Tommy Sternfeld, forgotten local show-biz legend
Tommy Sternfeld was best known for his 17-year stewardship of “Teen Age Barn,” a locally-produced weekly TV program showcasing the talents of local teenagers. The history of that show will be detailed in a subsequent post.
Curious about how Mr. Sternfeld came to be situated in Albany, and his entertainment background, I did a little digging, and came up with this wonderful bio from the Knickerbocker News’ Janet Scott, who had a column called “Looking At Albany.” Because this article was published in 1947, it predates his television work, but it’s an interesting look at the life of a talented man.
If it weren’t for the money angle, Tommy Sternfeld would rather spend his time swimming than dancing. But that little matter of earning a living had to be considered, so dancing won out.
Thomas R. Sternfeld was born in Albany 39 years ago, attended Schools 8 and 14 and Albany High and worked several summers as a lifeguard at Mid-City Park swimming pool. He was all of 19 before he decided he wanted to learn tap dancing. His ambition was aroused by seeing a little girl do some dance steps on the sidewalk outside a store one day.
After studying dancing in New York City during the winter of 1927, he came back to his lifeguard job for the summer. Then he went down to New York and stepped right into a Broadway show. For about eight years he was in the theater business, either dancing or directing dancing. He appeared in “Present Arms,” in “Rainbow” with Charlie Ruggles and Libby Holman, in “Street Singer” with Cary Grant, in Fred Stone shows and others. For two years he was in St. Louis as dance director for the Shuberts. Later he played in vaudeville with an act of his own [“Tommy Stern and His Girls”].
The stage was hit hard by the depression, and by 1935 “the show business was falling apart,” Mr. Sternfeld recalls. He decided then to return to Albany and open a dancing school. He had confidence in himself as a teacher right from the start, because he’d had good luck in teaching an Albany boy, Danny Giagni, on his visits home. Danny has won quite a name for himself as dancer in Broadway hits, as Danny Daniel. He recently closed in “Street Scene.”
“Danny says he wanted to finish the job I started,” Mr. Sternfeld said. “He thinks I should have stayed in the show business. But he’s gone way past me.”
Tommy Sternfeld’s first experience teaching large groups was instructing the girls at St. Vincent’s Orphanage. Now he teaches at seven or eight city public schools, at Bethlehem Central High and at La Salle School, in addition to having his regular classes at 69 N. Pearl. He instructs as many as 200 pupils at a time.
In 1943 when he joined the Navy, Mr. Sternfeld sold his school, but he bought it back when he returned to civilian life in 1945. The Navy assigned him to Sampson first, where he staged several big shows. Then he was transferred to New York City in charge of training men to produce overseas shows. He didn’t leave the country himself, but productions that he wrote and rehearsed were performed all through the Pacific. His services brought him a Navy commendation.
Mr. Sternfeld has been connected with the Christian Brothers Academy minstrel shows for seven years. He has written the shows, even while he was in the Navy, and has directed them, except when his Navy duties made it impossible. His daughter, Joan Ann, or “Buzz,” will dance in this year’s show, Nov. 26 through Nov. 29. “Buzz” is 12 and her father is proud of her dancing. He hasn’t any stage hopes for Tommy Jr, 7, because right now the boy is interested only in sports. Mr. Sternfeld says both youngsters are good swimmers.
After Mr. Sternfeld first started his dancing school in 1935 he also doubled as a lifeguard. He worked at McKown’s Grove and also at the Lincoln Park pool in the eight-year interval before going into the Navy. Since his naval discharge, however, he has been putting full time on the dancing school.
The Sternfelds live at 188 Colonial Ave. Mr. Sternfeld’s wife – who isn’t a tap dancer – was formerly Miss Beatrice Jones of Albany. His mother is Mrs. Anna Sternfeld of 33 Irving St.
– Knickerbocker News, November 17, 1947.
See the next post for the rest of the story.
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