Saturday, August 28, 2021

Family Affairs and Pieces of our Childhood

by G. Jack Urso 



Some memories from our childhood are buried deep, yet they form the very basis of our life — how we look at it and who we are as individuals. Even the most ephemeral events can yield the longest-lasting results.
 
Sometime in 1970 or 71, I remember sitting with my grandmother, Nana Fran, in the family room of her home on Woodlawn Avenue in Albany. It was a split-level ranch with a modern open kitchen with wall-to-wall carpeting and a family room similarly decorated with the prerequisite iconic wood paneling and wet bar that defined the era. It was a long way from the crowded two-family homes on Second Avenue from where they moved, or Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn where they started out.
 
Nana Fran was patiently helping me put together a puzzle of the main cast from Family Affair, the treacly, saccharine-sweet sitcom, which ran from 1966 to 1971, starring Brian Keith, Sabastian Cabot, Johnny Whitaker, Anissa Jones, and Kathy Garver. The show pretty much defined the stock sitcom with a laugh track and where all the world’s problems, no matter how serious, were resolved in thirty minutes — or maybe in a special two-parter during sweeps week. Every generation has its share of these shows. In the 1970s, it was The Brady Bunch. In the 1980s, it was Punky Brewster. In the 1990s, it was Saved by the Bell and Full House, among others. For me, born in 1964, it was Family Affair. All of the aforementioned shows, including Family Affair, have had reboots or spinoffs that met with varying degrees of success. Instead of creating new memories, TV networks recreate the past and hope to capture the lost magic and fanbase, though mostly the lost advertising dollars.
 
The kids on Family Affair were about the same ages as me and my brother and sister. My sister, in fact, even had a Mrs. Beasley Doll just like Anissa Jones’ character Buffy. With the switch from black and white broadcasting to full color in the 1965-1966 seasons, Family Affair was among the first shows to take advantage of the technology, drawing in its young viewers with color-saturated film stock.
 
Reruns
 
My spatial abilities were never really good, and at six years old the 125-piece puzzle far beyond my capabilities. Still, I can remember being entranced by the image on the box, a beach scene with Jody and Buffy playfully covering up a dozing Mr. French with sand while Cissy and Uncle Bill come out of the surf in the background. It reminded me of our family’s annual summer vacations at Wildwood Beach, New Jersey — a perfect family enjoying a lazy summer day without a care in the world.    
 
It stuck out because I sensed at even that early age all was not right with my parent’s marriage. My dad, bless his otherwise kind heart, had a few affairs. My mother, suffering PTSD from her experiences as a child in Nazi-occupied Sicily and abuse from her father, as well as dealing with my dad, would lash out — sometimes physically. A full-blown Sicilian meltdown is a natural disaster all unto itself. Some variation of this situation has been played out in millions of American homes and it is not uncommon for children to latch onto some TV show that gives a glimpse of something better, something almost perfect, no matter how fake and make-believe we know it is.
 
Like a lot of memories from my childhood, I put it away as I accrued the luggage of adulthood. Last fall, however, Decades TV aired a weekend-long marathon of Family Affair episodes. As I usually keep the TV on for background noise as I grade papers or work on various freelance projects, I couldn’t resist catching a few episodes. The show was as stereotypically syrupy as I remembered it. Though I must admit, the first season episodes played up the death of the kids’ parents in a car accident and their separation among various relatives. This was a complete rarity among children-oriented TV shows in 1966. Nothing preys on a child’s fears more than the possible death of their parents and the break-up of their family.
 
Yes, the show was formulaic. Whatever problems arose would be neatly resolved in thirty minutes. Every character had their weaknesses and fears, even the adults, and the underlying principle that everyone needs help and family sticks together stood out. Yet, there were some episodes that bucked the stereotypical formula. One episode, “Christmas Came a Little Early,” starred Eve Plumb, later Jan on The Brady Bunch, as a young sick friend of Anissa Jones’ character Buffy. The parents were concerned that their daughter might not survive until Christmas, so they decided to have Christmas early. When Uncle Bill offered his vast resources as a wealthy man to hire the finest doctor to treat the young girl, the viewer could see where it was going. A treatment would be discovered and the girl would survive. In the final act, however, the doctor reveals there is no cure and the child is going to die. Uncle Bill keeps it from the kids and after a happy celebration they return home. Later on, Uncle Bill discovers Buffy crying in her bed. No words are shared. No pithy pearls of wisdom. Buffy was aware the entire time what was going to happen to her young friend and kept up a brave face so they could enjoy a final Christmas together — and there the episode ends. No happy ending. No miracle cure. Fade to black.
 
Children often suspect the truth even when it is hidden from them.
 
Piece by Piece
 
Having watched several episodes that weekend, my memories of putting together that puzzle with Nana Fran were stirred. I jumped online and saw the puzzle for sale on eBay. It was an original copy, but still less than ten dollars, so I bought it as a Christmas present to myself figuring I would put it together over break. However, I couldn’t do it. Sometimes walking down memory lane is more walking away than walking down. Finally, I recently got around to it. As I put it together, I could easily imagine myself as a child sitting next to my grandmother.
 
I don’t think I put a puzzle together in the past five decades. As my spatial abilities are challenged, I admit to being concerned. While the final image was available, I just couldn’t see how the pieces fit together. Produced in 1970, according to the box, I was worried whether all the all pieces were still there. Some pieces, I discovered, don’t make sense until other pieces are put in place first. Slowly, the puzzle came together. How much like life is a puzzle I thought. We are handed a boxful of pieces and we don’t know how they all go together until we diligently work our way through it piece by piece — driven only by faith that it will all come together at the end.  

The puzzle comes together (author’s collection).
 
The Last Pieces
 
When I worked in radio, I was able to interview many celebrities passing through the area. Sometimes, I was able to connect with individuals who made an impact on me at a young age. Juliet Mills, of Nanny and the Professor, was performing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival when I got to speak with her and noted rather anxiously how when a young boy I tried to convince my parents to hire an English-speaking nanny like her in the show. She laughed graciously and indulged me as we spoke off-topic for a few minutes about the show.
 
I also got to interview Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul, and Mary, about a concert he had planned for our area. I told him how much I loved “Puff, the Magic Dragon” as a child and how I played it over and over due in part to hearing my childhood name “Jackie” in the song (“Little Jackie Paper”). Even as a boy, I told Stookey, I understood that there was a sorrow to growing up and leaving our childhood behind as only memories that we abandon in time. Several minutes after the interview ended, as I was replaying the tape and choosing the best sound bites, the studio phone rang. It was Stookey saying how much he enjoyed the interview and speaking with me. I was touched, of course, but mainly shocked. No one I interviewed, let alone a celebrity, ever called me back to tell me they enjoyed speaking with me. That little moment drew me back to my childhood and helped to bring “Puff, the Magic Dragon” back from his cave for one more final mighty roar.
 
The various cast members' lives of Family Affair turned out a bit less than the idyllic epilogs to episodes of the series. Brian Keith, suffering from lung cancer, committed suicide in 1997 only two months after his daughter Daisy did the same. Johnny Whitaker enjoyed a successful career as a child actor after the show, though he developed a serious drug addiction that was only overcome with the intervention of his large Mormon family, later becoming a drug counselor. Sebastian Cabot died a few years after the end of the series on August 23, 1977, of a stroke at age 59; coincidentally, almost a year after Anissa Jones died at 18 of a drug overdose on August 28, 1976, at a friend's house where they were partying. As I write this, I notice that the day of this post is also August 28, making it forty-five years to the day since Jones passed away. I had not planned it this way. It's just how it all came together.
 
For those quick to judge Jones, I had my own misadventures as a youth and all I can say is, “There but for the grace of God go I.” As of March 2015, outside her childhood home at 100 Rees Street, Playa Del Rey, California, one could still find Anissa's name that she wrote in the cement on the sidewalk.
 

Sidewalk graffiti by Anissa Jones (findadeath.com).

I was finally motivated to put the puzzle together yesterday after I saw a commercial for ClearCaptions, a telephone system that converts talk to text. I thought the actress looked like Kathy Garver, who played the older sibling Cissy on Family Affair. OK, so she’s not acting in series work anymore, but as actors say, a job is a job. I found her Facebook page, a modest affair where she updates her fans on her interests and convention appearances. I posted a brief inquiry asking if that was her, and she actually responded in the affirmative. I’m sure the young me would have been delighted at connecting with her, as the older me is as well.

 
In time, the pieces all come together.
 

●             ●             ●


Saturday, July 31, 2021

Starry, Starry Night: Stratton Mountain Scout Reservation, August 1978

by G. Jack Urso
  
Constellations in the summer Northern night sky.
  
I strained my eyes against the night sky as I looked upwards.
 
“There,” the scout leader said, “that’s the Navigator’s Triangle,” pointing out a formation comprised of Altair, Deneb, and Vega, also known as the Summer Triangle. Once I found it, he showed me the three constellations those stars are part of: Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra.
 
“And there, see that little smudge? That’s the Andromeda Galaxy.” For the next hour, he continued across the 360-degree dome of the Northern sky calling out the North Star, the Big and Little Dippers, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Scorpius, Sagittarius, and even faint wisps of the Milky Way Galaxy.
 
Despite having a pair of binoculars, we mostly did naked-eye astronomy. We craned our heads back, standing in pitch-black darkness in the middle of the parking lot of Stratton Mountain Scout Reservation, August 1978.
 
Ancient Rituals and Ruins
     Author’s collection. 
Despite being located in Vermont, Stratton Mountain Scout Reservation (1950-1979) was actually run as a joint venture of the Fort Orange — Uncle Sam Council and Governor Clinton Council, both from New York. I attended in 1975, 1977, and 1978. Buried deep in the Green Mountains, it had a  raw, unsettled, wilderness feel about it. The reservation was a complex of buildings and campsites scattered up the mountain and down by the nearby Somerset Reservoir. In 1975, my Troop 2 (St. Andrew’s Church, Albany, NY) was assigned to the Lakeside campsite, but in 1977 and 1978 we got the much-desired Hilltop campsite, located about three-quarters of a mile up a hill from the parking lot. We typically spent a week there working on merit badges and engaging in time-honored coming-of-age rituals.
 
I learned to build fires and latrines, canoe and cook, set up tents and camp in all sorts of weather. I learned to shoot and swim. I saw beaver dams and my first bald eagle. While hiking through the woods, we occasionally came across the ancient ruins of some old trapper’s cabin, wondering if he died alone deep in the woods. Order of the Arrow initiation ceremonies were held in the forest at night with the candidates led out to places in the woods from where they would have to find their way back to the campsites on their own.
 
We climbed up Stratton Mountain to the fire tower at the summit and got a bird's-eye view of the wilderness. Looking at the dense forest, we realized if a fire did break out getting so many boys out of the area would be difficult, especially if it started at night. There is no darkness as deep as that of a forest late at night — particularly on a moonless night. Being the 1970s, we half-expected Bigfoot to jump out and grab one of us. We were filled with a mix of awe, danger, fear, and mystery.
 
Reptile Study, Geology, Mammal Study, and Astronomy merit badges (author’s collection).

In 1975, my first year at Stratton Mountain, I earned the Reptile Study merit badge. In 1977, I completed Geology and Mammal Study. In 1978, I eagerly signed up for the Astronomy merit badge course, though I was concerned there would be too many scouts and I might not get a spot. As it turned out, I was the only one to sign up. Since star gazing and learning the constellations were required, we had to meet about 9 pm in the parking lot. Walking through the forest late at night was enough to turn off most of the scouts; however I wasn’t deterred. My father gave me a Sears’ telescope for Christmas the previous year and I was anxious to learn more. I was a little disappointed all we had was a single pair of binoculars, but naked-eye astronomy is like learning to drive a standard transmission. I may not always have a telescope, but I would always have my eyes.  
 
Sometime around 11 pm I would make my way the three-quarters of a mile back to Hilltop. Leaving the open space of the parking lot for the claustrophobic nighttime trail, it was so dark I literally could not see my hand in front of my face. My flashlight barely pierced the blackness. Along the way, as I passed various campsites, I made wild animal calls to spook the other scouts as I fought off the tingle of fear at the base of my spine  my howls mixing in with the night and the mystery.
 
Deep Field Observations
 
I was an active member for five years, 1974 to 1979. I ended up as a Star Scout. If it went by count alone, I had enough merit badges for Life Scout, but I needed certain ones in areas I had no interest in. Combined with my parent’s dysfunctional marriage and later divorce, my interest waned.  
  
Troop 2 at the Auriesville Retreat, 1976 (left to right, in pairs) 1st row, Andy O’Toole 
and Jack Urso (author); 2nd row, Andy Kissel and Peter Laz, 3rd row, the Pelton twins.

I can’t say that I have maintained any of my scouting skills. I haven’t been camping since I left Troop 2. In my 30s, I actually lived close to St. Andrew’s Church where the troop met, and one of my former employers was an assistant scoutmaster for a time, but I had no desire to volunteer.
 
I left my telescope in Rochester with some friends after college and never got it back. The cheap Sears’ lens never quite worked right anyway, though I regret losing the first Christmas gift from my father after the divorce. Despite my early interest, beyond watching segments of Jack Horkheimer’s Star Gazer and reading books on cosmology, I haven’t really pursued it.
 
Navigator’s Triangle in the Northern sky.

Still, there are restless late nights when I go out on my back porch and look up at the small slice of sky I can see above the rooftops and beyond the glare of the city lights, and I’ll pick out a few planets, stars, and constellations I still recall  especially the Navigator's Triangle when it is visible. Because how long it takes for the light to reach us, looking at the stars is a bit like time travel. We only see what was, not what is now. Likewise, when I do star gaze, I am always transported back to August 1978 and that dark parking lot on Stratton Mountain. The fading voice of my Astronomy merit badge counselor, like that of my youth, is drowned out by the noise of four decades. Still, as the Sun only drowns out starlight that is always in the sky, if I look long enough I can still see the sparks of that summer so long ago.
 

                         


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Rise and Fall of Big Dom’s Subs

by G. Jack Urso 


Introduction
 
In 2020, archeologists excavating in the ruins of Pompeii discovered an ancient Roman thermopolium, where hot ready-to-eat food was sold — sort of the equivalent of a fast-food take-out restaurant. According to a Dec. 16, 2020, France 24 article, its well-preserved state presents a colorful array of frescoes as well as the remains of such food and accoutrements as “duck bones, fava beans, wine, and a paella-style dish of pork, goat, bird, fish, and snail, alongside cooking dishes, flasks, and storage vessels.” Thus far, approximately eighty such thermopolia have been discovered at Pompeii. 
 
It’s not too far a reach to conjecture that some of these thermopolia were owned by a single enterprising merchant or a merchant family with relatives running various franchise locations. Who the owner of this particular thermopolium was is unknown, yet it must have represented years of hard work. Perhaps it was generational, with the thermopolium being handed down from one family member to another for decades. In one day, however, it was over. The long years of hard work and a family legacy vanished in an instant. We may never know who they were or what lessons their lives could have taught us about Roman business practices and the dreams and struggles that come along with it.
 
While we have the tools to record our history, we have a responsibility to do so, even if the topics might seem ephemeral. Reading this article reminded me, in a roundabout way, of Big Dom’s Subs, a long-lost chain of submarine sandwich shops in the Capital District area (centering on Albany, NY) from the 1960s to 1991. In the great scheme of things it is barely a blip in the historical record, yet in recounting the history and operations of the company we can learn a lot about business practices at the time, local culture, and the hopes and hard work of many that came to an abrupt end.
 
Full Disclosure
 
In the interest of full transparency, it should be noted that I write this article having had some past experience with Big Dom’s Subs and the Basile family who operated it. I worked as a sandwich maker in eight locations. My mother and I cleaned the corporate offices as well as the homes of company president Dominic (Big Dom) and younger brother and vice president Joe (Li’l Joe) Basile. My brother and sister also both worked at Big Dom’s, my brother as a shift leader.
 
In the early 1970s, my mother and some of her friends met at Dom’s sister’s (Roccatelle/Rocky) apartment Friday nights in sort of a New Age book discussion group. I believe it was Rocky who recommend my mother to clean Big Dom’s offices in the basement at 19 New Scotland Avenue. Becoming a trusted worker, they continued to employ my mother at the various locations of their corporate offices whenever they moved as well as Dom's and Joe's private homes, which I helped her do in addition to cleaning the offices.
 
Dominic and his wife, Jeanette, affectionately nicknamed Birdie due to an abbreviated form of her maiden last name, Burdick, and her love of owls, made an immediate impression with her slim figure contrasted with Big Dom’s large frame. Both Dom and Joe sometimes gave my mom an extra case of some food or beverage samples they had leftover. As she was on a tight budget, it was always appreciated. 
 
The Basiles were very kind. They had a vacation home in Miami, Florida, they allowed us to use for one memorable month in the summer of 1973. They also gave my mother work after her divorce when all she had was a sixth-grade education and no work experience in nearly two decades outside the home. My mother continued to clean their offices and homes through 1985 when Birdie asked my mother to live in her old family home in Delhi, NY, as a house sitter. For my mother, who grew up on a farm in Sicily, it was a return to her roots in middle age. The home seemed as though it saw little change since the 1930s. It was like stepping back in time.
 
Finally, as a side note, the Big Dom’s location at 1825 Central Ave., Colonie, NY, on the corner of Vly Rd., was later occupied by my Uncle Jim Urso in the 1990s for his last business venture, “Jim’s Take Out.”
 
Walt’s Submarine Sandwiches Inc.
 
According to Bizapedia and various Times Union (Albany, NY) articles, Walt's Submarine Sandwiches, Inc., the corporate parent for Big Dom’s Subs, officially registered as a New York Domestic Business Corporation by Dominic Basile and Walter Austin on April 17, 1968. This is the year typically given in articles in the Times Union, which also lists 283 Ontario Street as the location of the first store; however, according to my research of the Albany City Directories and other sources, when Walt's Submarines Sandwiches first started, and where it was located, is complicated story. 
  
As noted in the Albany City Directories, Walt Submarines was actually first listed as a business in 1964 with Walter Auster as the owner, and at 271 Ontario Street (see images 1 and 19), not 283 Ontario. This places Walt's in business at least four years before incorporating with Big Dom. Additionally, page 7 of the September 18, 1964 edition of the Albany Student Press (click on link and see image 8) includes an ad for Walt's Subs, putting the store in business prior to 1966 with the copy inferring a possible start date before 1964, though after the 1963 city directory had been compiled.

Image 1: 1964 Albany City Directory listing for Walt’s Submarine Sandwiches.

I went back into the 1950s, but Walt's Sub's is not is listed before the 1964 directory. Additionally, while Walt's is listed in the 1964 and 1965 directories, and at 271 Ontario, the store is not listed in the 1966 directory. After skipping a year, Walt's reappears in the 1967  Albany City Directory, but this time at its new address at 283 Ontario (see image 2). 

Image 2: 1967 Walt's Submarines listing (Albany City Directory).

The city directories typically list the owner/owners of a business and only Austin is listed. Dominic Basile was added to the list in 1968. Oral history has it that Big Dom first met Walt while delivering meats to the sandwich shop  Dom saw a great business opportunity and joined up with Walt. The fact that Walt’s Submarine Sandwiches is listed four years before incorporation suggests that there may indeed be some truth to the story. In addition to its subs, Walt's was also known for its lemonade, a product that disappeared during the Big Dom years.

Image 3: Walt's Submarines Sandwiches advertisement. Circa 1972.

I was not able to find out how long Walter Austin remained with the company. His name disappears from the directories in 1971. Based on my experience with the company, I believe the relationship ceased by the early 1970s, though that is just speculation. I was not able to find any other information about him.

Image 4: 1971 Albany City Directory entry with Joe Basile listed.

According to the Albany City Directories, by 1970, Walt’s Subs added a store at 954 Central Ave. The directories also list the owners of the business. In 1970, Walter Austin is identified as the president and secretary of Walt’s Submarines Sandwiches Inc. and Dominic Basile as the Vice President. In the 1971 directory, Walter Austin disappears from the listings and Dominic Basile moves up to president and secretary. 
 
Interestingly, Joe Basile is listed for the first time in the 1971 Albany City Directory (see image 4), though no position with the company is noted. As noted on the Basile Family website, in 1972, Joe Basile bought 35 percent of business from his brother Dom. Times Union articles dating to the time of the breakup of the brother’s business relationship in 1988 reported it to be 32.5 percent, Joe is listed as the vice president, indicating he worked at the store a year before buying into it.

Image 5: Walt's Submarines Sandwiches advertisement.

According to the caption for the photo from the Albany Area Archives (see image 6), the Ontario Street location was still named Walt’s Subs in 1973. If the date is accurate, then the Basiles continued to operate the sub shops as Walt’s Submarine Sandwiches until the Big Dom brand roll out. When exactly the Walt’s Submarines shops were renamed Big Dom’s is not clear. The Albany City Directories only list the company as Walt’s Submarines Sandwiches Inc., which remained the corporate name. Big Dom's was regarded as division of Walt's Submarine Sandwiches, Inc. 
 
The Albany City Directories list the 283 Ontario Street address as late as 1976 (see image 9), but according to the Albany history blog Doc Circe Died For Our Sins (click link for article), by 1977 Big Dom's moved from the original 283 Ontario Street location to 846 Madison Avenue, on the corner of Ontario and Madison. 283 Ontario Street is just half a block away from 846 Madison. At least 12 businesses preceded Big Dom’s at the Madison Avenue location since its first reported tenant in 1888.  

   
              Image 6: 283 Ontario Street in 1973.   Image 7: 283 Ontario Street in 2021. Now a vacant lot.

While that seems cut and dry, the matter regarding the Ontario Street location gets even more complicated with the aforementioned advertisement in the September 18, 1964, Albany Student Press newspaper announcing Walt's Subs move from 271 Ontario to the corner of Madison and Ontario (see image 8), contradicting the information in the Albany City Directory and Doc Circe's well-researched chronology of the businesses that once occupied 846 Madison. The move apparently didn't last long since it was not recorded in the Albany City Directory, meaning it may have only lasted there a few months before moving back to 271 Ontario where the directories have it listed for both 1964 and 1965. What really happened is a mystery and despite my research I am unable to account for this discrepancy.

Image 8: Sept. 18, 1964 advertisement in the Albany Student Press.

Nevertheless, once Big Dom came aboard, in addition to the 283 Ontario Street and 954 Central Avenue locations, Walt’s added a store at 19 New Scotland Avenue in 1972, all in Albany. According to the Albany City Directory, by 1976, they were also operating stores at 463 Troy-Schenectady Road, Latham, and 1810 Western Avenue, Westmere (see images 9 and 10). 
 
In regards to the Western Avenue location, on Big Dom’s advertising in 1979, the address is listed as 1808 Western (see image 15). 1808 and 1810 Western Ave. are adjoining rental retail spaces. I know when I worked there in the early 1980s it was at 1808 Western Ave. Since both the 1976 advertising and the Albany City Directory list the 1810 Western Ave. address, it seems that sometime between 1976 and 1979 the store was moved to 1808 Western when the space became available. 
 
Big Dom’s
 
As noted in the advertisement in image 10, at least through 1976, the stores were still branded Walt's Submarine Sandwiches, though the ad also uses Big Dom's name, suggesting the transition to the Big Dom's brand was underway.
 
At its height, Big Dom’s had ten locations in the Capital Region. Nine locations were opened up by 1981, including:

1. 846 Madison Avenue (corner of Madison Ave. & Ontario St.) Albany, NY. Originally at 283 Ontario Street.

2. 954 Central Avenue, Albany, NY (later moved to Westgate Plaza, 911 Central Ave.)

3. 19 New Scotland Ave., Albany, NY

4. 471 Troy Schenectady Rd., Latham, NY

5. 1808 Western Ave., Westmere, NY

6. 79 Broadway, Menands, NY

7. 1825 Central Ave., Colonie, NY

8. 1790 Altamont Ave., Rotterdam NY

9. 1419 Broadway, Schenectady, NY (opened 1988)

10. Congress & Third Street, Troy, NY

Additionally, a concession stand was located at J.B. Scott’s, 321 Central Ave. Albany’s famed nightclub which, despite its brief existence from 1979-1982, saw such acts as Bryan Adams, Buddy Rich, Count Basie, Iggy Pop, John Lee Hooker, John Mellencamp, Judas Priest, Meat Loaf, Pat Benatar, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Go-Go's, The Ramones, Thin Lizzy, and U2, among many more. Included in that number was Albany’s own New Wave and Soul/R&B band, Blotto, who achieved some modest fame for its song "I Wanna Be A Lifeguard,” noted as being among the music videos played the first day of MTV’s debut. 

Image 9: 1976 Albany City Directory listing.

The best Big Dom’s locations probably were most affordably run as take-out joints. A few had small counters, but there was seldom enough room for much in terms of in-house eating accommodations. This kept down the rent. One miscalculation may have been the move from 954 Central Avenue, a small converted single-family home, to Westgate Plaza, 911 Central Ave. The Westgate Plaza location had two to three times the floor space of the 954 Central Ave. location. Even by Subway or Mr. Subb standards, some of which do have in-house eating areas, it was large. Of course, there was no wait staff. As with Mr. Subb or Subway locations today, the customer got their food and sat down. The turn-over of seated customers for this type of dining is usually high, so half the size would have been sufficient. As it was, during my shifts at least, the eating space was only occasionally used. It seemed like a waste of money. Notably, when a Mr. Subb later took over the location the space was cut up and had about half the eating space of Big Dom’s.

Image 10: 1976 Big Dom’s advertisement and menu. Note the use of
Big Dom's name though the store is still called Walt's Submarine Sandwiches.

The executive offices were originally located in the basement of the store at 19 New Scotland Avenue, which was established sometime in 1972, or at least that’s when it first turns up in the city directory. I recall helping my mother clean the offices at the 19 New Scotland Avenue location, and the move in 1973 to the more palatial location on the third floor of 33 Essex Street, behind the then-Carnavale’s grocery store (75 Watervliet Avenue) probably the largest store of its kind in the Capital District at the time (now Harriett Gibbons High School). By the fall of 1983, the offices moved to its final location at 155 Exchange Street, all in Albany. My mother’s cleaning service, and myself by default, cleaned all three locations, giving me an inside look at operations. 
 
Marketing
 
The shift from Walt’s Submarine Sandwiches to Big Dom’s Subs, gave the company an instantly recognizable name and icon. In an era of personality-driven marketing with such characters as Ronald McDonald, Burger King, Wendy, the KFC Colonel, Long John Silver, Arthur Treacher, and Beefsteak Charlie, the large grinning figure of Big Dom with his waxed handlebar mustache fit right in. Radio and TV advertising and sales promotions pushed the product to a large blue and white collar worker and college student clientele. Indeed, Albany itself at the time was home to no less than seven colleges and business schools, not to mention all those state workers.
 
Cleaning up the offices, I was able to see how the advertising layout worked in the era before personal business computers. The office had a large drafting table with various sized logos and Big Dom graphics which were cut out and organized around typewritten text, which was then photocopied and sent off to the printer or newspaper.

Image 11: Big Dom's coupons in the All About Albany board game (circa 1981).

One memorable humorous TV ad introduced the “Li’l Joe’s” line of deli sandwiches, with a reticent Joe Basile refusing to step out from behind Big Dom. They also were one of the sponsors for a stock car at the Fonda Speedway driven by local legend Danny Ody (see image 12, below).

Image 12: Danny Ody and his stock car with Big Dom's logo (Fonda Hall of Fame).

There was also one planned campaign involving a photo shoot with a beautiful young model dressed in a tight-fitting Big Dom's t-shirt and short-shorts. There were probably hundreds of pictures of various poses, but as I recall none were ever used for any marketing campaign — and the adolescent me would surely have remembered. The model did stop by the offices once while I was cleaning it up with my mother, earning me some not-so-gentle reminders from my mom to stop staring and get back to work.

Image 13: Matchbook (author's collection).

The Menu
 
The great thing about Big Dom’s was all the great food. A large professional kitchen at the New Scotland Avenue location produced meatballs, sausages, tuna fish, seafood salad, etc., for distribution to all the stores. Some of this work may have also been done at the 954 Central Avenue location. A Big Dom’s truck dedicated to delivery to the stores made its rounds every day. 

Image 14: Walt's Subs Menu — early 1970s, but post-1972. Note that
Big Dom’s name is being used for marketing before the franchise name change.

The location themselves had deli slicers to cut the meats and cheeses as needed. Ovens were used to prepare hot foods. There were no dishwashers. Everything was scrubbed by hand. Speaking of hands, there were no latex gloves, and if things got busy we may not have washed our hands between orders. It was definitely a different era.

Image 15: 1979 advertisement.

The rolls supplied by Carosello's Bakery were some of the best I’ve ever had. My absolute favorite was the meatball sub. In something unique for Big Dom’s, which I’ve not seen elsewhere, was that the meatballs were rolled out into short tubes, about four inches long — basically, the size and shape of sausages. This made for an easier to handle sandwich and better inventory control. While in ball form, an inexact number of meatballs were used, but as tubes one knew precisely how many “meatballs” were needed. 
 
The variety of subs was outstanding. In addition to cold cuts, tuna and seafood salad, and the aforementioned meatball sub, there were also vegetarian subs, sausage and peppers, veal and peppers, surf and turf, a pacific islander, and eggplant parmesan. Who, I ask, does an eggplant parmesan? Big freakin’ Dom’s, that’s who.

Image 16: 1981 advertisement.

The Li’l Joe’s line of deli sandwiches included the popular Reuben, hot pastrami, and “bar-b-q” beef. Fountain soda and Very Fine juices rounded out the beverage offerings.
 
Operations
 
In addition to Big Dom as president, Joe as vice president, Birdie as office manager, and Norman Tillman as general manager, the executive staff also included at least four supervisors and one administrative assistant.
 
The supervisors each had several locations they oversaw. Each shift began with the supervisors calling around to get inventory numbers. If one location was short of supplies, the supervisor would bring what was needed in from another store. After getting the inventory numbers, they would call in orders to suppliers before going out on their rounds. 
 
At the stores, supervisors would add new memorandum to a clipboard hung on a wall, discuss any new procedures, and basically handle any issue above the shift leader's pay grade. Dealing with the problems from the array of oddball customers and employees also fell on their list of duties. It was basic quality control, but without this middle-management position the stores and operations would have quickly fallen into disarray.  
 
Shift leaders were responsible for cashing in and cashing out and running the shift report from the register which would show what subs and beverages were ordered. By the late 1970s all locations were using registers with internal computers that could be programmed with PLU codes assigned to each product. It made accounting for inventory, costs, and profits more precise than the mechanical monstrosities of just a decade before. Nevertheless, a thick binder with instructions was nearby and I remember often having to crack it open to solve a problem or run a shift report.
 
The money was put in a drop-in safe that only the supervisors had the combination to and who would pick it up on their rounds. I questioned the security of this method since the supervisors drove easy to identify company cars which had the Big Dom logo and name. Starting about 1981, these vehicles were yellow Ford Escorts and the black Big Dom's logo, which were the company colors.

Image 17: A Big Dom's t-shirt (Skreened.com). Workers wore a yellow zip-up or buttoned short-sleeve work shirt and a yellow and white baseball hat with the Big Dom's logo.

The company also promoted from within, with sandwich makers being able to rise up to shift leaders, and in some cases to supervisor. Despite the high turnover in entry-level workers endemic in food service, many workers stayed with the company 10, 15, and even 20 years. This was due to a general family atmosphere that was cultivated in the company. Dom and Joe were usually very approachable. 
 
Still though, it was hard work. If you had an eight-hour shift you were on your feet for eight hours. The stores were open until 2 am or 3 am Sunday through Thursday, and up to 4 am on Fridays and Saturdays. In addition to workers and students there were also conmen, pimps, prostitutes, drunks, speed freaks, and crackheads. The saddest were the Moonies who came around trying to sell cheap trinkets. Invariably, these were Asian women with limited English skills and one could not help but feel they were being exploited. 
 
One popular perk was that employees were allowed one free sub per shift. By the early 1980s, I think that became a half (6-inch) sub, a drink, and some chips. Supervisors, who set the schedules, were usually pretty accommodating when it came to time off. Someone was always looking to pick up another shift. We also had some wide latitude when it came to dealing with disruptive customers. A short bat of some sort was usually close by under the counter. It was not company policy, but if one made its way into a store supervisors never protested.
 
Big Dom’s brother Lenny served as a security consultant with the company. He was a big guy and wore a large revolver in a shoulder holster. Lenny had the goods, so to speak. He served as a captain in the U.S. Army as a military police officer during the Vietnam War. He was also a combat veteran who was awarded two Bronze Star Citations for heroism and valor. One story Lenny told of his time in Vietnam was how he made his drivers sit in the passenger seat of the jeep while he drove, so as not to be a sniper target. Lenny took his work seriously and he was not someone to fuck around with, particularly if he was on duty. 
 
Considering the store hours, and the high volume of traffic on a weekend night, the locations were easy targets, especially since they had no security cameras. One late evening or early morning about 1980 or 1981 one young man decided to try his luck at the store on the corner of Madison and Ontario Avenue (see image 18, below) and ran smack into an armed Lenny. One person's account on the now-defunct Times Union blogs page suggests it was the third night in a row a robbery was attempted at that location, presumably by the same individual, if the account is accurate. 

Image 18: The former Big Dom’s location at 846 Madison Avenue,
now Madison’s Pizza (July 2021).

According to those I interviewed who also recall the incident, the young man took off north up Ontario and turned left on Yates Street. Lenny chased him and near a church shot him in back of the neck. On one hand, one had to respect a shot in the dark at a moving target. On the other hand, the young man was running away. He was presenting no danger to Lenny or the store employees, but hitting the same store three nights in a row, if true, shows a level of desperation overriding even criminal common sense. While the young man should not have tried robbing a store, I still remember being a bit horrified at the time. 
 
Supposedly, if the oral history is true, the case was brought before a grand jury, but no indictment was handed down. Not knowing the date of the incident, I was unable to confirm the story in the Times Union microfilm archives at the Albany Public Library, so the details presented here have to be taken for what they are  unverified oral accounts. 
 
The End

Image 19: 271 Ontario Street, where Walt Submarine Sandwiches
began circa 1964, now boarded up (July 2021).

In a Time magazine article dated April 5, 1982, Dom noted the seasonal challenges of running a sandwich shop as well as the expenses. The article reports an increase in rent from $300 to $350 month ($836.88 and $976.35 respectively in 2021 dollars) by local landlord Richard Gerrity. Eventually, they settled on a payment of 3,000 free sub coupons for Gerrity's workers at his nearby machine tool shop in exchange for two-year's rent. This situation exemplifies the on-going challenges Big Dom's faced in a seasonal business.
 
By the late 1980s, the relationship between the two brothers got rocky. In June 1988, Joseph Basile petitioned the courts to dissolve the business relationship between him and his brother Dominic. According to a July 27, 1988, article in the Times Union, this action followed a decision in 1986 by the Walt Submarine Sandwiches Inc. board of directors, comprised of the Basiles and Walter Breakell II, that Big Dom would retire from the company with Joe taking over the reins. Dom had been having health problems, not unexpected given his age and size, and the time seemed right for a change. 
 
Unfortunately, the relationship between the brothers soured quickly. The Times Union article cited above reported that during the two-year period Big Dom was in retirement he and his wife Jeannette were paid $75,000 (approximately $184,211 in 2021) in salary and benefits each year without doing any work. While one can understand Joe’s perspective, Dom did build the company up during its first formative four years. It was his image on all the advertising and marketing materials, even the uniforms, so some sort of compensation was not unreasonable, if perhaps not quite as much.
 
The July 27, 1988, Times Union article goes on to state that in March 1988 Dom reasserted control of the company in a meeting with his wife Birdie, who served as the office manager, and general manager Norman Tillman, demoted Joe was demoted from president to vice president of marketing. With neither Joe nor Walter Breakell in attendance, and so not the full board, the legality of the move seems problematic. In any event, it didn’t last long and on April 22, 1988, Dom fired his brother altogether.
 
Few details of the disagreement between the brothers are reported, but according to the April 6 Times Union article, “In June 1988, Joseph Basile asked the court to dissolve the 20-year-old corporation after Dominic Basile threatened to fire him [Joseph Basile], freeze his salary and have him arrested if he entered the company's headquarters.” As noted in the article, Dominic claimed Joe spent money on such things as car repairs, a dishwasher, and some personal expenses.
 
I can see an argument for Big Dom to continue to get compensated while in retirement, and I can also justify Joe’s expenses. Only the supervisors had company cars and Joe, who often visited the locations, drove his own car, as Big Dom did (easily identified with the personalized “Big Dom” license plate). So, the car repairs seem justified. As far as the dishwasher is concerned, it seems like nickel and dime stuff. If it was really that big a deal the company could be reimbursed the relatively small amount of money. It did not seem worth severing family ties over, but of course I was not there and can only report what’s been written in the open press, which likely does not tell the whole story.
 
On April 6, 1990, the Times Union reported that on April 3 Big Dom's filed for bankruptcy protection citing a "cash flow problem" and "debts of $870,200 and assets of $230,683" (approximately $1,792,299 and $475,124 in 2021). That same week, new York State Supreme Court Justice Daniel Prior ruled Dominic owed his brother Joe $200,000 (approximately at least $411,928 in 2021) for his shares in the company, plus interest, starting from June 1988. The stores continued to operate for a time, but the end was near.
 
By Sept. 25, 1990, according to the Times Union, Joe withdrew a bid of $260,000 (approximately $535,506 in 2021) to buy the chain. In a Feb. 8, 1991, article, the Times Union reported, “The Big Dom's chain closed after operating since last April under the protection of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Albany.” The final judgement was affirmed on May 9, 1991, in a decision on an appeal filed in the State Supreme Court, Justice Prior presiding. This ruling confirmed Joe Basile was owned the $200,000 previously awarded in April 1990 for his 32.5 percent of the company, or 65 common shares.
 
Ironically, Big Dom’s main competitor during the two decades of its existence, the Mike’s Submarines-Neba Roast Beef sandwich shop chain, also went bankrupt in 1990. Increased competition from larger regional chains such as Mr. Subb, Subway, and Jreck’s (who bought the Mike's Neba franchise) made making a buck in the sandwich business hard going. The sibling rivalry didn’t help either.
 
Altogether, Walt’s Submarine Sandwiches Inc. endured for about 27 years as a business. Of that time, for approximately 15 or 16 years, it was known as Big Dom’s Subs — a brief period in the region’s history. Nowadays, one would be hard pressed to find anyone under 50 who remembers the chain. Such is the transient nature of business.
 
Legacy

Image 20: Another view of the vacant lot at 283 Ontario Street, site of the second Walt’s Sub’s location (June 2021). See images 6 and 7 for a side-by-side before and after picture.

Because of the marketing using the iconic image of Big Dom himself, the company enjoyed a high profile during it’s time. If the company had been around longer, I can see the possibility of the Big Dom name expanding into a line of local grocery store products, such as dressings and rebranded Italian imports. There was a lot of lost potential for growth.
 
Big Dom’s success allowed for him and Joe to afford an upper middle-class lifestyle with nice homes and tuition for private schools for their children. They worked hard on an original marketing concept which remains a model for success for small family businesses looking to establish a regional presence. The ending reminds me of the old saying to never go into business with family, particularly in the food business, as the question of ownership and responsibilities can get murky. While businesses come and go, our family relationships should transcend the bottom line.
 
In a way, I was witness to a sort-of funeral for Big Dom’s. It was at a house party in Albany shortly after the stores closed for good and were being cleared out. Two acquaintances pulled up in their truck with the large Big Dom’s sign from the store on the corner of Madison and Ontario. The sign was in the store colors of yellow and black and had Big Dom’s iconic image, which could light up. On the way to the party, they saw the sign outside the store on the curb as trash, so they took a chance and picked it up. It remained a popular fixture for backyard house parties until everyone moved out. It was reportedly given to an earnest young party-goer who admired it. Its current whereabouts, if not in a landfill somewhere, is unknown.
 
Perhaps someday, thousands of years from now, that sign will be dug up by future archeologists, like the ones at Pompeii who in 2020 discovered that ancient thermopolium, and wonder what the story is behind the image. As I contemplate the legacy of Big Dom's Subs, I am reminded of the old Latin saying, sic transit gloria mundi — thus passes the glory of the world. 

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