Note: This article was written for Back in the Bronx magazine in Winter 2006. New information came in and some of the details in the story have changed in the years between this article and the publishing of Lost Boys of the Bronx: The Oral History of the Ducky Boys Gang. I chose to leave it the way it was originally published.
A Bronx Tribute to “The Wanderers”
By James Hannon of Lantern-Media.com
A native Bronxite’s tale of how Hollywood came to the Bronx, and how the resulting movie influenced his life and began the Ducky Boy story.
Published in Back in the Bronx Magazine, Winter 2006 issue, Vol XIV, Issue L1
In 1979, a movie by the name of The Wanderers came out. It was based off the book by Richard Price and starred a then-unknown actor named Ken Wahl. It also had a tremendous supporting cast that is too big to list here.
My sister’s boyfriend Louie really sold me on this movie a year or so earlier by telling me they were filming it near the Dollar Savings Bank on the Grand Concourse & Fordham Road, and that they had a bunch of old cars lining the surrounding streets and they were filming. This was a big deal to me, so I was definitely looking forward to it coming out.So, when it finally came out, I was horrified to find out that it had a rating of “R”. I was only 12 years old and five long years away from being eligible to see this movie. Ratings actually meant something back then, and I couldn’t imagine any kid’s parents letting them see “R” movies. I was crushed that I couldn’t see it.
My 19 yr old sister and Louie went to see it and told me that it was great, and that it opened with a shot of the RKO Fordham movie theatre and Alexander’s Department Store, and had a LOT of other Bronx locations! I thought my neighborhood was about as far from Hollywood as you could get, but this movie was filmed in my neighborhood — And I couldn’t see it!
Time went on, and I got over this disappointment as kids do, but it was always in the back of my mind. Years passed, and it never made it to TV. I figured it was just something I would never get a chance to see.Then in the early 80’s, two wonderful products came out – the VCR and the Video Rental Store. It took my family a while to get a VCR. But in June 1985, I got my first “real” part-time job at Sears Roebuck on Fordham Road. And with my employee discount and my dad chipping in half the price, we bought our first VCR
Video Villa was the premiere video store in my neighborhood, and with my second or third paycheck I signed up for a lifetime membership. They went out of business quite a few years ago, but if they ever come back I still have my card!
One of the first movies I ever rented there (or anywhere) was the Wanderers. I was now 18 and fully eligible to see “R” movies! My dad and I sat down to watch it – although I have to admit he was more interested in the new-fangled VCR technology than the movie itself. But I was hooked from the opening shot of Alexander’s to the streets behind Dollar Savings Bank, Bronx Park, and St Lucy’s Grotto. This movie truly was worth the long wait.
Louie (now my brother-in-law), was thrilled to find out that I had finally seen the movie. He pointed out a few locations that I didn’t recognize. But he really shocked me when he told me that the gangs in the movie actually existed! His father would tell him stories of seeing the Fordham Baldies cruising around his old neighborhood in the mid-50’s.
Not thinking as clearly as I should’ve been at the time, I told my brother-in-law, “Yeah I remember them when I was a kid – they used to hang out in Poe Park and play music – Right?” To which he started laughing. He settled down and informed me that the bald guys in Poe Park playing music were not the Fordham Baldies, but the Hare Krishnas! He still teases me of that brain-freeze to this day!
Over the years, I have watched that movie probably hundreds of times – It became my belief that everyone from the Bronx should see this movie at least once. Eventually, some video store was selling a used copy of the VHS tape for like $20 dollars (new was over $80 at the time) and I grabbed it. Eventually I wore that tape out, got another used copy, and eventually got the DVD.
Recently, The Wanderers (and Steve Samtur from Back in the Bronx) inspired my life yet again. During my mid-career crisis, I decided I wanted to become a filmmaker and eventually released a documentary in July 2004 on a band called Richard and the Young Lions. Don’t feel bad, not many Bronxites have heard of them – even though they were #1 in Detroit. When they were actually played on New York radio during the summer of 1966, there was a disc jockey strike, so nobody in New York ever found out the band’s name or the song name that they were playing (“Open Up Your Door”)
Now that my documentary was finished, I began to look for my next project. After many false starts, I started getting frustrated about what I was going to do next.
Then, Christmas 2005 came around and I was shopping the Back in the Bronx catalog. I saw the Loew’s Paradise Theatre DVD advertised and just had to get it – I had spent many hours at the Paradise growing up. I got the DVD and was watching it on Christmas Eve with family when a light bulb popped over my head – I had been looking far and wide for a new project, and realized that there is a lot of interesting stuff in my own hometown (or backyard – as you’ll see later)
I contacted Steve about doing similar projects, but nothing we spoke of really caught my attention… As we were talking, I was casually flipping through the catalog, and saw his Bronx chessboard advertised – which had the Fordham Baldies as the pawns! At that one moment, everything clicked – I would do a documentary on the real-life gangs of The Wanderers!
I did a lot of research and hit all the Bronx websites that specialize in reconnecting Bronxites,and hooked up with a few extremely helpful people who knew the gangs intimately, and found out some interesting things.
In these conversations, I found that the infamous Ducky Boys started out as a bunch of friends who hung out in the schoolyard of PS 46 in 1957. Now that may not be as thrilling to many of you, but it blew me away. You see, from 1969 to 1993, I lived across the street from PS 46 on East 196th Street and Briggs Avenue – literally 20 feet from my backyard! (And thus began my obsession with the Ducky Boys gang and the Ducky Boy book: Lost Boys of the Bronx )
I had spent many hours growing up in that schoolyard playing Off-the-Point, Wiffle Ball, and Skully – with our personalized caps (Yoo-Hoo glass bottles made the nicest caps (after you scraped them on the sewer a few times), but they were no match for the melted crayon filled RC Cola caps which would shatter the glass caps on impact). So this PS46 connection has really made this new documentary much more personal to me.
Another little piece of information that I found is that the Fordham Baldies were not meant to be hairless like in the movie, but got their name from the American symbol – the bald eagle. There is also an unverified story that they got their name because their leader was a guy named Garibaldi
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