Saturday, March 19, 2011
Hey Cap’n, how’s Popeye?
I could have been no older than ten or eleven, during the age of AM transistor radios and comic books. With my Wilroot Cream Oil pompadour well quaffed and dressed in my well-pressed Sunday-best, I made way into the brightly lit lobby of The Town Hall accompanied by my sisters, Mom and Dad. We were attending an Irish concert with “friendly sons” was what I knew - The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick Glee Club to be precise - and Mr. O'Brien was to be singing.
“Will George and Sean be there?” I asked repeatedly, not really interested in the concert. In my mind a glee club concert had about as much appeal as Sunday church.
George and Sean O'Brien were the eldest sons of an Irish family of nine. George, a year older than me and Sean, a year younger, were the closest in age to me. There were two girls in the family and a bunch of little kids whose names I could never remember. Most of them bore authentic Irish names like Liam and Clancy and they all looked the same. Pesky Margaret was my age and Mary an ancient 15 or 16 years of age thought that the boys were yucky; the feeling was mutual. The O'Brien girls and my sisters got along fine but avoided us boys when the two families gathered except when there was some all-out battle game involving the boys against the girls.
The O'Brien's used to be our neighbors in Brooklyn, living in "205," the building across from ours in Clinton Hill. But they had moved out to Long Island a bunch of years earlier and now the two families only gathered about 3-4 times per year for events that were always memorable.
The O'Brien compound was the perfect setting for families with lots of kids. The spacious back yard easily accommodated our broods plus a couple of dozen friends and neighborhood kids. There were bicycles and scooters of all sizes and every kind of kid toy imaginable; family visits would always be raucous and energetic.
For summertime visits our family would usually arrive in the early afternoon and stay well into the evening. The adults would partake in a fair amount of liquid libations and by supper time all the adults were pretty juiced and loudly singing Irish songs, including my Swedish father who secretly wished to be an Irishman. He had married my mother, a first generation immigrant from County Sligo and after she died, he married a lass from County Galway. A concert of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick was just the kind of thing he loved.
Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Murphy, another one of our parents’ friends, would take turns singing solos of old Irish ballads well into the night. Us kids would be insanely running around the dimly-lit backyard frantically trying to catch lighting bugs or playing hide and go seek. Eventually my sisters and I, sleepy and exhausted, would be piled into the back seat of our Ford Fairlane and magically wake up in our own beds the next morning.
Soon we were parked in our plush red seats located a few inches from the ornate ceiling of the historic old theater. I instantly enjoyed my eagle-perched perspective, spying on the people below as they settled into their seats. It was sorta like the upper deck at Yankee Stadium without the soda and pretzels and beer.
I was just about settled when I spotted Sean O'Brien racing across the main aisle below us. In my loudest Brooklyn street-voice I shouted to him and stood up waving my arms wildly to get his attention. My parents instantly commanded me to sit down and be quiet. But Sean had spotted me and as he was making his way up the crowded stairs, I noticed George was right behind him. Within a minute the O'Brien boys were at our seats gushing with important news.
“You’ll never guess who’s here? We just saw him!” Sean spat out breathlessly, his tie already loosened from his neck and sweat spotting his forehead.
“Who, who?” I heard myself answering, eager to hear that maybe it was some movie star or a baseball player or someone neat.
“Cap’n Jack!” he shouted as he wiped his brow with his sleeve.
In unison, my sister and I repeated, “Cap’n Jack? THE Cap’n Jack?!!!”
Those of you of a certain age, who lived in the NY City area in the 50’s and 60’s, know who Captain Jack McCarthy was. To the rest of you let me explain.
Jack McCarthy was a local New York “television personality” who served as news anchor, announcer and general utility player for WPIX- Channel 11, one of the three independent television stations in the NY Metropolitan area. In the early 60’s McCarthy took on perhaps his most famous role, the host of the daily “Popeye Show,” and every weekday afternoon at precisely 5:30 pm every kid in the region was poised in front of their TV sucking up Cap'n Jack's every word.
Dressed in a faux captain’s uniform, complete with a double-breasted, brass-buttoned, black jacket with gold trim and a black brimmed, white uniform hat, the good captain appeared resplendent each afternoon on our Hallicrafter’s black and white TV. As the “Popeye the Sailor Man” theme song came to an end, Cap’n Jack would appear clanging a large brass ship’s bell announcing, “Three bells, 5:30, time for The Popeye Show….”
Captain Jack, with his white wavy hair and crisp Irish features was the quintessential good guy. During the course of the half-hour show, he preached to us to “do good things” and “be helpful to mom and dad” in between 2-3 episodes of Popeye and assorted commercials. Under Cap’n Jack’s watchful eye, New York City kid-dom absorbed these cartoon episodes of Popeye eating his spinach, engaging in general merriment with his friends Olive Oyl, Whimpie, and Swee’Pea and dutifully handling daily run-ins with his arch-nemesis Bluto/Brutus. It was grand, classic 50’s schlock. We loved it.
Without asked permission, my sister and I jumped up and followed George and Sean down the narrow steep stairs and across the theater to the box seat section at the foot of the balcony. Moments later we came to a full stop and with bulging eyes stared at a white haired gentleman with a ruddy complexion seated a few feet away. The first thing I noticed was that he was not in uniform. But it sure looked like Cap’n Jack.
Putting out heads together the conversation went something like this:
“You go over...”
“What should I say?”
“I don’t know, just go over to him and say hello.”
“You come with me.”
“No, YOU go.”
By now we were making so much commotion that the white haired man turned in our direction to see what was going on. He looked right at me and smiled. I smiled back and in a loud voice said, “Hey Capt’n Jack, how’s Popeye?”
My sister and friends started giggling at the absurdity of my statement. We all flittered around when Captain Jack spoke, his voice instantly familiar, somehow proving that our eyes were not playing tricks on us. This was the REAL Cap’n Jack McCarthy.
“Hi boys and girls - how are you this evening?”
In unison we all said, “good” in that sing-song kinda way kids do, looking sheepish and uncomfortable when talking to adults in authority. Captain Jack, after all, did have authority, AND he was friends with Popeye. Though by age 10 I knew that cartoon figures were imaginary, I was still of that innocent age when imagination was where I still spent most of my time. Being in the presence of Popeye’s friend Captain Jack McCarthy was simply monumental.
Captain Jack engaged us in some small talk, “...and how old are you…and what’s your name...” each of us chirping back a banal response. Finally the good Captain firmly suggested that we head back to our seats because the curtain was going up soon – whatever that meant.
The Friendly Sons soon appeared on the grand stage replete in their black morning coats, striped trousers and crisp white ties. They perfectly sang countless Irish songs most of which I had never heard before. We strained from out lofty perch to see Mr. O'Brien who we eventually spotted in the front row on the left side. He looked tiny.
At the intermission, we went back to see Captain Jack again but he had already retired to the lounge apparently for a pick-me-up. When we saw him later, his face was a bit more “ruddy.”
Over the years that followed, long after the Captain had hung up his uniform, Jack McCarthy remained a fixture on WPIX and every St. Patrick’s Day appeared as the anchor for station's annual coverage of the parade up Fifth Avenue. The story is that WPIX was experimenting with the TV cameras used for Yankee home games and had planned to only broadcast 30 minutes of the parade that first year. When the switchboard lit up with instant fans, the station extended the coverage and eventually would broadcast five hours of the parade that year and every year. When television sets turned to color in the 1970s I first noticed that Captain Jack’s face would get redder and redder as the parade moved along each St. Patrick's Day. I’m sure it was just the raw March wind…
According to his New York Times obituary, McCarthy kept up his parade job until announcing his retirement in 1989 after 41 years as “TVs Mr. St. Patrick’s Day.” He died in 1996, seven years later at the age of 81, the same year as my dad.
My sister, who lives in New Jersey, heads over to Fifth Avenue almost every St. Patrick’s Day to march with the alumni of her Alma Mater. This year, as I do every year, I asked her if Cap’n Jack was there. She simply replies, “I didn’t see him.”
But we sure know he was there.