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Published: Monday, 3/27/2000

A soldier in a dress put Toledo into America's living rooms


Picture Depression-era immigrants trying to succeed in their adopted land, and words like "struggling" and "dirt poor" come to mind. But for one of Toledo's most famous sons, the experience was rich in family, friends, and a sense of togetherness.

"It was a very unique neighborhood," said actor Jamie Farr of the Arab enclave in Toledo's north end where he grew up. "It was something that I treasure."

Mr. Farr, who now lives in Hollywood, has done more than anyone - with the possible exception of Danny Thomas a generation before - to put Toledo on the national map. Today, he continues to support his hometown through the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic LPGA golf tournament at Highland Meadows Golf Club in Sylvania.

The actor, best known for his role as the cross-dressing Corp. Maxwell Klinger of the hit television series MASH, was born Jameel Farah on July 1, 1934, at the former Mercy Hospital. His mother and father were in the early wave of Arab immigration to the United States. The family came from the towns of Jibb Jannin and Aitha in the Lebanese Beka'a Valley near the Syrian border and first settled in Sioux City, Ia.

Although many today know Jameel Farah as Jamie Farr, name changing is nothing new in his family. When his father came through Ellis Island in the 1910s, immigration officials asked him the last name of his father, which was Malooley. "He gave them our grandfather's first name, which was Farah," said Mr. Farr, "and we became Farahs immediately."

The elder Mr. Farah married Jameila and found employment as a butcher in Sioux City before moving to Toledo in the mid-1920s. George Sodd, a Lebanese immigrant who had settled in Toledo, invited the Farah family to move here. Later, his son, Adib, was Jamie's best man in his wedding to Joy - and vice versa.

Mr. Farr's parents struggled after settling in Toledo.

"My Dad had a very meager salary, but we were always well dressed and we were always clean. We didn't know we were poor, we just thought everybody was like that."

Jameel took up odd jobs such as selling the Toledo Blade and Toledo Times and washing cars. When his father opened Farah's Market on the corner of Locust and Ontario streets, he would work there in the afternoon.

But as far back as anyone can remember, Jamie was a ham.

"Jamie would jump on the counter and dance the soft shoe for the customers and drive his father crazy," said Mike Prephan, his childhood friend.

Farah's Market was just half a block away from where Danny Thomas's family, the Jacobs, lived, though during his Toledo days, Jamie never personally knew Danny.

Later, their Toledo past helped form a bond. "When I saw Danny back here in Hollywood, I used to joke, reminding him that his family lived a half a block from my Dad's grocery store and that he still owed us for a leg of lamb," Jamie said.

The Farahs attended St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral, which functioned as an important spot for social gatherings.

Jamie Farr's generation worked hard to assimilate. His parents encouraged him to speak only English at home to help them learn the new language as fast as possible. They considered themselves Syrian, the name of the Ottoman province from which they originated. "Of course, once Danny Thomas established the fact that he was Lebanese, then we all became Lebanese," said Jamie.

But today he likes to emphasize the fact that he is an American Arab, not an Arab-American. "We are Americans now. When you say the other one first, you separate us. When you say the American first, you unite us."

Jameel left Toledo in 1952 to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. It was in 1959, after a stint in the Army, that Jameel Farah changed his name to Jamie Farr. It was easier to remember.

"Plus, I used to get a lot of 'schlemiel' instead of 'Jameel,' " he said.

The actor made it big with his role as the zany Corporal Klinger in the MASH television series. His dress-wearing character continually made references to the Mud Hens, Tony Packo's, and Toledo.

Jamie said the man who created Klinger got his first break from Danny Thomas. The sit-com's producer, Gene Reynolds, was from Cleveland, and a couple of writers loved the Mud Hens - or at least their name. And so Toledo's biggest fictional fan was born.

Jamie Farr has never forgotten where he came from.

In 1983, Judd Silverman approached him about lending his name to a local golf tournament. Mr. Silverman is now tournament director.

Not only did the comedian agree, but he returns every year for the tournament, and brings in celebrities to attend the dinners and events associated with the LPGA tournament.

Since it first began in 1984, the Ladies Professional Golf Association tournament has raised $42.8 million for 47 children's charities in the area. There are four $10,000 Jamie Farr college scholarships given to area high school students.

"Jamie has been remarkable," Mr. Silverman said. "The enthusiasm he has for the tournament, and the love he really has for the city, he truly cares for Toledo."

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