Interviewee: Ruth Emmert (RE) Interviewer: Cherie Snyder (CS) Interview: March 16, 1983 Transcribed by: Jacob Benson, Student, Philadelphia University, Day of Service, 9/15/2009, and Wendy Moody, EFHS, Summer 2010
Ruth shares her recollections, with humor and detail, of coming to East Falls as a bride in 1926. Highlights include a typical day of a housewife, Prohibition years, hucksters, shopping, Old Academy.
CS: Are you willing to reveal your age, Ruth?
RE: Oh, of course. You’re proud of it when you get to my age.
CS: So when were you born?
RE: I was born, um, April 22, 1907, which makes me 75 years of age.
CS: And where were you born?
RE: I was born in Philadelphia, north Philadelphia.
CS: And what were your parents’ names?
RE: Um, Zimmerman.
CS: And your father’s and mother’s names?
RE: My mother – my father’s name was Charles, my mother’s name was Bertha.
CS: Ok, and you’re not from the Falls.
RE: No, I came here as a bride, in 1926, and, uh, the Falls was just beginning to expand to a section they call Queen Lane Manor, which had been woods and streams and the Old Falls section people used to come up here and pick mushrooms and watercress and all kinds of wild things and chestnuts – they had chestnut trees here – and then some builder got in here, and uh, what was his name, McCrudden, came in here and developed the area and made row houses mostly, and sold them and a lot of the Old Falls people did buy and move up here, but mostly it was what they call “crashers” if you were not born here in the Falls, you were a “crasher” and although I’ve lived here since 1926 I’m still a crasher. They do not consider me a native. My children were born here and that’s alright. So, we were married and my husband worked in the vicinity. He worked up at Pencoyd and he saw the ad in the paper for the new houses and he came up and looked at them one night and then asked me to come up.
CS: Were you married at the time?
RE: No, no, no. We were engaged and he thought it would be a nice place to live and so we came up and looked at the sample house on Ainslie Street by mistake. They were the highest priced houses, they were $6950, and we loved them. And then we found out we were in the expensive houses so we went to Osmond Street where the ones were for $5950. Well, of course, we had seen the better ones and we would have nothing else and so we decided to buy there.
CS: What were the differences between the two, when you looked at them?
RE: Well, Osmond Street was two bedrooms and Ainslie street was three bedrooms, and they were just bigger, and of course they made them more attractive too, the higher priced ones, and the back of the Ainslie Street houses in back of the sample, there was a driveway that came down from the hill at a 45 degree angle and I said “How would you get a car in your garage at a 45 degree angle?” and the salesman said, “Oh, when we build the houses across that driveway, we’ll level it off so that they’ll go uphill a little and you’ll just come down a little” but they never did, and we had a 45 degree angle for our driveway all the years we lived on Ainslie Street and when it got icy or snow or anything we had to come out with buckets of hot water and sweep and scrape to get the car in the garage without crashing through and everybody else did too but we managed. And so anyhow we bought and we moved in and the neighbors on both sides of me were from the Methodist Church and so of course that’s when we began to go to the Methodist Church, Falls Methodist Church, on Indian Queen Lane and Krail and we had our children christened there and they went to Sunday School there until they began to disapprove of their own parents, they thought that we were sinners because we spent money on Sunday.
CS: Your children thought you were sinners?
RE: The children thought their parents were sinners, yes we were – we spent money on Sunday. We bought a Sunday newspaper and we might have, not having a car, we took trolley rides on Sunday and we paid the motorist which made him work which was a sin. We danced and that was a sin, and we played cards and that was a sin, and worst of all we drank and so I took my children out of the Methodist Church because that wasn’t a very good family life and I sent them to the nearest one, that was Redeemer Lutheran at Midvale and Conrad and that’s where they went until they stopped going or moved out of the neighborhood. The Ainslie Street house worked out very well for us. We had two children and there were three bedrooms and so we lived there until 1945, I think it was, when we moved into a larger house.
CS: Let me just ask you, what were your neighbors like, on the street? Who else had bought the houses at that time?
RE: Oh well, next door was Mrs. Homewood (?), and I called her Mrs. Homewood until the day she died because I started that way and I didn’t know what else – her first name was Estelle. She was not from the Falls, but her husband was, Albreth Stone Homewood, and his brother was a chauffeur for the, uh, not the Altemus, the, uh, Dobson’s, the Dobson family, up on the hill.
CS: Which Dobson’s; do you remember which ones? Whether it was…
RE: James, James Dobson, and his daughter was Altemus, and that’s how I happened to get up there that time that I went up to see the house and my next door neighbor knew the cook and the servants up there, and so we walked up one day, and nobody was home…
CS: And how old, what year was this, about how old were you at the time?
RE: I have no idea. I have no idea. But it was before anything was done over there. Mrs. Altemus had a white house in the garden and she had built it and it was all white all the furniture in it was white and there were white turtledoves that flew around inside and out and it was built around a huge tree. And then at the other end of the house on, um, I can’t think of the name, there was a street that divided her land from the rest of it down Henry Avenue. During the war she was patriotic and let all the Italians in the Falls make gardens there to grow food.
CS: Why the Italians?
RE: Because they were the big gardeners, they came from everywhere. And they built little shacks on it, on their piece of land and they grew what they wanted to grow there. And she had on a shelf of land there high above the Henry Avenue, she made a little terrace and had furniture there and tables and everything and she entertained there overlooking what she called her “Italian Garden” and that’s what they were, the little shacks and it was charming. And so then we were taken through the house by the servants and that’s how I got to go up there and see it.
CS: And so what do you remember about the house? Anything?
RE: Oh, the huge crystal chandeliers and the woodwork in there was beautiful, it was big and thick and heavy. We didn’t go upstairs, we just went to the huge kitchen, which was old-fashioned and spotlessly clean. You know, I don’t remember really much about it because I was so young.
CS: Did you actually see the place with the turtledoves? The one with the…
RE: Oh, we sat in it. Oh yes we sat in it, that was fascinating. She was a charming woman, she said anything that came into her head. I know one time they had a visiting minister down at St. James the Less, the Episcopal Church. He was young and handsome and so she was there in one of her low cut gowns, and she lit a cigarette and put it in a long holder, it must have been two feet long, and sidled up to him and said “What can you do about my soul?” Knocked him right off his (unintelligible), the poor man. But that’s the way she was, whatever came into her head, she said.
CS:Just to go back again to Ainslie Street, how have things changed since you lived there in terms of the appearance of the street, or the streets that surround it?
RE: Well the trees were new, that’s the thing I remember most, the trees were planted then in 1926, and we each had a little arbor at the end of our walk from our house, the houses were in a long row, but they were in twos and you adjoined your porch with somebody else, front and back, and those trees are now so gigantic you couldn’t get your arms around them but I remember the trees when they planted them there. And all the new people and the tree was wide, otherwise it looks just the same, people have kept their houses up nicely, and it looks just about the same there.
CS: Now you were a young wife, starting off your married life in the Falls, and I’m just curious as to what your day would be like as a young bride.
RE: We got up early then and we made breakfast for our husbands and they went off to work, and then we cleaned up the kitchen, and everybody prided themselves on being a good housekeeper, so you tried, and I was never really that good. But then at a certain point, you took your broom and went out to sweep your porch, and your walk, and your pavement and you swept it and then you swept in into the street but you gathered it all up into little piles so that the street cleaners came along and they could sweep it up easily. You did that every day. And of course when we got out there our neighbors would be out there and we would chat and gossip and it was so wonderful to have that much communication with your neighbors that way.
And then if you had a baby, you did for the baby and then you took the baby out for a walk in the fresh air. You didn’t just put them out on the porch, you put them in the coach and you walked. Over the hills of East Falls, and you got tired, but you brought them back, and they had that. And then you might have somebody in for coffee. That was neighborly, just to come in and have a cup of coffee. I don’t know if they still do that. And you cleaned your house, of course, and you did your wash. You did that in the basement, you had no washing machine. You put your clothes in to soak and then you drained the water out and then you poured more hot water on them and you put your soap in and you scrubbed them on a scrub board up and down. Then you wrung them out by hand. And then later we were able to buy wringers that you clamped onto the stationary tubs and put the sheets and stuff through that and turned the crank to do that. But mostly it was that. And then we took our clothes out and hung them out because of course there were no dryers. And if you couldn’t hang them out on Monday, you hung them up in your basement you strung clothes lines in the basement. Those were the early dryers. And God help you if you didn’t wash on Monday.
(end of transcription by J. Benson; rest by Wendy Moody)
CS: Monday, why Monday?
RE: I don’t know! My brother came here from California one time and he went out my back door and looked up the driveway and there were I don’t know how many houses are on Ainslie Street but there were a lot because they were small but there were all the clothes trees and all the lines and all the clothes flapping in the wind and he said “Egads! Does everybody in Philadelphia do their wash on Mondays?” And I said “As far as I know, yes, they do.”
And that was the system: On Monday you washed, On Tuesday you ironed. Now these were chores in addition to your dusting and your cooking and your shopping at the store. And Wednesday you mended the clothes and generally straightened up. On Thursday you cleaned upstairs thoroughly, and Friday you cleaned downstairs thoroughly and Saturday was the weekend. And you may have marketed for food again and on Sunday you cooked. And that was your week.
Every day had its purpose and you did it. And some of the women were so full of energy and so full of ambition and pep that I can remember Ethel Buckley, whose husband later became president of Philco, and she lived in a little house on the corner there, and at 8 o’clock her wash was hung and flapping on the line and she was dressed and on her way in town to shop. At 8 o’clock! She was down the hill to get the train to go in town to shop! And…
CS: Did you – as a young wife – were there social groups that you belonged to with other young woman?
RE: Yes. Those of us who had children had no other social life because you stayed home with your children then and we couldn’t afford babysitters so we helped each other. And then lots of us didn’t have mothers to come in and help us if we were sick or anything. I remember I had two children then and I was married about 10 years and I formed this club called – it was just the neighborhood mothers and their children and while the children were in school, or if we had babies we brought them along – and it was called the….
CS: I remember something about silly… was it silly?
RE: The Silly Sisters of the Sick!
CS: That was it!
RE: The Silly Sisters of the Sick! And we had categories in that and we met every week – one day – one afternoon after lunch and we served tea and cookies and we weren’t allowed to serve anything else because we didn’t want to get into trying to top each other with the great food. And we did various things – we had the Nutty Knitters and they brought their knitting along and whatever they were knitting, they knitted at that meeting once a week – and then we had the Silly Seamstresses and they brought along sewing. And then we had the Lazy Lopisis who didn’t bring any work. They just came and sat and chatted. And then we did other things too…
CS: Which one did you fit into?
RE: I was president – Lazy Lopis! And we fixed each other’s hair –we used to give permanents and we did all kinds of things together and we enjoyed that afternoon. And if you wanted to you could bring your children and that was the way we spent one afternoon every week. But then we had other purposes too. For instance, one girl had a baby and when she came home from the hospital she had no one to do for her and in those days we rested for at least a week after you got home from the hospital. The hospital – you were in the hospital 2 weeks and then you came home and then you stayed upstairs one week and then you came downstairs.. They felt you would not preserve your life if you didn’t do all that resting after a baby and so we took turns – and we did this if anybody was sick – we would go up and take their children and take care of them for them until their husband got home from work and we would cook meals and take them up to them and we would do their laundry and anything they had to do, we did.
And believe me that was wonderful when you had no mother living near and it wasn’t a burden on any of us because we took turns doing for each other – doing our shopping – whatever had to be done we did. And we often get together now – those of us that are living – and talk about that, and how great it was that we had fun together and we did for each other. I don’t know of anybody that does that anymore. –all the wives are out working. And I understand that streets are now lonely places because if you don’t go to work you’re lonely all day.
CS: Did any of the women on your block work?
RE: No, no. We stayed home and did our housework.
CS: Was that true – did you have to have as certain level of money to be able to stay home with your children or was that just true?
RE: No that was just true. You lived on your husband earned. He earned $25 a week then.
CS: What did he do?
RE: He worked up at Pencoyd.
RE: First he worked in the mill and I don’t know what he did. I never was interested but he was fairly well educated and I understand that all executives there start in the mills and whatever they did up there. So on vacation time in the office – they asked him to come up and work in the office and take the place of other people around there and he loved that. So when they all came back he went back to the mill but he could never take that again and he finally quit up there. But he earned $25 a week which was an alright salary – it wasn’t great and it wasn’t little. He gave me $10 a week for the house – my part of the job – and I was always able to save a bit out of that and out it away and buy extra things – which all of us did – we cheated on it. But by the end of the week sometimes we were really broke and Helen Ogden who lived on Vaux Street used to come over and say: “Ruthie, I only have a quarter left out of my allowance” and I would say “So do I” and so we would go to the store and out of those two quarters we would maybe buy an eggplant – which was cheap in those days –and we would cut it in half and she would bread and fry half of that and then with our other money we managed to get a meal together with a quarter each and they were good meals. And one of our hobbies in those days – this was during the Depression – we used to exchange cheap recipes, and that was another big hobby – “Did you see the one in the paper…?” “ No” and then we’d all cut it out and try it – maybe it was rice and tomatoes and cheese which was a whole meal – a casserole. And we had great times in those days. The Depression was more a challenge and fun than all those sad tales you’d hear now about people being out of work. If you got out of work – we didn’t have unemployment compensation – you made out and when Milton got out of work he had a ….
CS: During the Depression?
RE: Hm hm. He borrowed $400 from his mother gradually, like $25 a week. And by the time he got a job that $400 was all used up. But he did have a savings and loan that he had been putting into since he was a young man so he paid his mother back. We were so completely independence and self sustaining and did our thing.
CS: Tell me about your shopping. Where did you do your grocery shopping and your household shopping?
RE: Oh, well, for little things we used to go over to Kelly’s – that was a delicatessen on the corner of Sunnyside and Vaux. And Vaux Street then when we first moved up here was mud, pure mud. It had not been paved, and it was quite a chore to get over there but they were nice and – their name was Kelly – and they opened that up and you could buy – not fresh meat and not fresh vegetables – but almost anything else. And when people ran out of money at the end of the week they allowed them to charge it. And then they would never pay off completely they would pay off a little bit at a time. I was not allowed to do that – my husband never allowed me to go into debt but everybody else did it. That was the small things. Then there were butcher shops on 35th Street which is now called Conrad and there was Clayton’s, who carried meat, freshly cut….
CS: Is that still there?
RE: No, Claytons is long gone.
CS: Where was that?
That was on the corner of Conrad and Bowman, I think. That was a big store – that was the biggest in the Falls and then there was Sowden’s on Conrad Street between Sunnyside and Ainslie, I think. Or Bowman’s and Ainslie. And that was mostly just a butcher shop.
And the young men who worked there used to come around with a pad and a pencil and take your order every day – you didn’t have to walk there. Every morning they appeared – they’d come in and sit down and you’d try to think what you wanted for dinner or what you needed and they would mark it down and then they would deliver it later in the day.
CS: Now did they do that just for certain customers?
RE: Anybody! No, certain customers who were their customers and they knew who they were. And then there was Stubblebine’s down on Midvale Avenue who carried very good meat and all the wealthy people in East Falls – the ones who still had estates farther up – went down to Stubblebine’s. Mrs. Kelly shopped there.
CS: Did you?
RE: Well they didn’t come around and take your order so, no, I didn’t get down there much. Once in a while. It was easy to get there, but pushing a baby carriage up Midvale Avenue…up the hill, that was too much. No, once in a while.
CS: Yeah, right…
CS: Did the one who came around and took your order also deliver or did you go pick it up?
RE: Delivered, oh delivered. Everything was taken care of. And there was no higher price for that. And you didn’t tip them. It was just a service that was accepted here in the Falls. That was the food shopping; that’s what we did. Post Office was on Midvale Avenue until it closed.
CS: Near St. Bridget’s?
RE: Yeah, the one that’s now Jubilee Hall, part of St. Bridget’s.
CS: What about household items? Mops and brooms or whatever?
RE: You mean like pots and pans, things like that?
RE: There was an elderly spinster down on Conrad Street who had findings for sewing. I don’t remember her name…Miss…There was an old clockmaker, not a clockmaker a clock repairman who sold clocks down on Conrad Street. He was near Sunnyside. He was such a mean man to his wife and so cranky with everybody but he did repair clocks and did sell them and I remember one time I bought an old cuckoo clock in an antique store for a gift for my husband and the bellows was broken and everybody said “No one fixes bellows because they can’t get the material”. And I took it down to him and he made a new bellows. He had the material so he was very valuable to the community.
CS: You don’t remember his name?
CS: Where was his shop located?
RE: Well it was a storefront next to the corner. Next to, let me see, Kelly’s hardware store was on the corner there of Sunnyside and Conrad and then next door – he had a storefront and then he lived behind it and above it, he and his wife. And he was walking across lower Tilden Street one day and he fell into the street and died of a heart attack.
And somebody went home to bear the news to his poor wife, who in the meanwhile had heard of it and came up to see him lying dead in the street, and people came over to sympathize with her and she said “Good! Good! Good! I’m glad he’s dead. She said, ”He was the meanest, rottenest man that ever lived. Thank God he’s dead! Get him out of here!” And she meant it. And he was that way. I can’t remember all the shops – they were occupied, though, with people on Conrad Street in those days and it was a real good shopping center.
CS: So Conrad Street was like a shopping area?
RE: The one you could walk to. All the stores were occupied along there. Some of them now are being stuccoed up and the storefronts removed and they’re making apartments on the first floor.
CS: But that was like a little shopping area on Conrad Street?
RE: Oh, yes, yes. People made good livings there.
CS: Did they have like dry goods stores or clothing stores?
RE: No, that was on Ridge Avenue near Midvale. There was a department store down there – I can’t remember its name either – and he had maybe five or six stores and they each carried something different and you could go there for your children’s clothing or yard goods or anything like that. It was that kind of a store. And we had a bank on the corner of Midvale and Ridge – I don’t know my directions –it was along the river drive there. And then there was Palentine Hall and that had a store. And then there was kind of a 5& 10 on the land side of Ridge Avenue and there was a big brick building and upstairs on the second floor was where Jack Kelly and his new bride went to live when they were first married. They lived in that apartment house. And the first floor, I think, was a 5&10 and then were other little stores along there too and apartments above them. There was a drugstore and there was Gunboat Café on Midvale and there were restaurants on Midvale in 1926 and they were all nice.
CS: Did most people in the Falls do most of their shopping and their purchasing locally or did they go out of the area for some things?
RE: It was six of one and half dozen of the other. Germantown was the bigger shopping center, you know. There was Jones’ over there – Jimmy Jones’ and there was Allen’s and Rowell’s. And for your big things you went there. There were 5&10s and that was a big day shopping. But we used to walk over there when our babies were small. We often walked to Germantown on a nice afternoon and pushed our coaches around Germantown then walked home. It was not unusual. To save carfare mostly, but it was a nice walk for the babies and it was level. (pause)
CS: You were saying…
RE: Up on Queen Lane there was a farm when I lived here in 1926.
CS: Queen Lane near…
RE: I think it was called Newcombe’s or Newton’s and they had cows.
CS: Queen Lane and what cross street? Near Henry or beyond?
RE: Hmmm. No farther up near Fox. Near there. I can’t remember the address.
CS: They had cows?
RE: They had cows and they grew things –and it was a working farm then in those days. The reservoir was there then when we moved up here on Henry Avenue. The hospital came later – much later. Henry Avenue was not cut through.
CS: You mean it wasn’t there?
RE: It was here to maybe Midvale. It wasn’t cut through to Roxborough. You had to go up Ridge Avenue to get to Roxborough.
CS: What about – you mentioned that there were the more well-to-do families in the big houses. Were you familiar with any of them?
RE: No, no, I didn’t know them. We were the middle class people here.
CS: Even though you didn’t know them personally, were there any families that were more well-known or were gossiped about?
RE: No, no. Some of the older real Falls residents – not the crashers like me – might have known them. Some of them worked in those houses as servants but, no, I did not.
Oh, and during the Depression and even before the Depression we used to have a lot of peddlers come around every day so you didn’t have to go out for a lot of things. There was one little old man and he, in season, he came around with watercress. He would go up and chop the ice and cut the watercress and bunch it and come around and he would call and you would hear him inside your house and you would come out and buy the watercress from him.
And then he also ground horseradish and mixed it with vinegar and jarred it and brought it up and he would come around and call “horseradish” and you knew who it was by his call and he was hard of hearing and he was very persistent. And if you didn’t buy from him he would keep right on – he never heard you – if you didn’t want any or didn’t have money. I remember one time my household money had run out – I didn’t have a cent – and he was trying to sell me horseradish and I didn’t want any and I kept saying “I don’t have any money” and he’d say “It’s nice and fresh horseradish – I ground it myself – put it up in the vinegar myself – good horseradish – nice and fresh” and I’d say “I don’t have any money!” until finally I was shouting so loud that the whole street knew that Ruth Emmert did not have any money that day. Then he used to come around with wild mushrooms.
CS: Same guy?
RE: Same guy – wild mushrooms. And there was another man who came around with English teacakes. And I was raised in a German neighborhood and so I pictured teacakes as sweet, and cakes. So one day I ran out and bought some from him and they were still hot – he would bring them around freshly baked and still hot – and I invited some friends of mine who were not East Falls people and not English I said “I brought in these English teacakes. Come on over and we’ll have tea and cakes and feel English.” And so they came over and we were so disappointed. They were like rolls. Not sweet, not delicate in flavor, they were just heavy rolls. No flavor. Well we ate them anyhow; we never bought any more. He used to come around regularly – once a week maybe or twice a week, whatever he wanted to.
And then there were, during the Depression, two young enterprising men who came around with a big truck and they had stuff on their truck to fix shoes. And they would drive the truck down and they would call out “New lifts on your heels! New lifts on your heels!” and just the way they said it kind of lifted your spirits and you’d go out and take your shoes out and for a quarter they would put new lifts on your heels and they did other repairs too.
And then there was another group – not a group, just a couple of young men who came around – they had knife sharpening equipment on their truck and you’d all run out with all your knifes and they would sharpen them for – I forget how much they charged – but it was really great – they came to you. You didn’t have to go out and fight to buy, like you do nowadays.
CS: When did they stop coming? When did it start and when did it stop?
RE: I don’t know. I moved away from there in 1945 and on this street, Queen Lane, there were never any peddlers, ever.
CS: It was when you left Ainslie Street that there were still be peddlers coming around…
RE: Yes, they were still coming around. They were still having what I called the Broom Brigade of neighbors coming out with their brooms. And for all I know they’re still do it. Some of the original people are still living on Ainslie Street.
When we first moved in there, the old Falls people who had not moved up here used to make fun of the people who bought the new houses. And they used to call us the “two bunners” – meaning that once we bought these expensive houses, all we could afford was two buns for breakfast. They had buns for breakfast – and all we could afford was two buns, not any more.
CS: Because you had put all your money in the house?
RE: Right. If you wanted to live there you were the rich – they thought we were. And we were the two bunners. I always liked that name. It was nice.
CS: I’m interested in hearing about the time you moved in- now the time you moved in was during the Prohibition, right?
RE: The twenties.
CS: In the twenties. And I’m just interested in what it was like living in the Prohibition in the Falls with your…
RE: Well, for some in the Falls it was no different. But we drank.
CS: You mean you and your husband?
RE: Yes, and all our friends – our young friends. We were the first to be married in our crowd. I was 18 and my husband was 21. The others had not married yet because during the Depression you really couldn’t afford to get married and have a house but we did. And so all our young crowd were fascinated by this house that was unchaperoned. And so we had parties, and the neighbors were terribly shocked, being Methodist and everything was a sin. And we didn’t think anything of it because it was our house. They were loud parties – we played music on the Victrola, we played the piano, and we danced and we yelled, and we drank bathtub gin and we drank homemade beer and everybody got high on it.
CS: You made your own beer?
RE: Yes, oh yes. In the basement. The parties lasted until the wee hours and we danced. Nothing terrible went on. We were really not as bad as people thought we were. There were no drugs, there was no sex – there was what we called necking, which was just kissing and hugging – nobody ever went any farther than that. But our neighbors thought we were wicked and it was alright – we didn’t care.
Sometimes we would run out of gin and we had a bootlegger. I still remember the number – it was Tennessee 2222. There were no dials – you just picked up the phone and told the operator Tennessee 2222. So we must have called it an awful lot for me to remember that after all these years. And he would come with a pint – we would only order a pint – because that was all the money we had and he would come and deliver it. I think it was $1 a pint. One night we called the bootlegger and told him to hurry we had run out and all the houses looked alike on Ainslie Street and he got in one of my Methodist neighbors homes and said “I’m here with your gin.” I haven’t talked to her about that lately but I must ask her about that. But we used to keep them up at night, which was a shame because they were nice people. But we were the young, wild crowd.
When I think back now, we were innocent, really. We were good living people compared to what some of the young people do nowadays. Oh, and we wore short skirts above the knees and we did the Charleston.
CS: Was that considered shocking or did people accept that?
RE: Well it depended on what crowd you were with. With our crowd it was not shocking. And with our parents, they were used to us. But with these poor Methodists who were brought up to believe that all this was a sin, I guess this was shocking to them.
We were good living people, now that I look back. Wasn’t bad at all, the ‘20s crowd.
CS: Were there places locally to go dancing or did you generally have your parties at home?
RE: Not locally. They used to have block parties in the Falls. And some of them were on Conrad Street, which was called 35th Street then. They would have music there – I don’t remember, it must have been a band then of some kind and they would sell things. They would sell watermelon and things to eat and they always had dances there and the young people danced.
CS: Was that outside?
RE: In the street. In the street they would dance. And my next-door neighbors would never, never go – they would never attend – because they danced and that was a sin.
They really felt strongly about that. Now let me see if there were any other dance places. I don’t think there were public dance places like there are now. I remember our going to dance halls – there were big places for ballroom dancing that were run for profit. And they had a good band there and you would just go. My husband and I went years after we were married. We would even have his mother come up and mind the kids and we would go and dance.
CS: But locally? Were there any in East Falls?
RE: No, I don’t remember any unless there were and I didn’t know about them. These were places on Broad Street – I don’t remember where they were now – but we used to take the trolley car and go and we’d dance all evening. I can’t imagine that being fun but it was evidently because we went.
CS: What about movies?
RE: Oh yes. There was a movie on Midvale Avenue down near Midvale and we would walk there. It was safe to walk down the streets then.
CS: Down near Ridge?
RE: Yes. Yes. It was on the corner where Turners – not Turners –
CS: Is it where the Betsy Ross Flag place is now? It looks like a theatre.
RE: Yes. That was the first one. Then that was closed and they built one farther up. That’s – we called them both the Blood Pit. I don’t know why we did that. And our kids used to go there for matinees. I remember my daughter and her girlfriend, Betty Jane Bennett, used to go down there and they had special seats that they sat in – the seventh row in the seventh seat in. God help anybody that took them. And they went to every matinee – it was a good way to get rid of your kids on Saturday afternoon. And they had serials, you know, that were continued from one Saturday to the next. And the movie place gave out dishes on certain nights. And we went to the movies. We had no television. We had a radio when we were first married, but not a television. We would go down on certain nights to get the dishes and you managed to get a whole set of beautiful dishes or glassware.
CS: Do you remember what they looked like?
RE: One of them was a bluebird pattern I know that I collected. I don’t have any of it left now. They’re all broken. But it was pretty. I don’t remember any of the other patterns but the bluebird one I liked.
CS: Were there any live shows?
RE: No. All movies, all movies. The only live shows at that time would have been in churches and they would not be professionals. Or then when the Moment Musical Club started in the Methodist Church and then moved out of there and formed a little theatre, so to speak, without a home. They used to meet and rehearse in the library meeting room on Midvale Avenue and then they gave their performances sometimes in the Falls at Palestine Hall on the second floor. There was a stage there.
CS: Where is Palestine Hall?
RE: Palestine Hall? Ridge and Midvale. Still there.
CS: Which building is it now? What’s in that building now so I can…
RE: Now on the first floor there’s a Ridge Avenue Market – sell fish and produce.
CS: Oh, ok. It‘s that blue building, that big blue building now.
CS: It’s a big blue building, I think, now.
RE: No, no.
CS: Not that one? Not the fish market?
RE: The Koreans have it and they sell fish. Fresh fish and they sell vegetables.
CS: Yes, I know, ok.
RE: Maybe he painted the first floor blue
CS: I might be wrong.
RE: Palestine Hall was for the Masons. That’s why they called it Palestine Hall. And they rented it out to these various groups. And there’s a Negro Church meets there on Sundays, but I think the Masons still meet there. I don’t know, but it looks to me as though they still do, I don’t know.
CS: But the Moment Musical Club held performances there?
RE: Yes, they would rent the Hall. I think they rehearsed down in the library meeting room. And they also gave plays in the Woman’s Club at Washington Lane. Germantown Woman’s Club? Washington Lane and Germantown Avenue. I went to see plays there when we first moved up here. They started in 1923 and in 1932 they were still meeting in the library, I think, and one of the members, Jim Lawson, was well-acquainted with the Board of Trustees of the Old Academy Building on Indian Queen Lane. And the building was going to be condemned because nobody was taking care of it. Nobody could afford repairs on it and it was going to be condemned and torn down. And one of the trustees asked Jim Lawson if he thought the Moment Musical Club would be interested in moving in and making a theatre of it. So he presented it to them and they said, yes, they would. And they did. They moved in, in 1932 and with their own labor and their own money they converted it into a theatre and are still there.
CS: Did they take over ownership of the building?
RE: No. The building is actually a community building. It doesn’t belong to anybody. The ground that the building stands on was donated by William Smith and his wife, Ann, in 1815 – the land for it. And they said that they wanted it to be a community building on it, for use by the community. And they – one trustee was appointed and then 8 others and they were to have the building built. And they did. They collected money from the Falls people and they collected materials and they had the building built. It was finished in 1817. And it so stated in the charter that they are to go on forever as custodians, so to speak, of the building. Nine of them.
And the Falls Library has the Chadwick Papers down there and they have the records there copied from the original minutes and the original deed and the original charter and everything. They have them down there and anyone can go there and read them at any time. So the players are still occupying the building, and that was from 1932 till now.
CS: But they’re called the Old Academy Players now.
RE: Oh, well, when they moved into the building they changed the name to The Old Academy Players in 1932. But they are under the jurisdiction of the nine trustees. The nine trustees meet there four times a year in the building and they see that the building is kept in good repair. The players make a small donation to them every month and the trustees take care of that money and they use it for repairs on the outside of the building sometime. There are no set rules about it. But the nine trustees are still functioning and meeting in the building, especially the first Monday of January every year, which preserves the charter and they still do it.
Most of the trustees had their trusteeship passed on from relatives or family. Turners, they used to have a funeral parlor down on Midvale avenue – no, on Ridge Avenue near Midvale, was a trustee. He passed it on to his son. Then they moved to Roxborough and then it was passed on to Harrison Turner, so his great-grandfather was a trustee. See, it’s third generation. And, recently now, Harrison passed it on to his son, Jim. Jim is now one of our newest trustees down there. And he’s the treasurer, as his father was before him.
So the Old Academy Players are still functioning there. It’s a very tiny theatre, 128 – 29 seats, which isn’t much money. But they do other things to make money. They chance things off, they give flea markets, and those things really make more money for them – make the money to exist than anything else.
CS: Back when they moved there in 1932, who were some of the people that were active in the Moment Music Club– that were the movers and shakers?
RE: Oh, well, Jim Lawson and his wife, Mary. Jim Lawson is no longer living but his wife is. There was Ted Pflaumer, of the Pflaumer Ice Cream people. I don’t know if they’re still in existence but they had homemade ice cream places all over the city. Ted Pflaumer -his sister, Jule Bensing. Marie Holtenhess – her husband was one of the early secretaries of the trustees. In ’32, they were a small group – there weren’t many of them.
CS: When did you get involved with them?
RE: 1935. Our next door neighbor was a member of the Moment Musical…
CS: Who was that?
RE: That was Gladys Smith. She was one of the very, very early ones and her brother Stanley Smith was one of the originals. They were charter members. Ida Tregay Smith was a charter member. Hmmm, I almost had them all then. But Gladys invited us to join; she was our next-door neighbor. She used to do monologues. I don’t think people do monologues anymore. But she would act out all the parts by herself and she had books of them. She was excruciatingly funny – what a natural, great comedian. She acted in plays down there and was one of the most popular players there until Old Academy Players had a party in the library and she suspected that some of them were drinking and they were all so happy and she said she thought she smelled it. So she went up to Jim Lawson and said “What are you drinking?” and he said “Ginger ale” and she said “Oh, give me a taste.” Then he grabbed it away from her and she knew and went home right away. And then it began to be known that some of them were drinking and Jim Lawson was a Methodist too, but I guess they fell by the wayside. Anyhow, the pressure from the people at the church not to belong to those wicked Academy Players was too much and she resigned but she was a fabulous, fabulous actress. As good as any professional I’ve ever seen. Stan, her brother, kept on being there. He was not influenced by the church people. Then they began to take in people from other neighborhoods and now some of them live…
CS: But how did you get to become a member? Were you just invited or could you sign up? How did you get to be one?
RE: Oh, no. Well when I joined you went down and were interviewed by somebody. Then you came to the meeting and you sat in the front row. And they had great ceremony – they sang to you – some kind of a song they had – I don’t remember what it was – I was so nervous joining this theatre. And they had two memberships – one was Social and the other was Player. And I joined Social and my husband joined Player. And if you would join player, you had to take a test.
CS: What kind of a test?
RE: Read something, I guess, from a play or something and then they ask you questions. And I didn’t have to do anything – I just joined. But they had such a ceremony. And then the whole club ganged up and came around and shook hands and welcomed you to the club. It was really very nice.
And then we became very, very active. In fact every time I went out, my children would say “Are you going to the club, mother?” They knew that we had to go to the club. And when they got older, sometimes I spent most of my life down there. I’d go down every night and be working on a show or going to a meeting or wash dishes. We didn’t have anybody to help then with things. I’ve done everything down there and so has my husband. And we loved it. It was really great. And one day I just got tired of it. I never went back.
CS: Nothing prompted it?
RE: No, suddenly it seemed childish and a waste of my time. No, and I never went back.
CS: When was that?
RE: What’s this? 1983? Maybe 1970, something like that. I just stopped. But I’m getting a little active again now. I’m helping out with some things that I can help with, but it’s all changed. It was a prosperous club then; it’s not now. It was such an honor to receive a part then that the production committee – which was not a production committee then, it was a few directors – they would meet and decide on a play and then they would cast it on paper. And then you would go to the meeting and you would sit there – not me, because I didn’t care, but the other ones tell me they would sit there with their palms sweaty and their heart pounding, you know. And then your name was called out – you had a part. Then you went up and received your book and everybody clapped – you had a part.
And now they call people and say “Would you be interested in a part?” “No, I’m going to school at night – I can’t.” “Could you…?” “No, I never take a part in February because it snows then.” And they have a million excuses – it’s so hard to cast a play now that the contrast is immense between the two eras when it was such an honor to get a part in a play. And then you attended every rehearsal without fail. If you were doing props or prompting or anything, you attended every rehearsal. You knew the play frontward and backward no matter what kind of job you did on it then. It was very dedicated. But now nobody has time anymore. Maybe it’s the change of people going to school at night, people having televisions – there’s much more entertainment at home – I don’t know what it is. But I myself don’t go down there. There’s a small nucleus of people now who keep the club going. How long that will go on, we don’t know.
CS: Would you say there was any time that was the real highpoint of the club? Certain years that were…
RE: I’m not good with years. It was highpoint when we were members. It was highpoint then.
CS: When did you see it decline?
RE: I wasn’t there when it started to decline so it wasn’t my fault.
CS: Was there any period when they stopped doing productions? During the war?
RE: No, they never stopped.
CS: So continuous productions since 1932?
RE: Yes. Oh before that they were continuous. They might not have been regular like they are now but they never stopped producing. They might have had two a year when they were the Moment Musical Club. And one time we had an anniversary of some sort down there – I can’t remember what it was – and I was always a great organizer – I love to organize special things and I found the first show the Moment Musical Club did in the church, and then took out to other churches and did, was still available – the book was still available… it was a musical.
CS: What was it called?
RE: It was called “The Minister’s Wife New Bonnet” and it was a musical. And just for fun – and it was not given for the public to make money or anything – I got the books from French – French had them in New York – and I read it and then I went around and found out the names of the original cast. And as much as I could, I got them. And then I got Stan Smith to direct it, who was one of the original cast. And he directed it and we got costumes for them and they were happy about it and then we were going to give it just one night on our anniversary – and I can’t remember what anniversary it was, darn it, but anyhow, these people came and they rehearsed and we got furniture, we got props, and they did the show and it was good!
Now I’ve been in theatre all my life and I was in, since 1935, I’ve been at Old Academy and I went to see all other little theatre groups plays, and I went to New York and saw all the productions over there, and I saw everything that came to Philadelphia, and you can’t help but become a good judge of what is good acting, what is good theatre, what is good, you know, it’s an education. Even though you can’t do it yourself, you can judge. They were good! The little play was good! The little musical was good! It was highly entertaining. It had marvelous dialogue, good songs, and they were all good. They had good singing voices. They were good actors. So on our anniversary, then we gave this play for our anniversary. And I had a huge cake baked with “Happy Anniversary” and I had – so we gave it. Our members attended and friends and we didn’t charge any admission. It was not a money-making scheme. It was mostly for our members to come and see it and, of course, then we had members coming out. And they came and they loved it! And the cast were kind of unhappy because they wanted their friends to see them in the play so we gave a second night.
END of CD #1