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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Climate, political and father issues in Albuquerque

Wordpress for FINAL Out to Albuqueruqe
George A. Morrison, circa 1954,  reports the news on KOB-TV. Son Brian Arbenz 60 years later blogs on his patio in Louisville.

I saw my father infrequently growing up – I mean once or twice a decade, so I do not at all identify with Robert Bly’s assertion that males are collectively wounded by the transition to industrial society that resulted in their fathers leaving home for eight hours a day.

These dads came back each evening, right, Mr. Bly?

When I was 20, on the advice of a sibling, I decided to give a father-son relationship another try. So, in 1979, I boarded a plane for Albuquerque to spend a week with George A. Morrison.

I didn’t really have a sense of who he was, and on a brilliant August day, as my plane crossed the sensually tan Sandia Mountains and landed at the Albuquerque Sunport, my lack of familiarity with him set me apart from most of the 400,000 residents of the city. My father, for 10 years in the 1950s and ‘60s, had been New Mexico’s best known television news anchorman, delivering daily 6 and 11 pm newscasts which – for the lack of another TV market in the state during many of those years – were beamed statewide. That’s a territory that would stretch from Louisville to Minnesota.

After my dad earned a law degree, he left the news business, but remained highly recognized while serving as assistant district attorney for Albuquerque, frequently talking on the air about high profile cases.

So, in 1979, instead of my father showing me his home state, I had the inverted experience of being introduced to him by New Mexico.

In the three trips I had made in 15 years to the Land of Enchantment to visit my father, I had learned that governors, senators and the University of New Mexico football coach were cohorts or acquaintances of his. Two of Dad’s close friends were author William Eastlake (Dad and other friends had helped him choose the title of his signature book Castle Keep) and Clarence Birdseye Jr., whose father’s invention of frozen foods still determines the itinerary of your grocery trips.

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The author at age 9 photographed in the summer of 1967 by his KOAT-TV news anchor father in the Sandia Mountains overlooking Albuquerque. 

In a room filled with my dad’s friends from New Mexico, it seems the only one I wouldn’t already know the life story of was the one who had sired me.

I knew he was a Democrat and had from time to time been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor, a quest which could have succeeded before Watergate gave media the mandate to report on personal missteps such as the philandering and heavy drinking my father did until his early 50s.

What kind of Democrat was he? I heard him say good things about civil rights (he had once served as the legal counsel for the Zuni Indian tribe), but overall supportive things about the Vietnam War (he told me of a passionate argument with the very anti-war Eastlake). An English lit degree holder from U of L, Dad was, by any standard, pro-civil liberties and he once oversaw the consumer protection division of Albuquerque’s Bernalillo County — but knowing he came of age in the 1930s and 40s, can you wager a guess about which issue would prompt this otherwise enlightened intellectual to lapse into bigotry at the drop of a hat? Or, more precisely, at a gesture or an enunciation that struck him as effeminate?

I don’t mean my father would ridicule anyone in their presence, but while at his apartment during my 1979 visit, I saw him launch into a tirade of insults while we were watching a brief TV segment featuring an interview with a man he figured was gay. Suddenly, I saw the Male High School football star and World War II submarine warfare veteran my father also had been.

But there was one more famous person for Dad to introduce me to on this trip. I asked if he knew U.S. Sen. Harrison Schmitt, a first-term New Mexico Republican. In keeping with Dad’s Robin Leach-like knack for associating with the rich and famous, yes, he in fact worked down the hall from and occasionally chatted with Schmitt, who went by his nickname Jack. Dad said he would be glad to try to arrange a meeting.

The senator, my father added, was a political wunderkind, winning election in 1976 as a dogmatic conservative counterpoised to unions in such a pro-labor state. Of course, four years before that, the geologist Jack Schmitt had walked on the moon on Apollo 17, the grandest and most successful of the six lunar landing missions.

Extra-terrestrial glory can obscure a clash in political philosophies – or in the case of John Glenn, even ease the effects of being mired in the S and L scandal.

So Schmitt wasn’t that extremist out to break your union. He was a space hero, who had turned moon dust into politically magic dust.

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Future Senator Harrison Schmitt as Apollo 17’s geologist on the moon in 1972.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the ex-senator Jack Schmitt has become a climate change denier, repeatedly condemning the theory of human causes of global warming as fiction by an environmental movement he has described as the place communism essentially migrated to after the opening of the Berlin Wall. (Makes sense; I mean there was no environmentalism here before 1989, was there?)

So, we’re talking quite a chasm to bridge when I shake hands with Senator Schmitt. Could it get tense?

No. My fascination with space would make meeting Jack Schmitt an apolitical thrill. And if memories of his three walks on Taurus-Littrow weren’t enough, Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt also had been my first same-sex crush. I mean minutes after the Apollo 17 crew returned from the moon, splashing down near Samoa, I saw him without his helmet for the first time and… well, he had just returned, and I was now off TO the moon.

That was the instant I, as a 14-year-old, knew I was bisexual. I never told my father of this, and didn’t care to seven years later during my 1979 visit, but wouldn’t Schmitt’s office have been a bizarre venue for that? Imagine coming out to your father, a senator, an astronaut, a veteran journalist, a Republican, a Democrat and a homophobic district attorney all at once!

I don’t know whether I would have been prosecuted, disinherited, evicted or pepper sprayed. You would have read about me in a news story datelined Albuquerque, that’s for certain.

This explosive moment of familial and political drama never happened, though. Schmitt wasn’t in town during my visit.

That is not surprising. You see, the senator went on to be defeated in 1982 – marking the only time an astronaut has lost a U.S. election in nine races – and the big issue raised by Democrat Jeff Bingaman (and yes, Dad knew him, too) was the fact that the incumbent simply was never in the state, physically or ideologically. Schmitt was constantly touring, speaking about the cause of mining the moon, an issue absolutely irrelevant during a severe recession in 1982 which had focused voters’ attention on the here and now, not on rocks a quarter-million miles away.

Today, his status as a private citizen gives Schmitt the mobility to challenge the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming and on his still passionate cause of building a thriving lunar extraction industry, which almost every other scientist and financer dismisses as pie in the sky.

Oh, and as for my crush – I don’t even remember what I saw in the guy.

This column is from Brian Arbenz’ book “Lost And Found In Louisville.”