Miami Beach considers whether to take Arthur Godfrey’s name off road

The Miami Beach Commission weighs whether to remove the former star’s name from a street.

07/31/2014 8:17 AM

07/31/2014 10:14 AM

He captivated the country with his voice, ukulele and red hair. In the 1950s and 60s, Arthur Godfrey exhorted the nation over the airwaves to come to Miami Beach and, in thanks, the city co-named 41st Street as Arthur Godfrey Road.

More than half a century later, the Miami Beach Commission is entertaining a proposal to remove his name from the street. The commissioner calling for the change says he is not relevant anymore; others allege he was anti-Semitic and his name should not grace one of the defining thoroughfares of the city.

“Arthur Godfrey is no longer well-known or well-regarded in the city of Miami Beach by many,” said Miami Beach Commissioner Joy Malakoff, who proposed the change, which last week the commission referred to a committee for consideration. “This is no longer 1956. I think we should call it 41st Street.”

It was 1956 when 34 property owners signed a petition to name the street after Godfrey, who had recently begun to broadcast his national variety show from Miami Beach, calling it Vacationland U.S.A. When asked why he brought his show to Miami Beach, he proclaimed: “When I like something, I like my friends to like it, too.’’

Arthur Singer, who wrote a biography on Arthur Godfrey, said the broadcaster used his national fame to put the Beach on the map.

“He was on the air every day except Sundays,” Singer said, adding at one point that Godfrey was drawing 12 percent of the total revenue for CBS. “And he was the first to do a live broadcast from Miami Beach.”

Jackie Gleason soon followed, broadcasting The Jackie Gleason Show from the Beach.

“No one did more to promote Miami Beach to people as a destination point in the 50s and even into the 60s than Arthur Godfrey,’’ Singer said. “He was the best PR person that Miami Beach could ever have.”

Not everyone shares that sentiment.

Godfrey began to broadcast his show from the Kenilworth Hotel in Bal Harbour in 1953, with 54 million people tuning in for the first show. He eventually owned a minority stake in the hotel, which, like other hotels on the Beach at the time, had policies against blacks and Jews.

“The Kenilworth did not allow Jews to come in to stay there,” said Howard Kleinberg, a Miami Beach historian and former editor of The Miami News. “There were a lot of restrictive hotels in Miami Beach. None would allow blacks.”

Paul George, a historian and professor at Miami Dade College, says the policies continued into the late 50s. Singer says Godfrey changed the policy when he became involved with the hotel in the early 50s. He did so, he noted, because some of his cast members were Jewish.

“If they wanted him to stay there, and promote the Beach and the hotel, everybody had to be able to come, including Jewish members of his cast,” Singer said.

He says it is difficult to determine when Godfrey acquired an ownership interest in the hotel, but that from the beginning members of his crew stayed at the Kenilworth. Godfrey died in 1983 at age 79.

“His cast and his band had a number of Jewish members and he insisted they had to stay there,” Singer said. “If he was an anti-Semite, why would he have Jewish people in his cast?”

Les Haber, 70, has a different recollection. He played in a band during this time, and remembers the Kenilworth’s restrictive policy. When he was young, his father would point it out to him when they drove by the hotel.

“When I started working in hotels with bands, that is one hotel we would just never work in,” said Haber, who is Jewish. “I usually played with guys in the band who were black, who were Latin, who were Jewish.”

Joan Herman, 66, a lifelong Jewish resident of Miami, says she remembers the policy and Godfrey being an owner at the time. Her father, who passed away last year and served as a captain for the Miami Police Department, would regularly talk to her about the Kenilworth’s policies.

“There is a predominantly Jewish population on the Beach, and I don’t understand why they would name a road after him,’’ she said.

The 41st Street neighborhood has long been a hub of the Beach’s Jewish population. The neighborhood has had many Jewish business owners; today, the Orthodox community has a large presence there.

The debate over the street’s name has come up regularly throughout the years, even when it was first named in 1956.

“When the road was named for Godfrey, there was a lot of brouhaha, a lot of controversy,” said George, the Miami Dade historian. “I think that has been passed down.’’

In 1984, the 41st Street Merchants Association asked a city board to remove his name from the street. An avalanche of mail decrying the proposed move followed, along with a scolding by Hank Meyer, the former Miami Beach PR man who is credited with bringing Godfrey and Gleason to the city.

Removing Godfrey’s name “would be a desecration of one's memory,’’ Meyer told members of the Beach's Plaques and Memorial board, which backed down. Meyer, who died in 1999, has 17th Street named after him on the Beach.

It was through the 41st Street merchants that Malakov, the Beach commissioner who proposed the name change, learned of the controversy.

“I worked on 41st Street for many, many years in banking,’’ said Malakov, who worked there for nearly 20 years, up to 2011. “The merchants association then addressed removing the name.

“Today hardly anybody remembers him. Everyone calls it 41st Street," she said.

Malakoff’s proposal doesn’t claim allegations of anti-Semitism; she just says Godfrey is no longer well-known.

City commissioner Jonah Wolfson, during a commission meeting in June, said that if the anti-Semitism claims can be validated, then the name should be removed. But that otherwise, removing the name would validate rumors.

“I think you want to be very careful to do this because if there’s details that do prove that those are positions that he held... then you want to take the name off as quick as you can,” Wolfson said. “But if you can’t show that, at the same time, I don’t think you want to come into a public setting and say that there was a suggestion of anti-Semitism, and then take the name down. Then you’re calling somebody something without necessary proof.”

Singer, the biographer, agrees, saying many people in the broadcast industry who were inspired by Godfrey, including himself, would “express tremendous indignation.”

For some who own businesses or frequent the street, the issue is about practicality.

Baruch Sandhaus owns three restaurants on Arthur Godfrey Road. He says visitors often get confused and some GPS systems struggle with the address. Some of his menus say Arthur Godfrey Road; some say 41st Street.

“This is 41st Street; let’s keep it 41st Street,” Sandhaus said.

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