Friday, December 31, 2010


The little girl in front of the Christmas tree is me at about 4 1/2 years old. It is obvious that this is a toy business family!!!

Our house was not nearly as grand as "The Hill" (although it may have been in the Hill section of New Haven). We had lived from 1953 until 1962 at 65 Asylum Street, in a wonderful ethnic neighborhood (mostly Italians from Naples and Jewish families*) which was near Yale New Haven Hospital and the Jewish business district on Legion Avenue. We had a tiny two story house. We lived on the second floor and Aunt Alice and her family lived on the first floor. Our two families were the only two Black families in the neighborhood. I don't think I even knew about this race distinction (i.e., that there were different "colors") as a child. I only knew that different families ate different foods (the Gaetanos, Gambardellis, and Rubinos ate spaghetti with clam sauce, the Rosens ate lox and bagels, we ate lima beans and ham). Colors were for clothes, and flowers, and crayons.

Since dad was in the toy business we had the best yard. We had a log cabin, a large swing set, a pole to which a ball was attached by a thin rope and you would try to keep your opponent from hitting the ball with his paddle and winding the string around the pole, and another piece of play equipment which had four seats which you would pump back and forth to make the whole thing spin. We also had a "stage" where we would put on our annual productions (ballet, accordion playing, tap dance, baton twirling ... some of the performers were Joseph Gaetano, Darlene Horner, Phillip Chaberry, Michael Iarolla, me). We would charge a fee and give the proceeds to New Haven's Fresh Air Fund. Dad built a stereo system and he would help us with the music which accompanied our various acts. The newspaper would always come out and do a story.

The benefit of having a father in the toy business was that you always had plenty of toys (and especially after toy shows, at Christmas, or when you lost a tooth).

Once when I lost a tooth I got a complete Annie Oakley costume (with hat, holster, gun, and boots). But this was unusual. Normally I just received a dime or a quarter when I would lose one of my teeth.

Another advantage of having a father in the toy business was that he knew people. I was extremely impressed when he came home from a toy show in New York and announced that he had met Shari Lewis and Lambchops.

Around 1962 my father found a house at 341 Norton Street. Restrictive covenants against Blacks were in place at the time. Macgregor "Mac" Kilpatrick somehow arranged to buy the house for us (and hide the fact that the real buyers were Black) so that the neighbors (Jewish folks who themselves had recently had to deal with such covenants) would not guess that we were moving in. All went well once we were ensconced in the neighborhood, however. We were soon well liked members of the neighborhood. Everyone always adored my mother. I babysat for everyone.

I must have been about 11 or 12 when Pete appeared on the game show - WHAT'S MY LINE. We all gathered around the t.v. Dad was beaming and we feared that he would burst with pride. I can't remember if the panel guessed correctly that he was the person who was responsible for the development of the toy called "Silly Putty".

Throughout my childhood I would go to the plant in North Branford* with my father. My closest moments with my father were actually at the manufacturing plant. Accounts say that the plant was in a converted barn. To me it looked more like a sturdy cinder block rectangular two story building. My father worked every Saturday. I grew up dancing every Saturday. However, when I went with him to the plant it was, ostensibly, so that I could help him with the clerical work. Usually, a bit after I got there I would go outside to play. The plant was in a heavily wooded area. Near the plant was a little pond where, when I was in grade school, I would collect tadpoles for show and tell at school. Our class would watch the tadpoles evolve into frogs. Once my dad built a trap for me and we caught a woodchuck. We brought it back to Asylum Street and kept it for a few days and then he brought it back to the plant and let it loose.

I remember the plant well. Many big barrels of putty and a conveyer belt down the middle of the floor. Although my dad was obsessively neat there were always piles of orders on his big desk. My father was the person who taught me how to type. I spent hours typing "The big brown fox jumped over the lazy dog". Dad had only daughters and he would tell us (facetiously) that if we could type, and read the stock market pages, and read the racing form that we would always be financially o.k. He taught me how to do all three before I was twelve years old.

The Silly Putty eggs were sealed with a piece of plastic that got smaller and adhered when heat was applied. Silly Putty was sold by the gross and every time I hear the word gross I think of the number 144. I remember Silly Putty being 5/8th of an ounce. Mac said it ws 5/8 of an ounce. Others say it was an ounce. I can't say that we played with Silly Putty a lot because it was always there. Each Easter my dad would bring a load of Silly Putty to a convent or church a little ways out of town. He would always leave me in the car so I don't know what the story was behind that.

For my part, I spent a lot of my young life wishing that my father had chosen another career. I wondered why he hadn't used his skills to do something useful. I couldn't understand, for instance, why he hadn't opened a bakery since we were both crazy about sweets. Or, better yet, he could have owned a pizza parlor. I asked him about this once and for an answer I can only remember a blank stare (or it might have been a glare).

In 1968 Silly Putty went to the moon with the Apollo 8 astronauts. I had imagined that it had just gone in an egg and for no apparent reason. I read today that it actually had a use. It held tools in place. I'm sure my dad handled that transaction - or maybe Pete. By that time I was out of town and in college so I don't remember my father talking about that event.

* The families that I can remember were: Gaetano, Gambardella, Iarolla, Rubino, Chaberry, Mastipicci, Rosen, Abeshouse, Lender (the bagel makers), Ruff (a jewish family - see book by Allen Ruff about this neighborhood - Save Me, Julie Kogon - though I believe that the Black Ruff family may have also lived in this area - but we were the only Black family in our immediate surroundings that I remember). The Jewish Home for the Aged was on one corner (about four houses from our house).

* indicates that the plant was on Totoket Road in North Branford (a Connecticut Crossroads article by John Lacy).