56c-Serrapede Family in America-A Depression Era Childhood-On the Radio


 56b-Westinghouse Radio
1930s radio made by Westinghouse.
Public Domain image.  Photo by Joe Haupt.

In the past two postings we learned about the kinds of treats and books Emily enjoyed as a child during the Great Depression.  Other memories she shared were about how important the radio was for her family.  In the early evening, after dinner, she was allowed to listen to one or two programs before going to bed.  For this posting we researched one of her favorite childhood programs.  When we focus on her teenage years, we’ll post about the programs she listened to at that time.

In the Resources section you will find a link to an archive containing many recordings of the show featured in this posting.  We recommend you take a half hour to listen to one or two broadcasts.  Unlike the TV or a computer screen, you can freely move around and do other things while the program is in progress.  During my time listening to the program I enjoyed doing some crochet and tidying up the apartment.

Relationship Note

Emily L. Serrapede was the daughter of Sam and Josie Serrapede.  She was the older sister of Sammy and Gerry.  EmilyAnn knew her as “The Mom”.

Family Story:  Get ready for “Let’s Pretend”

 56c-art deco radio
1930s Art Deco Radio.
Public Domain image.  Photo by Joe Haupt.

Josie encouraged Emily to read on Saturday afternoons or when she was home from school.  When she had finished reading a story or some rhymes, Josie engaged her in a conversation about what she read.  It was important for Emily to state a reason as to why she liked or didn’t like something.

Sometimes she didn’t like reading a story because she had difficulty imagining just what a wicked witch, a scarey giant, a charming prince, a poor little girl lost in the woods or a beautiful princess should be like.  This is where Josie found “Let’s Pretend” a great tool to develop Emily’s imagination.  It was one radio show she reminded Emily to get ready for each week. By developing careful listening skills Emily was able to get a feel for what the personality of each character in the story was like.  When the program was over Josie reinforced the experience by questioning Emily about the characters and asking her who she liked and didn’t like and why.

An overview of “Let’s Pretend”


Nila Mack as featured in a 1944 issue of “Billboard” magazine.  Public Domain image.

The series went through several changes in title and hosts after its start in 1928.  The format, though, remained the same.  The hosts took the children on a journey into the world of make-believe for the duration of the story’s telling and then returned to the present at its conclusion.  Starting in 1934 the series’ creator Nila Mack took over as director.  The title was changed to “Let’s Pretend” and Nila had a successful run with it until her death in 1953.  The last show aired in 1954 under another director.

“Let’s Pretend” was not merely storytelling:  it was theater in its simplest form for children.  The show was very popular and received several awards including two Peabody Awards.  Nila believed children should be the tellers of the story so young children, pre-teens and teenage voice actors were selected to portray the characters in each show.  Some of these voice actors and actresses were born and raised right in the boroughs of New York City.  We’ll take a quick look at two of them, Miriam Wolfe and Arthur Anderson.

“Let’s Pretend” was broadcast before a live audience consisting mostly of children in the WABC studio in Manhattan.

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56b-Serrapede Family in America-A Depression Era Childhood-My Book House,Part 2


This posting is a continuation of 56b-Serrapede Family in America-A Depression Era Childhood-My Book House, Part 1

The creator and editor of My Book House, Olive Beaupre Miller

Olive Beaupre Miller founded the Book House for Children Publishing Company with the purpose of not only teaching children how to read but to develop good character and choices in literature. She also wanted the stories to teach children about life, values and a variety of cultures as they grew up. Consideration was given to the material in terms of suitability for each stage in a child’s development. Each volume was focused on a certain age for the child and presented vocabulary, concepts and plot structure suitable to that age group.

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56b-Serrapede Family in America-A Depression Era Childhood-My Book House, Part 1


When Emily went to school her parents wanted her to cultivate an appreciation for classic literature, myths, legends, poetry and music of her own and other cultures. In this posting we discovered that the series of books they bought for this purpose is still loved and in demand today.

Relationship Notes

Josie and Sam were born in Agropoli, a town in Salerno province in Italy. Josie’s parents, Nicola and Letizia Muro, settled in Wilmerding, PA in the early 1910s. Sam came to the United States in the mid-1920s and lived with his sister and brother-in-law in Brooklyn, NY. Josie and Sam got together after Josie came up to Brooklyn and were married in 1930. Emily Leatrice Serrapede, their first child, was born in 1931.

Emily was the older sister of Gerry (Gennaro) and Sammy (Sabbatino). EmilyAnn knew her as “The Mom.”

Family Story: Building the My Book House Library One Volume at a Time

Emily remembered that Josie waited for a salesman to come to the apartment one day. She asked Emily to wait with her. When the salesman came in he carried a small suitcase. Emily wondered what kind of dolls or dresses were inside.

Josie took the book which the salesman handed her and carefully looked through the pages. At first Emily wasn’t that excited about getting a book. Josie still had to read to her so she wasn’t sure what good the book would be.

Josie leaned over to show Emily the book. “Look sweetheart, what do you think of these pictures?” The inside of the book contained brightly colored illustrations. Some were of baby animals, others were fairies, and oh those twinkling stars in some of the night time scenes. As Josie showed Emily other books in the series Emily asked if the salesman was going to leave them all there at once. She also wanted to know where the books would be kept. She asked Josie to make sure her books would be safe.

Josie explained that she would be getting one book at a time. The arrangements were made with the salesman that afternoon.

Emily did not remember how frequently he came with a new volume but over time the bookcase Josie bought contained twelve volumes plus two bigger books. One was about Holland and the other about France.

There was an extra volume in the series for parents that recommended suitable games and activities that could be created around the stories in the books. One activity Emily wrote about in her “My Baby Book” was about making clay faces as a child. When Uncle Sammy and I  reviewed the guidebook before preparing this posting we learned that was one of the recommended activities. This shows that Josie was following the program that guided the child through the proper readings and activities for each stage of development.

Background of My Book House

The series was intended to follow a child from their earliest years through high school. Each volume is based around a theme such as adventure stories, stories of chivalry and knights in shining armor, fairies, heroes of the past and present. There are also poems. The footnotes in many pieces point the way for the child and parent to do further exploration. In some examples references are provided to classical composers, operas and ballets. For example, in the Rhinegold stories readers are told a little about Richard Wagner and his opera, “The Ring”. The footnotes contained enough information to make further research possible when visiting a public library.

At a blog named after her beloved set of My Book House books, a blogger named Miss Kathy shares many memories of how the series introduced her and her children to classics in literature, history and poetry that have stood the test of time.

One thing to take note is that there were two stories in the pre 1970s period that were replaced after a review found these stories no longer acceptable. These were “Little Black Sambo” and “The Tar Baby”. Later editions contained some new material but overall the focus remains on the classic legends, stories and historical figures of not only the West but other cultures such as Russia, Middle Europe, China and India.

(to be continued)

56a-Serrapede Family in America-A Depression Era Childhood-Little Treats, Part 2


This posting is a continuation of  56a-Serrapede Family in America-A Depression Era Childhood-Little Treats, Part 1 in which we retold the family stories and memories Emily shared with us over the years.

This posting continues adds some photos of the treats and vendors mentioned in Part 1.  It concludes with Uncle Sammy and I sharing memories of our favorite childhood treats.

Memories of Sweet Times with Charlie Roose

Josie enjoyed little treats every so often. She didn’t need a reason to do indulge so long as there was extra money available. Often these little treats came when Josie and Emily were out for a walk on 13th Avenue. Emily remembers the site of a baker or vendor selling a sweet kind of sponge cake with a high tower of whipped cream. She called them “Charlie Roose”. It was something she enjoyed so much she didn’t know what part to have first. Sometimes she worked through all the whipped cream and then had the cherry before eating the little piece of cake at the bottom of the cup. Other times she just had the cherry first and then worked her way through the whipped cream to the cake. If she ate too fast Josie would tell her to be careful so as not to dirty her clothes.


What Emily pronounced as “Charlie Roose” were actually called Charlotte Russe. The original recipe developed in Europe during the 18th century and was considered a very elegant dessert. The main ingredients were a light sponge cake with a layer of fruit or jam topped with a towering swirl of whipped cream. In France the recipe was named Charlotte Russe. It gained popularity in New York City during the early 20th century, especially because in its simplified form it consisted of a small piece of cake topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry on top. Bakeries could use fresh sponge or one that was not so fresh. The Charlotte Russe was widely available in bakeries or through vendors selling them on the street.

During the days when Emily grew up, Charlotte Rousse was a winter time treat because cold temperatures kept the whipped cream from going bad. In 1982 Mimi Sheraton, writing in the New York Times, describes her delight at locating a bakery in New York’s West Village that still made Charlotte Rousse. She remembered that they originally cost from 5 to 7 cents.

Once popular throughout Manhattan and the boroughs, today very few bakeries make them. In 2012 Leah Koenig wrote about Charlotte Rousse for “Politico”. In her search she located only one bakery that still makes them. Holterman’s Bakery in Staten Island sold about 48 Charlotte Rousse a week in 2012. At that time the owners were not sure they would continue to make them.

Memories of Cold Weather and Hot Potatoes

After picking Emily up from school, Josie would take her for a walk on 13th Avenue to buy any foods she needed for the next day’s meal. When the weather was very cold she bought Emily a hot, baked sweet potato from a street vendor. This was a hearty after school treat that quickly alleviated those after school cravings for a snack.


Sweet potatoes sold on the streets were baked inside of coal fired ovens. These small ovens were on wheels which made it easy for a vendor to move around to the busiest locations. At his blog the late author Abraham Rothberg, shared many fond memories of eating hot potatoes on the street during the winter months. Abraham was born and raised in Brooklyn. His family could not afford to buy sweet potatoes, so he took some white Long Island potatoes from home and baked them over a fire he and his friends would make to keep warm. He also remembers the roasted chestnuts that many sweet potato vendors sold. The vendors wrapped the chestnuts and sweet potatoes in few sheets of newspaper so they could be handled. As they were held hands and face were also warmed.

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56a-Serrapede Family in America-A Depression Era Childhood-Little Treats, Part 1


Despite growing up during the Great Depression, Emily Leatrice never felt deprived. She remembered her early childhood fondly and would recount stories about the little pleasures that made her days special and life sweet.

We’ve focused on the memories and family stories Emily shared with us and round them out with additional details gathered from the readings noted in the Resources section.

–Sam Serrapede, Jr.

–EmilyAnn Frances May

Relationship Note

Emily L. Serrapede (1931-2011)  was the daughter of Sam and Josie Serrapede. She was the older sister of Gerry and Sammy. EmilyAnn knew her as “The Mom.”

 Family Story: The Little Mouse

Emily liked to be in the kitchen on Sunday mornings whenever Sam was grating a chunk of Locatelli or Romano cheese. Josie was usually at the stove heating up the tomato sauce and cooking the pasta that were part of the main meal for the day.

 As Sam grated the cheese Emily would stare at him until he stopped and asked her “Che fa? (“What’s up?”) Emily pointed to the large chunk of cheese and said one word, “Please?” Sam laughed and cut off a small piece which she took and enjoyed eating.

 In a few minutes she’d come back and stare at him again. This time he’d ask her what she wanted and she would reach over for the chunk of cheese. He’d cut another little piece and she’d go into the living room and enjoy the sharp flavor of the cheese.

 When she came back again, Sam would tell her to get out of the kitchen quick otherwise she’d turn into a mouse. Emily was not to be deterred and she’d wait for one more little piece before calling it a day. She knew that more than three times would get her into trouble.


Italian cheeses and olive oils were very expensive during the Great Depression. Since food preparation linked the family to their own culture and ancestral country many Italian families went without newer clothing or shoes just to make sure the quality of the traditional dietary items was the best they could get. This might be one of the reasons why Sam carefully measured out the size of the slices of cheese he would give Emily.

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55-Serrapede Family in America-Tap Dancing at Football Weddings in the 1930 and 1940s (Part 2)


This posting is a continuation of 55-Serrapede Family in America-Tap Dancing at Football Weddings in the 1930 and 1940s (Part 1).  This week Uncle Sammy and I present the research results for the various elements of the family story.  Uncle Sammy also shares his memories of attending “Football Weddings” as a child.  The findings add a depth to the retelling of the story and connect it to the bigger trends in pop-culture and growing up in the Italian-American community of Dyker Heights during the 1930s through 1940s.

Tap Dancing: An American dance form derived from African, English and Irish influences

Tap dancing developed through a melding of the percussive dancing of African slaves during the 19th century. In this type of dancing the feet are used in a way that makes a beating or sliding sound. When their English and Irish owners watched the dances they picked up on the rhythmic movements and added steps from their own traditional jigs and reels. From this blending of different elements tap dancing began. In the late 19th century tap dancing was a feature of Minstrel shows. Later in the early 20th century it was performed at Vaudeville shows.

In the early stages of its evolution, tap dancing shoes used wooden taps on the shoes to create a distinctive sound. Metal taps came into use in the 1930s. By this time tap dancing was part of mainstream entertainment. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were two of Hollywood’s famous dancers who performed a sophisticated style of tap dancing in some of their movies.

Tap dancing has been called the break dancing or street dancing of an earlier era in America’s popular culture. In Philadelphia it was possible for young aspiring children to join different levels of tap dancing groups that congregated at different corners throughout the city. When the level of the group was achieved, the young person could then move on to the next group and learn techniques at that particular level.

After the 1950s tap dancing declined in popularity. There is something of a revival in progress as professional dancers are hosting workshops that invite the public to come and learn some basic steps and become part of the performance. We hope these efforts succeed in keeping this American form of dance for a new generation.

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