Rockaway Mania (& Some Woody Allen)

Here’s something to round out everyone’s newly-acquired Rockaway IQ  (and by “everyone” I mean those who have just recently discovered what happens at the Queens end of the A Train, the rest of “everyone” I apologize for adding even more to the flood of Rockaway attention, but I’ve always liked to give Rockaway attention, I guess not everyone was listening carefully enough).

Over drinks after seeing Woody Allen’s latest film on Friday – Midnight in Paris – a friend and I reached that inevitable moment in the evening of having to address how this movie compared with the last few and with his best and what it says about the man. It’s totally inescapable, but always fun, and definitely worth indulging (though I probably wouldn’t want to overhear a conversation like that). I won’t say too much about Midnight in Paris, except to say it is too charming to miss (an antidote to the Rom-Com?).  The casting of the American literati of 1920’s Paris was kind of brilliant. Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein was maybe my favorite, and that’s the only one I’ll give away (try hard not to read too much about it before seeing it; hopefully, as a rule, like me, you don’t read too much about things you are about to see anyway). And Owen Wilson as a 21st Century wide-eyed American writer in Paris looking for inspiration was great – Owen Wilson does earnest SO well (remember Meet The Parents?).

For the  more savvy and literary transplants,  who arrived here after years of cultivating a romance for this city, Woody Allen looms large as the godfather of urbane and idiosyncratically neurotic  Jewish New York. (Spike Lee is another such godfather, of other outsized myths of New York).   Manhattan (1979) and Annie Hall (1977) seem to be the apotheoses of an outside admirer’s visions of New York –  the kind of place where Wallace Shawn’s intellectual animal magnetism causes beautiful and charmingly neurotic  women to fidget and stutter, while Woody Allen stands back, bewildered.  And worried.  But also the kind of place that revels in its romance, in long black and white takes with Rhapsody in Blue playing.

Another of Woody Allen’s odes to New York, and to a long-gone Golden Age, is his Rockaway movie – Radio Days. These days Rockaway is predominantly known and sentimentalized for its Irish-American-ness, once even dubbed the Irish Riviera, now a term reserved for Breezy Point alone, a gated community at the western end of the peninsula, where the Kings County DA, Charles Hynes, has a summer home (not without controversy – there is just something about the district attorney of an ethnically diverse borough, where many people of color are regularly prosecuted, living in an all-white gated community; during the dog days of the Crown Heights riots in 1991, Al Sharpton decided to make a point about this by marching to Hynes’ house in Breezy, with 100 supporters, chanting “Hynes, Hynes, have you heard? This is not Johannesburg!”).

In Rockaway we have our own St. Patrick’s Day parade and a disproportionate amount of cops and firemen. If you want to look at one place where nearly everyone was directly affected by 9/11, almost to a man, Rockaway provides way too many scary numbers and stories; some would even say that my generation was irreparably scarred and there is an unspoken eerie sense of survivor’s guilt, in a community where booze is already a go-to remedy. Amazingly I can’t think of any movies about Irish Rockaway, though I have an uneasy feeling that a Ben Affleck type might want to produce another less than flattering story about Irish America. So maybe it’s best left alone. Rescue Me sort of takes that on – Dennis Leary and a few of the other guys from his house live out there.  Might not be the most nuanced portrayal of Rockaway and Irish Americans either though.

But Radio Days, set during the Golden Age of Radio, in the late 30’s and 40’s, is Woody Allen territory, and so pretty thoroughly Jewish, as much of Rockaway once was. Rockaway used to be about half non-religious Jewish and half Irish, but like most non-religious Jews in the rest of Queens, and certainly Brooklyn, Rockaway Jews left town – to Long Island and Jersey, the richer ones to Westchester.  And loads of Jews (and many others) used to summer down there in the days before AC; I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I’m guessing that’s how Allen got to know the place. My parents are still there and so are a few others like them, but the “newer” Jews are quite religious, and quite apart. It’s sad that the Jewish New York of Woody Allen is mostly gone, but you can add it to the long list of things once intrinsic to the New York character that are now sealed in history.

In the main household of the movie, a bursting with life working class Jewish one, the individual characters, confined to a stifling and intrusive home, find their escape and fantasy life through the radio. A young Seth Green plays the Woody Allen alter ego and the cast includes Allen regulars like a shrieking and overbearing Julie Kavner and also Farrow and Keaton.  The movie is a lot less “serious” than Annie Hall and Manhattan, and premised mostly on various small stories within stories, often ones with great punch lines, including ones about radio starlets and hanky-panky in the studios.  In one bit, Larry David plays the Communist next door neighbor, who lures his more observant neighbor – on Yom Kippur, in the middle of his fast – to commit an unspeakable transgression (eating pork, and then promptly being punished by God and getting sick).  Another story, making great use of the radio, takes us on one of Aunt Bea’s dates (Dianne Wiest), where she and her suitor drive out to the sand dunes of Breezy Point, only to get stuck in the sand in the middle of hearing about the impending alien invasion (think Orson Welles). A more recent invasion of Breezy occurred on June 6, 1993, when the Golden Venture, a boat carrying 286 illegal immigrants from China, ran aground just off Breezy after a mutiny; 10 people drowned trying to reach shore; several others who made it showed up on the doorsteps of some very confused Breezy Point residents.

Rockaway makes one wistful in many different ways – it’s a vestige of much that no longer exists in New York (including one of the last NYC neighborhoods to retain a local accent) and beach communities often hold on to their pasts longer than other places, and are an easy place on which to project idealized histories and simpler times.  The beach is fun and easy, and away from the city, which you can always see in the distance across the bay.  Radio Days doesn’t completely capture that, and Rockaway definitely deserves its own movie, relating to its more recent identity. But for NYC & Allen buffs, and the generally nostalgic, Radio Days is a charming tour of imagining what a place  and time once were.

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7 Responses to “Rockaway Mania (& Some Woody Allen)”

  1. Geoffhurst Says:

    Loved it (especially the “have you heard, this is not Johannseburg”, chant: awesome!) Also…did you know that Eileen Maguire lived on the block where they filmed Radio Days with the part about the Jewish Communists!? Did you know that Braffman lived on Beach 137th Street growing up before moving to the 5 Towns? b/t/w the Golden Venture crowd swam and waded ashore at B.169th Street just outside the gates of Fort Tilden/ National Recreation visitor’s Ctr and the stand alone NYC Fire House.

  2. Anne Hartnett Says:

    Loved the article. This is the first I’ve been introduced to your writing. You have a real talent! Anne

  3. Nelson Denis Says:

    Larry David as the Jewish Communist next door…St. Patty’s parade in Rockaway…the Orson Welles radio broadcast…Sharpton leading the masses…this is a sharply-observed article !

  4. Don Goldstein Says:

    What a wonderful article. I also couldn’t agree more with your analysis of Midnight in Paris. It’s great to see that Woody Allen has really bounced back. I guess he has been rejuvenated by living abroad and maybe by not going to too many Knicks games.
    I didn’t remember that Larry David was in Radio Days. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s my family (Jewish working class) rented one of those small bungalowes that were a Garden of Eden for kids. There were also a lot of extended family there as well.
    We stayed there for the whole summer. My father worked at Howard Clothes at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge on the Brooklyn side, and would join us on the weekends. The bungalowes were organized around inner courtyards where kids could play without the threat of any traffic when they weren’t at the beach. There weren’t too many cars in those days anyway. Rockaway Playland was not far away. There were wonderful candy stores that made delicious malteds that were blended in metal cannisters. They would give you the whole cannister and a glass. My brother and I particularly liked Rockaway Beach because the waves were higher than at Brighton Beach or Coney Island.

  5. Eileen Maguire Says:

    Great article! You captured Rockaway very well! I remember the filiming of Radio Days as I lived in the “communist” house next-door. My father was also one of the block watchers who made sure everyone’s blackout shades were properly pulled down at night.

  6. Marshall Zucker Says:

    Love the movie and Rockaway. Saw Don Goldstein’s comment. My father and grandfather worked with his father and Grandfather Murray and Abe, both of whom I remember and attended my and my brother’s Bar Mitzvahs. I loved the long bridge that we road along and called it the “Singing Bridge” because it kind of whistled when you road past each post. There was a night of the great pizza war when one place sold for 15c and across the street it sold for 10c. Great memories, and when my grandmother moved year round to 106 st, I was very happy.

  7. Don Goldstein Says:

    Marshall–what were the names of your father and grandfather? Did they work at Howard Clothes or in the union or both?
    Don

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