When Mr. became Miss, a weekly was born

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As I bicycled past the newsstand on Avenue M, a paper looking something like the National Enquirer caught my eye, a busty woman sharing its cover with the headline, “Boro Mr. becomes Miss.”

I put down my dime, the price of a newspaper in 1964, and rode off with the first issue of the Brooklyn Times, a borough-wide weekly that was the brainchild of Ralph Bongiorno. A year earlier, Ralph had been production manager and sports editor of the Brooklyn Eagle in its final incarnation. Now, he was editing a tabloid that knew how to attract readers (subsequent issues would do it without sex-change stories).

An appliance store under the el on McDonald Avenue in Gravesend doubled as the official office of the Brooklyn Times. But Ralph didn’t work there (neither did the publisher, Lou Bruno, who lived next door); Ralph was based at his day job on El Tiempo, a Spanish-language daily edited by Stanley Ross, one of the Eagle’s last editors.

This wasn’t your typical newspaper office, and the Brooklyn Times (no relation to a paper of the same name published in the ’80s by the Home Reporter) was certainly not your typical newspaper. What it lacked in capital, it made up for in soul.

I started writing the Brooklyn Philatelist, a weekly column that was both newsy and full of Brooklyn advocacy. When the U.S. was about to issue a commemorative stamp honoring Winston Churchill, whose mother Jennie Jerome was born on Henry Street, I argued that its “First Day” release should be in Brooklyn (the Post Office instead chose Fulton, Missouri, site of Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain speech.)

My School Scenes column evolved into a multi-page Brooklyn Times Teener section; I’d spend most of my weekends writing, editing and laying out the Teener, then my mother or father would drive me to Gravesend as my deadline — Sunday midnight — approached.

The Teener featured school news, pop star news, contests (we got several hundred coupons for a Rolling Stones ticket give-a-way), teen advice and lots of teen-oriented politics (this was the ’60s, after all). I wrote “teen-a-torials” about civil rights, Vietnam (in 1965, we were big boosters of U.S. intervention), testing crazes and school schedules. We interviewed the teen children of prominent politicians like mayoral candidate John Lindsay.

At dawn Thursdays, I’d rush to the newsstand at the Flatbush-Nostrand junction to be there as the delivery truck arrived, anxious to see how my section printed and to delight when one of my stories was promoted, in “Boro Mr. Becomes Miss” style, on the front page.
And for this, they even paid me! It was heady stuff for a 15-year-old.

The Brooklyn Times, which was the nicest-looking Brooklyn weekly in those days (Ralph had the advantage of being a great editor and knowing the technical ropes), lasted four years. After temporarily publishing on a daily basis during a Manhattan newspaper strike (including, for a time, an almost-daily Teener section), Ralph and Lou got the idea that they could become the new Eagle, a real daily, and started raising money. But it wasn’t to be.

A chance encounter with Ralph Bongiorno in the mid-’70s would help facilitate the birth of The Brooklyn Papers, a story we’ll leave for another day. The Brookyn Times was Ralph’s inspiration, and his courage in starting and sustaining it in the service of Brooklyn should not be forgotten in the borough’s history. In my book, he was the equal of any of the Eagle’s great editors.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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