During my interview with Sonny Fox, he broke out into song. While reminiscing about his Brooklyn childhood, he described Friday night dinners, which he remembers as frenzied and warm.
“Grandpa would come home late from the synagogue with other old men with nicotine stained teeth. We would sing and the tables would bounce — we would pound on the table. This is what the young Jews grew up with,” Fox said, and proceeded to break into a traditional Jewish niggun, a wordless melody.
On Oct. 24, the former “Wonderama” host, war correspondent and German prisoner of war, returned to his old neighborhood to raise money for P.S. 217, his alma mater.
During the evening, called “From Brooklyn to Broadway,” Fox shared personal stories from his work with some of Broadway’s most famous songwriters and screened excerpts from The Songwriters, the series he produced for CBS featuring such Broadway icons as Alan J. Lerner, John Kander, Fred Ebb and Sheldon Harnick —who pioneered the uniquely American art form of musical theater.
Irwin “Sonny” Fox is best known for the award-winning children’s program “Wonderama,” which he hosted from 1959-1967. Last year, after the publication of his book “But You Made the Front Page: Wonderama, War, and a Whole Bunch of Life,” the 90-year-old Los Angeles grandpa made what he called “His Farewell Tour,” visiting childhood haunts.
It was during that trip that he hopped the Q-train to Flatbush and stopped by P.S. 217, where he hadn’t stepped foot since 1938. But some teachers remembered him from their own “Wonderama” years, and soon they were introducing him to students and showing him around the school. Not long after the visit, Fox offered to do a performance to help the school raise money.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Jewish Week, Fox reminisced about his Depression-era childhood, his professional life and highlights of Saturday’s show. He also explained why the show focused on Broadway songwriters, rather than his “Wonderama” years.
“I want to make people appreciate the potent power the creative people had,” Fox said.
Writing lyrics for a musical is harder than it may seem, he said. “When you write a score every song has to have a purpose. It has to introduce you to a character, deepen the emotional impact of what’s going on. It has to fit in context of the developing plot,” he said. Shows also have to be true to the time period in which they are set, meaning songwriters have to become experts in multiple historical eras. Take, for example, Lerner and Loewe, who shifted from the American Gold Rush (“Paint Your Wagon”) to 19th-century London (“My Fair Lady”) to Medieval Europe (“Camelot”).
“If you want to write “Gigi” in turn-of-the-century France, you have to write anew,” he said.
Through storytelling, Fox said he hoped to impart to the audience “a deeper sense of what opera is to the Italians” — a feeling of pride in America’s homegrown theatrical form.
Fox spent his childhood on East 9th Street between Foster Avenue and Avenue H. He celebrated his bar mitzvah at Young Israel of Flatbush and graduated from P.S. 217 in 1938.
During last year’s “Farewell Tour,” Fox was saddened to see the site of his old home turned into a parking lot. In his mind, the street still echoes with memories of playing hockey and stickball, pausing for cars and — and horse-drawn wagons — to pass through.
A lot has changed in the eight decades since. “The most striking difference is that when I went to P.S. 217 the neighborhood was half Irish and half Jewish,” he said. Fox’s old neighborhood, now called Kensington, hosts large populations of immigrants from South Asia and the Former Soviet Union as well as a growing contingent of charedi Jews moving over from nearby Borough Park. At P.S. 217, notices are printed in English, Spanish, Urdu, Bengali, Tajiki and Uzbek; more than 30 languages are spoken in the students’ homes.
“That’s what’s so wonderful about New York. I was a child of immigrants, these are new children of immigrants in the same situation. I think of schools as laundromats taking them through the cycles of education and making them American. It keeps regenerating,” he said.
During the Q&A portion of “Broadway Comes to Brooklyn,” one of the audience members noted that all of the lyricists and composers featured are Jewish. Fox says that the musical inclinations of so many children of Ashkenazi immigrants is due to “the religious fervor of that time — the fervent music that was part of the joy of Eastern Europe.”
Fox added that music was one sector not closed to Jews, unlike many professions and Ivy League schools, which had caps on how many Jews they would take. “This was a time where Harvard had a Jewish admissions quota. This brought us Richard Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Alan Jay Lerner, all those wondrous people were Jews,” he said.
Fox’s grandparents immigrated from Austria and Hungary, bringing their traditions — and recipes — to Brooklyn.
“I can remember going to my grandma’s house for Friday night dinner. She was one of the worst cooks in the world,” he said, noting that “everything was fried.” But he remembers fondly the challah, and the Shabbat candles.
“Zeyde [grandpa] always wanted to be the president of the synagogue. If they didn’t make him president he would make a new storefront synagogue,” he said. Fox remembers carrying the Torah around the synagogues with his grandfather.
Fox said he didn’t expect to write so much in his memoir about his childhood. “When I started writing, I didn’t think I would write so much about my life in Brooklyn. Brooklyn was so bloody vivid, I wanted to recreate what it was like to grow up there, lower middle class, in that part of the world,” he said.
After graduating from Madison High School, Fox said he had no ambition or self-confidence and was planning to go to North Carolina State University.
But, he said, “Because I had a pushy Jewish mother, when the teachers said I wasn’t doing the work I was capable of, she said I was bored.” Fox said that he skipped three grades, graduating high school in January instead of June. Since he couldn’t start at North Carolina State until the fall, Fox decided to earn some credits at NYU. Fox ended up shaping his career from that one semester of radio classes at NYU.
After becoming a reporter, including a stint as a war correspondent in Korea, Fox eventually landed the gig hosting “Wonderama,” which he described as “a four-hour show with no real production budget.” While he felt that other people on the channel were good performers who “did characters and threw pies,” Fox does not consider himself a performer.
“It took me a while to discover what my asset was. I realized the kids were my asset,” he said. Fox began to engage with children.
“They have a great interior life you don’t know anything about,” he said. “If you ask kids about God [Fox noted that it would make a great column for this writer], kids don’t speak in abstracts,” he said. Fox remembers asking one child, “How tall is God?” “One kid said 5’8, one said 5’11. I remember saying to a 10 year-old boy: “You keep saying he, what if God is a girl?”
“You can see something flicker over his face as he deals with that question,” he said. Fox said that the thing he learned from kids is you have to be able to get them to feel you respect them. He said, “You have to let the silences hang in the air. If you stop and stay with him or her and let the silence go for [a while] they will go again and give you more great stuff.” Fox said these were conversations he “bets they don’t have with their parents,” and noted that by talking to children, “you will discover how fervent their lives are.”