An ac­tress’ un­usual visit to Philly

The Review - - Opinion - Jim Smart Of All Things Visit colum­nist Jim Smart’s web­site at jamess­mart­sphi­ladl­phia.com.

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.

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