Tradition No. 7: Amsterdam’s Summertime Traditions
Riverlink Park Concerts: I firmly believe that some day Amsterdam will once again be considered a growing and thriving community. It is just a matter of time before enough unselfish people with vision and energy are all moving in the same direction, building and creating positive things that make a difference. When that happens, it will resurrect the community pride and spirit it takes to bring rebirth to this place. Paul Gavry and his Amsterdam Waterfront Foundation are examples of individuals already doing this. The program these folks have put together to provide free Saturday evening concerts down at this city’s Riverlink Park is one of the best things to happen in this city EVER! The AWF, working with the resources available to it, somehow brings incredible musical talent from all over this country to that canopied stage by the mighty Mohawk all summer long. It may not be SPAC but its working and its all ours! And guess what? The news of how great these concerts are, is spreading well beyond our community and the park is starting to fill up to capacity on those balmy beautiful Saturday summer evenings. And now that the pedestrian bridge has made getting to this venue a much more pleasant (but still very long) summer stroll, there really are very few nicer or more entertaining ways to spend a Saturday evening. Thanks to the AWF, Riverlink Park’s Summer Concert Series has become one of Amsterdam’s all-time great summer traditions.
Tradition No. 2: Amsterdam’s Winter time Traditions:
I. Snow Days
One of Amsterdam’s great winter traditions is truly a dichotomy when it comes to being loved by some and hated by others. Bad winter storms that occur on or just prior to weekday mornings have brought smiles to almost every Amsterdam school student for generations. Those same climatic events accompanied by the three words “school closed today” have been striking fear in the hearts of working parents with school-aged children for just as long. The best way to explain this is to simply relay the following story of the most memorable snow day in my life. It happened probably pretty close to fifty years ago. My Mom was working as a day-shift waitress at the time so if school was cancelled that meant my two older brothers and me were left home alone. Leaving Jerry, Matt and Mike in the same house back then was sort of like bringing together oxygen, heat and fuel. Disaster always seemed just a moment away.
Sure enough, it started when my brother Matt said something that my brother Jerry did not appreciate. They got into it pretty good and I was just trying to keep a safe distance. Before I know it, Jerry pushed or threw Matt onto the dining room table and we heard a loud “crack.” The collision had broken the table top off of its four legs but the damage wasn’t enough to stop the fight. They kept going at it and at some point Matt bull rushed Jerry and knocked him onto the couch in the living room. It was one of those 1960’s era modern style couches with four wooden legs that were each about four inches high. Sure enough, when Jerry landed on it, three of the four legs cracked off. At that point the shock of what they’d done must have sank in because my brothers suddenly stopped fighting and we all just looked at each other. We knew honesty was the best policy but we preferred a system in which we could delay the telling of the truth until it was absolutely inevitable. So instead of calling our mother at work and confessing what had occurred, we decided to try and hide the damage. While Matt and Jerry held up the top of the dining room table, I went around and repositioned the four broken legs back in place. Since the table had always been wobbly any way, our goal was just to get it standing on its own again while we figured out how we were going to break the news to our mother. We did the same thing with the three broken legs of the couch and pretty soon, everything looked normal. In fact, I think we may have even dusted and vacuumed the place.
When my Mom came home that afternoon, we made sure we were quiet and well behaved. Usually when she walked through the door after leaving us on our own her first words were something like “How did you guys do today? Any problems?” The three of us probably responded simultaneously “No Mom, everything was great!” Since it was winter, my Mom was wearing a heavy coat. She took it off and threw it over one of the dining room table chairs. Unfortunately she tossed it a bit too hard and when it hit the edge of the table, the reattached legs gave way and the table again collapsed. I still remember the look of shock on her face and my brother Jerry’s quick ad-lib, “Geeze Mom what did you do?” Probably feeling a bit faint from the prospect of having to buy a new dining room set, my Mom looked for a place to sit down and collect her thoughts. Unfortunately, she chose the living room couch as her destination. I started running to my room before her rump hit the cushion. I’ll never forget her scream when those three legs also gave way. My Mom hated snow days!
Tradition No. 3: Sunday Family Dinners:
In our Amsterdam family the Sunday routine consisted of going to the nine o’clock mass at St. Mike’s, purchasing the Sunday newspapers, and then heading over to our grandmother’s house to watch the TV Tournament Time bowling program, hosted by the popular local television weatherman, Howard Tupper. While Big John German or Skip Vigars was battling Joe Donato or Johnny Walthers in a televised three game match, my grandmother and aunts were busy as hell in the kitchen finishing the sauce they had begun cooking the evening before and preparing all the other components and courses that made up a Cinquanti family Sunday meal.
My father’s two sisters were physically large women and when the two of them and my grandmother were working in that same tiny kitchen there was no room for a fourth person to get in there. At noon, eleven of us gathered around a dining room table designed to seat a half–dozen to eat a three-course meal that began with homemade soup, either chicken with postine or Italian wedding, served piping hot. It could be a ninety-five degree day in August or a below freezing day in February, it didn’t matter. Hot homemade soup was always on the menu on Sunday’s at Gram’s house. My family loved to eat soup, not just because one of my aunts was a soup-making wizard but also because we were a clan that loved to slurp. When all of us got going on that soup at the same time, my grandmother’s 10’ x 12’ dining room sounded like the end of a drain cleaner demonstration. As soon as the soup bowls emptied, huge platters of the main course would start appearing on that table. There was always a platter containing five-dozen meatballs, enough so that every person at the table could have at least five. My Aunt made a delicious meatball, unlike any I’ve ever tasted before or since. Fortunately, both my mom and the woman I have been married to for over 40 years also made their own versions of a terrific tasting meatball. The result is that I have spent my entire life in meatball heaven! Along with the meatballs would come a platter containing 24 links of sweet Italian sausage purchased from Califano’s Market on the corner of Division and Clinton Streets. Alongside the sausage was the same number of braggiole, each still tied into tight little rolls with my grandmother’s white braggiole string. In our family, kids learned how to get a hot braggiole untied without burning your fingers long before we learned how to tie our shoes. Once all the meat was on the table the pasta would be served in my grandmother’s huge pasta bowl, which could have doubled as a backyard wading pool. Every week that gigantic bowl was filled with five pounds of P&R Pasta. It might be rigatoni, ziti, the little shells, spaghetti or my personal favorite, the accordion-shaped macaroni’s. The third and final course was always a tossed salad, which my aunt seasoned by hand, rubbing the olive oil, red wine vinegar and spices into each lettuce leaf, black pitted olive, home grown tomato and cucumber with her thrice-washed fingers. Strangely, the Cinquanti’s of Leonard Street always ate their salad as the final and not the first course.
I still remember the taste of every dish on that Sunday table and the sounds and voices that were as much a part of those family meals as the delicious food. There would always be arguing, sometimes loud and long, lot’s of neighborhood gossip often spoken in Italian and lots and lots of laughing. One of my uncles would always tear apart a paper napkin and convert it into eyebrows and a beard that he’d stick on his face. He’d also stand up after filling his belly to the brim, unbuckle his pants and pull them down in front of us all to “get some room to breathe” as he would explain it. “Give my baby another meatball, he’s a growing boy!” “Eat, please eat, there’s more in the kitchen!” “Finish your macaroni Jerry, it’s a sin to leave ziti on your dish!” “Who’s on Ed Sullivan tonight?” And while all this is going on, my sweet grandmother is sitting off to the side with a huge smile on her face watching her beloved family gorge themselves with all this delicious food she had helped make. On her lap was a little bowl with a few pieces of pasta and maybe half a meatball. She would eat more later, after she was sure there was enough food for everyone else.
Tradition No. 4: Amsterdam Parades
As long as Amsterdam, NY remains the home of the Amsterdam High School Marching Band and Majorettes and the Greater Amsterdam School District does a good job making sure those talented organizations have good quality leadership, instruction and resources, parades in this town will be worth attending. I don’t care how old you are, when you’re standing curbside on a parade day in and you hear that familiar drum cadence in the distance, you smile, you start feeling a sense of pride and you tell your kids or grandkids, “Here comes the Marching Rams”. Marching student musicians from our community’s high school have been one of this city’s most treasured assets since the late Gerald Barnell, the “Godfather” of the Amsterdam School District’s instrumental program started the ensemble in the 1930’s. This band has been winning national awards for excellence for the past half-century and they truly are the “Pride of Amsterdam”.
One of the things Amsterdam has lost that has hurt its parade tradition is our downtown shopping district. That section of East Main Street used to be the most popular parade route in town because it was straight, long and had plenty of parking. Disney World wasn’t the first place to figure out that a parade on Main Street was a great way to attract thousands of customers. Amsterdam’s downtown merchants understood and took advantage of that fact generations ago. The hours before and after one of this community’s downtown parades were amongst the busiest of the year for the stores, eateries and specialty shops that use to line the route.
The largest parade in Amsterdam history took place on Saturday, September 15, 1945. Dubbed the Victory parade, it celebrated the victory of the armed forces of the United States and its allies over the Axis Powers in World War II. Over 4,000 participants marched in the six-division formation including nineteen different marching bands led by the Amsterdam High School Band in division one. There was also a plethora of floats sponsored by several different Amsterdam organizations and employers including one from the Bigelow Sanford Company that featured a loom in actual operation producing an actual Army blanket, jut like the five and a half million the firm had supplied US troops during the just completed War. The parade commenced at 3:00 PM and took just over one hour and twenty minutes to pass a given point. Over 30,000 spectators lined the route, which began at the former Coessens Park on the eastern end of the city and ended at the corner of Division Street and Wall Street where the reviewing stand was set up on the steps of Amsterdam’s old post office building. Amsterdam native, Lieutenant Charles DeGraff, who had just returned stateside after 42 months of island fighting against the Japanese Army in the South Pacific, served as the parade’s Grand Marshall.
Some of the other great parades in Amsterdam history included the Amsterdam Sesquicentennial Parade held on July 5, 1954, in celebration of the 175th anniversary of Amsterdam’s incorporation as a village. It included ten divisions, thousands of spectators and unique little chapters of neighborhood based Rug City men and women who dubbed themselves Brothers of the Bush and Sisters of the Swish! This photo of that illustrious event, published in the July 6, 1954 edition of the Amsterdam Evening Recorder offers a classic view of what a major downtown Amsterdam parade looked like back in the day:
Another memorable Amsterdam parade took place in June of 1985, in celebration of Amsterdam’s 100th anniversary as a chartered city. Kirk Douglas, Amsterdam’s most famous citizen returned to his hometown to serve as Grand Marshall.
Amsterdam High School Homecoming parades deserve special mention here. They are an annual highlight of this community’s fall season. They begin in the residential section of upper Lindbergh Avenue and feature the award winning Marching Rams band and majorettes, four usually wonderfully creative floats constructed by members of the high school’s senior, junior, sophomore and freshmen classes and a string of sharply polished convertibles carrying the Homecoming Queen, King and their respective courts. The participants march down Lindbergh and into the eastern entrance of beautiful Lynch Stadium and then circle the football field. This yearly event serves as a constant reminder that Amsterdam’s best product and most valued asset are our children!
Tradition No 5: Amsterdam’s New Year’s Eve Celebrations
Amsterdamian’s still celebrate New Year’s Eve the same way they did back when I was a kid. You either attend a house party or you go out to a restaurant or club of some sort and celebrate in public. The difference between then and now was that thirty, forty and fifty years ago, Amsterdam offered a lot more options for your New Year’s Eve celebrating. It seemed as if every fraternal (i.e. Elks, Masons) religious (i.e. K of C, St. John’s, St. Agnello) veterans (i.e CWV, VFW, PAV) social (i.e. Century, Columbian) and ethnicity-based (i.e. PNA, ALC, Ukrainian Club) organization in Amsterdam, hosted catered New Years Eve parties in their club rooms, complete with noisemakers, open bar, and live music. The phrase “From 10 PM to ?” was a common element in each of their newspaper ads, signaling that the evening of fun would only end when you decided to go home, usually at dawn the next day.
Augmenting these closed group celebrations were the New Years Eve parties hosted at many of Amsterdam’s restaurants and bars. Several of these establishments brought in live music for the night, offered special menus and provided plenty of party hats and noisemakers. Going back to the 1930’s, Amsterdam had major hotels, the Warner, the Barnes, the Philip Schuler and the Conrad each offering Complete New Year’s Eve packages that included dinner, dancing and a room for the night. Decades later, the Holiday Inn would revive this total package concept at their new Market Street location.
As you might imagine, every band, combo and quartet both from in the city and from miles around would be working that night. For local musicians like Tony Brooks, Deanie Dale, Dusty Miller, Johnny Cole, Alex Amendola, Art Hoefs, Butch Robertshaw and every Polka Band on Reid Hill, New Years Eve was just another work day.
It was also the one night of the year that my Mom and Dad would actually dress up and go out on a real date. Me and my brothers would end up doing what the rest of Amsterdam did to celebrate. Go to a house party.
New Years Eve celebrations at my grandmother’s house are one of my favorite childhood memories. Talk about tight quarters, she lived in one side of a two story duplex in Amsterdam’s West End. There would be eleven of us crammed into her 12 x 10 living room that seated five. Instead of Carson Dailey or Ryan Seacrest on a 55 inch flat screen with stereo sound system, we’d watch and listen to Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians orchestra ring in the New Year on my gram’s 15″ black & white Philco. My Aunt Onnie would make fried dough with raisins (Italians called them azeepoolah) and dozens of sandwiches which she’d package in those tiny wax paper bags that were used before Seran wrap came along. Us kids would drink Shirley Temple’s out of the same bell-shaped green and black circled glasses she’d use for our Sunday night ice cream sodas in the summer. At midnight, she’d make us a genuine highball. Since I was only five or six year’s old, she’d only give me half a shot of Seagram’s 7 with my ginger ale! (I kid you not) The dining room in my Gram’s apartment was the same exact 12 x 10 size as the living room and it also contained the dreaded gas stove that used to heat the place. They’d keep that sucker so hot they would actually roast chestnuts on it. The temperature in the room would get so high, the grownup men would take their shirts off (in January!) At exactly midnight, my crazy Uncle would grab his shotgun and go out in the middle of Leonard Street in his long john’s to fire a salute to the New Year. We celebrated New Years exactly the same way for the first ten to twelve years of my life. The only thing that changed was that when I turned ten, my aunt would make my highball with a full shot of Seagram’s instead of half. It’s one of those great memories you store away and never ever forget. May your next New Year’s eve celebration be the best yet and may it usher in a year filled with good health, much love and good fortune (and at least one azeepoolah!)
Tradition No 9: Amsterdam’s Halloween Celebrations
Halloween in Amsterdam spawned three traditions that entertained an entire community, especially the Rug City’s young ones.
I Paintings on the Windows of Downtown Stores
Every October back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70’s, the Amsterdam Kiwanis Club sponsored a Halloween window painting contest for the youth of our community. Instead of soaping windows as a Trick-or-Treat prank, the Kiwanian’s awarded cash prizes to the teams of Rug City students whose plate glass backed depictions were judged to be prize-worthy. Over fifty different downtown merchants would participate in the event, donating one or more of their store’s display windows to serve as canvases for the amateur artists. Dozens upon dozens of kids would descend on Amsterdam’s downtown armed with paper sketches of what they were planning as their finished piece, wax pencils, paint brushes and jar upon jar of different color paints, heavy on the orange and black. Each sketch had to first be approved by the children’s art teacher. When all the windows were done, downtown would become very crowded with amateur art lovers who would walk the L-shaped outdoor Halloween gallery, which extended all the way from the corner of Market and Division to the Bargain City discount store on Main Street. In 1962, the talented team of Louise LoBalbo, Sharon Pallotta, Stella Kohut and Agnes Boccio collaborated on the ghostly checker game that is pictured with this post, which appeared on the window of Morrison & Putman’s popular music store then still located on Market Street. The four young painters split a first prize of $10. Such a paltry sum is a clear indication that the kids who participated were in it for recognition more than money. How valuable was that recognition? A kid named Paul Tonko made the prize list at least a couple of times during his childhood and today he’s a US Congressman!
II The Annual Halloween Parade
Another Amsterdam Halloween tradition once sponsored by the Kiwanis Club is the annual Halloween parade. Every year for as long as I can remember, the kids of this city put on their costumes and head toward downtown to march past thousands of parents, grandparents and kids who were either a bit too old or thought they were a bit too cool to join the promenade of witches, ghosts, monsters and some of the most creative disguises many of us have ever seen. The Little Giants players and cheerleaders and all of Amsterdam’s various youth scouting organizations had it easy when it came to figuring out what to wear because they always marched together as groups dressed in their uniforms. All the other costumed marching participants were divided up by which school they attended. One of the highlights of each year’s parade and a custom still being practiced is the appearance of the Amsterdam High School Marching Band and Majorettes all dressed in their own costumes of choosing. I remember my own four kids marching in this parade and in fact have a vivid memory of myself as a youngster doing the same. The late ABC Newsman, Joe Spencer, his little brother Phil and I marched in the 1964 parade as the Spirit of 76. We won a pen set, but so did everyone else. The Amsterdam Elks Club took over sponsorship of the Parade in 2000 and have made sure it continues on as an Amsterdam tradition and they deserve the gratitude of our entire community for doing so.
III Trick or Treating
My own children still don’t believe this. When I was a kid in the late 1950s and early ’60’s, Amsterdam had three official nights of Trick or Treating. That’s right, Rug City youngsters would gobble down their suppers, put on their costumes, grab the brown paper grocery bags their Mom’s used to fold up and store on the back porch and spend the next four hours knocking on doors seeking full-sized Milky Ways, Hershey Bars, Almond Joys, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups etc. I repeat, home owners and apartment dwellers in every neighborhood of this city used to hand out full sized versions of these popular sweet treats not the little miniatures they do now, for three full nights. Of course those big bar versions were only a nickel back then and lot’s of people still gave us apples and the dreaded popcorn balls, but it did seem that it was a lot easier for everybody to get into the candy-giving spirit than it is now-days. The three-day span also gave kids the opportunity to scope out a trick-or-treating travel strategy to maximize both the volume and quality of stuff dropped into your bag. We used to do the flat streets of the West End the first night, the hills the second and then on the third, we’d attack the fringes of surrounding neighborhoods always making sure to revisit the places that gave us the best treats from the nights before.
Here’s a list of the Top Ten Amsterdam, NY traditions I’ll be addressing in my new book, which will be released later this year.
1. New Years Eve Celebrations
2. Winter Traditions
3. Sunday Family Dinners
4. Easter Traditions
5. Memorial Day Services
6. Amsterdam Parades
7. Church Festivals/PolkaFest
8. Summertime Traditions
9. Halloween Traditions
10, Christmas Traditions
Frank Derrico has shared with me his favorite memories of coaching ten special AHS Football teams. I will share some of those memories in the June issue of my free Amsterdam, NY Top Ten’s Newsletter. You can sign up for the newsletter here.