(Another in a series on the life and times of Eleanor and Pete, the columnist’s parents.)
They had a taste for night life. In the early 1950s, they called it “clubbing.” We went clubbing, they would say. They waited until their kids were old enough to baby-sit themselves before surrendering to the mystery of smoky juke joints in Center City and South Jersey.
It was a time when people dressed up, liked dressing up. Philly didn’t have the swank and glamour of New York City, but neither was it the place W.C. Fields mocked. There was the Latin Casino on Juniper and Walnut, a few years away from moving across the bridge to Cherry Hill. The Click was nearby, and Mitchell’s Supper Club, as well as Big Bill Rodstein’s, where they once met a young Al Martino and gave him a lift home.
Big Bill would later open his shrine to Frank Sinatra, called it the Sinatrama Room. Sometimes they even went to the burlesque shows at the Carmen Theater where naughty had not yet become dirty. Skinny D’Amato’s 500 Club down in Atlantic City reigned supreme, and the Black Orchid Room hosted Buddy Greco and a young comedian named Lenny Bruce. There was Miles Davis playing the Cotton Club, and at Club Harlem, you could catch Sam Cooke performing during the breakfast show. They liked to grab a club sandwich, sip a highball and listen to the music. One time, Pete had gotten up and sang “The Shadow Of Your Smile” with the Billy Frio Trio at the Venus Lounge. Eleanor was embarrassed.
She liked getting all dolled up after spending the week doing housework, taking care of the kids and cooking the meals. He was a cop with one good suit, but it was Italian silk. He looked like a movie star when he wore it. There was nothing they liked more than strolling arm in arm on a Saturday night amidst the bright city lights. They never went out with other couples. All they needed was each other. With his petite lady on his arm (with her killer green eyes and blonde hair), the rest of the world could just disappear.
It was an era when mobsters, cops and priests all grew up hanging on the same South Philly street corner. It was before drugs took over the streets and the Mob was content with the profits from gambling and prostitution. As a cop, he respected Angelo Bruno for not giving in to the temptation of dealing street drugs. He always said only his wife kept him from going over to the dark side.
One Saturday night he had even introduced his wife to Bruno in an Atlantic City nightclub. She pretended to be annoyed by the experience, but deep down she liked the excitement of that evening. They were conventional people by day, but both of them thrived on the adrenaline rush of the mystery and promise of the night.
An opportunity came along for him to join the vice squad, but he turned it down. There were family conflicts. It would’ve meant that he had to arrest members of his own family, so instead, he chose to join the narcotics squad. He hated the pushers, but always had compassion for those hooked on “junk.”
Many great musicians of that era were addicted to drugs. Heroin was the drug of choice. His biggest nightmare was being forced to arrest someone who could blow a sax. He became incensed one time when jazz great, Gerry Mulligan, claimed that the Philly cops had tried to shake him down. In the early ’60s, when I landed a gig on a local jazz station, he came by the studio to listen.
“You play their music and I lock them up,” he lamented.
Some of them survived; some like Chet Baker ended their lives ravaged by the needle.
Eleanor and Pete rose above the mundane lives of their peers. They had no more money than anyone else, but they had a helluva lot more fun. All it took was Saturday night to transform them. They were this glamorous couple, bigger than life. I wanted to be like him. I wanted his courage to bust down the doors of drug dealers in the middle of the night. I wanted my own black Italian silk suit and a beautiful woman like her on my arm. I wanted to experience the unfathomable mystery of the big city after dark, to feel its exotic promise, to be part of the glitter of Saturday night.
In later years, despite her illness, you could see still see them striding through the casinos of A.C., still a handsome couple, laughing at the a slot machine and grabbing a corned beef sandwich or a toasted cinnamon bun and a cup of coffee before heading home in his polished big black car.
They showed me that even a life marred by illness can still have style; there is always time for the flashing lights, always a reason to get out that Italian silk suit and feel the beat of the heart of Saturday night.
Well you gassed her up
and you’re behind the wheel
with your arm around your sweet one
in your Oldsmobile
barrelin’ down the boulevard
you’re lookin’ for the heart of Saturday night