Jewish Lives: Al Jacobs, Tailor and Musician

By Al Jacobs

SAN DIEGO — Childhood years are very fleeting and hard to pin down. My earliest recollections take me back to about four years old and just starting kindergarten. I lived with my parents, Dave and Milly, and my sister Sally (nee Sadie) in the East End of London somewhere off Commercial Road. My memory is of crossing Commercial Road holding my sister’s hand and going to Senrab Street School. Very shortly after that we moved to 6 Burdett Road on the corner of Mile End Road. It was, in what seemed at the time, an enormous building consisting of at least three floors. There was, I believe, a wallpaper shop on the ground floor and some kind of social services office on the first floor which was occupied by nuns. I remember the nuns very well because my mother took me in to see them to show them how I could read the newspaper at four years old. I must have done well because they gave me a shilling which was an enormous sum for a child at that time. On our last trip to England I looked for that house but it had been bombed flat and there is a park where the house once stood.

I was born on August 5, 1924, on Commercial Street in Whitechapel which is on the East End of London near the famous Petticoat Lane. I have heard that the house I was born in is now a Pakistani mosque. At the time I was born, the whole area was populated by Jewish immigrants who fled the pogroms in Russia and Poland. My mother, who was born in Warsaw, was brought to England by her parents when she was six years old. My father was born in Bristol in the Western part of England because his parents came over earlier from Kovno in Lithuania. I never knew why they chose Bristol but there must have been some family connection because there were other cousins and aunts and uncles living there. The Jewish population in Bristol was very small since most of the immigrants went to the large cities like London, Manchester and Leeds.

Getting back to my childhood, I remember that we moved to another house on Burdett Road. It was number 259 and we had a second floor flat. My elementary school was close by on Thomas Street. I had a wonderful teacher named Mrs. McGuire who was truly inspirational and imbued in me a love for the English language. The custom at that time was for the teacher to advance with the class so that I had the same teacher all through elementary school. The headmaster’s name was Mr. Hood. I recall that every Friday afternoon we had a vocabulary test and the high scorers got to go home early. I won the contest several times. I also started Cheder, or Hebrew School, when I was seven years old and my teacher was a Mr. Bakst who had a habit of pinching and twisting cheeks for any infraction of the rules. Later on we had a student teacher who was a very pleasant young man who made life a lot easier. The Cheder was connected to the Baythorne Street Synagogue where I eventually had my Bar Mitzvah.

The educational system in England at that time mandated comprehensive tests at age 11 which determined where continuing schooling would be. My scores won me a scholarship to an academic secondary school and the school which I attended was Coopers Company School. Coopers was what is known as a public school, which in England meant a private school whose pupils paid to go. My scholarship entitled me to attend that type of school. Coopers was established in 1536 during the reign of Henry VIII by the Coopers Company, the guild or union of barrel makers, and was considered a very prestigious school. I started my schooling there in 1935 when I was 11 years old. The uniform consisted of grey short pants, a navy blazer with the school emblem on the pocket, and a peaked cap with the emblem on the front. I didn’t graduate to long trousers until I reached 13 or so. Incidentally, my sister Sally was attending a vocational secondary school which, among other things, taught her typing and secretarial skills. She excelled in that type of work and it stood her in good stead in her working life. Sally was a loving sister and I cannot remember any conflict with her when we were growing up together.

Coopers was an academically-oriented school and our main subjects were English, French, German, Latin, history, geography, music, gym and woodwork, which made for a pretty full schedule. Since I was studying Hebrew at the same time, I was very language oriented. Sports consisted of cricket in the summer and football (soccer) the rest of the year. I attended Coopers starting in 1935 and in 1936 we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the school’s founding.

In that same year, when I was 12, a life-changing event happened when I was walking along Mile End Road with my mother. We were passing a pawn shop and I happened to see a small accordion in the window. I must have enthused about it because the next thing I knew I was sitting in my house playing tunes on the first day I had it. It was love at first sight. By this time my father had opened a store on Mile End Road called Jay’s for Juveniles where we made children’s coats made to measure. We, of course, lived behind the store in a very comfortable house. The workroom was on the first floor (second floor in America) and had two or three workers. By this time I was taking music lessons from Professor Vorzanger on Philpot Street, which was in Whitechapel, a bus ride away. The accordion was too heavy for me to carry so one of my father’s workers, named Grace, used to come with me to my music lessons to carry the accordion. Grace suffered from sleeping sickness and her hands shook and moved slowly but she did her work willingly and was a valued employee. I remember my father having a little fun with her. Because of her slow movements, Grace used to sew with a long thread and pull the thread slowly out of the fabric and behind her head. My father would then cut the thread in mid-air and Grace was always very surprised. She was good-natured though, and stayed with us until the Blitz closed the business.

In my thirteenth year I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah at the Baythorne Street shul and had a fancy reception at Golde’s restaurant which was a well-known Jewish restaurant in Whitechapel. I played my accordion at my Bar Mitzvah and had my picture in a local paper. I still have a copy of that picture. Shortly after that, I became friendly with another lad of my own age who also played accordion. We teamed up together and formed a double act which we rehearsed until we were pretty good. We named the act Al & Pinky.

There was a network of cinemas (movie houses) which featured amateur shows every Friday night and Pinky and I entered the contest in our local Odeon. Wonder of wonders, we came in first. After that, the management booked us into their cinemas all over London and we won quite a few of them. That was my introduction to performing on stage. By now I was 14 years old and I also played in my school dance band for school functions. At the same time, I was a member of the Boy Scouts which met at the Jewish Free School in Stepney and worked my way up to Patrol Leader. That summer, I went to camp with the Boy Scouts and spent a week in the country sleeping on a ground sheet under a flimsy tent. Naturally, the English summer was quite wet and I returned home with a severe ear infection which turned out to be a mastoid, a bad infectious disease on the bone behind the ear. Of course, this was in days before penicillin, so the only way to correct it was with surgery. I spent about a week in the Bancroft Road hospital and when I came out I remember going to an office to be issued with a gas mask. This, I believe, was in July, 1939. The winds of war were already blowing. To recuperate, I was sent to a convalescent home in Folkstone which is on the south coast of England near Dover. I can recall my family coming down to visit me and my sister Sally, who was 18 at the time, offered me my first cigarette. I smoked for many years after that. In those days, nobody knew the dangers of smoking.

WARTIME YEARS……VARIETY YEARS

Soon after I came home, the war rumors worsened and we had practice air raid alerts and made blackout curtains for the windows. Finally, on September 3, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and England and France declared war on Germany. We all expected Germany to bomb London immediately and everybody was making plans to evacuate London. We still had relatives in Bristol, where my father was born, so we decided to close the shop and take the train to Bristol. The relatives we had in Bristol were cousins of my father, namely, Abe and Mary Gellar and the Dytches. I believe we stayed with the Gellars briefly until we found accommodations of our own. I remember that I found a job in a hardware store where I worked all the time we remained in Bristol. I was still playing the accordion and, when a famous band came into town named Herman Darewski, I auditioned for him playing a song called My Prayer. I didn’t get the job. We stayed in Bristol for a few months during what was called the “Phony War,” since the expected bombing never came. We all went back to London in the summer of 1940 and resumed business. My parents enrolled me in a school called the Tailor and Cutter Academy which I attended for six months learning to draft patterns and how to cut garments. I graduated from there in June 1940 and I still have the diploma hanging on my wall. During the time we were back in London, my parents bought a beautiful, polished mahogany mini-piano which was a low console. It had lights set in chromium rings at each end of the keyboard. I started taking lessons from a Miss Nieman who came to the house every week. She taught me a great deal about basic music which stood me in good stead all those years. I made good progress on the piano and actually had about one year of lessons. I loved to practice and sometimes had to be reminded to stop.

Our regular existence came to an abrupt ending in September 1940 when the Blitz finally started and we had to spend every night in the air raid shelter which was just across the street from us in the basement of a store. I well remember coming up out of the shelter after the first night of bombing and seeing the sky blood red all around us. The Germans had bombed the dock areas at Tilbury at the mouth of the River Thames. After that, the sirens sounded every night at sundown and we stayed in the shelter until the all-clear sounded about 7:00 in the morning. Some nights I would take my accordion down into the shelter and play to keep people’s minds off the sounds of the bombs and the anti-aircraft fire. They used to use a pine disinfectant to keep the shelter smelling fresh and, to this day, the smell of pine brings back the memory of that shelter. We tried to keep the business going under difficult circumstances but after our house was hit with an incendiary bomb, my parents decided to leave London again. A neighbor had put out the fire so our place was still standing, but that night we packed whatever we could and went to King’s Cross Station and took a train to Blackpool where my father’s sister, Edie, lived. Blackpool is on the Northwest coast near Liverpool and was an unlikely target for bombing. As the train pulled out of the station, we could see the flashes of the anti-aircraft fire and searchlights all around us. It was an unforgettable sight.

We arrived in Blackpool the following morning and went to stay with Aunt Edie and Uncle Sammy Lee until we found a place of our own. It was a store with living accommodations at 103 Lytham Road in the South Shore section of Blackpool. There, my father opened a tailoring shop making children’s coats and doing alterations. Blackpool was also the base for the Free Polish Air Force and one of the Polish customers made a sign for us to keep in the window and I can still recall the Polish words on that sign. When we moved into the house, my father contacted a moving company in London and sent them a key to our house in London. About two weeks later, all our furniture and household goods including the piano arrived in Blackpool safe and sound with nothing missing and nothing broken – a wonderful tribute the honesty and integrity of the movers.

The following spring I answered an ad in the local paper which had a great impact on the rest of my life. The ad was for an accordionist to play with a Concert Party which is the name for a revue or variety show which performed at a small, seaside resort about 15 miles north of Blackpool. The town was called Clevelys and the shows took place at a small arena-type stage located under the promenade or boardwalk. The show consisted of about 12 performers with a main comedian named Charlie Parsons, a straight man, several singers, a ventriloquist and myself providing the music. I was, by now, almost 15 years old. We played two shows a day and the audience would pay by putting money in a box which we took around after each performance. This was called “bottling the house.” We played in all kinds of weather, and, since English summers are not known for their warmth or sunshine, it was mostly in inclement weather. However, it was a good little show and we enjoyed doing it very much. It was a good introduction to show business. My father was always kind of stage-struck and he and my mother loved to come up and see the show. I traveled to work on a big double-decker tram which went right along the promenade and it took me about a half-hour each way.

Al Jacobs was still a teenager when he became a professional accordionist.  This photo was taken in 1942.

Al Jacobs was still a teenager when he became a professional accordionist. This photo was taken in 1942.

Blackpool was the home of many entertainment places since it was a seaside resort and many people from the surrounding towns came there for their vacations or holidays. There were many mill towns in the Manchester area about 50 miles away and each town chose a week during the summer in which the whole town closed all its factories and shops and went to Blackpool for their holiday. These were called Wakes Weeks. One of the theatres was the Blackpool Palace which had variety shows every week and was a first class theatre. Towards the end of my summer at Clevelys Follies, a man who had an act at the Palace happened to come up and see our show. I guess he liked the way I played because he offered me a job to go on tour with his act which was called Harry Lester’s Hayseeds. It was a big decision for my parents to let me go on tour since I was only 15 but they said it was alright and after the Concert Party finished, I joined the act.

Our first date was in Aberdeen, Scotland at Her Majesty’s Theatre and it was a very exciting experience performing before about 2,000 people. We played one week in each town traveling on the train on Sundays and living in “digs” (boarding houses) during the week. The act was a comedy and music combination playing a sort of Country Western music. Harry Lester was the leader and he was the only American in the act, coming from Fort Worth, Texas. His wife was a beautiful lady whose name in the act was Arabella and she sang folk songs. We had a comedian named Eddie who yodeled and played a contraption like a one-man band. His name in the act was Goofus. Then there was a Welsh tenor who dressed up like an old man. He had the most beautiful voice as do most Welshmen. A guitar player named Archie, and of course myself, completed the act. We traveled all over England, Scotland and Wales playing a circuit called the Moss Empires which had Variety houses in all the major cities. Some of them, especially the Liverpool Empire, held about 5,000 people, and we usually played to full houses. It was a big occasion when we finally played the Blackpool Palace and my whole family came to see the show, and it was nice to stay in my own house for the week.

After a few months it became my responsibility to rehearse the pit band every Monday morning, passing out the music to the musicians and going over the songs to make sure everything would go smoothly when we opened that night. We played two shows every night plus a matinee on Wednesdays. We always had what was called “bottom billing” which meant that we were the second most important act and our name was across the bottom of the billboards in big letters. The headliners were the most famous acts in Variety, or, as it is called in America, Vaudeville.

One of the headliners was a comedian named Hal Monty and when the Hayseeds finally broke up after about three years, I went with a new revue that Hal Monty was starting. In his show, I did a single act playing two different accordions – a piano accordion and a “chromatic” or button accordion. I also played straight man in some sketches and soon helped to put together an act somewhat similar to the Hayseeds called “The Millionaires” in which we all dressed like tramps. It was also a very successful act.

Before I go any further with touring, let me go back to the family. My sister Sally had been drafted in 1942 and was a member of the A.T.S., or the Auxiliary Territorial Service, which was the Women’s Army and served in several places including Belfast, Ireland. One time, when she was home on leave, she went to the Jewish Service Club where she happened to meet an American Airman named Mortimer Lesser who was stationed at an American Air Force base just outside of Blackpool. Apparently, it was love at first sight because they decided to get married three days later. With the demands of the Services, it was May, 1943 before they could get married. I was still on tour during this time and while I was in Scotland, I managed to acquire a case of Scotch whiskey which I carried with me for several months before I could get home for the wedding. My parents arranged the wedding with as much pomp and circumstance as was possible in wartime. The ceremony was at the synagogue and the reception was held at the Baronial Hall in the Winter Gardens, a fancy banquet hall on the promenade. My Aunt Ettie and Uncle Dave came up from London and a cousin of Morty’s came from Manchester. With all the relations and friends we had in Blackpool there were probably about 100 people in attendance. Everybody had a wonderful time including two buddies of Morty’s who were stationed with him. The Scotch must have been pretty good because the next morning on the train back to my show, I had a pretty good hangover. Also, on the same train, I met Morty and Sally leaving for their honeymoon in the Lake District. One thing I remember about Morty staying in our house during the winter was seeing him sitting on his bed to try to warm it up before he got into it. There was no such thing as central heating in England at that time. The only source of heat was a coal fire in the living room and hot water bottles to warm up the beds.

Sally and Morty had a wonderful marriage which lasted for 33 years until Sally died during an operation for a valve replacement in her heart. Her heart was damaged from a childhood bout of rheumatic fever which had left her with a murmur. She was only 55 when she passed away.

After touring for about two years in Hal Monty’s show, we got an offer from E.N.S.A. which was the British equivalent of the U.S.O. to go abroad and entertain the troops. So in December of 1945 our little troupe of about ten people traveled down to Dover where we crossed the Channel on a ferry, got on a train at Calais and traveled for two and a half days crossing France, part of Germany and Austria to a town called Villach on the Austrian-Italian border. The train wasn’t exactly the Orient Express. It was a troop train and had very bare and uncomfortable seats but at least we got to stop at Officers’ facilities on the way for food and rest. We were all honorary lieutenants in the British Army.

At Villach we transferred to an old 1936 vintage 32-seater bus which took us through the Alps into Italy and we eventually arrived at our headquarters at a little spa town called Abano near Padua. This was to be our headquarters. Our billet was a British Army Officers’ Quarters – a beautiful old hotel in a little spa town. The accommodation and food were excellent in spite of wartime restrictions. I shall always remember the dinner they served on Christmas Day soon after we arrived. It consisted of ten courses including palate-cleansing courses of sherbets and melons. A memorable occasion.

Pretty soon we went on the road with our little troupe which consisted of Hal Monty, the Millionaires, several assistants for the sketches, an Italian adagio act who were husband and a wife dancers, a four-piece Italian pit band who were actually our prisoners-of-war and two army personnel who were our drivers and baggage haulers.

We traveled in that old Bedford bus which had no heater, incidentally, and a one-ton lorry (truck).  In order to keep our feet warm on the bus, we use cardboard boxes filled with newspaper for insulation. Our route was between Rome and Vienna with stops at Rimini, Padua, Udine and Trieste in Italy, and Villach, Graz, Klagenfurt and Vienna in Austria. The whole tour took three months and we did it twice so we were on the road for six months. Several events come to mind as I think back. In Rome, we visited the Vatican and went down into the Papal Treasury where they had fabulous jewels including the largest topaz in the world. It was about three inches long by about two inches wide. They also had some altars there with mosaic pictures on the front that looked exactly like paintings until you got very close. Also, on one of the trips to Rome, we went to Teatro dell’Opera to see an opera by Bellini called La Sonambula – an excellent performance. Coming back from Rome on that first trip, we were crossing the Appenines, a mountain chain that runs down the centre of Italy. Our bus began slipping on one of the hairpin turns at the summit. We all had to get off the bus to lighten the load and actually push the bus over the top of the mountain.

We were entitled to shop for rations in the commissary stores and since part of our list was a carton of cigarettes we all got our limits. Cigarettes were the main currency for things we wanted to buy. I saved all my cigarette rations and traded them for cameras when we went into Austria. German cameras were the best in the world at that time, especially Leicas, and I wound up with five cameras. These became very valuable to me because when we were in Vienna on our second trip, my accordion was stolen from our hotel and I was able to purchase a new accordion in Italy for four of the cameras. The day after my accordion was stolen I had to find another one to do the show that night. Fortunately, I was able to enlist the help of an American M.P. who took me around in his Jeep to some local Austrian working men’s clubs and I was able to negotiate the rental of an accordion for that night. The price: two cigarettes.

The next day we headed back to Italy where I was able to buy my new accordion for the cameras. The contrast between Austria and Italy was absolutely amazing. On the Italian side of the border, all the stores were full of consumer goods and the restaurants served good food, but as soon as we crossed the border into Austria, everything was dim and dark; the stores were empty and impoverished. I can remember one particular restaurant in Padua where a group of us went to eat dinner one night. The meal started with an antipasto and then a pasta dish. After that, a parade of three waiters came to the table, each carrying an enormous platter. The first had a whole goose, the second an enormous rib roast and the third a small pig. All we had to do was to point to whatever we wanted and they took them back into the kitchen and carved them for us. That was a memorable meal. Our trip to Italy and Austria came to an end in April, 1946, and we traveled back to England. Incidentally, I crossed through Customs at Dover with an Exakta camera in my pocket but fortunately, nobody examined me.

When we got back to England, it was back to show business for a while. I was doing a single act and accompanying a Polish tenor named Jan Zalski on piano. Eventually though, variety as we knew it was dying in post-war England. Most of the theatres were becoming movie houses and the only theatres still working were the big shows in the West End; that is, London’s theatre district. Pantomimes were still big around Christmas time. I must describe the pantomimes. They were musical shows based on fairy tales like Cinderella, Puss-in-Boots or Dick Whittington. The young male lead was always played by a woman and the old female comedy parts were played by men – in drag, of course. The audience was mainly young children but for about four weeks before Christmas, every theatre played pantomime.

In 1947 I gave up touring and went back to my family in Blackpool and started tailoring again. I worked with my father for a while and then found a job with a custom tailor in Blackpool and learned a great deal from him about the art of custom tailoring. His name was Mr. Kaye and he had a staff of five or six people including an ex-Polish airman. Custom tailoring is quite a different business than what I had been doing with my father and I really got some good training there which stood me in good stead throughout my tailoring career.

EMIGRATION AND NEW YORK YEARS

Sally had gone to America in 1946 as a war bride and lived in New York. We were constantly in touch with her and she used to send us CARE packages to help us with the rationing which still continued in England even though the war had ended two years before. At about the beginning of 1948, my parents and I decided that a separated family was not acceptable for us and we made plans to immigrate to the United States. My brother-in-law Morty agreed to sponsor us and we got our names on the immigration list. In order to immigrate at that time it was necessary to have a sponsor who would guarantee that we would not be a burden on the American taxpayer. It took six months for us to make the quota, but finally, in July, 1948, we traveled down to London and then to Southampton to board the Queen Elizabeth for our momentous trip to America. We had a wonderful trip, especially since they had a Kosher dining room on board, and five days later we stood on the deck watching the Statue of Liberty pass us as we sailed into New York Harbor.

Before long, we had docked in New York and our luggage was standing on the dock waiting for the customs inspector. Finally, one came along to check our bags. He looked at my accordion case and asked me what was in it. When I told him he asked me if it was mine. Of course, I said yes and then he asked me to take it out and play it. So there I was playing my accordion on the New York dock. By the way, we arrived in New York on July 14; the temperature was 95 degrees with 100% humidity and I was wearing a heavy English suit. It was our introduction to New York weather. Morty came to meet us at the ship and the trim, slim soldier we had last seen in England was hard to recognize in civilian clothes and about 50 pounds heavier. It was wonderful to have a happy reunion with Sally and Morty, and to meet the rest of the family.

Morty and Sally drove us to Brooklyn where they had rented a house for us to live in temporarily until we had a chance to get our bearings in America, and that night they threw a welcoming party for us at their house. It was a wonderful introduction to our new homeland and we got to meet all the relatives and friends. Halfway through the party, Morty’s sister Flory came in with her boyfriend of the moment and I must confess that I was fascinated by this vivacious young lady with the off-the-shoulder dress. I guess it was fate that she offered to show me around New York and the next day she took me to Times Square in Manhattan. Of course, when we got off the subway train on 42nd Street, she didn’t know which way was uptown or downtown. Well, we did find our way around and we had a meal at a well-known restaurant called Toffanetti’s. That was my introduction to American restaurants. Actually, my first shock was when Morty took us to a cafeteria called Garfield’s on Flatbush Avenue and Church Avenue. I had ordered an egg salad sandwich. In England, we were still rationed to one egg a week and here comes this enormous sandwich with a month’s ration of eggs. We were truly amazed.

Flory and I were going out practically every day and really getting to know each other and when I got a temporary job a week later, I bought her a present. Unthinking, we decided on a cute overnight case and when we got back to the house, my mother and Flory’s mother were watching us through the window. Later, they told us that when they say the little suitcase they were sure we were going to elope. Shortly after that, Flory and I were walking in Prospect Park which was close by and we decided to get married. Since my birthday was coming up very shortly, we decided to make the announcement at the birthday party which took place in Morty and Sally’s house on Lincoln Road. The total time from my arrival in America to our engagement announcement was two and a half weeks. At this time, Flory’s father Oscar was in the hospital in the Bronx and we had all visited him there. He insisted on coming out of the hospital to make us an engagement party which was a wonderful gesture, and shortly after he returned to the hospital for the last time. He passed away on December 15 and the funeral was on a cold, snowy day. I always regret not having had the opportunity to know him better.

My first real jobs in America were at two department stores in downtown Brooklyn called Oppenheim Collins and Abraham and Strauss. My father and I both worked at A & S for a time but my father was too used to working for himself to be content working for somebody else. We were at this time living in an apartment in Sheepshead Bay but soon we looked around for a place to open a tailoring business. Pretty soon, we found a place on Flatbush Avenue that had an apartment over the store so we moved there very shortly. There was not enough work there for both of us so I found a job in a cleaning store and went to help my father in the evenings.

1949-al-and-flory-jacobs-wedding-new-york

Al and Flory Jacobs on their wedding day in 1949

Our wedding was scheduled for June 26 at a synagogue around the corner from where we lived and, of course, June in New York was extremely hot. The wedding party was in the house since that was all any of us could afford and the food was prepared by a caterer. Unfortunately, the chopped liver couldn’t take the heat and it went bad before it was served. Also, the accordionist I had hired on somebody’s recommendation was a dud and I told him to pack up and leave. Apart from that, the affair went very nicely and after the party, we went to the apartment that we had rented to spend the night before we left for our honeymoon at the Tamarack Hotel in the Catskills. We had depended on the wedding presents to pay for the honeymoon and while we were figuring the finances, my father came over with some money to help us. We never forgot that thoughtful gesture.

We drove up to the mountains the next day, unaware that a hurricane had passed through the area the day before and since we had had some car trouble on my 1938 Hudson Terraplane on the way up, it was quite dark by the time we got to the turnoff for the hotel. We followed this winding road and finally got to the Tamarack safely. It wasn’t until we drove into town the next day that we realized that the road we had traveled on the previous night was washed away on one whole side. We really had fun the whole week except that we both laid out in the sun and got burned to a crisp. I had heard that chamomile lotion was good for sunburn so we both lathered it on and when it hardened we were stiff as boards. Also, since it was running into the 4th of July weekend, people were shooting off firecrackers in the hallways outside our room. All in all, we had a good time.

We headed back to Brooklyn and to work. Flory was working for an underwear manufacturer in midtown Manhattan and I went looking for a job. I think it took me one day to find a job in a cleaning store in Brighton Beach where I ran the store and did all the tailoring for the owner’s two stores. Incidentally, I ran into the owner in San Diego some thirty years later when we both belonged to the Knights of Pythias. After our wedding, we lived in a small apartment in Brooklyn for a while, but when Sally and Morty needed some help, we moved in with them to share the rent. Soon, however, we moved to the family apartment on Lincoln Road to help support Flory’s mother Lil and sister Rita.

The arrangement worked out very well since it was a large three-bedroom apartment and situated conveniently across from the Prospect Park subway station. The rent was $50 a month which was a reasonable price in 1949. It wasn’t long before Rita met a man named Sam who had lost his wife and had two girls named Eleanor and Rae. Rae was an adopted child and was about 12 years old at that time. Eleanor was about 16. Rita and Sam married and moved to a house in Levittown, Long Island. They were very happy there. Before long, Rita became pregnant and gave birth to a beautiful little red-haired girl whom they called Iona. She was named after Flory’s father whose original name was Isidore. Rita adored her little girl until tragedy struck and Rita was diagnosed as suffering from cancer. She got progressively worse and it finally traveled to her brain and affected her eyesight to a point where she was totally blind. It was a traumatic period in all our lives having to watch this slow death and being able to do nothing. Rita finally succumbed when Iona was five years old.

It was during the time that Rita became sick that Flory decided that she had to learn how to drive so that she could visit Rita in Levittown. At that time we had a 1936 Plymouth with a stick shift so I gave her driving lessons. She was a quick learner and before long was able to get her license and made good use of it. I think that she was the only one of all her friends and acquaintances who was able to drive a stick shift.

Going back a few years, Flory told me one day that she was pregnant for which we were all very happy. Unfortunately, after about three months she suffered a miscarriage and lost the baby. A few months later Flory again became pregnant and everything seemed to be going well until in her eighth month she contracted toxemia, which is from a form of blood poisoning, and landed in the hospital where she again lost the baby. Needless to say we were all heartbroken, and to add to the trauma, my father suffered a heart attack and was in another hospital at the same time. So there I was, running between the two hospitals, working during the day and trying to do my father’s work at night. It was a very hectic period for a while. Eventually, they both recovered and things got back to normal for a while. It was at this time that I bought our first dog so that Flory would have something to take her mind off our grievous loss. After another year or so we decided to try again and went to a different doctor who took very good care of her and finally, in January 1953, she gave birth to our first child, a boy we named David after my father who had died the year before very suddenly at the age of 57.

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Al with his son David in Brooklyn, 1956

So our children never had the privilege of knowing either of their grandfathers. David grew up to be a very smart and mature little boy who decided at about two years old that he wanted to grow up to be a Cadillac salesman and become a millionaire. I think he was a good prognosticator. Almost four years later, our second child came along and we named her Olga Melinda – the O-name for Oscar, Flory’s father, and the M-name for her grandmother, Molly.

Soon after Olga was born, we made the decision to move out of Brooklyn because of the difficulties of traffic and parking in the area. My job in Brighton Beach meant a half-hour drive each way and no place to park when I got home. Sometimes Flory would sit in the car while I ate dinner and then I would go looking for a parking spot. It got to be intolerable. So we looked around for a place to live and eventually decided to buy a garden apartment in a cooperative in Howard Beach, Queens. It was a new development and we were the first occupants of a beautiful three bedroom apartment with lush landscaping, plenty of parking and a communal swimming pool. We loved the place and all the good neighbors who became good friends. The apartment cost us $1,800. The kids went to a very good school in the neighborhood and did very well. After we had lived there a couple of years we decided that one more child would complete our family and in May 1963, Rhonda was born. Everything seemed to be progressing normally, but Flory, who had a history of carrying past nine months, was told that she was overdue. In order to make sure that everything was alright, she entered the hospital and the doctor induced labor. The baby was born successfully but almost immediately the doctor told us that there was a serious problem. The baby was born jaundiced and was having trouble breathing. Apparently, there was an incompatibility between the baby’s blood and Flory’s, similar to an Rh factor and if left untreated would cause brain damage. The doctor recommended a full body blood transfusion.  Of course we took his recommendation and Rhonda had all her blood replaced. It took one pint. We prayed for several days but thank God, everything worked and Rhonda made a full recovery. A week later we took home a beautiful baby girl. We have heard that people who have near death experiences and recover turn out to be wonderful, idealistic people. It was certainly true in Rhonda’s case.

POCATELLO YEARS

David was ten years old at this time and Olga was six, and they were very happy with their little sister and very protective. David was extremely good in school and one of his interests was astronomy. One day Flory took him to the nearest subway station to take a trip to the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan. When she went to pick him up at the station she observed some rough kids trying to mug him and she rescued him. This incident started us thinking about the possibility of leaving New York for some safer area.

At the time I had my own tailoring business going for several years on King’s Highway in Brooklyn and was also playing in a trio for many parties and occasions. I had joined the Musicians’ Union when I first came to New York and received the Union newspaper every month. In 1964 I saw a classified ad in the paper which intrigued us. It was from a store in Pocatello, Idaho which was looking for a master tailor to take charge of a large shop but who was also a musician. This so fascinated us that I answered the ad and within a few days I received a phone call from the owner of this store who just happened to be in New York at the World’s Fair. He came down to Brooklyn to visit me and offered me the position. I asked him all kinds of questions about life in Pocatello, especially with regards to the Jewish community since he was also Jewish. It sounded wonderful from his description and when I told Flory about it she was ready to pack up and move the next day. So it happened that on Flory’s birthday, November 1, 1964, we packed our belongin gs, left our apartment to be sold, turned over my business to the clothing store I was doing work for, loaded the three kids, Flory and her mother Lil into our station wagon, and headed west to Idaho. The journey took us about five days and first we headed north to upstate New York and arrived at Niagara Falls where we did sightseeing and stayed overnight. From Niagara we crossed the border into Canada and traveled across the north shore of Lake Ontario to the town of London where we crossed back into the United States and picked up Route 80 near Chicago, Illinois. We drove across Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska where the land is so flat you can see nothing but open prairie for hundreds of miles. The last night before we crossed into Wyoming we spent in Ogallala, named for an old Indian chief or tribe.

The next day, while we were traveling through Wyoming, we saw a sight which convinced us that we were finally in the Wild West. As we traveled on the highway, a large herd of cattle followed by two cowboys came over the ridge and onto the highway. We had to stop, and the herd gathered around our car, looking into the windows. We thought that this was a common occurrence but in the 12 years we spent in Pocatello, we never saw it again. However, we did expect Pocatello to be an old Western town with wooden sidewalks and wooden buildings. Imagine our surprise when we finally entered the town to find a modern small town with large buildings, brick houses and a large university. My employer had rented a house for us to move into until we decided where we wanted to live. It was a nice house up on what was called the West Bench, meaning the west side of the valley where Pocatello was situated. The store I was to work in was downtown and was a large department store – the main store of a 14 store chain covering Southern Idaho and Northern Utah. As we learned later, it had been started by a Jewish peddler who had traveled west with a Mormon train, and after landing in Salt Lake City and having been told about business opportunities further north, came to Pocatello and opened a small clothing store. His name was Nate Block, and he was eventually succeeded by his son, Sy Block, who was my employer.

By this time, the small store had been built into the large chain of 14 stores, and just before we arrived they had celebrated their 50th anniversary. The anniversary sale had generated a large amount of business so there was a large backlog of alterations waiting to be completed. The day we arrived and reported in, they wanted me to start work that day. However, we said we wanted to get settled in first, so I started the next morning. The shop was quite large and had five people working, including a young man who was the interim manager. As I watched him work, I saw that he was the slowest man I had ever seen with a needle. When I mentioned this to the owner, the young man sort of disappeared and I never saw him again. I got along very well with all the other workers and we soon cut down the backlog of orders and got into a good working rhythm. Everybody was very friendly, especially the manager of the men’s clothing department who was the person who conceived the idea of putting the ad in the Musicians’ paper. He was himself a musician and was the secretary of the musicians’ union local. He was a fine trumpet player named George Hart and he and his wife Lois became our closest friends during our time in Pocatello. They even moved to San Diego after we moved there.

The store manager’s name was Dan Kunz and I remember that one day, after I had fitted a customer, he asked me if I could please speak slower so that the customers could understand me. I guess my speech patterns had speeded up during my 16 years in New York City. George introduced me to the music scene in Pocatello and I also met a man who was to be my partner for all the time I played in Poky. His name was Jerry Rupp and he sang and played the guitar. Of course, the name of our act was Al and Jerry. We started playing at a small restaurant called Fred’s and played every Friday and Saturday night for several months. We became quite well known in the town. One night a group of men came in who were part of the local Dodger minor league affiliate and their manager who was with them was Tommy Lasorda. Jerry and I later moved to the Elks Club where we also played every weekend for a long time. After a couple of years we were asked to play at the Pocatello Country Club and again we played there steadily for several years. By that time we had increased to a trio by adding drums. Our drummer was an old character named Loren Hatch but after he quit playing I hired a new drummer. He was only 14 years old at the time and his name was David Jacobs. David had started with music in high school and played trumpet in the school band and marching band. However, he taught himself to play the drums at home and even had his own rock group which used to practice in our basement. All this music experience stood him in good stead because when he went away to college at Princeton, he formed his own band and helped pay his way through school with the money he earned.

Al Jacobs with daughters Rhonda, left, and Olga, right, in Pocatello, Idaho, 1967.

Al Jacobs with daughters Rhonda, left, and Olga, right, in Pocatello, Idaho, 1967.

Olga, who had taken up clarinet, was also playing well enough to play in the school band and marching band, and when Rhonda was old enough, she learned the flute and followed her brother and sister in playing with the school bands. Rhonda was in junior high school and her band was so good they were invited to go on tour in England which was a wonderful experience for her.

Getting back to our early days in Pocatello, we discovered that there was actually a synagogue in Pocatello. It had been built by a group of Jewish businessmen led by our own Nate Block. A Jewish architecture student at Idaho State University had designed it and it was a beautiful structure whose sanctuary held about a hundred people. Pocatello had about ten Jewish families and there was about the same amount in Idaho Falls which was 50 miles north of us. It was amazing, though, that on the major holidays, we were able to fill all the seats. There was no rabbi, of course, so after we were there a short time we instituted regular Friday night services and I became the lay rabbi since I was the only one who could lead the services. We attracted several Jewish students from the university, and two of them were a young man and his wife named Marty and Roberta Scharf who became our close friends. Marty was very well versed in Judaism and soon we shared the leading of the services. Marty really enjoyed doing it, so much so that he eventually went on studying and became a rabbi. His pulpits went from Amarillo, Texas to Elgin, Illinois, to Duluth, Minnesota, and finally to Scottsdale, Arizona where we recently attended his daughter’s wedding.

Al  makes kiddush during a Passover seder in 1985 in Santee

Al makes kiddush during a Passover seder in 1985 in Santee

Olga and David excelled in high school, both getting straight A’s all the way through school. Olga, because of her advanced placement, graduated when she was 16 and so began her college career before her 17th birthday. While in high school she was very involved in theater and appeared in several plays and shows. The most memorable was when she played Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof. I was also involved with it and became the consultant for the show. Since we were the only Jewish people in the show, my knowledge was much in demand. I also made the chuppah for the wedding scene and when the show was finished I donated it to the synagogue for any weddings which might take place.

David had a very active career in high school also and became interested in DeMolay which is a youth organization associated with the Masonic order. He rose through the ranks to become the leader of the chapter under the sponsorship of one of our good friends, Doc Porges, who was also the local optician. David was also very active in the Debate Society and one year won the State Debating Championship. He also served as an aide to Senator Frank Church for a summer in Washington, DC. He enjoyed the experience very much and the speaking experience stood him in good stead in his college and business careers. When the time came for him to apply to colleges, his scores and extracurricular activities along with recommendations from people like Doc Porges and our local congressman, Rep. George Hanson, earned him an acceptance from Princeton University, and later, Harvard Business School.

While at Princeton, David’s musical background became very useful and he formed a band which performed at a local restaurant, and the money he earned went a good way toward paying for his college expenses. When he graduated from Princeton, we all made a trip back East to attend the graduation ceremonies. It was a wonderful vacation and after the graduation, we all went up to Boston to look at Harvard where David would be attending. On the way, we spent a day and night at the Nevele Hotel in the Catskills to show the family what the famous area was like. Besides spending our honeymoon in the Catskills, I had played in several hotels throughout the years we lived in New York. Needless to say, we all had a great time there. We also visited the historic sights on the way to Boston such as Concord, Lexington and the Old North Bridge.

When Olga graduated from high school, she was accepted at Pomona College in California which was also a very prestigious school and she majored in Theatre Arts. Her special interest was Kabuki Theatre, the ancient theatre form practiced in Japan. We drove her down to Claremont, California and we were impressed with the area. Olga spent her four years at Pomona and graduated at age 20. While at school, she worked part time at a shoe store in the Westminster Mall and eventually became the manager of the store. She had planned on becoming a teacher and, to that end, went to graduate school at Fullerton State to earn her teaching credential. She did teach for a while, but at that time, Proposition 13 was passed in California which in effect cut back available funds for education which made teaching jobs very hard to find.

SAN DIEGO YEARS

The passing of my wife, Flory, on November 10, 2015, nine days after her 89th birthday, has inspired me to resume our life story after 1964. We lived in Pocatello for 12 years and enjoyed it very much. However, David and Olga were in college and we knew that they probably would not come back to Pocatello. They both had wonderful educations and were headed for better things, so we decided that it was time to make a move. Olga was in Southern California and when we visited her we liked San Diego. We decided to move to San Diego in 1977 and packed up our station wagon with Flory, David, Rhonda and our dog Nero. I had named him after the famous pianist Peter Nero whom I had met and did tailoring work for. We left on New Year’s Day, 1977.  Since I had to play my New Year’s Eve job at the Country Club, I had the movers pick up my accordion before we left.

After a full day’s driving, we arrived in beautiful San Diego and found a house to rent right away. We met with a real estate agent who was recommended by his family in Pocatello. He drove us around in a nice area called San Carlos and eventually we bought a nice house on Princess View Drive. He also showed us a new block of stores which had just opened on Mission Gorge Road and we rented a store to open a tailor shop and cleaners. The only other stores were a 7-Eleven at one end and a barbeque store at the other end.

We stocked the store with machines, a pressing machine and clothing racks, and opened for business. Rhonda designed the sign which said Alfred’s Tailoring in Old English lettering. I employed three helpers and Flory took care of the customers. One of the customers was a basketball player who played for the San Diego team and was almost seven feet tall. Flory was barely five feet so she came barely up to his belly button.

At this time, Olga had finished college and her teaching, and since she had worked in a shoe store while in college, she decided to open a shoe store. There was an open store in our shopping center so she opened a store there and called it Pigeon Toed. It did very well and she finally opened four more stores all over San Diego. The store she opened in our center was right next door to the barbeque restaurant and there she met the restaurant owner’s son, Oscar, and they hit it off very well, so much so that they decided to get married. The wedding took place in the big back yard of our house and was very successful.

Before long, along came their first daughter Lara, who, from about two years old helped in the shoe store. Finally, Olga decided to sell the shoe stores and help Oscar in the restaurant business which was doing very well.

In our house, Rhonda was growing up. While she was in elementary school when we were in Pocatello, she had had a life changing experience. She was chosen to play Helen Keller in her life story. Helen Keller, as you know, was deaf and blind, and Rhonda portrayed her. She grew up and went to college in Boston and Los Angeles, then to Gallaudet, the college for the deaf, and became a sign language interpreter, and later went to graduate school in Maryland. Sadly, she has developed a sickness called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome which makes her constantly tired and the only work she can do is on the computer.

When David graduated from Harvard Business School with an M.B.A., he started a business counseling small business owners and at one conference, an owner was so impressed that he offered David a ten percent share of his business to join him running it. The business was called Anchor Audio and after a few years, David became to sole owner. The business has grown into a multi-million dollar business and is now located in Carlsbad. David and his wife Janet live in Fairbanks Ranch, and they have two boys, Alex and Colton, who each own their own homes in the area and Alex and Janet run the business. Colton is involved with a video game business and they are all doing extremely well.

Al in his tailoring shop in Santee, 1987.

Al in his tailoring shop in Santee, 1987.

Olga and Oscar went from the restaurant business into catering and Olga is now running that extremely big business.

One day, when I was working in my store, a young man came in and said his cousins who just came in from Syria would like to buy my business. I thought about it for a while and decided to sell it. Who knew when I would get an offer like that again?

I had been buying my supplies from a store in Los Angeles called Levine Bros. and the salesman who visited me every few months said he was ready to retire and would I like to take over his job. So I became a traveling salesman and sold my supplies all over Southern California and even as far as Las Vegas which pleased me very well since Flory loved to gamble at the casinos. I did that for about 20 years until the owner of Levine Bros. died and they closed the store. We had sold our house and bought a mobile home in Santee where we lived for about 25 years. About five years ago, around 2010, Flory started to develop Alzheimer’s disease and was not able to get around very well. Our home had several steps on each side and it became difficult for her. Olga and Oscar, who now owned a five-bedroom home in El Cajon, invited us to come and live with them which we gratefully accepted. So, here we are, five years later, Flory having deteriorated to a point where I had to provide caregivers to take care of her. She got worse and worse and finally passed away. Thankfully, she didn’t suffer pain.

So to bring the family up to date, Scott, Olga and Oscar’s third child, who became the chief cook at Bekker’s Catering, married his high school sweetheart, Jennifer, and had three children: Henry, who is now four years old, Emily who is two, and Tiffany, who is six months old.

Marla, Olga and Oscar’s second child, married Jonah and had a baby named Mazer, and they are in the process of moving to Eugene, Oregon where she believes she will lead a simpler life. She is a wonderful singer and does Christmas caroling every year.

Finally, in finishing this narrative, I have just celebrated my 92nd birthday but I am still playing the accordion at a rest home and doing a little tailoring. Hopefully, I will still keep doing it as long as I can.

*
Jacobs is an active member of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego.

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Copyright 2016 San Diego Jewish World

One Response to “Jewish Lives: Al Jacobs, Tailor and Musician”

  1. Vincelett says:

    So glad you have this document. Al is a treasure and a pleasure to have known. We miss sweet Flory, but hope Al continues on in good health as a blessing for many more years!

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