Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tony Curtis

Remembering Tony Curtis and the Loew’s Paradise

I never thought much about Tony Curtis during my formative years, although we were both denizens of the Bronx, he preceding me by a decade. He was of Hungarian Jewish background, brought up in the Bronx during the Great Depression on the eve of World War Two. The borough was about fifty percent Jewish at that time and although I was a Gentile, a young boy takes on many of the trappings of his surroundings -- I have always been comfortable in that milieu. And I have always had a fond appreciation of those who came out of that culture -- having myself been so enveloped by it. So, perhaps, there was a subconscious link. Shared experiences.

Tony Curtis has told us about going to the Loew’s Paradise, a movie mecca in the Bronx, long ensconced on the Grand Concourse – our major boulevard. It was our Broadway. The Paradise, built in 1929, was the 23rd largest movie theatre ever to be built in the United States and had a seating capacity of close to four thousand. Perhaps our paths crossed there once or twice as this was a palace for the people and the young attended the palace rituals with some regularity.

After the war, Tony Curtis moved from the seats of the Loew's Paradise to the screen -- initially in a famous moment, dancing with Yvonne De Carlo in Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross. It is a heated scene which introduces us to Yvonne De Carlo (Anna) on the point of combustion, dancing with the handsome Tony Curtis.

He moves quickly in and out of the frame as we listen to the pulsating music of Esy Morales. It was De Carlo’s showcase, but I am sure the girls noticed Tony Curtis. And, I suspect, I might have seen that screen debut more often than most, because my wife and I are great admirers of Robert Siodmak, particularly his Criss Cross.

Then came Trapeze, Sweet Smell of Success, the Wilder film, The Boston Strangler, and sundry others. But this is not the best venue for a Curtis obituary. Yet, as I trawled the Internet earlier today visiting what are usually good sources for obituaries (e.g., The Guardian, The London Telegraph) those found were rather lackluster.

But I will continue to seek and perhaps find. I would like to see two of my favorite Davids weigh in: Mamet and Thomson. Mamet has stated in his Bambi meets Godzilla that Tony Curtis was a better film actor than Laurence Olivier. And the distinguished playwright and director makes a good case. My appreciation of Tony Curtis grew over the years as I saw his films again and again, saw and read interviews with him, and listened and read carefully when those whom I consider knowledgeable spoke and wrote of him. I have come to respect Tony Curtis and appreciate his work.

So farewell to a fellow Bronxite on a bleak rainy day about one hundred miles from the Bronx and about seventy years from a brief period when we were both there at the same time. And as films and actors throw shadows in the most unexpected places, this morning I thought about the old Bronx, the sound of Klezmer, a landmark theatre on the Grand Concourse and of all the boys met and passed on city streets -- any of whom might have been a handsome kid from those streets who got to dance with Yvonne De Carlo – and then some.

Photo from The Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life


  1. I, too, have been looking in vain for an inspiring obituary of this actor I have always enjoyed without ever really thinking too much about.
    I have found it here.
    I have never paid much attention to the fifties pantheon, though to my mother they and they alone were what old Hollywood is about.
    But I have respected all the performances you cite (and definitely the performance only in The Boston Strangler: fine work, in a wearily frenetic movie) and to them I would have to add The Vikings: another favourite of my mother's, and , like Calamity Jane, one of the few that took decisively in my store of favourites also.
    In many ways an enigmatic figure, and too much that is hard to like has been evidenced to put it all down to gossip or spite, yet there is something overwhelmingly warm about him that is hard to pin down, or to deny.
    Have you seen the old episode of You Bet Your Life, where Groucho's contestant, a middle-aged woman, says that her hobby is going to the movies but she only watches Tony Curtis movies. Groucho asks why only Curtis, and she says because he is so handsome, and so talented... and the audience laughs, taking her for an obsessive, eccentric fan... until she adds "and because he's my son."
    It is a strangely moving moment, because there is something about the way she says it that makes you think the pride and affection was genuinely warranted.
    This wonderful write-up, especially with its personal dimension, and the wonderful evocation of your mutual backdrop, is the only thing I've read today that evokes for me that other Curtis, behind the swagger.
    Thanks as always.

  2. Thank you Matthew. I had no intention of doing a Tony Curtis posting, but I was at the keyboard when I received the news -- and the words and the yesterdays seemed to flow into the moment. I have not seen the Groucho / Curtis mother episode but that should be easily findable.

    And in a strange Rod Serling type of moment, when I did the posting yesterday I found the best photo I could to show the old Paradise Theatre as I remember it. The marquee shows “B.F.s Daughter” and “If Winter Comes.” The latter, coincidently, was on Turner Classic Movies at six p.m. last night -- and, of course, the first Mrs. Curtis was among a good array of female stars in a just too noble movie. I watched it, none the less, because cosmic forces seemed at work. Best wishes. Gerald