AMSTERDAM — Kirk Douglas, Amsterdam’s most famous native son, turned 102 years old on Sunday, and the city celebrated by unveiling a historic plaque marking the house where he grew up.
Fans, Amsterdam history buffs and a few family members of the big screen legend gathered at the corner of Eagle and East Main streets, where the historic marker will be placed, once a pole is made available for it. Robert von Hasseln, president of the Historic Amsterdam League (HAL), acted as master of ceremonies for the unveiling of the plaque. Douglas was born Dec. 9, 1916 ,to immigrant parents living at 46 Eagle St., which still stands as the last house on a dead end street, and he rose from poverty to appear in over 90 films in Hollywood.
“Couldn’t it have his real name on there too?” asked one of the people gathered for the event, referencing Douglas’ birth name, Issur Danielovitch, which he changed when he became an actor.
Von Hasseln said unfortunately there were a limited number of words that could fit on the plaque. He praised HAL members Dan Weaver and Jacqueline Murphy, the former Montgomery County historian, for securing the money for the historic marker from the William C. Pomeroy Foundation.
Weaver said he was glad the plaque included the phrase “rose from poverty” to show that Douglas achieved success without government assistance.
Murphy, in honor of Sunday being the last day of Hanukkah, gave a short speech in which she placed Douglas’ success within the context of the many immigrant Jewish families that started many businesses, including the Amsterdam Print Co., Holzheimer and Shaul, Sochin’s clothing and haberdashery and businesses started by Jewish families like the Guttenbergs and Galinskis.
“Many of the Jewish immigrants started out as peddlers, but then became very prominent merchants in the community,” she said.
At the corner of the plaque is the number 477, indicating the Douglas marker as the 477th official New York state historic plaque paid for by that foundation.
Von Hasseln said when he was researching what to say for the event he realized he couldn’t possibly do justice to Douglas’ long career. He said Douglas’ dream of becoming an actor was too big for him to stay in Amsterdam, but he has continued to touch the city of his youth in significant ways. He said Douglas’ given name is still scratched behind the stage at Wilbur H. Lynch Middle School. He also contributed, without realizing it, to Von Hasseln’s decision to join the military after he watched “Seven Days in May” a movie in which Douglas’ character helped thwart a military coup of the U.S. government.
“The last thing you see at the end of that movie is the Constitution of the United States, and that’s when I realized I wanted to serve and protect the Constitution, and it had later ramifications for the city of Amsterdam, because some years ago when we were designing the Amsterdam Veterans Memorial, and we were lined up to once again spend tens of thousands of dollars on another cookie cutter memorial, with seals, dates, names of the services, and I said to myself ‘Let’s go deeper,’ ” Von Hasseln said. “What’s the one thing that separates veterans from every civilian? And all of a sudden in my head I saw the last frame of ‘Seven Days in May,’ and that’s why the only thing that’s on the Amsterdam Veterans Memorial is the oath of office.”
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, spoke at the event. He said Douglas is a great example of the many talented people who’ve gotten their start in Amsterdam.
“Happy birthday to Kirk Douglas and congratulations to his family members,” Santabarbara said.
On hand Sunday were Douglas’ oldest living nephew, Fred Simon, and his oldest niece, Marilyn Gordon, whose mother Ida Sahr is Douglas’ only living sibling. She will turn 100 on Feb. 24. Gordon said her mother was able to Facetime Kirk Douglas Saturday and sing happy birthday to him.
“In addition, I told him about the historic marker that was going to be put up at the corner of East Main and Eagle street where he grew up. He was very touched and appreciative of this dedication and asked me to thank the Historic Amsterdam League,” she said.