Johnny’s Pizza, West Lincoln Avenue and the MacArthur Circle
Richard J. Garfunkel
February 23, 2006
There are a lot of complaints in Johnny’s Pizzeria about the new driving circle at the intersection of Lincoln and Gramatan Avenues. That driving circle was named MacArthur Circle at one time, I assume after the famous General Douglas MacArthur, the Liberator of the Philippines. The circle had been there long before the fall of Corregidor in the spring of 1942 and for sure before General MacAthur accepted the surrender of the Japanese on board the great 16” Iowa Class battleship the Missouri on September 2, 1945, VJ Day, in Tokyo Harbor. Also it was sort of strange to have a circle named for General MacArthur and have a statue of a soldier from the Spanish-American War. All former Hilltoppers know there is a statue of Theodore Roosevelt reclining half way up the steps of venerable AB Davis (now) Middle School. It doesn’t take being an historian to know that Teddy Roosevelt was a hero of that long ago conflict that was precipitated by the sinking of the Battle cruiser Maine in Havana Harbor and William Randolph Hearst’s demand for satisfaction against the Spaniards that controlled Cuba for four hundred years. The famous Frederic Remington, Hearst’s commissioned and intrepid artist, it is said, told Hearst, “There is no war in Cuba” and Hearst replied, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Of course much of that was chronicled in Citizen Kane, with Orson Welles, playing Kane making the same claim.
There was another connection with the Spanish-American War with the first General MacArthur. General Douglas MacArthur’s father Arthur, the boy Major and hero of Missionary Ridge in the Civil War, was a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor for that action, a Major of Volunteers in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, a Lt. General, and was later Governor-General of the those same islands. His son Douglas, after graduating number one in his class at West Point, with the highest grades since Robert E. Lee, was billeted there during the three-year Filipino Insurrection that was led by the famous rebel Emilio Aquinaldo.
Of course the United States fought one of its most famous naval battles in Manila Bay. Commodore George Dewey, on May 1, 1898, (47 years and one day before my birthday) addressed the Captain of his flagship Olympia, Charles V. Gridley, which is currently preserved and docked as a naval museum in Philadelphia, and commanded, “You may fire when ready, Gridley” upon the Spanish Fleet. Of course marksmanship wasn’t like it is today with our laser controlled smart bombs and cruise missiles, and Dewey’s Pacific Fleet made good on only about 120 hits out of over 8000 shells that were expended. But that gunnery was enough to rout the Spaniard’s attempt to make the open sea. We suffered only one naval casualty in the battle and the Spanish navy lost over 300 sailors.
By the way, Theodore Roosevelt happened to be the Assistant Secretary of the Navy before his legendary charge up San Juan Hill. While the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. John D. Long took the day off; TR was left in charge of the Navy department for the day. He cabled Commodore Dewey in Hong Kong to assemble his fleet, be fully coaled and be ready for an imminent declaration of war. If that came about, he was to immediately block the Spanish Fleet from leaving the Asiatic Coast and then sail to the Philippines. Of course, Richard Harding Davis, the famous war correspondent for the New York Herald, wrote much of the early history of this war in his reports from the front for Harper’s and Hearst’s New York Journal. The description of this conflict, as “The Splendid Little War,” was attributed to Secretary of State John Hay, who in an earlier time was the one of Abraham Lincoln’s personal and private secretaries. With his colleague John Nicolay they authored the definitive and authorized 10-volume biography of The Great Emancipator. Colonel Roosevelt, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for this action, did charge up San Juan Hill, but most of his men walked, because almost all of their horses were left behind. The Spanish resistance was stiff, and their German smokeless powder Mauser rifles were tough to locate, and were quite accurate. But the Rough Rider’s heroism carried the day. Interestingly only two father and son combinations in our history were decorated with the Medal of Honor, the Roosevelt’s and the MacArthur’s.
Meanwhile, Johnny’s a Mount Vernon culinary landmark with its famous, delicious and expensive pizza (a six-slice mushroom, sausage and cheese is about $16) now is located a block up West Lincoln Avenue on one’s way to Yannantuano’s Funeral Home. Reasonably not every one who goes up West Lincoln is heading there, and for sure not every one going there is in position to enjoy the famous thin crust of Johnny’s pies. But the big conversation at Johnny’s these days is the reconstruction of the traffic circle at the confluence of Gramatan and Lincoln Avenues, and the many detours. In fact it is almost impossible to get West Lincoln unless one is an old veteran of Mount Vernon back roads.
Except for the last sixteen years, Johnny’s was always not there. For decades it was on Gramatan Avenue and before that it was a small hole in the wall on the corner of Third Street and Fourth Avenue. In 1961 or so, I never had the pleasure of eating pizza. For some strange reason my parents looked down at that legendary cuisine, and other then my mother’s lasagna and veal parmigian we never went out to an Italian restaurant and for sure a pizzeria. My more cosmopolitan friends had already been indulging in this forbidden fruit on a daily basis. So one day when we (Warren Adis, Charles Columbus, Jon Breen and I) were traveling west on Third Street with Warren Adis driving, he pulled over to the side of the street and said let’s stop for a “slice.” I said, “Are you crazy, I don’t eat that stuff!” Well they convinced me that I would not drop dead from it, so I acquiesced. The price was 15 cents per slice, (MAD Magazine “cheap”) it was damn good, and that was my start on the road to being a pizza lover. Not long after that wonderful gastronomic experience, my pizza eating career started in earnest at Albanese’s, the unofficial AB Davis watering hole in Eastchester and I never looked back. I never knew the name of that long-gone vest pocket Third Street joint, but today when I told this story to the heir to the Johnny’s Pizza fortune, he told me that it was his father’s place! Small world we live in. ‘
PS: I was already corrected, the play on the corner of 4th and 3rd was HI-FI Pizza. The readership out there is still quite bright. rjg