Interview with Bess J. Stein April 24 1980

Material Information

Interview with Bess J. Stein April 24 1980
Stein, Bess J. ( Interviewee )
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Duval County Oral History Collection ( local )
Spatial Coverage:
Duval County (Fla.) -- History.


This text has been transcribed from an audio or video oral history. Digitization was funded by a gift from Caleb J. and Michele B. Grimes.

Record Information

Source Institution:
Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Department of History, University of Florida
Holding Location:
This interview is part of the 'Duval County' collection of interviews held by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program of the Department of History at the University of Florida
Rights Management:
Made available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International license:
Resource Identifier:
DUV 019 Bess Stein 4-24-1980 ( SPOHP IDENTIFIER )


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Interviewee: Bess J. Stein

Interviewer: Micki Goldman

G: Were you born here?

S: I was born in Fernandina and moved here at the age of two months.

G: Two months?

S: It was December.

G: And when was that? What year were you born?

S: Well, I am now seventy-five. I lived in Jacksonville. My parents brought
me at the age of two months. I have lived here in Jacksonville for
seventy-five years.

G: Golly, that is a long time. What was it like back then?

S: Nothing like it is today.

G: I am sure.

S: We first lived in LaVilla, to my recollection.

G: Where was that?

S: That was on Monroe and Pearl Street. We lived there for quite a few

G: That was you and. .

S: My two brothers and my mother and father.

G: What were your brothers' names?

S: Louis and Morton.

G: I do not think I knew him.

S: Evelyn's husband.

G: Right. Who were your parents? What were their names?

S: Before they were married?

G: Or after. What were their first names?

S: Pearl Joel and Lionel Joel.

G: What did he do?

S: Well, here is the part I am going to read to you.

G: O.K.

S: It is called, "Two Old Times, Jacksonville, Florida." "Twenty years is a


long time at one location. That is the record set by L.D. Joel with his
Casino Theatre in Jacksonville. Not that these two decades represent the
entire experience in the business for ------. Let it be known that Joel,
whose legion of southern .friends call him Lionel, has been exactly thirty
years in this well-known hectic industry and claims the proud distinction
of being the oldest exhibitor in the state. Associated with Lionel in the
Casino Theatre was Raymond Yockey, who was in an elaborate program
signalizing the Casino's anniversary a week ago. It opened in June of
this year."

G: What year was that?

S: This was April 20, 1935.

G: So your father owned a theater called the Casino Theater. Where was it?

S: It was on Bay.Street.

G: It was a movie theater.

S: Yes, in the beginning it was silent.

G: Do you remember going there?

S: Yes, I remember going there. The woman could just look at the movie and
sit there and play the.plano .according to what she saw, which was
very interesting. This article tells of many unusual and different things
that happened during those years. He also brought my Uncle Joe Hackel
into the business here in Jacksonville. The Hackels lived in Vidalia,
Georgia, and owned a store there. They moved to Jacksonville and Joe
Hackel ran a theater. I do not remember where it was, someplace called
"colored town" in those days.

G: Was that the only theater here, or were there more?

S: No, The Casino was the first. This one that my uncle owned in colored
town was the second. So that is what this paper says. Also, fifty years
ago in the Jacksonville Times Union, on February 18, 1920: "purchased by
L.D. Joel, an associate of the Nolan property on West Adams Street, just
east of the Elks building, has just been announced. A statement by Joel
disclosed his plans for the erection on the sight of a thoroughly modern
moving picture theater. Cost about $100,000 for construction. The
purchase price of the Nolan property was in the neighborhood of $75,000.
L.D. Joel is the head of the Joel Amusement Interests, operating the new
casino in Jacksonville and also controlling theaters in Georgia and the
Carolinas. The newtheater will exhibit only the largest photo-play
obtainable. A twenty-piece orchestra will be employed by the

G: So your father was in the movie theater business. This was back in the
early 1930s, right?

S: Yes.

G: How old were you then? I mean when do you first remember going to the



S: I was a very small child because I remember my brothers and I would have
to walk home from the theater all the way down to our home in LaVilla. It
was very scary at times. One night some man came up and pinched me in the
rear, and that convinced my mother and father that they had to move from
LaVilla. So we moved out in Springfield.

G: They did not have cars at that time, did they?

S: No, .I remember that Sabina Sach's mother and father used to take Sabina--
her name was. Heller--and me to school in their horse and buggy.

G: Where was the school?

S: Central Grammar School.

G: Where was that?

S: I do not remember. Here is a copy of the building committee of the
congregation B'nal Israel, Jacksonville, Florida, September 6, 1908.

G: That is the Temple as we know it today?

S: No.

G: This was another synagogue?

S: That was the first synagogue. Eliash Pilton was the chairman, Mr. Mack
Frank was vice-chairman, L.D. Joel was the secretary, Harry Glickstein, J.
Joel--my father's brother, David Davis, Abraham Hirsch, and Morris Wesler.
"With great pleasure through diligent work by the building committee and
the members of our society we have succeeded in building this synagogue.
Today we have the honor of laying the cornerstone of the B'nai Brith
Orthodox Synagogue in Jacksonville."

G: So there was an Orthodox synagogue here. I never knew that.

S: Many years ago, I remember that.

G: It was downtown?

S: No, it was not downtown. It was near where we lived in LaVilla.

G: Where was LaVilla?

S: Do you know where Broad Street is?

G: Yes.

S: Well, LaVilla was about eight or ten blocks down. That was the beginning
of it.

G: I see, and this was a section of the town.


S: Yes.

G: Did a lot of Jewish people live there?

S: Yes. Across the street the Witten boys lived. Barney Witten I remember,
Isadore Witten, Max Witten, and his mother and father. The Belinsky's
lived across the street, and the Wanskers--Claire Felson's mother and
father--lived way down. They were so poor. I remember spending the night
in their home one night, and I could not sleep because the bed was covered
with bedbugs. Poor Mr. Wansker, Claire's father, used to peddle fruit for
a living.

G: Interesting.

S: This is a family history.

G: What is the date?

S: 1895.

G: That is when they immigrated to the United States from London, England?

S: Yes. That is when my grandfather and his wife, Esther, and Lionel, Judah,
David Joel, and all the Joel family landed in Savannah. They lived there
a couple of years and then they moved to Jacksonville.

G: Why did they move here? Did anyone ever tell you?

S: It says with any individual active in any congregation, organization, or
such activity. Grandfather and Father were founders of the congregation
B'nai Israel.

G: What were they doing at that time when they first came here, do you know?

S: The reason they moved to Jacksonville is because my aunts Ethel, Cassie,
and Florrie Bono had already moved here. That is why Grandpa, my father,
and his brothers moved here to Jacksonville. That was the reason.

G: You had a family here already. This was before 1900?

S: Yes.

G: Your family was one of the first Jewish families in Jacksonville.

S: Yes, that is right.

G: How big was the city at that time?

S: I remember riding the streetcars down Main Street when palm trees grew in
the middle. I remember having to go to the beach. My father was one of
the few who bought an automobile, and we would have to stand in line for
blocks and blocks to go over the ferry. We would get on the ferry and
that would move across the south side. Then we would ride down the beach
in this peculiar old car on a dirt road. They had no electricity at the
beach, only lamps.


G: There were no homes at the beach at that time?

S: Very few.

G: Where at the beach did you go, do you remember?

S: I remember going to one house that only had lamps and eating, but whose
home it was I really do not remember. The reason they built the bridge
over the St. Johns River is because one day, several of the cars slipped
loose and went into the river, and the people in them were drowned. So
they built the bridge that now goes from Jacksonville to the south side.

G: Have any members of the family been participants in any athletics?

S: My brother Morton was a big football star.

G: What school did he go to?

S: I do not remember. He was an individual active in the arts. I have
written down that my brother Lou wrote and taught.

G: What did he write and teach?

S: He wrote many beautiful articles. I do not remember what he taught. He
is seventy-nine and lives in River Garden. His writing is exquisite. He
finally became a lawyer and was assistant district attorney at one time
here in Jacksonville.

G: Where did Lou go to school?

S: He went to Washington and Lee University and graduated from there. This
is a letter written by my father who owned Atlanta's two colored picture
houses, Central Theater and the Joel Theater.

G: In Atlanta?

S: Yes. That is dated October 19, 1912. It was written to the family,
because in it is the quote, "Give Bess my love and kisses."

G: Look how brown the paper has gotten.

S: Yes, because it is so old.

G: 1912. When you were young, were the Jewish people at that time kind of
segregated? Did they stay to themselves?

S: Yes, more or less they did. I remember because when we moved into
Springfield, it seems to me we moved into a very lovely home. We had
Jewish neighbors--the Ehrlichs, I remember, lived across the street from
us in Springfield.

G: So your earliest friends were all Jewish?

S: Yes, but when I went to school, I met many non-Jewish girls and we used to


play in a bridge club. That I remember.

G: Where did you go to school?

S: The Springfield Grammar School. Then I went to Duval High School and
graduated from there. I went off to college, but I was so homesick I
stayed there about a month and wrote home and begged them to let me come
back. I went to Sophie Newcomb. I had never been away from home, so they
let me come back.

G: Then what did you do?

S: Then I went to school to learn to be a typist and secretary. I made the
highest marks in the state of Florida in typing and taking shorthand. I
got a job with old Mr. B.S. Levy. They were on Bay Street then.

G: Levy's Department Store?

S: Yes. I worked there for about two years, and then one day as I was
getting ready to get up and move, he pinched my behind. So I quit and
walked out, I remember that distinctly.

G: Did they have nice clothes then? What was the store like?

S: They had nice clothes in those days. It was supposed to be one of the
outstanding stores.

G: All of the downtown stores--or a lot of them--were owned by Jews, weren't
they? The Jews were merchants.

S: Yes. Rosenbloom's was owned by the Rosenblooms and Furchgott's was owned
by Fred Myerheim. Levy's was owned by Mr. Levy and his wife, who was not
Jewish. Then after they both died, Levy's was moved to its present
location on Bay Street.

G: They were on Bay Street?

S: In the beginning, yes. That was near where my father's theater was on Bay
Street. In those days, Bay Street was the street.

G: Was it unusual for you to be working--for girls to work at that time?

S: Well, I was considered very smart so it was not unusual. I remember my
brother Lou saying he had to go to college and get a degree because he was
not making as much as I was.

G: What did you do, secretarial work?

S: Yes, secretarial work. Then we moved from Springfield out to Riverside.

G: When was that, do you remember?

S: Maybe the 1930s or 1940s, because the Sagers lived next door and I
remember hearing Alice Sager practicing and practicing for hours until it
almost drove us all crazy.


G: So you really go way back and know many people in Jacksonville, that is
really nice.

S: Yes, and I can remember things about Jacksonville that do not exist today.

G: Like what?

S: I remember Springfield was considered part of Jacksonville in those days.
I remember playing tennis in courts near the Jewish Center. I remember
learning to drive my first car. I was coming down through that park where
the tennis courts are and I got frightened and let go of the wheel. I did
not know what to do. I ran into a tree. They took me right across the
street because St. Vincent's Hospital was there in those days.

G: But you were alright?

S: I just had to have a few stitches.

G: How old were you when you started to drive?

S: I guess I was usual age when people learn to drive--sixteen or seventeen.
I remember being on some street walking when I was around two years old--
not the house in LaVilla, but an older home--and I fell down a stair and
broke my nose.

G: You were two years old and you remember that?

S: I remember that. I also remember having scarlet fever and the house had
to be quarantined so no one could come in or go out.

G: All of you had it or just you?

S: No, I was the only one, but in those days everyone was quarantined.
We lived across the street from a kosher delicatessen. I do not remember
who ran it, but the food would have to be slipped under the door, which
was opened just a little bit. I remember a lot about Jacksonville.

G: That is what we want to hear because not many people have lived here as
long as you have.

S: Yes, I agree with you. I can walk down the streets in Jacksonville and
someone will say, "I know who you are, you are Bessie Joel!" I say,
"Well, that was many years ago, I am Mrs. Stein now." That happens to me
very often.

G: When were you married?

S: I was married in 1927 or 1928.

G: Then where did you live?

S: We moved to Valdosta for a few years and lived there. Then we moved back
to Jacksonville and lived on Hall Street. I was very ill in those years.
I had tuberculosis and did not know it.


G: How did you find out you had it?

S: The doctor discovered it. They put me in a home somewhere on Atlantic
Boulevard where you had to sleep out in the open with just a screen porch.

G: That was supposed to help you?

S: In those days, that is how they treated it. Many people I knew later I
remember being there. The strangest thing that happened there--I do not
know if this should be on the recording--was that the woman who ran it had
a baby by one of the patients who was lying in bed. That happened even in
those days.

G: That is right. Doris was born in 1934 or 1935.

S: In Valdosta.

G: In Valdosta. Joel, too?

S: Yes.

G: Then you moved back here?

S: Yes.

G: When was that?

S: Right after Doris was born I had to move back.

G: Mr. Stein's name was Louis or Lukey, wasn't it?

S: Right.

G: Was he in the movie business, too?

S: Yes he was. He owned a theater in Valdosta.

G: So the theater business was from both sides.

S: Yes, that is right. But he went broke in the movie business and we had to
move back to Jacksonville. I remember moving out to Chicago and it was
very cold. This is a classic story we still talk about. I did not know
how to cook and I wanted to try my first meal at home. I went to the
market and asked for a drawn chicken. I meant a chicken without the
insides in it, but the man did not understand my southern language. He
gave me a chicken. I took it home, seasoned it on top, and put it in the
oven to bake. I noticed there was a very peculiar odor. My husband Lukey
came home and we sat down to eat. He started to cut the chicken and when
he did all the insides were in it. So we had to open the window and throw
it all out in the snow!

G: Were there many early restaurants in Jacksonville?

S: Yes. I remember there was a restaurant right next door to the Casino


Theater, but I do not remember the name of it. It may have been called
Myerson's. On the other side was a hot dog stand where they sold hot

G: How come you did not know how to cook, Bess? You did not learn when you
were young?

S: No, because my mother never liked to cook and so she always had someone
working for her who would do the cooking. She never taught me how to cook
and.that is why I never learned. I remember when we lived in LaVilla
having to come down on cool mornings and dress in front of an old
fireplace, that was the only heat in the house.

G: It gets cold in the winter in Jacksonville. We would like to know about
your family and what you remember about Jacksonville in the early years.
We will take things from everybody's tapes and try to combine them for a
history of the first Jewish families that lived in Jacksonville. Babette
Benjamin, the one I just interviewed, said that she went to secretarial
school also and worked for Mr. Berney downtown. Do you remember Berney,
the man in green?

S: Yes, I remember eating at Berney's all the time.

G: So he was here in the early years, too.

S: Yes he was.

G: Did any Jewish people have restaurants?

S: He was Jewish.

G: I did not know that. She said that he used to travel a lot and she used
to be there running things herself.

S: Yes, and I remember when he married Frances, his wife. His trademark was
"the man in green." I remember he even had a little dog that he dyed
green. My father also built the Roosevelt Hotel.

G: He did?

S: Yes. I remember his taking us by when we were small and saying, "We are
going to build on this site and it is going to be called the Roosevelt
Hotel. That is on top of his grave."

G: Was that the first hotel?

S: No. I think the George Washington was up, and I remember the Mason Hotel,

G: The Mason--I do not remember that. That must have been torn down a while

S: Yes, it was. The George Washington was torn down also.

G: I remember Max Rubin owned a hotel, too. Do you know him?


S: Yes. Max Rubin owned a hotel, I think on Forsyth Street, but I do not
remember the name.

G: I guess it was nice to go to the movies and never have to pay for it.

S: Yes, I could go in free. I remember many years ago when they used to
bring musicals down. One year our classes got different children to play
in it. I remember Myra Glickstein and I were supposed to be little
Japanese girls. I still remember to this day coming out and singing
little Japanese songs, doing my hands like that, and everybody clapping as
we bowed.

G: What was the Jewish community like then, was it very close? I know there
was not a Jewish Community Council or anything like that, but this was
during the War years.

S: I remember belonging to the first temple. It was on Royal Street many,
many years ago. Believe it or not Rabbi Israel Kaplan was the rabbi.

G: I know.

S: Then, of course, we moved over the St. Johns--it was Reformed.

G: It was Reformed at that time, too. Was the Center in existence then, too?

S: The Center was in existence in Springfield.

G: There was an Orthodox one that your parents. .

S: That was very Orthodox.

G: Which was the largest, do you remember?

S: The largest one that I remember was the temple on Laura Street. It was
the most beautiful one that I have ever seen.

G: It is a beautiful synagogue.

S: It was when it was new. The Center would come down. The last service was
just simply beautiful.

G: Did a lot of Jews go to service back then?

S: Oh, yes.

G: On Friday night?

S: Yes.

G: So it was a pretty close Jewish community.

S: Yes. Later on it was very close.

G: Was there any anti-Semitism that you remember in Jacksonville?


S: Personally, I have never been shown any anti-Semitism as long as I have
lived by anyone at any time. Maybe others were, but I cannot say I was.

G: But the Jews still kind of stayed to themselves.

S: Well, no, actually I mixed a lot with non-Jewish people as a child, as an
adult, and even now. I think it is according to people themselves. To
me, a person who is good inside is a good person.

G: That is right. The only reason I asked that is because I was curious to
know if during that time there were any problems.

S: No. I do not remember any Ku Klux Klan meetings or anything like that as
long as I have lived here.

G: Is there anything else that you would like to add or anything that you
think might be of interest that you remember?

S: No, only that the beach home that Doris and I bought together was built by
the Myerhelms and the next one we lived in was built by the Levys. We
were all three good friends. We all had houses on the beach.

G: They are the nicest, I think.

S: They have held up good all through the years. But the very oldest is the
one two doors down on the beach. That was the first home on the beach.

G: That one is two doors down which way, you mean the Adell's?

S: Yes.

G: That was the first one?

S: Yes.

G: Was that the family who built it?

S: I think so.

G: Then you had a lovely home at the beach, too.

S: Yes, on Myrtle Street.

G: I did not know that. I love your home in San Marco on River Road.

S: Oh yes, I was just looking at that.

G: That was a beautiful house.

S: Yes. We should never go back to our homes because they have changed so
much that we were disappointed at the things that were done compared to
the way it was when we left.

G: I know, you had such a charming home. It seems like only yesterday that


Doris and I were in college together, and that was twenty-five years ago.

S: Yes, I know.

G: You could add another twenty-five years to that when you were going off to
Sophie Newcomb, and that is fifty years ago.

S: That is right.

G: Another twenty-five years is when you first moved to Jacksonville. I
guess you have a lot to be grateful for.

S: I thank God every day.

G: Well, it really was fun talking to you.

S: Well, thank you Micki, I enjoyed talking to you.