“Did I relax and watch my boyhood ambitions being fulfilled before my eyes?”
“Not if you were born in the Bronx, in the Depression and Jewish, you don’t,” said the man responsible for sending Walter Matthau scaling down the side of the Plaza Hotel, the debut of Matthew Broderick and some of the most laugh-out-loud theatric and cinematic moments of all time.
However, that was one of few instances that the late Neil Simon, who passed away last week at 91, spoke publicly about his Bronx roots.
“The Brighton Beach Memoirs should really be the Orchard Beach Memoirs,” said Bronx Borough Historian Lloyd Ultan. “Until he was about 7-years-old, Simon lived in what was called the east Bronx, which we now know as the south Bronx,” Ultan added.
He continued to explain how at the time, Jewish enclaves, from Manhattan’s lower east side had migrated to the Bronx, shifting from tenement to tenement as often as every month.
“So really, it’s likely that Simon had lived all over the Bronx because his family also played ‘musical apartments’ like everyone else from that time, until a more permanent move to Washington Heights in upper Manhattan,” the historian said.
Simon’s Bronx tale doesn’t end as a child, though. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School, commuting from Washington Heights and graduating in the class of ‘44.
It was later on that Simon’s big break would come simultaneous with some Bronxites as well.
While working on the television comedy, ‘Your Show of Shows,’ Simon began collaborating his comedic talents with Bronx-raised stars, Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner. He would later call that experience ‘the most enjoyable time (he) had writing with people.’
From then on, the ball kept rolling for the comedic genius, as Simon would go on to produce 27 plays in 30 years, while having four plays simultaneously on Broadway and countless films busting the box office.
Yet the questions remains, why did Simon keep his Bronx upbringing so hush-hush?
Partly it’s because he didn’t live in the Bronx during happy times. His parents, Irving and Mamie had quite the turbulent marriage and it was Neil that absorbed the brunt of it.
The husband and wife would fight so viciously that Simon would literally cover his ears with a pillow to drown out the yelling. His father often would desert the Simon family for months, and needless to say the family struggled financially during the Depression.
“To this day I never really knew what the reason for all the fights and battles were about between the two of them,” Simon said in a dated interview.
Though, that constant arguing would draw Simon to comedy as an escape from his difficult home life.
Silent movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were just about all that could make Simon smile growing up, so much so that he was often dragged out of theaters for laughing too loud.
Later in life, while Simon’s career was flourishing, the Bronx was not. It was around the 1970s and 80s that most of Simon’s cinematic work was produced; so the ‘burning Bronx’ of that time didn’t exactly make for a comedic setting.
Nevertheless, the Bronx had remembered Simon and appreciated his contribution to comedy.
Past borough presidents had approached Simon, inviting him to Bronx week and the Bronx Gala, although scheduling conflicts kept him from receiving a Bronx Walk of Fame recognition.
Former Borough President Adolfo Carrion commended Simon’s lifetime of achievements following his passing.
“Neil Simon’s contribution to Broadway and Hollywood is unmatched. He shaped a generation and as a kid from the Bronx made us all very proud. Bravo Neil!!”