RIP VAN GRIBBEN
My name is Simon Gribben and I was born and raised in Allentown and just returned to retire from a career in television news and sports. I feel like Rip Van Winkle who came home not after a 20-year sleep but a 40 year one!
So much has changed! Where's Hess's? That three-ring circus of mammoth sales, chic style and Mom’s favorite restaurant in center city is gone! But then, so is Mom.
“ALLENTOWN HIGH SCHOOL” is the name of the place I graduated from and played football for. What’s this “William Allen” stuff? I know he was the founder of Allentown (I did a class visit to Trout Hall and loved the old guns there) but I felt disenfranchised when they changed the name of my high school. It’s like my high school diploma is counterfeit!
I am glad they named the stadium after Coach Birney Crum; It just used to be the “ALLENTOWN HIGH SCHOOL STADIUM”. Birney was the coach of my junior varsity squad, the last year that he coached for “ALLENTOWN HIGH SCHOOL”, and he taught me the one lesson I took into life. He would scream endlessly, “Pursue! Pursue! Pursue!”. So I pursued this emotionally unavailable woman for 20 years and never caught her. Maybe I should have learned a different lesson?
The Colonial Theater at 5th and Hamilton, that slick first-run movie house, is boarded up. I can’t count the great movie experiences I had there that transported me out of Allentown and into the exotic lands of the imagination. One of my magic carpets is grounded.
My alma mater, Muhlenberg College, has grown like Jack's beanstalk; not only in tuition but all those new buildings that are hiding my old playgrounds when I was the Morning Call paperboy. They built the Trexler Library over the spot Dave Parker told me we had discovered “the remains of a fairy fire!” I believed that for years until I realized it had been dried up animal dung.
And the people. Who are they? These gray-haired fuddies lumbering around
were the playmates of my youth. I see younger versions of them but I have to translate age in my mind like one would have to translate a foreign language into English. I'm one of the old fuddies now too like those geezers who used to collect tickets at Dorney Park. It's all very confusing but, oh, so normal. As an old friend used to say, "Growing old is not for sissies!"
And Dorney Park itself! It has grown too! They’ve changed almost everything and quadrupled the rides. And the Water Park! All we had was Cedar Beach in that end of town. I thought I might retire and be a ticket taker at “The Old Mill Stream” but one price tickets destroyed that dream and made Dorney like the fabled “Steeplechase” in Coney Island where I used to go to visit Grandma Gribben when I was young, oh, those so many years ago.
But I love my hometown. There are changes but not all are bad. I went to the art fair at Muhlenberg Lake and was impressed with the multi-cultural shift in the population. It used to be strictly a white bread community but now it’s more representative of the rest of the world and I like that and feel comfortable with the change.
I was born and raised in Allentown and left in 1963 when I graduated from Muhlenberg College as an English major and Education minor. I had a wife and two kids and we moved to Norristown while I worked as a management trainee for JC Penney at the King of Prussia mall. That’s where I was when Kennedy was shot and the store emptied out by 3 in the afternoon.
I only lasted a year there and moved to Philadelphia to teach junior high English for 2 years before taking a summer job as a gofer for a Philadelphia film company that made syndicated television sports films, Tel Ra Productions. I had never been a sports fan but always a movie buff and this was a way to learn “the business”. They liked that I was a schoolteacher and hired me full-time as a film editor/writer at the end of the summer of ’66 and I never looked back.
After describing a professional football game as a parody of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven”; I was hired by a relatively new company called NFL Films as a writer/producer/director/editor---a filmmaker. The first film I made for them was a 5-minute football ballet to the music of Tchaikovsky that I called “The Headcracker Suite”. It aired on CBS and became an instant classic and ended up in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
The following summer I was asked to create a half-hour TV film on “anything I wanted”. It became “The Football Follies”, considered by some as “the most popular sports film ever made” and was also accepted by MoMA. The film spawned a series of imitators and has become a genre.
That fall of ’69 I made a short starring my son John, a child’s football fantasy, that is in MoMA too. I also was attending film classes at Temple University and made a documentary, “I Am”; about my favorite Catasauqua pizza bar and it won 1st prize in documentaries at the University Film Association, a Cine Eagle and is in MoMA as well.
I left Philadelphia and my marriage in 1970 to try my luck in New York. Other than a 10 minute film on joggers that I made for public television in 1972, “The Joggers” which is in MoMA, I didn’t have much success and accepted a job at ABC Sports as a film editor and occasional writer. I worked on “Wide World of Sports” and “The American Sportsman” winning an Emmy and several other industry awards.
I had a disastrous second marriage in 1971 and do not recommend marrying someone 3 weeks after your first date. It didn’t last a year and sent me to a shrink. After 2 years of that and discovering that the doctor couldn’t heal me, I had to change my behavior myself, I left the shrink and sought God because I was incapable of controlling my stupidity.
Because I was a rebel and a free thinker I found a religion that suited me perfectly: American Sufism. Sufis are impossible to describe and they are not only Muslims, especially if they come from “the land of the free” who can create a religion out of a mix and match spiritual bowl.
So I’m racially a Jew who follows Jesus and is not a Christian. I am a whirling dervish who was ordained in 1976 in a church built by the Muhlenberg family in New York and my clerical name is Reverend Simon-Peter. When I left New York, I ceased being a whirling dervish and became a wandering one.
Basically my religion is cheap and simple. It’s a practice like learning how to type, to dance, or ride a bike. It is not easy but far from impossible. I just blame God for everything, good or bad, and avoid all guilt and swelled-headedness.
I also believe that God’s got our future’s all figured out. Whatever happens is God’s will and always “Poifect!” whether I realize it or not at the time it happens. If I honestly turn my cares over to the Big Macha, I feel immediate relief. It is in this Peace that I can experience joy.
Back to the mundane. In 1977, Post-Newsweek Television Stations in D.C hired me as a news producer. The first hour special I produced and partially wrote won an Emmy. The station moved to Detroit and another hour special won an Emmy there. I also got to do my own feature reporting. The news director and I conflicted over several issues and I was fired in January of 1980. That was my last staff job
However, the Museum of Television and Radio in New York started collecting my works, and, if you go there and put my name in their computer, you can see dozens of my films and videos.
I went to Los Angeles and tried selling scripts for movies and specials but nothing sold and I went through a period of 7 years of bad luck before finding free-lance work as a videotape editor in New York at ABC and CBS News. I did that for 15 years before the events of 9/11/01 burned me out and I went on unemployment.
I had a massive heart attack on September 15th, 2002, and died for 4 minutes. Upon recovering, I took an early retirement from Social Security and focused on restoring my health. New York was too expensive for my fixed income and that was why I decided to come home to Allentown in April of 2003, one month shy of 40 years after I left.
I have some very supportive relatives here: my nephew, Lee Gribben of “Lee Gribben’s Fine Gourmet”, found me a place to live, my first on my own in 20 years. My cousin Al Gribben, president of the Jewish Community Center, found me a great, cheap car: I haven’t had a steed of my own in 17 years. Laurie Shenkman. a 2nd cousin and a marketing consultant, suggested I contact The Morning Call, my old employer, and tell my story: this tale is my first employment in almost 2 years.
I have climbed the press ladder: an assistant paperboy to Dave Parker at 5, a full-fledged paperboy at 11 when he went off to college to study chemistry and other fairy tales, and now, I’m nakedly a writer: not hiding behind juggling pictures and enchanting sounds. It’s fun.
I have lived for extended periods of time in different parts of these United States and I have a mental road map full of streets and memories of each one of them. But Allentown, my hometown, has the most complete maps and memories of all my past residences. The entire place is haunted. I can’t take a ride anywhere without a memory poking up. Often it’s the same memory, time after time, and I never tire of it, like a child who delights in hearing the same story over and over again. As I draw closer to the end of this life, and my heart attack gave me a peaceful glimpse of my mortality, I am happy to be home, surrounded by the past, enjoying the present, and unafraid of the future.