Tribute to Old Watertown: Bob Sanasarian Walks Down Memory Lane

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By Nancy Kalajian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

WATERTOWN — At 88, Bob Sanasarian jauntily walks through the streets and byways of East Watertown to recollect the shops that once were, in many buildings that still are. With a keen memory for names and places, my pen can hardly keep up with his recall of shops, fruit-ripening facilities, cleaners and of course, his family’s Ideal Market. With a penchant for storytelling, a gift for elaboration, and quick wit, Bob could keep even the sleepiest audience awake for hours.

A lifelong resident of Watertown, Sanasarian is a weekly presence at St. James Armenian Church in Watertown, both as a choir member on Sundays for the past 73 years and as a volunteer at Bingo on Tuesdays. He may well hold the record for longevity in the choir; he recalls that the only time he couldn’t be in church was many decade ago when he would be “on call” for duty during a nearly 12-year stint in the US Naval Air Reserves. But no matter which way he would he would go, he would always go in the direction of St. James when he was in town.

Indeed, a film starring Bing Crosby could well be the anthem of his life. As a youthful usher at the one-screen Coolidge Theatre in East Watertown, he still remembers tiny details from the film “Going My Way” that he viewed scores of times, all week long. In those days, only one film was viewed at a time, and that film could play for weeks at a time.

“In one scene from the film, they are setting a table. Bing Crosby has a fork in his hand. He pokes around the food a lot with his fork but never puts the fork to his mouth,” reminisces Sanasarian, imitating the star, with a gleeful smile.

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Growing up in Watertown meant lifelong friendships among and between people from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. According to him, the East Watertown neighborhood included mostly Irish, Italians, Greeks and Armenians. Many of the Armenians stuck together for play, work and church. Indeed, in testament to the notable presence and deeds of Armenian immigrants in East Watertown, there is a sign named “Missak and Sarkis Parsekian Square” in the immediate vicinity. “The older Armenian men — not the young people — would sit on boxes or old fruit and vegetable crates on Nichols Avenue and would play tavloo,” shares Sanasarian. “They would set up the tavloo table on one crate and then would sit on the other crates. On Quimby Street, we played tag, and hide and seek. Our neighbors included Harry Parsekian and his family. By the way, I now sing in the choir with Harry’s wife [Hrip] — she’s an alto.”

 

“On my summer vacation when I was about 16, I worked on shoes at Hood Rubber and made a grand total of $60 for the summer. Then I was learning to drive and got in a little car accident with my aunt’s borrowed car and it costs $60 to fix the car so that was it for the $60. At Hood Rubber, we roughed up the inner part of the sole and buffed the soles so the cement would stick to the canvas sneaker.” Bob also cleaned the frames and rubber off the windows on military paraphernalia.

Some years ago, filmmaker Roger Hagopian made a film on Hood Rubber that even included Sanasarian’s reminiscences of his work there. “The odor was bad. The Armenians joked a lot with one another. Mrs. Gulbankian and Mrs. Mouradian worked on the cutting machines and they nicknamed me ‘Bobby.’ There was camaraderie for the war effort. There were many huge buildings from Nichols Avenue to Arsenal Street. There was even a Goodrich store on Bigelow Avenue where those apartments are now and at that time Hood made some of their products.”

 

Topics: Watertown

Immigrants in Watertown

With such a profound influence on the immigrant community when everyday goods were expensive, it was no wonder that many young residents lined up to try Hood Rubber’s “test sneakers. They were testing for wear ability. The sneakers were free and would be used for two or three weeks. The company would evaluate them for extended use. I never got sneakers since I never got there quick enough. My mom would say that sneakers weren’t good for you, that leather shoes were better. But look, I have rubber sneakers now,” said Sanasarian with a chuckle.

Shops were a place for immigrants to connect, and Sanasarian’s family played an integral part in that part of community life.

“Ideal Market on Dexter Avenue was bought by my father from a couple moving to California; they later came back from California and wanted to rebuy the Ideal Market but my father, Aram, didn’t sell it back to them. The couple then opened a competitive market nearby on Nichols Ave. and called it called the New Deal Market. My father’s business went down a bit but then my father moved the Ideal Market to Mt Auburn Street in 1940.”

Walking down Mt. Auburn in East Watertown is a trip down memory lane as my guide points out significant sites. “Across the street from what is now Giragosian Funeral Home, starting from Lloyd Road, there was Lloyd’s Pharmacy, Ideal Market, Berberian’s Armenian Shoe Repair, Charlie’s Barber Shop and at the corner of Irma Road and Mt. Auburn Street was the Ivy dry cleaning shop,” he continued. “After some years, my dad closed the Ideal Market and went to do welding at Fore River in Fall River with Mr. Atamian, the Mt. Auburn Grill owner, and an Italian guy. They wore Navy clothes since it was a navy contract they were working on.”

Soon Aram Sanasarian was able to buy a family home on Carver Road East, and later worked at the commissary at Hood Rubber.

“When my father closed the Ideal Market on Mt. Auburn Street, Kirk Kaloustian’s mother and father opened a grocery store, elongating three stores into one; they used the space that was the Ideal Market, the shoe repair, and the barber shop and they called it Kay’s Market, and they were in business for a long time. Kirk Kaloustian’s mother was a beautiful lady,” Sanasarian reminisces.

“Back then, there was a gas station on the corner of Arlington Street and a bowling alley next door to the Mount Auburn Grill. When we were young, we worked at the bowling alley and would set up the pins — we would take turns, jump up when the pins fell down and then put the pins back up.” On the stretch between Elton Avenue and Melendy Avenue was Victoria Spa, a men’s haberdashery, a bar, Nahigian’s grocery store and Gelesian’s five-and-dime store. Near Melendy Avenue was the Atlantic Gas Station owned by the Kaloostians and a luncheonette/diner run by two Armenian women (now Massis Bakery), a few other shops and Scott Cleaners on the corner of Mt. Auburn Street, just before Dexter Avenue.”

Indeed, according to Sanasarian’s recollections, most of the businesses on Mt. Auburn Street in East Watertown seemed to have had some Armenian connection. For example, he recalls that under the building that now houses the Post Office was where the Patapanians ripened bananas and tomatoes and that his cousin Billy Derderian’s grandfather owned the Watertown Builder’s Supply on Arsenal Street.

 

Dexter and Nichols

A short drive away to the corner of Dexter Avenue and Nichols Avenue brings up the Dexter Spa, a popular landmark. “Mr. Chapazian had a printing shop right on Dexter Avenue next to the Ideal market. Then there was Dickie Bakalyan, part of the Junior Rat Pack; he went to California. He had an older brother, Willie, my friend. They lived in an attic apartment in a three-story building on Dexter Avenue. Dexter Spa was on the opposite corner of Nichols Avenue and Dexter Avenue. Then they moved across the street. Behind the Dexter Spa, where JKT Garage once sat, you can now find an empty lot. In the same block of Dexter Avenue was a printing shop, then Ideal Market. Barber Toros had a shop across the street at #57 Dexter Avenue. With an entrance on Nichols Avenue, the Sevan Club — on the second floor above the Ideal Market — had connections to the Progressive Party,” he recalls. Decades ago, Sanasarian even recalls seeing a movie there from the Tsarist days, with memorable scenes of an uprising and Russian soldiers shooting the protesting people.

A grocery store was on the corner of Dexter and Hazel Streets and diagonally across is where three sons lived on the first floor. These young men served in the Korean War and World War II. Their family bought a market across from the Ideal Market. Peter and John Airasian owned a textile shop on the second floor on Dexter Avenue; there was a garage downstairs. “Then they opened a stitching shop on Cypress Street — my mom even worked there. Then the shop moved to Kondizian Street and it became Eastern Clothing. Lots of Armenian girls worked there,” shares Sanasarian with a glimmer in his eyes.

Working in the printing/offset business kept Bob busy for many decades. Starting off at the Quincy Ledger newspaper, he soon joined Harvard Engraving. Three of the four owners included Harry Sarkisian, Vahe Boyajian and Mr. Semerjian. (If a reader knows the name of the fourth, let us know.) The Boston-based Armenian-owned business was on the second floor of High Street and later moved to the 7th floor at 79 Essex St. “My father used to play cards with Mr. Semerjian at the AYF Club. In those days, you needed a little pull to get in, to make a connection to get a start in the photo engraving field,” he confides.

Working by day as an engraver at the Christian Science Monitor, Sanasarian took on a part-time evening job as a photo engraver at the Boston Herald, first with letter press and later offset.

Worcester and Beyond

Now mind you, Sanasarian’s knowledge isn’t just focused on Watertown; he can easily tell you a thing or two about Worcester or even Albuquerque. “My uncle, Dr. Sempat Paretchanian (Pachanian), delivered Fr. Dajad Davidian and a lot of Armenian babies born in the Worcester area. Sam, Sempat’s son, opened the Spud Nut donut shop on Pleasant Street in Worcester. He used dehydrated potato flour to make the donuts. Sam went to Albuquerque, New Mexico where he opened a Spud Nut shop there and produced flour and provided it for his own shop and other donut shops. By the way, Sam was married to Ronaldine Ekserjian from Scotland; her sister, Nadine, was in the French Parliament. Sam and Ronaldine’s two daughters, Bonnie and Nadine, still live in New Mexico. One of Ronaldine’s brothers was in the British Admiralty while her other brother was a brigadier general in the Scottish army,” Sanasarian recounts with a proud grin.

As far as his family’s roots and history, Sanasarian recounts, “My Uncle Vahakn Jerian was a Gamavor, in the French Foreign Legion. The French gave Adana to the Turks. My mother and family were in Cyprus. My oldest aunt’s husband, Dr. Sempat Paretchanian, was from Marash. He had come to the US, attended Yale University and became a doctor. He was a US citizen. He went back to Turkey, opened a practice in Adana and then cured and treated my grandmother. There he fell in love with my Aunt Sirvart. Adana was given back to Turks so my uncle was asked to treat Turkish soldiers. They said, ‘We’ll care for your family,’ so he served as a doctor in the Turkish army. The wounded came in droves. He went to the front and there was a British war ship there. Turkish soldiers were walking on the beach and were getting popped off. My uncle was wondering why there were so many Turkish soldiers wounded or killed. ‘Why don’t they dig in and protect themselves?’ he asked a Turkish officer. ‘Don’t worry, there’s more to take their place,’ the officer replied. They were so cruel to their own people. My grandmother went to Cyprus and then to America and my grandfather Manoog went to Lebanon; his eyesight and sight was later saved with eye surgery at Mass General,” he said.

“Bob is close to us. We’re also Vanetsi and he even knows some Vanetsi words. He’s more than a friend — he’s a kind, peaceful and helpful man,” confides Vartan Krikorian of Watertown.

The offspring of two regions in Armenia, Bob Sanasarian was born in Everett, Mass., just before Christmas 1928, to Aram Sanasarian of Van who came to the US in 1912, and Vartouhi Jerian of Adana, who immigrated here in 1920 via Cyprus. Vartouhi initially lived in Lowell but soon moved to Watertown where she was very active in the Armenian community, became chairwoman of the Senior Women’s Guild of St. James and baked a lot.

Sanasarian shares, “Everything she cooked was delicious. The senior ladies still use a lot of her recipes to this day.”

Indeed, I first met Vartouhi, a sweet and outgoing woman, on a tour bus by the Pyramids when she attended a large anniversary celebration in Egypt in the early 1980s in honor of the founding in Egypt of the AGBU.

In his early years, Sanasarian attended two Protestant churches; one was an Armenian Protestant Church on Arlington Street in Watertown. “I went to St James as soon as they started the Sunday School, and I’ve been there ever since,” says Sanasarian with a chuckle. “I started to sing, as a bass, in the choir decades ago.”

In fact, in recognition of his continued heartfelt dedication to the St. James Armenian Church community, he was honored with a Parish Service Award at their 83rd Anniversary and Name Day Banquet in 2014. “He’s one of the kindest and most devoted church goers and choir members I’ve ever known,” said parishioner George Tarvezian Jr.

Besides singing for the church choir, Sanasarian sang with the Armenian Choral Society (ACS) for many years. Under the direction of Siranoush Der Manuelian, ACS sang at various events, colleges and even private families. A highlight of many earlier summers was when ACS members from one Rockport family invited members of the Choral Society to congregate and perform there at their Victorian ocean-side home.

When asked about the block on the corner of Mount Auburn and School Streets, Bob of course chimes in, “Where the St. James Cultural Center now stands were two homes: my friend Aram Horhorouny’s family had a yellow house, and then there was the Campbell Estate with an iron fence, on the corner of School and Mt. Auburn Streets. Aram’s father, Joe, invented a noiseless and flash-less machine gun, and he worked at the navy yard. He was a machinist, had lots of inventions and he received commendations for his work. In the garage below the house, Joe had his workshop where he invented many things. There was the valve for the b29 airplane – oil valves were made out of brass in the beginning and later made with aluminum to make them lighter. Joe paid Aram and I to tab the grooves, then Joe would check each one with a gauge to make sure we went deep enough and that they were perfect since they were going into a plane so he would check each one very carefully.”

 

Korean War Veteran

Sanasarian joined the US Naval Air Reserves starting in 1948. The Korean War started in 1950. Bob describes himself and others in his squadron as “weekend warriors.” Sanasarian would report one weekend a month but the squadron as a whole was never activated. One memorable time was when he served on the FDR carrier for a week.

In the Torpedo Bomber Squadron (TBM), he usually reported to Weymouth where blimps were kept. In his role as an aerial photographer, he used K20, K25 and F56 (that weighed about 50 pounds) aerial cameras and a Speed Graphic land camera. Bob shares, “I was in one plane, opened the hatch, and took a photo while in mid-air of an individual pilot in one plane in the squadron, then continued to take photos of the other pilots in their planes. So, there could be 12 planes in the squadron and I usually would fly with the commanding officer in the lead plane. We also used the F56, would take the photos, and later develop the film, take prints and match them up to overlap so then you would have a panoramic, topographic picture of the entire landscape.”

Residing in Watertown his whole life, the Sanasarian family lived on Arlington Street, subsequently moved “to the Zakarian house” on Quimby Street, then bought the house on Carver Road East. As to his immediate family, Sanasarian’s parents, sisters Audrey and Arpie, and one nephew, have passed away but he spends a lot of time with his nieces Roxanne Baker and Joy Morgan and nephew Kevin Baker.

“My family had a big influence on my life, especially my mother, father, Uncles Vahakn Jerian and Sempat Paretchanian. I am proud of my mother. She was a hard worker and provided a good model for me to follow.”

While Sanasarian has followed in the steps of his close family members, he has also moved in his own direction continuing to make a solid mark on this community.

(There were extensive names and places to research and/or cross check for spelling in the writing of this piece and the writer apologies in advance for any unintentional corrections that might be needed.)