[UPDATE (July 27): Read our latest piece looking back at Danny’s legacy at the Jewish News]
Danny Raskin, the JN’s weekly columnist for nearly 80 years died on July 26 at the age of 102.
Funeral arrangements will be handled by Ira Kaufman Chapel.
Here’s an interview Danny gave to the JN on the 70th anniversary of the paper in 2012, talking about his long career chronicling life in Jewish Detroit.
Danny Raskin: A Love of Food, Writing and Life
Danny, you’ve been writing your Jewish News column every week since you were a young adult. Tell me a story from even before that period.
When I was born, we lived at Hastings and Brady in Detroit. Then, we moved to Dover Court apartments near Pingree and 12th Street. We lived right behind the Cream of Michigan restaurant, where members of the Purple Gang hung out in the mid-’30s.
The Purple boys I knew when I was a teen were in their 20s, and they were wonderful fellows — with me they were. And they were very dedicated to defending Jews.
One day, I was sitting at the Cream with a couple of Purple boys, and a little kid came running in, crying. He said he was selling newspapers in front of the Cream, and a truckload of non-Jewish boys said a dirty word to his sister and she ran away. They started running after her and were going to hit her.
So, the Purple boys said they were going to take a ride. I was about 15 and one said, “Raskin, come with us.” I said, “No way.” They said, “C’mon, take a ride.” We got in the car, and one of them said to Johnny from the Cream, “Hold my banana pie.”
Evidently, this anti-Semitism had happened before. The Purple boys knew exactly where to go, in another part of town, in back of a bar. The boys caught this one guy. They put a gun in his mouth, and he turned even whiter than he was. The gun goes “click” … but nothing happened.
They then warned the guy that the next time he and his friends came around 12th Street, there was going to be a bullet in the gun. And the guy ran.
So we went back to the Cream and started eating banana cream pie. I asked what would they have done if there happened to be a bullet in the gun? They said there never was. It was just a scare tactic.
How did you get into journalism?
I had written a column as a teenager for the Center News at the old Jewish Center on Hazelwood. I went to High School of Commerce in Detroit, where I learned typing. After that, I went to Detroit Institute of Technology for a year to find out a few things about journalism. Then, I worked as a reporter with the Lansing State Journal and, later, the Detroit News.
At the News, my editor said, “Danny, whatever you learned in college, forget it. This is the new school for you.” He was right. It was like night and day.
In 1942, I was 23 years old and working at the News midnight to eight in the morning. My beat was Downtown Detroit. Phil Slomovitz called me and said he was starting a new Jewish paper and would I like to be his associate editor? I didn’t know Phil at the time, but he had probably heard of me from someone.
I didn’t accept the job as associate editor because, at first, I didn’t want to leave my other job. I said I’d help out. I wrote a column called the Jewish Youth’s Listening Post. The Jewish News took off with the first issue. Soon, I left the Detroit News when Phil offered me a terrific deal. I did all kinds of writing, sold advertising and helped out in many other ways.
During World War II, I used to do a lot of work with the boys in service. They would send me letters, and I would send letters to a lot of them. One of them, Bobby Shan, dropped a bomb on Germany that said, “From Danny Raskin to Hitler.” We put the picture in the paper. I also worked with the USO. I sang and danced. And I helped sell a lot of War Bonds and got a citation from the War Department.
How did you start writing about restaurants?
After the Jewish News moved from its original Downtown location at the Penobscot Building to the David Stott Building nearby, I had lunch on Griswold Street at a place called Seros. They used to give me a loaf of bread with brisket of beef. I like to dunk, and, man, was it delicious!
I wrote something about it in the paper. Phil said, “How about writing a restaurant column? So, in addition to my Listening Post column, I began writing The Best of Everything, about restaurants. In 1986, they were incorporated into one column.
People ask me about my writing style … you know, using ellipses … I thought it up on my own … And I’ve been doing that for 70 years!
I hear you briefly were in the recording business.
In the ’50s, a fellow came to town named Carlos Valadez. His girlfriend was Virginia Hill, Bugsy Siegel’s old girlfriend. Carlos called me up and said something about making a record.
I knew nothing about the business, but I went ahead and started a record company with my friend Al Marks. Our record labels were “Seville” and “Lorelei.” Carlos cut his tune, and I had him sing a Duke Ellington song on the reverse side. The local disc jockeys were playing it left and right. An exec from Mercury Records happened to be in town, heard it on the radio and bought the rights to it. But, nationally, it went nowhere.
I don’t remember how many records our company sold. All I can say is, we papered the walls of my rec room with all the unsold records.
One day, Les and Sam Gruber at the Caucus Club in Downtown Detroit wanted me to hear this unknown young singer from New York, Barbra Streisand. So, I listened to her. I didn’t like her voice at first — I thought she was yelling. I told my friends she’d never make it. Later, she went on Jack Paar’s late-night TV show and hit the big time. What a dope I was!
I also had an advertising agency, and I used to produce TV commercials.
I was good friends with Bill Kennedy over at CKLW television in Windsor. I filmed commercials for various companies, and Kennedy loved them! For one of my clients, we did a spot with Tiger announcers Ernie Harwell and George Kell, and I was in the booth.
Tell me about your personal life.
I was married the first time for about six months. Next, I was married to Gerrie Katz for about 10 years, and we had a son, Scott. Then, I was married for for 35 years to Frieda, who passed away in 2010.
Scott is the CEO of an Internet company and has two children, Matthew and Hannah.
Can eating well explain your longevity?
I can’t explain it. Maybe, it’s good living. I try to eat smart whenever possible.
Every morning for breakfast, I’d have cereal. It could be three, four or five cereals together. I put in a banana, maybe some blueberries and raspberries in a nice big bowl because I didn’t have time to have lunch. Then, I’d have a full belly and no hunger pangs all day.
I knew in the evening I’d be going to a lot of restaurants. Sometimes, I’d go to three restaurants in one night. I didn’t eat at all of the restaurants.
At the beginning, I thought being a restaurant critic would be great. But, I remember one critic started out at 190 pounds and wound up more than 300. I made sure not to eat a lot. I learned to push away.
People think I get all these free meals, but I never wanted to be obligated to a restaurant. If I am obligated, it means I have to write about them, and I’ve got to be nice. I don’t want that.
One thing I will not do: I’ll never bum-rap a restaurant because I know how much it costs just to put that damn key in the door! People don’t realize it, but when you go into a restaurant, there’s a lot of money just for him or her to open up that door. Insurance, licenses, gas, fixtures, employees — it costs a lot of money.
If I had a bad experience, I would tell the owner what to do to fix it. But, I would not write about it. And then, I’d come back again when it’s all fixed up. And if it’s done properly, I tell them I’ll see if I can get something in the paper. To this day, I still try to help out.
You’re well known around town. You’ve given your time and energy to myriad worthy causes. What’s it like being a Jewish Detroit institution?
Many times, readers come up and say hello. That comes with the years, and I like the respect. It means I’ve lived good — people have nothing bad to say about you. It’s so important. I don’t want anyone talking bad about me.
People read my column and write to me, not only from here, but also from all over the country. A lot of people get the Jewish News in other states. It’s not just a local paper.
Many times, a part of my column is nostalgia for them. It brings back good memories. I’m like a representative of their memories.
What’s special about Detroit delis that your readers who have moved elsewhere still rave about?
Detroit Jewish delis were an entity in themselves. At one time, inside of a few blocks you had seven Jewish delicatessens. Down-to-earth delicatessens. Everyone talks about New York City. I can only think of a few good ones there. But, that’s strictly my opinion.
People who move from Detroit long for the old delis. They were mom-and-pop operations. They had someone in the kitchen who knew how to make the mamaloschen type of food — stuffed cabbage, stuffed peppers, beef goulash.
Looking back on your career, would you change anything?
No, I don’t think so. I enjoyed the days then, and I enjoy the days today.
It’s a good ride. I try to have a lot of fun.