Cudmore: Kirk Douglas in high school

Peter Riccio, center, and his friend Isadore Demsky (right) gather with Amsterdam High School pals during the mid-1930s.
Peter Riccio, center, and his friend Isadore Demsky (right) gather with Amsterdam High School pals during the mid-1930s.

Over 300 graduating students are pictured in the 1934 Wilbur H. Lynch High School yearbook in Amsterdam.

Titled “Senior,” the same title used in my 1963 Amsterdam yearbook, the graduates begin with basketball and football player Anthony Alexander and end with Michael Zwolak, described as “cool, calm and collected.”

Class president Peter Rich Riccio was credited with pushing the seniors to put out a yearbook. Riccio, who became the father of Amsterdam composer and musician Maria Riccio Bryce, planned to attend St. Lawrence University.

One of Riccio’s best friends was Isadore Demsky, the son of Eastern European Jews, whose original name was Issur Danielovitch. Demsky went on to change his name again to Kirk Douglas and become a Hollywood movie star and producer. He died this month at 103.

Demsky was senior class treasurer. In the yearbook’s senior consensus, he was voted best actor. He had a leading role in the senior play, “The McMurray Chin,” a domestic comedy written by Edna Higgins Strachan. Runner up for best actor was Malcolm Lindsay, who was bound for Springfield College.
Best actress was Beth Kronforth, who played Demsky’s wife in the senior play. Runner up was Mary Wilcox Barton, who played a spinster aunt.

Class president Riccio was voted most popular boy. Demsky was second. Demsky also was voted the second most snobbish boy. Number one was Donald Brown, captain of the tennis team.
Demsky’s entry is the longest one in the yearbook, describing his involvement in dramatics, school politics, public speaking, writing, Alpha Beta Gamma fraternity and High Y.

The comment by his name stated, “Not to know him argues yourself unknown.”
Demsky was a member of the five person cheerleader squad, credited with helping the basketball team win a sectional title. There were three male cheerleaders (Demsky, Art Hoefs, and Bob King) and two females (Theda Mae Lasher and Betty Jane Shuttleworth).

Hoefs went on to be a longtime sports editor for The Recorder. As a musician, he played drums in local bands and for musical theater productions directed by Amsterdam educator Bert DeRose.

According to the 1934 yearbook, “Although we often doubted their sanity when megaphones and other equipment flew high into the air as Purple and Gold teams made a score at a crucial point in the game, we understood because we felt the same as they and wished we had something to throw.”

At commencement, Demsky read his essay “The Play’s the Thing,” second prize winner in the Recorder essay contest. First prize was split between Jane McCleary and Edith Palmer. McCleary reviewed poetry and Palmer focused on the modern novel. McCleary, Palmer and Demsky each received $5 in prize money.

Demsky wrote of the theater, “It is a Temple of Life, wisely instructing man, while it provides him with entertainment.”

After graduation, Demsky sold menswear at Lurie’s, a department store in Amsterdam. His friend Peter Riccio, after attending his first year at St. Lawrence University, convinced Demsky to go back with him to the university in Canton, where Demsky was granted a scholarship.

Demsky was in the wrestling program at St. Lawrence and during summer vacations he acted at Tamarack Playhouse in Lake Pleasant while working at YMCA Camp Agaming nearby.

It was at Tamarack that he changed his name to Kirk Douglas. After college he acted and studied acting in New York. He served in the Navy in World War II and after the war built his movie career in Hollywood.
The yearbook used to research this column belonged to the late Edith Smith Muszynski and was loaned by her nephew, Gene Twardzik.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]

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