By Cecil Hoge
My uncle was a marine and I remember he gave me a Marine pin. I loved that pin. It was half round and heavy for a pin and to me it symbolized the fact that my uncle was a marine. My uncle was a hero in my mind.
Hamilton Hoge was my Gumba. It is supposed to mean godfather in Italian. I am not sure if this is true. Every time I have looked it up in an Italian dictionary I could not find the word. Perhaps it is slang for godfather. Whatever, it is what I called my uncle. I also believe it was the opening line to a popular song of that day “Hey, Gumba.”
In the 1950s, Hamilton Hoge was in the TV business – specifically he owned a TV company called United States Television Corporation. It was, quite literally, one of the first television companies in the United States to manufacture television sets and for a while it looked like my uncle could have owned one of the biggest TV companies in the U.S.
Hamilton Hoge met his wife to be while he was stationed in Georgia as a Marine. His wife to be, Sarah Collins, was running a roller derby rink. It was quite a responsibility for a young woman in her early twenties. My uncle must have looked very dashing in his new Marine uniform, but the initial impression was not entirely good. Apparently, Sarah thought my uncle was, when she first met him, a conceited Yankee ass. This impression could not have lasted for too long because a couple of years later she was on her way to New York to be the wife of my uncle. Sarah Hoge was, to my mind, the second most beautiful woman in the world. My mother was the most beautiful, but I could well understand why Hamilton fell in love with Sarah.
Hamilton lived with his wife and children (to come) in a very nice apartment at 1150 Fifth Avenue. For those of you who do not know the city well, it was on 96th and Fifth. They had a corner apartment that overlooked Central Park, which was right across the street. The apartment was pretty spacious by New York City standards, having 4 bedrooms, a living room, a den, a dining room, a kitchen, 3 bathrooms and even a fireplace. I will never know what fortuitous circumstances allowed Hamilton to find this apartment, but find it he did.
I always thought it was cool to have a fireplace in Manhattan. I remember Thanksgivings and Christmases at their apartment. My uncle always had a fire going in the fireplace and one of his TVs in his living room. After all, you want to show people your latest product. Hamilton’s TV set was one of the more elaborate U.S. Television models in a very nice wood cabinet that when you first came into the living room was closed and simply looked like a large cabinet with the wooden doors shut. The wooden cabinet was far bigger than the TV screen inside which was only about 12″ across. The rest of the wooden cabinet was filled with a radio and a phonograph and a storage space for records. It was an early version entertainment center.
Gathering at my uncle’s house was a particular kind of ritual. We would come in and be greeted by Hamilton, Sarah, his wife, and one or two of the kids. That is if they were old enough to greet us. Since families naturally grow and since I was older than any of their children, I remember seeing their family go from 2 (Ham and Sarah) to 3 to 4 to 5 to 6. In the beginning the first child was Cecile. After one or two years, Cynthia came along, then Daphne and finally Ham.
So my uncle had a growing family and a growing business. At one point, he had over 250 employees and it looked like he could, in the words of Marlon Brando, be a contender. In the end the enterprise was to fall short of being a dominant TV manufacturing company. Indeed, it was to fall short of being a surviving company. None of that was known when I first visited my uncle’s apartment with my parents.
My father told me, many years later, that my uncle lost U.S. Television on the courts of the Meadow Club. He did not mean that my uncle lost his company in a wager to someone else. What my father meant was that my uncle lost his business because he thought his brother did not work hard enough and preferred to play tennis. I am not sure that this was actually true, but it was certainly true that my Gumba liked to play tennis and liked going to cocktail parties.
I do know that in the early days of TV my uncle debated and discussed with my father, his other brothers and other friends whether TV would end up being a television set or projection screen system. My uncle believed the latter system would be the long-term winner because the projection screen system could show and display a much bigger picture.
I remember seeing some of his projection screen TVs. The picture was much bigger, but it also was much blurrier. In those days, the late 1940s and the early 1950s, TV programming was very limited and all of it was black and white. My uncle was producing two different systems during this period, both television sets and projection screen TVs. The projection TVs were almost too big to be set up in most living rooms. My uncle mostly sold those models to bars. The television sets were smaller, were housed in elegant furniture wood cases, had very small screens and were primarily sold to people with houses or apartments.
The reception and pictures on both these systems was poor to bad. They suffered from static and unstable, finicky pictures. The TV sets, as mentioned before, usually housed in large entertainment center type wooden cabinet. And while the wooden cabinet looked very nice, with both a radio and a phonograph as additional features, the TV screen itself was only about 12″ across and about 9″ high. The projection TV was much bigger and came in what looked like a stand alone closet. It opened up to reveal a TV screen about 48″ x 30″. The reception on the TV set was given to static and flashes, the projection TV was far more visible, but blurry. The sound effects in both systems could be clear or could come through muffled, hesitant and almost impossible to hear. Reception seemed to be determined by the time of day, the weather and just plain luck.
I am not sure what factors made reception so uneven and haphazard, but essentially you never knew if you would be able to see and hear what was on. TV programming of that time (the late 40s, the early 50s) was truly limited. One program that I remember was called “Victory at Sea”. It played on Sundays, which was the usual day that we came over. “Victory At Sea” seemed to consist of patriotic music and film footage of cruisers, destroyers and battleships cruising across different oceans sometimes just under power, sometimes with guns blazing. Occasionally, there would be footage of Zeros and other Japanese planes attacking the ships and even crashing into the ships. The voiceover would somberly discuss various sea battles and recount various victories at sea, which kind of made sense since that was the title of the show.
The other shows that I remember were Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, The Kukla, Fran and Ollie Show, The Milton Berle Show, Captain Video, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers. This was the very early days of TV and there was literally only 2 or 3 channels and very limited programming. That said some of the live TV Shows, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Milton Berle, were enormously entertaining, very funny and quite good, not only for their time, but for any time. Because my uncle was in the TV business, he not only had TV sets in his home, all his brothers had TV sets in their homes. In short, we were well supplied with boob tubes. You could say we were ahead of the boob tube curve.
This meant that I grew up as a kind of early child of video. I was truly one of the first kids to watch TV on a regular basis. So if you want to study the harmful or beneficial effects of watching TV for 60 years or more, you have no further to look than me. I can say that I am not aware of any actual benefits from TV or, for that matter, any harmful effects from TV. I will say that it has left me with a total disdain for present TV, true hatred for reality TV shows, disrespect for slanted financial news, slanted national news, slanted local news.
The TV of the early days was much simpler, with far less choice. TV commercials were also more limited, more straightforward, and less universal. Usually, they showed housewives touting the benefits of washing machines or vacuum cleaners or men smoking Camel cigarettes or men shaving with Gillette razors. I do think news programs seemed to take pride in being balanced and in reporting different sides to a story without taking sides. That is not true today.
In any case, sometime in the mid to late 50s my uncle’s ambitions to be a contender as a manufacturer of TVs, failed and he had to close his business. This must have been a truly hard blow, but my uncle went on to try many other endeavors. All of these endeavors involved in getting in on the ground level of some new kind of businesses. My uncle had true nose for new technologies. Unfortunately, almost all of the new technologies he chose, failed.
In spite of that, my uncle was able to hold on to his very nice apartment, raise four kids, go out to Southampton every summer, be a member of both the Southampton Bathing Corporation and the Meadow Club. One of the things that helped this was the fact that my uncle’s apartment happened to be rent-controlled and he was able to pay an extraordinarily low rent for many years. Somewhere along the way, Hamilton’s wife realized that her husband’s income was not making it and she went to work and proved to be a very good wage earner. Sarah, in addition to being tall, slim and beautiful, was a very competent business lady who knew how to get things done.
My Gumba’s various ventures were generally failures in the long run, but in the short run they often provided some short-term income and when combined with his wife earnings, my uncle and his wife were able to live a reasonably comfortable life, in spite of having a really nice apartment in the city and in spite of spending summers in large houses in the Hamptons.
One the factors that made this possible was that fact that my uncle shared summer home rentals in Southampton with my father, my uncle Francis and his wife and with my aunt Barbara and her husband, Ivan. This meant that four families were sharing the expenses of renting a summer house in Southampton. At the time, the 60s and the 70s, rental homes in the Hamptons were literally a tenth to a twentieth of what they are today. So for a few thousand dollars each summer, each of our four families could live in a pretty big Southampton summer rental house, usually with 8, 10 or more bedrooms. It was a rare time, not likely to be repeated.
So, with this combination of lucky factors, my family, my uncle’s family, our other families were able to have a really nice summer rentals on a shoestring budget. And when it came to enjoying the Hamptons and his nice New York apartment, my Gumbada was truly the leader of the pack. My father said my uncle Hamilton saw the world “with rose-colored glasses”. That may be true, but this view of life enabled him to enjoy the life he wanted and aspired to.
So year after year, in spite of having truly shaky finances, Hamilton and his family were able to get just enough money together to have a very comfortable existence. In the summer, Hamilton and his wife would stay and work in the city during the week while their kids stayed out in the Hamptons enjoying the Meadow Club and the Bathing Corporation. On weekends, Hamilton and his wife would come out from the city and immediately head out to dinner or a cocktail party. On Saturday, they would head to the Bathing Corporation (aka, the beach club) for lunch. After lunch Sarah would lay out on the beach for some sun and well-deserved rest while Ham would head over to the Meadow Club to play 3 or 4 sets of tennis. Upon Hamilton’s return from the Meadow Club around 6, he would take a shower, get dressed and head out with his wife to a cocktail party and dinner or just to dinner. On Sunday, they would repeat the process until around 5 or 6. Then they would return to the house and get ready for the drive back to the city. That was their weekends in the Hamptons.
Over time several events occurred to make their lives easier and more comfortable. First of all, Sarah proved to be a true career lady. She ended up landing job with the Modern Museum of Art as their Social Director. This not only resulted some serious extra income, but it also gave my uncle and aunt some great social connections which in turn led to more cocktail parties and dinners in the city when not out in the Hamptons.
The other event that occurred is that Hamilton had an old friend, a marine painter, who had painted a commemorative painting before the fact, The Gathering of Tall Ships, which was an event that was to take place in the summer of 1972. The painter, Kipp Soldwedel, had done the painting before the event to promote the upcoming event. Hamilton, my Gumbada, and his son Hamilton, decided that this was an opportunity to make a killing just before the event and they bought 2,000 of Kipp’s prints which they intended to sell at various art shows.
Well, the art show idea did not really work out, but somewhere along the way they ran a little ad in Wall Street Journal and that did pay out. At that point, Hamilton decided to come to my father for help on running an ad promotion. My father had a long history of selling products through advertisements and it was natural to come to my father for advice and direction.
By that time, it was already the winter of 1971 and my father concluded that this little ad could be turned into a mail order hit only if we acted very fast and ran ads up until the event that summer. I was brought in to help with the copy and the layout on the ad. We set up a schedule of places to run and started running ads. Since my father and myself had a long history of running different ads in different media, it was quite easy to choose places to run. We chose, among other places, The Wall Street Journal, Investor’s Business Daily, New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Natural History Magazine. These were all places we had a history of running other ads and so were pretty confident of the results.
True to form, the ads performed quite well and in less than 4 months we had sold not only the first 2,000 prints Hamilton had bought from Kipp Soldwedel, but also an additional 10,000 prints. Since the prints were selling for $20 a piece, this generated over $200,000 in just a few months.
It was at that moment that my father said that they had gotten a nice little run out of the product, but the party was over. His reasoning was that the actual event was taking place in a few weeks and after that everyone would forget about their interest in Tall Ships. My uncle, Gumbada, was not buying any part of my father’s reasoning. By that time he gotten quite excited (you might say intoxicated) by the brief flurry of success and Hamilton’s reasoning was a little different. Kipp’s painting, “The Gathering of Tall Ships”, was “The Blue Boy” of our time, it was the “Whistler’s Mother” of our time. As such, it was going to be remembered and cherished long after the 1972 Gathering of Tall Ships. That was my Gumba’s theory and he turned out to be right.
I suppose it was natural for my father to think that my uncle had not only put on his rose-colored glasses, but maybe had one or two drinks before formulating this theory. In truth, I felt that my uncle could be right. I knew that nostalgia could last long after an event. I had recently some experience writing ad copy for a Norman Rockwell book of his art prints and I remembered that the nostalgia for Norman Rockwell lasted long after his death. “Take Trip Back to the America You Remember” was my headline for that book and while the publisher thought it might be a drug induced headline, he went with it anyway and indeed that copy proved effective and the publisher, Crowne Publishing, sold a few hundred thousand Norman Rockwell books with my ad copy.
In the end, my father, against his better judgement, agreed to test an ad that would run in September after the Tall Ships event. So I wrote an ad “Remember the Tall Ships” with a lot of nostalgic copy about the glorious period when Tall Ships plied the seven seas and we tested it in Investor’s Daily. The ad was about 4.5″ X 5″ in black and white, of course, because this was daily newspaper. It cost a whopping $400 so our investment (or gamble) in the longer term future of the Tall Ships ad was not really that great.
To make a long story short, to my father’s horror, the ad paid out – it sold $2,700 if I remember correctly, making it exceedingly profitable after the cost of the ad, after the cost of the prints and, after the cost of shipping the prints to customers. And though my father could not believe it, we ran some more “confirming ads” and they also paid out. In fact, they did better than the ads that ran before the actual Tall Ships event. It seemed that the nostalgia for Tall Ships had actually increased. In short order, my uncle developed several upgraded products where you could get the same print framed decently or framed rather nicely, so the price range escalated from 19.95 to $29.95 to $49.95, thus moving the average order up to about $36.
This turned out to be a true kitchen table business (that is a business started on and conducted from a kitchen table). Actually, to be more accurate it became a dining room table business, because all paperwork and files and print fulfillment was done in my uncle’s dining room, literally on the dining room table. My aunt Sarah would come home each evening after a hard day at the Museum of Modern Art and open envelopes (yes, these were days when mail order was mail order), write down ad results (each ad had a keycode) and gather up checks for the next day’s bank deposit. In the early stages, she even packed the prints into tubes or boxes, depending on whether they were framed or not. In time, she hired several people, who worked off of the dining room table, opening mail, writing down results, gathering checks, packing orders, bringing them to the Post Office or UPS. Occasionally, my Gumbada would come into the dining room, look at the work being done and mention that Gainsborough and Whistler had nothing on him.
In the next two years, these ads for Kipp Soldwedel prints brought in over a million and half dollars. That may sound like nothing these days, hardly a decent bonus for a Hedge Fund Manager, but most of that money was actually a profit and this was the 70s when money actually went a little farther than it does today. This eventually allowed my uncle and aunt to purchase a house in Southampton at a time when house prices were reasonable. That gave them a permanent residence in the Hamptons.
In the meantime another lucky event went in my uncle’s favor. The rent-controlled apartment that they had rented for almost 40 years was trying to become a condominium. The process of becoming a condominium when you are rent controlled apartment involves moving out rent-controlled tenants. Fortunately for my aunt and uncle, the only way to do this legally was to literally buy it from my uncle and aunt. So in the mid 1970s, my uncle and aunt were paid a very handsome sum for selling their rent-controlled apartment.
The combined benefits of my aunt having a really good job with the Museum of Modern Art, making some real money from selling Kipp Soldwedel prints and finally from selling their apartment rental in the city, allowed my aunt and uncle to buy a house in Southampton and enjoy some real love nag term financial stability. Eventually, after a long and very successful career as the Social Director of the Museum of Modern Art, it allowed my aunt to retire and my aunt and uncle to move to Southampton. There they spent the rest of their lives, surrounded by family members and family friends who lived nearby.
Before concluding this story, let me tell you a little about my uncle’s esophagus problem. Somewhere in the late sixties or early seventies, he started having difficulties swallowing food normally. It was thought that maybe my Gumba’s long partiality to Camel cigarettes and scotch might have something to do with the problem. I don’t think my uncle bought that theory. Anyway, my uncle visited various doctors without getting any concrete answers or, perhaps, with getting any concrete answers he liked. Whatever.
So my uncle adopted a new lifestyle. You might think that would involve cutting back on Camel cigarettes or Scotch whisky. You would wrong. My uncle took another path. Instead he slowed down his eating – he would literally take two or three hours to eat breakfast of lunch. Interestingly, he seemed to enjoy meals better that way.
In one of the blog stories of this website, The Zirinsky House, I describe how my uncle’s breakfast consisted of The New York Times, Camel cigarettes, cold cereal and heavy cream. Rather than go into further detail about, perhaps, I should recount going out to dinner in Southampton with Ham and his wife. Step one was to go to a cocktail party after he had played tennis and have a couple of cocktails. Step to two was to go to one of the local restaurants, John Duck or the Irving House, and order a really big steak dinner. Now you might think my uncle would order duck at John Duck, after all that is what this long gone restaurant was famous for. You would be wrong.
My uncle was a red meat guy so he would invariably order a big steak, well done, if I remember. Naturally, he would have a couple of cocktails to go along with it (scotch was really his only beverage). His wife, myself, my father and any other guest would be finished with our meals before he had gotten halfway through. Then we would all wait around while he slowly addressed the remainder of his steak. After dinner, he would invariably want to light up a Camel cigarette. Fortunately for him, his wife still enjoyed cigarettes in those days so they both light up and chat away.
After about three hours, the dinner would be concluded and the steak and all other side dishes would be gone. Then we would dutifully head home, usually with his wife Sarah driving. Sarah liked to have cocktail along with her husband but she had a secret. She would ask the bartender to put extra water in her scotch and she would slowly sip while she patiently waited for her husband to finish his dinner.
My Gumbada finally did die, as we all do. He made the ripe age of 83, the same age as my much more aesthetic father. My father had been scrupulous in his diet all his life, he never smoked and he almost never drank while my uncle never modified anything except the speed with which he ate breakfast, lunch and dinner. Certainly, my Gumba’s eating slowed down, but almost nothing else in his life did. He exercised and played tennis right up until his eighties. He religiously attended cocktail parties up until the end of his life and he always had a special zest for everything he did.
My uncle’s life could have ended very differently. You could say he was lucky to the end. You could say he wore rose-colored glasses. It really does not matter. Losing his television business when he was still young and strong must have been a hard pill to swallow. Not going on to succeed in some other major and important new business must also have been hard. But it in the end, he and his wife raised a fine family, lived extremely well, were liked and loved by many. I am not sure there is more than one could ask of life.