Monday, December 4, 2023

A Life in "Show Biz"


Long before I was ever on the scene, my dad played a small part in the local entertainment industry. Since that local scene happened to be in New York City, such an accomplishment was no small feat. By the time I was born, my father had retired from "show biz" but still kept involved in music, but even though I wasn't witness to his accomplishments, I knew there had to be that personal history out there—somewhere. This month, for the last of my Twelve Most Wanted for this year, I decided to make the entertainment aspect of my family's history my prime focus.

The curiosity was sparked not by my dad's work history, happening long before I was born, but because of a phrase my brother had included in his own career biography. An actor, my brother was fond of saying he was a "third generation performer." I knew about my brother, and I certainly knew about my dad—but who was this third generation performer? Hopefully, by the end of this month's exploration, I'll not only have found more documentation for both of those two closer generations but learn who that mystery third generation relative was.

Though looking through newspapers of the era in which my dad was active provided some glimpses of his life and times, we'll save that review for later this month. Let's start at the beginning of his saga. Finding my father's own birth record—thanks to a tip from a fellow researcher years ago, when I had no idea of the possibility—was a real eye opener, for the name I always knew him by was not the name given to him at his birth. Remember, his father was the one who kept hidden the secret of his origin. If not for the many New York City documents now digitized and available online, I would have had no way to quickly confirm these details.

Back in 1905, a young immigrant and his twenty year old bride in Brooklyn became proud parents of a firstborn son they called Valentine. I always knew that was my dad's given name, so no surprise there. It was the surname that was the first clue that something definitely had changed between that 1905 date and years later when I became his daughter: his father's surname was listed as Puhalski.

Thankfully, now we can view that document for ourselves online, but when the in-law of a distant cousin reached out to me in the 1990s to share that discovery, not only could I not believe it, but I had to pay to obtain a copy of the document—and wait six weeks before I could say "seeing is believing."

By then, of course, my father was long gone, so I couldn't even attempt to ask him for an explanation. His parents were deceased before I was even born, so that was no option, either. But my older siblings and cousins did have the chance to talk to their grandparents. Though they never received any satisfying answers, they all agreed: there was more to the family story than was ever shared with those children.

Before the age at which young men are usually considered to have launched their career, my dad had already secured gainful employment as a musician. My mother suspected that my father had never finished high school—not uncommon for that generation—and remarked at what might have been the family's sore spot of realizing the son claimed a better income than his father, a skilled craftsman, was making. Why stay in school when the money's that good?

Granted, the music industry of that era was quite different than that of the current generation, which is something I'll need to explore while reviewing the experience my dad might have had breaking in to the entertainment world of his time. We'll take some time in the next few days to see what can be found about him in newspapers of his time. 

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