Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

It Happened in Brooklyn : An Oral History of Growing Up in the
Borough in the 1940S, 1950S, and 1960s (A Harvest Book)

(Harcourt Brace 1993, Harvest Books 1995, Paperback; ISBN: 015600237X)
(University of Wisconsin Press, Paperback, 272pp, 09/2004 ISBN: 0299206149)

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Being from Brooklyn National Public Radio

Discussion considering the unique culture and history of Brooklyn, focusing on its close identification with the American experience, with host Ray Suarez on NPR's Talk of the Nation (Oct. 26, 1995). Includes the commentary of John Manbeck, Brooklyn Borough historian, Howard Golden, Borough president, and Myrna Katz and Harvey Frommer, coauthors of It Happened In Brooklyn: Growing Up in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. 

By MARILYN GOLDSTEIN, NEWSDAY, January 31, 1994,

Paean to the Land of 'Da Bums'

Pity the poor lady from the Bronx.

She is sitting in the meeting room of the Woodmere-Hewlett Public Library surrounded.

Brooklyn expatriates to the left of her. Brooklyn expatriates to the right of her. Dozens more in the rows behind her. From Bensonhurst, Brownsville, Bay Ridge and Borough Park. From East New York and East Flatbush. From Park Slope and all points to the Queens border and the Atlantic coast. And in front of her stand Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer, both born and raised in Brooklyn, here to talk about their new book, which is, of course, about Brooklyn - Brooklyn of the '30s, '40s and '50s, the place where people "come from."

"A universe unto itself," Myrna Frommer says.

A Brooklyn of egg creams and Garfield's and danish from Sutters. The Cyclone, the Sea Beach, stickball in the gutters. Sitting on stoops while the ice-cream truck rings. These are a few of their favorite things.

"We had all that kind of thing," says the lady from the Bronx.

She just didn't get it.

Where did the short Italian or Jewish soldier in all the World War II movies come from? Brooklyn.

Which borough gets a laugh when a comic just mentions its name? Brooklyn.

Which borough would refer to its pride and joy as "da Bums"?

Where did the Dodgers come from? Not the Bronx. Not Manhattan. And certainly not Los Angeles, where tongues have never caressed the icing on an Ebinger's black-out cake.

Sure the Bronx had the other great team of the era, but as the Frommers note, the Dodgers had Jackie Robinson. "And where did Jackie Robinson come, if not Brooklyn," says Myrna Katz Frommer, who thinks the two defining elements of the borough were Coney Island and its liberal ethos, exemplified by the Dodgers.

"Jackie Robinson gave people the feeling there was something different about Brooklyn," her husband adds. "The myth of invincibility was very important."

The Frommers note in their book, "It Happened in Brooklyn" (Harcourt Brace), an oral history of the people who lived there between the wars, "We are speaking here of a time as well as a place." It was a time of high hopes, particularly after the Second World War. It was a time when immigrant families were certain they could climb up the economic and social ladder. It was a time when children almost always "did better" than their parents. So it was also a time when the most respected citizen of the community was not the rich manufacturer with the single-family house on the corner, nor the well-dressed hood smoking cigarettes at the corner candy store, nor even the local political precinct captain. It was the schoolteacher.

As Harvey Frommer tells his audience (with a nod to Sam Levinson): Sammy comes home from school with a note from his teacher saying, "Your son Samuel shows signs of astigmatism." And his father slaps the kid's face with the admonition: To a teacher you show astigmatism!

The Frommer book includes reminiscences of 103 Brooklynites, some very famous, like Eli Wallach, Pat Cooper and Neil Sedaka, some less well known, including Irving Fields, "pianist, arranger and composer of many songs, including 'The Miami Beach Rumba.' "But most contributors are just ordinary citizens.

Harvey Frommer tells how one of the interviewees recalled that great day after the war when the "word got around," and kids and their parents lined up for a block and a half waiting for the reported shipment of Fleer's Double Bubble Gum. It cost 10 times more than before the war, he says, "It was so expensive we put it in a glass of water overnight to chew it the next day."

He tells of another Brooklynite who told the Frommers about his grandmother and her milk and cookies. One day, when this interviewee was a teenager playing ball in the school yard, Grandma strode over and stopped the game. "And it's tied," recalled the interviewee. But Grandma had to feed him his milk and cookies. And the worst part was, "she brings a napkin yet."

The Frommers like to tell the story of a young Brooklynite who went to visit a cousin who had moved to Nassau County. The cousin returned to report to his friends: "It's terrible in the Five Towns, just terrible. The kids have to sleep in their own room. They can't share with their brothers."

After the Frommers' talk, the audience gets its chance. Eileen Mizel says that she went to school in Brooklyn with Buddy Hackett, "the class clown. The teachers found him very disruptive." Pearl Rosenfeld recalls coming home from school in the '30s "and finding you're moving to a new apartment, for the concessions" - a free month or two of rent. "By late afternoon the curtains were up and all the dishes were put away." And Selma Nadboy recalls the very innovative system used to teach music appreciation - the addition of lyrics to classical melodies, as in the sprightly "Barcarollllllllle from 'Ta-le-s of Hoffman, written by Offenbach, da dum, da dum," and the memorable, "This is the symph-oneeee that Schubert wrote and never finished."

With all these lovely memories, it seems notable that each of these men and women, including the Frommers, picked up and moved out of Brooklyn.

Roberta Grainer thinks "air conditioning and TV changed it. We stayed inside and we left the streets to the criminals." Harvey Frommer says we moved out for more space. Myrna Frommer thinks we moved out to move up.

Lest we get too selective about the good old days, it might be wise to recall that while a tree did grow in the Brooklyn of that era, the unhappy family in "Death of a Salesman" lived there, as did the guys in the horrifying gang novel, "The Amboy Dukes."

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Books About Brooklyn and its Rich Array of Traditions and History presented by Borough President Howard Golden and recommended by Brooklyn Borough Historian John Manbeck

It Happened in Brooklyn, by Myrna and Harvey Frommer. Entertainers and notables reminisce about life and experiences in Brooklyn.

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THE ANTIOCH REVIEW

"Frommer and Frommer have assembled a playful, interestingly arranged, and stimulating collection of extracts from oral histories. Organized topically, the comments span such issues as street life, school life, the not-so-private worlds of Brooklyn apartment dwellers, Coney Island, ethnicity, and assimilation. Over 100 voices include famous entertainers (e.g., Betty Comden, Jerry Stiller, and Marvin Kaplan), obscure teachers and school principals, and ordinary individuals. Asked to reflect on the three decades between World War II and Viet Nam, they offer comments that add up to a mosaic of the life and extraordinary times of a borough."

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THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NEW YORK (book reviews)

"It Happened in Brooklyn by Myrna Katz Frommet and Harvey Frommer. Harcourt Brace, satisfies a persistent hunger for details about the inner workings of New York City, shared by the native and outsider alike. Frommer and Frommer have assembled a playful, interestingly arranged, and stimulating collection of extracts from oral histories. Organized topically, the comments span such issues as street life, school life, the not-so-private worlds of Brooklyn apartment dwellers, Coney Island, ethnicity, and assimilation. Over 100 voices include famous entertainers (e.g., Betty Comden, Jerry Stiller, and Marvin Kaplan), obscure teachers and school principals, and ordinary individuals. Asked to reflect on the three decades between World War II and Viet Nam, they offer comments that add up to a mosaic of the life and extraordinary times of a borough."

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By RICHARD F. SHEPARD, LOS ANGELES TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Straight Out of Brooklyn, October 31, 1993

"THERE is something about Brooklyn, which we Bronxites always regarded as home to a contentious breed, that inspires a rare sentimentality among those who hail from there. Mostly they remember a stabilized Eden where even the bad apples tasted, well, pretty good in comparison to those on today's market. Now Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer bring us "It Happened in Brooklyn," a transcribed and edited talkathon in which more than 100 Brooklynites recall growing up in the borough in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. 

The participants include such well-knowns as Robert Merrill, Neil Sedaka, Eli Wallach and Peter Nero. Their accounts are interwoven with those of others who grew up to become teachers, entertainers, businessmen, politicians, judges, writers and homemakers - a mixed bag representing the motley tribes of Brooklyn: Jews, Italians, African-Americans, Irish, Norwegians. The reader is impressed that, in this diverse conglomeration, there was a similarity of experience bounded by the East River and the Atlantic Ocean. 

Opera star Robert Merrill remembers living in a Williamsburg tenement with no heat except from the stove; Joan Maynard, director of the Weeksville Society in Bed-Stuy, recalls the beauty parlors, the "sparkling pink-and-white salon on Ralph and Marion streets" whose owner shared with her customers the ham her family down South sent every Christmas. Comedian Jack Eagle thinks back to shopping in Borough Park: "There was a pickle man on the corner of Fortieth Street . . . You'd ask for a pickle, and he'd dig his hand right down to the bottom of the barrel and pull one out. And if you didn't like that pickle, he'd dig his hand down again and schlepp out another one." 

There is so much here that has the genuine flavor of Brooklyn that this work reads as though one were sitting in at a reunion listening to people put together a vanished past. Above all, what emerges is a sense of neighborhood, the feeling that these people had as children that there was always a community to protect and encourage them, the certainty of a world as contained as an overseas mountain village. 

"One of the things that made the Dodgers so special to the kids in Brooklyn was that the players lived there . . . You actually got to see them out of uniform, on the streets, doing things ordinary people did," says Joel Berger, a professor at the College of Staten Island. 

Ten pages later, computer consultant Joel Sigler says, "For the most part, the teachers lived in the neighborhood. They had a neighborhood interest in us. It was like a small town in that way." 

It was a world of separate but co-existing ethnics. The kids grew up in a proximity that, to immigrant parents and those up from the South, was a harbinger of democratic brotherhood. The great leveling institutions - the downtown Brooklyn movie palace, the big department stores, the schools - all were foregrounds that put diverse backgrounds in the shade. Even crime, remembered here in a sort of Damon Runyon framework, crossed cultural lines. 

This is a cheerful book, mostly, with evocative candid photographs of people and places. Yet like all felicitous interludes of one's past, this Brooklyn has vanished everywhere but in memory. The somewhat sad epilogue reflects this. 

What put an end to halcyon Brooklyn? The reminiscers, as though suddenly immersed in the cold water of current life, mention many causes. The Brooklyn Dodgers went west. The real-estate developers pulled many to Long Island. Robert Moses hurried the decline of Coney Island, which the great planner hated for its unplanned rakishness. The city government tore down houses of lower-middle-class home-owners. And that wasn't all: There was red-lining (banks discriminating against certain neighborhoods in mortgage-lending), drugs, and the great rift of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the 1968 school controversy which led to so much animosity in the borough of churches. 

Was what happened in Brooklyn different from what happened in many cities in America? Perhaps not, but that Brooklyn at least, a place of operatic decibels, had an operatic finale."

"To gather material for the book, Myrna and Harvey Frommer conducted over 100 interviews. Among those who contributed their personal recollections are an ex-ticket taker at Ebbets Field, a former Mr. America, a Baptist pastor, a retired garment worker, and an opera star. Their stories evoke a special place and time, a more innocent era when Brooklyn really was the world. Although that world is gone, the Frommers' book brings it all vividly back to life. The inspiration for the Frommers' new celebratory album came about as they were traveling around the country to promote It Happened in the Catskills. They kept meeting people who, like themselves, were born and bred in Brooklyn. ' We could be in places as diverse as Los Angeles, Brenham, Texas, and Canaan, New Hampshire, and invariably we's run into prople from Brooklyn. As soon as the connection was discovered, it was always the same question: What high school did you go to?, followed by memories of that special Dodger game, of trying clothes on the floor of he original Loehmann;s on Bedford Avenue, of eating the shorefront dinner at Lundy's or Nathan's franks in Coney Island, or the incomparable Ebinger's blackout cake. When we finished the Catskill book, which was filled with stories by Brooklynites, we thought it might be a good idea to apply the same interactive oral history approach to a book on Brooklyn, and try to discover what there was about life in the borough at mid-century that still exerts such a powerful pull."

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LARRY KING

"TERRIFIC! Brings me back home!"

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NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

"A painful sweetness floods you."

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LIBRARY JOURNAL

"In this century, perhaps only Southern California rivals Brooklyn in attracting the imagination of so many Americans living elsewhere. But Brooklyn, unlike L.A., which after all had to steal the Dodgers, was definitely a place whence people ``came.'' The Frommers have interviewed an array of their fellow Brooklyn born-and-bred who grew up in the era between Pearl Harbor and the birth of urban civil rights activism 25 years later. A prosperous lot, many are notable, and most no longer live there. They are also mostly Jewish, but Catholics, and African and Scandinavian Americans are present and similarly upbeat in their recollections. Despite the emphasis on good-time memories--Jackie Robinson, stickball, Coney Island amusements--accounts of red-lining and block-busting close this absorbing evocation."

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CAPE COD TIMES

"A wealth of memories. A compelling picture of what once made our cities and society strong and then weakened them."

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MULTICULTURAL REVIEW

"Photos, many from family collections, suggest a high school yearbook or family scrapbook. The book effectively conveys the texture of daily life in Brooklyn. . . To the Frommers' credit, they point out the multicultural richness of Brooklyn life, and show that there are many more enlightening and entertaining oral histories waiting to be recorded about the other Brooklyns. . ."

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PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY

"This paean to a bygone place by the authors of It Happened in the Catskills throbs with life and affection. In the middle years of this century, Brooklyn was heavily populated by Jewish and Italian families, with Irish, black and Scandinavian enclaves. Ethnicity, however, was overshadowed by the aim of the mostly immigrant parents and children to become Americans. Education was regarded as vital to this goal and those interviewed in this oral history recall the schools as being very good and demanding. In the neighborhoods, all the parents regarded themselves as responsible for all of the children. That more innocent world is remembered as being preferable to the Brooklyn of today, with its influx of drugs and racial strife. The contributors to this engaging recollection include Robert Merrill, Pat Cooper and many lesser-known natives. Photos."

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HOW THE BOOK CAME TO BE - HARCOURT BRACE

"To gather material for the book, Myrna and Harvey Frommer conducted over 100 interviews. Among those who contributed their personal recollections are an ex-ticket taker at Ebbets Field, a former Mr. America, a Baptist pastor, a retired garment worker, and an opera star. Their stories evoke a special place and time, a more innocent era when Brooklyn really was the world. Although that world is gone, the Frommers' book brings it all vividly back to life. The inspiration for the Frommers' new celebratory album came about as they were traveling around the country to promote It Happened in the Catskills. They kept meeting people who, like themselves, were born and bred in Brooklyn. ' We could be in places as diverse as Los Angeles, Brenham, Texas, and Canaan, New Hampshire, and invariably we's run into prople from Brooklyn. As soon as the connection was discovered, it was always the same question: What high school did you go to?, followed by memories of that special Dodger game, of trying clothes on the floor of he original Loehmann;s on Bedford Avenue, of eating the shorefront dinner at Lundy's or Nathan's franks in Coney Island, or the incomparable Ebinger's blackout cake. When we finished the Catskill book, which was filled with stories by Brooklynites, we thought it might be a good idea to apply the same interactive oral history approach to a book on Brooklyn, and try to discover what there was about life in the borough at mid-century that still exerts such a powerful pull."

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JBooks.com

"This book, based on interviews conducted by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer, is a lovely stroll through the not-too-distant land of Brooklyn. As the Frommers tell us, Brooklyn is "not only a place but a time--three decades at mid-century bracketed by two wars."

As Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel once sang, "Oh what a time it was, it was... " Mid-century Brooklyn was a time of cherry lime rickeys, egg creams, and Nathan's hot dogs seasoned with the salt air of Coney Island. It was a time of promise; a time when the melting pot was real and not a chimera--as today's talking heads would have us believe. What grouted Brooklyn's myriad of nationalities was not tolerance but something kindlier. Solidarity, perhaps? Or maybe an esprit de corps rooted in the appreciation of being an American. Jewish life during these three decades comes through loud and clear. So do the lives of the Italians, Norwegians, and Irish. One family ate knishes, another canoli, and a third cabbage and corned beef; one senses that the "Stars and Stripes" mattered much more than a hyphenated identity.

Brooklyn held an inimitable mix of characters. Whenever a child's red rubber Spalding ball strayed into her garden, Mrs. Capricilli cut it in half with her garden shears instead of returning it to its rightful owner. There was Laura, who Stan Goldberg remembers, "Would have been great in the CIA." No sooner did Goldberg let loose with a four-letter epithet than his mother knew about it and was ready to scold him the minute he walked through the door. Brooklyn knew from tough guys, but they didn't knife you. Silvio, the kid who ruled the playground, might shake you down for a few pennies, but he'd be sure to leave you money enough to buy the rye bread your mother sent you out to get.

The Frommers' interviewees spoke of a freedom that most of our sons and daughters don't enjoy. Have Mommy drive you to your piano lesson? Fuggedaboutit. If you were Helen Field Goldstein, you'd pocket the trolley money Mom gave you and roller skate to your lesson, arriving out of breath and with a skinned knee. Imagine the exuberance that must have gone into her chords and arpeggios. There is a magic to Brooklyn. The Frommers captured it well."

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What they have said about the book:
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