Seems a pretty safe bet on this, the 40th anniversary of “The Godfather,” the mother of all mob movies, that from time to time you ask yourself “gee, I wonder why we cannot have a godfather of our own, right here in the Capital Region?” Am I right or what?
Well, exactly 40 years ago last night, the lobby of the old Hellman’s Theater on Washington Avenue was jammed with cinephiles eager to witness this epic film. And just a few months later, thanks to an equally entertaining criminal trial here, we all discovered why we are prevented from having our very own godfather.
During a wiretapped phone conversation that was played for the jury, a reputed Mafia wannabe is heard suggesting to an Albany-based loanshark-bookmaker that if Albany had a godfather, Mr. Loanshark would have a lot less trouble with deadbeats. Wouldn’t have to beat them up so often to get them to pay.
Central to this life-imitates-movies drama was a Runyonesque character by the name of Seymour Sher who, for a wiseguy-type, seemed woefully gullible. Seems that someone from the Albany Democratic machine had convinced Sher, who was living in Brooklyn at the time, that he would be allowed to take over the numbers racket in Albany, complete with political and police protection.
So Sy Sher and his wife Jessica, a good-looking blonde, move here, get an apartment in the Pine Hills section, and Sy gets about his numbers business. By the time they left Albany 18 months later, Sy would get arrested twice, get robbed of $10,000 — a lot of cash back then — and discover that the promises of protection were empty. This guys and dolls sharpie from the big city would get whipsawed by the folks from the boonies.
But, while Francis Ford Coppola was introducing the term “godfather” into the pop lexicon, Sy and his wife were the toast of Shaker Ridge Country Club, passing out “Benjamins” from the dining room to the bar to the locker room. Life was good for the Shers. He had a second place at the Cameo House Apartments near Colonie Center with multiple phones for his gambling interests and where he was known as Allen Goldberg.
Then, the problems start. One night, Sy fills up a little lunch bag with ten grand in cash and drives to a restaurant parking lot in Latham to make a scheduled payoff. A guy sticks his gun into Sy’s car, takes the lunch bag and Sy had to go back to the Cameo and fill up another brown bag. August, 1971, his wonderful Albany adventure really begins to crumble. Sy got arrested in Albany and Greene counties.
The Albany charges were mostly bookmaking, nothing more than the cost of doing business. But down Greene County way, Sy was charged with extortion, loansharking and assault, some serious stuff having to do with an Ulster County grocer who was not very good at picking winning horses and who claimed that Sy and a buddy had inflicted a pretty serious beating on him for not keeping current on his loan.
The buddy was a guy from Brooklyn by the name of Andrew “Chubby” D’Apice, the reputed mob wannabe (“reputed” is an extremely useful word when writing about organized crime, don’t you think?). Chubby’s claim to fame: His brother-in-law had been arrested the year before in a jewel heist along with Joseph Colombo Sr. (yep, the same one).
So Sy and Chubby go on trial in Catskill and I get a tip from my law enforcement sources that, during these proceedings, a wiretap will be played where Mr. D’Apice actually utters the magic word, “godfather.” Two weeks of
testimony and then it happens. Sy’s on the phone with Chubby, who’s outside a bar in Brooklyn, Sy moaning and crying about all his deadbeat customers when D’Apice says IT: “You know what you need up there Sy, you need a godfather.” You almost can hear Sy gulp. A nervous Sher tells Chubby he’s not gonna believe it, but the Albany Democrats do not allow godfathers. “Up here, there’s no such thing,” he says.
No godfathers needed in Albany County, as Sy discovered, because the Albany Democrats were their own godfathers, already offering protection and goodwill to friendlies running the rackets here. What, these old, bigoted Irish guys need to bring in some Italian-American or, worse yet, some Jewish guy like Sy, to run the show? Sy and Chubby both got convicted but neither served a single day in jail.
POSTSCRIPT: Fast forward 12 years and I am on vacation, reading the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel at the breakfast table. Headline story says former Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain just got indicted on racketeering charges in Tampa. McLain, a 31-game winner in 1968 on the mound, a complete loser in life. And there, in the fourth paragraph, also arrested with McLain, charged with extortion and loansharking, one Seymour Sher.