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Archive for the tag 'history'

There was always something to do on the streets of Bensonhurst, even when “something” meant “nothing.” (Source: Whiskeygonebad via Flickr)

The following is a guest post from Bensonhurst native Marco Manfre, an author, editor and former public school teacher. He has written two novels set in the Bensonhurst of his childhood, following the quirky characters who define so much of the neighborhood’s fabric. Find out more about his stories at the end of this post.

When I was growing up in Bensonhurst, oh so many years ago, there was always something to do right in the neighborhood. My friends and I never had to plan with each other or arrange to have our parents drive us to places for entertainment or socializing. During the summer, the sidewalk, the street, and the local schoolyards were always filled with children and adolescents and adults, and something exciting was always in progress. At other times, we walked to the local movie theaters—the Marboro, the Highway, the Oriental, or the Benson, where, for pocket change, we could spend hours in temperature-controlled comfort. Of course, this was during the pre-Internet, pre-computer, pre-smartphone era, when people spent much of their time outdoors during nice weather actually interacting with each other. In fact, it was before any of us had air conditioning in our homes or even color televisions.

On Independence Day, the thing to do was to attend a  backyard barbecue or go to the beach. While barbecues were nice, as far as I was concerned, nothing could compare to a trip to Coney Island or Brighton Beach, which were only a short subway ride away. Since we lived on 79th Street, between Bay Parkway and 23rd Avenue, my friends and I alternated between the N (which used to be called the Sea Beach Line) and the D train (which used to be called the BMT) to travel to the beach.This was before any of us knew about skin cancer, so, during those first few weeks of summer, we burned and peeled and burned and peeled over and over again. We thought of that as shedding our old wintertime skin and replacing it with the summertime version.

One Fourth of July in particular stands out in my memory for being that perfect example of always finding something exciting in the neighborhood, even when least expected. This is the story of one of the best Fourths of July of my life.

July 4, 1959.

I was 12 years old; actually, a bit closer to 13. It had rained and cleared up and rained over and over again all day. Now it was 2 p.m., and the skies still looked threatening, with a gentle drizzle coming down.

Nobody was barbecuing or heading off to the beach, and the older boys who would normally be setting off firecrackers of various sorts were nowhere to be found (I always wondered where they bought them; I was strictly forbidden to ever touch those dangerous objects). My friends and I, reluctantly accepting the fact that it was not going to be a beach day, decided to go to the movies to see Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

It was not how we wanted to spend the Fourth of July, but we figured it was better than sitting in someone’s house playing Monopoly.

As we walked to the Highway Theater, we heard, in the distance, the distinct sound of a bass drum.

Cue the high-pitched blare of screechy brass instruments.

As we looked down Stillwell Avenue, we could just make out, through the warm, misty, drizzly air, the tops of flags. After a minute or so, the music became louder and more distinct. It was a pounding, rhythmic marching band version of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The steady percussion and trumpet bleats became louder and the music vibrated through the air and up from the sidewalk and energized us.

Finally, the band came into view.

Actually, it was two bands—a combined Boys Scouts and Sea Cadets ensemble proudly bearing dozens of American flags and pounding out their martial music as they smartly marched down the street.

As the parade approached where we were standing and as dozens of onlookers cheered, we saw that Mr. Petrosino, one of the teachers from our school, Seth Low Junior High, was leading it. We called out his name. He turned and waved at us to join the parade. As the line of marchers passed, my friends and I looked at each other, each one waiting for the others to make a move.

Aaron Levy dove in first. Then Vinnie Balducci ran to catch up to the procession. I joined them, followed by Jamie Maniscalco and Bruce Goldstein.

Even though we did not have flags or musical instruments, we marched in step at the end of that parade for miles in the light rain, eventually stopping at a park (the name of which is lost in the mists of time and memory). Dozens of people were there. The band played a few more songs. Some girls from the Lafayette High School Twirling Team put on an exciting, flawless performance. We all recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang the National Anthem. Then, right after some man in a suit completed a speech about patriotism and the meaning of Independence Day, the skies cleared.

As the crowd broke up, we bought lemon ices.

Walking home in the late afternoon sunshine, my friends and I agreed it had been the best Fourth of July ever.

marcoMarco Manfre is an author, editor and former teacher. His novels, set in the Bensonhurst of the 50s through the 70s, include
The Outcast Prophet of Bensonhurst and Returning to the Lion’s Den: Life in an organized crime family. You can purchase his writing in paperback or e-book format, including his short stories, on Amazon.


Y’know, it didn’t used to be that in order to cool off at the beach, you’d have to head down to Coney Island. You used to be able to check out the sands around the Bath Beach and Bensonhurst waterfront, long before the Belt Parkway was built, like a Great Wall of sorts, dividing the neighborhood from its waterfront.

Yes, back in those days you might have been able to walk straight to the water and take a swim. Jealous much? Well, don’t be. Smallpox and Spanish flu were still things.

Anyway, if you did walk down to a truly local beach, it was these guys – the Bensonhurst lifeguards – that would protect you (but not from the smallpox). Shot circa 1908, it certainly gives a taste of beach life back in those days.

Say, how would that woman near the top center save us in full dress, anyway? Such are the wonders of the early 20th Century.

Have a terrific day, by the way. The heat advisory ends at 6:00 p.m.

Photo via Shorpy.

The following is a press release from Friends of Historic New Utrecht:

On Tuesday, May 14, at 7:30 p.m., Friends of Historic New Utrecht presents “America’s First Kidnapping for Ransom: the Disappearance of Charlie Ross,” a talk with artifacts by Allen Koenigsberg, a retired lecturer at Brooklyn College and other CUNY schools. The celebrated 1874 crime, which began in Pennsylvania, had an unexpected coda on Bay Ridge’s Shore Road.

The free lecture will be held in the New Utrecht Reformed Church Parish House at 18th Avenue and 84th Street in Bensonhurst. Light refreshments will be served. Bus and subway stops are nearby.

Since his retirement, Professor Koenigsberg has turned his attention from the study of ancient history and classics to some little known “cold cases,” and gathered a variety of original objects to shed light on what “really happened.”

Reports have said that on December 14, 1874, a botched burglary at the home of Holmes Van Brunt in Bay Ridge led to those who may have kidnapped 4-year-old Charley Ross from the front yard of his home in Germantown, Pa., on July 1 of that year.

This lecture with the Brooklyn connection to an abduction dating back to the 1800s is one of a series of free cultural and historical events sponsored throughout the year by the Friends historic organization.

Friends of Historic New Utrecht’s public events are supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and from the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development, Councilman Vincent Gentile, Councilman Domenic Recchia and by the Verizon Foundation .

Additional information on the free community programs is available by calling 718-256-7173 and by contacting the Friends organization at

This glorious old film surfaced on YouTube yesterday, showing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge under construction.

Workers are seen dangling from the bridge’s towering pillars, and working – sans safety harnesses! – to complete what would become the longest suspension bridge in the world, completed in 1964.

The cameraman gets right up there with the workers, and shows some of the stellar views of Brooklyn and Staten Island, and even peers down on a then-20-year-old Belt Parkway – which, of course, had not yet had any of the ramps leading up to the span.

And, no, there’s no mention of the legendary story of the construction worker who fell into one of the cement stanchions and remains buried inside the steel-and-concrete landmark. That’s probably because it’s not true.

But it’s still a nifty little video of one of most famous elements of the Brooklyn skyline.


The Salvation Army has bought the former Cotillion Terrace catering hall at 7309-7321 18th Avenue for $12.75 million, with plans to make it a large retail location.

The two-story building boasts 39,000 square feet, and was recently gutted. The Cotillion Terrace closed sometime in the last decade – we honestly can’t remember when – and reports in the Village Voice indicated that the owners planned to demolish the club to create condos and a smaller venue.

Those plans fell through, and the building has sat empty for several years, a haven for graffiti artists hitting up its boarded up doors.

The Cotillion itself opened up in 1958, but the real star tenant of this building was its predecessor, the Senate Theatre.

The Senate opened in 1926 at a ceremony attended by Mayor James Walker. The venue boasted 1,175 seats, including orchestra and balcony levels, and 1927 saw the installation of a Wurlizter 2 manual 10 rank theatre organ.

As the stage gave way to the screen, the Senate Theatre ran second-run movies until it closed.

Here’s how Forgotten NY‘s webmaster, who visited the theater as a child, remembered it:

It was a fairly spacious house with three blocks of seats seperated by four aisles. The interior was done in light green and white and featured columns and decorative plasterwork throughout the interior. … There was a seperate entrance from the lobby to the orchestra, and the screen was large. The theater also had a domed ceiling…This theater was 10 blocks away from the more opulent Walker and 9 blocks away from the dumpy Colony. it was also close to the little but neat Hollywood and the majestic Oriental. This theater had air conditioning and a sign over the entrance said “cooled by refrigeration”.

Rest in Peace, State and Cotillion. We may never see the likes of large catering halls or theaters in this neighborhood again, but at least we can soon buy some second-hand goods in your hallowed interior.

Last week, we journeyed back in time to bring you a dusty old Casesar’s Bay Bazaar retro commercial. Well, that trip to the land of forgotten TV inspired reader Sean F. to tip us off to this old television advert for the Avenue I Flea Market.

In my opinion, this commercial has the catchiest jingle of all the retro commercials we’ve featured. It also features a delightfully creepy, juggling clown, people making some crazy 1980s fashion statements (tight-rolled Z-Cavs, anyone?) and, best of all, they give out a free VCR and 19″ color TV every Sunday! This is clearly my favorite ad yet.

Do you remember the Avenue I Flea Market? Were you in the commercial featured above? Why were you wearing… that? We want answers, people.


Last year we sent you back in time to 1988 with a classic retro commercial we found advertising “shopping the easy way” at the Caesar’s Bay Bazaar. Well, an evenolder Caesar’s Bay Bazaar commercial from 1980 has emerged on Retro Junk.

The 33-year-old commercial reminds us that “Christmas Time is Bargain Time when you shop Caesar’s Bay,” while showing busy shoppers devouring the unbeatable savings at the now closed outlet megaplex. Can anyone else remember this old ad?

Costello as Abe Lincoln (Source: Friends of Historic New Utrecht) 

When he’s not making Oscar-nominated films or killing vampires, President Abraham Lincoln hangs out in Bensonhurst.

America’s 16th President is stopping by the Parish House of the New Utrecht Reformed Church at 18th Avenue and 84th Street on Tuesday, February 11, where he’ll share stories of his early life growing up on the frontier and discuss his views on slavery and the issues that led to the Civil War.

The president will be portrayed by Robert Costello, and, like all politicians, he’ll precede the appearance by hobnobbing with elementary-aged children during a meet-and-greet at New Utrecht High School.

“There is no greater reward than to see a look of wonder and astonishment in a child’s eyes upon meeting me or to hear from a student who at my urging has discovered enjoyment in reading,” Costello said.

Of course, Costello, as Lincoln, will fit right in as a piece of living history at New Utrecht Reformed Church. The church was founded in 1677, and the sanctuary building next to the Parish House was built in 1828. He’ll be accompanied by Civil War reenactors from the 14th Brooklyn Regiment, Company H.

More information on the February 12 evening program and on the historic, cultural and educational programs of the Friends of Historic New Utrecht is available at (718) 256-7173 and at

Photo courtesy of via

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle remembers when The Grateful Dead, America’s consummate acid-jam band, rocked Bensonhurst over 40 years ago in a four-day-long concert.

The event was held at Universal Theater, located on 46th Street and New Utrecht Avenue, now a furniture store. The atmosphere described by those who somehow remember the show, was one filled with marijuana smoke and lasted until the sun rose the next morning. The scent of that most dangerous, cholesterol-packed drug known as bacon also permeated the air when Pigpen started cooking it right on the stage. Mmm… Grateful Bacon…

The Dead’s cool, but the real star here is the Universal Theater, which opened on October 9, 1927, and was pretty incredible for its time. Decked out with Greco-Roman furnishings designed to mimic an Italian garden, the theater also boasted a gorgeous cloud projected ceiling and intricately carved columns.

The theater hosted superstar acts ranging from Jerry Lee Lewis, The Byrds, Steely Dan and Gladys Knight and the Pips but was closed in 1973 because of community complaints over noise.

What cool concert experiences do you remember at the Universal Theater?

The former Universal Theater today, now a furniture store (Source: Bing Maps)

Source: Whiskeygonebad via Flickr

An interesting proposition has come up: Sara Lee of ArkMedia Productions is looking for old photos of Italians areas in Bensonhurst, Gravesend, Dyker Heights and the surrounding areas. She’s especially interested in ones of day-to-day street scenes,  Italian social clubs, Salumerias and so on.

The production company is working on a four-part documentary for PBS titled “The Italians.” The material they’re looking for should be dated from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Unfortunately for Sara Lee and the rest of the team at ArkMedia, their search through the Brooklyn Museum or the Brooklyn Historical Society didn’t provide enough images, so this is our chance to shine. Dig out those family albums and submit photos of your uncles, fathers, mothers and whoever else just spending time in the old neighborhood.

If there’s one thing I learned living in Bensonhurst, it is that people around here are really proud of the way it was.

Send any photos to LVladimirova [@] BensonhurstBean [dot] com and I’ll get them over to ArkMedia.

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