Wednesday, May 8, 2013

nicework.jpg "Nice Work If You Can Get It"

thingsarelookinup.jpg "Things Are Looking Up"

Photos by Ted Barron; click photos to enlarge; click song titles to listen

My friend Ted Barron, who runs the excellent music website Boogie Woogie Flu, recently purchased a 78-rpm Billie Holliday record from 1937. As you can see in the photos above, both sides of the record's sleeve were inscribed with the word "Cole."

Tucked inside the sleeve was a postcard. Postmarked in Jersey City, N.J., on Feb. 21, 1953, it was addressed to one Max Cole at "Station W.O.V." in New York (click to enlarge):

postcard.front copy.jpg postcard.back copy.jpg

The text of the postcard reads as follows:

Hi, Max,

A bunch of the fellows and myself catch your show from 6:30 to 6:55 every morning on the way to work. Our only regret is that we can't hear your whole show. If you have a chance, we would appreciate a Sinatra record during the time mentioned above. The boys from Continental Can in Paterson would really enjoy this.

Thank you,

Al Russo
Tom Napp
Tony LaManna

Wow, that postcard offers so many potential avenues of investigation! One at a time:

Max Cole — the postcard's addressee, and whose surname is written on the record sleeve — was a giant of New York City radio, where he worked for 60 continuous years. Prior to that he was an actor, although that chapter of his career was interrupted by his military service in World War II. (You can get further details in this fascinating obituary.) Cole's first radio job after the war was at the New York station WOV — the station to which the postcard was addressed. Which leads us to...

WOV was a New York radio station with a long and complicated history. It was at 1130 on the AM dial from 1928 through 1941, at which point it moved to 1280. (In 1959, the station was sold and its call letters changed to WADO, which still operates at the 1280 frequency today.) Max Cole worked there from 1946 through 1955. During that period, the station's studios were located at 132 W. 43rd St. — the heart of Times Square — which explains why the postcard was processed by the Times Square Station post office:


Continental Can Company, where the men who sent the postcard worked, was one of America's two primary can manufacturing companies in the 20th century. (The other was the American Can Company.) By 1954, one year after the postcard was sent, Continental Can had 81 plants spread out across the country, including the one in Paterson, N.J., where the postcard guys worked. Here are two of the company's ads from the 1950s (click the lower one to enlarge):

1959-Continental-Can-Company-LIFE-.png ccc.png

Although the postcard guys worked at the plant in Paterson, the postcard itself was mailed from Jersey City, so at least one of the three men who sent it presumably lived there. Interestingly, Google Maps shows that the drive from Jersey City to Paterson takes 27 minutes. That matches up perfectly with the postcard's reference to the employees listening to Max Cole's radio show "from 6:30 to 6:55 every morning on the way to work."

In 1959, six years after the postcard was sent, the Paterson plant laid off 200 workers due to a steel strike:


Were the postcard guys still working for Continental in 1959? If so, did they get caught in the wave of layoffs?

Changes in the packaging industry eventually led to Continental Can's demise (you can read more about that, and the rest of the company's history, here), although I'm not sure exactly when the Paterson plant closed. The building is listed as a notable sale on the home page of a New Jersey realty company. Details of the sale, which took place in the fall of 2011, are as follows:

cont can.png

Al Russo, Tom Napp, and Tony LaManna are the three Continental Can employees who sent the postcard. If we assume that they were at least 25 years old when the postcard was mailed in 1953 (and possibly quite a bit older than that), they would now be at least 85 years old. In other words, there's a strong chance that they're now deceased, so I went looking for obituaries. I found this obit for an Alan Russo, who lived in the right place and was about the right age, although there's no mention of whether he worked for Continental Can. I also found a death notice for an Anthony LaManna, again without corroborating details. I was unable to find anything regarding Tom Napp. (There were several death notices for people named Tom Knapp, but they weren't the right age.)

Frank Sinatra — well, you know who he was. It makes sense that the Continental Can guys would have requested one of his songs, since Sinatra was born in nearby Hoboken. I really like that the postcard refers to him simply as "Sinatra" but that someone — presumably Max Cole — wrote in Sinatra's first initial, just for clarification (click to enlarge):


"The Song Is You" is a song title written in the lower-left corner of the postcard, and is apparently the Sinatra song that Max Cole chose to play for the Continental Can employees. The tune, which was written in the early 1930s by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, was a favorite of Sinatra's. He recorded it eight times during his career, beginning with a 1942 session for the Bluebird label. That's probably the version Cole played. This one goes out to the boys at Continental Can:

Several of Sinatra's subsequent versions of the tune are available here.

Interestingly, it appears that "The Song Is You" was not Cole's first choice of what to play for the Continental Can employees. If you look closely at the lower-left corner of the postcard, you can see that another song title was written and then erased before "The Song Is You" was written (click to enlarge):

song is you.png

The first song title is tantalizingly close to being legible, but I can't quite make it out. Can anyone else decipher it?


One Additional note: Although the postcard was postmarked in Jersey City on Feb. 21, it was processed by the Times Square Station on Feb. 22 (click to enlarge):

feb 21.jpg feb. 22.jpg

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, Feb. 22 was a Sunday in 1953. More notably, Feb. 22 is Washington's birthday, which was still a Federal holiday back then. (The default Monday for Presidents Day didn't come into use until 1971.) So the Times Square Station post office was apparently one of those rare branches that are always open, or at least always processing, even on holidays.

I'm more attuned to Feb. 22 than most folks because my parents got married on that date in 1948. The idea was that their anniversary would always be a holiday. Unfortunately, Presidents Day put an end to that.


So that's a pretty detailed breakdown of the info on the postcard. But there are still some unanswered questions. For starters, it's odd that the postcard ended up tucked inside a Billie Holiday 78, instead of in a copy of "The Song Is You." More importantly, what happened to Messrs. Cole, Napp, and LaManna? Would anyone like to delve a bit deeper into that research? It would be amazing to reconnect this postcard with the descendants of the guys who sent it.

(Special thanks to Ron Underberg for research assistance on Continental Can.)


  1. What a great story!

    For the song title, it appears that the first letter is D, but looking at the songs Sinatra recorded before 1953 that start with D, none of them seem to fit with the part off to the right. I wonder if more than one song title was erased?

  2. I wished that I researched this information prior to this date because Henry Joyner,a retiree from said company recently died on December 13, 2015 at 85 years of age; I believe that he must have known at least one of these employees...

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