A group of Shel Dorf’s old friends visited Michael Dorf, Shel’s brother, on Sunday, November 8, 2009, in Los Angeles, California, while Michael was sitting shiva (the traditional Jewish seven days of mourning) for Shel after he had passed away.
During the visit, Michael reminisced about his parents, Ben and Sarah Dorf. Fortunately, Michael’s account was recorded and is presented here for your listening pleasure. (Also, a transcript is provided at the end of this post.)
Just click on the player button below to have a listen. (If you’re reading this via news reader or email, you may have to visit the web site to play the clip.)
Here is a transcript of the recording:
Mike Towry: Now, I read your father had been an artist?
Michael Dorf: My dad had art ability as a child on the Lower East Side of New York and his teacher encouraged him. He’d walk with him after class and said “you have a lot of talent, you should go to art school” so he did. He went to art school and…but in those days they wanted to give the kids a profession, not just learn how to do fine art painting so they taught him sign painting. And, he got a job….
Mike Towry: Jack Kirby did that.
Michael Dorf: Really?
Mike Towry:He painted signs to try to make some money.
Michael Dorf: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Mike Towry: Yeah.
Michael Dorf: So my father, may he rest in peace, got a job with the Curtis Candy Company. There was a new candy bar coming out called Baby Ruth, after Babe Ruth, and he worked with a crew, two or three guys, and they would go to grocery stores and they would offer them a free dozen of candy bars if they would let them put a sign on the window: “Baby Ruth Candy Bars.” So they paid them. It was attractive signs on the windows and they did that all over Chicago and different places. So that was his work, at the beginning. Then he missed his family very much. My dad, may he rest in peace, had a brother and six sisters back in Detroit so he came back after – I don’t know how long – came back to Detroit and got the job for Vernor’s Ginger Ale.
Mike Towry: Was your dad born in the U.S.?
Michael Dorf: My dad was born in Russia and came over when he was four years old [b. January 16, 1904 so this would have been in 1908 or very early 1909.] to the Lower East Side of New York
Mike Towry: What part?
Michael Dorf: A little town call Rizhist or Rizhistka: I don’t even know how to write it, but, uh…. His relatives had a tea house, this is my grandfather’s brother, my dad’s father, came to the Lower East Side of New York and started Dorf’s Russian Tea House, and it was a place where immigrants would go and commiserate with each other because there family’s were back in Europe, they were earning the money to bring them over. And, although, my dad’s brother spelled the name Dorff, so we had the East Coast Dorffs with two f’s. Then they moved Hester Street to Eldridge Street and they were very popular on the Lower East Side.
And then my grandfather’s brother went into the dry goods business and he sold the tea house to my grandparents, and they ran it. But unfortunately, it’s a terrible story, the dry goods business folded, they didn’t make it at all so I guess the mother said, “You know, you don’t have anything in writing: take the tea house back.” So they came in and they took the tea house back from my grandparents. They basically tossed them out and it was a rift that was in the family for fifty years, so they never talked to the New York branch after that happened.
And they came to Detroit. My grandfather, they heard that Henry Ford was paying five dollars a day to work in the auto factories so they came to work in the auto factory but my grandfather was too old. So the kids got other jobs and they brought money and took care of the parents. And my dad was raised in Detroit. I mean, he was in New York through art school, then he came to Detroit, and then they went to Chicago and then he came back. And he did the Vernor’s gnomes, they have little gnomes next to the ginger ale, so he painted gnomes on the wall, on the glass. And then the depression came along and…oh, he started his own advertising agency, also, and he became an independent contractor for Vernor’s and other people.
And then the depression came along and nobody wanted artwork. So he closed up and he got a job selling candy as a route man to drug stores. He worked for a wholesaler. And he went out, and he had, I don’t know what kind of candies, but I guess candy is depression proof. It’s a very solid, you know, industry, even with the depression. So he had this candy route, and at one point he sold a $5,000 order to the Boy Scouts of America and his boss would not pay him the ten-percent commission. He absolutely refused.
So my dad said OK, he stopped working for him and he started his own candy company with the two best-selling items on the candy route: horehound candy, which is for coughs and colds, it’s made from an herb from Greece, and it was brought to America around George Washington’s time, as a cough drop – and old timers know about it – horehound candy, and anise, which is a licorice, and it’s good for coughs and colds. So those were the two best-selling items so he rented, he found a local candy maker in Detroit who rented him space and taught him how to do it and he made candy with a fellow and he’d bring sacks of candy home to my mom at night and she would have my brother on one lap and packing candy on the other in a cellophane bag with the label “Dorf’s Anise Candy” and staple it and put a dozen bags in a bag. And he went around and he sold it. And then after the drug-store route he got a supermarket route with over a hundred stores.
So uh, he made the candy, and my mother made these, and…after the drug stores, a chain of supermarkets, a hundred and fifty supermarkets, and they decided to carry his product. So he knew, if it was just on a shelf it would look like everything else so he designed his own display rack with glass in the center and at those times you didn’t have to pay to get a prime spot in the supermarket. He convinced the managers of each store to let him put the rack at the end of the aisle, and it was a big silkscreened sign: “Dorf’s Anise and Horehound” and he had one side with anise and one side with horehound stacked up and that business really expanded. And he hired a salesman or two but they always goofed off, they would stack the candy and it would fall off and the manager would get upset and order the rack taken out of the store so he decided to become his own candy-route salesman as well.
So he bought a, he rented a shop at first, then he bought his own building. He had the crew make the candy but he went out with a helper on the drug-store and supermarket route, and he did that for thirty-five years…thirty-five years.
So, uh, there were jokes, the horehound, you know, one of the druggists told him, a kid came into the store and said, “My dad wants to buy some of that dog candy.” It was a standard joke.
Mike Towry: How old was your dad when he came over?
Michael Dorf: He was four years old.
Mike Towry: Four? So he came with his parents?
Michael Dorf: He came with his parents and they had an apartment on the Lower East Side, and I found it. I traced the family tree and I found, I knew the address, 210 East 10th Street. A walk up, they lived in a fourth-story walk up and my dad remembers yelling up to his mother and she would throw him down a penny so he could get something, you know, a candy and, uh…They were, you know, it was right the heart of the East Side. From 1908 – I think they move to Detroit around 19…let’s see, my dad was about fifteen, so that would have been, what, 1919.
Greg Koudoulian: How old was your pop when you lost him?
Michael Dorf: He was 77.
Charlie Roberts: Why’d they pick Detroit versus any other place, Philadelphia or…?
Michael Dorf: Because Henry Ford was paying $5 a day for workers who would work in the auto plants. It was just unheard of to earn $5 a day in those times. Plus they had a relative who lived there as well. So, uh, so they came to Detroit and then of course my grandfather was too old but his kids got other jobs and Detroit was a thriving economy with Henry Ford so they did very, you know, I mean, they did OK, I mean they weren’t, uh…they were just working people, but, uh, a colorful story.