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Interview with: Jo Alessandro Marks
Interviewed by: Dena Marks
Date: October 4, 2010
DM: It is October 4, 2010. We are in the home of Jo Alessandro Marks. I am interviewing her for the Oral History Project. My name is Dena Marks. So, tell me about your father and his role in the City and in Houston schools.
JAM: Well, he was a music teacher at first and he would teach children in the home.
DM: What was his name?
JAM: His name was Victor Alessandro. He then became a part of the Houston Independent School District in 1923. I think that was when the School District began. He then eventually became the Director of Bands, all the bands, of the Houston schools.
DM: And so, how many schools were there at the time?
JAM: Actually, there were 7 high schools. Well, when he started though, I think there were maybe like 2 high schools and then after that, there were more. When he was through, there were 7 high schools, when he retired.
DM: How many years before he retired?
JAM: I do not remember. I am sorry.
DM: So, what did that mean, him being the Directors of the Bands of Houston schools?
JAM: Well, he would travel from school to school and help the instructors that were there or talk to the kids that were there playing music, and he would listen to them and he would help them. That was what he did.
DM: He had a very singular method of teaching, didn’t he, the Solfeggio?
JAM: Oh, yes, the Solfeggio. Every time I would run into Louie Welch, he would remind me of that. My father would always way, “Solfeggio is the thing. The fixed dough. Not the movable dough.”
DM: We were talking about Solfeggio and his method of teaching.
DM: I just remember him talking about it.
JAM: Yes, right. Well, he did. He talked about it a lot, and he was successful with it. He wrote some text for kids, actually for children that were not even in school yet - like for 3 and 4-year-old children – he wrote texts for them in Solfeggio. He was very successful with that. He wanted to get it into the public schools but it was just too far into them.
DM: He was originally from Italy?
JAM: Yes, he was. From Sicily, as a matter of fact.
DM: He had some pretty famous students, didn’t he? Who are some of the students that people would know?
JAM: Well, of course, the one that comes to mind first is Walter Cronkite. He was in a band at San Jacinto High School and then my brother and his son, Victor Alessandro, he was also named Victor Alessandro, and he became the conductor for the San Antonio Symphony and Opera season there. So, those were the two that I think of first.
DM: And Howard Hughes, right?
JAM: Oh, yes. Well, Howard Hughes did not last too long but he took some lessons from my father.
DM: Back to my uncle, Victor, he was involved in something in Houston called the Baby Band. Tell me about that.
JAM: Yes, when they would go to concerts, they would take him with them and he would . . .
DM: Do you mean your mom and dad?
JAM: Yes, my mom and dad, and they would sit on the back row because he wanted to always stand up and conduct.
DM: So, he wanted to be conductor at a very early age.
JAM: Oh, yes. So, a lady had seen him and she was instrumental in getting a baby band together for a church in town. And so, they had uniforms and they toured. And he had a whole orchestra that he conducted from 4 years old.
DM: What was the average age?
JAM: He was four when they started it and I guess the average age, I don’t know – there were children there up to about 8 years old.
DM: And then, he evolved into the conductor of the San Antonio Symphony?
JAM: Yes, right.
DM: Your mother was involved with the Alley Theater. What did she do at the Theater?
JAM: Well, she was the first box office person that they had.
DM: What did they call her?
JAM: Mrs. A. On the opening night of the theater which, at that time, it was a dance studio and it was at the end of an alley way, and so, the first opening night, she was outside of the entrance to the dance studio sitting at a card table, taking tickets with an umbrella over her head because it rained on opening night. Hubert Roussel, who was the Houston Post critic at the time, always wanted a seat near the exit, so he sat near the exit but he also sat near a tree that was growing through the dance studio. Of course, rain was coming down and it would splash and hit him.
DM: That is not a good place for the critic to be sitting.
JAM: No, but he gave us a good review.
DM: He was the father of . . .
JAM: He was the father of Peter Roussel.
DM: Who worked for President Bush, right?
DM: So, how did you get into acting -- tell me a little bit about that, in Margot Jones -- and then how did you get into acting at the Alley?
JAM: Well, you know, I thought my parents wanted me to be a concert pianist because they gave me piano lessons for so long with Ruth Burr and, at the age of, I guess it was 13, in school one day, we had a guest who talked to us in the auditorium and it was Margot Jones. She started talking about theater and how exciting it was and how wonderful. She just inspired me. And so, I thought, well, I am going to be a part of the Community Players which, at that time, they had a little recreation house on the bayou, Buffalo Bayou. So, they had a stage and they did plays there. I went there and the first thing that she told us was that it was the beginning of the season and we had to sell season tickets. So, I determined I was going to sell more season tickets than anybody else because I wanted her to pay attention to me so I could act. When push came to shove, at the end of the whole thing, I was second to Nina Vance. Nina Vance was a part of the Community Players, too, and she beat me out. She won first place to selling the most season tickets. And then, after that, I got cast in a small role in the first play of the season and then another role. And about that time, at the age of 14, I was ready to try to figure out where I was going to go to college, so I talked to Margot about it and she said, “Darling, you’ve got to go to the University of Texas. They are all Yale graduates there. You’ve got to go there.” So, I told my parents and lo and behold, they said okay, I could go to the University of Texas. I did not think they were going to let me go that far away.
DM: Well, then you mounted a big campaign.
JAM: Yes, I did. I put little notes around the house wherever I thought they would look.
DM: What did the notes say?
JAM: “Off to school in Austin,” or similar notes like that, you know? So, I went to the University of Texas and the first play that they did that year was Arsenic and Old Lace. I auditioned for it and I got a role in it, one of the two leads in it. It was unusual for a freshman to get that but then after that, it was sort of downhill. I did not get many more leading roles but I did a few other things at the University of Texas, a few other roles.
DM: How did you get to the Alley Theater? How did you get involved with the Alley Theater?
JAM: Well, when I graduated, I went to New York because I wanted to get into theater there. Instead of getting into theater, I got pneumonia. The doctor had told me that I really needed to come back home where it was warmer. This was after I had been there for 6 months only. But I went up there as a little southern girl in the middle of January and they had blizzards and everything and I did not know how to take care of myself in cold weather, so that is what happened. So, I came back here to Houston.
I had a friend who helped me get a job so I could go back to New York, and he introduced me to a man named Slugger Cohen. And so, I got the job . . . he had an advertising agency. I got the job there and about that time, there was only one other theater, really, in Houston, and that was the Houston Little Theater, because, by that time, Margot Jones had really gone off away from Houston. So, there was this move to start another theater and Nina Vance was heading it up and she sent out postcards and I was there at the beginning of the Alley Theater. There were, I think maybe like 80 people there or something like that and we started the Alley. Then, Nina cast me in the second play of the season and then in the third play or I think it was the fourth play of the season. And then, the fire marshal said, “You’ve got to leave. You cannot stay in here because it is too dangerous.” So, we hunted for a place and we found the Fan Factory. It was on . . .
JAM: Yes, Berry. So, we remodeled it and in the midst of remodeling it, she cast me in the Children’s Hour and cast Pat Brown, too, in it. At that time, her name was Pat _____. So, we did that show and then after that, it was home free. The Alley really made a hit with people.
DM: What do you think was your most ____role at the Alley or maybe the one you were most remembered for? Was it Elizabeth Barrett Browning?
JAM: I think it was, and the Barretts of Wimpole Street was the name of the play. I played Elizabeth Barrett-Browning in it and I think that was the play that most people remembered me by, or at least they mention that.
DM: Was there anything . . . who were some of the people you acted with at the Alley that people might know?
JAM: Well, Jimmy Jeter.
DM: Larry Blyden?
JAM: Yes. Larry was a part of the Alley, yes, he was. Larry Blyden. As a matter of fact, Nina also did some shows in the Rice Hotel in a room there that they set up to be a theater in the round. Yes, I was in a play with Larry Blyden.
DM: Ray Walston?
JAM: No, that was in Margot Jones’ day but Ray Walston, yes, I was in a show that he was . . . I had a little bitty part but I was in a show that he had the lead in. Then, there was Joe Finkelstein who was also there and Bob Halff and all those names. You would have had to have lived them to remember them.
DM: Bill Hardy?
JAM: Well, Bill Hardy was in the days of the Alley Theater.
DM: And Jeannette Clift George.
JAM: Yes, Jeannette Clift George. Oh, yes. She went to the University of Texas.
DM: Really? The same time you did?
JAM: No, just a little bit after me. She told me, she said she got so excited when she found out that the rehearsal skirt she was wearing was one I had worn! I said, “I don’t understand you, Jeannette!” Anyway, so that was that.
DM: What was the Alley like then that people might not know now? What was it like being a part of the Alley back then? Was it exciting? Was it scary?
JAM: Well, no. It was just raw, sort of raw, because the dressing rooms were just terrible. And, of course, in our first theater which was at the dance studio, you could not flush a toilet in the upstairs because they would hear it in the theater. So, you could not do that.
DM: I thought maybe it would flush on Herbert Roussel!
JAM: No. Well, it was very rudimentary, very rugged. We had to do things like . . . the sound booth was up high. You had to climb a ladder to get to it. Many times, I had to climb a ladder to get to it because I did a lot of sound, too, for the Alley, on the old records where you had to cue them up by spinning them around to the right place and get them ready.
DM: So, you did more than just act and I would perceive that most of the people who were acting with the Alley did more than just . . .
JAM: That’s right. I mean, you had to. There weren’t that many people around.
DM: Was it a volunteer job?
JAM: Oh, of course it was, yes. Yes, I mean, people did not get paid for a long time at the Alley but finally, you know, they did after . . .
DM: A while.
JAM: Yes, right.
DM: Let’s talk about your paying job.
DM: You went to work for Gulf State Advertising Agency, you said, after you met Slugger Cohen?
DM: You ended up marrying . . .
JAM: His partner. Adie Marks.
DM: Whom you did not think very much of in the beginning.
JAM: No, because when I went up there for the interview, he just did not say anything to me hardly and he just looked very glum. Slugger had given me an assignment of going home and writing some commercials for ___ Store for Men and Weingarten’s because they had both of those accounts then, and to come back. So, I did. That day, I brought them back in and he said, “Well, these are O.K. Now, let’s go and have you get on the air.” So, we did. We went over to I guess it was KATL at the time, maybe it was KTHT . . . anyway, one of the stations that was nearby. And so, they said, “O.K., well, you can go to work.” They had just come back from the war though, see, and they were looking for people.
DM: And then, you ended up doing what for the advertising agency? You ended up working producing TV and radio shows and all kinds of stuff.
JAM: Oh, yes, well, I ended up . . . at one time, I was doing 26 shows a week. Writing them and performing in some of them and casting. We did some dramas for Uncle Johnny Mills. And so, I would cast them. We just did it because we did not know any better. We did it all on those . . . what are those old records called? I do not remember. But they were records. And when the needle would go around . . .
DM: Phonograph records?
JAM: Well, yes, but I mean, when you had to make a recording on them, a little bit of that record would come up. And they would have to brush it away so that it would not get . . .
JAM: Yes, right.
DM: What were some of the shows that you were involved in?
JAM: Well, Memories and Melodies was one big radio show that we had and that was done. And Larry Blyden, incidentally, was on that show.
DM: What did he used to do to your scripts?
JAM: Oh, he’d light a match to it while we were reading. He was a big jokester. Well, then television came along and when television came along, we just did live shows and I got to do a lot of them because I was one of the few people that had had any training in theater or drama or anything like that so I got to do a lot of them. The one that most people remember me for was charades. I adapted charades to television and we had that show for many years.
DM: Who were the most frequent guests on the show?
JAM: The Wrestlers. They were.
DM: The Houston Wrestlers?
JAM: Yes, sure.
DM: Were they good charades players?
JAM: Oh, yes, they were so good. And one time, Paul Boesch brought these wrestlers . . . 4 people we had to have on each team. The teams were against each other. So, these 4 wrestlers came and one of the wrestlers had pulled a title that he could not really do and he just tried so hard, and he did it over and over. And he was doing the dumbest things with it. They were so mad at him, the wrestlers were, that when they got through with the show, they made him walk home from the show.
DM: Did he ever play Charades again?
JAM: I don’t know if he did or not. I do not remember.
DM: And there was a show called Pee-Wee Panel or something like that?
JAM: Yes, Pee-Wee Panel was a show that we had which was 4 or 5 little kids that . . . we would ask children to send in their problems and see if their Pee-Wee Panel could solve them. That was a good show.
DM: I would have watched that show. Let’s move on to the Houston schools and all the integration of the Houston School District and Civil Rights. How did you get involved in that, to begin with?
JAM: Well, I belonged to an organization called Houston Association for Better Schools which turned out to be . . . the current one is – I have forgotten what the name of it is but there is one that has lasted that came out of the Houston Association for Better Schools. So, we were really eager to get a new school board because it was in really sad shape then. Hattie May White was one of the people in this group and so we decided we wanted to have her run for school board. She would be the first black lady, first black person, really, to ever serve on the school board. And so, although we were discouraged by a lot of people who said, “You will never make it. She will never make it,” she did make it. She became elected to the school board and she did a great job.
DM: What are some obstacles that you remember of her being elected or anything that anybody did to frustrate that effort?
JAM: Well, I do not really remember any specifics but there were always people that were just really negative about it. Anyway, she became very good except that she would, every day, almost after every school board meeting, she would call and she would be crying about how they treated her and stuff and they were – they treated her very badly. And then, she came up for another election and my husband, Adie, who had handled her campaign before, asked her, “Why do you want to run again? Look at the way they have treated you.” She said, “I am afraid that they only aboded for me because my last name was White and I want to see if they vote for me again.” And they did. They voted her in again. And now, her name is emblazoned on the School District’s main building.
DM: What was it like in that time when they were trying to integrate the schools? You were really fighting a tough battle.
JAM: Yes, we were but it was so important, it was so necessary, and they would do such terrible things. Like, there was this one little black girl that was going to an all-white school, an elementary school, and they would not let her go to the same bathroom as the other girls. So, that really stuck in my craw and that is when I really got very active with it. Then, Hattie May White started telling me about the bussing that they were doing. The bussing that they were doing was bussing black kids past white schools to get to an inferior black school. So, I talked to a friend of mine who was an attorney and said, “We need to go after these people.” So, they found a black family that said that they would use their name to try to get them to change and get a lawsuit installed and they did. So, besides the friend of mine who was the attorney, we went to another law firm because we wanted to have a black person also, a black attorney to do it.
DM: So, who were the attorneys?
JAM: Joe Tita was the white attorney and Bill Wood was the black attorney. We had the trial. We knew we would lose ahead of time because the judge was always known to . . . well, in the first place, he came from Hempstead and he just would make comments all the time about watermelons and blacks and stuff like that. So, we knew we would lose. And he would go to sleep during the trial, too. So, we did. We lost. And then, we wanted to go to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and we had to get the transcript of our trial in order to go to this Circuit Court. It cost $5,000 to get it. Well, we did not have $5,000. So, that is when I decided I was going to see if I could get some help from Martin Luther King, Jr. and a friend of mine and a friend of my husband’s who was with the circus had mentioned once that there was a lady working for him that used to work for Martin Luther King or that did work now for Martin Luther King. So, I called and he called her and she called me and we got together that way.
DM: Who was that?
JAM: I don’t remember her name.
DM: Was it Carol Hoover?
JAM: No, Carol Hoover was the one that finally ended up being my connection with the . . . she was the public relations person for Martin Luther King. She and Andy Young were instrumental in helping me get to meet Martin Luther King. I met him in Dallas, Texas. He was in the major hotel there.
JAM: I guess it was. I do not remember. But anyway, he did not ever register in his own name. So, they gave me the name of Bernard Lee who was his right-hand man. We went there and asked for Bernard Lee and we went up to the floor, we turned the corner and there were 3 big white guys standing in the hallway blocking our way. They wanted to know where we were going and why we were up there. We told them we were there to see Martin Luther King, Jr. They asked our names, they went to the door and knocked on it and gave the person on the other side our name. Then, they let us in. I wondered why they were so . . . they had been set up in a room across the hall from the room that Dr. King was in. They were playing cards in there all the time. I wondered why. I realized then later that the reason was because it was only a few years before that John F. Kennedy had been killed in Dallas and they did not want anything like that to happen again. So, we went in, we explained our problem and everything and Dr. King was very attentive. He impressed me so because he listened so well. He would ask such good questions. He did not say a whole lot though but he said he would get back in touch with us. So, we left and we flew back to Houston. I was with the two attorneys. Before long, we heard from him and he said that they were ready to help us. And that is really how I got to know Dr. King.
DM: And he came and put on a benefit here?
JAM: Yes, he did.
DM: Who else was involved in the benefit?
JAM: Harry Belafonte was. Joan Baez was supposed to be here but she was thrown in jail just before.
DM: But she came later for Pacifica.
JAM: Yes, she did. We also had a reception for Dr. King one week before the date for the concert . . . because we had had so many terrible things. I mean, people were getting threatening . . . well, the people that were selling the tickets were getting threatening calls and that was through some clothing stores here that said that they would sell the tickets there. So, he came to try to alleviate that and it did not do too much because we really did not make enough money to get the $5,000 so that we could go to the Fifth Circuit Court.
DM: What happened with Joe Tita when you went one night after some sort of meeting to . . .
JAM: Yes, well, I would sit in the court while the trial was going on and then we would meet afterwards to discuss it and I would take notes of things that I had thought of during the time. So, on this one occasion, they said, “Let’s go get a drink someplace while we talk.” So, we went to this bar that they said a lot of attorneys went to and we sat there and ordered some drinks and they ordered some. I think Bill said that his drink tasted funny and so he gave it to Joe. And then, he got another drink. Bill ended up in the hospital because they had put Ipecac in their drinks. They did not do it in mine. They did not put it in mine.
DM: Well, didn’t Joe Tita get sick, too?
JAM: Yes, he got very sick, too. He went to the Y when he started feeling bad. I dropped them both off at their offices in their buildings and they showed no signs of any illness or anything but then just as soon as they got into their buildings, they started feeling bad.
DM: So, the bartender or somebody poisoned them?
DM: Any other things that happened in conjunction with this particular case that is of interest or note? What eventually happened with it? Was there ever an appeal?
JAM: Well, we contacted the Justice Department in Washington and asked them if they would be a friend of the court and they said that they would have to come down and see so they did. They sent a couple of guys down here and we explained everything to them, how it worked, what happened and everything. And so, they decided yes, that the Justice Department would be a friend of the court but they lost, too, in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
DM: It must have been frustrating.
JAM: Yes, and it was to try to stop this business of building schools in a place. That was the whole thing. It was to stop them from building schools. They had about $65,000 worth of schools, or maybe it was $65 million – I do not remember. But anyway, it was a lot of the schools that they were going to build that they could have put on a borderline between a white neighborhood and a black neighborhood. Instead, they wanted to do two schools: one in the middle of the black community and one in the middle of the white community. And we thought that was just terrible. That was the crux of the lawsuit and we lost.
DM: At some point during all this time, you were involved in a grand jury that was called a runaway grand jury.
DM: When was that?
JAM: That was, I guess in the early 1970s.
DM: So, that was after all this happened?
DM: And why were you called a “runaway grand jury?” What did you do?
JAM: We indicted the district attorney and the head of the detectives for the Houston Police Department.
DM: And why?
JAM: Because they had lied to us.
DM: You indicted them on what kind of charges? Perjury?
JAM: Yes, perjury.
DM: Who was the district attorney?
JAM: Frank Briscoe was the DA at the time. Yes, because we had had a case before us that obviously there had been some lying going on because the dates that they gave us were all bad. In other words, they had told us that the detectives had picked up a broach in a bunch of jewelry that they had found, that Sam . . . he was the mayor of Pasadena at the time. I do not remember his name now. Anyway, that he had stolen – they said that he had stolen. Well, he may have but they said that the judge that had appointed us to the grand jury was a part of the heist and that they went to his house one night, and incidentally, what they did [was] they alerted the news media to meet them outside of the Memorial Park area that this judge lived in. So, they made a caravan and followed the police to the judge’s house for them to search for this broach that they said that he had received out of this stolen merchandise.
DM: So, it was all a set up to . . .
JAM: Oh, yes, to try to get him in trouble because he was always appointing a grand jury that was honest and they did not like that. So, we knew then because of the dates they gave us of when the broach was picked up were wrong because they said that it was after they made this run on the judge’s house. So, we called the district attorney in and the head of the detectives because they were all a part of that whole thing and we asked them questions about it and they said, no, that was not right – they didn’t have anything to do with that. So, we indicted them.
DM: You have been involved in a lot of different things, so we are kind of going all over the map but Pacifica Radio, KPFT, how did that all start and how were you involved in that?
JAM: Well, one day, Aide, my husband, had said that these two nice young men had come up to his office asking for his help. They wanted to start a Pacifica radio station. And he said, “Well, I think maybe my wife would be interested in that.” And so, they contacted me. So, the three of us set up . . . we worked a couple of years and started KPFT.
DM: It was you . . .
JAM: And Larry Lee and Don Gardner.
DM: It was kind of a rocky start.
JAM: Yes, it was. Well, I was chair of the board at the time and we our transmitter was bombed.
DM: Why do you think that happened?
JAM: Because people did not like the idea of Pacifica, the Pacifica philosophy which was we let everybody talk on the air that said they needed to talk on the air, even if it was against what we believed. But everybody had a right to talk. And so, that is what happened. The Klan, I guess it was really that . . .
DM: The KKK?
DM: You were on their rat sheet, right?
JAM: Yes. And so, then, also the second time after they rebuilt the transmitter, they blew it up again.
DM: Were you chair of the board at that time?
DM: And there was a strike, too, wasn’t there?
JAM: Yes, there was. Oh dear, those were some interesting times!
DM: What years was this all going on?
JAM: Well, 40 years ago was what?
DM: In the 1960s or 1970s.
JAM: In the 1970s, the early 1970s.
DM: What was Houston like at that time? You say Houston was not receptive to this kind of listener sponsored radio.
JAM: Well, not all of Houston. There was still resentment about the integration and all of that that was going on. There was still a lot of resentment about that. And free thinkers really could not last too long, although KPFT did last.
DM: Yes, KPFT did last. During this time, too, your phone was bugged, right?
DM: How did you find that out?
JAM: Well, my friend, Jack Donahue, told me that it was bugged and he knew because he had done a lot of it himself. That is when I told you kids how to handle yourselves if you ever answered phone and people said anything bad to you.
DM: I do not remember anybody ever saying anything bad to us.
JAM: No, I don’t think they did.
DM: What else about Houston? I mean, you are a native Houstonian – growing up in Houston and being a part of Houston strikes you as something that might be of interest to people or anything that happened to your or your family. We haven’t even talked about the Astrodome and Judge Hofheinz. Do you have any interesting stories about him?
JAM: Well, of course, my husband had a bunch of stories about it. On the opening night of the Astrodome, my husband had to go early to the Dome because of the scoreboard. They were having some trouble with the scoreboard and he was trying to help them with that. And he was handling the advertising for the Astrodome at the time, too. And so, he gave me a ticket and he said, “You can go by yourself.” And so, it was a skybox ticket. I went up there and I sat. It was in the seats in front of the skybox. And so, I went up there and I got there early and I was the only one up there in that whole big place. And so, I was sitting there, wondering who was going to come and all of a sudden, I look up and here come these 3 people – a mother, a father and a child. They walked around and they came around and they sat down in front of me. And it was Gus Grissom and his wife. I could not think of anything to say to them. I wanted so badly to say something to them but I could not think of anything, so that was my story about the Astrodome.
DM: Anything else about Houston that you think is worth noting or any changes in the City that you have seen or something that you feel gratified to have been a part of?
JAM: Yes, well, I have been very gratified to be a part of the theater scene in Houston because it has really grown so. I mean, from no theaters at all, trying to struggle along, the Alley Theater struggling along to stay alive and everything, and now, there are so many theaters in Houston and it is so gratifying to see the development of the arts which, of course, I am very interested in. So, that has been really, to me, the best thing that I have been involved in, I guess. Well, one of the best things.
DM: We always try to end these interviews with the same question. The question is if you perceive that Houston has a discernible spirit, something that makes it a different type of city, what would that spirit be?
JAM: Its diversity. It is so lovely to see the diversity in Houston, and it has made it a great city, I think. I think the more diversity we have, the better it is going to be. That is what I think.