The recent pardon President Trump awarded convicted financier Mike Milken recalls my appearance on the off-off-Broadway stage with another jailbird, arbitrageur and J. Press customer Ivan Boesky. Milken’s fate was originally determined when Boesky pleaded guilty to securities fraud implicating Milken’s inside trading stock manipulation.
“Oy, dot muzt be de texxis cab,” was my stage character’s opening line responding to a honking car offstage as the curtain rose on the 1976 Van Dam Theatre revival of 1920s vintage classic “Abie’s Irish Rose.”
One of the demands of my leading role as well-to-do immigrant widower Solomon Levy was affecting a Yiddisher dialect, a chore I was eminently familiar with from memories of dear Grandma Jenny Press (wife of J. Press founder Jacobi) and her struggles with the English language often sending me and cousin David into hysterics that prompted a slap on the puss from angry mother, Aunt Marion.
The off-off-Broadway showcase production was sold out for all its eight performances thanks to cast member Ivan Boesky, arbitrageur and corporate takeover speculator. A decade later the December 1, 1986 cover of Time Magazine, featured his prominence in the Wall Street insider trading scandals of the 1980s. Thanks to a plea bargain, he only served 2 years of his 3 1/2 year sentence at California’s Lompoc Federal Prison along with coughing up a $100 million fine.
I met Ivan in the early ’70s, fellow member of my beloved now long gone City Athletic Club. During its 90 year run City AC was the respected West 54th Street Jewish equivalent of the New York Athletic Club. Ivan regularly preyed upon its four squash courts, spending hours strategizing his game with the club pro. Beside his squash talent he possessed an eccentric wit nourished in childhood behind the counter at his father’s Detroit delicatessen. The Boesky pastrami-on-rye genes prompted our Borscht Belt repartée playing off each other at the club’s second-floor bar.
Ivan also showed off an extensive J. Press wardrobe of similar midnight gray clear finish worsted suits always paired with semi-formal starched white broadcloth straight-collar shirts against English Macclesfield, Spitalsfield or Swiss Lace Grenadine silk ties.
One afternoon after a shvitz and swim in the club’s fifth floor lap pool he tossed me a question. “Richard, doing any theatre lately?” I filled him in on my role in the upcoming production of the 1920s runaway hit, “Abie’s Irish Rose.” Ivan’s face lit up. “I love acting. Anything in it for me?” I gave him the phone number of the director who called me shortly thereafter. “Hey, this guy Boesky is a scream. I gave him the part of your nosy neighbor Isaac Cohen.”
Run throughs took place after closing hours at J. Press, 16 East 44th Street. We rehearsed stage business on the premises on the mezzanine amidst sport coats and trousers adjacent to the shipping room with senior J. Press shipping clerk Clifford White busily packing suits for next day UPS delivery.
Limousines blocked the Van Dam Street Theatre entrance busily disgorging Ivan F. Boesky & Co. customers pouring into the shabby lower East Side 120-seat venue that defined 1970s off-off-Broadway.
My interlude from J. Press was received well by trade paper Show Business. The review regaled “Irish Oys,” calling Ivan Boesky’s performance “amusing.” The critic continued, “Richard Press has a magnetic and endearing quality as Solomon Levy.”
After the curtain came down and stage lights dimmed, I returned to peddling tweeds. As for Ivan Boesky:
Oy, don’t ask.
The history of Abie’s Irish Rose, in both cinema and on stage, as well as its off-shoots, is fascinating. Check it out on Wikipedia.
I recall as a youngster, living in NJ, and with access to a TV, watching the film, which played for a week on, I think, WOR. It was my first exposure to cultural challenges, given a rather pedestrian upbringing. How benign given contemporary experiences.
I bought a nice leather chair that supposedly belonged to Ivan Boesky from an Atlanta antique market in the mid 1990’s. It’s still in the family. Unfortunately, there was no cash hidden in the cushions.
Dear Mr. Press -
I joined your mailing list some while ago and must admit to enjoying quite a few of your entries, including today’s, for entirely personal reasons.
The very specific intersection of cultures you describe as well as embody – the sons-of-immigrants experience that evolved to become the “dress British-think Yiddish” Ivy/strive-y culture of the mid-late 20th C. New York/New Haven world – very much describes my family too. I consider you and my dad (Amherst ‘61, Harvard Law ’64), as well as my stepfather (Dartmouth ’62, Columbia Journalism ’65) to be those sons; I’m a grandson of that founding generation. Many of the details you recount take me back to a world I knew as a little boy.
Today’s column hit me that way when you came to mention the City Athletic Club on West 54th Street (of blessed memory). The good old CAC! When I was a kid, my dad would bring me downtown from our nabe (the Upper West Side) to the CAC on Sundays for a squash lesson, a swim in the pool, possibly a schvitz, and lunch in their dining room – for which he always mysteriously just signed a ticket instead of paying with cash or a card as he did everywhere else. The good old CAC. I can still see its cavernous white-tile bathrooms filled with towel-clad old fellows (to my young eye, anyway), overflowing with bottles of Vitalis, tubes of Brylcreem, spray cans of Right Guard, white towels everywhere… a very specific place and time, a very specific place from my childhood, and it is evoked nowhere more richly than in your blog posts.
A few years ago, while browsing the aisles of an architectural salvage establishment called “Olde Good Things” on West 24th Street, I was amazed to see a raft of old photos, candlesticks, silverware and other items they’d saved and collected from the demolition of the old CAC building, right there on 54th Street just east of 6th Avenue as you well remember. So many photos of old Jewish gentlemen in committees, at dinners, gathered round for a photo to mark those long-lost occasions. Who knows what they were now?
Thanks again for sharing these memories, Mr. Press. I’m pretty sure I remember you from the locker room at the YCNYC, BTW. I was a member there for a bunch of years right after my own college graduation (Yale ’89).
With best wishes from
I feel able to connect here since I was in the brokerage business then and both familiar with Boesky’s travails and well dressed in J Press clothing.