I’ve always enjoyed Tolstoy’s line in Anna Karenina, which I usually slaughter. It goes something like “Every happy family is the same, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tell me about it. Italian families are subject to stereotyping, in case you haven’t noticed. I’ve been known to call on my Uncle Vito to administer retribution to someone who has gotten up in my grill. I don’t have an Uncle Vito. But everyone gets the point. It’s like alluding to Super Mario Brothers. Hey, by the way, how come you can call a video game that? I can’t refer to the Washington Redskins anymore, but Eyetalians remain fair game. I need to fix that gross injustice. Some other time, as the song goes.
So, to reprise a bit. Haddington is the name given to a section of West Philly that’s scarcely ever used any longer. But it goes back, at least, to the early nineteenth century. For all I know, it may well antedate that but I’m not sufficiently expert to say. I do know that by the 1840s, there was enough settlement to warrant a hotel called–The Haddington Hotel.
Ok. I know a good publicist when I see one, and Major W. Whitesides could turn a phrase. Now, maybe 66th and Haverford was beautiful and romantic in 1842, although looking at it today, you could be forgiven a certain skepticism. The high and beautiful scenery, well, yeah, I could see 69th Street from the second floor of 6613 Haverford, and if memory serves, on a good night, the old PNB sign (since removed as a “safety hazard”; it predicted weather by color change. So cool) In fact, I wouldn’t swear to it without a survey and a trip to the Municipal Archives, but I’m willing to wager that we (the Villari-Salvucci extended family) occupied part of the site of the hotel, along with a number of other houses. What does this have to do with Skippy? Well, not much, but in my mind’s eye, part of doing history is trying–usually fruitlessly–to see what you are writing about. Skippy’s was about a block and a century removed from the Haddington Hotel.
I should know when my people began to run the neighborhood down. See, the Haverford, Lansdowne, Haddington, Chester, Lancaster–they don’t exactly bespeak a legacy foundation by the people of the Italian peninsula, let alone the duskier varieties. I’m guessing the Italians ruined the neighborhood around the turn of the twentieth century. For now, let’s figure we were latecomers. Besides, the Lenni Lenape got there first, but aside from the name Karakung, they got no skin in the game any more. They got the melting pot treatment. But good.
I think Skippy’s dated to about 1941, or, at least, Skippy’s history with the Philly cops did. Growing up a block or so away, I had no idea that Skippy’s was a hot spot. Or that the cops had routinely raided the place. No one ever said a word. No one ever said, “Bad people there. Avoid.” Nothing. Even though my Dad grew up maybe two blocks from it, and it was directly visible from Renzulli’s pharmacy at 65th and Haverford. It was part of the wallpaper. You’d go into Yock’s deli, or even into DeVita’s furniture store–my parents bought their furniture there when we fled to Montgomery County, or into Neil Leger’s Jeep dealership (which stood where D’Anjollel’s funeral parlor now resides). But Skippy. Nope.
It was a tap room, as we called them back then. My father did not frequent such places. I doubt I knew anyone who did. But, clearly, someone patronized Skippy’s. Because it was a going concern for many years. I probably mentioned that Mike Pedicin had a regular gig there, and he was a name sax player in Philly. That’s all I knew when I was a kid about Skippy’s. Mike Pedicin played there. But there was much more to know.
As of 1965 (when I was 14, and, believe me, no innocent), Skippy had wracked up 22 arrests for gambling. Mrs Skippy, who was actually the licensee (from the Liquor Control Board) had been arrested 9 times. So the probability of Skippy getting busted for bookmaking in any given year from 1941 to 1965 was 22/24, or about 92 percent. Man, I love them odds. If someone had made my Devon Preparatory Freshman self a bet on Skippy getting busted and I had known that, man, I would have taken it. Mrs. Skippy less so, although here the story really gets interesting. And what I am about to tell you is true. No names to protect the innocent.
Italian wives of that vintage really knew how to stand by their man. Especially where the numbers racket was involved. I knew of a case where the cops arrested the wife when they were actually looking for her husband, and tossed her in jail. Knowing the individuals involved, I have a hard time believing the wife knew ANYTHING about hubby’s extralegal pursuits. But this was back in the day, and if you wanted a guy badly enough, you busted the wife. At least in Philly. At least in Vice. I kid you not. So follow this.
I’ve posted–as incontrovertible evidence–an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer on that appeared on February 9, 1960. Notice the Moll in the shades. This is Mrs Skippy. Even though she lived just around the corner from us on Atwood Road–a nice little line of stone house with lawn jockies, if memory serves, and maybe a Madonna or two, I don’t ever recall seeing her in any of the usual haunts. And that, I suppose, because she was otherwise employed. She was fully employed in not one, but two jobs: chef de cuisine at Skippy’s, and Chief Swallower of Slips at Skippy’s “bomb shelter” in the basement of Atwood Road (Skippy told the cops the war room was a bomb shelter in the basement. You know, “Duck ‘n Cover” Days then, when Republicans hated Commies). When the cops raided Skippy’s crib–more anon–the missus was found swallowing a betting slip with horserace plays and numbers slips even though she was indisposed with the grippe. I guess her doctor told her to eat only what she wanted. In any event, she got busted too. But wait, there’s more. To smoke Los Skippy out, literally, the cops dropped a smoke bomb down an air vent. Yes, the Philly cops bombed another house in West Philly.
And you thought the Move fiasco was unique, and that Greg Sambor was the only idiot who ever ran the Philly police department. Well, Bunky, I got news for you. They may not have burned down the neighborhood (thank God, the Villari-Salvucci compound was within walking distance), but the cops showed themselves perfectly willing to do something abysmally stupid to White people, assuming that Italians were White, of which I suspect some of them needed to be convinced. Now I know the Cisco Kid aka Frank Rizzo ultimately had a run at Vice, and he hassled the Skippies too. But you see, this is what happens when you overthink something involving cops in Philadelphia. To paraphrase Whoppi Goldberg, they may be racist slugs, but they beat up on everyone in those days. Take my word for it. No one on 66th Street ever wanted to see an old Red Car, which is what the cops drove back in the day. Cops were trouble, period.
The amazing thing about all this stuff is that it happened under my nose. John Facenda, the Italian American Walter Cronkite on WCAU Channel 10 never mentioned it–cause I’d remember. We never talked about the festivities a block away. Cause I’d remember that too. We had euphemisms for people like Skippy. Like someone who engaged in domestic violence and tore his home up every night (a neighbor) was called “noisy.” Maybe, if they were really plus ultra, you called them a “tidadoof.” (some kind of Sicilian pejorative) Mostly, you just averted your gaze and tried real hard to pretend these people didn’t exist. And, in way, they didn’t. They weren’t part of your world, so a discrete silence followed by a look that suggested you had stepped into something noisome was understood in the good old days in Haddington.
There was another time the Skippies got pinched and they released Mr and detained Mrs. I’m not really sure what the legal reasoning was, but I’m sure it wasn’t that the cops wanted to make her Queen for a Day. I guess they figured she would, you should pardon the expression, roll over on the Old Man. As far as I know, she never did. In March 1960, the Skippies got busted yet again. “Every time we turn around, you’re at our heels,” Signore Scaperotto complained to the police. They demanded to see the Chief of Police. He was indisposed. His deputy told them he would put them out of business. Fat chance.
They were parishoners at Saint Donato’s too, although I would have thought they might have belonged in Saint Callistus, which was this forbidding stone pile right off Lansdowne Avenue. Man, we were so insular I never knew anyone who went to school at St Callistus, let alone Mass. I think I knew someone who attended Cassady Elementary on Lebanon Avenue, which was practically another universe. Public school. No way. You were half way to Hell already.
When the Skippies left the planet, I am pretty sure they went out via Robert D’Anjolell Funeral Home, which was almost facing the tavern at 65th and Haverford. So there was a kind of symmetry to Haddington existence. You came in, worked and went out all in easy walking distance. Hell, you could have a beer and play the numbers too–hear Mass, pick up a prescription, get a cheese steak, buy great dinner rolls at Reale’s Bakery. You could even get a piano on 66th Street, although we were more the brass and woodwinds type of home. The Italian American Democratic Club was at 66th and Media, perched atop what we called Suicide Hill, where we’d let gravity send us careening down the street. Bocce courts and all. A full bar. Yellow cab had a nearby depot north of Haverford Avenue on 65th Street. We had a butcher, a baker, and a bookie. Hey, what more did you want? A full service hood. I don’t know what other services were available, but nothing would surprise me. We didn’t have a shrink, but nobody talked about that kind of stuff in the 1950s, believe me. And it wasn’t as if we all couldn’t have used one. All them cousins marrying from the hills of Lazio? Talk about inbreeding. Dear God.
Now, I should tell you one more thing about Skippy before I leave off. He was, God love him, an entrepreneur. Some time around 1964 or so, Skippy, the modest tap room, became Scaperotto’s, your place for fine dining and floor shows. Here. I’ll show you. DANCING NIGHTLY. FLOOR SHOWS. A smorgasbord (remember them) With a kitchen supervised by Mrs Skippy, who knew old world Italian cuisine, dammit. And a maitre d’ who was, I swear to God, apparently allergic to pizza flour (rumor has it, although God knows what other white powder might have given him sneezing fits). When Skippy’s went big time, it went BIG TIME. You can figure who helped finance the transition into an emporium. He made a few bucks gambling, and he had his posse. They’re right there. Miele Plumbing was a subcontractor for the Salvucci Bros, builders to whom my Dad was related (and for whom he once gigged as a night watchman), so don’t knock local finance. Debt collection was, I suspect, no problem. The Rothbard Theatrical Agency (said to handle Sammy Davis) would book the occasional singing dwarf from the Alabama: Little Linda Lou, 47 inches tall, 54 pounds, part of the Frankie Brent Review, Straight from Vegas. Don’t ask. I’m sure her intonation was perfect when she sang “Non Dimenticar” at the formal opening of Scaperotto’s Musical Bar (swear to God). Jerry Vale couldn’t make it. Frank was busy and sent regrets via Sid Mark on WHAT-FM.
Now, isn’t that a palace fit for a King? Skippy’s “Bar” (still visible) had become a stuccoed monstrosity now gracing Haverford Avenue. 6519! I grew up at 6613! Run the numbers (well, poorly expressed). Right down the street from me, in Old Haddington, a freaking club. Complete with Caddy convertible parked out front to give the place some real class. Only thing was, by the time this went up, my family had fled the scene, to the greener climes of Penn Wynne and Penfield, verdant streetcar suburbs from the 1920s where Little Richie first heard the endearing terms “dago” and “wop”. Yes, boys and girls, from a guy named Eddie (no, not Eddie Haskell), who taught me to love the Irish Americans among us. But that is for another day. Soon. I ain’t done.
You’d think when Skippy became Scaperotto, he’d leave his penny ante bookie days behind, right? Wrong. They kept running numbers from the joint, they kept getting raided, they kept getting busted. You can’t take the hoodlum from the hood, or something like that. But by now, it was front page news in Philly, and everybody knew. The secret was out.
It was time for the Eyetalians to get away. Before even worse showed up. And they did. But that’s the next installment.