In 1919, three teenage friends from Philly run away to New York City with stolen money for a last week of wild boyhood freedom before returning to the consequences. One of these three boys, Jimmy Hall, grew up to be my grandfather, a remarkable storyteller who gave our family the great gift of Our Own Story. This NYC adventure is just one legend contained in “Hope Street,” my one-person show named after the actual address on which my ancestors had their first home in America. It tells the best of the tales my little ears drank in at every holiday table.
There were five brothers who lived together with their families in a three-story row home in Philadelphia, surviving the Depression, Prohibition, and each other. There is, for instance, the deeply moving account of the brothers emptying an entire bathtub of home-made hootch when a cop knocked on the front door, only to discover, after they dumped it all into the backyard, that the officer had not been tipped off about their activities, but only wanted directions. Still, this may have been a godsend that inadvertently saved their lives, since after dumping the potent mix in the yard, nothing was able to grow there for three years.
My young grandfather became a bare-knuckles boxer who trained with the legendary Jack Dempsey, and who used those skills later in alleyways against federal agents.
My Uncle Eddie, brain-damaged in birth and yet fitting right in, who managed to regularly escape the household’s watchful eyes and go on three-day wandering adventures, the most famous one cut short by a police arrest; Uncle Joe, the most tender-hearted of the brothers, who ended up fighting under General George Patton in WWII in almost every campaign, but was still sensitive enough to write home that the German prisoners they took near the end were mere terrified boys; my Great-Grandfather, Edward Hall, who nailed himself inside the Exide Battery Factory along with his co-workers, to stage the first sit-down strike in Philadelphia history.
I try at every chance to pack in the punchlines, my natural inclination as part of this family and as the result of years of performing as a stand-up comedian by profession. I honor the Irish talent for self-mockery whereby our tales of woe are accompanied, not by the violin, but the fiddle. I was taught well by that pantheon of Great-Uncles, Uncles and my Grandfather, yelling across the Christmas table, “I’m tellin’ you, you got the dates all wrong!” and “How would you know, when this happened I was pushin’ you in a baby carriage!” Their argumentative fervor taught me how important their stories were to them.
Stories from a more real time than ours, when “contact” was “face-to-face,” and row homes were the spine of a growing city.