Interviewee: Harry Prime (HP) Interviewers: Wendy Moody (WM) and Ellen Sheehan (ES) Date of interview: November 13, 2011 Place: Epicure Café, Conrad and Bowman Streets
Detailed, humorous memories by Big Band singer and Falls resident Harry Prime. Includes Kelly for Brickwork, Grace Kelly, John B. Kelly, Sr., holidays, Bathey, Clayton’s Market, more.
HP: ……because the alternative was Germantown and I didn’t want to go there. So I choose Roman because my dad went there.
ES: So how did that get you to Roman?
HP: I had to take this thing to him which from Bonner to him saying “Sign it” and we’ll let him go to Roman. So I got him to sign the damn thing, and all the time I’m sitting there looking at him…and he signed the damn thing and that’s how I got into Roman but I had to go through a summer of back and forth with the Diocese heads and I was the only kid from St. Bridget’s that went to Roman out of that class. Everyone else went to North Catholic including people like James Stevens (?), who became a doctor, Jim Fiedler, Fiedler’s Drugs down there on the Ridge – he was a classmate of mine – and Al Dugan, who was down on Allegheny Avenue there, and James Doyle – they were all in my class and they all went to either North Catholic or Germantown and I held out for Roman and I was the only one from that class that graduated from Roman. Here’s another thing: the first year I was there I was a total stranger because all the kids that were at Roman in that class when I went in were sent there from their diocese – like I would have gone to North Catholic. All the kids from like Precious Blood and Our Lady of Mercy and Holy Child and all – the feeding ground was to send them to Roman – so, in other words, if you went there you had a lot of guys you were in grade school with but I was the only one – I was the solitary guy, you know.
ES: How did you do? Did you graduate with honors?
HP: Not only that, but they voted me vice-president of the class the first year and I was vice-president for all four years. And the only guy who beat me out was the football hero from Holy Child, or one of those parishes up Broad Street. His name was Bill Howlett – great football player; God bless him.
WM: Let’s just do a little more on this form – what was the name of your wife? What was her name?
HP: Marie Etpley– she died in 1974. Now that was my second marriage. I was married, like, in ’42.
ES: This is Ellen Sheehan with Wendy Moody recording an interview with Harry Prime, the great singer, November 13, 2011 at the Epicure Café, Bowman and Conrad Streets
HP: It was getting better every year – we got to be 18 or 19 – we were that good that we weren’t playing 18 or 19 year old teams – we were in the Philadelphia League, playing against veterans like Wissanoming and Kurbaw and Rayfield – good teams – Kensington. They were men teams, we were boy teams. I wanted to be a ball player. But my mother was a widow. My dad passed away. I had another brother, who wasn’t in great shape. He seemed to catch everything. He had yellow jaundice, appendicitis, he was always ailing, John, a great guy. He loved baseball as much as I did but unfortunately he couldn’t play as well so John became the score keeper for our team. And we had a heck of a good team. And you were the catcher?
HP: I was the catcher and the captain of the team.
What was the team called?
HP: Well in the beginning, when we first started, we were 13 to 16 years old. We were the East Falls Trojans. And then when we got to puberty, 17 or 18, we realized that Trojans had a connotation that wasn’t very nice. We decided to call ourselves East Falls. When we got into the Philadelphia League, we dropped the Trojan part of it – no nickname – we were just good old solid East Falls. But the point I want to get at is I had to get a job. I was cheating on my mother by not working because she was working at Aspen Hill, as my father did. Working to get us through school as any mother would do. And it was kind of an obligation that when I got old enough and big enough I’d get a job. The first job I had was at 1218 Vine St. for a company that I don’t know if you remember them or not –they delivered the film – did you ever see those big green metal boxes – movie reels – outside movie theaters? It was called Poorlacker (?) Delivery Service – it later became Highway Express Lines. That was the first job I had – I made $13 a week and my job was filing invoices. It was a delivery service to theaters a hundred miles from Philadelphia – Reading, Harrisburg, Jersey, Delaware. So that was my first job. And then that job it kind of got nasty – well, the general manager was a guy from East Falls, lived on Tilden St., by the name of Larry Daily. One night – I use to gather up the invoices I didn’t finish during the day and I’d take them home like a kid doing homework. They had to be filed in numerical order. It was a stack of invoices this high and real thin tissue type paper. I use to take the stack home rather than stay in the office because I had a twilight baseball game. So one night I’m getting ready to leave and he says to me “where are you going? Why don’t you stay here and finish those invoices.” I said “I’ve got to play ball at night.” So he says: “Ball! You need a good kick in the ass.’ And I said “If you do your ass will be on the floor.” I was eighteen. And he said “What do you mean!” and I said “You heard me – you don’t kick me in the ass!” So that was the end of my delivery service. That was 1938. I lasted for about six months. It was all over after that.
And then you worked for “Kelly for Brickwork”
HP: My mother knew Jack Kelly so she said “why don’t you get a job with John B. Kelly.” So I worked for “Kelly for Brickwork” as a timekeeper. I would work a lot of places for a short time. I worked at Midvale Steel; I worked as a crane operator. I worked at Sun Ship Yard. The big thing was I was so determined, by 1941 the guys were being drafted and I was constantly being turned down and it was getting to be annoying because the guys I played ball with were being drafter but I was turned down because I had a couple of episodes one summer after I was hit in the neck by a foul ball right in this area here (pointing to neck). The adrenal gland runs right up there and apparently it has something to do with equilibrium or adrenalin. People don’t seem to know what I’m talking about. Every time I got to the guy who would tap your knee with the little hammer, he would say “what’s this about your fainting episodes.” It never happened after that but he said “well you could be leading a brigade somewhere and you never know when it could happen again.”
They sent me to Washington D.C. – Kelly did – outside of Washington in northern Virginia there – right outside Washington – tremendous building thing going on because of the war – they knew it was going to be – Hitler was running all over Hungary and Germany – different places – and it was inevitable that we would be involved. So the government started building places in Arlington, Burlington, Seminary Heights – and that’s when I went down to the Washington D.C. area. And it was in that – during that interim in 1942 when I was there that I met a girl who was working in Virginia – in Arlington and Alexandria – and we had a real quick romance – one of those frantic things where you thought you met the girl of your dreams and she was almost 10 years older than me which was bad to begin with, but a lovely lady.
What was the name of your first wife?
HP: Her name was Mary Lee Bivens.
How long were you married?
HP: She had been married before and we married in September of 1942 and were married till 1954. I married Marie in 1957 and that lasted until she died in 1974, seventeen years.
And your children are from which marriage?
HP: The children are from the second marriage. The first marriage was with Mary Lee. There were three: John, Harry and the oldest is a girl Befinia we call her Fini. There were three from my first marriage.
And from the second?
HP: Kevin, Greg, Rick and Kim. So there were seven kids involved.
Can we go back a little bit to your childhood here in East Falls? If we have time I want to ask about your memories of EF, places like the library, the Bathey, Dobson Mills, etc.?
HP: This place was Clayton Brothers Meats & Groceries. One end was the meat dept. That was Willie Clayton, a little bowled legged type guy. He was the nicest of all the Clayton’s. Harry was taller, wore glasses. He ran the dry goods area – the cookies, cakes, the canned goods. He was the guy when kids came in there with a note from their mother, they wanted to give it to anyone but Harry because he would say “What’s this! I can’t read this!” There was always something wrong. But he was a nice old guy, God bless him. Friday nights were always busy. The service was great. They had a closed truck and they would take orders from what we called the people up in the Manor on Queen Lane because that was new to us – the whole development up there. These were people of means to us and they were all elegant people, well-educated.
It was just another world, but it was good business to a store like Clayton Brothers because the merchandise was so fresh. There were delivery trucks every day. They would go down to the wharf for their produce and bring it up two, three times a week. And when you came in here to get something, when you asked for a steak, they’d go into the freezer and carry out a whole side of beef and put it on the block, take a big saw and they would saw it and then they would cut the fat off and they’d have a steak this big. There were 2 butcher blocks, and when you step up here, that’s where the dividing line was (pointing) for what I call Harry Clayton’s area, and that was all dry goods.
Did people from all parts of the Falls use the store?
HP: Most of the people were lifelong customers from Sunnyside all the way over to Crawford or Scots Lane, and, from that way, from Ainslie St, past Tilden, and then Queen Lane – a lot of the people on Queen Lane, being from what I call a better background. It didn’t mean they were better people, but they were far more educated, I think. Most of them were professionals. They had Germantown and Chelten Avenue right there – Allen’s – wonderful area! Germantown & Chelten was a beautiful area for shopping. There were men’s stores; there were three theaters that they used to go to. In other words, Germantown took a lot of what I call the Warden Drive trade from East Falls and the School House Lane trade. But this area was mainly for the blue collar people of East Falls from Scott’s Lane all the way over to Ainslie Street. That was about the dividing line – Tilden, Ainslie, and then you had another class of people. But those people found that this grocery store was a lot better than the grocery stores they could find anywhere they went because everything was so fresh and then to make it even more intriguing, they delivered for them. All these people up there, they didn’t even know, half of them, what they looked like. But Mrs. Oakley is on the phone: “Yes, Mrs. Oakley?” and say, “This is my order for the day. I want 9 strips of sirloin steak, sir” and we would help. There would be huge boxes – like cardboard boxes – and you’d pick up a slip and say “This is the Stromeyer’s order.” And you’d fill that out – you’d get what you could – bread, cookies, baking powder – you would help them load that box up.
So you were an employee here?
HP: No, I wasn’t an employee, I was a volunteer because I got free cookies, and it was something to do on a Friday night. We used to listen to the radio because everybody was a boxing fan in those days, even the Methodists. And the hero of the day – the guy that everyone was talking about – was Joe Louis, the “brown bomber.” I think I know enough about boxing than anyone, because it was my dad’s favorite sport.
He took me to the Phillies ball field, Baker Bowl, many nights to see championship boxing bouts. That’s where they used to hold them in the ball parks, Baker Bowl, Shibe Park. And I saw all the great fighters, like Kid Chocolate, Benny Bass, Billy DeAngelo, Gus Derazio, Ali Tor, Paralyzing Paul Perone from Cleveland, Pledo Lacatelli from Italy, Frankie Click from California. I was always listening for the fight – Gillette had a boxing bout – every Friday night, Don Dunphy: “And we’re here at Chicago Stadium tonight and, for their second encounter, a paralyzing puncher from NY’s east side, Rocky Graziano fighting the iron man of steel from Gary, Indiana, Tony Zao. What fights they were. Friday nights we stayed opened to fill these orders and the floor was full of boxes. Pete Brocius was the driver of the truck. He lived right up on Henry Avenue.
Where did you go for entertainment?
HP: Every day we went to Dobson Field with our gloves. That was the only place we could go. Right across the street during football season we used to play tackle football right out to the billboards, where the Hohenadal beer trucks were parked at night. There was a garage over there. We used to play football over there or on the field. But every day I practiced baseball. Couldn’t wait to get my school clothes off and we played every night. We practiced after school and then go back at night and play. They were the sports, baseball, football and boxing. Basketball wasn’t played until a guy by the name of Joe Foulkes set a scoring record. He played for the Philadelphia Warriors. They played at the Phila. Arena, Market Street, which later became famous as the place where Dick Clarke filmed “Bandstand.” I saw many boxing matches at the arena, at 46th and Market.
Memories of East Falls? The Library?
HP: If we weren’t in here at Clayton’s on a Friday night, we were at the library taunting the guard who worked there. He wore big glasses and had a mustache. His legs were as bowed as anyone I have ever seen in my life. We use to go up and say things to taunt him and he would say “Ar, get out of here. “ This was part of our Friday night entertainment. I don’t know what his name was. We weren’t reading we were just waiting for something to happen and he would come in and go after us. There were a lot of steps and watching him trying to chase us. We were agile and we wouldn’t go down the step but jump over the side. We would run across the street to the Kelly property. P.H. Kelly lived where the school is. That was a wonderful place. He had a huge lawn, big enough to play football on. We played there. There was a guy named Johnnie McCann, who lived on Conrad St. He was an excellent athlete. I don’t know how he ever wound up with a nickname. he had a younger brother named Jimmy and when he was little he couldn’t say his name so he called him “Dimmo,” Dimmo McCann. Everyone had a nickname in those days, Sonny, Dimmo, iceman so and so. There was “Torch” Gotwols, we called him “Torch” because he had y? red hair.
What about the Bathey?
HP: If you could get in there, one day was for boys and one day for girls. It was small, but if you wanted to take a dip, it didn’t cost you any money. It was a public swimming pool. You couldn’t get in the place. Most of the time when you took a dive from the side of the pool, you hit people, it was that crowded. I never liked the Bathey. I use to go over the Falls Bridge, under the tunnel of the B & O Railroad, you would come up to Chamonieux Lake. The story was it was 1000 feet deep to scare all of us kids. You would walk by the lake and come to wonderful Woodside Park with its roller coasters, the Wildcat and a ballroom where you could dance. There was soda pop and a Midway. You could throw darts at the balloons.
What about the movies?
HP: Yes, I think it is a grocery store now, isn’t it? It was at Frederick and Midvale. It was small but you were there every Saturday and for a quarter they would start with a Mickey Mouse cartoon, and then an “Our Gang ‘ comedy short, another short and a feature. It was a thing that people couldn’t wait to go to the Falls Theater. I remember one, a comedy by the name of “El Grendle the year 2010.” In 1930 that was an eternity away. They showed spaceships and dammed if they aren’t exactly like they are today. How they had the vision to see 60, 70 years in advance. When I see the space ship today, I think of that old Grendle movie, the guys looked like they do today. The uniforms, someone had enough visionary talent that they could picture what it is today.
Any memories of Dobson Mills, the old railroad station?
At the Dobson Mills most of the workers were from England, Ireland or Scotland. They were weaving, with looms for stockings before synthetics came in like nylon. There was a whole generation of people who came in the 1920’s or earlier. Some went to New York, but a lot came to Dobson Mills. They all lived nearby. We called it “Bunny row” because they were all Englishmen. Right along Conrad which we called 35th St. Then they named 33rd Street Vaux. They were getting fancy on us and we didn’t know.
What about the Railroads?
HP: The railroads were so handy and it was only .40. The conductor would tear off your ticket and you could be at 12th and market in 15 minutes. You couldn’t believe how fast you would be there. You would leave EF, then 22nd St., then North Broad, Columbia and Reading Terminal. Four stops to Reading Terminal. Down the steps and right across the street was a good bar.
Did you belong to any organizations like the Young Men’s Literary Institute?
HP: We use to go there for dances. If there was any in this area that’s where they were playing, but there were only a handful of people who played basketball.
What about boxing there?
HP: They had boxing and everybody liked boxing. They would have bouts over here on Hunting Park Ave. called Blue Ribbon and a man who lived right up the street here named Bear Connelly was a boxer and He was a policeman in the 39th district over on Hunting Park Avenue. He opened a gym down by the river in back of Cassidy’s garage, off Midvale Avenue. I was a gym with training and if you were interested in a career, Bear would take you under his wing and teach you. There were about 3 or4 boys that I remember, a kid by the name of Tommy Brill, from Eveline Street who got pretty good. They were amateur. Every year the newspapers put on the “Golden Gloves” fight. It was a big tournament. All weight divisions from feather weight to heavy weight. Tommy Brill was a good boxer. I don’t know if he ever won, but he always did well in the “Golden Gloves.” Billy Conrad was a good fighter. Then Bear talked me into it because I was winning boxing bouts at what we called “Sea Scouts” at St. Bridget’s.
Where was that held?
HP: In the parish hall on Stanton St. Fr. McMann was in charge of that. The sea scouts wore what navy guys wore. We would go to Edington for summer camps. We had boxing matches on Friday nights. And I would meet most of the guys. I was 12-14 and doing pretty good. Word got around to Bear and he approached my mother on the street one day and my mother was pretty audacious. She was like an Irish marine and she went to Bear and said you ever get my boy – don’t talk to him about it. Well she finally consented and when I was 16 or 17 I boxed twice at the Blue Ribbon Bouts. I won my first bout and the next time there was a kid who later became champ at 126 lbs. His name was Tommy Porte. I got in the ring with him and he dammed near killed me. I came home with a big shiner and my mother looked at me and said “That’s it.” That ended my boxing career.
Tell us about working for “Kelly for Brickwork”? Did you know John B.?
Charlie Kelly was Jack’s brother. He served no other purpose but to shake things up on the brick line. He knew how to taunt and aggravate people. He was like a labor boss, straw boss. He had a car that he drove like a maniac to get from one job to the other. Kelly might have 10 jobs in the Philadelphia area and he would shoot up to Warminister. There was a housing project they were building up there that became a terrible emporium of drugs, prostitution and there were jobs in the inner city for the underprivileged, housing projects, Abbottsford, and Charlie had all these visits to make every day. Never wore a coat, just a shirt and he would pull up and he’d park his car at a crazy angle. He was so out of control. One day he walked up to the workers. You know, you put the mortar on and then put it on the line and there was a line and you had to keep up with the line because they kept moving the lineup. If he saw a spot where the line dipped he was right there. One day, I was there and keeping up and I had the time book. Charlie said to this guy, “What the hell do you think you are doing?” “What do you mean, Charlie?” Look at how far behind you are. He rips the guy for being slow. The guy said “Well Charlie, Rome wasn’t built in a day.” “The only reason why not was because I wasn’t on the job.”
Did you know John B and his son?
HP: Yes, very well and the son also.
Tell us about them,
HP: They were nothing but the best. I had high regard for them. They were not easy to deal with. They were Irish. The mother was Margaret Major, she was a health expert and she was German extraction. That’s where the blond came in and the kids they were raised, you could see where they were all. I would go to mass purposely to sit near them. I was keen enough to know where they sat. Jack was big. In those days a guy 6’2 was a big guy. He would walk in and the next would be Margaret and all the kids, Jack and Grace and other sisters. He was like the Van Trapp Father and when they would come in I made sure I sat right behind them. Grace would be there and I would look at her and say Good Morning Grace and she would say Good morning. I later lost track of her, I worked for her dad but very seldom saw her except the Kellys were kind enough to flood their tennis courts in the winter and anyone could skate there. They were very good people, strong, I can’t believe that they all died so young. John B. died exercising on the Drive. A couple of years before I was the master of ceremonies at the Landsdale CC and John B. Jr. was there. We had an interesting time talking about – East Falls. Grace was young when she died in an automobile accident in Monaco. The one thing I remember about Grace, She was a striking beauty. When people bring up who was the prettiest girl in movies a lot of names are mentioned, Ave Gardner, Lana Turner, you don’t see anyone like them today, Hilton and druggies, infamy is there middle name. But Grace was striking. She was in a play written by an uncle of hers called “Craig’s wife.” I was on WCAU at the time and I was around time maybe between bands but they got in touch with me and wanted to know if I could come down to see the show and Grace would be my host. So I jumped at that. It was her first venture into show business, “Craig’s Wife” at the Old Academy. Her personality was cold like stone stand off ish but confident. They were strong. If you were half bombed you didn’t want to tangle with them.
You mentioned that you knew their chauffer, Ford.
HP: Ford was well known about town. He used to come down to Clayton’s to get stuff. Everyone knew Ford. When you would see this big limousine coming up, with Ford at the helm, you knew If I were to pick a character from the past, do you remember Rochester from the Jack Benny Show? He was a Rochester, gabby and friendly and nice. Ford would come down in his big limo and he would come in and talk to you and but the big think he use to do was to pick up the booze at the state store at the corner of Ridge and Midvale there. There used to be a state store right at the bottom of (Indian) Queen lane. One day I was talking to him and he said “Man, that Prince Rainier is visiting the Kellys.” I said “What’s happening?” He said “I can’t keep enough Jack Daniels up there. I come down two, three times a week to buy Jack Daniels. The clerk In the state store said “Who the hells drinking all this Jack Daniels?” Ford said to him “It’s this fellow from Monaco. That Prince Rainier you can’t keep him in enough Jack Daniels.”
We want to ask you about your career but that will have to be another interview, if you’re willing to come back for a second interview. But just focusing on East Falls, tell us about holidays. What were your traditions for Christmas, 4th of July?
4th of July was the best – if there was any kind of a celebration it was 4th of July. In a small community like this, from Ridge & Midvale on up there was Grace, Falls Presbyterian, St. Bridget’s, Methodist, Baptist, That’s about five, isn’t it? And they all had their own celebrations. Everybody became a bugler. Even is played- (sings) “My old man’s a clever old man, boom-ba-boom. ”Every once in a while the director would say,” OK, My old Man.” You would play that every couple of blocks. There would be a parade, then the women with the baby carriages and all this bunting around, red, white and blue. The streets would be lined with people watching. “Here come the Methodist” and they would come by. Here come the Baptist and then the next. Whatever you wanted to be, you could be converted that day. What they would do when they finished they would go to Conrad, down by the railroad tracks to Scotts Lane. Well that’s where it all stopped. Then we would go to Medical College, Henry Avenue, or cut it short. The parades would end up at the picnic grounds. Most of the picnic grounds were up in the area of McMichael Park. Past the reservoir. The Lutherans use to have theirs right behind the church.
Were there fireworks?
HP: Oh, yes. We use to sit out in the street, Bowman Street and Woodside Park which was right over there. You could see the Ferris wheel at night. We would sit on the Belgium blocks. There would be rows of kids, mothers would be out there standing in their aprons. There would be about 50 people in the middle of Bowman St. At nine o’clock we would see the first one. Every Friday night they would have fireworks. But on the holiday they were even longer. And there was more of an assortment of them. Kids today – my son, Kevin, has two boys, 12 and 10. I can’t believe how much time they spend inside the house playing these war games and computer games and TV. They’re talking to kids in other parts of the country.
You mentioned about the streets being paved. When did that happen?
HP: I don’t remember when they were paved, but the blocks were delivered by carts pulled by horses. You would hear the hoses clopping on the blocks. Most of the deliveries were made by a horse drawn wagon, the bread man, the ice man. When they paved them everything changed. The hucksters had a hard time because their wagons were old. They all had a theme song. There was a guy by the name of Parks, Charlie Parks, and he would come to the bottom of the street and yell, “Yo, Parks, Parksie’s here.” All the women would come out with their aprons on and say How much are those…. They had seafood from the shore, crabs and fish.
What other kings of hucksters were there?
HP: There were produce hucksters, all pretty much the same.
What about Christmas? Were there any special traditions?
HP: Well I told you about the 4th of July, how every church was represented and you couldn’t wait for the parade to start. You couldn’t wait for it to come. My brother and I would be up there and my mother would see we were in bed by 10:30-11:00. The next thing you would hear in the distance, (sings) “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” They would get closer and closer. I’ll never forget how thrilling it was to hear all the choirs of the churches. They had beautiful voices and they had all been trained for this event. They were caroling but they worked on it for so many weeks. It was thrilling. You would jump back In bed and couldn’t wait for Santa Claus to drop by.
Did each church come separately?
HP: Most of them had a caroling group. I don’t know about St. Bridget’s but most of the protestant churches did. The Gotwol boys were heavy into singing. Webbie had an excellent voice. Torch was the youngest; that was Harold. He died at such an early age. I went to see him laid out and almost cried as I stood at the bier. He was such a strong guy and he could hit a baseball and pitch. Then there was Earl. My brother, John, who passed away two years ago, he loved Earl. Earl and he were great buddies. They were the same type, quiet, easy-going, nice looking, compassionate. Earl could run like the wind. He hit a lot of balls to right field and when he got a hit between the center fielder and the right fielder, it was a pleasure to watch this guy run those bases. I was a catcher and I was like a lead can. I was a good catcher, but I wasn’t fleet of foot, as most catchers aren’t. It’s the kind of job that will slow you down eventually because you’re up and down.