The Undaunting Armenian Sprit of Survival Relived in ‘Cinderella Man’

BY SKEPTIK SINIKIAN

Warning: I’m not promising this article will make you laugh; nor am I promising that it will make you cry. But I do promise you that you’ll be prouder of your culture and heritage than before you picked up the Asbarez and bit into that homemade feta-cucumber-lavash sandwich. Now wipe the crumbs off your shirt and continue reading. –SS

In Southern California–avoiding conversations about the entertainment industry is sometimes harder than teaching a non-Armenian how to say "Thank You" in Armenian (and I don’t mean the cop-out "merci" either–you wannabe Frenchie sellouts)! Living so close to Hollywood (aka Little Armenia)–you can’t help but follow the tabloids and "industry" news. It’s almost surreal. We tend to focus more closely on the outcome of the Michael Jackson trial than we do on the war that Congress is about to declare on Social Security. (I’m guilty as charged–see my last column). I’m not bitter. It’s just the way things are in the city that takes waitresses and makes them into movie stars and takes movies stars and makes them into governors.

But anyone can tell it’s summertime in Hollywood when the old grandpas shed their wool suits for "fanellas" or "maikas" to show off their gold chains resting gently upon a thick astroturf layer of hair. The other sure sign of summertime are the billboards heralding the box office smash of the season. A few bold studios begin to unveil their Oscar contenders but most just try to earn an easy buck–churning out movies adapted from comic books which were based on movies inspired by cartoons which were based on a TV show or a commercial about potato chips or whatever the brain fart of the season happens to be. But there’s a standout in this year’s summer blockbusters. If you haven’t seen "Cinderella Man" yet–I recommend that you do.

Director Ron Howard’s "Cinderella Man" is not a biopic gender bender fairy tale like the name may suggest. It’s a heartwarming tale of survival–perseverance and overcoming adversity and overwhelming odds. And even though I’ll always remember Ron Howard as that kid who played Oppie on the Andy Griffith Show and Richie Cunningham on Happy Days–I have to admit that our little red-haired–freckled slice of Americana has grown into quite a movie producer/director. I have not been moved so much by a boxing movie since Rocky Balboa decided to "fight the Russian" in Rocky IV. "Cinderella Man" is the story of James J. Braddock–a boxer during the 30’s who went from being a prize fighter to being homeless during a period in American history that was so dark and depressing that it’s referred to as… what else but the Great Depression! Not just any Depression–but the Great one! (Side Note: The Great Depression should not be confused with the Not So Great Depression which is the name I’m going to propose to the History Channel to describe W. Bush’s second term in office).

Last week–while scouring the net for interesting news–I came across a fascinating article by Philip Barbara who wrote a great article for Reuters News Service titled–"1936 Book on ‘Cinderella Man’ Braddock Scores Hit." The article spoke about Bradock–the main character of "Cinderella Man" but had an interesting twist. Apparently–Braddock’s closest friend and the only person who believed in him when the chips were down–was a sports editor for the Dispatch in Union City–New Jersey–named Lud Shabazian. After Braddock’s career began sinking after a "demoralizing loss to light-heavyweight world champ Tommy Loughran." The prizefighter’s career kept steady pace with the sinking economy and before long–the once-could’ve-been-champion was barely able to find a day’s work at the docks. Conventional wisdom said that his career was over–especially since Braddock had a broken arm which only worsened with each attempt at a comeback. Nobody believed in him except Shabazian.

Eventually–in 1935–a year before Roosevelt was reelected President and Jesse Owens inspired a nation by winning the Gold in the Olympics–Braddock completed one of the greatest comebacks and upsets in sports history by defeating Max Baer for the heavyweight title. Braddock gave the common man hope during America’s bleakest hour–a time when there was no hope to be had (I know–it sounds like a cheesy movie trailer but it’s true!) and Shabazian wrote the only authorized biography of Braddock.

According to Barbara’s article:

"They were a contrasting pair: Braddock–the pale–rugged–6-foot-3 (1.9-meter) Irish-American would bow but say few words as he was introduced by Lud–a connoisseur at the microphone and 5-foot-6 (1.6-meter) Armenian-American–with dark hair that bristled like an old brush.

‘My granddad and Lud were very tight,’ said Jay Braddock–the champ’s gran’son. ‘We considered Lud part of the family.’"

I read this passage over and over and tried to picture this obscure Armenian in New Jersey who probably rebelled against his parents’ wishes of going into the jewelry business–running the family produce stand–or some other traditional trade and instead pursued his dream of being a sports writer. He fought the system just like Braddock fought the nay-sayers.

I wondered if Shabazian’s family had fled the Genocide or if they came to America before. I imagined a stubborn–fast talking Armenian with a slight "Kharpertsi" or maybe "Aintabtsi" accent with a New Jersey feistiness–cheering his hero and friend on to victory throwing in an occasional "Knock out that ‘shoon-shan vorty’ Braddock!" I related to Shabazian’s refusal to stop believing in what everyone else thought was a lost cause because–after all–he was my brother–a fellow Armenian. How else could I feel this connection to someone whom I’ve never met (nor ever will because he died in 1990) and who lived through the Great Depression? How? Simple. No one knows more about rooting for the underdog and believing in the unbelievable quite like another Armenian. Why shouldn’t I–or Shabazian believe or dream for the impossible? Did Shabazian ever think that "Hey–if Braddock can overcome his weaknesses and fears–maybe we–as a people–can too!" or did he just enjoy watching an Irishman–whom society had knocked down–knock back with a vengeance? We may never know because little is known about Shabazian’s life. I "Googled" his name a few times and not much came up. But I can imagine his emotions watching Braddock–a rugged Irishman–in the boxing ring–embodying his own people’s struggle against near annihilations–expatriation–survival and eventually triumph. Most Americans who see "Cinderella Man" will draw inspiration from Braddock’s unbelievable triumph. I’ll draw inspiration from the fact that the only person who never stopped believing in what was seemingly a lost cause–was a crazy Armenian named Lud Shabazian–who turned out to be right.

It’s too bad that Shabazian’s character wasn’t in the movie. It would have been a great addition to my mental repository of useless Armenian/Hollywood trivia which I save for one of those inevitable "industry" conversations that I sometimes can’t avoid. But I think I’ll remember his name nevertheless and every time the chips are down–I’ll think "Shabazian never stopped believing–why should I?"

Skeptik Sinikian watched "Cinderella Man" twice before sneaking into the adjacent theaters to watch only the credits and try to find any name ending in "ian" or "yan" Michael Vivian–the key dolly grip in "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith" is not Armenian. Skeptik already checked. Email him with random trivia at SkeptikSinikian@aol.com or visit www.sinikian.blogspot.com.

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