King of the Egg Cream: Talking with Emil Stern and Alex Karpovsky about Jewish Gangsters, Serialized Narratives, and Egg Creams

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Forget The Sopranos. Forget The Godfather. Forget Boardwalk Empire. Forget everything you think you knew about New York’s organized crime racket, because unless “organized crime” brings to mind things like soda fountain treats and Jewish gangsters, you don’t know anything.

Ok, ok. I know what you’re thinking: egg creams? Well, welcome to the world of Harry Dolowich, the late 20s-era gangster who trafficked in the high stakes world of soda fountain syrup. First written about extensively by the New York Times, Dolowich’s story has been adapted (loosely! imaginatively!) by brothers Emil and Sigmund Stern as King of the Egg Cream, a modern day “radio play”—think serialized podcast—which can be purchased on iTunes or through Tablet Magazine. (I also happen to think it’s the perfect holiday gift.)

King of the Egg Cream was born, Emil Stern told us recently, out of actor Justin Bartha’s (The Hangover) almost decade long obsession with the story of Dolowich, leading to this collaboration between Bartha and the Stern brothers. The unique angle of this story—as Stern says, “one doesn’t usually think of chocolate syrup as something you get the mob involved with”—lends the dramatization a loopy, fun quality, not dissimilar to the feel of the screwball films which were so popular at around the time of Dolowich’s rise.

Besides the excellent turn by Bartha as Dolowich, King of the Egg Cream also features voice work by Ellen Barkin, Bobby Cannavale, Richard Kind, Ari Graynor, Lewis Black and Girls star Alex Karpovsky, who plays Dolowich’s rival-in-love, Johnny Flintzman, of Flintzman Furs. We spoke with Karpovsky about his experience working on the broadcast and the appeal of serialized narratives below.

How did you get involved with King of the Egg Cream? What appealed to you about the story?
Emil Stern reached out to me through Audrey Gelman, who is a mutual friend. I was intrigued by the mixture of Jewish gangsters, true history and madcap comedy. I was also in awe of the cast that Emil and Sigmund had assembled.

Was there something about the form of a serialized “radio” play that particularly attracted you?
I’d never done it before, which was exciting. It was also interesting to explore my character’s vast arc over the episodes with nothing except my voice. I sometimes forget how much emotion and subtext in film/TV is conveyed between the words and it was a fun challenge to rely squarely on vocal intonations and inflections.

Tell me a little about your character.
My character is Johnny Flintzman, of Flintzman Furs. He is the protagonist’s’ rival for the love of Charlotte Lefkowitz. His machinations are unscrupulous, his determination is stubborn, and he was an absolute blast to play.

On the surface, this story seems somewhat far-fetched. How could a business as unassuming as soda fountain syrup wind up becoming such a racket? And yet this is what happened at that time, as marginalized groups ascended in society. Did you know much about this time in New York before taking this role?
My knowledge of this world is (perhaps sadly) limited to the handful of films I’ve seen that have been set in or near this period. The Godfather films come to mind, as does Once Upon a Time in America, Lepke and, of course, Boardwalk Empire.

Serialized podcasts are incredibly popular right now, it’s almost as if there’s been a radio renaissance. What do you think is the best (or most interesting) part of presenting a narrative in this form?
Perhaps it has something to do with the following combination: our growing focus on character-driven narratives and our (perhaps cyber-driven) desire for increased “interactivity.” As an audience member, I’m most interested in characters and relationships, rather than plot twists and tidy endings. In the landscape of “serialized content,” you can really spend time developing a character and his or her world. You can drill down in a given space and go deeper and deeper without being tethered to the three act structure of most non-serialized , which is liberating. Taking this notion into the realm of “radio,” it’s appealing to systematically develop a network of characters in the mind of the listener. By forcing oneself to personally create a spatial terrain for our radio heroes we are drawn into the experience in a very specific and subjective way.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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1 COMMENT

  1. I have yet to listen to the radio play King of the Egg Cream, but my mother’s great aunt Tante Lena owned one of the syrup companies vying for the chocolate syrup recipe that would be used to make egg creams and area to sell the chocolate syrup in Brooklyn. The company won the ability to sell it to the candy stores. My mother would describe it as the chocolate syrup war. We always thought that she was exaggerating. I hope the play is close to the truth.

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