try.”)

Wilson grabbed headlines every which way: luring the Democratic Party to bring their Presidential convention to Philadelphia, convincing organizers of the Army-Navy football game that Philadelphia should be their city of choice and the Philadelphia Orchestra to produce pop concerts. He urged the Mummers to reschedule their New Year’s Day parade to a more spectator-friendly time of year. And just for the sake of yet one more headline, Wilson offered the position of superintendent of Philadelphia police to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Wilson seemed everywhere—and was, with his name “stenciled on all kinds of city property” from “traffic lights to trashcans,” earning him another nickname: “Ashcan Wilson.”

As his first year in office came to a close, Mayor Wilson attended the revue “New Faces” at the Forrest Theatre. Actors portrayed the former and current first ladies, Mrs. Hoover and Mrs. Roosevelt, haranguing Girl Scouts “on the delicate subject of babies.” Wilson walked out.

“It’s a damnable outrage, to poke fun at the President’s wife!” exclaimed the Mayor. “Take that skit out – or I’ll stop the whole show,” he demanded. It didn’t seem to matter that “New Faces” had run for months in New York without complaint, or that the First Ladies actually appreciated the humor.

“Either the skit goes,” demanded Wilson, “or the show does.”

The skit went.

Theater critic Linton Martin worried what Wilson’s “attitude and its enforcement could and would do” to Philadelphia’s stage. Several productions of recent years would have been shorn of their smartest and most smarting shafts of satire…”

Detail. Mayor S. Davis Wilson at Controls of First Car - First Run - New Subway Cars (Dedication) 9/16/1938 (PhillyHistory.org)

Detail. Mayor S. Davis Wilson at Controls of First Car – First Run – New Subway Cars (Dedication) September 16, 1938 (PhillyHistory.org).

Martin and Philadelphia’s audiences didn’t have to speculate for long.

Wilson again acted as the city’s official censor on the eve of the opening of “Mullato” at the Locust Street Theatre. Langston Hughes’s play held the record for the longest running Broadway production by an African-American (before Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin In The Sun”). At the New York opening in 1935, critic Brooks Atkinson called “Mulatto” a “sobering sensation.” Anticipating its arrival in Philadelphia, The Inquirer described the play as “a melodrama of miscegenation in the South” telling the story of “a wealthy Southern planter who philanders with his housekeeper” and sends “his four Mulatto children…North to be educated. The Yankee environment instills in them the spirit of equality, so that when they return to the plantation they antagonize their family and neighbors.” Advertisements promised a “darling drama of sex life in the South.”

“It will probably cure no ills and provoke no race riots,” wrote Percy Hammond, somewhat prophetically. And not once did “Mulatto’s” 373 performances in New York or its three month-run in Chicago stir the hint of a riot. But that’s what Mayor Wilson claimed to fear in Philadelphia.

“The show won’t go on,” declared the mayor, claiming “Mulatto” was “an outrageous affront to decency.”

“As long as I am mayor,” Wilson remarked to The New York Herald Tribune, “I will not permit such shows in Philadelphia.” He sought confirmation from his “special censor group” which previewed an edited version of the play. “Mulatto” producer Jack Linder assured the censors and the Press that “many changes have been made” and “the objectionable features have been removed.” One critic wondered whether enough “soap and water has been applied to make it safe for Philadelphia consumption.”

The mayor’s censors came in with a tie: 3-3. One publicly criticized Wilson’s last-minute ban as “stupid and unfair” and was relieved of her duties. Wilson stuck to his original decision and posted police at the entrances of the darkened theater.

“Mulatto” found audiences elsewhere, as close as the Garden Pier Theatre in Atlantic City the following August. And two years later, after Wilson’s death of a stroke, the play’s producers attempted again to bring “Mulatto” to the Philadelphia stage, this time at the Walnut Street Theatre. But Wilson’s successor invoked the earlier decision and debate continued. As the courts considered the ban, the Reverend Marshall L. Shepard, compared “the play’s possible importance to that of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’” He couldn’t understand “why the play should provoke rioting. It only depicts the truth.”

Wilson’s censorship stood. And from what we can tell, Langston Hughes’ “Mulatto” has yet to have its Philadelphia premiere.

[Sources Include: “Race Problems in the South the Theme of ‘Mulatto,’ a ‘New Drama’ by Langston Hughes. By Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times, October 25, 1935; “The New York Theatre,” by Percy Hammond, The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 3, 1935; “The Call Boys Chat: New Faces,” by Linton Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 15, 1936; “Wilson and Lawyer Near Fight Over P.R.T.” The New York Times, February 4, 1936; “Mayor Plays Gallant, Bans Girl Scout Skit,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 10, 1936; “The Playbill,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 7, 1937; “Mayor Won’t Yield; Show Fails To Open,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 9, 1937; “Philadelphia Halts The Play ‘Mulatto,’” The New York Times, February 9, 1937; “Mrs. Favorite to Lose Job on Theatre Censor Board,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 10, 1937; “Censors Tie On ‘Mulatto,’” The New York Times, February 11, 1937; “The Call Boy’s Chat: Revues In This Land of the Free-for-All,” by Linton Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 15, 1936;   “The Call Boy’s Chat: Taking the Dare Out of Dubious Drama;” by Linton Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 14, 1937;  “Indict Mayor of Philadelphia in Vice Inquiry,” Chicago Daily Tribune; September 10, 1938; John P. Rossi, “Philadelphia’s Forgotten Mayor: S. Davis Wilson, Pennsylvania History, Vol. 51, No. 2 (April,1984); Joseph McLaren, Langston Hughes, Folk Dramatist in the Protest Tradition, 1921-1943 (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997).]

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Joe Sweeney: Legend of Boathouse Row (Part I)

Map dated October 7, 1920, showing the grounds of Pennsylvania General Hospital (known as "Blockley") and the adjacent burial grounds for the victims of the 1918 flu epidemic.

Map dated October 7, 1920, showing the grounds of Pennsylvania General Hospital (known as “Blockley”) and the adjacent burial grounds for the victims of the 1918 flu epidemic.

Gray, lanky, and serene-faced, Joe Sweeney is now 80 years old.  The former Commodore of the Schuylkill Navy grew up in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia. His father was a prominent physician at Pennsylvania General Hospital, his mother a nurse.  His mother, born into a well-to-do North Carolina family, converted to her husband’s Roman Catholic faith, not just out of love, but out of a remarkable thing she saw during the 1918 flu epidemic.

“There were lines of people people on 34th Street trying to get into the hospital,” Joe said.  “The people who died at the hospital were buried across the street, where the Civic Center was.  The seminarians from St. Charles dug the graves.  Mom and Dad had horrible experiences, but she was inspired by what she saw.”

Young Joe came up through Philadelphia’s parochial school system, living in a big Victorian house at 38th and Spring Garden and attending St. Agatha’s Parish. Yet he never got the chance to row in high school: his father died when he was only ten years old.  Even though his father was a highly-paid physician, the Sweeneys did not have enough in savings to maintain their previous lifestyle.   “My mom put the older boys through parochial school,” he said, “but she couldn’t afford to keep everyone at home.”  To earn extra money, Joe would run errands for the local Pennsylvania Railroad employees.  During the 1940s, the PRR was in slow decline, but it was still one of the biggest employers in Philadelphia.  Thousands of brakeman, signalmen, locomotive engineers, and repairmen worked long and hard shifts at the Powelton yards adjacent to 30th Street Station, “In the afternoons, the clerks would give you an address to a train man to let him known when and where to report,” Joe remembered. “The PRR would give you a quarter to deliver the slip to the man at his home.”

3417 Baring Street, located one block south of Joe Sweeney's childhoold home, December 14, 1962.

3417 Baring Street, located one block south of Joe Sweeney’s childhoold home, December 14, 1962.

Running errands for the railroad also gave young Joe his first taste of alcohol.  As the dusk approached, he would stop by the houses on Brandywine Street, just north of Powelton Village, where the wives of the railroad workers were making dinner. “The mother would give you a metal pot, and you’d go to the nearest bar, where there would be a blackboard with the names of the guys.”

The bartender would fill up the pot with beer, and then give Joe a shotglass full of beer.

31st and Mantua avenue 4.20.55.ashx

“That was his pay to you,” Joe remembered.  “I remember being so small that I had to reach up to the bar to get that little shotglass full of beer.  It was the culture.  Teach you how to drink.”  Yet despite the heavy drinking, the clergy made sure that their flock would turn off the spigot in time for Sunday communion.   Monsignor Mellon of St. Agatha’s would stride into Deemer’s bar, fully dressed in his robes, and announce, “Alright men, It’s Sunday!”  And everyone would scatter and the bar would close.

When he turned 17, Joe left home and enlisted in the Navy.  He came back to Philadelphia in the late 1950s and enrolled at Lasalle University. It was there that he discovered rowing, which would turn into a lifelong passion.  It was also on Boathouse Row that he discovered the so-called “Irish Mafia,” headed by the legendary Kelly clan.

To be continued…

Source:

Interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.

 

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