Last Call: The Specs Film is a documentary portrait of Specs Simmons, beginning with his formative years in Roxbury, Boston, his world travels as a young man, and then his generational move in the 1950’s from the East to the West Coast of the United States, where he worked as a sheet metal worker in San Francisco, hung at jazz clubs in the Fillmore and in North Beach bars, galleries, and comedy clubs, and eventually opened his bar, Specs’ 12 Adler Museum Cafe, in April of 1968.
Roxbury, Boston, was at that
time a predominately black and
Jewish neighborhood, sprinkled with Italian, and Irish families. Specs, (born Richard Edward Simmons), was the same age as Malcolm X and they both attended Roxbury HighSchool concurrently. Richie, (as he was called by family members) had
three bookie uncles, Yae,Tzib, and Tex, who together ran Yae’s Variety Store, where locals would come to place bets on horse and greyhound races, eat pickles, smoke cigars, drink Schnapps, and spin yarns. Malcolm X would run numbers at Yae’s Variety
before his transformation into a Black Muslim after his time spent in prison.
Shaped by the blossoming of new American
cinema, in an age of assimilation for East Coast American immigrant cultures, Specs, at an early age, began hanging out at vaudeville theaters and attending, as well as participating in, stand up comedy acts.This is the arena in which American Jews began to gain world wide recognition on stage and then screen, with the advent of film and then, of course, the world-changing creation of television, where American culture was exported around the globe. Specs and his family would listen to radio shows regularly and see comedians such as the beloved Henny Youngman, Milton Berle, Mort Sahl and Sid Caesar. On a more domestic front, on Sundays, the family would gather over deli food,
visit the elders, take walks in local parks and spin yarns of the old country, discuss politics and community gossip.
The Bornsteins, Specs’ maternal side of the family, were all notorious jokesters and natural born storytellers. The family line was always that “you couldn’t get a word in edgewise,” a tradition continuing on to this day with his granddaughter Maralisa, and his daughter, Elly. All these social and cultural elements formed the basic character of Specs Simmons, in an era in which America was in great transition and change, forging a new identity in the post-industrial era.
At the tender age of 20, Specs boarded a freighter and sailed the seven seas on a quest to witness a post-WWII Eastern Europe and the newly formed state of Israel. After returning to the States, he joined a group of Boston childhood friends moving to the West Coast to work in the shipyards of Southern California. In 1951, Specs landed in San Francisco’s North Beach.
In the early 1950’s, North Beach was in flux. The traditional Italian neighborhood was opening up to a flood of writers, jazz musicians, painters and the Beat generation.
It was here that Specs found something bright, shiny and promising – a new home, and a family to call his own.
Specs Simmons, innkeeper, was born in Roxbury, Boston on August 15, 1928, in the midst of a terrible heat wave, to a second generation Jewish-American working class family. At 14 years of age, Specs began working at his grandfather’s sheet metal shop in South Boston, Phillip Simmons & Sons Sheet Metal Shop. There he fabricated hotel & restaurant equipment, elevators, and pitched into the American war effort by working with his fellow tin-knockers on the mass fabrication of sheet metal steel coffins for the war dead of WWII.
The Great Depression, the Second World War and America’s struggle against Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism had a very deep impact on the young Richie Simmons, and he spoke out on issues of civil rights, racism and fascism from a very early age.
San Francisco was also home to the burgeoning civil rights movement, the continuing
struggles of blue-collar workers and organized labor, red diaper babies, and the first buds of the women’s movement.
It is here the story begins.