daddy was horrified when, at about 10 years old, I mumbled an anti-Semitic
"Where did you learn that? We don't make comments like that in this
house. Do you understand me?"
With that, he got out the telephone book and looked up the number
of his friend, Rabbi Fagan, who lived in a two-story red brick Colonial
Vernacular home two blocks up the street.
"Rabbi? Bill Cherry. I would like for you to enroll Little Bill
in Hebrew school, with the only thing being left out will be his
Bar Mitzvah. As you know, we're Episcopalians."
My daddy went on to tell the rabbi the reason he wanted me to attend.
"Bill needs to learn and understand the history and deep traditions
of Jews, and I know of no better place for him to learn it than
from the shul."
And so, after school many afternoons, I rode the West End bus, got
off at 25th and Broadway in Galveston,
and walked the two blocks to the shul in time for class.
Many years later, I've quickly volunteered that the two most important
things my mother and daddy provided me were braces on my teeth and
a cursory Jewish education.
But, as I was thinking about this story this morning, it seemed
only appropriate to tell the story of my friend of more than sixty
years, 81-yearold, Joe Mirsky. He is Jewish and the son of a rabbi.
I had just written a piece for the Rock 'a Billy Hall of Fame about
an early Galveston
television performing legend, Utah Carl Beach. I had found the researching
him odd, really, because everyone seemed to know who he was, but
only a few knew anything about him, and they weren't talking. His
biography was nowhere to be found.
Even the Rock 'a Bill Hall of Fame only knew his name and that he
probably should be inducted as a member but had insufficient biographical
information to do it.
One day many months later, Joe Mirsky called from Houston;
he was an assistant U.S. Attorney. We'd gone to high school together,
but had had only a casual acquaintance. He said, "Bill, I just saw
your story on the Internet about Utah Carl. I want to tell you how
I knew him." And so a most unusual story began to unfold.
had been raised in West Hollywood during the '40s and early '50s.
His father, Rabbi Paul Mirsky, was both a rabbi and cantor, so Joe
went to school and synagogue with many of the sons and daughters
of famous movie and TV stars. People you know.
Just before his senior year in high school, Rabbi Paul decided he
would accept a call as the cantor at Galveston's
Congregation Beth Jacob. So within moments the family was uprooted,
moved to the island, and Joe found himself ready to finish high
school in a town and a school where he not only knew no one, but
felt he had nothing in common.
After sulking for awhile, Joe decided if he had a job, it would
occupy his time and make things better, so he got a position at
the KGUL-TV Channel 11 studios just down the street from Ball High.
He would get there at 5 in the morning, sign the station on, and
then set up the studio for the farm and ranch show, featuring Utah
Carl with Herbie and the Boys.
The relationship between Mr. Utah and Joe began to develop as they
worked together. Mr. Utah realized that Joe was lonesome, so he
began taking him with him when he played golf, and before long Joe
was even playing drums in Mr. Utah's band.
One evening Mr. Utah took Joe to meet Mr. Utah's friend, Elvis Presley,
who was playing a concert at the old City Auditorium. "It seemed
to me that the two of them knew each other quite well," Joe told
me. "I can still see Elvis in a lavender sport coat, black pants
and white buck shoes," he added.
Joe graduated from high school, a friend, Norman "Bubba" Miller,
who had been working at the Balinese
Room, told Joe that he ought to take his job over since Bubba
was going away to college. "You'll make more money and there's a
good chance for advancement." Miller later became basically the
major stockholder of Interstate Batteries, and has been its CEO
So Joe worked and understudied the famous gambling night club spot's
maitre d', Jimmy Kuykendahl, He learned the suave manners and finesse
from Mr. Jimmy and Vic and Anthony Fertitta, who were the managers.
That would serve him well for the rest of his life.
One evening about this time of the year in 1957, Mr. Vic and Mr.
Anthony asked Joe to step into their office, just to the right of
the entrance to the showroom.
"We've gotten word that the Texas Rangers are going to close us
down for good very soon. We won't be able to recover from this one.
Your dad's a rabbi, and for you to be involved in this would be
an embarrassment to him. We're simply not going to have that," Mr.
Anthony told him.
Mr. Vic picked it up by adding, "We're going to pay you through
the summer, but don't come to work. I've got your check right here.
"Meanwhile, we know you want to go to college, but money's a bit
tight. We're going to introduce you to Mr. Lee Kempner of the United
States National Bank. He and his family give scholarships away from
time to time. I'll bet with our recommendation and that of Utah
Carl, they'll give you one." Sure enough, Mr. Lee came through.