Rodney Dangerfield, comedian (1921-2004)
Photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodney_Dangerfield#/media/File:Rodney_Danagerfield_1972-1.jpg (May 1, 2020)
From the outset, let me just say that this has been the most contentious topic I have experienced as Town Historian … certainly not by choice.
“Why?”, you ask? Well, let me explain.
In 1985, there was a lovely book published about Deer Park, Long Island. In the chapter on local personalities, it stated, “Rodney Dangerfield, the "no respect” comedian, was born at 44 Railroad Avenue (now Acorn Street) in Deer Park on November 22, 1921.”
Back in 2006 when I was newly working with my predecessor Town Historian, Tom Smith, I naively took this statement as fact. I was asked to identify the exact location of this old Railroad Avenue address so that a historical marker could be installed. I began by consulting old maps that showed the street we now known as Acorn Street (on the west side of Deer Park Avenue and north side of the railroad) was previously known as Railroad Avenue. Fine. I then set out to locate the old address known as “44 Railroad Avenue.” I had some trouble documenting this information and tried to reach out to agents representing Rodney Dangerfield’s estate (he passed away a couple years earlier). For one reason or the other, eventually, the project fell by the wayside.
Fast forward to 2015, the idea came forward again. Now having several years of research experience, I set out to definitively locate the site where Dangerfield was born.
During his lifetime, Rodney Dangerfield wrote an autobiography - It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me. On the first page, he states “I was born in an eighteen-room house owned by my mother’s sister Rose and her husband.” Dangerfield's mother was Dorothy Teitelbaum. Her sister Rose Teitelbaum married Isadore Goldberger. I set out to find property deeds for Isadore and Rose Goldberger. Described as “an 18-room house,” I figure that I am trying to locate the site of a large house on Acorn Street, in the early 1920s, owned by the Goldbergers.
Dangerfield also wrote that on the night he was born, his father drove “from Philadelphia to Babylon, Long Island.” I have to admit that I didn't think closely enough about what that said. I made an assumption that having been born in Deer Park, his birth certificate was issued by the Town of Babylon, so that is why Babylon was used instead of Deer Park in this description of where he was born. I don't know why I did not just go directly to the Town Clerk's office and ask for them to locate his birth certificate.
If you don't already know, the Town Clerk is responsible for recording Vital Records – birth, marriage and death records. If someone is born in the Town of Babylon - in this case, in a private home – It is recorded with the Town of Babylon Clerk. The Babylon Town Clerk records births and deaths within the Town’s hamlets – Copiague, Deer Park, East Farmingdale, North Amityville, North Babylon, North Lindenhurst, West Babylon, Wheatley Heights, Wyandanch and the barrier island communities. Births and deaths within the boundaries of our incorporated villages – Amityville, Babylon and Lindenhurst – are recorded by their respective village clerks.
Remember, if you are looking for the municipality where your birth certificate is filed, it is not about where your parents resided at the time of your birth, it is about where you were physically born, which for most people is a hospital. In our local area, a child born to Deer Park residents at Good Samaritan Hospital, for example, would have its birth certificate filed with the Town of Islip. The Town of Islip is the municipality where the hospital is located.
Dangerfield was born Jacob Cohen and that should have been easy enough to find, but it wasn’t. Instead, because I assumed that 44 Railroad Avenue, Deer Park was his actual birth location, I set out looking for property deeds showing the Goldbergers as owners.
My search found that in 1919, Isadore and Rose Goldberger purchased property described as being on the south side of Railroad Avenue, Babylon village. In 1931, Rose Goldberger – possibly a widow by then –sold her property to the Babylon School District. For the first time in a recorded deed, the property was described as “44 Railroad Avenue, Babylon village.” My … jaw … dropped! Was it possible that someone had the 44 Railroad Avenue address correct but mistakenly assigned it to Deer Park instead of Babylon? (Most communities that have a railroad crossing have a street named “Railroad.”) It was only then that I finally decided to contact the Town of Babylon Clerk's Office.
So, with his birth name and birth date I contacted the town clerk's office. They had no such record. I contacted the Babylon Village Clerk's Office. They quickly produced the birth certificate for Jacob Cohen. That was it. Rodney Dangerfield was born at 44 Railroad Avenue, Babylon village.
With all of my research and documentation, I let my colleagues know that the proposed historic marker could not go forward. It would not be appropriate to put a historic marker commemorating Rodney Dangerfield's birth, in Deer Park.
Where is 44 Railroad Avenue, today, you ask? The best that I can estimate is that it is the parking lot of Babylon High School, on the southside of Railroad Avenue facing the railroad station.
Eventually, there were people who started to ask about Rodney Dangerfield in our local history.
I remember watching his movies in the 1980s. He was a very famous comedian. His shtick was rude, self-deprecating humor, and he entertained a lot of people.
Along the way, some people became quite attached to the notion that he was born in Deer Park. Several myths formed. One such myth is that Rodney Dangerfield appeared on the Johnny Carson show and showed a plaque he received from the Town of Babylon and that he talked about being born in Deer Park.
Noted Comedian Joins Santa To Headline Town TreelightingThat doleful comedian who “gets no respect” – Rodney Dangerfield -- will headline the bill at the Town of Babylon's 10th annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Phelps Lane town park in North Babylon at 4:00 P.M. Sunday (December 13).In honor of the comedian's "homecoming" -- he was born at 44 Railroad Avenue in Deer Park --Babylon Town Supervisor Aaron Barnett proclaimed the occasion Rodney Dangerfield Day in the Town of Babylon.Although to the small fry in the audience the funnyman will undoubtedly be playing second banana to Santa Claus and a festively decorated tree, he will have plenty of parents and teenagers on hand to appreciate his low-key humor.Supervisor Barnett pointed out that "we take justifiable pride in the accomplishments of the sons and daughters of the Town of Babylon and Rodney Dangerfield has made a significant contribution to his presentation of wholesome comedy and entertainment, particularly on television."Mr. Barnett also noted that the comedian had on many television appearances proudly identified himself with his birthplace.The Supervisor said he wanted to assure the entertainer that he does "get respect" in the Town of Babylon.The funnyman was born in a rambling 18-room frame house on November 22, 1921. He is the son of vaudevillian, Phil Roy, who was a partner in the act of Roy and Arthur. Although Rodney's family left Deer Park when he was a youngster, he said he could still remember his aunt taking him for long, leisurely walks around Argyle Lake in the Village of Babylon.His act and the presentation of the proclamation to him will be just one of the events on the gala holiday program.Town Recreation Director Richard DiNapoli said in addition to the appearance of Santa Claus bearing fruits and candies and lighting the tree, the program will also include Christmas carols sung by the Senior Citizen's Chorus and an exhibition of twirling and dance by the Barbarettes of West Babylon.After the lighting ceremony, hot chocolate and cookies will be served. The traditional holiday event is open to all residents of the Town.BEACON, December 10, 1970
As noted in the Beacon article, in 1970, the Town of Babylon celebrated “Rodney Dangerfield Day.” I can’t explain all of the information in the newspaper article – “born at 44 Railroad Avenue in Deer Park” -- “Mr. Barnett also noted that the comedian had on many television appearances proudly identified himself with his birthplace.” I don’t know what was meant by “identified himself with his birthplace.” Did he identify with Deer Park, specifically, or Town of Babylon, or Long Island?
With all due “respect,” when Dangerfield was honored by the Town of Babylon, I don't know that he would have questioned anyone who said he was born in Deer Park, rather than Babylon village. Dangerfield grew up in Queens, and might not have known the difference between Deer Park and Babylon Village or the difference between Town of Babylon and Village of Babylon – many people today don't even know that. I think that when you're receiving an honor from someone you smile, nod and don't question it.
The article mentioned the memory of “his aunt taking him for long, leisurely walks around Argyle Lake in the Village of Babylon.” His aunt Rose living at 44 Railroad Avenue would have been just a short walk to Argyle Park. And the memory of “Deer Park,” (forgive me), I suspect could be a recollection that his aunt lived a short distance from Deer Park Avenue.
Back to Johnny Carson … One of my colleagues, the wonderfully talented Kelly Filippone who used to work at the Deer Park Library and now works for Smithtown Library, made a valiant attempt to find the footage of Rodney Dangerfield on the Johnny Carson Show. Kelly found the official website with Carson clips and searched for Dangerfield clips, of which there were many.
Evidently, Dangerfield was not only a frequently scheduled guest but also one who would be quickly called upon if someone else cancelled. What Kelly discovered was that during the early 1970s it was not uncommon to record over old footage. As of yet, we have not been able to find the clip of his appearance on the television show, but we have found newspaper evidence that described that he was on the show around January 1971. Local lore is very strong and some people swear “up and down” that they saw Dangerfield’s appearance on Carson and he specifically mentioned being born in Deer Park. So far, the Carson clip is anecdotal. No one has yet to produce a video clip.
So, you would think that that was the end of the issue. Not born in Deer Park. Born in Babylon. Remember, the question that I was researching was where he was born. But, no …
When I started having conversations with people about where he was born, or not born, I was met with many indignant responses (but no proof, otherwise). In fact, it was suggested to me that he may have been born in Babylon Village but, surely, he grew up in Deer Park, at least until he went to kindergarten. For one thing, I was investigating where he was born. Not where he spent his nursery school years. And, secondly, just because someone wants to believe that he spent his earliest years in Deer Park, that does not mesh with the other evidence that we have about his life, particularly his autobiography.
To this day, and probably for the rest of my career, this will be one of the most contentious issues in Town of Babylon history. I never set out to upset people, particularly the fans of Mr. Dangerfield or the residents of Deer Park. I still have no desire to upset people. However, you have to go with the documentation.
Each year I am pleased to attend the annual conference of APHNYS – the Association of Public Historians of New York State. A few years ago, Kelly and I presented “Debunking Local Myths,” in which we described the experience of researching local history topics where the evidence is different that the legend, including Rodney Dangerfield. The Myths presentation was a big hit with fellow historians from around the state. Every community, whether they realize it or not, has ingrained myths that invariably hold some bit of truthful information but was mistaken or blown out of proportion. I have long been an advocate of identifying these local history myths, through research. I believe that there is an important place for myths and legends in local history.
Myths are the stories that spread like wildfire, over many years. They give us an opportunity to share our common local history. But, like a long game of “telephone,” they sometimes morph into misrepresentation (and assumption). Still, discussing myths to connect with one another is important, and identifying truth is the adventure.