Marker unveiled for Kirk Douglas in Amsterdam

Area residents, officials and local relatives of Kirk Douglas gathered at the corner of East Main and Eagle Streets in Amsterdam on Sunday for the unveiling of a historic marker honoring Douglas, an Amsterdam native, on his 102nd birthday. From left; Larry Gordon, Fred Simon, Marilyn Gordon, City Historian and Historic Amsterdam League President Robert von Hasseln, Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, Daniel Weaver and Jackie Murphy. (The Leader-Herald/Ashley Onyon)

AMSTERDAM — Celebrated Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas was honored in the city in which he grew up on his 102nd birthday Sunday with the unveiling of a historic marker that will stand near his childhood home.

Area residents, officials and local family members of the actor gathered at the corner of East Main and Eagle streets for the unveiling of the historic marker that was funded by a grant from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, secured by the Historic Amsterdam League.

Former HAL President Daniel Weaver explained during a reception at the Creative Connection Center that when he and HAL historic preservation committee chair Jackie Murphy sought the grant, it was decided that the plaque should be placed where it would be most visible, rather than the dead-end Eagle Street in front of the home where Douglas grew up.

“The kids that come here will look at that and one of the important phrases on that plaque is [he] ‘rose from poverty,’ not was lifted up out of poverty, not was taken from poverty,” Weaver said. “He rose from poverty.”

Douglas was born Issur Danielovich on Dec. 9, 1916, to immigrant parents living at 46 Eagle St. Douglas recounted his early life as one of seven children in a poor family and his path to a successful career in acting in his autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son.”

“Sure he had help, he had friends that helped, family, so on, but as a rule what he did, he did himself and that was important to me, that individual effort,” Weaver said. “I’ve always admired Kirk Douglas for what he’s done, for his acting. I’m a big admirer and fan of his movies and just am very grateful and thankful that we had an opportunity to put a plaque together.”

City Historian and current HAL President Robert von Hasseln noted just how far Douglas’ star rose, pointing to the many credits in his long career.

“What can you say about somebody who did 90 movies, 11 book and countless radio, TV and stage productions,” von Hasseln said.

While the city helped shape the man, Douglas’ career helped shape von Hasseln who realized he was interested in entering the military after his father took him to see “Seven Days in May.”

“Not only does [Douglas] act in it, but he was an uncredited executive producer, and, if you don’t know the story, it’s basically about a marine colonel who tries to stop a military takeover of the United States,” von Hasseln said. “That was the first time in my life that I realized I might want to be a military officer and I ended up in the Army for 24 years.”

The film starring the city native also helped shape a piece of the city when von Hasseln took inspiration for the Amsterdam Veterans’ Memorial in Veterans’ Field from that film’s ending that features an image of the Constitution of the United States after the rebellion is put down.

“We were lined up to spend tens of thousands for yet another cookie-cutter memorial which would be seals, dates, names of the services and I said to myself ‘let’s go deeper than that,’” von Hasseln said. “And I saw the last frame of “Seven Days in May’ and that’s why the only thing on the Amsterdam Veterans’ Memorial is the Oath of Office, ‘I swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.’”

Just as the city will never forget its native son, Douglas’ oldest niece, Marilyn Gordon, and oldest nephew, Fred Simon, assured those in attendance that the actor has never forgotten his home, making a number of unannounced visits over the years.

“On many occasions when our Uncle Kirk would come to visit, we would drive here to Amsterdam,” Simon recalled. “We’d drive around to different areas that he would remember.”

Simon recounted one visit years earlier when Douglas stopped at his childhood home at 46 Eagle St., knocking on the door much to the surprise of the man living there at the time who allowed Douglas to step inside for a few minutes.

“He was in such a state of shock, he didn’t believe it that Kirk was standing there and said ‘can I just come in for a second,’” Simon chuckled. “His eyes were wide open, his mouth was wide open, he didn’t know what to say.”

Gordon noted that she and her mother, Ida Sahr of Schenectady, spoke with Douglas over FaceTime on Saturday to wish him a happy birthday and to tell him about the historic marker.

“He was very touched and appreciative of this dedication and asked me to thank the Historic Amsterdam League. I promised him I would take a picture of the plaque and send it to him,” she said. “He will love that, I know he will.”

Gordon added that her mother who will turn 100 on Feb. 24 and is Douglas’ only living sibling, was unable to attend the unveiling, but sent her love.

“On behalf of my family I’d like to thank you all for what you’ve done for him today,” Simon said. “I know that he had a lot of fond memories of Amsterdam.”

By Patricia Older

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