Big Daddy Graham is a renowned stand-up comedian and overnight personality on SportsRadio 94WIP. Check out his new podcast, Big Daddy’s Classic Rock Throwdown, at BigDaddyGraham.com.
I wrote a book about my dad about 10 years ago called Last Call. It’s a simple little thing that you can breeze through in about 20 minutes. That’s the primary reason that it sold 30,000 copies and is still selling. Folks can proudly boast, “You know I read a really terrific book last week,” without investing that much time into it. Oddly, the book got amazing reviews, and was transformed into a successful one-man play starring yours truly. I’ll be performing it for the last time at the too-cool Broadway Theatre in Pitman at a special matinee show on Sunday, June 14 at 2 p.m. I like performing the piece and audiences seem to like it, but it’s such a personal thing, I’m figuring it’s time to move on.
The fact that the last time I’ll be performing Last Call will take place in Jersey is pretty weird being that my old man grew up in South Philly and spent his entire adult life at 7025 Elmwood Ave. in Southwest Philly. So when I decided to write this column on my old man’s Jersey connections, I figured there wouldn’t be enough to fill the space.
I figured wrong. It’s amazing how many memories one can uncover in that wasteland of a brain if you just put them down on paper. It’s really that simple. Sit down with a blank computer screen and one thought will lead to another. It’s uncanny.
I didn’t find out till years after his death, but my old man loved to gamble. Being that he’s not around to defend himself, I’m gonna stop short of labeling him a “degenerate gambler” like I know quite a few of my 94WIP listeners are. He sure loved the horses, I know that much. He lived in an era when the racetrack was a huge deal. People forget, but for decades the two biggest sports in this country were boxing and horseracing.
My old man used to catch a bus out of Philly that took him directly to Garden State Racetrack and he went a lot.
Well, the old man must have been stuck with me, and one afternoon he took me with him. Wow. What a beautiful structure it was with this ornate, all-wood grandstand.
The big crowds with all that excitement in the air. Cigar smoke. Cursing. Men wearing cool hats. Everything a 10-year-old could possibly want. He sensed that I dug it and would occasionally use me as an excuse to go from that point on. I imagined my mother saw through this ruse, but she didn’t stop us. My old man would occasionally let me pick the horse. Great times.
Twice a summer, my mother used to take me and my sisters and brother down to Wildwood for these three-night vacations.
For some unknown reason, my dad never came with us. It was never discussed, he just didn’t. God knows what he did while we were gone, but I’m sure it wasn’t kosher. We always took the bus down and back. One year, maybe out of some weird guilt trip, he borrowed a car and drove down to drive us home. Who knows why? The car was packed with the five of us and all our crap when somebody (I’m pretty sure it was me) talked him into parking up near the Boardwalk so we could all get in a couple more rides and maybe a pinball game or three.
My mom and dad got in this huge screaming fight right in front of the Polar Cub across from Hunt’s Pier. It was bad. They didn't get physical with each other, but I heard words out of my mother’s mouth that night that I never heard before. My older sister somehow calmed the argument down, but it was a long, silent ride home.
It was the last time my old man ever went anywhere with us. The Polar Cub stayed open for years afterwards and I could never walk by it without laughing.
My dad was a loner who loved to walk. God, he walked everywhere. I swear if the destination was under three miles, he’d walk it. Occasionally for brownie points with mom, he would take me along. One beautiful summer morning, we took the trolley to 13th and Market and strolled down to the Ben and walked over to Jersey.
At that point in my young life, I had never even seen this magnificent bridge before and to a 9-year-old it’s a stunning walk. It still is. If you have never walked over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, what in the hell are you waiting for? Go!
Although I personally was never in Atlantic City with my dad, it was his Jersey Shore town. Why? Simple answer: gambling. And I’m not talking about the legalized casinos that popped up in the late ’70s. According to my mother, my dad used to hang in the illegal gambling parlors down there starting in the ’30s and continued going until my mom put the kibosh on it in the early ’60s. I even heard a story once that the card game he was in got raided and my old man broke his foot when he tried to escape by running through a door to the basement. There was one little problem. There were no steps.
See how easy that was? I actually thought of other Jersey connections, but I’m out of space. And here I thought there was going to be nothing to write about. So do yourself a favor this Father’s Day. If your pop is no longer with you, start writing down anything you can remember about him. You’ll be amazed of how much you’ll remember. Do it even if he’s still alive. Your kids will appreciate it and they’ll read these recollections. Maybe not now, but someday. Happy Father’s Day!
On Sunday, June 14, Big Daddy Graham will be performing his stage show about his dad, Last Call, for the first time ever in New Jersey. The 2 p.m. matinee will take place at the Broadway Theatre in Pitman and tickets are $25. Visit BigDaddyGraham.com for tickets and more information.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 3 (June, 2015).
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