From Scrap To Screen

Posted on December 30th, 2016 by

Earlier this month you may have read about celebrations of Kirk Douglas’ 100th birthday.  Issur Danielovitch (the future Kirk Douglas) was born December 9, 1916 – though it appears that due to his mother’s misunderstanding of American custom, his birthday was always celebrated on Dec. 14th in his childhood.  When most people think of Kirk Douglas, they think of Spartacus or maybe Vincent Van Gogh… I think of scrap.

A young Kirk Douglas

A young Kirk Douglas

As I explained in last month’s JMM Insights  we are currently in the process of creating a national exhibit on the transforming business of scrap (update: one of our first transformations was the exhibit title – many people were confused by American Alchemy  – so our new, and hopefully final, title is Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling).

Now scrap yards have a significant place in popular cinema – playing “starring roles” in films as diverse as Goldfinger (the car crusher), Star Wars – The Phantom Menace (Anakin Skywalker’s first job), and Stand By Me (with “legendary” junk yard dog, Chopper).  Even animated films like Iron Giant and Wall-E feature aspects of the scrap business.

The Ragman's Son

The Ragman’s Son

However, the scrap business also has played a role in “inspiring” people to enter the world of film and television.  Kirk Douglas’ first autobiography, The Ragman’s Son (1988) describes his life growing up in Amsterdam, NY as the child of an immigrant junk peddler – his father apparently attempted to make a living with both scrap rag and scrap metal.  In Douglas’ case his dad, who he describes as more fond of booze than work, is an unsuccessful peddler.  He manages to take all the money Douglas saved from his childhood jobs and all of his bar mitzvah money and invest it in purchasing a load of scrap.  Unfortunately, the purchase is made in 1929 and the metal loses all its value in the commodities crash that follows the stock market crash.  Kirk Douglas still manages to make his way to college, winning a scholarship to St. Lawrence University.  Reading his book, I sensed little nostalgia for his father or the scrap business, except as obstacles he escaped.

 Russian-born American film mogul Louis Burt Mayer (1885 - 1957), head of production at MGM, circa 1935.  (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

Russian-born American film mogul Louis Burt Mayer (1885 – 1957), head of production at MGM, circa 1935. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

Douglas was by no means the first to make it from scrap to screen – that distinction may belong to Louis B. Mayer, the guiding force behind Metro-Goldwyn Mayer studio.  According to Scott Eyman’s biography, Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, Mayer was born near the current Ukranian/Belarus border in July of 1884.  Shortly thereafter his parents moved to New York, where his father Jacob was a scrap peddler on Long Island.  By 1892 his family had moved on to Saint John, New Brunswick where Jacob and his son Louis would spend nearly a dozen years collecting and selling scrap.  Aware of the difference in social status, Louis B. Mayer made the claim that the business was always metal, never rag.  Sometimes this meant salvaging shipwrecks that were not uncommon off the coast of New Brunswick – Louis and his brothers learned to dive to scavenge for metal.  Like Douglas, Mayer had an overbearing father and a childhood filled with hunger and hardship plus more than a little anti-Semitic harrasment.  But unlike Douglas, Mayer was unable to continue his formal education past age 12.  He did manage to get out of Saint John, taking a job with a scrap dealer in Chelsea, MA in 1904.  His scrap ventures failed but he did manage to land a job as manager at a small burlesque theater in 1907.  He had the idea of turning the theater into a movie house – “the home of refined amusement devoted to…moving pictures and illustrated songs”.  From then on, his only scrap would be celluloid.

Mandy shows off his trains

Mandy shows off his trains

For my third scrap to screen story I didn’t have to read a biography.  I actually witnessed my cousin Mandy Patinkin working in our family’s scrap yard.  Our grandparents, Max Patinkin and Simon Pinckovitch (a pair of brothers-in-law) had founded People’s Iron and Metal in Chicago in the early 1900s.  Mandy and I – we’re the same age and in the same class at Hebrew School – both worked at the yard in the summers of our teen years.  My recollection is that Mandy as the “extrovert” got the job in the air-conditioned office, kibitzing with the truck drivers when they weighed in and out.  As the “introvert”, I had the job operating the hydraulic press bailing metal in the oppressive heat.  Mandy and I have lost contact over the years so perhaps he remembers it differently – but my lesson from the scrap business was it’s better to be an “extrovert.”  Of course, both of us left the business behind but not without a fair amount of nostalgia.  Follow this link to the 60 Minutes piece where Mandy shows off his model train complete with a miniature of People’s Iron.

Eric Kripke

Eric Kripke

Now you might think that our generation would be the last to make the leap from scrap to screen but the story doesn’t end with Princess Bride.  Those of you following this fall’s history-bending series Timeless may be forgiven for not noticing the name of co-writer and co-producer Eric Kripke.  It’s one of several sci-fi series Kripke has helped create.  It turns out that when you look up Kripke Enterprises, what you’ll find is Kripke’s father’s scrap aluminum business in Toledo.  A long tradition continues.

MarvinBlog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




JMM Insights: Dross into Gold

Posted on November 18th, 2016 by

In the middle ages, alchemists sought out the philosopher’s stone that could turn base metal into gold.  They never found it.  But in 19th and 20th century America, entrepreneurs, mainly poor immigrants of Jewish or Italian heritage, found a way to turn waste materials into productive assets – in the process, not only transforming metal, rag and rubber, but also their own lives and their own communities.

In October 2018 the Jewish Museum of Maryland will launch a major national traveling exhibit called American Alchemy: Junk to Scrap to Recycling that will for the first time bring the largely untold history of this industry to a wider public.

Bales of rags. Shapiro Company, Baltimore, Maryland, 1942

Bales of rags. Shapiro Company, Baltimore, Maryland, 1942

We have been laying the groundwork for this project for nearly a year (in fact its origins go back to ideas generated in 2008).  We have been researching photos and artifacts, assembling an exhibit team, developing budgets and funding plans.  But it was just yesterday that the project had its formal launch as we invited leaders of scrap businesses from across the region to convene at JMM.  Neal Shapiro, former president of Cambridge Iron and Metal here in Baltimore, and a consultant on the project helped assemble the gathering.  We took them through Beyond Chicken Soup:  Jews and Medicine in America – a project that has much in common with our new venture:

> a similar scale and blend of “real things” and interactive experiences;

> a paired effort to explore both history and technology (and for the American Alchemy exhibit we will also add the art of recycling);

> an exhibition that works equally well for school groups and general visitors.

After the brief tour, I described our concept – it has a scope that stretches from an ad for scrap brass and copper by Paul Revere to the first car shredders to the latest metal analyzer guns.  I also explained that while it would inevitably have a lot to say about the Jewish community (it’s estimated that just a few decades ago 80% of all scrap CEOs were Jewish), this particular exhibit was about the whole story of the industry – and would include people from all ethnic backgrounds who made the transformation from push carts to global enterprises possible.

An automobile graveyard outside Baltimore, Maryland, August 1941. Courtesy Library of Congress.

An automobile graveyard outside Baltimore, Maryland, August 1941. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Next, we swapped stories.   We learned about businesses with unlikely sites (e.g. Jersey Shores, PA), unlikely artifacts (e.g. a terrorist bombed Israeli bus – it was saved, not scrapped) and unlikely misfortunes (e.g. what happens when you drop a large battery in downtown DC).  But more importantly we learned that we were “family” – as some of the senior members of the group recounted their memories of the parents and grandparents of their assembled “competitors.”  Even I got to tell a few stories about the scrap metal and rag businesses owned by my family – and lessons learned that carry over to my work in museums.

So many stories around the room

So many stories around the room

On Monday we take the next step in our project’s development – a team meeting in New York, with our curator, Jill Vexler (also grew up in a scrap business household) and our designer, Alchemy Studio led by Wayne LaBar.  We’ll be taking this huge topic and compressing it to 2,000 square feet – even a bigger trick than compressing a car into a bundle of metal with a hydraulic press!

If you are reading this newsletter and happen to have photos or documents related to the scrap industry, please contact Deborah Cardin at dcardin@jewishmuseummd.com.  If you are just interested in learning more about the exhibit and staying in the loop as our plans progress feel free to contact either Deborah or me.

-Marvin Pinkert

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




A Trip to the Scrap Yard

Posted on September 21st, 2016 by

The Jewish Museum of Maryland’s newest original exhibition project, American Alchemy: From Junk to Scrap to Recycling officially launched its second phase of development with a convening of our project team, including new project curator, Jill Vexler, and our designers from Alchemy Studios. The exhibition which explores the history of Jewish involvement in the scrap industry also will reflect the experiences of non-Jews and covers a wide swath of history from the 18th-21st centuries. We are currently in the process of collecting stories and artifacts that reflect the unique nature of these businesses, many of which have remained in the same families for generations.

As you can see from this map, the scrap industry has a large national presence and our exhibit team is conducting research in many other cities beyond Baltimore.

As you can see from this map, the scrap industry has a large national presence and our exhibit team is conducting research in many other cities beyond Baltimore.

What better way to inspire our team than a visit to a local scrap yard so we could get a first-hand look at the materials, technology and human capital that are necessary in order to transform one person’s junk into another person’s treasure. So we drove to south Baltimore to visit David Simon at Baltimore Scrap Corp. David regaled us with stories of life in the scrap industry and described the evolution of his family’s business which got its start in 1916.

The highlight of our visit was a guided tour of the yard where we saw huge mounds of metal object castaways and flattened cars that were awaiting their turn in the gigantic shredder (sadly, we could not see the shredder in action as it is used during night hours in order to save electricity costs).

The highlight of our visit was a guided tour of the yard where we saw huge mounds of metal object castaways and flattened cars that were awaiting their turn in the gigantic shredder (sadly, we could not see the shredder in action as it is used during night hours in order to save electricity costs).

We were all impressed by the sheer scale of materials that were piled high in mounds, not to mention the speed at which materials are completely transformed into reusable parts. We all left feeling energized and excited about our work on this project.

Baltimore Scrap Corp.

Baltimore Scrap Corp.

The project also got an important boost with news we received last week that the exhibit was the recipient of a highly competitive federal grant award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. American Alchemy opens at the JMM in Fall 2018.

deborahA blog post by Deputy Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts from Deborah click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland