Martin Himmelstein, businessman

Posted: August 12, 2006

Martin "Buddy" Sheldon Himmelstein, 79, a hard-working businessman who installed and serviced pinball machines and jukeboxes in restaurants and bars, died Tuesday of lung cancer at his son's home in West Chester. He was a longtime resident of the Northeast until moving to Atlantic City in 2005.

In the summer of 1937, when Mr. Himmelstein was 9, he and his best friend were heroes. His friend, Gilbert Sokolow, rescued Mr. Himmelstein when he impaled his hand on an iron fence. On another occasion, Mr. Himmelstein saved Sokolow when he fell off his bike, hit his head on a rock, and fell into a pond. The youngsters were awarded Boy Hero of the Week awards by what was then WCAU-AM, now WPHT-AM (1210), and their story was dramatized on the radio.

Mr. Himmelstein wanted to fight in World War II. He tried to join the Marines when he was 16, but his father stopped him. He left Northeast High School during his senior year, lied about his age, and joined the Navy when he was 17. He was trained as a medic and served stateside until being discharged in 1946.

That year, he began working for the former S&K Amusement Co. Mr. Himmelstein repaired, installed and serviced pinball machines and jukeboxes in restaurants and bars. He stayed with the company for more than half a century.

In 1948, Mr. Himmelstein earned his pilot's license and wooed his future bride over the skies of the Northeast Airport. He had his eye on the pretty Donna Cohen, who had a boyfriend at the time. Repeatedly, Mr. Himmelstein rented a two-seat airplane and took her for rides, leaving the boyfriend behind. They married in 1950.

While working for S&K, Mr. Himmelstein had several businesses on the side.

In 1960, Mr. Himmelstein and partner Bernie Greenstein started two businesses, Mar-Ben and Ben-Mar.

Mar-Ben was a short-lived recording company that went nowhere.

"My dad made records that nobody bought," said son Fred. "That lasted about five years."

Ben-Mar, a pinball and jukebox business they operated out of a North Philadelphia warehouse, lasted a little longer, closing in 1980.

In 1965, the two partners operated Rye Valley Country Club in Huntingdon Valley. They ran a swim club, restaurant, dances and musical shows.

"That country club was the social nexus of my father's middle-class generation," his son said. "It closed in 1969 because people wanted to play golf."

Mr. Himmelstein continued to work for S&K - which was sold to Apple Vending Co. in the 1980s - until the firm closed in 2000.

"My dad stepped up to the plate and took lots of swings in life. He tried to hit a home run," his son said. "He didn't, but at least he was up there swinging."

In addition to his son, Mr. Himmelstein is survived by a daughter, Wendy Martelli; six grandchildren; and a sister. His wife died in 1992.

A funeral service will be held at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks, 310 Second Street Pike, Southampton. Burial will be in Shalom Memorial Park, Pine and Byberry Roads in Huntingdon Valley, Montgomery County.

Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or gsims@phillynews.com.

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