IT'S ONE OF LIFE'S most painful and predictable rituals: leaving friends behind after graduation, marriage or retirement. But for 15 men who grew up together in the Bronx in the 1930s and '40s, today's most significant friendships began in childhood. Despite being scattered all over the country, this clutch of school chums has managed to keep in touch for more than six decades, since starting at New York City's public school (P.S.) 80. The friends' story, which was recently turned into a documentary, reveals a gentler era, when the phrase "friends forever" had meaning.
As they recall schoolboy crushes, ice cream trucks and stickball, their reminiscences also conjure up a safer, simpler world. Maybe that's why what began as a video scrapbook of their joint 70th birthday celebration wound up an award-winning film, The Bronx Boys, which has appeared on Cinemax, played at a few film festivals and begun appearing on PBS stations this fall. Carl Reiner is the host of the film, which was edited and directed by Benjamin Hershleder, a filmmaker in his 30s. "They have something special, these 15 guys," Hershleder says.
Born in 1931 or 1932, the Bronx Boys attended P.S. 80, after which most went to the Bronx's DeWitt Clinton High School and local colleges. Many entered the Army at the same time and were in basic training together at Fort Dix, N.J. "We still hug when we see each other, and I'm sure people look at us and say, 'What are those old guys doing?'" says Joe Greenberg, a retired engineer in Rockville, Md. "Joey? Howie? Georgie? What kind of names are these? We were a bunch of buddies, and as we got older, we stayed a bunch of buddies."
At the group's core is the lifetime friendship of business partners George Shapiro and Howard West, who first worked together as camp lifeguards in the Poconos and then in 1955 started in the mail room at New York City's William Morris Agency. Since 1974, they've been partners in Shapiro/West & Associates, a firm based in Beverly Hills, Calif., that produces films and TV shows and has managed such performers as Reiner, Jerry Seinfeld and the late Andy Kaufman.
Others from the old gang have had a variety of careers, selling everything from bricks and lumber to designer labels and major motion pictures. Some still live in New York City, and the rest can be found from Boca Raton, Fla., to Malibu, Calif. They always find one another; when marketing executive Joel Coler went to Los Angeles with 20th Century Fox in 1972, Shapiro saw an ad about the move in Variety and called Coler the same day. Ten of the guys were ushers at the wedding of Barbara Topper and Sam Lewis in 1951 but lost touch until Greenberg found teacher Lewis on the Internet a few years ago.
Friends since first grade--except for latecomer West, who arrived in third grade when his family moved from another Bronx neighborhood--they reflect a time when the kids you played with at 6 were often still your classmates at 16. Born to lower-middle-class Jewish parents, many of whom were immigrants who wanted something better for their children, the Bronx Boys have let neither geography nor time interfere as, one by one, they moved away from the old neighborhood.