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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Phoenix of streetcars and water bags

Since 1990, US Airways Arena has been built for the Suns along with new venues for the Cardinals, Coyotes, and Diamondbacks. We have the 101, 202, and 51 to get around better while the Phoenix population has increased by 500,000.

Although change is inevitable, it’s interesting to take a look back at how Phoenicians used to live in a more relaxed era. Don Williams has lived in Scottsdale since 1961 and in the 1960s worked for Mountain Bell Telephone as a “nickel snatcher”. That’s slang for a guy who emptied money from pay telephones. Remember nickel pay phones with rotary dials? By the 1950s, nickel calls became dime calls and in the mid 1960s, rotary was replaced by push buttons. Don has seen them all.

In 1961, Fashion Square in Scottsdale was an open air mall with tenants like Goldwater’s department store. In those days, you could drive on two lane Scottsdale Road from Camelback to Carefree and encounter one traffic light. Going west on Camelback, you could buy fresh oranges at the stands in Arcadia. Sometimes under the honor system!

In the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, owning a car was a luxury so many Phoenicians depended on streetcars from the Phoenix Transit Company. “Ride a mile and smile the while” was their slogan as one could ride on 17 miles of track within Phoenix for 5 cents while a 12 mile ride to Glendale cost 35 cents. The cars ran from 1887 to 1948 when they were replaced by motorized buses.

Speaking of Glendale, many residents miss the fragrance of the orange blossoms that used to dominate that city. Eventually many orchards gave way in 1993 for the opening of the Arrowhead Towne Center. New apartments and the 101 weren’t far behind. I feel fortunate that I was able to enjoy the silence and fragrance of that area before the bulldozers attacked it.

It’s lucky for the large shopping centers like Arrowhead that the population followed them. I don’t think anyone wants to drive long distances these days with gas hovering at $3.70 per gallon. During the pre World War II era, gas was sold for about 15 cents a gallon in Arizona with the Whiting Bros. stations doing great business on the busy Main Street of America, Route 66.


After a fill up at Whiting’s, a stop at Stuckey’s for a sandwich and a pecan log made the day complete. It was also a good time to check your canvas water bag on the front bumper. You didn’t want to run out of water while you were reading the Burma Shave signs on Route 66. Sadly, by 1985, Route 66 was decommissioned and the Whiting Bros. stations were gone within the next ten years.

In Scottsdale, “Big Brownie” of Brown’s Ranch still drove cattle up Scottsdale Road as late as the 1950s. He was so well known that mail addressed to “Big Brownie, Scottsdale, AZ” would reach him.

The Kachina Theater on Scottsdale Road lasted from 1960-1989 and showed films in “Cinerama”. Until the early 1970s, the Round-Up Drive-In Theater was on Thomas Road and downtown Scottsdale had Mag’s Ham Bun, a popular businessmen’s meeting place from the early 1960s until 1986.

The Safari Hotel and coffee shop was busy with celebrities after it opened in 1956 at Scottsdale and Camelback. Stars like Sonny and Cher, Burt Reynolds, and Bob Crane were regulars. Crane ate his last meal there before his untimely death in 1978.

Legend City Theme Park lasted from 1963 to 1983. In 1977, Compton Terrace in Chandler opened as a concert venue. In 1985 it moved to Firebird Raceway until its demise in 2010. Speaking of Compton, it was Bill Compton and Dwight Tindle who founded KDKB Radio in 1971. There was also KRIZ and KRUX who played the hits in the 60s and 70s. Al McCoy spun records at KRUX from 1960 to 1972 and Wallace and Ladmo entertained kids on Channel 5 from 1954 to 1989.

I could go on but you get the point. Phoenix is still a great place but there was something magical about the early days and simpler times that made them seem just a little bit better.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

1938: Joe is eleven and going to the ball game alone


My brother took me everywhere in my pre-teen years. He brought me to see the Bronx Zoo; the Aquarium at Battery Park; the Planetarium at Central Park; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when it premiered at Radio City Music Hall. He took me to Madison Square Garden to see the one-and-only Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, starring Clyde Beatty, the fearless lion tamer, and bought me a toy whip should I want to follow that career path. On another occasion, he took me there to see a Wild West Rodeo. He decked me out in a cowboy hat, holster and cap gun. To increase my cultural knowledge, he brought me to a number of New York City art museums. He taught me how to swim and dive at the Palisades Amusement Park, and how to ride a bike.


It should come as no surprise that he took me to see my first major league baseball game shortly after my seventh birthday. We saw the New York Giants play the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds, located in the Bronx, just one subway stop away from Yankee Stadium. In addition, while it may seem difficult to believe, he managed to take me to Ebbets Field in 1935 to see Babe Ruth, then in his final year as an active player, a member of the Boston Braves. Yes, I saw the Bambino!

My big brother took me to see a number of Giants games over the next several years. They became my favorite team and Mel Ott my favorite player, whose batting style I tried to emulate. He would shift his weight back on his left leg, raise up his right leg, knee toward his tummy, then stride toward the pitcher when swinging at the ball. He seemed to be able to hold his balance on one leg forever, waiting for the ball to reach the plate. Mel was a great home-run hitter, though slight of stature, and forever my idol.

After turning eleven, a day came when my brother could not take me to see a Giants game that beckoned me. He entrusted me to go see the game by myself and funded the trip with two one-dollar bills and some loose change, a large sum in those days. I put the money and written travel instructions in my pants watch pocket. Having those instructions comforted me, although I knew which trains to take from previous trips.
About noon, brimming with confidence, my trek began by hopping aboard a jitney bus for the ride to the subway station at the foot of Hoboken (five cents and ten minutes). The Hudson Tubes subway carried me under the river to Manhattan (ten cents and fifteen minutes). Here, hunger forced me to stop and enjoy a Nedick’s hot dog and a glass of orange juice (twenty cents) before ambling down the steps to board the Eighth Avenue Express (a dime). The subway train howled while hurtling non-stop from 42nd Street to 125th Street. My journey ended a few stops later, at 155th Street, where every sign read Polo Grounds. The trip had been a breeze and it would be a simple matter for me to return home in the same manner.

The crowd of fans seemed to carry me up the stairs from the subway to the stadium. It was exciting to think that the game would soon begin and there was still plenty of money to treat myself to another hot dog and an orange drink on the way home because a grandstand ticket cost only fifty-five cents, a program a mere dime.

I walked up to the ticket window, stuck my index finger into my watch pocket to pull out my money, and made a startling discovery. The pocket was empty. Even my subway instruction sheet was gone. Frantically searching through all my pockets, finding nothing, my heart sank. Reality hit me between the eyes. Forget the game. How in the world would I manage to get home?

Hordes of police officers stood guard around the stadium and the subway, but it did not occur to me to ask one to bail me out. They frightened me. Instead, I decided to try to get home without asking for anyone’s help.

Returning to the subway entrance, while eyeing the ‘men in blue,’ I summoned my courage, ducked under the turnstile and ran for the incoming train as fast as possible. Moment later, the doors of the Manhattan-bound express closed behind me and it took off, headed to the Hudson Tubes at 33rd Street. My mood was ebullient. I had eluded the subway turnstile attendant and the ‘coppers.’

My joy was short lived. At the entrance to the Hudson Tube station, an imposing change booth employee eyed me suspiciously, sensing it was not my intent to pay for my next ride on their system. He granted my impassioned plea for a free ride. The sight of a crying boy must have softened his heart. My sob story had worked. While racing down the stairs headed for the subway ride back to Hoboken, my heart pounded with joy. I’m comin' home, Ma!

Fortunately, my family treated me sympathetically upon my return. They were happy to have me back, scared and broken hearted. The lesson learned that day remains with me to this day. Never stop to buy a hot dog until AFTER you have reached your destination.

This experience did not dampen my enthusiasm for baseball. Mel Ott remained my favorite player, and the Giants my favorite team, even though my allegiance had cost me two bucks.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Artie Shaw and his band, (1940)

I’ve enjoyed music my entire life. As a kid, it was the nightly hit parade from 6:15 to 7:00 on our big Stromberg-Carlson radio. Those were the days in the late 40s when people like Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and Jo Stafford could record hits.

Elvis came by in the mid 50s and although I was never a big fan, I did like the artists who were inspired by him like Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Gracie.

By the late 50s into the mid 60s it was Dion, Freddy Cannon, Gene Pitney, Sam Cooke, some great black groups and flashes in the pan like Chubby Checker and “The Twist”.

Then it was the “British Invasion” with The Beatles, The Stones, and countless other groups until disco, electronic music, and a few other genres came by in the 90s including alternative rock which is now my current favorite pop music. If I’m in the car, I will have 103.9 welded on unless there is a ball game. At home it will be Channel 918 on Music Choice through Cox.

As much as I like those tunes through all the changes during the years, I never lose touch with the big band sounds that dominated through the 1930s and 1940s with guys like Harry James, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, The Dorsey Brothers, and many others.

Those guys were great and were a big part of the war effort in the 1940s with their style of “swing.” In those days you had to be in shape to swing or “jitterbug.” There was plenty of touching your partner then. Watch some musicals like “Stage Door Canteen” (1943) to get an idea what it was like. Those clowns on “Dancing with the Stars” wouldn’t have a chance in those days!

As entertaining and successful as James, Miller, and the rest of the guys were, I was fascinated with Artie Shaw. Artie was born in 1910 and lived until 2004 dying at 94 from the effects of diabetes. He was a complicated guy and even while his music made him as much as $60,000 a week, he would grow impatient with his gigs and look for new adventures in music and other fields.

Artie Shaw and his Band in "Second Chorus" with Fred Astaire (1940)

He was very popular with his 12 to 25 piece primarily brass bands but he wanted to explore other sounds like classical jazz and the use of strings. It annoyed Shaw that when his band appeared nobody cared about innovations. All they called for was his theme, “Begin the Beguine”.

He once described himself as a “very difficult man”. From 1932 until 1985 he was married eight times with three of the marriages being to Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, and Evelyn Keyes, three beauties of the day.

One of Shaw’s most fascinating songs to me is his 1940 recording of “Gloomy Sunday.” Being a sullen guy from time to time, he does a great job on this one with band singer Pauline Byrne. The song is also known as the “Hungarian suicide song” as the writer of it in 1933 eventually committed suicide. Some urban legends claim that many radio stations were prohibited from playing it because of suicide worries. Many also think it was the Depression that caused the suicides more than “Gloomy Sunday”. It didn’t help that the last line was “My heart and I have decided to end it all.”

Here is a link to “Gloomy Sunday”. It is true to the style of the day when the female band singer (Byrne) would come in after the first couple of bars from the band. I even found a YouTube showing someone putting the playing arm on the 78 rpm record from 1940. Some of you have probably never seen those.

It’s a sad song running 3:30 but is fascinating as a contrast to Artie Shaw’s normal dance band tunes.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Are reusable bags safe?

Doug MacEachern of the Republic had an interesting Quick Hit the other day in the paper where he mentioned that plastic grocery sacks may not be causing as much harm to the environment as the cotton and canvas reusable bags that are so popular now. He mentioned a British government study which shows that plastic may cause up to 170 times less harm and the number is higher if you wash the reusable bags.
Reusable bag from Trader Joe's.
That’s interesting information so I checked it out further. I found a column by Jonah Goldberg in a USA Today from April 4th where he states that a new study by the Environmental Agency of England says that plastic bags have a smaller carbon footprint than the reusable plastic or cotton “satchels” as well as paper disposable bags. It goes on to say that you'd have to reuse a cotton bag at least 131 times to equal the low carbon footprint of a simple plastic bag. If you reuse a plastic bag — as a wastebasket liner perhaps — they pull even further away as the greenest technology.

Goldberg also notes that “as other studies have shown, those trendy reusable bags provide a wonderful breeding ground for E coli and other bacteria. That is, unless you wash them regularly. But if you do that, as my American Enterprise Institute colleague Ken Green notes, all that bleach, soap and hot water expand their carbon footprint as well.”

More evidence of reusable bags being a source for disease also comes from the U of A: “Studies completed by University of Arizona professor Charles Gerba found that 97% of consumers using reusable grocery bags never wash or clean them. When paired with his findings on the bacteria count of the average grocery cart, neglecting to properly and routinely wash these bags opens your family up to a host of nasties including E. coli, coliforms, salmonella and a range of other bacteria and mold. According to Professor Gerba, reusing your shopping bags again and again without washing them is akin to “wearing the same underwear everyday”.

In 1979-1980 I was a distributor for Mobile Chemical in Kansas City and our most important new product then was the plastic grocery sack which we were selling in an effort to replace the large paper “barrel” sack of that time. From a cost standpoint, it was an easy sell. From a technological view it was more difficult. The checkers and sackers hated them because they were “different” and it wasn’t uncommon for me to install a store in the morning and have the bags discontinued by evening.

Eventually all my accounts came aboard and the rest is history as one can tell from any supermarket you enter. In recent years, plastic bags have had their share of criticism but with the evidence coming in about reusable bags, maybe they aren’t so bad after all. Regardless, they were fun to sell and have saved the grocery industry millions in supply costs.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Let's talk food

This month the AFMA Commentary with Phil Hawkes has some good food news as it does about every month. I’ve found that even if I don’t like the suggestions, I enjoy what is said about them.

What would you consider your favorite food combinations? Some are obvious like bacon and eggs but one I’ve always enjoyed is vinegar and salt over home grown tomatoes. I’m talking about summer tomatoes that you buy out of the garden at a farm stand in the country. Winter tomatoes, or “hot house” tomatoes as we used to call them, don’t make the grade.
Another great combination from my youth was to dunk sugar cookies into a cup of hot chocolate on a wintry Cincinnati morning in the 1950s before starting the long walk to school.

Other obvious choices would include Oreos and a glass of ice cold milk, mashed potatoes and gravy, chips and salsa, and cheese and crackers, especially if the cheese is the Longhorn I used to sell at Carl’s Deli in the mid 1960s. I haven’t found a cheese yet that compares.

Here are some unusual combinations you may or may not enjoy:

Carrots and sugar. It’s a French taste and I’m half French-Canadian so maybe that is why I like carrots and sugar. The sugar makes a nice sweet glaze on cooked carrots.

Coffee and salt. When I was in the Air Force, I worked in offices that had those big 24 cup coffee pots and whenever someone made coffee they put a dash of salt in the grounds. It was supposed to bring out a bit more of the coffee flavor but I never noticed any difference. As a sidebar, the Lieutenant Colonel I worked for used to use fresh coffee grounds like snuff and put a little between his cheek and gum. Yikes!

Tomatoes and sugar. I like good tomatoes about any old way. I’ve had them with sugar, salt, and vinegar and they taste great all three ways.

Tomatoes and their foliage. When cooking with tomatoes, it is recommended to throw the stems into the pot with the tomatoes. When through cooking, fish out the stems and you find a much stronger tomato presence in your food.

Potatoes and nutmeg. Add a dash of nutmeg to any potato recipe and you should notice a more enriched taste of the potato.

Strawberries and pepper. This one sounds a bit strange but it is recommended that you grind some fresh peppercorns onto strawberries to add more flavor. I’ve never tried it but if you do, I would recommend doing a test berry first just in case. We’re in the strawberry season now so you may want to give this a try.

Friday, April 08, 2011

1958 and now

I have some old Cincinnati Reds baseball team yearbooks from my younger days growing up in that city. I was looking through one of them today from 1958 and, although it is 53 years old, there are some interesting items there that offer a good look at the contrasts of life then and now.

There is an ad for the new 1958 Ford Thunderbird advertising that is “all swoop and no sway.” Those of you familiar with T-Birds know that ’58 was the year they enlarged it into an ugly 4 seater thus ending the three great model years of 1955, ‘56, and ’57. That also was the year the Edsel was introduced so it wasn’t a good year for Ford.
There is an ad for Weidemann’s Beer, a popular local brand at that time. It asks me if I am “beer hungry.” Of course, who isn’t? On the next page is a half page ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes boldly telling me that “LUCKIES TASTE BETTER!” No surgeon general warnings in those days. As they used to tell us in basic training: “Light ‘em up!”

Another half page is for some hotels you may wish to stay in during your next trip to New York. How about the Hotel Times Square or the Knickerbocker? In 1958 you get a room at those places for $4 and up. A cup of coffee at Starbucks costs that much today.

One of the big time hotels in Cincinnati in 1958 was the Netherland Plaza. They had a cocktail lounge there called “The Gay Peacock.” Do we have to even imagine how a name like that would be interpreted today? For those too young to remember, the word “gay” used to have a lot different definition than it does now.

How about a complete steak dinner at Jack Stayin’s Charcoal Steak House for $3.75? The ad says it is “magnificently prepared” so it must be good.

Since these are ads from the Cincinnati Reds yearbook, I must mention the price to see a ball game in those days: Box seats, $2.00, general admission, $1.50, bleachers, .75.

It all sounds good but we must remember that incomes were a lot lower in 1958 so when the steakhouse finally raised their steak dinner price to $4 they probably caught hell for it.

Another interesting note from 1958 is where the ballplayers have their biographies. Each player’s ancestry is listed. For Pitcher Brooks Lawrence and other black players they are “Negro”. A pitcher named Johnny Klippstein is listed as “German-Scotch, English-Indian”. I doubt if such nomenclature would be available in the yearbooks of today. In 1958, it was still a big deal.

Another oddity is the addresses of the players during the off season are listed. If you wanted to go by and say “Hi” to Brooks Lawrence in 1958, all you had to do was stop by his home at 1817 Springmont Avenue in Springfield, Ohio.

With everyone’s paranoia about privacy today, it’s amazing how accessible ballplayers were then. But, since they didn’t make much money and had to work during the winter at regular jobs, maybe they didn’t consider themselves the celebrities that today’s players with their millions think they are.

Well, it’s time for me to stop by Jack Stayin’s for a complete chicken dinner for $2.00. Then, I’m heading to the Reds’ game to sit in a box seat for $2 and drink a couple of 25 cent Wiedemann’s. Let’s see, that’s $4.50 for the evening so I’ll have enough to buy a deck of Luckies for a quarter on the way home. It’s 1958 and life is good!

Monday, April 04, 2011

Born grocerymen: A. J. Bayless and Smitty

The two greatest grocers from the past to do business in the Phoenix area are Clyde “Smitty” Smith and A. J. Bayless. Both had great success but they also came from totally different backgrounds.

I’ve talked about Smitty in previous blogs (August 6, 2010, December 7, 2010). He was born in 1919 and grew up dirt poor in Iowa. He fell in love with the grocery business at an early age and through hard work built a chain of stores in Phoenix from 1960-1980 that eventually controlled 35% of the Phoenix market.

A.J. Bayless, center with derby.

A. J. Bayless’ rise through the grocery business took a different route. He was born into a family of grocers according to historian Jack August. His grandfather had owned a store in Tennessee and his father, J. B. Bayless, opened his first store in Phoenix at Van Buren and Grand in 1917.

By 1930, J.B. had opened 18 stores but was getting a bit long in the tooth so he decided to retire and sell off his holdings. Meanwhile, A. J. had spent his entire youth working in the stores so he knew every aspect of the business. When his father sold his stores, 21 year old A. J. Bayless opened a store of his own. Throughout the Depression and World War II, the Bayless chain continued to grow as A. J. had an uncanny sense of finding good locations. He saw the postwar suburbanization of Phoenix taking place so he put stores in new areas, especially in strip malls. In 1948 alone, he opened three stores using that philosophy.

It helped that Bayless was in tight with some developers who realized they could sell homes faster if a mall, especially a mall with a grocery store, was located near the newly built homes. A good example of this was West Plaza Shopping Center at 35th Avenue and Bethany Home which opened in 1959. That center had the largest Bayless store up to that time and it contributed to making West Plaza the second largest shopping center in Arizona behind only Park Central.

A. J. Bayless was riding a wave of success in the early 1960s when he began to experience medical problems. By 1962, he radically slowed his activity with the stores and in March of 1967 at age 58, he died. The A. J. Bayless chain had lost its leader and although it contained 47 stores, The Bayless family eventually sold off the stores to other chains or independent groups.

Many of you probably remember the layout of the Bayless Stores. Some were sold to Bashas’ and re-named “A. J.’s” There is one in particular in Carefree that I remember as a Bayless store. It is still operating as a Bashas' and I shop there often.

To summarize, Smitty and A. J. Bayless were both born grocery men who achieved success from different sides of the tracks. A. J. Died too soon at age 58. Smitty is long retired and living in Texas at age 91.