Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Stan Lee Passes On & Spider-Man Takes Off: A mural & more coming soon!

 By Michael Perlman

Stan Lee at the Phoenix Comicon, Photo by Gage Skidmore

Spider-Man lands at Forest Hills High School
America is paying tribute to an icon, Stan Lee, who left his mark on the comics industry as a writer, publisher, and editor. He actively shaped Americana from 1939 until his passing on November 12 at age 95, and will continue in spirit. 

Born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922 in Manhattan, he was the son of a Romanian Jewish immigrant father. He was raised in Washington Heights and was an early graduate of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. At 19, he launched his career, and today is remembered as the creative tour de force behind Marvel Comics’ Silver Age as a co-creator of everything from Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four (Manhattan headquarters) to Hulk, the X-Men, Thor, and Daredevil (Hell’s Kitchen residence), which continue to influence young and older generations alike. His accolades include being inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame, Jack Kirby Hall of Fame, and being an NEA National Medal of Arts recipient.

The humble photojournalist Peter Parker is the alter ego of Spider-Man who was raised at 20 Ingram Street in the Forest Hills Gardens, as featured in the June and July 1989 issues of Marvel Enterprises’ “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Parker even attended Forest Hills High School from 1962 to 1965. How coincidental that the home’s true residents were noted as Andrew and Suzanne Parker, along with their two daughters. In 1989, the family began to receive fan mail addressed to Peter Parker. 

Peter Parker's House from Amazing Spider-Man Annual, Volume 1
Forest Hills culture continues with “Spider-Man” (2002) and “Spider-Man 2” (2004) starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, which were filmed at Camille Iorio Finamore’s childhood home on 69th Road between Metropolitan Avenue and Sybilla Street. She recalled, “It was filmed outside of the house and in the yard. It was very exciting, and still is a great conversation starter.” 

Locally, much dialogue is underway by residents who are deciding on how to commemorate Stan Lee and particularly Spider-Man. Within days after his passing, Forest Hills resident Jonathan Vick began conducting outreach to Marvel’s PR agency. He said, “I poked them to show some interest in honoring Stan Lee in Forest Hills. He was a great storyteller, and I worry about how many are left in a world of sound-bites and tweets. He clearly had fun at what he did.”

Coming from Queens, he identified with Peter Parker. “It may have influenced my studying journalism, and to this day I can't help but think I am walking among superheroes somehow. Their superpower is putting up with the subway every day and not snapping.” He continued, “I think because of Stan Lee, Spider-Man/Peter Parker and Forest Hills will always be connected, and that is gift beyond measure. Forest Hills is associated with American folklore for many reasons, but Spider-Man is a special part.” He recommended a mural at minimum and a street co-naming, and then said, “Maybe Forest Hills will have a ‘Spider-Man Day,’ which would be a hoot, and Stan might find that a hoot too.”

“Stan Lee, the ‘Father of Modern Comics’ showed the world that comics could make a difference, and he created a universe filled with superheroes , super villains and countless wonders,” said Kevin Manheim of Rego Park. “Our heroes had the same problems as us regular people such as falling in love, illnesses, and homework, etc. Our heroes were vulnerable yet they saved the universe time and again.” Looking ahead, he said, “Every time I pick up a comic, I will be reminded that no matter what comic it is, it was inspired by Stan Lee.” Manheim likes the ring of “Peter Parker Place.”

“Spider-Man is the most human superhero ever created and it's awesome,” said Kew Gardens Hills resident Phil Landsberg. “He was just a kid with kid problems, and as an adult they're just adult-sized. Even his relationships don't go perfect.” As for his vision, he explained, “A mural would be amazing and a street sign equally so. If a statue is commissioned, it should be ‘The Ditko Spidey’ as a way to honor all three of the major ‘men in his life’ and both of Lee's main collaborators.”

“Stan Lee left an incredible mark, just as Charles Schulz and ‘Dr. Seuss’ has,” said Jackeline Canedo of Kew Gardens, who will always be grateful. She reminisced, “When I came to the U.S. in 1971 at age six, I knew very little English and learned by watching not only Sesame Street, but the Spider-Man cartoons. I would get home from school and finish my work as soon as I could. I loved Spider-Man and imagined being in the adventures with him.” Among her favorite Spider-Man quotes is “Whatever comes our way, whatever battle we have raging inside of us, we always have a choice. It is our choices that makes us who we are, and we always have a choice to do what's right ~ Let love and forgiveness reign.” Canedo’s shared her first choice for a tribute. “A statue of Stan Lee and his wonderful characters would stand out just as his talent and love of life, where he gave so much joy and adventure for the world to enjoy.”

Numerous residents’ prayers may soon be answered. “I am planning a local mural with Spider-Man on it, and it is expected to be painted in the near future,” said Forest Hills resident Carlos Pesantes, a familiar face in community affairs, particularly as founder of The Compost Collective. He will always remember Stan Lee as a “creative genius.” “His messages were classic Americana, that even if you were considered funny, odd, or a nerd, you too mattered, and maybe even more so than the rest because there is beauty and strength in that difference. That belief that we all contribute is the glue that binds us together, even through dark times of anti-Semitic and xenophobic sentiment. Good ol’ Stan was all for punching Nazis.”

Pesantes often reflects upon the classic Spider-Man phrase “With great power comes great responsibility.” “It has always reminded me to stay humble and serve others. When I was deployed by the city last year to Puerto Rico after the storms and their devastation, I channeled my inner Spider-Man who I loved as a kid, and tried my very best because that is all we can do in the face of adversity.” He continued, “Spidery is a Queens kid, as some of us are; a Forest Hills boy who is far from perfect but who loves his family, his neighborhood, his country and who is all about inclusiveness. Now I always remember my dad with his comics and passing that love for comics on to me.”

A similar version of this feature appears in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column:

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Landmark Historic African Burial Ground in Elmhurst - Endangered by Development Plans

By Michael Perlman

The original Union African Church on African American Burial Ground, Courtesy of EHCPS
Every community has distinctive resources which are sometimes forgotten, but rarely buried and rediscovered. The African Burial Ground in Elmhurst, once known as Newtown, is a 19th century property that has been long-forgotten, and was even de-mapped by the city in 1931. It may soon undergo a five-story residential building at 47-11 90th Street, if developer Song Liu’s plans materialize, but “not so fast” according to the Elmhurst History & Cemeteries Preservation Society (EHCPS). This non-profit is spearheading the initiative to have this culturally significant site landmarked by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), and has submitted a Request For Evaluation (RFE) form on October 1.

Newtown was one of the first three free African American communities, and it was a pivotal time in history for its residents who owned land and properties including a church, cemetery, and school, as well as homes and shops. The African American Burial Ground originated in 1828, a year after the abolition of slavery in New York, and is rumored to date even earlier. 

Recent aerial view of former African Burial Ground, Courtesy of EHCPS
“The first step is to protect the burial ground as is, so it can be officially recognized for its sensitive and important history, as well as a respected final resting place of the freed and free African American community of Newtown,” said EHCPS President Marialena Giampino. “We are also nominating the site for the State & National Register of Historic Places to be considered as a State and National Landmark.” The list of supporters is on the rise and includes local residents, the Historic Districts Council, Queens Preservation Council, Corona-East Elmhurst Historic Preservation Society, and Queens Community Board 4. “Only landmark designation can protect the historical integrity of the site in perpetuity,” said Mitchell Grubler, Queens Preservation Council President. “The local community should have a voice in what happens to the property.”

The congregation was founded in a Newtown carpenter shop by four freed African Americans. The site once contained a church and parsonage for St. Mark’s American Methodist Episcopal Church, originating as the United African Society, but in 1928, when the church had plans to relocate when the city planned to widen Union Avenue (now Corona Avenue), their permit to transfer all burials to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth was denied. As a result, Mount Olivet records show that twenty burials were transferred to two of their plots. There is an estimate of over 300 burials on the African Burial Ground as of 1886, when the church requested assistance in conducting repairs and enclosing the site.

In 1929, the congregation decided to sell their property and relocated in 1930 to North Corona, now East Elmhurst. Despite the political decisions at play during the 20th century, the church remains a symbol of perseverance at its current location in Jackson Heights. 

Body & coffin fragments after excavation, Identified as Martha Peterson, Courtesy of EHCPS
Fast-forward to 2011, a time when it can be said that the dead teaches the living. The remains of Martha Peterson, a 26-year-old African American dubbed the “Iron Coffin Lady” were discovered on site in a high state of preservation, despite succumbing to the smallpox epidemic in 1850. Giampino explained, “When the site was being prepared for construction, the backhoe dug into something that made a loud noise. The construction crew saw human feet exposed from the ground and immediately called 911. If it wasn't for the Martha Peterson discovery, the public would not be aware of the site and a direct link to Newtown history. She has been a revelation for so many and we thank her.” The crew originally suspected that it was a recent homicide. Peterson received a proper burial in 2016 at Mt. Olivet Cemetery. 

Mummified remains of Martha Peterson, Courtesy of EHCPS
On October 3, 2018, PBS aired “Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin.” The airtight iron coffin originated in 1848 by a stove manufacturer named Almond Dunbar Fisk, and due to its high cost, it was typically used by the wealthy. She was the daughter of John and Jane Peterson, well-respected African American figures in Newtown.

EHCPS Vice President James McMenamin recalls feeling “emotionally lifted” by the research and care, as well as the human aspect. He said, “Who was she? What was her life like? How did the area function in 1850 when she passed, and how were the relationships between people? Based on the evidence, she was much cared for by her extended family, the community at large, as well as her employers.” 

African Burial Ground now with dumpsters, Courtesy of EHCPS
Giampino said, “It appears to be vacant land, but human remains are still interred on this property. The burial ground became the final resting place of the founders of the historic church, former slaves who settled in historic Newtown.” She feels that paving over this property would be “highly insensitive to NYC’s African American community.” “Those buried are their ancestors, and they have a history and story to tell for present and future generations. It would set a very bad precedent for other historic cemeteries, big or small.” As for the developer, she said, “They pre-filed their plans on Sept 13, 2018, but as long as they do not have an agreement with the church, they cannot proceed legally with anything.”

The property became a highlight for walking tours and lectures. EHCPS contacted Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants in spring 2018, and their analysis furthered the site’s significance. Looking ahead, Giampino explained, “We would recommend Precision Radar Scanning to learn what lies beneath, not to disturb the graves, and we would also like to see what St. Marks AME Church wishes to learn about their ancestors. We would recommend a beautiful monument with known names that are buried, and of course dedicate the unknown, as well as designate it an official memorial park and cemetery site.”

McMenamin said, “I pray that this site can serve as a memorial and an educational opportunity, where students among the public can view artifacts and a slideshow, and have a garden to meditate and reflect. It was re-discovered for a purpose, hopefully not to be covered with concrete, and forgotten, but to embrace as a bold reminder, of the human experiences that struggled and thrived here, when in other parts of the country that was an impossibility.”

“Greed has become the hallmark of progress and success” according to EHCPS Secretary Jennifer Ochoa, who witnessed various un-landmarked local sites undergoing demolition. “The formation and development of African Americans’ self-identity as individuals, as a race, and as Americans has been stalled, and it is our moral obligation to honor their ancestors, as they were also part of our nation's history makers. We must confront the truth and learn from our history.” The site offers valuable lessons, especially for children. “Martha Peterson was my catalyst to explain the history of my family tree to my son, as in how diverse our tree is having blood from Native Americans to Africans to European. It is more important today to teach our children about our history and acceptance; not fear and ignorance.”

Ochoa called the site “sacred land on so many levels.” “The act, practice, and belief of burying our departed, in part, make us ‘humane beings’ with an advanced civilization. Furthermore, for our history and self-development, we must recognize the lives and achievements of those buried there. Elmhurst is rich in history, including the Native American experience that is always overlooked. If we want today’s accomplishments to be recognized, we must first resort to the past and preserve.”

A similar version of this feature story has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: http://foresthillstimes.com/view/full_story/27612697/article-Development-endangers-historic-burial-ground 


Thursday, November 1, 2018

“Walter Becker Way” Unveiled in Forest Hills

By Michael Perlman


Walter Becker Way unveiled, Photo by Michael Perlman
Walter Becker signed headshot offered at the ceremony, Photo by Annalisa
On October 28th, it was history-in-the-making for a couple hundred Steely Dan fans who attended the “Walter Becker Way” street co-naming ceremony on 72nd Drive at 112th Street. The event was not to be missed, as proven by fans ranging from Forest Hills to Europe. After a series of speeches by host Jim Kerr of the Q104.3 FM Rock & Roll Morning Show, Councilmember Karen Koslowitz who nominated Becker for this honor, and Matt Kerns, Howard Rodman, and Cindy Mizelle who shared personal memories and professional affiliations, the much-awaited street sign was uncovered. Throughout the event, items from Becker’s personal collection were distributed and prioritized for trivia buffs. The event took place outside The Balfour apartment building at 112-20 72nd Drive, which is where Becker was raised. 

"Before," Photo by Michael Perlman

"After," Photo by Michael Perlman
Walter Carl Becker (1950 – 2017) was a guitarist, bassist, and co-songwriter of the jazz-rock band “Steely Dan.” In 1967, he befriended Donald Fagen (born 1948), the band’s lead singer. Their first album “Can’t Buy A Thrill” was released in 1972 under the self-titled “Steely Dan,” and they toured the U.S. and Britain in 1973. “Two Against Nature” won four Grammys in 2001, and Becker and Fagen were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Some well-known hits are “Do It Again,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and “Deacon Blues.” 

Ronnie Croce with Councilmember Koslowitz, Photo by Michael Perlman
Councilmember Karen Koslowitz referenced her role in “The Ramones Way” street co-naming at Forest Hills High School, as well as local musicians including Burt Bacharach. She said, “You know, Forest Hills is very famous. Today it’s my pleasure to be able to unveil the name of Walter Becker. He lived in The Balfour, so his name will live here forever.” 

Host Jim Kerr of Q104.3 FM, Photo by Michael Perlman
Jim Kerr asked, “What song on Circus Money did Walter sing to a woman who was gone perhaps even on a distance star?” A contestant named Lisa from Bristol guessed “Paging Audrey.” He responded, “What we have for you is the actual chart used by the tracking band when they recorded that song.” Among the other questions was “For many years, Becker used guitars and basses made by his favorite luthier. What was Becker’s favorite make of guitar and bass?” A contestant guessed “Sadowsky.” He continued, “Your prize is a guitar strap used by Walter.” He was given a choice and selected his on-stage strap over the one he used at home. Then he said, “You’re also going to get some very rare guitar picks.” 

Longtime fan Matt Kerns, Photo by Michael Perlman
Guest speaker Matt Kerns, co-creator of a database of Becker’s famous “Hey 19 Raps” said, “When I was first asked if I would speak, my instinct was to say no. It’s hard to say something about someone who so often expressed things better than anyone else.” He continued, “When Walter passed away on September 7th of last year, music magazines rushed on Walter as the silent partner of Steely Dan. The irony would not be lost on Walter. Anyone who knew him to any degree knows that Walter Becker was anything but silent. Walter spoke, and he spoke loudly with a voice unique in popular music”… “He was literate without being pretentious, sophisticated with a splash of sophomoric humor, was jazz and rock, mentor and learner, professor of infectious vibes, and student of rhythm and soul… “Walter inherently knew that if he didn’t try to write songs for everyone, he could write music that reached someone. Often in songs about less than savored characters, Walter managed to find the profound in the profane, all without resorting to troves or clich├ęs. He told tales of the world both dark and real.” 

Howard Rodman, Longtime friend of Walter Becker, Photo by Michael Perlman
Another speaker was Becker’s closest longtime friend, Howard Rodman, who first knew him at age 10. “Like many of the friends and comrades with us, we went to PS 196, whose anthem I can still sing.” “We are left with glorious memories, and we’re left with the music which is indelible; music which was never quite in sync with its time, and because of that we’ll never grow old.” “They sold 40 million records, not by reverse engineering which an audience might like, but by being deeply and obsessively true to themselves. The success of Steely Dan was because and not in spite of the celebration of the marginal.” He later continued, “It took Walter Becker to look out at this suburban landscape of postwar 6-story housing, and recognizing it for what it was. Not a bedroom community, not a bridge or tunnel, or an E train away from Manhattan, but something grand and glorious in and of itself – ‘Forest Hills,’ a place he saw as the capital of the 20th century, and then made it be so.”

Singer Cindy Mizelle, Photo by Michael Perlman
Singer Cindy Mizelle, a guest speaker explained, “Walter is such a champion in my eyes. He always treated me with love and respect, as I did he and his family, and wow, it’s such a great honor to have a street named after him. It’s so cool to take a walk down Walter Becker Way… He took me under his wing and really showed me that I can relax in the person that I am to sing live and egging me along to do more, and invited me on his album, ‘Circus Money.’” 

Guitar tech Orick Salazar, Photo by Michael Perlman
In recent years, Orick Salazar was Becker’s guitar tech. He said, “Walter was more than just a music genius. He was very smart and an amazing human being that helped a lot of people. I am very grateful for his advice.” 

Walter Becker's childhood home at The Balfour, Photo by Michael Perlman
Attendee Ben Larah, a Balfour resident takes pride in being a huge Steely Dan fan since 15. He said, “Their music sounded so different to anything I heard before; an amazing blend of jazz, blues, pop and rock, with a focus on virtuosic musicianship and clever lyrics. Aja is one of my favorite albums of all time. Walter Becker apparently had a lifelong fondness and pride for Forest Hills, so having his old street corner named after him was a fitting honor.” 

London resident Darren Hirst holds a Steely Dan leather jacket, Photo by Michael Perlman
Darren Hirst traveled from London to document the ceremony, and ended up winning a round of trivia, walking away with Becker’s leather jacket. “Walter along with Donald Fagen have a unique view among writers of the period from the 1970s onwards. Their sardonic and skeptical take on modern society coupled with a cool jazz vibe leaves few who can be legitimately compared to their composing and performance skill. I bought their first album in the 1970s, but at that time they had ceased touring. I caught their show when they resumed in the 1990s, and have seen all their tours that have come to Europe and many in the U.S.”

Steely Dan and their music as soloists has been a soundtrack to his life. “I have always found their lyrics intellectually challenging and the musical rhythms and composition so innovative,” he said.

Laura Tommaso made the trek from Italy, and praised it for being a sincere, personalized, and informal ceremony. “Don and Walt are just some of the best music NYC experienced since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Steely Dan are part of that tradition that starts with Dion and goes on with Frankie Valli, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, and Talking Heads; simply the heart and soul of the Big Apple popular music. They brought the passion for jazz, psychedelic music, Bob Dylan, and Ray Charles into a unique music outfit called Steely Dan, and there was nothing like it before or after.” She continued, “What made him memorable was being himself.”

Upon hearing the news of the ceremony, fans began to reminisce and think ahead. Richard Adler of Monroe, NY reminisced, “Walter attended Stuyvesant, but I knew Walter from Halsey. Walter, Randy California, and I had a band called Newport News when we were in high school. Walter was our lead singer and harmonica player, and we mostly played the blues. Randy and I helped Walter learn to play guitar.”

Middle Village resident Ira Nagel said, “At Halsey JHS 157, he was Valedictorian, and we would play music at his grandma’s home across from Yellowstone Park. I remember his horn rim glasses and Squire briefcase. Maybe we can recognize him at Halsey with a plaque, ceremony, and a musical tribute.”

A fan holds up "Can't Buy A Thrill," Photo by Michael Perlman

A similar version of this feature story has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: www.foresthillstimes.com/view/full_story/27610255/article-Forest-Hills-street-named-for-Steely-Dan-founder 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Dr. Ruth Visits Forest Hills - Lessons From America's Best-Loved Therapist!

By Michael Perlman


Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer, often known as Dr. Ruth, “America’s best-loved therapist,” discussed her courageous life experiences, offered her wisdom, and shared and signed copies of her two most recent books at the Central Queens Y on October 15, packing the lecture hall to capacity, while some people had to be turned away. At 90, she remains active, and has earned various titles throughout her life including sex therapist, radio and TV host, professor, and author.

She miraculously escaped death during the Holocaust, and was placed on a kindertransport en route to a Swiss orphanage. Valuing education, she studied in secrecy, since only boys would receive an education. After the Holocaust, she worked on an Israeli kibbutz and trained as a sniper. She would pursue her studies and taught psychology at the University of Paris in 1950, and in 1956, started a new home in Washington Heights. She became a US citizen in 1965. Determined to live a better life, she achieved an MA degree in sociology at The New School and an EdD degree from Teachers College.

Her book, “The Doctor Is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life, and Joie de Vivre,” also authored by Pierre A. Lehu, shows readers how she learned to master “joie de vivre” (living life to the fullest) at any age despite challenges, tragedy, and loss. Her expertise is shared through private stories from the past and present.

Another one of their works, “Roller-Coaster Grandma: The Amazing Story of Dr. Ruth,” with illustrations by Mark Simmons, is a graphic novel aimed at pre-teen and teen readers that offers a biographical journey of Dr. Ruth and her grandchildren through an amusement park. Despite the twists and turns, it becomes apparent how she is a role model, and pinpoints her childhood and being a grandmother. Imagery distinguishes the past in sepia tone from the present through color.

Dr. Ruth recalled various vivid accounts. In Frankfurt am Main, she was an only child of Orthodox parents. She praised the early socialization of a child at home, citing two loving parents and a grandmother who had nothing else to do but take care of her. She said, “I did a study later on about the children who went with me to the Swiss children’s home that became an orphanage. None of them became drug addicts. This is because the early childhood education was so successful.”

In November 1938, there was a conference called ‘Save German Jewry,’ which failed. She reminisced, “Out of that conference came a cry, ‘Let’s at least save the children.’ England, despite the fact that they had dark clouds on the horizon, took 10,000 German Jewish children to England. Holland, Belgium, France, and Switzerland took 300 each. If I had been on the list to Holland, Belgium, or France, I would not be alive.”

After the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht), the Nazis came to their Frankfort apartment. Dr. Ruth recalled, “There was no hitting or shouting, but they took my father. I remember my grandmother having a long skirt, and in the seam she had some money, and she gave it to the Nazis and said to take good care of my son. Then my father went out in the street. I looked out the window. I could see a truck, but couldn’t see what was in it because it was covered, but I did see my father turning around, and smiling because he saw me. That was the last I ever saw of my father.”

He was taken to a labor camp. Then a card came, that I have to join the group of children to Switzerland, so that he could come back to Frankfort from the labor camp. I did not want to leave, but I had no choice. My mother and grandmother brought me to the railroad station, and I did what my father did. I wanted to cry, but I remembered that my father was smiling, so I smiled. I had one doll with me. There was a little girl in the same group to Switzerland, and she was crying. I felt that she needed the doll more than me, and gave it to her.”

She would receive letters from her parents until 1941, and in 1945, she learned that they were killed, likely in Auschwitz.

Switching gears, she also focused on her sex therapist career. A highlight of Dr. Ruth's radio show career was her debut “Sexually Speaking” on WYNY-FM in 1980, and among her most memorable TV shows was “The Dr. Ruth Show” on Lifetime in 1985.

In the Talmud, it states that “a lesson taught with humor is a lesson attained,” which Dr. Ruth referenced. As decades have passed, she has not lost her humor and spunk. As for her sex therapy radio shows, she said, “I got the program. I did it for one year. Taping on Tuesday afternoons, nobody at NBC worked. I told people to call and write me questions. Then I did it for 10 years from 10 to 12 on Sunday nights, which was a wonderful time slot. People came from the Catskills or the Hamptons. They got into their car at 10. By 12:00 they were home and sexually aroused.” Then she pursued 450 TV shows.

Sometimes advice remains as solid as decades ago. “For the questions that I got on radio and TV, many of those questions are the same today. In those days, nobody knew about AIDS. I said how careful you have to be, which I am still saying today.” She also discussed why it was an easy task to publicly speak about sex. “I’m very Jewish. I have ‘Chutzpah.’ In the Jewish tradition, sex has never been a sin. It always has been an obligation of a husband and wife.” 


In an interview, Dr. Ruth had a message to Holocaust deniers. “My obligation is to stand up and be counted, so that for those people who deny the Holocaust are just not educated enough to know that it did happen. Some people have Holocaust fatigue, and they may say ‘enough already!’ I have to talk about it, so that those people who deny it or have fatigue are going to be quiet.” She pointed out that her entire family was killed, and she was the only survivor, since she was sent to Switzerland for safety. “That’s why I call myself an orphan of the Holocaust; not a survivor,” she said.

Also part of the interview, she advised millennials to stay tuned. She stated, “Millennials, listen! I am going to do a brand new television show. I’m 90-years-old and my co-star is 31. We’re going to be relevant for relationship and sexual questions to everybody who is going to view us.” She also offered advice for young couples, since time is precious. “For those people who have found a significant other, do get married. Don’t hang out there and think that something better is going to come up.” 

A similar version has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: www.foresthillstimes.com/view/full_story/27608703/article-Famous-sex-therapist-visits-Forest-Hills

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Remembering Samuel J. Picker, A Local Renaissance Man

By Michael Perlman

Deputy Queens VP Robert Groh receives award for meritorious service from outgoing Commander Samuel Picker of Queens County American Legion as new commander Murray Adamo looks on in center, July 1971 Glendale Register
Samuel Picker Square stone dedication, Photo by Michael Perlman
Enter Samuel Picker Square, a small forested setting at 69th Avenue and Burns Street in Forest Hills, marked by a sign and a stone. It is a convenient rest stop around the corner from Forest Hills Stadium and Chatwick Gardens apartment complex. Situated alongside the fence in an obscure and often overlooked spot is a stone bearing an inscription: “This Sitting Area is Dedicated to the Memory of Samuel Picker; Outstanding American, Community Leader and Dedicated Legionnaire; 1921 – 1981; Forest Hills Post 630, The American Legion.” It then bears the names of elected officials Borough President Donald R. Manes and Councilman Arthur J. Katzman. 

Samuel Picker Square, Photo by Michael Perlman
Nearly 37 years after Forest Hills resident Samuel J. Picker, a Renaissance man, passed away, his memory is being resurrected, thanks to his family and friends. He wore several hats, mostly throughout the 1960s and 1970s, consistently fulfilling his humanitarian spirit. They included Queens County American Legion Commander, Governor of District 20-K Lions International, Queens Cancer Crusade committee member, and President of the National American Legion Press Association. He served as Grand Marshal of the American Legion County Parade in Ridgewood in June 1971, which began with exercises at the War Memorial on Myrtle Avenue, surpassed expectations with 15,000 guests. He also served as President of the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, which offered philanthropic gift guide dogs and rehab to qualified blind applicants, where masters and guide dogs were dually trained at the Foundation’s center in Smithtown.

Picker was the owner of the longtime Continental Hardware at 102-01 Metropolitan Avenue, as well as a consultant and buyer. As of 1976, he was a Queens County Grand Jurors Association member, and in 1977, he became Founder and first President of the Forest Hills Chamber of Commerce.

In a December 1968 edition of The Leader-Observer, as Lions Club President, he said, “The Club’s immediate project for the month of December is to collect funds for the Salvation Army Christmas Drive. Our anticipated goal for this year is $500.” For the 50th Annual Cancer Crusade, Picker was among the volunteers who mobilized an educational and business canvass program, and Ridgewood Savings Bank and Borough Hall were local sites that raised a crusade flag. In 1978, Lieutenant Governor Elect Mario Cuomo presented him with the Henry G. Wenzel Medal of the American Cancer Society at the Biltmore Hotel dinner dance. 

Victory Reception of the 1973 Queens Cancer Crusade, Past Commanders Frank Coffey & James Reid  with Samuel Picker, Glendale Register
At 61, he passed away to prostate cancer. One friend that remembers him is Jimmy Civita whose father Benny Civita was the founder and president of Friends of The Legion in the 1980s. “Samuel Picker was a really nice man. He did a lot for Vietnam vets. When they came back, he helped them find jobs. Our families knew one another, and they came to many gatherings at our house years back.” 

The Picker family once owned and lived above Continental Hardware including his son, 62-year-old Alvin Picker, who currently resides in Buchanan, New York with his wife Dorene and a daughter Helen, named after his mother. After his father passed away, he ran the shop with his brother and sister before his mother sold it. “It was well-known in the community, and we owned it for nearly 40 years,” said Picker. Today, he continues to work in sales, but in the Bronx.

Picker remembers a more humble time. “Working in the store as a young guy, we would go to Manhattan once a week, and load up our station wagon with supplies. Many hardware suppliers were on Delancey Street and Ludlow Street and before it got ritzy. Back then, we would be closed on Sundays, and always go out for a Sunday ride to eat. We could take a ride to Atlantic City before the casinos and just walk the boardwalk.”

“The Lions Club did lots of things for charity. I still remember him collecting glasses and having bags and boxes that were donated to people who couldn’t see. A big achievement in his life was also his involvement with the Guide Dog Foundation,” said Picker. “He was Commander of the Queens County American Legion, which did a tremendous community service.”

Picker was proud of his father as a veteran. “My father was in the Korean War and was a tech sergeant. I remember seeing his uniform in the closet. He was a great patriot!” Tradition was alive. “I always remember getting dressed up on Memorial Day, and my father would wear his triangular American Legion cap. We would line up in MacDonald Park, march, show our pride in America, and remember the fallen.”

When asked what led up to his father’s achievements, he said, “He was just so community-minded and wanted to do good things with his life besides having a business and a family. He wanted to give back. ‘If everyone gave a little bit, we’d all be stronger’ was his motivation. At the time, Forest Hills was affluent and people were educated, and everyone seemed to have prospered.” Furthermore, Picker recalled, “He was a very strong advocate in trying to get young people into the workforce to improve their lives.”

He will always remember him as very kind. “He taught me to be respectful to everyone, work hard, and have a nice family. I am most grateful for my two loving parents who brought me up the right way and got me an education through college.” Humanitarian values have been preserved to an extent. His father was “more open,” whereas his son is “more closed.” “He could make a speech, fill a room, and bring people together. My wife does community service for the church and my daughter does afterschool activities.”

Picker attended the Samuel Picker Square dedication ceremony, which was held a couple of years after his father passed away. “I remember many dignitaries and friends. It was very emotional, and I am very proud to see that his name will be there forever.” He continued, “When you talk about so many years ago, most people don’t know what he did for the community. His name will always be remembered in Forest Hills, maybe not for a person in today’s world, but for seeing Forest Hills grow and being strong.”

A similar version was published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: www.foresthillstimes.com/view/full_story/27607023/article-Remembering-the-life---times-of-Samuel-Picker  

Thursday, August 30, 2018

A Tribute To 126 Years of Tennis History at the West Side Tennis Club

By Michael Perlman

Dinner on the lawn facing the stately Clubhouse, Photo by Michael Perlman
“Heritage Day” is a newly launched tradition at the West Side Tennis Club (WSTC) in Forest Hills, which follows the success of last year’s Forest Hills Tennis Stadium Party & Sunset Dinner that commemorated 125 years. On August 25, the Club celebrated 126 years of tennis history at an elegant and festive affair on the Tudor Clubhouse’s terrace and posh lawn. 

Past WSTC President James Frangos with Mayor David Dinkins, Photo by Michael Perlman
Highlights included speeches by influential tennis figures including a surprise visit by the first African American NYC Mayor, David Dinkins. They led the unveiling of three banners which mark the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. Open Championships, and are planned to be displayed at Forest Hills Stadium. They read, “West Side Tennis Club – Home of The First U.S. Open, 1968,” “Virginia Wade, First U.S. Open Women’s Singles Champion, 1968, U.S. Open Women’s Doubles Champion 1973, 1975,” and “Arthur Ashe, First U.S. Open Men’s Singles Champion, 1968.” 

Unveiling of banners commemorate US Open's 50th anniversary, Photo by Michael Perlman
Live music then filled the air and guests enjoyed a multi-course dinner buffet and mingled at candlelit tables, complete with tennis balls. Topping off the night was dancing to tracks by a DJ who played everything from today’s pop tunes to Sinatra.

On April 22, 1892, thirteen initial members organized the WSTC and rented ground on Central Park West between 88th and 89th Streets, which was followed by a move to 117th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Heights (1902 – 1914) and 238th Street and Broadway (1908 – 1914), prior to acquiring its Forest Hills home from the Russell Sage Foundation at $77,000 in 1913. The Clubhouse was designed by Grosvenor Atterbury, and then ten years later, America’s first tennis stadium, Forest Hills Stadium, was designed by Kenneth Murchison, and gave birth to a number of firsts in tennis history, with the addition of its role in music history as of 1960. 

Todd Martin, Photo by Michael Perlman
Todd Martin, the CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI, earned a Davis Cup title over Russia in 1995, and was a U.S. Open finalist and a no.4 world ranking in 1999. At the podium, he explained, “When the sport became ‘Open,’ it developed a power, and from that came a boon in the growth of the sport. It wasn’t long after the Connors, McEnroe, Borg, Agassi… started to dominate the sport. It was those steps 50 years ago that led to momentous occasions of Virginia Wade winning the first U.S. Open at Forest Hills. It was those bold steps that led to Arthur Ashe winning the first U.S. Open. It represented progress, growth, and power, and is reflected in our society today.” He continued, “Tennis before 1968 was a child, and tennis since 1968 has been in its adolescence. We have a lot of maturing to do as a sport…We have 7 governing bodies fight with each other for property, but have yet to be able to unite.” He then stated, “Be appreciative of what you have. WSTC is a spectacular historic place, and one that will be part of tennis history forever.” 

Donald Dell, Photo by Michael Perlman
Donald Dell, a 1961 quarterfinalist in Forest Hills and the only undefeated Davis Cup captain in American history, is a forerunner in pro tennis who played a major role in founding the Association of Tennis Professionals and represented legends including Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors. He explained,”When Arthur Ashe won that match in four sets, ironically it was on the American Davis Cup team assigned to the Davis Cup captain for that year to play, and he was an amateur, and could therefore not accept the prize money. The first prize that year was $14,500, but it went to Tom Okker.” He continued, “Arthur always believed that he was far, far more than a tennis player, and he cared a great deal about humanitarian problems. I took him to South Africa in 1973, and in 1974 he went back and visited Nelson Mandela who was in prison at the time. His spirit, his tenacity, and human values continue to live on.” 

Virginia Wade, Photo by Michael Perlman
Regarded as Great Britain’s tennis legend, Virginia Wade achieved her first Grand Slam title in 1968 at the WSTC, and accepted prize money for the first time. She won two additional Grand Slam singles titles in Australia and at Wimbledon at the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. When a friend of hers a few days ago questioned her playing for no prize money before 1968, she responded, “We played because the game was amazing, you wanted to win, and you had esteem and glory if you did well, and determination and all those qualities are the same on the court today, except the game is different. 1968 was an amazing transformation from amateur to professional, and they gradually got the women’s prize money up even.” 

Mayor David Dinkins, Photo by Michael Perlman
Mayor David Dinkins, one of tennis’ closest friends and a past USTA director stated, “I am delighted to be here, and I’m happy to see so many friends. Tennis is a wonderful sport, and more and more children are playing these days, and I say it’s making better people because of it.”

Johnnie Ashe, brother of the late Arthur Ashe, Photo by Michael Perlman
Johnnie Ashe is the younger brother of Arthur Ashe, winner of the first U.S. Open Men’s Singles Championship in 1968. The Hall of Famer passed away at 49 from AIDS due to a blood transfusion. J. Ashe is often praised for his selfless decision to take a second tour of duty in Vietnam, so his brother’s tennis career can flourish. He stated, “I would like to thank all of you for keeping the history alive of this hallowed ground. You would be surprised how little today’s players know about this place, and the difference it made to tennis.” He continued, “The U.S. Open gave Arthur the opportunity to transition from athlete to ‘citizen of the world.’” He recalled his brother’s words after he finished playing; “I’m a champion now, and people will listen to me.” He continued, “Tennis was a vehicle to Arthur. A lot of people don’t think of it that way, but look at the number of kids that have gone to college due to a tennis racquet, and a lot of that was due to change agents Donald Dell and Arthur Ashe.” 

Todd Martin, WSTC President Angela Martin, Johnnie Ashe, Donald Dell, Virginia Wade, Photo by Michael Perlman
Virginia Wade with Johnnie Ashe & his family, Photo by Michael Perlman
Guests also felt inspired in various ways. “It’s nice that my children can witness history and see the legends in person,” said CT resident Ben Sturner, the CEO & founder of Leverage Agency. “It was very memorable how Johnnie Ashe discussed the progression of tennis, and how Forest Hills laid the groundwork for everything.”

“WSTC’s preservation of charm and character of its architectural structure is second to none,” said Manhattan resident Mindy Sue Sherry. She continued, “The heartfelt speeches from Mayor Dinkins as well as the family of Mr. Ashe touched everyone’s heart, and unveiling the banners was truly beautiful. I was also struck by the history of the many iconic photos of decades of tennis history within the hallways.”

“This event moved me to tears, since I always knew Forest Hills was special, but it is even more special to people than I realized,” said native resident Helen Fernandez Murphy. “It was amazing to be in the presence of such history, having the opportunity to listen to Johnnie Ashe’s poignant words, particularly about standing in hallowed ground, and Virginia Wade’s discussion about pay parity for women. Most intriguing was that the tournament before 1968 only involved amateurs, and how many sacrifices were made to play for the true love of the game.”

Glenn Gilliam, executive director of Strategic Partnerships for the “Althea” documentary film project, and a former Forest Hills resident, explained, “Being able to share that day, which happened to be Althea Gibson’s birthday, 8/25/1927, with other African Americans like Mayor David N. Dinkins and Arthur’s brother Johnnie Ashe was the most memorable, as we, much like Althea and Arthur, couldn’t have been members back when they won their Championships. Being able to watch that commemorative banner unveiled and share stories with some of the members, most of whom are still mostly white, is a positive sign, but there’s still a lot of work to do and barriers to break.”

Gilliam highly anticipates Heritage Day 2019. “I hope the WSTC will raise a banner to the person who broke the color barrier in tennis and golf, Althea Gibson, which will coincide perfectly with the unveiling of a commemorative statue on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center during next year’s U.S. Open.” 


Female guests pose in front of banners, Photo by Michael Perlman
To the dancefloor, Photo by Michael Perlman

A similar version of this story has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: www.foresthillstimes.com/view/full_story/27595851/article-126-Years-of-Tennis-History-at-WSTC


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Story Behind The Grover Cleveland Mural Restoration in Forest Hills

By Michael Perlman

Restored Grover Cleveland mural, Photo by Michael Perlman
In an age when architectural and artistic beauty is often replaced with the mundane, one co-op board in Forest Hills engaged in a unique effort to restore a classic mural in their lobby. Coming home to The Grover Cleveland at 67-38 108th Street offers a regal experience and a lesson in American history. In a lobby distinguished by wood-paneling, terrazzo, marble, window seats, and classical furnishings and carpeting, the eye is further drawn to a mural which reads “October 28, 1886 Statue of Liberty ~ Dedication By Grover Cleveland.” The work is complete with American flags, families in period attire, and sailors in rowboats saluting. 

The stately Grover Cleveland with its cherub fountain, 67-38 108th St, Photo by Michael Perlman
This Colonial meets Art Moderne building, recognizable by its curved corner brick terraces, a circular driveway alongside a cherub bird bath on a lush landscaped lawn, inner gardens, and florid lattice-work leading to sleek brass and glass doors, was designed in 1949 by an award-winning duo, architect Philip Birnbaum (1907 – 1996) and developer Alfred Kaskel (1901 – 1968), president of Carol Management. It is part of the series of “presidential buildings” that line 108th Street and Yellowstone Boulevard, and is nearly a twin of the adjacent George Washington Apartments, which once featured a mural of its namesake, rumored to be concealed. 

“The board felt our mural was part of The Grover Cleveland’s history, so when we redid the lobby, we made the mural the focal point, decorated accordingly, and even the decorators were impressed with the restoration,” said board president Leslie Siegel. Unfortunately, it was neglected and vandalized, so six years ago, the board appointed Jack Kupersmith Fine Art Restoration, and today the mural remains in pristine condition. Siegel proudly expressed, “He removed the areas that were damaged with markers, such as Lady Liberty’s eyes, took off years of dust and dirt, and filled in missing areas.” 

Restored Grover Cleveland mural in an elegant Colonial lobby of The Grover Cleveland, Photo by Michael Perlman
Among the residents who are also pleased is Michael Buscemi. “Nine years ago, when I saw the lobby and the mural, I knew I wanted to live here. I love how the mural shows the president for whom the building was named after, and it is a nice panorama of the old New York. Every city has new buildings, but the historic ones give our city its strength and individuality.” 

Fine art restoration specialist Jack Kupersmith in his studio, Photo by Shana Schnur Photography
For Jack Kupersmith, who works with high-end galleries and private clients, and whose expertise includes the restoration of murals and antique paintings to modern art, sculptures, watercolors, and wood panels, restoring The Grover Cleveland’s mural was a two-week project. “Preservation of the mural is important from a historical and artistic point of view, and it makes me feel proud that I was able to bring it back to its original state,” said Kupersmith who is grateful for his trade. “My father owned a restoration studio and taught me everything I know. I worked for him for 25 years, and when he retired, I became president of the corporation.”

Kupersmith recalled the restoration’s behind-the-scenes aspect. “The mural had to be cleaned, filings had to be made where details were missing, and filings had to be caulked down and isolated. At that point, I was able to in-paint and match the colors and details of the mural. Once the in-painting dried, I was able to varnish it with a medium shine finish.” He also recalled how cleaning the mural was an act of precision. “I couldn’t use any harsh cleaners, but only very soft ones, since I did not want the painting to be skinned.” 

Builder Alfred Kaskel & Architect Philip Birnbaum, 1st prize building award by Queens Chamber of Commerce, Courtesy of Daniel Kaskel
In addition to efficient apartment layouts, murals and carefully landscaped areas are among the tasteful design features that architect Philip Birnbaum is remembered for. “My father's vision yielded a truly exemplar design that would yield elegance to posterity,” said internationally recognized artist and producer Dara Birnbaum. “He was proud of his achievements, as he came from a very impoverished situation in a Lower East Side tenement, but he really raised himself by his bootstraps and got through Columbia University's College of Architecture.”

After learning about the Grover Cleveland mural’s restoration, memories continued to surface. “My father was very close to muralist James Seeman, whose expertise was in painting large scale landscapes and scenic murals.” 

Featured in the New York World-Telegram & Sun, June 13, 1963
Mina Seeman, wife of the late James Seeman (1914 – 1994), who was regarded as a foremost American muralist, was also impressed by its restoration. In Austria, he attended the Realschule, and was the recipient of art and engineering degrees. He immigrated to America from Vienna in 1938, fleeing from the Nazis. Then he continued to study art at Pratt Institute.

She reminisced, “He was once asked when he started to paint, and replied ‘I don't remember ever not wanting to paint.’ As a very young child he sat by the window and painted. He said that he was first inspired by what he saw; a landscape, flowers, old interesting houses with age and charm. He said he would paint in his mind at night, and jump out of bed, run into his studio, and begin to paint what was in his mind.”

He originated with oils and progressed with watercolors. She recalled his paintings as analogous to how a poet writes. “He was a master in color. They were subtle and clear. He loved painting skies and oceans, which showed his talent in color and movement.”

Mina Seeman remembers him as a quiet, serious, and strong gentleman. “In his obituary, in a wall covering magazine, he was described as a gentle giant, and was that in stature and in his life's accomplishments.” In 1952, he received the year's outstanding wall covering design, and some of his works are exhibited at the Cooper Hewitt Museum.

James Seeman once told The Knickerbocker News, “Americans are hungry for beauty” and “They say it is so refreshing, exhilarating to walk into a room that has personality, and not just four drab walls.”

Looking ahead, Kupersmith expressed interest in restoring other local murals, and said, “I would have to see the condition that it’s in before committing.”

Coming home to fine art in an elegant lobby, Photo by Michael Perlman
A historic attraction in a warm & welcoming lobby, Photo by Michael Perlman