An Interview with Regis Philbin
Spring 2018 • Vol. XXVII, Issue C
Editor’s Note: Several years ago, Back In THE BRONX editor Steve Samtur interviewed Bronx-celeb and national personality Regis Philbin, on the subject of his growing up in The Bronx. For our anniversary issue, Regis was kind enough to allow us to reproduce this interview for all of you to read. Enjoy!
Q: What elementary and junior high schools did you attend?
A: I went to Our Lady of Solace Elementary School at Holland Avenue and Morris Park Avenue. There was no junior high school at the time. From there, I went to Cardinal Hayes High School on the Grand Concourse.
Q: Where did you live in The Bronx?
A: I lived at 1990 Cruger Avenue, just off Bronxdale Road, which incidentally they renamed Regis Philbin Boulevard a couple years ago. It’s a lovely little street; I thought it was the greatest street in The Bronx…so they named it after me! [laughs] Once in a while, I drive by and see it. It’s a thrill.
Q: What were your favorite hangouts?
A: My favorite hangout was Max’s Candy Store, directly opposite from Our Lady of Solace. Once in a while, we went to Izzy’s Candy Store, which was closer to Wallace Avenue, but Max’s had most of our business. If you bought a Coke there for a nickel once a week, that was a lot. But it was where everybody hung, and the laughs we had were just incredible.
Q: Back then, telephones were scarce. If you had to meet up at the corner, how would you negotiate that?
A: Right, there were no telephones in the beginning, though I do remember getting one telephone later on at Cruger Avenue. It was just known that, after dinner, you would meet somewhere; nothing was established like, “Let’s meet here.” You just met, and that’s the way it was.
Q: Tell us a little about the games you played.
A: We were about two blocks away from Bronx Park East; there was a tremendous playground there. And below that were two baseball fields, which we used every spring and into the summer. We also used it in the fall for a football field. But on our street, we played an awful lot of stickball: one bounce with a Spaldeen. The sewer pumps were second base; first base we established by making a chalk mark. Of course, you would go for the big homerun. If you could get three sewers out of it, that was rare. But we did okay.
Also on Cruger Avenue was an elevated lot; we called it “The Hill”. It was about ten feet high, up off the street. We went up there and played football games. It was the most fun I’ve ever had. There were hardly any cars on our street. One house had quite a lawn in front of it. That was where the games proceeded from.
Besides stickball, we also played “Ring-o-levio”, “Kick the Can”, and “Johnny-on-the-Pony”. You never see those games anymore, never, but they were staples in our childhood.
Q: What about restaurants?
A: I don’t remember ever eating out! No one had any money to eat out. Now I hear about The Pine Tavern and Frankie & Johnny’s, and I’m dying to go there because I hear the food is great. But I never went when I was a kid.
Q: Describe your memories of the Paradise Theatre.
A: You’d go to the Paradise Theatre when you had a major date or someone you really wanted to impress. You would get on the bus at Pelham Parkway and White Plains Road and ride the bus into Fordham, get off at the Grand Concourse, and walk over. The Paradise Theatre really was heaven on earth, with the stars on the ceiling…It was just so beautifully done. In those days, they built movie theatres to make you feel at home and make you feel like you were having a wonderful experience.
Q: And after the date, where would you go?
A: Back on the bus [laughs], back to White Plains Road!
Q: I remember listening to your show, and you mentioned going to the Prom. Can you tell us about that?
A: I was dating a girl named Phyllis Setzer, who was living up by St. Frances Xavier Parish, the next parish over on Morris Park Avenue. First I took her to Mayer’s Catering Hall and had dinner there. Then a bunch of us rented a limo or some kind of car, which took us downtown to the Copacabana. I had never been to the Copa; it was a major nightclub, very expensive to go to, for me anyway. We saw Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Now I have known them both, but I never dreamed, as a kid watching them perform (and they were the most dynamic act you ever saw), that I’d ever get to meet them. I was really taken by Dean Martin. I had never seen a guy like this. He came out, full of confidence and charisma, wearing a tuxedo, one of the handsomest guys you ever saw in your life. After the show, I was so taken by the whole experience that I said to myself, “Wow. I’m going to follow this guy for the rest of his life.” And I did.
Meanwhile, this other girl, Inez Brown, asked me to go to her Prom. She went to Aquinas High School. For some reason, I didn’t go, even though I quite liked this girl. She was in my classes at Solace. And then I went away to Cardinal Hayes High School, all boys, then Notre Dame, all boys, so I had little experience with girls.
Q: What did you parents do?
A: My father was the personnel director of Sperry Gyroscope out on Long Island; Lake Success. He would go across the Whitestone Bridge every morning and come back at 5 o’clock every night. My mother was what you’d call a homemaker. I lived in a two-family home with a vestibule and a stairway inside the house that would take people up to their apartments on the second floor. I lived with my mother and father, my grandmother, and my uncle, in a three-bedroom, one-bath apartment. It was owned by my great-aunt, an Italian woman, who was scared to death of nothing. They had a large, we called it a farm, but it was a full acre of tomato plants, corn…she grew it outside. When I came back years later, that had all been graveled in and was a parking lot. In those days, The Bronx was very rustic, and vast lots of people would plant great stuff and make wine in their cellars.
My father had a car; he had to in order to get to work. But before he got the job in Long Island, he took the subway from Bronx Park East downtown to Manhattan, working as a personnel director at some operation there.
Q: On hot August days, how would you cool off?
A: There was always that enormous spray that would come out of the ground at the playground, and it went way up in the air, and we’d run through that as children. My father loved to go camping up in the Adirondack Mountains, so once in a while, usually in August when he had a week or two off, we’d go up and put up a tent and three cots, and we would sleep in the tent. My mother would have to cook on a fire; she hated it, but it was nice to be out of the city, up there in the mountains, out on Lake Louie.
And then there was Bronxdale Swimming Pool. It was right across the street; gleaming white, and such a big beautiful pool. It was so crowded, but it was our way to escape the heat. It cost just $.35 to get in for the day, and it was a big thrill. No memberships; we just went for the day when we could scrape together $.35.
Q: Did you ever go to Orchard Beach?
A: All the time! We went up to White Plains Road and Pelham Parkway and took the bus to Orchard Beach. It was great. Once in a while, if somebody had access to a car, we’d drive to Jones Beach, but usually it was Orchard Beach.
Q: How about Bronx Park?
A: Oh yeah. We went ice-skating there. Where they now have the tennis courts, they used to have an ice-skating rink. We went on that in the winter, and we used the ball fields in the summer. We really got involved in our sports. It was a big deal for us. And thank God for the park; it kept us out of trouble.
I also delivered The Bronx Home News, an offshoot of the New York Post. I’d come back from Hayes, go to the store where all the papers were sitting in bundles for each route, and I’d go right up Cruger Avenue all the way to Pelham Parkway, around the side that faces Bronx Park. I did that for a year or two. And then I also had a route inland in The Bronx, and one of my customers was Jake LaMotta. Jake would be there in his underwear on a summer night, playing stickball with the kids, and he had a beautiful blonde wife. He was the only one who gave me a tip; he gave me a quarter. I’ll always remember him for that.
We spent a lot of time at Fordham too. They had all the stores. You could buy records, baseball gloves, anything. It was a bustling village. We went to Howard Johnson’s too. They had the best hot dogs: toasted bun, with mustard and relish…Fabulous.
Q: Did you go to Yankee Stadium as a kid?
A: My father was in the Marine Corps in the ‘40s when WWII was going on, and one time he took me to a World Series game against the Cardinals. Yankees outfield: Tommy Henrich, Joe DiMaggio, King Kong Keller. Cardinals Outfield: Enos Slaughter, Terry Moore, Stan Musial. Great players, great teams. I think the Yankees won that game. I stood in the very back row in the bleachers, with my back against the wall, in right-center field.
Then, a couple of years ago, I went there to see the first Japanese pitcher the Yankees ever had [Hideki Irabu]. I wanted to see how good he was, so I took the train to the stadium. George Steinbrenner lets me use his box, so I’m in there, and there’s just one guy in there with me: Joe DiMaggio! By God, Joe DiMaggio! The most private, the greatest Yankee of them all, and here I am alone with him. But you don’t bother Joe DiMaggio. Then he looks at me and says, “How’d you get here so quick?” I figured he knew I had a morning show. So I told him I took the train up, and he said, “That’s good, you got here in a hurry!” I sat down next to him, and I talked to Joe DiMaggio for 20 uninterrupted minutes, telling him about King Kong Keller, Tommy Henrich, and my first game when I was up there right against the bleachers in that very last row. We had a wonderful conversation about that great team and The Bronx in general.
Q: Did you ever play pranks on your friends?
A: That’s all I did. I wish I could remember them; some of them were pretty good! We used to sit on the steps of Solace at night and watch the trolley cars go by, and play one joke after another on each other. I think, in those years, you were more or less performing for the older guys at the corner. They were a grade or two older than us, so you looked up to them, and if you could make them laugh, it was very gratifying. I never dreamed that I would be able to use some of that attitude for the rest of my life in the business I’m in, but it just so happens that that’s how it worked out. It was the height of satisfaction to make those big guys laugh.
Q: Do you think that laughter could better mankind?
A: I really do believe that. I know it’s an old cliché, but it really could work. Yet even though there have been lots and lots of comedians, the world remains rather grim and glum at this particular point. It would better mankind, if only mankind would listen and enjoy the laugh.
Q: Is it true that you just won $50,000 on Jeopardy and donated it to Cardinal Hayes?
A: Yes! I won the celebrity prize by $1 over Carson Kressley. At the end of the game, you get a chance to bet some of your earnings, and the person who answers correctly and winds up with the most earnings is the winner. He bet $999, and I bet $1,000. I won by a dollar! So Cardinal Hayes got the $50,000.
I’m also going on a show called Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? Whatever I win, I’m going to donate to Cardinal Hayes. It could be a million dollars! I mean, if I could remember what I learned in fifth grade at Our Lady of Solace, it’ll be a lot. I dunno, I watch the show and I didn’t know that fifth graders were so advanced these days! But it’s gonna be fun. I’ll do my best.
Editor’s Note: Regis managed to take home, not quite a million, but a whopping $175,000, on that show back in 2007! He donated it all to Cardinal Hayes.