He often took family members on assignments. Lionel says he learned “every nook and cranny” in Pittsburgh on these outings. His father disliked waiting at traffic lights, so he drove around the city on back streets.
Lionel witnessed his father’s efficiency when he watched Teenie photograph a group of about 25 people. “He took those folks and had them all in different spaces, different spots,” Lionel said. “Bam! He took the picture and left. I said, ‘How do you do that?’”
“I just know where people should be,” his father replied.
Sometimes Teenie shot a picture, then hung around for fun. Elsa accompanied her husband on a job to photograph a social event.
“Well, how was it?’” Crystal asked her.
“Half the time I didn’t see him,” her mother replied. “He’s out there doing the Charleston, with the rubber legs.”
“He was just a clown,” Crystal said. “He liked to have a good time.”
Although work left him weary at day’s end, Teenie was attentive to his children. When Crystal was about 7, Teenie noticed she was unhappy and asked what was wrong.
“It just seems like everybody’s always doing something and not including me,” she said.
“What do you like to do?” he asked.
Crystal said she loved to watch old movies on television.
“Then we’ll watch them together,” he said.
Crystal remembers her father coming home at night and waking her so the two could sit in the glow of a TV and enjoy movies like “Top Hat” and “Swing Time.” Crystal was fond of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
On other nights, he descended to his basement darkroom. Surrounded by paint cans, a washing machine and other household items, he developed film, then slipped negatives in an enlarger to make prints in time for deadline. Images emerged in the dim red glow of a darkroom safelight. “It just seemed like magic,” Crystal said.
Sometimes people stopped by the Mulford Street house to view Teenie’s pictures and visit. His children remember singers Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne and Billy Eckstine. One visitor, wearing a long trench coat and a wide-brimmed hat cocked to the side, left a distinct impression on young Lionel.
“It scared me to death,” Lionel said. “I thought he was a gangster.”
The man was jazz musician Lionel Hampton — Lionel Harris was named after him. Hampton sat down at an upright piano in the living room and played a tune.
Cystal’s son, Arthur “P.J.” Pass, 48, spent much of his childhood at the Mulford Street house. He remembers the day a light-skinned man entered the front door.
“He had a little polo cap on,” P.J. said. “My grandfather had all types of photos on the dining room table for him. I said, ‘Granddad, who’s that?’ He says, ‘That’s August” — playwright August Wilson.’”
Spic and Span
Teenie was an “old school” parent, his children say. They were expected to return home once street lights flickered on. He often summoned his kids by standing on the porch, pursing his lips and blasting out a unique whistle heard all the way down the block.
Once he noticed Crystal’s fingernails gleaming with color. “Get that nail polish off your fingers,” he said. “That’s just for sporting women.”
“I wondered, ‘What the heck is a sporting woman?’” Crystal said.
Cleanliness was important. Cheryl “Tiny” Watson said her father made certain the house was well-kept. “I’d wake up in the morning and smell Spic and Span, and I knew he was cleaning the kitchen.”
He also kept the street and sidewalk swept clean, the lawn immaculate. He paid special attention to the hedges. “He would sit on the porch and notice a branch sticking up a bit too high, so he’d go get the clippers and trim it back,” Crystal said.
Once, while shaving in the family’s bathroom, Teenie looked out a window and saw a rat across the street. He dropped his razor, barreled down the stairs, through the front door and caught the rodent. “Everyone on the street was raving about it,” Cheryl said.
Teenie shot a number of photos on Mulford Street. Several depict everyday life — little Cheryl clinging to her mother’s robe as she works in the kitchen, baby Crystal with a jack-o’-lantern, young Ira Vann and Lionel playing with a water hose. Others show the street’s residents, Black and white, posing in front of homes, or with their children. The neighborhood looks peaceful, but racial tensions flared on at least one occasion.
“Pow! He knocked the guy out. I’ll never forget that.”
On a warm evening in the early 1950s, Lionel and Ira Vann were playing catch in the street when an errant throw sent a baseball bouncing into the yard of a neighbor, who was relaxing on his porch. Teenie, on his own porch, called out to him, “Hey, can you throw the ball back for these boys?”
The neighbor refused and used a racial epithet.
“Next thing I know, my dad is flying across the street, up on the guy’s porch,” Lionel said. “Pow! He knocked the guy out. I’ll never forget that.”
As a teenager, P.J. Pass and his friends often raced on foot down along the street. One day Teenie, in his late 60s, decided to join in. Teenie was an athlete in his youth and remained slim and spry in his later years. Still, P.J. worried.
“I said, ‘Granddad, I don’t think you should run,’” P.J.said.
“I’m running,” Teenie insisted.
“Then, all I saw was granddad’s shadow go right past me,” P.J. said. “He beat us all the way down the block.”
Other memories are more serene. Granddaughter Tina Harris, 58, remembers lying in a glider on the porch with her head in Elsa’s lap. “She’d rock me to sleep,” she said. “I had this blanket — I can still smell it.”
Family members say Teenie and Elsa enjoyed a special relationship. Teenie delivered morning coffee to his wife in the couple’s upstairs bedroom, Cheryl recalled. Elsa’s death in 1997 took a toll, she said. “He loved her so much.”
Teenie died on June 12 of the following year.
The house’s future
Ira Vann was the last family member to live on Mulford Street. He purchased the property from his father’s estate for $1 in 2003. He died in 2019, and his girlfriend lived there awhile, family members say. It’s unclear if anyone lives there now. Knocks on the door go unanswered.
“I didn’t know how to address the situation with the house,” said Tina, Ira Vann’s daughter. Its market value is $20,000, according to Allegheny County records.
Family members say they’d like to fix up the place. Formal recognition as a place of historic importance would cement the house’s role in their father’s legacy, they say.
“It would be an honor for my dad,” Crystal said.
Steve Mellon: firstname.lastname@example.org