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Tony Bennett

Remembers His New York Roots…

            Astoria, Queens, was a town where you’d dream a lot: you’d sit by the East River and look back at the city and say, “Boy, I’d like to make it there some day.”  It was like a Midwestern town, but it was only 15 minutes away by subway to the big city.


                My father died when I was nine, and my mom raised three children in the projects of Astoria, on 33rd Street.


                There was a Czechoslovakian boy whose mother died, and my mom took him in. He’s like my brother. He [Rudolph de Horak] ended up being one of the designers of the new Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


                My father was a grocer.  But when he became ill, he had to stay home and take up tailoring.  My mom was a seamstress.


                Every Sunday, my family would take my brother and my sister and me and put us in the middle of a circle and encourage us to entertain.  My brother John sang at the Metropolitan Opera House when he was 13.  They used to call him “the little Caruso.”  I was kind of envious so…I’d clown around and imitate Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and they’d all laugh.  I used to make fun of opera so everybody would laugh.  But meantime, I secretly loved it…


                I liked Hymie.  He had the newsstand near the El.  When you’re a kid, you’re rather lonely, so it was nice to go there to talk.  He was like a philosopher, always welcoming me and giving me egg creams for two cents. The people were very friendly.  But if you didn’t want to talk, they wouldn’t bother you.


                It was the Depression, and we were very poor.  I remember having to wait on line at the Police Station for coal.  We were allowed only 11 pieces of coal a week!  I had the love of my family, so I didn’t really think about being rich or poor.


                Also, I spent a lot of time drawing in chalk on the sidewalk – a Thanksgiving scene, Columbus discovering America.  When I was 14, an art teacher who lived in my building noticed me and asked me to do some watercoloring with him.  So we went to Willow Park, overlooking Manhattan, and it was one of the most wonderful days of my life.  Whenever I do a watercolor, I think of that day.


                I never knew anybody was watching me, but I heard years later from someone who lived in the neighborhood that all the housewives used to watch me draw. I thought I was by myself. I always had a passion to sing and to paint…


            I started out singing in amateur contests at the Ditmars Theatre.  There was this guy who used to come out with a phony cast on his leg, and crutches, and he’d sing “My Mother’s Eyes.” So I knew that if he went on, I’d always lose. But if they had some weak performers, I’d win and then I could make enough money to go to the movies.


                                            ~ As told to Jane Wollman Rusoff