There was an absence of Christmas lights on the town Green in the 1950s. But nobody noticed. Oh sure, there was this huge pine tree with strings of those large green, red, blue and white bulbs. Not much else except for the Crèche, which faced the First Congregational Church.
My thrill downtown was the quantity of colorful lights that were strung across Center Street all the way to Liberty Street. The lights would connect the sides of the street complete with lighted wreaths. It also seemed to snow more back then and it lasted longer.
Johnnie Ray wasn’t known for his holiday ballads but I remember in 1951 how immensely popular he was at the Secondo household, snug on the second floor of a two-family house on Center Court. Center Court? A street sign is the only memory of that tiny area that also housed dad’s pride and joy - his Italian Popular Restaurant.
My older brother was fascinated with Johnnie Ray, visibly the only singer of that era with hearing aids. The Big Band era was dying a slow death as the ballads of Ray’s hit, “Cry” and “The Little White Cloud That Cried” were selling big time on those over-sized 78-rpm records. My brother would imitate Ray’s unusual and emotional moves while singing. Towards the end of that song “Cry” my brother would get on his knees and rip open his shirt. Johnnie Ray liked to sing crying.
Winters were cold and lonely. Television was an occasional intruder to family life. Traffic was non-existent after 8:30 p.m. and the bright neon lights of dad’s restaurant kept Center Street’s pulse alive. Yet before 8 p.m. it was fun to run up and down the sidewalk and watch as people hurried from store to store. Store owners stayed open more often than today. My godfather, Ralph Riccio, always invited me into his clothing store for a gift.
Downtown was exciting to a young boy especially residing within the shadows of downtown stores. Queen Street was called the “College Highway.” Meriden, Bristol and New Britain caught the family’s attention with bigger stores and occasionally we trekked to Unionville’s Myrtle Mills for some bargains. Dad’s Buick didn’t travel too many miles. He was always entertaining the patrons at his bar and grill that later expanded into a banquet facility. A 1991 fire destroyed the 52-year landmark.
Besides my older and soon-to-be U.S. Marine brother lip-syncing to Johnnie Ray and my older sister writing letters to her boyfriend in the Navy, there wasn’t much to do waiting for Christmas and Santa Claus. I thought because I lived next to a neighborhood pub Santa would either stop at dad’s bar for a shot of Rock & Rye, or be scared off my roof by intoxicated patrons trying to find their cars.
A young boy’s fascination while living downtown were the night lights; the store windows; those Christmas lights; the beat cop; the creepy looking elm trees towering over the town Green. It was December of 1951. It could have been December of any year in the 1950s.
Israel Levy worked in his Levy’s ladies store every day except Sunday. Joe Salzillo made those sundaes Monday through Sunday. The Huttons were the classic advisors of how men should dress. Nice people. Dick and Jim Wallace ran the jewelry store while Art Johnson had his Western Auto. Joe DelSanto and Danny Ingelito were real pros at cutting hair and putting those hot white towels on men’s faces. Monty’s Diner was always busy.
The Petruzellis of Tony’s Cash & Carry wanted to know if I would come to work on Saturdays to peel the onions or carry grocery bags on delivery runs. Mom would always send me to Tony’s for a loaf of bread, some cheese or a can of tomato paste. If I forgot something she sent me back.
When dad sent me and I sometimes forgot what he wanted. I didn’t get second chances. Usually I ran to Tony’s in fear because I simply forgot what he had mumbled during supper. The owners would call mom to clear me for my return, carrying whatever item the head of the family had requested. I would wait for dad to return to work so I could roam the downtown streets again like a western Marshal, like a beat cop or even Lash Larue.
Friday nights at Christ-mastime was fun. I was always dodging people. It was fun squeezing sideways in those tight alleyways. And the best part was being too young to work at dad’s bar. I was an innocent bystander to holiday celebrations. I recall people hugging, women laughing and smoke dancing from the tables from fashionable cigars and Lucky Strikes or Camel cigarettes. Dad’s bartenders would routinely warn me that they were holding a place for me someday.
I wasn’t in a hurry to grow up. My quaint world was fine with me. It was 1951 and the downtown stores were glowing with colorful lights. The smell of the month was pine, old beer, good sauce, lasagna and smelts. People looked happy and content.
The Korean War wasn’t talked about like World War II. Automobiles were colorful and long. Dad’s Buick had large front fenders and fake portholes on each side of the hood. The radio knobs were the size of quarters. Bicycles had fenders and whitewall tires. Sneakers came in black and white.
Johnnie Ray was still crying. Christmas was coming. Southington looked like Bedford Falls without Jimmy Stewart.