Photos by Max Ryazansky, Al Sullivan, courtesy of the Bayonne Historical Society, the Bayonne Public Library, and shutterstock.com
Ronald Reagan didn’t plan to stop off in Bayonne during his 1980 campaign for president. But his friend, Bayonne resident Ray Donovan, suggested that he meet “real people.”
“So one night he took me over to Barrett’s Tavern,” Reagan recalled. “And I’ll have to admit it was one of the more memorable moments of the campaign. We not only couldn’t get in on the floor of the barroom, they were standing on the bar. Finally, it was so jammed there that we had to go out on the steps and speak to the people outside. But it was a wonderful evening.”
Reagan was not the first president who came to Bayonne. Ulysses S. Grant spent time here when Bayonne was known for its yacht clubs and upscale hotels.
Other historic figures came as well, and some Bayonne natives have made it big.
Bayonne, which has been featured in several hundred movies, TV shows, and commercials, played a key role in the history of filmmaking.
Most significant was Centaur film studios, which later became part of Universal Studios. Many of Centaurs films were processed at its Avenue E plant.
Arguably the most notorious moment in Bayonne film history occurred when Mae West attempted to stage a show called “Sex” for which she was arrested in Jersey City on orders of legendary Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague.
Before going onto Hollywood in 1917, Stan Laurel made seven silent films in Bayonne.
Brian Keith, who would become famous for his role in the 1960s television show “Family Affair,” was born in Bayonne and started out as a child star in silent films.
“A Beautiful Mind” was filmed in Bayonne. So was Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” starring Tom Cruise. Bayonne was also featured in the original 1939 Halloween radio broadcast of Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds.”
Bruce Willis made several appearances in Bayonne, and Bayonne High School has appeared in dozens of films, including the 1997 film “Grosse Pointe Blank,” starring John Cusack who was filmed in front of the school talking to the actor who played his former teacher.
Sandra Dee, best known as “Gidget,” is from Bayonne. Dee performed “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in the St. Patrick’s Day program at her local school and went onto international stardom. She was so popular that Bayonne put on a parade for her when she returned for a visit in 1960.
Elvis impersonator Eddie O’Rourke, another Bayonne legend, met Dee at a Hollywood restaurant where she spoke nostalgically about growing up in Bayonne.
Mary Tyler Moore came to Bayonne in 1989 to film her follow-up to the very successful “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” She met with local dignitaries, including then-mayor Dennis Collins, and visited some local places such as Brady’s Dock, the former ferry slip and popular fishing spot, and the Barney Stock store on Broadway.
Actor Tammy Blanchard, who has appeared in scores of films with a number of prominent actors, including Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt, and Meryl Streep, grew up in Bayonne, following Sandra Dee’s path to success.
“When I was eight or 10, I sang solo ‘Over the Rainbow,’ and people liked me,” Blanchard recalled. “I knew I was going to perform the rest of my life.”
Frank Langella, who attended elementary and high school in Bayonne, went on to a stellar acting career on stage and screen playing Richard Nixon, Dracula, King Lear, and many other starring roles.
Bayonne produced fictional mobsters such as Frank Vincent, a star on “The Sopranos” and several other gangster flicks including “Goodfellas,” “Gotti,” and “Witness to the Mob.”
This was only fitting, since Bayonne also had its share of real mobsters.
Wanna go to a Flick?
Bayonne seemed to be in love with movies. At one time, it had five movie theatres, four on Broadway: the Strand, the DeWitt, the Lyceum, and the Plaza. The Opera House on Avenue C was later renamed The Victory when it began showing movies as well. All the theaters eventually closed. Though there was an effort to build another on Broadway in the 1990s, Bayonne remained without a theater until the Frank Family opened Frank Theatres on Lafante Way in 2005.
Bayonne also produced its own entertainment. Uncle Milty’s Amusement Park or “Miltyville” on First Street was a kid’s dream destination. The park, in Bergen Point on the Kill Van Kull, was named for Milton Tone, the man who operated it. Thousands of people enjoyed the attraction until the park’s property was sold to the city in 1969 and later became what is now Dennis P. Collins Park.
George Crimmins of Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show still lives in Bayonne. Less well-known is the fact that Clem Burke, drummer for Blondie, grew up here. Burke got his start as a drummer with Bayonne’s legendary and beloved Bridgemen Drum and Bugle Corps, which created a memorable moment when it gathered outside the home of former Mayor Dennis Collins and played “Danny Boy” for him just before his death in 2010.
O’Rourke, a well-known Elvis impersonator, remodeled his Bergen Point home to resemble Graceland. Few realized how important O’Rourke had become until his death when Elvis’s daughter attended his funeral. O’Rourke’s home would later become the site of the Bridge Gallery art studio, founded by Cheryl and Christopher Mack, who named the gallery after the Bayonne Bridge.
Although Frank Sinatra is forever associated with Hoboken, according to former Bayonne Mayor Richard Ratkowski, whose family owned the legendary Hi Hat Club, Sinatra was a frequent performer there.
Mark Twain lived in Bayonne for a time, and Bayonne produced some very famous writers of its own including George R.R. Martin, author of “Game of Thrones,” the book that gave rise to the blockbuster series.
Although Martin’s grandfather constructed Brady’s Dock on First Street, Martin spent the 1950s living in a public housing project in Bayonne.
Steven V. Roberts, who published books about growing up in Bayonne, started out as a copy editor for a Bayonne newspaper and went on to cover Washington D.C. for The New York Times. He is married to well-known pundit Cokie Roberts.
During a visit to Bayonne, Roberts recounted highlights of his childhood, recalling some of the famous people who played at Bayonne’s historic Hi-Hat night club. They included Rodney Dangerfield and Jackie Gleason. Roberts recalled a gag from Gleason’s show, “The Honeymooners,” in which Gleason threatened to send his wife, Alice, to the moon, and his best friend, Norton, to Bayonne.
Grab bag of Big Shots
Bayonne Boxer Chuck Wepner went from working on a beer truck to a championship bout with Muhammad Ali. His story became the model for the first “Rocky” film starring Sylvester Stallone. Liev Schreiber played Wepner in the 2016 movie, “Chuck.”
Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s sidekick for more than 30 years, grew up in Bayonne. He lived near First Street and Kelly Parkway. His father owned one of the amusements at Uncle Milty’s. As a boy, McMahon sold newspapers on street corners and was one of the first boys from Bayonne to cross the Bayonne Bridge when it first opened in 1931.
In 1903, Carrie Nation was reportedly arrested in Bayonne for disturbing the peace. There have been sightings of Snooki, Robin Williams, and Joe Torre; Paris Hilton was spotted on a Bayonne stoop, stroking a dog.
Politics and Piety
President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin were on hand to dedicate the 9/11Teardrop Memorial in 2006. Barney Frank, the first openly gay member of the U.S. House of Representatives, related in his autobiography how he worked at his father’s truck stop in Jersey City.
“It helped because, by the time I was ready to enter the job world, I had had a pretty broad exposure to a wide range of people,” he said in an interview.
George Lakoff, who was raised in Bayonne, has become one of the most premier linguists in contemporary times, widely seen and heard on broadcast media.
Sister Miriam Teresa, who was born in Bayonne, decided at an early age to dedicate her life to God. She is poised to become Bayonne’s only saint.
Bayonne is a city of religious institutions. St. Vincent de Paul features stained glass by famed Irish artist Harry Clarke, and new houses of worship with new ethnic congregations have emerged. Bayonne Muslims are seeking to build A Muslim Community Center, and a Coptic church was constructed on the site of Barrett’s Tavern where President Ronald Reagan made his memorable appearance in 1980.
Talk about full circle.