MIAMI MEMORIES 1940-1952
I was born in West Palm Beach, but my family moved to Miami when I was six - in 1940. Our first home was a downstairs unit in a 4 unit apartment building on Northwest 3rd Street near 19th Avenue. A long block down the street was the smallest store I have ever seen - what we would call a convenience store today, hardly bigger than my living room. It was a friendly place where neighbors went, but what I most remember was a bottled soft drink that you could get for three cents.
About two blocks the other way was where I went to school for the first nine grades - Citrus Grove. In those days traffic was light. It was safe for a 6-year-old to walk to school, which I did. They had a big field, maybe two blocks long, where we played sandlot football from maybe 3rd grade till we left for high school. We played tackle, but I don’t remember anyone ever getting hurt. We used to pretend we were famous high school or college players. I remember everyone wanting to be Johnny Lujack, who played for Notre Dame.
One of the guys in the school had an older brother named Yvonne Gunn who used to ride down 3rd street on his Harley Davidson, standing on the seat, no hands - arms spread wide. We’d always pause in our game to watch when he went by.
When I got to be 10 or 11, I used to roam a mile or two north and east of where we were living on Flagler Street and 18th Avenue every Saturday morning. I had what we called a “croaker sack”, which was a burlap bag like potatoes come in. I’d collect coconuts and load them in the sack. Coconut trees were everywhere, so it wasn’t too hard to find them. When I got 10 or 11, I would head back to Flagler Street. There was a tiny store across the street from where we lived and we called the Cuban proprietor “The Turtle Man”. This guy would pay me three cents for each coconut, so I usually had 30 cents. Maybe even 33 cents. That big bag of coconuts was heavy for a little kid.
But 30 cents was enough to go to the Flagler Theater, about a mile into downtown. In fact, it was enough to take my sister, Barbara, with me.
So, most Saturdays we’d walk down there to see a double feature - always cowboy movies. Tom Mix, Bob Steele, Gene Autry, Johnny Mack Brown, and Wild Bill Elliott were the usual offerings.
Mangos grew eveywhere. The good ones were called "Hadens" and the not-so-good ones we called "turpentines". Avocados were also around. And there were guavas, and kumquats and sour oranges with thick skins. You could usually find something to pick off a tree and eat if you were hungry enough.
Bugs were a problem. My mother was a most fastidious housekeeper, very, very clean. but still we had roaches and the occasional spider.
As I got a little older, about the 8th grade, I discovered girls. Our school held dances at the Republican Headquarters. You got to dance cheeck-to-cheek, and more important, body-to-body. It was very....stimulating.
James Cagney in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY
Plus, we got coming attractions, a cartoon, and a serial. The serials were the best part., They were always 12 or 15 episodes, and each one left the hero in desperate peril. I remember a bed of spikes being lowered, and when they were just inches from Smiling Jack’s chest the episode ended. We had to come back the next week to see how he escaped - which he always did.
Admission to the theater was only 9 cents. That was 18 cents for Barbara and me. Since I had made 30 cents collecting coconuts, we had money left. Next door to the theater was an ice cream parlor where we could get triple dip cones for just 5 cents.
This was long before television. Movies were the major form of entertainment. After we outgrew the Flagler, we started going to the Tower on southwest 8th street. Or the Tivoli, which, like the Flagler, was on Flagler Street, but closer to home.
I remember one night in particular. My parents and Barbara and I walked to the Tivoli to see YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. This was in the early days of World War 2, and I felt more patriotic after leaving the movie than I probably have ever since.
The Great Gildersleeve - Harold Peary
William Bendix - The Life of Riley
In those days, everyone was patriotic. We saved tin foil. Meat was hard to get. Lots of things were rationed. We bought savings stamps that would be converted to war bonds when we had enough. We saw lots of war movies.
But, war or no war, we were still kids. Play went on. When summer came the sandlot football game turned to softball. We didn’t have teams - not enough players. So we played “work up”. You would start in right field and when the batter made an out - usually a pop fly - you moved to center field, then to left field, third base and so on, till it was your turn to bat. Often, there were not enough to have a catcher, so as the batter, you had to also serve as catcher.
We even played softball in the alley behind our house on Flagler Street. Third base was the trash dumpster.
Radio was big, too. Afternoons boys could listen to JACK ARMSTRONG, THE ALL AMERICAN BOY, or HOP HARRIGAN, or I LOVE A MYSTERY. Nights we listened to comedies like Jack Benny, Fred Allen, The Great Gildersleeve, The Life of Riley, Amos and Andy, Duffy’s Tavern and too many more to mention here.
Television was just coming in when I was a teen. I remember standing on the sidewalk outside Mercer's hardware store on NW 7th Street at 27th Avenue and looking in the window at this little square box about 89 or 9 inches wide and seeing a blurry picture. When I joined the Navy in 1952, at age 18, my family still didn't own a TV, but when I came home on leave, they had one.
Jack Benny and cast
Football was king at the Orange Bowl
The Orange Bowl
Girls played hopscotch, jacks, and skipped rope. Boys played dodge ball. We all played Kick the can. We played a game where we called out “Allee, allee in free” and everyone was supposed to come running in. I think it was some kind of hide and seek game, but I remember we would play it till dark and our parents made us come in.
When I was about 11 I started becoming aware of the sounds from the Orange Bowl, which was a couple of miles away. They were playing football and it wasn’t long before I persuaded my parents to let me go. I didn’t have the price of admission, so I had to go under the fence, or find some other way to sneak in. Lots of other guys were doing the same.
In fact, one of my proudest accomplishments was sneaking into and Orange Bowl Game on New Year’s Day. Security was so tight that I had to go hours before game time, then hide in the men’s room. Every seat was taken, but an Army colonel let me share his seat.
A few years later I sold Coca Colas at football games in the Orange Bowl. I got to wear a white coat. I would get a bucket of ten cokes for 85 cents and sell them for 10 cents each. I had to pour the Cokes in paper cups, then bring the bucket and empties back for another bucket of ten. I could usually make $2 or even $3 on a good night.
A 1948 Cushman like mine (but mine was blue)
A Whizzer motorbike like mine
About this time my dad bought me a bicycle and I got a paper route, delivering the Miami Daily News every afternoon except Sundays, when I had to get up about 4 in the morning because on Sundays it was a morning paper. Because the News was not nearly as popular as the morning paper, The Miami Herald, they frequently had contests to get new subscribers. More than once I won all the ice cream I could eat at the Puritan Dairy on Flagler Street at 14th Avenue. After getting my fill of ice cream, I could walk across the street where they had peacocks you could view through a fence. Once, I even won a ride on the Goodyear blimp.
Delivering papers was fun, but trying to collect the money was a chore. It was seldom men that I dealt with, usually the housewives. Often they would tell me to come back - they did not have the weekly charge of 40 cents to pay me. Sometimes they would get behind, but I had to pay for the papers every week. I made 12 cents a week for each customer.
It was dark in the mornings at 4:30 or 5 o'clock and in those days people had milk delivered to their front door in glass bottles. Sometimes, I'd throw the Herald and hear the glass bottle breakl. Made an awful noise when everyone else was sleeping - and it was something I had to apologize for when I made my weekly stop to collect.
When I was 12 I joined the Boy Scouts and learned to swim by swinging off a rope tied to a pine tree and dropping into a canal, then flailing about to grab a large airplane inner tube. From that point, swimming became a favorite recreation - a respite from Miami’s ever present humidity. My buddies and I swam in canals, in rock pits, in the Miami River, and we rode our bikes, quite a distance to Matheson Hammock, a scenic salt water beach, actually a cove off of Biscayne Bay. And a favorite spot was the beautiful Venetian Pools in Coral Gables. The last time I was in Miami, the pools were still there, looking as beautiful as ever.
When I started delivering newspapers, first for The Miami Daily News, and then for The Miami Herald for several years, I quickly developed an urge to own a Cushman motor scooter. I saved my money and got one. I was one of only a few guys at Citrus Grove that had one - which made me feel important. Nights, I would hang around with a crowd of teens on NW 34th Avenue.
After about a year, someone stole the Cushman. I quickly replaced it with a Whizzer motorbike, which I soon traded for my first car - a barely running 1931 Chevrolet. It was a real jalopy and I was only 15 (or barely 16).
Football was king in Miami in those days. I had dreamed of playing for Miami High since I was a little kid. There were 6 public high schools in the area but only Miami High, Edison High and Jackson High were considered important in the football realm. Coral Gables High, Tech High and Miami Beach High were only “also rans”.
Miami High was thought to be the premier football school in the state. Players like “Pistol Pete Williams” who went on to star for Navy, and Arnold Tucker who became the quarterback for .Army hailed from Miami High. Miami High usually played at least one team from out of state,
Miami High played Edison High every year on Thanksgiving Day in the Orange Bowl, and when I went there they had not lost to Edison in something like 50 years. But the game was a classic and every year drew huge crowds away from their holiday dinners. I don't want to forget to mention Miami High's "Million Dollar Band". They provided our fight songs and halftime entertainment and were so good they won lots of awards.
After the football games we had dances at Miami High, in the patio, under the stars. The Taylor Twins, two handsome young men, were the best dancers - fun to watch.
Miami was a much, much smaller city then. 67th Avenue was the end of the line on Flagler Street. There were no professional sports teams other than a minor league baseball team that never attracted big crowds. It was long before television. And the Orange Bowl was a famous venue, where one of 4 classic New Years Day games were played (along with the Rose Bowl, The Sugar Bowl and The Cotton Bowl). But we had the Orange Bowl Parade as well. And while the Rose Parade in Pasadena may be the granddaddy of parades, the Orange Bowl Parade was pretty special too. Unlike the Rose Parade, ours was held at night, so we had the benefit of spectacular lighting. It was a must see on New Year’s Eve for a great many Miamians.
But I digress. What I was getting to was that high school football was big. Crowds of 20,000 or more were common at the Orange Bowl for high school games. In fact, the year that Miami High finally lost a game to another city team was 1951, when I was a senior at Miami High. Andrew Jackson High beat us that year before a crowd of 48,000!
So, I yearned to play football at Miami High. But I only weighed 105 pounds when I reached 10th grade. I knew there was no chance I’d make the team there, so I went to Tech High, which was in downtown Miami. They put a uniform on me, but I never played in a game.
I took cooking and baking at Tech. I didn’t much care for it and I don’t think I learned a thing. I used to skip school frequently with the Reeves brothers. We would go to the Royal Theater in downtown Miami and enjoy a double feature.
In the eleventh grade I switched to Miami High. It was, and still is, a beautiful school, only now the large block in front of it, alongside Flagler Street, has long since been made a parking lot. In my day it was a lovely park with green grass and royal palms.
The architecture was stunning. Spanish style, I think, with archways, open walkways, patios, a real showplace. And they had lots of girls, something missing at Tech. By then, I had gone through the old Chevy and a ‘36 Plymouth coupe and graduated to a ‘39 Nash 4 door sedan. I had wanted a ‘40 Ford coupe which was a much desired car in those days, but my dad talked me into the Nash. It was kind of like being one of the few kids in junior high to have a scooter, because very few high school guys in those days had their own cars. I may not have been an athlete or in any of the clubs or student government, but I had a car. Good for my ego.
After school, at 3 o’clock, I’d meet with a couple of my buddies who also owned cars, Cliff Smith and Wally Wnurowski, to talk about cars and girls and football, but not for long, because by then I had finally quit getting up 7 days a week at 4 in the morning to deliver the Miami Herald, and had taken a job delivering telegrams for Western Union. I had to go to work.
For several months I worked out of the Western Union station on Flagler Street. I delivered telegrams in most of the office buildings downtown, but I often had to go into “colored town”. This was long before integration and the area between 6th Street and 14th Street, between about Northwest 2nd Avenue and Northwest 7th Avenue was where only black people lived. It was a little intimidating for a slightly build 17 year old white boy on a bicycle, but nobody was ever unkind to me there. I guess they realized I was only in their territory to do a job.
After a while I got transferred to the Miami Beach office on Sheridan Avenue. That was a better scene. I mostly was delivering telegrams to big fancy hotels like the Fontainebleau or the Eden Roc, and to a few wealthy homes from time to time. Once, I delivered at telegram to Ed Sullivan, but that was before his Sunday night TV show, and he was not quite as famous.
That was also when I discovered hotdogs steamed in beer at Lum’s. They later became well known at many east coast cities.
In the 12th grade I enrolled in a program called Diversified Cooperative Training, DCT for short. The idea was to take regular high school academic courses half the day, and to work somewhere in the business world the rest of the day to get practical on the job training. They got me a job at First National Bank in downtown Miami. I worked from 1 to 5 every afternoon, Monday through Friday. But all they had me doing was wrapping coins. I was making the money I needed to keep my car going and have fun, but I surely wasn’t learning anything. Finally, after several months, I went to the teacher and complained about my “training”. Apparently she said something to the bank, because they then had me sorting checks, which I did until I graduated. Some “training”.
But something good did come out of DCT. They asked if anyone would be interested in a job working Saturdays and Sundays at the Musa Isle Seminole Indian Village as a guide. The job would be to take groups of tourists, many who came up the Miami River on the “Seminole Queen”, through the village and explain the Seminole’s customs. But the big thing was to describe the alligator wrestling. It meant working seven days a week, five at the bank and two at Musa Isle, but it was a great experience that gave me confidence in public speaking that was beneficial the rest of my life.
One day, after the place closed, one of the Seminoles, Petus, asked if I would like to learn to wrestle an alligator. I agreed and climbed over the concrete wall and into the sand pit with Petus - and about a dozen other lethargic alligators. He selected one and showed me how to straddle it and hold its jaws closed. Then he told me to pull the jaws open and hold them open the way you did to show the tourists. At that point, I declined. I told him that was enough for the first lesson. I never went back for any further lessons.
At Miami High we had fraternities. They were illegal and secret, but we had them. My friend Wally Wrunowski was in one called Sphinx. Then there was one called Gremlins. I joined Phi Beta Lambda. You had to be a plege, just like for a college fraternity I suppose. You were tormented a bit by the brothers till initiation, when they took us out to a field and dumped old used motor oil on us. But the payoff was the houseparties that the fraternities and sororities had at the end of the school year. They were held at hotels on South Beach, which now is a very "in" place. My fraternity stayed at the Haddon Hall Hotel.
Musa Isle Seminole Village - artist's rendering
Musa Isle Seminole Village - photo
I finally got my ‘40 Ford coupe. But I only got to enjoy it for three months. Then I graduated, sold my car and joined the Navy.
But, before I end my reminiscing, I want to tell about downtown Miami. We always took the bus down Flagler Street to First Avenue. That’s where the dimestores where located. There was Kress and Woolworth’s and maybe one other. Dimestores were, I think, more or less the forerunners of K Marts.
On the corner of Flagler and First Avenue, the bus made a turn and went to Southeast First Street, where the bus stop was for heading back out of downtown - over the Miami River and headed west. At that corner, probably the busiest in Miami in those days, a police officer Sullivan, who came to be known as “Smiling Jimmy Sullivan” directed traffic. He became so famous from that seemingly simple job that he ran for sheriff of Dade County - and was elected.
My fondest memory of downtown Miami is the ROYAL CASTLE. It was located, if memory serves me correctly, on Northeast First Street around first or second avenue. It was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Just a little walk-in place with a counter and maybe a dozen stools. No tables and no air conditioning, but a perfect place to stop in for a late night snack. The big draw was their hamburgers. They were small, grilled with onions and served on a warm roll. The price was 15 cents. They smelled heavenly, and they were delicious. You washed them down with “Birch Beer,” (root beer) served fresh from a tap in a frosted mug for five cents. No sales tax in those days . Twenty cents bought you a tasty meal.
There were six Royal Castles in Miami then, and I also frequented the one on Flagler Street near 12th avenue. A great place to go before or after delivering papers.
The most popular movie theater was the Miami. On Saturday nights they ran midnight movies. It was a very cool thing to go to one - although nobody said “cool” in those days.
Another theater was the Olympia. They had stage shows. I remember seeing my first life entertainment there, plus a movie, all for 25 cents. Then there was the State theater. I know it was on Flagler Street - most everything was in those days. I believe it was on the corner of First Avenue. They played a lot of detective movies. I remember the Charlie Chan ones. Charlie and his "Number One Son" were supposed to be Chinese, but were played by caucasians made up to look oriental. Couldn't get away with that in these politically correct days. And there were "Whister" movies. I think the star was Richard Dix. You never saw his face, just his feet walking.
And there was the Royal Theater, I think on SE First Street. In the 10th grade the Reeves boys and I frequently skipped school and went there to see a double feature.
Nearby was Jan the Magic Man, where you could buy all kinds magic items and tricks and gags like fake vomit or dog poop. Also close by was Mayflower Doughnuts, where their slogan was “Always keep your eye on the doughnut, not upon the hole”.
Burdines was the premier department store . It was great to go in there just to enjoy the air conditioning, a great reprise from Miami’s heat and humidity. And it always smelled so good in there.
A few blocks away, on Miami Avenue, was the town’s other main department store, Richards. Not as snazzy as Burdines, but their merchandise was cheaper. And, on Miami Avenue there were always a number of small shops. Some of them seemed to continuously be holding a “Going Out of Business Sale” for years on end.
There was a movie theater on Miami Avenue, too. I can’t remember the name, but I went there when I was only 14 to see “The Outlaw”. It was banned by the catholic church and my mother would have been very upset if she knew I had gone to see it. By today’s standards it was pretty tame, but in those days, Jane Russell’s cleavage was scandalous.
By the time I got to high school and had a car, we went to drive in movies. I remember one was on LeJeune Road. These were "passion pits" where we "smooched" - if the girl was willing. Mosquitoes were a problem at the drive-ins till they started spraying DDT.
While I'm remembering drive-in movies and smooching, we also used to drive down to Coconut Grove to "watch the submarine.races". That was a great spot for more "smooching", but again, mosquitoes could be a problem. Coconut Grove also had a movie theater where I went a few times on a Saturday afternoon, hoping to find a girl.
Burdines - Miami's favorite department store
OTHER BITS AND PIECES
A few other memories: Hanging out at drive-in restaraunts, particularly The Big Wheel on SW 32nd Avenue, where the car hops were on roller skates, Herald Boy picnics at Greynolds park, Beach parties at Baker's Haulover, Snapper Creek Boy Scout Camp, discovering country music at The Little Rebel on NW 42nd Avenue (LeJeune Road), discovering pizza at The Red Diamond, also on LeJeune Road, playing pinball machines at Bill's Breeze Inn on Beacom Boullevard, milkshakes in metal containers at Sheehey's Pharmacy, fraternity house parties at what is now the famous South Beach, Shirley's, next to Miami High, a favorite after-school hangout, and lots more.
All in all, I think Miami was a wonderful place in which to grow up. But in 1952 I joined the Navy. After four years I came back and went to The University of Miami, then on to The University of Florida. But after graduation and looking for work in Miami and not finding what I thought were ample opportunities, - I moved on to California. I still go back from time to time, but like Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “You can’t go home again”. Miami has had enormous changes since the 40s, but it is still a great city.
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Old Miami Photos
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