by Elizabeth Coady
Some history never disappears. It just recedes into the soil and between the crevices of topography, waiting to be recovered and reorganized by a good detective. In Philadelphia, that’s where Rick Spector comes in.
Spector is the owner and founder of Moviehouse Productions, where he produces video vignettes and live presentations on the hidden gems and forgotten yarns of Philadelphia’s past since 1983. It’s a passion he inherited from his father, who throughout his life delivered “dozens of tales” about old neighborhoods and bygone buildings to his son. The stories inspired Spector, who has made a calling out of recounting stories of Philadelphia’s fading memories and locales.
“I enjoy producing them,” said Spector, 67, who grew up in Oxford Circle, graduated from Northeast High School, and who now lives in Southampton in lower Bucks County. “I enjoy being a detective and finding about the past and digging.”
Producing “nostalgia” videos is a second career for Spector, who received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Temple University and who was the community relations director for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, a nonprofit agency. Since retiring in 2016, he’s expanded his nostalgia programming.
Ask Spector to share some of his material, and stories spill out of him. Did you know about the spy Harry Gold? He was a chemist at a Fishtown sugar factory who delivered atomic secrets of the “Manhattan Project” to the Russians during the Cold War. When he was arrested in 1950, his confession led to the arrests and executions of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. His duplicity is the subject of the book, “The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb.” He’s buried at the Har Nebo Cemetery in Oxford Circle.
“In prison he taught the prisoners, and he did some humanitarian deeds,” said Spector. “But at heart, he was kind of a twisted man who saw the Soviet Union as a good place free of oppression.”
Do you remember the Sears Tower? No, not the one that towers above Chicago’s skyline but the huge red-brick neo-gothic building that served as a Roosevelt Boulevard milestone and gateway to the Northeast for six decades.
The then-retail behemoth was the Atlantic catalog distribution center at “The Boulevard” and Adams Avenue. The building was imploded in 1994 with 12,000 pounds of dynamite. Underneath the building is an uncompleted subway station; the city had considered extending the Broad Street subway north, but political opposition blocked the move.
“When people ordered from the catalog in the mid-Atlantic states, they would ship out the merchandise from that building,” Spector said. “It was a quite a monument to Philadelphia business as well as the Sears empire.”
Then there’s the “whispering bench” at the Smith Memorial Arch in West Fairmount Park that pays homage to Civil War heroes. Built in the 1890s, the elliptical shape of the stone bench that sits at the foot of the arch carries voices from one end of the bench to the other. Spector recounts the lore that myriad lovers through the decades have whispered “sweet nothings” that were delivered through the air to their partners sitting at the opposite end.
“I’ve heard it confirmed from many people at my programs,” Spector said. “They kind of giggle. It brings back a happy memory.”
And do you know about Philadelphia’s two “manhole cover kings?” According to Spector, the bulk of the city’s manhole covers were produced at foundries owned by J. Alfred Clark and Simon Scullin, Irishmen who were “friendly competitors.” … “They got along; there were a lot of streets to pave in Philly around the turn of the century,” Spector said.
Spector has dozens of stories like these that he recounts in the presentations or classes he offers that generally attract a mature audience ranging between 50 and 80. The stories tap into people’s nostalgia for the past and “help to validate a person’s life,” Spector said. “It’s good for a person’s self-esteem to recall positive things.”
When asked what he’s learned about Philadelphia and its citizens after so many years collecting stories, Spector says, “It was a real hardworking population who worked hard for their bread and butter. These folks liked their experiences with their families. They loved their neighborhoods. That’s was draws them to my class. They have great memories of growing up in the city, and I do history from the bottom up. This is not the stuff from textbooks. This is local memories.”
Spector will recount his “Lost Philadelphia” program Saturday, Oct. 13, 1 to 4 p.m., at United Lutheran Seminary, 7301 Germantown Ave. The Mt. Airy Learning Tree program is $29. More information: firstname.lastname@example.org, mtairylearningtree.org or 215-843-6333.