My mother was a torch singer from the 1940’s. My father was an attorney and industrialist here in Ohio. Music was very important in our household. The piano was well used, a fabulous state of the art stereo played opera and show tunes on L.P. records, and I was introduced to the symphony at age nine. As a fifteen-year-old teenager, I rented a hall and booked a high school garage band.
As sophisticated and international as my parents were, they were very cloistering and protective of their children.
For example, one day after I turned 16 and had obtained my driver’s license, my father turned up in the driveway with a used silver Cadillac convertible with red leather seats and huge fins. He had seen it for sale on somebody’s lawn and bought it on the spot. His reasoning: if his delicate fledgling was going to learn to drive, he wanted her encased in the most metal carapace he could afford, just in case she met an obstacle.
Further telling of their caution was the fact that they had never left their children alone without a sitter. One day, May 23, 1965, my parents announced they would be going to Cleveland for a banquet and would be spending the night. I was to be in charge of my two younger brothers.
The minute they walked out the door, I held my breath and weighed the consequences versus the benefits of what I was about to do. In general I was obedient, got great grades and team leader at school, a ”good kid” any parent would be proud of. Since capital punishment was out of the question, though corporal punishment even at my age could still be on the table, being grounded and no homecoming dance was the worst I could imagine. Was it worth it to make my next move?
I dashed into my room, dawned a cute pair of pedal pushers and a ton of make-up and grabbed the car keys to the “Silver Cloud” as we referred to the convertible. I turned to my younger brothers and hissed, “You two behave, or else… and don’t’ burn the house down,” as I slammed the door.
The grand opera hall Stambaugh Auditorium was built in the roman style of cut limestone, towering high upon the hill above town. Normally symphonies and pageantry had been traditional fare, but tonight the number one British rock band, The Herman’s Hermits were to be playing in concert. They were crushing the Beatles for number one spot on the charts. I cruised slowly past the brass doors at the entrance level; not a soul was around. I jumped out, pulled doors locked tight as a drum as the concert was well under way and knocked. But the security guard just shook his head from behind the glass.
Disappointed, I turned the convertible around and headed to the main parking lot, slowing down as a couple of men walked past me. What was that I heard, a British accent! I jammed on the brakes.
“Where are we going to feed the lads after the show?’
I heard one of the gentlemen say. I carefully backed the car up and interrupted their conversation.
“There isn’t anywhere. Heck this is Ohio, they roll up the sidewalks at 7. The only place I know that might be open late is a Howard Johnson’s Restaurant out by the Ohio Turnpike, and they close at 11 P.M.”
“Oh, my what are we going to do.”
“Well, I have a freezer full of porterhouse steaks” I offered, “you are welcome to bring the band to my house for dinner.”
A short while later, The Herman’s Hermits band, plus their manager Harvey Lisberg was packed into that convertible. It was all legs and arms hanging out of that car. How we did not get stopped by police on the way back to my house is a miracle. We were minus Peter as he was still ailing, I believe having been shoved into a window at the airport by screaming fans.
Shortly all burners on the stove were hot and laden with steaks and batches of French fries, as I tossed a Caesar salad.
Harvey stood across the kitchen island and we chatted. “For all the cities we have toured, yours is the first American home we have been invited into. Thank you for the hospitality.”
The band members were lounging around on the sprawling couches, fiddling on the piano and messing around with an out of tune mandolin. One of them even followed my little brother to the neighbor’s swimming pool for a midnight dip. I was in heaven.
When all of a sudden, my parents appeared in the marble foyer. The one time they trusted me, and a father’s worse nightmare.
My father a normally quiet and peaceful man bellowed, “What are all of those men doing in my living room! Get them the hell out of here!” The sound echoed off of the stonework.
I raced up to him shooshing and pleading.
“No Papa, these are the famous Herman’s Hermits band from England. I am just cooking them dinner because there was no place else for them to go.”
My mother realizing the situation, and having been a radio star herself in Detroit, took my father by the elbow and steered him towards the bedroom, “Joseph, let’s go talk about this in the other room…”
The boys were allowed to stay and finish their dinner and we took them back to their hotel as dawn was coming up. Harvey and I exchanged phone numbers. I came in late to school that day with a note that I was entertaining international celebrities.
The principal gave me a week’s detention.
Harvey Lisberg, the band manager and I remained in touch by phone and mail.
But wait there is more.
A little back story here.
Chuck Stanley’s Happy Hour started out as a daily radio show in the 1930’s on WMBC in Detroit, Michigan. My mother Toni Simon sang on the show with the likes of the very famous Danny Thomas and Rosemarie Clooney. Her friends all headed to Hollywood and I have pictures of her in Beverly Hills as she daringly drove her convertible roadster out there. Her friends beseeched her to stay in L.A. and join them.
Her “day job” at the time was with Crane Photographers which specialized in corporate portraiture and she had promised them to open the Youngstown, Ohio satellite office before heading out west to seek fame and fortune. The company had sublet some office space from Attorney Joseph Sheban in the Realty Building.
The week my father asked my mother to marry him the fanciest nightclub in Detroit offered Toni the position of house singer. She was on her way to stardom. My father said, “It is me or your career.” On their second anniversary he bought her a grand piano and said she could be his songbird.
Some years later, when Danny Thomas had become a household name in the entertainment industry, he resolved to make good on a promise he had made to St. Jude that if he interceded with God and the entertainer’s career became successful Danny would build a shrine to the saint. He eventually contacted my father to enlist other Lebanese businessmen to contribute to this illusive project.
One night in Chicago, Danny tapped my father to write, on the spot, the by-laws and the constitution for the parent corporation which instituted the prolific St. Jude’s Children Hospital. He said, “Sure Danny, I will have it to you in a couple weeks.”
“No Joe, I need it by tomorrow morning so we can vote on it.”
My dad told me, “I found another attorney and a fellow who could write fast and we spent all night.” At seven a.m. my father walked into the coffee shop of the hotel waving the papers above his head.
Danny stood up at a table across the room by the window and proclaimed, “Joe, Joe I knew you could do it. What can I do for you?”
It was known that Danny preferred to drive between comedy engagements across country, instead of fly, so my father replied,” You owe me nothing… but the next time you are passing through Ohio, come and have dinner with us.” The star later admitted he assumed a church basement hall with sixteen people.
To the crackle of short-wave radios, the mayor of the city of Youngstown, Ohio, a hundred people on foot, a flower girl, a bag piper, and a police escort met Danny’s car at the Ohio Turnpike Exit 16. The stunned man was shuttled into a convertible, whisked to a packed venue. ( See Facebook: Danny Thomas Youngstown Ohio 1958 for news footage) My parents financially guaranteed the ballroom, its dance floor, and the caterer at Idora Park Ballroom in Youngstown, Ohio, and held the first dedicated black-tie fund-raising banquet for the proposed hospital, which was just still on the drawing board: St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. There was standing room only for a $10.00 (equal to one hundred dollars today) a plate dinner to raise funds for a charity nobody ever heard of. At which point Danny had essentially an architect’s drawing and the promise of some industrial development land found for him by a priest in Memphis; the man sat on the dais and just balled.
That night when my father went to hand Danny that check which included all donations, “No Joe, not yet, please come with me to Cleveland tomorrow where I am meeting with a group of prominent businessmen.” They listened to his pitch, then the men suggested that this was too early a stage for them to promote this charity; come back when you are more established. My father waited until all had their say, then stood up and said “Youngstown presents you with $34,000. for your St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.” In awe, and not to be outdone, Cleveland pledged $150,000. Then Chicago not to be outdone pledged $250,000. and then on and on.
Not too much later, in my Girl Scout uniform, I had trudged thru a blizzard, going door to door in snow up to my knees in a little green skirt carrying a round yellow canister. Door to door drives were common back then for Red Cross and March of Dimes. At one house on Wildwood Drive, the man put three pennies into the cannister and retorted, “Never heard of the charity, what are you really gonna do with this money little girl.” My freezing little brain thought, “Could you at least spare a quarter for this effort. What exactly can I buy for three cents?” I said “Thank you”, and as I turned to step off the porch he responded, “You can’t cure cancer with pennies!”
I was part of the first door to door canvas for this newly minted charity. My mother and I sat in our recreation room, at an eight-foot trestle table, in front of two-foot-high piles of mostly pennies, stuffing spare change, into paper coin rolls.
The hospital opened in 1962.
The stated purpose of this St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital was to conduct research and aid in finding a cure for the childhood blood cancer, leukemia. At the time it was a desperate attempt as this disease attacked and killed young children and teens.
Pretty soon others members of the family came up to the plate. My mother’s brothers had become quite successful in the tool and die industry back in Detroit. Not to be outdone, they too jumped on board with this nascent charity.
They decided to launch a Teen Drive for St. Jude’s for young people to get involved to help other young people. George and Joe Simon and their wives Penny and Renee reserved the massive Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit where they held the annual auto show, with its 12,000-seat capacity. The purpose was going to promote the charity with a concert of local bands.
It fell upon myself to provide an even better reward for the young people who raised funds, a concert by one of the top bands in the world. Tickets were not available, kids and teens would come and their admission would be to turn in their collected monies from a door-to-door cannister drive for the hospital.
I called Harvey Lisberg in England and explained the situation.
On June 24th 1965, the Herman’s Hermits played Cobo Hall in Detroit Michigan. Eight thousand attended. The teenagers raised around $20,000.00 which would be around $178,000.00 today.
Within a record breaking few years, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital achieved an unheard of a 60% rate of remission for childhood cancers of the blood. Prior to the 1960’s Leukemia was pretty much a death sentence. The remarkable results of these efforts this hospital in Memphis, Tennessee costs about $2.8 million dollars a day to run today patients and their parents are charged not a penny for healthcare, travel and food. In the more than fifty years since St. Jude’s opened its doors, the amazing research and care has pushed the survival rate for the children from 20% to 80%.
So, in conclusion, I wish to congratulate you Harvey Lisberg on this your birthday. We never know how a seemingly small event a long time ago may have helped to ignite a major success. I will never forget the other teenagers standing in front of the stage in that gigantic building responding to the Herman’s Hermits in glee for their efforts.
But most important the evening helped to bring about solidarity, visual visceral reality, unlike time in board rooms and on phones, to the adults who supplied behind the scene efforts towards pushing this nascent charity.
So, to sum it up, the act of hospitality extended to you when you were in a pinch, gratitude returned for an off tour stop for a charity event in retrospect was a seminal moment. That was the first rock concert dedicated to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital! You never know what a handful of dedicated people can accomplish. And for all of your amazing successes in this realm, that one little concert should go down as a magnum opus.
Happy Birthday Harvey Lisberg
Thank you from thousands of thriving teenagers!