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Mambo mensch
Frank Speiserís cross-cultural memoir
BY SALLY CRAGIN

Around four years ago, solo performer/theater educator Frank Speiser realized he needed to look inward for material. Heíd had plenty of success with his own Obie-nominated one-man show about Lenny Bruce back in the 1970s. Speiser was also the first person Eric Bogosian permitted to perform his eclectic tour de force Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll. But the voices from a childhood spent in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Red Hook, Park Slope, and Bensonhurst in the 1950s kept emerging in Speiserís writing life. Last summer on Cape Cod, he unveiled Jewbano, a one-man memoir about growing up half-Jewish and half-Cuban in Brooklyn. This summer a revised version premieres at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater.

"The show is a love song to Brooklyn in the í50s ó there are extensive sequences about growing up there and the Dodgers and being a teenager in the poolroom," the playwright/performer explains over the phone from the Cape. But Speiserís youth was no A Tree Grows in Brooklyn idyll ó his Cuban-born mother was the wardrobe mistress of the Copacabana in the late í50s, and a youthful Speiser rubbed elbows with nightclub nabobs including Jimmy Durante and Frank Sinatra. "After Iíd see Sinatra, heíd give me albums and autograph them." Inspired by Old Blue Eyes, Speiser began to construct his own nightclub act in the privacy of his bedroom. "Iíd sing songs with lyrics from Mad magazine in the style of Frank Sinatra. I was too embarrassed to do these in front of him, and by the time I developed this repertoire, he was in another world anyway."

The world that Speiser lived in changed abruptly when he was 10 and his single mom remarried a Jewish cop. "A lot of the show is about the humor and the relatives and being thrust into the Catskills, the ĎJewish Alps,í overnight from a Catholic-school environment. The food was easy to adapt to, and it was great getting the extra holidays."

His new stepfather moved the family away from Red Hook. That was a "rough place. Even when youíre 10, 11 years old, you had to be part of a gang just to protect you when you traveled through the neighborhood." The new family settled in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Bensonhurst, near Coney Island. "That did a lot for me culturally," Speiser explains; it also dispelled "the fear of getting hit over the head with a brick every minute."

Speiser was actually more likely to get bonked with a pink rubber ball made by the Spalding company that was called a "spaldene" in the neighborhood. "In Bensonhurst, kids played ball, and in the show Iím a stoop master hanging out in front of a brownstone bouncing a spaldene like the other kids." There were numerous games to be played and Speiser rattles them off like a rap artist: "stick-ball, punch-ball, triangle, off-the-wall, hit-the-penny, box-ball, stoop-ball, and then there were tons of street games that we played when we lost a spaldene or hit it down a sewer or lost it on someoneís roof, like kick-the-can or red-light-green-light."

Speiserís performing background includes training with improv and Story Theatre avatars Viola Spolin and her son Paul Sills, The nucleus of Jewbano emerged when he thought about "the day a friend of mine ate 50 hot dogs at Nathanís Famous. I had a friend who specialized in weird bets, and this is a story where eventually tough guys in topcoats and hats turn up. Itís pretty involved."

Jewbano is presented at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Mondays and Tuesdays only, July 14 through August 26 (no performances July 28 and 29). Tickets are $21; call (508) 349-6835 or visit www.what.org


Issue Date: July 11 - July 17, 2003
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