The Other Alda
Arlene Alda – wife of well-known actor Alan Alda – brings her tales of the Bronx to SJ
By Terri Akman

When Arlene Weiss was a 22-year-old chamber musician playing the clarinet, a young man named Alan Alda was in the audience. Shortly after, both were invited to a dinner party, where a dropped cake brought them together.

Unknown-2 (1)“We were the only two people out of a dozen or so who went into the kitchen with spoons when a rum cake fell off the top of the refrigerator,” recalls Alda, 82. “We ate the rum cake off the floor, and that cemented our friendship. Fortunately, he was going to Fordham University at the time, which was two buses away from where I lived with my parents.”

Friendship turned to love and eventually a marriage and partnership that has endured for 58 years. “Our secret to a successful marriage? A short memory and a sense of humor,” she says, laughing. The couple will visit Katz JCC next month to introduce her newest book, “Just Kids From the Bronx: Telling it the Way it Was: An Oral History,” at the Festival of Arts, Books and Culture.

While the two have collaborated on several book projects over the years, Arlene is the avid photographer and writer. During the time Alan had his acting career, she became a published author, writing 19 books – 15 for children. In two books, however, she worked with Alan to document some of his acting roles.

When Alan starred in the 1981 hit movie “The Four Seasons,” Arlene traveled with the cast for about 12 weeks, gathering materials for the book “On Set.”

“There were four different locations, and I took thousands of photographs,” she says. “I edited them down and chose a personal story to tell with each. It was a behind-the-scenes book.”

At the end of his hit television series “MASH,” Alan published another book with Arlene, “In The Last Days of MASH.” Arlene took pictures during the show’s final tapings, and Alan wrote his memories as they related to the photos.

Her latest project is a compilation of gathered personal stories about growing up in the Bronx. Arlene, who was raised there in a large apartment building shared by 96 families, shares her stories along with others.

“There were a few hundred kids in that building alone, and I had 12 or 13 girls my age,” she recalls. “We’d come from school, have milk and cookies, and play.”

When she started high school at age 13, “suddenly I realized the world was larger,” she says.

“I had a particular interest in music and became obsessed with playing clarinet and hanging out with the other musicians. That also meant wanting the freedom to go into Manhattan to see classical concerts at Carnegie Hall. Ultimately, the Bronx was the place where I had my roots and was able to spread my branches into other places.”

The inspiration for the book came during a visit to her childhood apartment building with her friend, Mickey Drexler, the CEO of J. Crew. “When Mickey started telling me about his childhood with the kind of animation that only people who have a childhood rich in memories can talk about, it sparked me to want to talk to others.”

Those others who agreed to tell their stories for the book include well-known names like Colin Powell, Al Pacino, Carl Reiner and Mary Higgins Clark, but also “regular people” – a nun, police officer and urban planner. While some were friends or acquaintances, Arlene hadn’t met many of the 64 people she interviewed for the book. Ranging in age from 23 to 83, they now work in varied professions. Their common thread is they all grew up in the Bronx.

“Putting together their stories in their words was a tremendous amount of pleasure,” Arlene says. “Each time I talked to someone, I thought, ‘This is an amazing story.’ The stories, vignettes and anecdotes that are presented are indicative beyond the stories themselves.”

One of those memories came from her friend Bob Levine, an entertainment lawyer.

“In describing his childhood, he said, ‘I was a fat kid,’” Arlene says. “He said when his mother took him to the family doctor, the doctor said, ‘Mrs. Levine, your son is too fat. You have to do something about that.’ Mrs. Levine looked at him and said, ‘Doctor, have you looked at your wife lately?’ Bob said he had a very supportive mother and whatever he did was good with her. She supported him 1,000 percent. He was a smart kid on a fast track to success.”

Another story in the book comes from rapper Grandmaster Melle Mel, who admitted he was a truant as a kid. A teacher saw his potential and threatened that if he didn’t come to school Monday morning, the teacher would come to his house and drag him out of bed.

“For some reason, that made an impression on this kid,” says Alda. “That Sunday night he was home, because he knew he had to do some work and get up for school. That same night friends he hung out with, kind of rough kids, grabbed a girl off the street, brought her up to the roof, raped her and threw her over the roof.”

“It was luck, if one would call it that, that kept him from going to jail,” Arlene adds. “That’s an unbelievable story of what can happen in desperate times. These were times when the police had given up on a portion of South Bronx, and schools in those areas were in total disarray.”

Jules Feiffer, an award-winning cartoonist and author, told Arlene that as a child he was a coward, because he was a skinny little kid. “What saved him from being beaten up by other kids in the street was the fact that he could draw Dick Tracey and Popeye,” she says.

“A lot of the Jewish experience is also reflected in these stories,” adds Arlene. “At one point in my generation, the Bronx was a borough of over 60 percent Jewish people. The other 40 percent were other ethnic groups. It has shifted over the years. The Jewish experience is one of the immigrant experiences, and the Bronx has always been a borough of various immigrant groups.”

Unknown-1 (3)In their appearance at Katz JCC, the couple shared the stage, with Alan interviewing Arlene about the book. “We have fun on stage together,” she says. “It’s very nice, because I don’t get a chance to work with my husband.”

All of the book’s proceeds will benefit several children’s organizations in the Bronx. “This is really a labor of love for me,” she says. “The Bronx is an unknown entity to most people, and I wanted the real story of the people to be told.”

October 2015
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