Home Going Celebration for “Grandpa Al Lewis”

A Memorial Service for (Grandpa) Al Lewis

by Mark Dunlea

Mourners and celebrants packed Riverside Church in Manhattan on February 18th for a rousing memorial service for Al Lewis. Lewis, known worldwide as Grandpa Munster, qualified the Greens as an official party in New York State when he ran for Governor in 1998. The service, broadcast live for more than 3 hours on WBAI, NYC's Pacifica radio station, attracted a multi-racial, multi-generational crowd.
'Grandpa' Al Lewis
Al, a former union organizer and long-time labor activist, had a long running Saturday afternoon public affairs talk show on WBAI, devoting much of his show to issues of interest in the African-American community. He was widely listened to in the jails and prisons in the metro NY area. He and his wife Karen Lewis started a major pen pal program for prisoners through WBAI.

The speakers at the service spoke to Lewis' passion for social justice combined with a razor sharp satrical approach to public commentary. They spoke about his intelligence, his voracoius reading habits, his crazy cackle and wild hair, his everpresent (and disgusting to many) cigar. All spoke of Grandpa's passion for speaking truth to power. Al himself spoke to the crowd several times through audio and various video compilations, leading to tears and standing ovations.

Columnist Jimmy Breslin observed that Lewis not only habitually joined any picket line that he passed, but that he particularly insisted on supporting the smallest protests. If there was a solitary protestor, Al wanted to double the size of the protest. Others related than unlike other celebrities, when asked to speak at an event, Al never asked how many people were going to be there or whether the media was likely to attend. If he supported the cause, he was happy to join.

Dr. Alice Green, Director of the Center for Law and Justice and Lewis' Lt. Governor running mate in 1998, added that "Al loved to remind us of the People's history of the United States, the history lessons that we were not told about in school - or were told about from the perspective of the rich corporations and their political servants. During his campaign for Governor, he kept alive the memories of the proud tradition of long ago fighters and martyrs for social and economic justice, telling us stories about people like Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, of the Scottboro boys in Alabama, of W.E. DuBois.

Many of the speakers spoke to the pivotal role Lewis played in building the movement to repeal New York's draconian Rockefeller Drug Law. Margaret Kunstler, activist and widow of William Kunstler, read the names of scores of individuals Al had helped freed from prison.

Randy Credico, the comedian who spearheaded the Kunstler's Fund for Justice drive against the war on drugs, delivered a biting, humorous talk on how Al had kept the movement to Drop the Rock alive in the early days when only a few people were coming to the weekly vigil. "Al showed up, week after week, in front of the Rockefeller Center. He came no matter what the weather. His constant presence eventually convinced more of the relatives of those imprisoned to join the line, leading to the creation of the Mothers of the Disappeared. Al never gave up and he wouldn't let anyone else give up either."

When Credico grew tired of their constant travel and visits to prisons throughout the state to meet with prisoners, it was Al who insisted that they continue. Like several speakers, Credico noted that Al often cited the abolitionist activist John Brown as an inspiration. "Would John Brown be whining about how hard it is? No. He would be charging ahead." Norman Thomas Marshall read from his play, "John Brown, Trumpet of Freedom," which he credited Al with inspiring him to write. "What are we willing to give our lives for? How fiercely should we resist evil? Can we be corrupted by our own righteousness?"

Dr. Green added that in fighting to Drop the Rock, "Al said he was inspired by not only the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, who risked their lives in protesting weekly at the main plaza in the nation's Capital against the military regime who had killed their loved ones, but by Lucille Parsons. Lucille was the bi-racial ex-slave whose anarchist husband had been hung in 1887 following the Haymarket riots, even though he was not present. For the next fifty years, she was repeatedly arrested for protesting her husband's innocence, often in weekly, solitary protest outside the halls of power in Chicago. She never gave up demanding for justice. Neither did Al."

Amy Goodman of "Democracy Now," who worked for years with Lewis at WBAI, reported that Al "would invetiably be the first person who would call after my morning's show.. You gotta being kidding he would exclaim. Why didn't you raise this and why didn't you raise that? But I counted on those calls. Grandpa educated me so much about so many different issues, because he had either been involved or he had read out it."

Like many speakers, Amy stated that Grandpa "was never afraid to use his celebrity to make a better world. But while he was quick to criticize the powerful, he was always an educator and a master entertainor, trying to reach people," to push them to do more to make the world a better place.

Amy and others talked about the bond that Al had with cops, starting with his role on the "Car 54" television series. That bond grew stronger when he spoke out in favor of raises for the police. Cops would always come up to Al at protests to ask for his autograph. But Al also talked publicly, and privately to cops, about the issues of police brutality.

"Al talked to me about riding shotgun to protect W.E. Dubois at the funeral of Ethel and Julius Rosenburg, who were executed allegedly for being spies. He said that the people who came out to that funeral, who cared, were largely African-American women who came because they understood what suffering was. He said that these were the pictures you don't get from the NY Times. His show every Saturday was a lifeline to all those people on the other side of prison bars right now," added Goodman.

Many of the speakers were incensed by the recent NY Times article that focused on the ongoing dispute over Al's age, whether he was was ninety-five or eighty two when he died. Some believe that as an actor he inflated his age when he became Grandpa on "The Munsters" so that he would not be younger than Yvonne DeCarlo, who played his daughter. While the speakers acknowledged that Al was undoubtedly unleashing his trademarked cackle over the furor over his age, several asked why the NY Times seemed more concerned about Al's age than about the lying of the Bush administration and their own reporter, Judith Miller, about weapons of mass destruction, about spying and torture and the Downing Street Memo.

David Klein, head of the local Veterans for Peace, talked about how Al often cited the work of General Smedly Butler. He read several passages from Butler's War is a Racket.

"WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small "inside" group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes."

"Al believed in speaking his mind, of speaking truth to power," noted Dr. Green. "He was never one to sugar coat life for people. Unlike other candidates for Governor, he did not offer up empty platitudes about how great the Empire State was. Instead, he talked about the realities that poor people and people of color faced in the daily lives, about racism and capitalism and greed. He would help out reporters by slowly spelling out on his hand what a campaign contribution really was a B - R - I - B - E. He loved calling his republican opponent "Potato Head Pataki."

"Some of the reporters got his act; many of them did not. But he told us not to worry. When the reporters dutifully reported one of his patented outrageous remarks, like solving the problem of toxic wastes by getting a big spoon and feeding them to the CEOs of the polluting companies, he knew that real person who heard the joke would understand what he was saying even if the politicians and reporters did not," added Green. Many of the speakers noted that Al was always a warm person with people on the street. Those were the people he cared about. He would take a few minutes to talk to them, to share a story, to give them a memory they could keep. Walking around town with Al was being at the head of a parade that would instantaneously form as people poured out of stores and homes to greet Grandpa.

Like many professional clowns, Al was a far more complex individual than his public persona. Al was one of kind, a unique individual. Certainly there was no other television celebrity in the US who was so brazen in confronting those in power and agitating for social change. As Alice Green noted, "Every now and then when I see the old show 'The Munsters,' I say: 'Wow, this guy was so much more.' I'm really going to miss Al Lewis."

Mark Dunlea helped manage Lewis's run for Governor. Dunlea, an attorney, sued to have Grandpa added to Lewis's name on the ballot.