The Passion of Politics
by Rena Feit Shagan
I like to say I grew up believing the Rosenbergs were innocent. It was the Sunnyside of the late 1940’s and 50’s and what strikes me the most was the politics and passion around supporting what you believed in.
As a child I remember hearing that people were canvassing for Henry Wallace, the Presidential candidate for the American Labor Party in 1948. Apparently that was not very popular in some parts of the neighborhood and could be really dangerous.
The fifties were a time when the parents of some of my friends were losing their jobs in the NYC school system and other public agencies because they refused to either say that they had been members of the Communist Party in the 30’s or during the war, and / or refused to name their friends who had been.
My parents were not really political, I’d say they were on the cusp, but several of my schoolmate’s fathers had lost their jobs or were in prison. My friend Sheila Efron’s father lost his job and they had to move to Providence, Rhode Island in order for him to find a new one.
The Thompsons lived next door and at one point Ellen was a classmate. Her father Robert Thompson was a Party leader and one of the Smith Act Ten. I think they were prosecuted under the Smith Act “for attempting to overthrow the government of the United States by Force or violence.” Some of those people gave up their livelihoods and, for all intents and purposes their lives for what they believed in and what they believed was right.
I remember neighborhood gatherings where money was raised to help support the families of those who had lost their jobs or worse. I actually got to meet Dr. WEB DuBois, the founder of the NAACP and civil rights leader at one of those fundraisers, although I had no idea who he was, or his significance. It was at the Horowitz’s house. Ruth and I were classmates in Mrs. Kampf’s class, so it would have been 1952. Let’s remember that the Army McCarthy hearings didn’t happen until 1954 so feelings of fear very much existed in the period I was growing up.
Those were difficult times and people made decisions that were honorable, despite what one might have thought about the politics. I don’t consider myself a radical, but the politics of Sunnyside in those days had a huge impact on me. I wonder whether there were similar experiences and feelings among other Sunnyside kids growing up who had parents not actually caught up in what one might call McCarthyism, but who very much experienced it from afar.
Rena Feit Shagan grew up in Sunnyside on 47 Street between Skillman and 43rd Avenues, houses built as part of the Gardens but not generally thought to be. When her father died in 1955, the family moved to an apartment building across the street from PS 150. After PS 150 and JHS 125, Rena attended the High School of Performing Arts to pursue dancing. In 1958, Rena’s mother married Sunnyside widower Henry Finke, and the family moved to Rego Park.
Rena Shagan Associates has become one of the leading arts management firms in the world, managing touring activity for major dance and theater companies. Rena has written books including: Booking and Tour Management for the Performing Arts, The Road Show, and Performing on Tour: How to Survive and Prosper on the Road. You can read more about Rena Shagan Associates at https://www.shaganarts.com/