You might say Philadelphia for me was a kind of a Rosette Nebula in my peripatetic life.
For once upon a time I was a seedling in that searing cloud of gas and dust hugging Delaware Valley, working my tail off, searching for true meaning and substance to give to that cluster of stars, Temple, Penn and my mighty journalistic milky way, The Philadelphia Inquirer, where I was a rough and tumble reporter. Now I see the newspaper noticeably atrophied in a digital universe. How sad.
On it I had hustled for stories like one of the first skyjackings, President Nixon coming to town, interviewing parents of military killed in bloody Vietnam, arriving at murder scenes before the rest of the pack, following our then daring Mayor Rizzo around, while getting my Master’s Degree at Penn’s Annenberg School of Communications before embarking on what would be my meteoric ascent into the thin-air heights of network television.
How poignant it was the other day visiting my birthplace and workplace, Philadelphia, sadly to see the smaller new home of what was once the bedrock of news and opinion that had stood so tall and proud in the white tower on North Broad. Alas, now it was tucked away on 8th near Market St., across from what was once Lits, the department store established there in 1891. That impressive tower where I had worked soon will be the new home of The Philadelphia Police Department.
Lits had positioned itself as a more affordable alternate to its upscale competitors Strawbridge and Clothier, John Wanamaker, and Gimbels, all names now in the past. I remember Lits well because it bought Blatt’s, another department store in the city where I grew up, Atlantic City, NJ. Would they call it Blits? No Lit Brothers stayed with Lits.
You want to talk about reverse transfigurations? I could write books about all the ones that my playground resort AC has undergone, from elegance in the 20s to depression in the 50’s and 60s, back to bustling in the 80’s and 2000’s, now heading south again today with half the casinos along north Pacific Avenue already dark, while to the south the once bankrupt Taj Mahal then owned by our wily President Trump, is now the happening place, the Hard Rock.
But back to Philly, where I spent the weekend to meet my wife Rita’s brother and sister-in-law from Brazil visiting her spunky daughter and her daughter’s lightly bearded husband in their tidy row home in now quietly trendy Fish Town.
Their neighborhood is only an eleven-and-a-half-minute Uber ride from our Center City hotel where in sharp contrast to the busy bars, restaurants and hotels dotting the upscale landscape are too many homeless begging in the streets.
No, I didn’t “spend a week there one night” as W.C. Fields used to joke. We spent a glorious, fast-paced weekend in fabulous Philly that except for a few bumps exceeded my expectations and was full of fun, excitement and memories.
One bump or hump was when we were sitting in our $114 apiece orchestra seats at the Academy of Music waiting for Balanchine’s Nutcracker to start when suddenly a stout guy with the world’s biggest bull neck sits right in front of my aisle seat, which suddenly loses 70 percent of its value.
To make matters worse, the collar on his sports coat was turned up so I reached over to adjust it, acting very much the friendly and courteous gentleman seated behind, but psychologically I wanted to put my hands around his throat.
But on with the show. It was delightful and elegant and afterwards we stopped for cocktails at the Bellevue, which I still call the Bellevue-Stratford, which seemed to never fully recover from the legionnaire’s disease disaster that occurred in 1976, yet now it’s called just The Bellevue Hotel, still chic and luxurious.
Then we went over to another transformation, the Ritz-Carlton, occupying the once stately home of the Gerard Bank and Trust Company, so if you’re like me with a whimsical twist for history, you’re not sure if your drinking or depositing.
Next day, I take Rita to see where I earned my Master’s Degree at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Where’s the statue of Moses?” I ask Rose, who greeted us on the second floor. Moe’s son, Walter H. Annenberg, had dedicated it to his father when he endowed the Annenberg School. It was prominently on display there when I went to study for my Master’s.
Walter was a philanthropist, art collector and former ambassador to Britain who once presided over a vast communications empire that included TV Guide, which ran a story about me after I left NBC, and the daily newspaper where I was the tireless trouble-stalking, sleuthing reporter at The Inquirer, still the third oldest surviving newspaper in the United States.
Moses (Moe) Annenberg was a Jewish immigrant from East Prussia who arrived literally barefoot in New York in 1885. His wooden shoes were washed overboard during the stormy voyage. By 1927, he was a multimillionaire, controlling 40 different businesses, including the Daily Racing Form.
When Moses was jailed for tax evasion in 1940 and died two years later, it fell to his only son, Walter, to save the family business, not to mention his dad’s soiled reputation. One of the ways he did it was installing that statue of his dad which was removed some time after Walter died. Rose wasn’t sure why, but being the PR man, I think I know why you’d rather have a bust of benefactor Walter instead of a large statue of his disgraced father.
I met Walter once years before I joined his newspaper as a reporter. I was a budding entrepreneur who created and was publishing Channel TV Magazine, a guide to cable TV for South Jersey subscribers. Somehow, I managed to get this meeting with Mr. Annenberg in Philadelphia. Soon after I started my presentation, he fell asleep and I was told not to wake him. Undaunted, I proceeded so at least his dutiful lieutenants could later convey to Mr. Annenberg the emerging new market my magazine was selectively targeting. I never heard from him.
That’s me. I always was just a little too far ahead of my time, like when I later created “Shop Around the World with Elke Sommer,” on videotape cassette, a precursor to Home Shopping Network, which people could rent from Blockbuster, then call an 800 number to order products Elke was showing as they were being made in Germany and other countries where we shot video.
Back to modern Philadelphia. Among other highlights of our whirlwind weekend there just before Christmas starting in frigidly low 20 degrees and ending in almost scarf-less, over-coast-less 50’s were attending Mass at St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral, a delicious dinner at Estia Restaurant, visiting the sprawling campus at Penn where we had lunch at the White Dog on Samson Street and just walking the streets everywhere teeming with excited holiday crowds.
After lunch Rita and I headed off to Philadelphia International Airport. Happily, our Uber driver was a charming gentleman from Brazil whose family business there he had been supporting until it failed, driving him to join Uber and now he’s chauffeuring us to our departing flight back to Fort Lauderdale on Spirit.
Thank you, Philadelphia, you look great. It was wonderful seeing you again. Thank you Messrs. Penn, Franklin and Annenberg for all you’ve done for Philly and me! Adieu!
Look for my next book “Love Boat 78” coming soon to Amazon and Kindle published by MascotBooks. It’s a love story with a happy ending and here she is, my wife Rita pictured with me below not in London or Paris, but in fabulous Philadelphia.