Mafia movies will have you believe that wise guys aren’t born, they’re made. But that wasn’t the case for Myron Sugerman of Montclair, a second-generation Jewish gangster who is the subject of the new documentary, “Last Man Standing: The Chronicles of Myron Sugerman.”
Sugerman — who made his mark (and his money) by becoming, as he says in the film, the “godfather of the illegal slot machine business” — took up the mantle from his father, Barney “Sugie” Sugerman, who kept company with and served as a partner in the New Jersey Jewish mob alongside the likes of Abner “Longy” Zwillman, Joe “Doc” Stacher, and Abe Green.
In his heyday, Sugie cavorted with the legendary mobster Meyer Lansky, as well as some other bold-faced names who made their money a little more honestly, like singers Perry Como and Tony Bennett.
“Our lives were basically in Newark and Manhattan,” Sugerman, 85, says in the documentary. “Tenth Avenue on the west side was Jukebox Row. From 42nd Street all the way up to 45th, 46th Street were all jukebox operators. I would go into the city in the afternoon after school, and on Friday nights we used to go to Madison Square Garden with all the fellas who worked for my father.”
Per Sugerman, his father “missed nothing” — he had his hand in everything from “bootlegging, boxing, fixing fights, thievery” to “jukeboxes, vending machines, pinball machines, slot machines,” all of which were either illegal or could be used as fronts in money-laundering schemes.
But these Jewish mobsters could be called upon for nobler pursuits as well. In 1939, Newark was home to both large Jewish and German populations — including Fritz Kuhn, the leader of the American Nazi party. As Sugerman tells it, Kuhn and his cronies would follow their meetings and rallies with trips into Jewish neighborhoods, where they would terrorize their residents. Together with the Jewish prize fighter Nat Arno, Sugie’s associate Longy Zwillman formed an association called the Minutemen, named after the New Englanders who took up arms against the British.
The Newark Minutemen would throw stink bombs into the halls where Nazis met. “As the Nazis came running out, our guys were like a gauntlet. They’re standing there with the monkey wrenches and baseball bats and brass knuckles. And they beat the s*** out of these Nazis,” as Sugerman tells it.
Sugerman’s version of these stories might be lost to time if it weren’t for director Jonny Caplan and his production company Tech Talk Media. Released last January — and now available to stream on Amazon Prime — Caplan’s film features extensive interviews with Sugerman himself, a character who might remind you of your own Jewish grandfather — and also the guy who keeps putting the fix on your shul’s bingo game.
In a recent Zoom interview, Caplan said that he was “kind of blown away” when he first heard Sugerman’s story, courtesy of a colleague who was helping Sugerman with his 2019 memoir, “The Chronicles of The Last Jewish Gangster: From Meyer to Myron.”
Later Caplan watched Sugerman’s interviews online. “He’s just such an amazing character that I fell in love with,” Caplan said. Although Tech Talk mostly covers the world of innovation — previous productions include documentaries about flying taxis and “robots that look after the elderly” — Caplan said they couldn’t resist bringing Sugerman’s story to life.
Born in 1938, Sugerman took up the family business at the age of 21, following his graduation from Bucknell University. Fluent in six languages (seven, if you count profanity, as Sugerman says in the documentary), he was given $3,000 in travelers checks by his father and sent off to Europe to start an “export business.” Sugerman hit a number of countries on the Continent, all while building his reputation and ability to sell pinball machines, slot machines, and arcade equipment.
Eventually, Sugerman’s specialty would become Bally Bingo pinball machines, an addictive, “dynamite” arcade game that attracted gamblers and operators who handed out prizes. After its interstate shipment was banned in the United States in 1963, Sugerman would buy parts from all over the country in order to get the machines assembled. “I was the biggest contrabandist and bootlegger of Bally Bingo machines across the states,” he recalls in the documentary. Those efforts got him named in three state cases and three federal cases for illegal gambling and organized crime. And yes, he did serve jail time.
In a highlight of the documentary, Sugerman eventually is connected with the famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Five years after the capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960, Sugerman happened to find himself in Vienna. Feeling galvanized by the successful hunt for the man who drew up the plans for the Holocaust, Sugerman knocked on Wiesenthal’s door and asked how he could be of service. The answer, like so many other things in life, was money.
“I was religious every week — we sent very generous amounts of money to Wiesenthal,” Sugerman says in the film. The pair struck up a friendship, and with each trip Wiesenthal took to New York City, Sugerman says Wiesenthal’s first call was to him. Eventually, before one of Sugerman’s trips to Asuncion, Paraguay, Wiesenthal asked the contrabandist to get him information about the whereabouts of notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, who was rumored to have decamped there. I don’t want to give too much away, but if you enjoyed seeing Nazis killed in the film “Inglourious Basterds,” you might like how this story ends.
Sugerman provides details of his life, confessional style, as he leads the camera crew to local haunts in Little Italy and Brooklyn’s Kings Highway. Along the way, he meets friends who help him tell his tales of the old days, like “Baby John” Delutro, also known as “The Cannoli King,” and Johnny Chinatown, who points out a Chinatown landmark seen in “The Godfather.” Both are 20-plus years Sugerman’s junior, but still have ties to the Mafia life he knows and loves. (Those old days might be gone, but the incredible nicknames persist.)
At Grill Point, a now-shuttered kosher restaurant in Brooklyn, we see Sugerman chatting with Moishe Peretz, a retired mob boss who calmly recalls getting shot in the chest in 2016.
Though the mob plays a central role in Sugerman’s identity, his Jewish bona fides are just as significant. “The Jewish gangster really had a need, a psychological need, to show that the Jews could be just as tough as any other ethnicity, because they were going to break with the 2,000 years of our heads down, living in the ghetto, living fearful,” he says in the film. “There was definitely no identity crisis. These Jews were tough and ready to prove it.”
These days, Sugerman lives in Montclair with his wife, Clara. Though his life may be quieter now, his sense of humor and joie de vivre endure, and now as much as ever he’s committed to the work of defending the Jewish people. “Most guys at 85 years of age, if they’re lucky to be alive, are sitting in front of a lawn of grass, watching the grass grow,” he said. “But I’m not comfortable — I’m not comfortable when the hair on the head of a Jew is moved out of place by an antisemite.”
To that end, Sugerman is putting together an organization with the goal of promoting Jewish pride — and he encourages all those interested in joining to reach out via his website.
More than anything, the toughness and tenacity of the Jewish people is a message that Sugerman wants to continue to send today. “That the era of bending your head, that the era of dismissing antisemitism as a mosquito on the tuchus of an elephant is over with,” he said.
New York Jewish Week/Jewish Telegraphic Agency