For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites
Whatever Happened to Belle?
or a six-year-old in second grade in 1936, Winthrop Junior High School (P.S. 232) loomed up as large as Mount Everest. Designed and built in the early years of the Depression, the school was located in East Flatbush on Winthrop Street between East 52nd and East 53rd Streets. Architecturally, it was essentially a rubber stamp building, a clone of similar schools throughout the city. For a small boy, however, it was dazzling, a wonderful city filled with the sights and sounds of other children like himself, all moving to a structured cadence so unlike the three-room apartment in which he and his parents lived at the corner of East 51st Street and Clarkson Avenue and the teeming streets below.
The school (always referred to as "Winthrop") held many other attractions, the strongest being his friend "Belle". Belle and the little boy, through some strange scheduling anomaly, never shared a class together but events would put them in close contact regularly. Both Belle and the boy were considered "talents". He was a natural, one of those kids who, without a lesson in his life, sang and danced as if born to it. He had a terrific memory too, which allowed him to pick up and learn lines from a script rapidly. And he had no fear being in front of large groups of people; as a matter of fact, he yearned to show off and was a fluid performer. Belle was also a natural talent, which her mother had made sure was being developed with all sorts of lessons given by professional performers. Together then, Belle and the boy formed a powerful "dynamic duo" of blossoming talent.
There was no lack of showcases for them, as Winthrop's curriculum included many live stage performances in the school auditorium, hitched up to various holidays and cultural events. As one of our teachers was a blazing redheaded Mr.Ryan, March 17th was an all-Irish program. The star performers delighted - and often puzzled - the audience with "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling", and "Was Your Mother Born In Ireland", along with that old Yiddish favorite, "Come Back to Erin, Mavournee, Mavournee" among many others. The cast was huge and its intent was to have as many of the elementary students at the school on stage, no matter how insignificant the role. Belle and the boy brought down the house with perhaps the first Irish jig the audience had ever witnessed.
Belle was really something to see. Her face was still baby plump and she was growing into her body nicely, not gangly or with arms and legs protruding out in all sorts of directions. Her hair was full and dark and with enough cascading natural curls to make Shirley Temple outraged. During that year, they both put on about six or seven productions, which of course entailed many hours of rehearsal. Can six-year-olds fall in love? Well, this one did. Being thrown together with Belle, he realized that she was something special to him. He realized this; obviously she did not, but if it were puppy love on his part or something else, it meant a lot to him to be around her or to talk to her in the large concrete schoolyard in the rear of the school.
Yet another celebration was to be staged, this one in honor of France-Brooklyn day. It never occurred to either one of them what this was all about. In those days, no one asked or questioned. When the request came for them to be ready for yet another rehearsal, they were eager to do their duty. The costumes were to be that of Brittany peasants. Belle's mother made hers. The boy's mom also whipped up something and they almost looked authentic. Once again the duo absorbed many lines of dialogue and the music and lyrics to a series of melodies such as "Sur le Pont","How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They've Seen Paree?", and "La Marseillaise" in French. Looking back, it is a tribute to the wonder of childrens' development that young brains are capable of absorbing so much so soon. Their last performance together was near Christmas. By this time, parents would come to the school shows just to see the team of Belle Silverman and Albert Silverstein in action on stage. Despite the fact that at that time the ethnicity of this East Flatbush neighborhood stood at about ninety-eight percent Jewish, they "wowed 'em", even though songs such as "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", "Silent Night" and "Deck the Halls" may have sounded incomprehensible to their ears.
Off they marched from the stage, the entire cast made up as wooden soldiers, their heads turning robotic-like and our limbs moving stiff-legged, led by the two "stars". Belle and the boy hugged each other backstage and in a rush of juvenile impetuosity, he moved to kiss her on the cheek. But she quickly ducked her head away and all he was left with was an air kiss. No other shows were scheduled, and they concentrated on their studies.
Spring, Summer, blessed vacation time. In September, the boy rushed back to the school courtyard where everyone lined up in strict ranks and was checked in for attendance. He searched everywhere, but Belle was nowhere to be seen. Heartbroken, he nearly cried for fear that his "love" was gone and this was confirmed for by a girl who was close to her and who announced that Belle had moved out of East Flatbush over the summer and was elsewhere in another school.
The boy never performed publicly again, even after he moved out of Brooklyn in 1942 to Westchester County. However, he subsequently learned that Belle did continue performing under her professional name, Beverly Sills. To this day, he often wonders if she was able to get a break in show business.
(For those interested, Ms. Sills authored a book entitled "Bubbles". On one of the early pages, there is a photograph of the "dynamic duo" standing in that same concrete Winthrop courtyard, all rigged out in their France-Brooklyn day costumes.)