An actress’ unusual visit to Philly
Dina Merrill, the actress, died last week, at age 93. Reading about it stretched my memory back to about this time of year in 1961, when I spent a morning with Ms. Merrill.
My memory gets thin when it stretches long, but as I recall it, Max Miller, the longtime local United Artists movie publicist, called me. A film titled “The Young Savages,” about teenage street gangs in New York, was coming to town.
Variety, the show business trade journal, described it as “a kind of non-musical east side variation on ‘West Side Story.’”
Three former New York gang members had been recruited to act in the film, with Burt Lancaster playing a lawyer and Dina Merrill his wife. The exhoodlums were here for publicity. I had written a long series about Philly gangs a couple of years before; would I like to interview these tough guys?
Better than that, I said. Let’s take them out to meet some local gang leaders and let them compare notes.
Max was enthusiastic. Nothing phased him. He was legendary in his professional circles for the time that a Pennsylvania Railroad conductor at 30th Street Station refused to allow him to board a train to New York with the canine film star Rin-Tin-Tin and Rinty’s owner. No dogs were permitted but guide dogs.
Max went out and bought a pair of dark glasses. They got on the next train unchallenged.
So, Max was ready when I arrived on the appointed morning with a couple of Police Juvenile Aid Division cops to take the New Yorkers to the meeting. They were also ready. So was Dina Merrill, who had decided to come along, over the objection of a nervous Hollywoodish publicity man.
We disembarked outside the schoolyard of a junior high, where some boys were playing basketball and waiting to watch the proceedings.
One of the newly minted actors shook hands with a Philadelphia street gang administrator who identified himself as Poggie. (He spelled it for me when I asked.)
Poggie received Ms. Merrill graciously when she stepped out of the car briefly. She had a scarf tied over her head, preserving her hairdo for a reception scheduled for later at City Hall. (Her parents were millionaires; their Florida home is now President Trump’s.)
The gangsters engaged in a long discussion of the intricacies of social life in a system where any stranger entering another organization’s neighborhood faced the possibility of having his lip fattened, at the very least.
They also agreed that there were more constructive activities than what then was known as “bopping.” A few basketballers drifted over to listen in on the discussions and occasionally chimed in with comments.
I tagged along when Ms. Merrill and the New York kids were later received by the members of the mayor’s adult gang in the Mayor’s Reception Room. The New York gang leader-turnedactor was suspicious of the giltframed portraits of former mayors that lined the walls.
“Man,” he whispered, “these pictures got moveable eyes and people are watchin’ us from back of ’em”
Now, 56 years later, I have no idea whether those gang members went on to lead pleasant and productive lives or wound up in the slammer. I would assume that the incipient actors moved onward and upward and hope the same for Poggie and his associates.