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Interview with: Harold Wiesenthal
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: July 8, 2008
DG: Today is July 8, 2008. My name is David Goldstein. We are interviewing Mr. Harold Wiesenthal for the Houston Oral History Project. How are you today, sir?
HW: Doing good.
DG: Great. Let’s begin at the beginning. Why don’t you tell us where you were born and what your earliest memories are?
HW: Well, I was born in Galveston, Texas, July 14, 1927. The family moved to Houston about 4 years later in 1931.
DG: What are your first memories of Houston?
HW: Well, my first memories of Houston were just as a small town. We lived in a nice little neighborhood. My father was a big merchant in Galveston, Texas, and the Depression got him and he came to Houston to start his life all over.
DG: What kind of store did he have?
HW: He had a dry goods store in Galveston. He had a _____ dry goods store.
DG: What part of town did you live in when you first came?
HW: We lived on Brun Street, off Brun and Welch, and from there, we moved to 2309 San Emmanuel near the Polar (??) Ice Skating Rink, and we lived there for about 15 years. From there, we moved to Wentworth Street, 3236 Wentworth, and then, from there, we moved to Aberdeen, on Aberdeen Street, 3600 block of Aberdeen.
DG: What kind of stuff did you do when you were a kid?
HW: Well, just what the average kid did. Played ball in the street or went to the schoolhouse and played sports. Just did what the kids did in those days.
DG: How would you have described Houston to someone else? You have described it as a small town. How so? What made it a small town?
HW: Well, it was a small town, like where we lived on San Emmanuel, we could either walk to town or catch a street car for 4 cents and go downtown, go to a movie for a nickel. For a quarter, you could have a full day downtown.
DG: Where did you go to high school?
HW: I went to San Jacinto High School. I graduated in 1945.
DG: Right at the end of the war.
DG: Any memories of the war years in Houston?
HW: Yes, I remember. I remember when the war was over that, you know, we all went down to Main Street and everybody was partying and having a celebration. I think that was back in August of 1945, I believe.
DG: What kind of work did your father find here in Houston?
HW: Well, first he had a large ice cream store and then after that, he had a pawn shop on West Dallas, and after that, he opened up a little dry goods store on Preston Avenue.
DG: So, retail was sort of in your blood from the beginning?
HW: Yes, right from the beginning.
DG: What did you do after high school?
HW: Well, after high school, I went to University of Houston for a little while and from there, I went to join the Maritime Service.
DG: How long were you there?
HW: I was there about 1 year, 1-1/2 years. Then I came home and I think I went back to school at University of Houston. And then, I used to work around my daddy’s store.
DG: Any significant events you remember going on in Houston at that time when you were growing up?
HW: Well, no, just started growing there. They did not have any Galleria areas or Wal-Marts or anything like that. Mostly your stores were like ours, you know, family type stores. I guess when we opened this store here, there were about 50 stores like this, family type stores. And now, in this city here, there are maybe 4 or 5 of us left, you know, who are family type stores.
DG: Was that true for everything or just clothing?
HW: It is for family type stores. You do not see . . . like when we lived there over on San Emmanuel, in our neighborhood on almost every corner, there were Italian or a Jewish families living behind the stores and having their families there and grocery stores.
DG: Do you remember segregation in Houston during that time, either by race or by culture?
HW: Well, I remember quite a bit but we had no problem with it. We lived not too far from a black neighborhood and the kids would come over and we would play together. We had no problems at all.
DG: You opened the store in 1950?
HW: 1950. In fact, this part of the store that is right in front of us, it was a small store about 1200 square feet.
DG: On this same location where you are now?
DG: What made you want to do a clothing store?
HW: Well, my dad had an Army Navy store downtown and he just wanted something better for my brother and I, my brother Belton. This was a nice neighborhood, so he bought that lot out there and built a store for us over there.
DG: I see. Can you describe the Heights at that time?
HW: Oh, the Heights was just a real nice family type, blue collar people. They were good family people. When we moved in, we were just part of the family.
DG: I see.
HW: It was a nice neighborhood and it is still a nice neighborhood.
DG: And what did you sell when you opened your doors?
HW: Well, when we first opened up, we carried like work clothes and clothes for kids. Just popular priced things.
DG: What were those first years like?
HW: They were good. People were nice to us out here and we did well.
DG: And then, take me through the chronology – how did you grow, how did you become the store that you are now?
HW: Well, the first thing we did was we started getting a line of better clothes and then we started making clothes for the professional golfers. In fact, we made clothes . . . here is a letter here from President Eisenhower. We made him some golf slacks that he saw people playing in the Masters with and we made things for Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer, Marty Fleckman, Chi Chi Rodriguez – most of the touring golf pros -- and Tommy Bold, Jimmy Demaret, Jackie Burke, and most of them would get their slacks from us. My brother and I, when they would come to Houston, the golfers would come here and when they would go out of town, my brother and I would maybe go where they were.
DG: And how did that happen? How did you get that first golfer customer?
HW: I think Tommy Bold, the golfer, we made some pants for him. Then, people saw the pants on him and they liked them. We made a lot of clothes for Doug Sanders, you know, the real colorful golfer.
DG: Right. Was that the main attraction to them? Was it the colors or was it the fabric?
HW: No, the color and the make of it. They had a belt with no half pocket. It was just something different.
DG: I see. Some of those golfers are know for their rather colorful . . .
HW: Yes, well, they are not as colorful now as they were before. It is a little different. They just dress a little different now.
DG: When you started, you mentioned there were 50 sort of family stores in the neighborhood. How did that change? When did they start sort of going away and the big merchants came in?
HW: I guess in about the 1960s, we started carrying suits and better clothing. And since then, we have just gone all the way up now. In those days, we had suits that sold for as cheap as $49, $49.50, and now, here this year, we have some suits that are made from Oxford -- we do not sell many of them -- they sell for around $7,000. The most popular priced suits now are selling for anywhere from $595, $695, $995, and $1,295. We carry Hickey Freeman. They run $1,295. And a good Oxford, they will run about as high as maybe $7,500.
DG: Now, your suits back then were $45, $50 but that bought a lot more back then than it does now.
HW: Well, yes.
DG: What was the price of gas back when suits were $49?
HW: I can remember gas was a nickel or a dime a gallon.
DG: What did the typical house and typical car cost back then?
HW: Well, I remember dad bought . . . the house we had, the first had my dad owned, he could not afford it but there was a gentleman named Mr. Buck that his family had a dry goods store on Milam Street and he had a rent house on San Emmanuel and he let my dad rent the house for $25 a month rent and he told him, he said, “Mr. Wiesenthal, you can pay me $25 a month rent and then when you are able to buy it, we will just apply whatever you paid rent on the house.” I think he sold him the house for $10,000. And from there, we moved to a house on Wentworth Street. That was sold for about $18,500.
DG: What do you think the secret was of your success?
HW: I guess getting out and meeting people and just being part of the family out here. In fact, we’ve got a ledger book in there of when kids used to come in here and charged out, they paid $2 or $3 a month on their accounts but we do not have that anymore.
DG: How has the Heights changed?
HW: Well, the Heights changed quite a bit. A lot of these homes out here are being torn down. And some of them, they are building real fancy homes. Most of these houses, when we came out here, they would sell anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000, $25,000. That was in 1950. Now, here at this time of the year, in 2007 and 2008, those houses are selling for $200,000, $300,000, $400,000. It has changed a whole lot.
DG: You opened the store with your brother?
DG: How did you split up the responsibilities?
HW: Well, he sort of took care of the business of the store and I took care of good will getting out, going out places and being in the store like when you walked in, where you saw me sit and I would sort of visit with the people. We get a lot of nice people coming through here. In fact, last week, Jim Nance was in the store. Do you know the CBS sports man? His father was over here in the Heights Hospital. He was a patient and he came over and visited us quite a bit.
DG: You have had quite a few notable people through the store.
HW: Yes, President Bush 1941 comes in here quite a bit when he is . . . now he is in Kennebunkport for the summer but he comes in here once or twice a month while he is in Houston. He has been very nice to us. In fact, there is a pair of boots over here that he gave me. Do you see all these pictures and things in here? Those are things that he has given us. Do you see that picture of him and Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams? That is the most valuable picture in here.
DG: That’s terrific. For the sake of the tape, the walls in this room are covered with photographs.
HW: Yes, from President Bush.
DG: President Bush and there is Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, President Reagan. These are friends and customers?
HW: Yes. We made the suits for 1943, his inaugural clothes and we went up to Austin to measure him in the Governor’s Mansion, and then we went up to . . . my son Michael and I and the people from Oxford, we went up to the ranch and fitted them on him.
DG: How did those relationships start?
HW: The way it started with President Bush was I met him at the Houstonian Health Club and I told him where our store was. In fact, he was walking around, going around the pool there greeting everybody and when he came up to me, he said, “I know who you are.” He said, “You are Harold. You dress 70, talk 80 and shoot 90 when your putter is hot.” He said, “I know who you are.” There was a good friend of mine, Doug Sanders, who is a golfer, he gave me that saying about 30 years ago to say on television.
DG: It has served you well. It is pretty well known, when the president remembers!
DG: Other notables through the store that you would care to talk about?
HW: Oh, just plenty. I could take you upstairs and just show you. We’ve got walls of people that have come through here.
DG: Who were some of your favorites?
HW: Oh, I guess Flip Wilson was a good favorite of mine. There are just so many of them. And, I will tell you, a good friend of mine is Bum Phillips, Earl Campbell, Lance Berkman, a lot of the golfers. There are just so many of them that come through here.
DG: Now, Bum Phillips, Earl Campbell – not your typical easy guys to fit of the rack.
HW: We can fit them.
DG: So, did you find yourself specializing in clothes for celebrities and athletes?
HW: Well, they wear the same kind of clothes that we sell in here.
DG: The stories that people tell about the store and about the people that come through here, it is said that people would come by just to sort of hear you tell stories.
HW: Well, they would come by just to talk and visit. It is more like people just come through here like it is a meeting place for the people in the Heights.
DG: Houston has been through a lot in those years that you have been here with the store. You survived some hurricanes.
HW: Yes, we never had any problems. In fact, we have been here over 50 years and this street in front of us has never flooded. They call the Heights the Heights because it is high. We have not had any problem with flooding or hurricanes or anything like that.
DG: Did you ever have any thoughts about relocating to another location?
HW: Yes, we thought about it but every time we would look into it, the rents were so high back in the Galleria and the centers, we are better off . . . we own this building here and we are just better off staying here.
DG: So, how would you describe the Heights of today?
HW: Oh, it is good. What is happening now, a lot of younger people are moving in these townhouses and these houses. It has been good. A nice group of people are coming in here. These houses sell anywhere from $225,000 on up to $450,000, $500,000, so you know you will get a good crowd, the population will be good.
DG: When did you start advertising the store?
HW: I guess we started it probably in the 1960s. We started doing a lot of television and radio. We used to be on the Paul Berlin Show for a long time.
DG: And tell the people who might be looking at this tape what the Paul Berlin Show was.
DG: It was a show that was on KNUZ radio station and they played real good music like I would like to hear, the older people would like to hear -- like Sinatra and Willie Nelson and stuff like that.
DG: I see. The city has grown so much. The whole advertising equation must have changed since you started advertising.
HW: Yes, we advertise occasionally in the Houston Chronicle and whenever we do, we get good results from it, but the best advertisement we have is, like today, a fellow came in and spent pretty good here and the reason he came in – some of his friends told him about the place. That is the best advertising.
DG: Well, for a long time, the best advertising was you going out in the city and being visible.
HW: Yes. But now since I have had this . . . I had knee surgery and I got this staph infection. I do not get out a whole lot.
DG: Back when you were doing that a lot, where would you go if you wanted to . . .
HW: I would go to restaurants, I’d go to any of these charity affairs, I would go to most all the golf tournaments and baseball, football. In fact, when Bum Phillips was coach of the Oilers, he took me several times on trips with him. That was a nice thing for me.
DG: You pretty much invented the charity golf tournament in Houston.
HW: Yes, I’ll tell you – the first golf tournament that I can remember was the Good Samaritan golf tournament. It was at Westwood Country Club and I played in it. Barry Louis and his father. His father, Lew Louis, the family, they put on that golf tournament and I got to see it and I said, “We need to have one.” And so, when we did that, we had one. In those days, the first tournament we had, we charged $10 to play in it. Now, they are charging thousands of dollars to play in it. There are a lot of golf tournaments. They are all good because they all go for a good charity. I would say the best charity for golf is the Houston Golf Association. That is a very fine organization. The people in there are good. And all the money they take in goes right to charity. The other charity that I am a member of and support is the Livestock Show, that and the Golf Association are probably the best 2 charities this town has right now. They give so much money and do so much for a lot of people.
DG: You have been honored frequently for your work in the community. Looking back over your many years here in town, where have you committed yourself and supported the community?
HW: Well, there have been so many. I’ve done it for mental health, I’ve done it for boys and girls country, I’ve done it several times out here in the Heights. I have been honored for different dinners 7 or 8 times. In fact, I had one dinner, I think it was for a Jewish home in Los Angeles and Bob Hope was there. He happened to be in town and he came in. Like, Ross and I would have Bobby Waltrip – he is with the SCI Corporation or Racehorse Haines, that lawyer. I had several different honors.
DG: Does anything stand out in your mind being particularly meaningful to you?
HW: They all have been meaningful to me. I enjoyed them all. They all were nice. One of the deals that we had downtown, we might have had 1,000 people there. We always got good crowds.
DG: We’d better get some more facts and figures. When did you meet your wife, when did you marry and tell us about the kids.
HW: Well, I am divorced now. I met her just on sort of a blind date. I have 3 kids. I have a daughter, Alexandria, she is 12 years old, and one of them that just walked in, that Jared, he’s 9 years old. Those are my grandkids. My son, Michael, he is here. My son, Darrell. And I have a daughter, Tammy.
DG: Did the kids want to follow you in the business?
HW: Michael does. As a matter of fact, he was to take over around the first of the year but he got sick with cancer. But he is doing all right. That was _____ father.
DG: In the many years that you have been here in Houston, there had to have been some down years.
HW: Yes. I think what is going on now represents a little bit of down years. Like in the 1980s, I was down but we have had a lot of good years. It has been good out here for us.
DG: Yes, sir. If you were describing the city of Houston to other people, what kind of people live here, what kind of spirit?
HW: Oh, it’s a good spirit. People here support all the deals like the baseball teams, the football teams. I would say this gentleman that owns the football team is probably one of the nicest persons, Mr. McNair. He owns the Texans. He is as good an owner of a team than anyone I have ever seen.
DG: Yes. Being active in sports, do you remember the significant events, the building of the Astrodome?
HW: When I was just a kid of 9, 10, 11 years old my brother, Belton, and I used to belong to the Knothole Gang out at Bus Stadium. That was like in the early 1940s we would go out there. We could either walk from the house or catch a street car farther away out there. I think it was either 25 cents or 75 cents for the whole seasons.
DG: And what do you remember about the building of the Astrodome?
HW: Oh, I remember going to opening day. It was nice but the stadium we have here is just beautiful. It is probably one of the nicest stadiums in the league but they are building so many new ones now. And as far as football is concerned, where the Texans play is nice, but you can imagine what it is going to look like when they build that stadium in Dallas, the new Dallas stadium.
DG: In your business, it probably makes sense to be friends to everybody but have you been involved in politics any?
HW: No. I don’t get involved too much at all in it.
DG: And what occupies your time now?
HW: Well, just coming here and seeing the kids. I don’t get around too much. I am mainly on that walker and I still am not well from what I have been through.
DG: What are some of the favorite stories that you have shared with customers who have come through here?
HW: Oh, there are so many of them, it would be too numerous to . . . I couldn’t think of any of them, of anything in particular but just nice people coming here. I have people coming here that say they have shopped her 50 years ago and their kids come here. We have 2 or 3 customers that could not afford a $5 shirt and now they are multimillionaires and they still come in here.
DG: Tastes change a lot in clothing like everything else. How have you managed to keep up with all of that?
HW: Well, we keep up with it. We go to clothing shows 2 or 3 times a year. We keep up with the styles.
DG: Do your sons help in that regard?
HW: Yes, he is very good at that.
DG: What do you see for the future of this city?
HW: Well, I think what is going on now – just getting bigger and bigger. There is no telling what it will be in 100 years from now!
DG: With all the growth and all the success in the city, have we made any mistakes, do you think?
HW: I cannot see any that I know of. Right now, we’ve got a very good mayor. He is a nice man. He is doing a good job up there.
DG: We talked about the fact that when you first came to the city, it was a segregated city and we know how far we have come. A lot of the change took place at lunch counters. Was there any . . .
HW: I never had any problem with it.
DG: In retail maybe in other stores, were there any events or anything that you remember?
HW: I cannot remember anything. When we had the store downtown, we had a lot of blacks coming in there. There was no problem. We have them coming in here, they are all just as nice as can be. I cannot ever remember a problem in either one of the places.
DG: Why do you think Houston has become the city that it has become; that it has endured some of the downturns and come out of it the way that it has?
HW: I will tell you one thing – it’s got all these good sports teams. It is just a nice city and you can get around real easy. It is centrally located. From here, you can get to town in 10 or 15 minutes. You can go to the Galleria in a few minutes. It is just a good town for that.
DG: Any plans, anything that you always wanted to do that you saved for your retirement, that you intend to do now?
HW: Well, I don’t know what I would like to do in retirement. I would just like to get out and maybe travel a little bit and just visit people. And when I retire, I will come by the store here and stay around just like I am doing today.
DG: Have you traveled a lot?
HW: Not a whole lot.
DG: Do you have a second favorite place you like to go?
HW: I guess just any golf course is a favorite spot.
DG: Are you still able to play any?
HW: No, I cannot even think about playing.
DG: It is hard without good legs.
HW: Yes, but I watch it a lot.
DG: Do you travel to see the tournaments or wait until they . . .
HW: I watch it on television. You can see that just as good as going to a tournament.
DG: Yes, there have been some significant golf courses built in this city.
HW: Oh, I’ll tell you, the one that I helped them with, I’d say Memorial Park Golf Course is as fine a golf course, municipal golf course in the country.
DG: Yes. What was your involvement with them?
HW: When the remodeled it, I helped them remodel it and I raised funds for them. In fact, the clock tower out there is dedicated to me and also the driving range at Memorial Park is dedicated in my honor.
DG: Are there other things in town that you have had a hand in helping to create or preserve?
HW: No. I have helped quite a few but I could not remember which ones.
DG: You look back on all these years here in town. Do you allow yourself to feel a certain sense of pride about some accomplishments?
HW: Oh, yes. After being here that long, people just don’t stay in business as long as we have.
DG: What else would you consider something to be proud of in your time here?
HW: Well, I’ve got a nice family and a good name. Wherever I go, people recognize me and they know who I am. Most of the time, people just tell me about things I have done for them that I don’t even remember.
DG: And how about the city itself? What do you think Houstonians should be proud of?
HW: Well, just proud of living in Houston. This is a good city. It is nice. As far as any other city, it is just as good as any other place to live.
DG: Any last thoughts you would like to share?
HW: No, just keep on growing for Houston and we will be here as long as we can.
DG: Yes, sir. Thank you very much for your time.