Nights of comedies, years of fantasies

Munstrous for WordPress JPEG

Hey, whose Grandpa didn’t tell some tales?” asked the headline on a New York Times obituary in February 2006 for television actor Al Lewis, best known for playing the vampire-ish Grandpa on “The Munsters,” the 1960s CBS comedy.

It was a lighthearted and deservedly cheery send off for a brilliant character actor, political activist and restauranteur whose contributions to our lives ranged from a million escapist TV laughs to bold radical street activism.

The headline was also a colossal understatement. Al Lewis told more than just “some” tales like the embellished fish stories everybody’s grandfather leaves us with. In fact, the same obit story listed him as age uncertain. That’s because Lewis at different times had listed two birth years as his own.

He was born in either 1910 or 1923 as Alexander Meister. Or Albert Meister. In New York City. Or 287 miles from there in Wolcott, a small town in far upstate Wayne County, N.Y.

That town near Lake Ontario entered the Al Lewis narrative late in his life when a reporter trying to clear up the matter of the actual year in which he was born asked Lewis why no birth certificate bearing his identity could be located in NYC, his hometown. Lewis responded that he was not born in the Big Apple, but entered the world while his mother had briefly lived in Wolcott to work in a factory.

Sealing Al Lewis’ stature as the greatest man of mystery is that no birth record for any A. Meister can be found in Wayne County, said imdb.com, a public figure biography site.

Al Lewis panorama

Click here for a clip of Grandpa with Marilyn Munster (played here by Beverly Owen, then Pat Priest in season 2).

Imdb said that days after Al Lewis’ death, one of his three sons announced that Lewis had in fact been born on April 30, 1923, not 1910 as the actor had claimed.

“Why the deception?” asked the web site Everything2.com. “It could’ve been part of his tryouts for ‘The Munsters.’ If he was born in ’23, he was actually a year younger than Yvonne DeCarlo, who was supposed to be his daughter. But by claiming to be 13 years older, perhaps he felt he’d seem more grandfatherly to the show’s producers.
“At any rate,” Eveyrthing2 continued, “it seems likely that Lewis told a bunch of stories about his youth, either to support his claims about his birthdate or just for the joy of telling stories.”

Al Lewis’ lifelong penchant for fudging brought anything but joy to historians and journalists, who often had to retract or revamp information they had confidently published about one of the television era’s most beloved and eclectic entertainers.

In fact, that New York Times obituary was the second one within days the nation’s newspaper of record published on Al Lewis, the latter correcting the first’s careless inclusion of already discredited information. The Times obituarist Dan Barry wrote that almost every claim Lewis made about his early life – his birth date and place of birth, his wartime adventures in the merchant marine, his education – was unverifiable and possibly false.

Among others were that Lewis had faced danger touring the maliciously anti-union Southeast to help John L. Lewis organize workers, rallied outside the White House in support of condemned immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, performed as a clown in a traveling circus, sold hot dogs at Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbets Field, and in the mid-1960s hired Charles Manson to babysit his three children (he recalled Manson as trustworthy and caring).

Regarding Al Lewis’ educational resume, the imdb.com site added: “Although he claimed to have a Ph.D. in child psychology from Columbia University, the university has no record of it, under his stage name or his real name.”

Lewis’ reliability began being questioned in the early 2000s after his wife of two decades, Karen Lewis, found documents while preparing for her ostensibly 93-year-old husband’s hospitalization for an angioplasty which showed he was in fact just 80. That was the first she knew of any age discrepancy, but the Times quoted her as saying the finding didn’t affect her feelings about him.

A reporter soon examined the actor’s commonly reported story that he had served as a paralegal in the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, a landmark civil rights case involving nine black Alabama teenagers falsely accused in 1931 of raping two white women.

A 1923 birth would have made Lewis eight during the trial (or college age if he were born in 1910). At whatever stage of life, Lewis said he learned of the Scottsboro Boys’ plight after his mother attended a rally for their freedom.

His mother, if one trusts the following Al Lewis recollection on the web site Everything2.com, “worked in the garment trades. My mother was an indomitable spirit. My grandfather had no sons. He had six daughters. They lived in Poland or Russia, every five years it would change. My mother being the oldest daughter, they saved their money, and when she was about 16 they sent her to the United States, not knowing a word of English. She went to work in the garment center, worked her back and rear-end off and brought over to the United States her five sisters and two parents. I remember going on picket lines with my mother. My mother wouldn’t back down to anyone.”

Nothing suspicious about that classic early 1900s immigrant working class bio.

Also perfectly plausible is the 6-foot-1 Lewis’ description of his playing basketball in his youth in New York City and later serving as a non-hired scout for NBA teams – but was he the very best scout in the game?

When Lewis boasted to independent radio station WFMU’s blog that, “you can call Marty Blake, the chief scout for the NBA, he lives outside Atlanta, and ask him who is the most knowledgeable man of roundball you have ever met. Without hesitation, he will tell you, Al Lewis.”

So Kliph Nesteroff, the author of WFMU blog entry “The Myths and Politics of Grandpa Munster,” ran that claim past Blake, who concurred: “He (Lewis) knew everything there was to know about basketball from the tips of your toes to the top of your head.”

However, Nesteroff also wrote: “Lewis liked to say he worked on the defense committee of Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. If there were any semblance of truth to this, it would have occurred when he was no more than five years old…. Neither was he in Washington, as he claimed, the night the American communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, sentenced to death for treason, were executed.”

It IS known that Al Lewis, living out his left-wing values, donated his time and most of his earnings from the two-year run of The Munsters to charities, particularly a program helping teenage runaways, who were proliferating in Los Angeles during the late 1960s. But the admiration one feels upon hearing of this altruism quickly turns to skepticism, when Lewis identifies one of those kids he brought under his wing:

“That’s how I met Charlie Manson. He babysat my three kids…. He sat for four or five hours, he amused the kids, he brought the guitar and he played, no big deal, no sweat.”

Back in the real world of documented facts, Lewis ran for governor of New York as the Green Party candidate in 1998, opposing Republican incumbent George Pataki. Like a precursor of Bernie Sanders and with an accent to match, Lewis toured the Empire State fervently condemning health insurance companies, polluting industries, U.S. wars, and corporate tax breaks which made the poor overtaxed.  At age 88 (or 75?), he won 52,533 votes, above the 50,000-vote threshold for receiving automatic ballot placement in the subsequent election. Lewis decided not to make another run, however, citing long odds of being elected as a Green.

He sought to be listed on the 1998 ballot as “Grandpa Al Lewis” to gain momentum from his TV recognition. A state judge turned down the request.grandpa-al-lewis-on-the-issues2Before The Munsters premiered in 1964, Lewis played New York City police officer Leo Schnauser in the comedy “Car 54, Where Are You?” from 1961 to ’63. Real police in his hometown loved the character and Lewis did public appearances on their behalf. Relations 40 years later between police and radical candidate Al Lewis were cooler when the Green gubernatorial hopeful criticized police use of force practices as racist.

Everyone, however, was warm toward “Grandpa,” and Lewis’ most memorable TV character was how he was often addressed by political supporters, TV fans and customers at Grampa’s Bella Gente Italian, a Greenwich Village restaurant he founded and where his regular presence was a draw. Lewis would greet customers entering, chatting with them, posing for pictures and signing autographs.

One unlikely sounding distinction by Al Lewis that was in fact documented before millions is that he was once censored by Howard Stern. You read right, censored by Howard Stern, America’s chief poddy mouth of the air.

Lewis, who discussed political issues with iron fervor, but free of obscenities on his own Saturday radio show in the early 2000s on New York City’s WBAI, once joined Stern in an outdoor rally against the FCC’s frequent fining of Stern and others for regular use of words banned on airwaves. Not realizing that his microphone was tied into a live broadcast of Stern’s show as well as the rally’s public address system, Grandpa told the crowd: “We’re here because we all have a purpose… And that purpose is to say ‘Fuck the FCC! Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em!’ ”

An uncharacteristically mortified Stern frantically slapped his hand on the mic to try to keep his fines from piling even higher.

“I really thought [he’d] lost his mind,” Stern said on the WFMU blog. “As far as I was concerned, my career was over because we’re on the radio live.”

For once, there was no doubting Al Lewis meant what he said.

Brian Arbenz loved Grandpa on The Munsters — and the radical left positions he took while running for office.

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The easy smile that belied 14 bullet wounds – and visits by the little girl he had to kill

49 years later, Mr. Manring froze, fell to his knees on a rock and said he knew this was the spot….”I hope I’m at peace now.”

Newsreel manring 2
Roy Manring, at 18, recovering in 1950 in this picture from a British newsreel. 

Mr. Manring was a family man, a veteran and a machinist in a factory back in the era when blue collar jobs brought the wages and benefits to support a family and veteran status was naturally associated with being an upstanding person.

I still refer to him as “Mr. Manring,” rather than Roy Manring, because he was one of the adult volunteers for our Boy Scout Troop 54 in New Albany in the early 1970s. The form of address I used then for our adult leaders still seems proper to me.
Yet I was a rebel — then, as now. And when I beheld the green uniforms, the trademark salute and the combat medal-like layout of our merit badges, I would be aware of a contradiction between my like of scouting and my passionate opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Among our troop’s adult leaders, two — including my easygoing uncle Joe — were Spiro Agnew-admiring conservatives and World War II veterans.
Mr. Manring, however, didn’t show his ideological cards. He always maintained an easy smile and although his dark eyes were piercing and handsome, they were wide and innocent. He seemed perpetually to be an uncomplicated, contented, locally immersed average person, untouched by the controversies of the wider world.
But before I make him sound like the kind of person who might not follow the national news, let me recall one day when I was 11 when my mother astonished me by telling me that my very own scout troop’s adult volunteer had in the early 1950s been a national news story.
Mr. Manring was interviewed on the Today Show. That’s the NBC Today Show, with the whole country watching.
And no, this wasn’t one of those chance interviews with tourists hanging out by Rockefeller Center. Mr. Manring was a guest in the studio, telling the nation of a medical miracle, as Mom passed the story on to me. She said that while he was in combat in the Korean War, he was hit with a barrage of gunfire and survived having nine bullets in his body at once.
I don’t recall her giving any more details, except that Mr. Manring seemed homespun during the interview, and I got the impression that he was almost casual talking to the nation about such a hellish experience.
I don’t know which Today Show icon conducted the interview, but I figure a polished and professional Hugh Downs or Dave Garroway sitting with a warm and folksy laborer made for as unlikely an encounter as when the unknown Korean villager and the teenager from Southern Indiana faced each other down for a horrifying moment in a war waged by superpowers so beyond the reach of either.

Flash forward to the era of the internet. I now find out that Mr. Manring’s voluminous wounds weren’t from one-to-one combat.
He had been taken prisoner by the North Koreans and was one of 42 U.S. captives shot on a hillside while their hands were tied behind their backs. It was a massacre.
Records were vague and for decades Mr. Manring had understood that he was the sole survivor. Hence, the solo Today Show appearance.
A historian researching the atrocity in the mid-1990s found that in fact five people had survived — three of whom were still living — and persuaded the Army to give the trio medals to note the suffering of all 42 of the POWs. The Pentagon also offered them a trip back to South Korea in 1999 to let them try to identify the exact spot of the massacre so a plaque could be placed there on the 50th anniversary the following year.

From the British newsreel on the Waegwan massacre   Newsreel Manring
One of the three was not physically up to the trip — so my former scout leader and a fellow survivor, a private first class who had been Mr. Manring’s friend during the war, traveled to a hillside near Waegwan, South Korea. (The friend, who of course had been presumed dead by Mr. Manring for more than 40 years, lived in Cincinnati, just 110 miles away, all that time. When Mr. Manring learned that his buddy in fact had not been killed in the massacre, he jumped in his car and drove straight up I-71 to reunite with him).
In 1999, the return trip to Korea commenced, and a Boston Globe reporter accompanied Mr. Manring and his Cincinnati friend all the way to Waegwan. She reported that Mr. Manring had taken not the nine bullets I recall in my mother’s telling, but 14 — including five from what we call “friendly fire.”
The Globe, detailing the horrible events on the hillside in 1950, said that after the North Koreans left the 42 Americans for dead, the bullet-ridden Mr. Manring began to hobble away from the killing site, only to be shot at by a U.S. unit which was unable to identify his tattered uniform.
Ravaged seemingly beyond hope of survival by both sides in a war euphemistically called a “police action,” he spent 18 months in hospitals in Korea, Japan and the United States. Amazingly, as a boy scout, I never recall detecting a limp or a stammer or any other indication that this happy and laid back man could ever have been victimized by violence on such an historic scale.
For a long time, even some of those closest to Mr. Manring didn’t fully know either.
He told the Globe reporter: “My kids knew I was an ex-POW, but they didn’t know what I had been through…. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it, except my wife.”
The reporter watched Mr. Manring and his buddy examine the terrain around Waegwan for hours, patiently trying to match what they were seeing with 49-year-old memories. Then, in one instant that brought back an anguish the opposite of the mood familiar to his New Albany piers, Mr. Manring froze, fell to his knees on a rock and said he knew this was the spot.
Shuddering, he described to the Globe how on that day in 1950 his grandfather appeared to him in image just after the North Koreans pulled out, put his arm on the shoulder of the bloodied 18-year old and warned him: “They’re coming back, get out of here.”
The reporter and others in the entourage then allowed Mr. Manring and his friend a few minutes each alone on the hillside.
Mr. Manring returned, the Globe reported, then whispered:
“I talked to the boys. I hope I’m at peace now. I begged their forgiveness. I have dreams about them all the time. I feel guilty that I survived.”
There was one more profound memory the visit brought out, one which the reporter said caused Mr. Manring to be overcome with emotion.
Speaking softly, he said to her: “I’m going to tell you something I’ve hardly told anyone…. I shot a little Korean girl — she was maybe 8 or 10 years old.”
Mr. Manring then recounted a kill-or-be-killed moment in the early days of the war. His platoon was approached by a group of refugees, but when he took out his binoculars, he saw a girl among them holding a grenade — with the pin removed — forcing him, with no time to think, to become a killer in order to be a lifesaver.
He shot the child, resulting in the grenade exploding at her feet, killing many of the refugees, rather than her intended targets. Even though some of the refugees were found to be wearing North Korean uniforms under their civilian clothes, Mr. Manring, almost a half century later, thought of the person who nearly lobbed a live grenade at him and his colleagues first as a little girl, not a guerilla.
“I put a bullet in between her eyes,” he told the Globe, sobbing. “She bothers me to this day.”
Also around the 50th anniversary of the war, Mr. Manring discussed the incident with a student historian from Indiana University Southeast, who quoted him recalling the little girl on a website: “She comes and sees me every now and then. She asks me, ‘Why, why did you do this to me?’ I told her, ‘I’m sorry honey, but I had to.’ ”
After describing to the student the wartime policy of a ruthless North Korean government of using civilians of all ages as homicidal infiltrators, Mr. Manring added that he would again respond the same way to seeing the child pull the pin.
Reading the full story of the anguish in our cheerful scout volunteer’s past opened my eyes to the dual role of soldiers as victims and offenders in war.
This has always complicated peace activism by rendering expressions of appropriate sympathy for them vulnerable to being twisted into pro-war spin.
Hesitating to kill in a combat situation because of awareness of the enemy’s humanity is precisely what combat training is designed to prevent, as though such a moment is a fatal weakness. It is in fact our greatest strength.
Regarding the two directions from which the gunfire came that ravaged the teenage Mr. Manring, I was socialized during my childhood to see being shot by the other side, or one’s own, as polar opposite phenomena.
One is heroic and noble, the other an absurd boondoggle.
Yet if we accept the overriding principle of our religiosity that we are put in this world to love one another, are not all war wounds from friendly fire?
“Accidental” describes not just the five American-made bullets that hit Mr. Manring, but the whole scenario of a young man from New Albany and counterparts from equally insular villages on the Korean peninsula being whisked from lives of community involvement and small scale economics not to meet and interact, but to kill or be killed.
Roy Manring donated many hours to help our scout troop’s leaders help me and my young colleagues learn to work together pitching tents, preparing food, hiking, telling folk tales – fitting his volunteering in around the customary 40 hours a week of conscientious factory work when American industrial jobs were in their prime. Precisely the day-to-day mundanity which boys of my youth turned to war comics to escape in pursuit of a glamorous warrior narrative we believed was at the heart of our gender’s identity.
We did not see that the time spent quietly adding to lives by one’s own initiative – rather than imperiling lives, one’s own included, by robotically adapting to an arbitrary and unnatural state of enmity – constituted Mr. Manring’s true moments of valor.

This story also was published in Brian Arbenz’ book “Lost And Found in Louisville,” available by contacting the author at http://www.brianlostandfound@gmail.com.