Small-time true crime from New Castle, Pa.

Sidney Fell, “Sodomy”, 21 August 1960

Sidney Fell

Sidney Fell and William Dugan were arrested for engaging in an act of sodomy in an empty office on the fifth floor of the Greer building on North Mercer street. They had been discovered after occupants of the building, on the look-out for a thief who had stolen $17 from a secretary’s wallet the day before, had noticed the two men loitering suspiciously in the corridors.

Sidney ran a window-cleaning business; William was a manual laborer and petty criminal who had been arrested the year before for assaulting Sidney in his home and robbing him of $55. (He had been released when Sidney had withdrawn his complaint and declined to press charges.) They were sentenced to four to eight months in the county jail.

Sidney’s parents were Austrian Jews. His father, Herman, had arrived in New Castle in 1905 and became the town’s first window-washing contractor; his mother, much younger than Herman, died of a year-long illness a few days after Sidney’s first birthday.

Sidney ran away from home when he was sixteen. He took a train to Chicago and another to Omaha, Nebraska, where he was accepted by a home for troubled or neglected children that had recently been made famous by a film called Boys Town, starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, which played at the Penn theater when Sidney was fourteen, and had been featured in a long Joe Palooka comic strip storyline that ran in the New Castle News the year before he left town.

Around two hundred boys lived in the orphanage, including the youngest bank robber on record and a boy who had killed his father. Sidney liked it a lot. He stayed there for two years before returning to New Castle when he turned eighteen. He moved back in with his father and his older brother and cleaned windows for a year until America entered the war and he and his brother were drafted. Sidney went into the marines and spent two years handling mail in the South Pacific; his brother, Emanuel, went into the army and took part in the invasion of Normandy and the liberation of Holland before being killed in an ambush outside Bastogne, in Belgium—the same incident in which Frank Bullano earned his bronze star.

Sidney’s father’s death from a heart attack, ten years after the end of the war, left Sidney, at forty, all alone in New Castle and the sole owner of the family business. From that point on, he became ever more involved in the New Castle Playhouse, the town’s largest amateur dramatics company. He started out as a supporting actor but ended up taking lead roles and staging ambitious productions of Broadway shows.

In May, 1963, Sidney produced the New Castle Playhouse’s version of Guys and Dolls. The drama critic of the New Castle News gave it a positive review, but remarked that the players appeared confused, that it was difficult to identify with the characters, that people entered and left the stage too early or too late and that the lights and curtains were operated rather poorly. Sidney wrote the following letter in response.

“Dear Sir, I believe your so-called drama critic is grossly unfair. His review of our opening night last Thursday was too severe. Who does he think we are? We are only amateurs and we will be the first to admit it. We feel there are not enough community efforts in our city and without us and people like us this area would have even less community activities to express creative talent. I think this show is the liveliest and funniest show of the year and if you doubt either your drama critic or myself, come to the Playhouse and you will see which of us is right.”

The editor accepted the invitation. He had a good time, as Sidney had known that he would.

In the late sixties, Sidney set up the Drawing Room Players, which he billed as the experimental wing of the Playhouse. He used it to produce uncommercial plays by lesser known playwrights that would not otherwise be performed in New Castle. Its productions earned Sidney the best reviews of his theatrical career, with the New Castle News calling him “tremendously talented” and declaring his works to be a triumph.

Sidney died in July, 2007, at the age of eighty-three. William Dugan—who, it turned out, had been the thief who had stolen the secretary’s $17, thereby alerting the office workers to the presence of suspicious characters in the building and inadvertently bringing about the arrest of Sidney and himself—was arrested in 1974 for beating his son unconscious as a punishment for coming home drunk. There is no further record of his life.

Sources: New Castle News (6 April 1925, “Deaths Of The Day”; 14 November 1930, “Window Washer Falls Into Creek”; 16 Dec 1940, “News Briefs From City Hall”; 30 Aug 1943, “In US Armed Service”; 15 Jan 1945, “Pvt Emanuel Fell Killed In Belgium”; 11 Aug 1955, “Seventy Two Win Drivers Permits”; 31 Oct 1955, “Deaths Of The Day”; 21 Aug 1959, “Barn Players In Rehearsals”; 9 May 1959, “Robbery Suspect Held By Police”; 11 May 1959, “Man Released After Charges Are Dropped”; 13 Aug 1960, “Face Morals Charges”; 15 Aug 1960, “Plead Innocent”; 6 Dec 1960, “Jury Returns 6 True Bills”; 18 Feb 1961, “Court Imposes 19 Sentences”; 17 May 1963, “First Nighters See Guys, Dolls”; 23 May 1963, “The People Write”; 5 Aug 1968, “The People Write”; 10 July 1968, “’A Raisin In The Sun’ Called Triumph For Local Talent”; 22 Jun 1970, “Boys Town Director Tells Father’s Role In Family”; 29 April 1974, “North Hill Man Charged In Son’s Beating”).

14 responses

  1. Fascinating story.

    January 25, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    • Thanks. Sidney’s is one of my favourite stories. I can’t imagine how tough it must have been for him to live in New Castle in the sixties as a known gay man. Someone who knew him (He was very well known in town, apparently, as he washed a lot of windows) wrote to me today and mentioned that Sidney took a few beatings, but was the friendliest, sweetest man they’d met. It must have taken a lot of personal strength to tough it out…

      January 25, 2013 at 7:26 pm

      • Gay people had it tough here, too and still do on occasion,(in Australia). At least the law is catching up to protect everyone equally. It is hard to tell from here what the attitude to gays is like in the USA. We have started to see more and more gay characters in US film and TV productions but still hear a lot of stories about gay bashings and prejudice over there.

        January 29, 2013 at 8:07 pm

  2. DFee

    I still live in NC , and growing up, my mother & aunt played bingo with Sidney every Thursday night at St. Mary’s Church. I met him several times, and my mother always considered him a good friend. They always “assumed” he was gay, but that was never an issue to them. I think that”s why he felt so comfortable with them.

    January 26, 2013 at 12:52 am

  3. DFee

    Diarmid-If you’d like to hear my Mom’s memory of Billy Dugan (which we realized, when discussing, I was actually present for, and remember the incident, just not the man), feel free to email me. Being heresay, I’d rather not post it publicly. Also, I’ve seen some great NC mugshots on Pinterest. So fascinating! I appreciate your work!

    January 26, 2013 at 12:59 am

    • Thanks for writing, DFee. I’ll email you to find out your Billy Dugan story…

      January 26, 2013 at 4:52 pm

  4. todd

    I loved Sidney very much and miss him so very very much, as do my wife and sons … He was a big part of our lives…. my heart still has great sorrow from losing my best friend.. He is missed!!!! friends for 38 years..Not quite the whole story of Sid’s life just a piece. T

    March 3, 2013 at 1:01 am

    • Todd, thanks for writing. It’s good to know Sidney had people who loved him. A few people have emailed me to say they have fond memories of him, too. (There’s someone out in Minneapolis who thinks of Sidney every time he washes his windows, as Sidney showed him how to do it right.) I wish I’d been able to meet him…

      March 5, 2013 at 8:47 am

  5. Dusty

    I had the great pleasure of meeting Sidney as he cleaned my business windows for several years. He always showed up even as he was becoming unsteady on his feet. One day he just stopped coming. Then I eventually found out he had passed away. He was a very nice man. It was nice to hear his more of his life story. I will always remember the right way to clean a window and the secret ingredient he used for no streaks.

    January 4, 2014 at 5:23 am

    • He must have been a great guy – no one has anything but happy memories of him, and only good things to say about him. Like I said before, I wish I’d met him.

      January 4, 2014 at 12:31 pm

  6. John Neely

    I got to know Sidney at the New Castle Playhouse. This was back when David Mathews was the director. He was a very nice quiet guy. I’m happy to see that many people have good memories of him.

    April 9, 2014 at 5:22 pm

  7. Linda Haering

    I am glad to know that Sidney lived long enough to see the repeal of Pennsylvania’s sodomy laws- even long enough to see the first legal same sex marriage in another state. Such a poignant photo of him, holding both mortification and strength! Sid was the first gay man I had ever met. He was beloved by his many straight friends from all walks of small town life. Women found in him an unusual ability to listen deeply with those intelligent soft eyes and to respond in a kind, knowing, and well-spoken manner. (Husbands were not threatened by him.) The Sidney I knew first as a 15 year old girl was well-read, openhearted, interested in the world around him, creative,, empathic, handsome, kind. As I look at the photo here I imagine this sad and serious face slowly changing into a smile and then breaking into his glorious head-back, unfettered laugh. I wonder where he is buried? If I ever get back to New Castle I will visit the four generations of my family buried in Oak Park …and also put a flower on Sid’s grave, some rare flower, a strelitzia, perhaps.”

    April 25, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    • That’s a wonderful reminiscence, Linda. One of the things I like best about this blog is that this page has started to become a memorial to a man who was obviously well-loved and a great presence in people’s lives. I liked Sidney a lot, based on what I read about him during my research, and I grow to like him more every time a friend of his remembers him here. Thanks for writing.

      April 25, 2014 at 9:51 pm

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