You could imagine Hollywood making a movie about Omero Catan and Michael Katen, the two brothers with different last names but a shared passion for being first in line at the openings of new bridges, or riding on new subway lines, or skating on new ice rinks, or landing at new airports. Casting would be a breeze.
Let's see. Omero Catan. He's older now, with bugging eyes and an expanding midsection, but in his day he was quite a smoothie: thin, elegantly dressed, a suave mustache, and thick black hair often covered by a fedora. Right away you've got to be thinking Tom Hanks.
And as the older brother, Michael Katen? He's a little shorter, a little more muscular. Still good looking, but obviously a second banana. You'd need someone powerful and attractive, but not leading-man material. Maybe Ray Liotta. Or better yet Chazz Palminteri, that guy who got an Oscar nomination for Bullets Over Broadway. Yeah, if he's not too busy, get him.
You can see something light, something quirky. Open with Omero struggling to be the first to cross the Verrazano-Narrows bridge at its grand opening. A snappy montage would convey his zeal to pay the first toll, just as he has at so many openings before this. Then you'd see how, with his brother's cunning assistance, Omero narrowly edges out his competitors and is first through the booth. Cut to spinning newspapers that scream out the next day's headlines: "Mr. First Does It Again!"
Add the background about how Omero became Mr. First, throw in a love interest (Bridget Fonda would be perfect as Omero's wife), and top it off with the emotional scene in which Michael pinch-hits for his brother and opens the Lincoln Tunnel by himself while Omero selflessly serves in England during World War II. You've got a winner!
Maybe tack on an epilogue about the two of them living in their current homes, in Fort Lauderdale and Margate, at their current ages of 80 and 82. Have them recalling the glory days, sharing a soda pop and cracking jokes. It'll drive home that this is a true story, not the stuff of Tinseltown fiction. Siskel and Ebert will give it two thumbs up. Way up.
Too bad the movie can't be made.
Despite a hot Hollywood studio's offer of $50,000 for the rights to the brothers' life stories, it's not going to happen. Omero nixed it. He's holding on to a contract he signed with an obscure Wisconsin filmmaker for a mere $1000. Omero's decision to shun Hollywood, says his angry brother Michael, was a deliberate move to hog the spotlight. Counters Omero: There is only one Mr. First, and that means there will be only one person's story told or no story at all. Period.
A buddy movie couldn't have been made about these guys, anyway. Omero and Michael have talked only three times in the past fourteen years, even though they live just twenty minutes from each other. Michael says he wants to be friends but that Omero won't let him. Omero, on the other hand, thinks Michael has been trying to steal the Mr. First crown by being the first passenger on Miami's Metrorail and by having attended February's 50th anniversary of the opening of New York's Lincoln Tunnel. The flames of sibling rivalry were fanned by a recent New York Times article that treated them as equals -- the two brothers who've been first to open everything. That's the same Times article which attracted the attention of Hollywood filmmakers and the blistering scorn of Omero. "There's only one Mr. First!" he shouts from his mobile home in the Park City retirement village. "And that's me. I'm Mr. First!"
Omero spends most of his days in his baby-blue trailer home on the far west fringe of Fort Lauderdale. He hasn't been able to get out much since his wife broke her hip a few years ago, and he has his own heart problems to worry about. So the two spend a lot of time at home, rising before dawn to read the papers and to play with their distrustful alley cat, Kismet. Omero smokes fat foreign cigars and watches like a hawk as a repairman climbs a ladder to fix a leak in the trailer's tin roof. Mention the name Michael Katen and Omero's moist brown eyes bug out even more. "What it is, he's got a hold of something he wants," Omero says of his brother's connection to the Mr. First title. "Maybe he feels he can make money on it now. But he forgot how everything got started in the beginning."
The beginning was 1928. Brooklyn-born Omero was hanging out with his seven brothers and sisters at the Greenwich, Connecticut, home they moved to when their widowed mother remarried. (Katen is the family name. Omero changed to Catan when he was young. He won't say why.) An old family friend named William Goebel stopped by and was bragging about how exciting it was to be one of the first people to cross the Brooklyn Bridge after its grand opening in 1883. The boasting fired up Omero, a driven individual who grew to become a champion checkers player, who would collect more than 200 four-leaf clovers, and who one day would be inducted into the Shuffleboard Hall of Fame (see sidebar). Omero Catan is a doer. William Goebel gave him something to do.
Omero gathered his money, according to published reports, and hurried from Greenwich to Lakehurst, New Jersey, home of the airfield where the Hindenburg would one day burst into flames. The premier airship of the day, the Graf Zeppelin, was about to complete the world's first commercial flight across the Atlantic, and Omero wanted to be the first American to tour the craft. To do this he had to be at the front of the line, and he made sure he was number one in line by camping out four days before the zeppelin even arrived. He was thirteen years old.
After that initial success, there was no stopping him. He paid the first toll on the George Washington Bridge linking New York and New Jersey. He was the first paying customer to skate on the Rockefeller Plaza ice rink. He bought the first ticket at the new Penn Station. After he proposed marriage to stenographer Jeanne Tobolka, he made sure they received the first wedding license of 1939.
As he rose from bank clerk to vacuum cleaner salesman to a manager at the concession firm that supplied hot dogs and pretzels to Yankee Stadium, Omero arranged his schedule with his hobby in mind. "I never pass up a chance to be around when the city gets something new," he proudly told the New York Post in 1936. "I always use my day off to my advantage."
Mr. First, as he soon came to be known, could only have flourished during the explosive growth of New York City in the 1930s. Battling the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted the New Deal. Thousands of men built government bridges, dams, ships, and tunnels in a mammoth investment in the nation's infrastructure. New York City was the one of the greatest beneficiaries. Between 1934 and 1937, the federal government poured an average of $16 million per month into the city in either gifts or loans. New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, eager to distance himself from Tammany Hall corruption, graciously accepted the money and fostered the building boom. Every week, it seemed, something new was opening. And every week Omero was there, first in line. "I attend everything of civil interest which tends the furtherance of the pursuit of happiness, especially of citizens of New York City and New York State," he told the New York Sun in 1936.
In his heyday in the Thirties, Omero was seen at so many openings that he became something of a luminary, one of New York's "comic-opera celebrities," as the Sun put it. The Times covered his passage on the Triborough Bridge. A Post photo showed him casting the first ballot in the 1936 presidential election. The Sun attended his 24th birthday party. Life magazine published a photo spread about this slim, mustachioed urban adventurer. Twice he was The New Yorker's talk of the town.
Staying on top wasn't easy; every new opening presented challenges to Omero's title. He usually brought along a friend to prevent unscrupulous competitors from puncturing his tires. He would also arrive better prepared, having spent weeks clipping newspaper stories about upcoming openings, scouting the sites in advance, and keeping detailed notes in a pocket calendar. "You can't just get up early and be first in line," he told a reporter in 1945, "because they won't let you park there indefinitely. You have to study the problem, map out all probable routes, grease a few palms, and then depend on the old psychic."
Such attention to logistical detail helped Omero defeat his archrival in head-to-head competition. One such memorable incident was chronicled by Life in 1938, when Omero battled George Horn, an unemployed nineteen-year-old laundry worker. Both men intended to be the first to drive through the Lincoln Tunnel, which connected New Jersey with midtown Manhattan. Life reported that each challenger arrived twenty hours in advance. Both brought blankets, fruit, and other supplies. Omero, though, had the foresight to park on the Weehawken, New Jersey, side instead of in Manhattan next to Horn. When the gates lifted on December 22, 1937, the two raced into the tunnel, passing each other halfway through. Horn, according to the New York Journal American, beat Omero by a minute. But tolls were only taken on the New Jersey side (as Omero already knew), and so he was the first person to pay. "This is my crowning achievement," he told the Long Island Daily Star after leaving a shiny 50-cent piece at the tollbooth. "I'm very happy."
It was such a notable achievement that Omero was reluctant to miss the opening of the second, northern tube of the tunnel in 1945. He didn't have much choice, though, because he was serving in World War II as a clerk in Thomas H. England General Hospital. (He claims to have been the first pre-Pearl Harbor father to be drafted.) Desperate to maintain his reputation, Omero sent V-mail to Port Authority officials asking if they would find a proxy for him, someone to be at the opening in his stead. He put in a special request for his brother Michael. "Maybe the worst mistake I ever made," he growls today.
The Lincoln Tunnel opening was the first time Michael had entered the picture. Omero's older brother claims to have loaned cars to Omero and to have accompanied him to a number of openings. He even told The New Yorker he was the first person to travel the Merritt Parkway in 1938, though Omero was the one actually driving the car. No, Michael first made headlines as Omero's Lincoln Tunnel proxy.
For four days, Michael, a jukebox repairman and former mechanic for Trans World Airlines, camped outside the 40th Street entrance to the tunnel's north tube, shivering in the wicked January weather. He wrapped himself in fourteen blankets and ate ice cold spaghetti with meat sauce out of a Thermos. Dozens of reporters interviewed him, lapping up the story like good news during a war. In every newspaper photo, Michael smiled broadly and pointed to his sign, which read, "Mr. First By Proxy." In every interview, he gave credit to his brother. "Omero asked me to do it for him," he said at the time. "I'm just doing him a favor, that's all."
When a whistle blew at 11:00 a.m. on February 1, 1945, Michael, accompanied by reporters from the Times and the Associated Press, led a procession of cars through the 7500-foot-long tunnel. "Well, Omero, I made it for you," Michael reportedly said while riding under the Hudson River. He hummed snatches of "The Old Rugged Cross on the Hill," a hymn of thanksgiving after so many chilly days.
Before long the story faded, as all news does, and Michael slipped back into obscurity. Later Omero was discharged from the Army and returned to his hobby with gusto. After all, there were still hundreds of public works to inaugurate. Admittedly, some were more exciting than others. While Omero was the first to drive the New Jersey Turnpike in 1951 and first across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952, he also has the dubious distinction of being the first person to drop a quarter in a Hackensack parking meter in 1955. And in Secaucus on July 1, 1963, his car received the first New Jersey automotive inspection.
By May 26, 1967, when Omero was the first to drive across Teaneck, New Jersey's new Grayson Place Bridge, he had "MR 1 1" license plates on his car, 525 firsts to his credit, and ribbon and scissors in the glove box just in case any civic official forgot.
He quit the concession trade in 1976, and settled permanently into retirement and his Fort Lauderdale trailer home. A "Mr. First" wrought-iron sign now hangs over the carport, and "MRFIRST" vanity license plates adorn the front and back of his aging blue Cadillac. Until his wife's illness, the couple traveled extensively, visiting Europe, Africa, and their daughter in Hawaii. A rock and shark-tooth collection from their travels is stored in Tupperware containers in the trailer's small, wood-paneled office.
The space is crammed with mementos from one or another of his hobbies: framed pictures of Omero crossing some bridge or tunnel occupy every square inch of wall space; 60 dusty shuffleboard trophies litter the floor. A large, odd-looking slab of linoleum leaning against his desk is part of a three-dice gambling game. He, his wife, and another man received patent number 4334685 for the game in 1982. Like the professional shuffleboard league Omero founded, the dice game didn't catch on. "If the Indians over here at Seminole Bingo would get their hands on this, they'd make millions," he says of the complicated game. "Nobody got it."
He doesn't like to talk about the Mr. First business, mostly because of the attention his brother has been receiving lately. Sitting at a small wooden table with an inlaid checkerboard (from the days when he was a champion player), Omero sighs deeply and laments his brother's encroachment on his title. "I don't want you to get misled about my brother and about Mr. First," he says. "There's only one Mr. First and that's me. It's not my brother or anybody else. I would take a dim view if you were misled."
He says the hobby was born in the excitement of the era. There were so many new things opening and so many politicians and celebrities to see. Unlike today, when television allows everyone in the world to know what Bill Clinton looks like in jogging shorts, the only way young Omero could get a good look at the president in the Thirties was to actually go see the president. Which he did. He saw FDR open the Triborough Bridge in 1936, for example, and he kept with the practice long enough to see John F. Kennedy open the Delaware Turnpike only eight days before the assassination in Dallas. "I saw him about twenty feet away from me," he recalls. "Something like that would never have happened nowadays."
Nowadays, because of his and his wife's fading health, Omero spends much of his time in his narrow trailer, which is kept as dark and cold as a cave. His last first, October 21, 1989, marked the opening of the completed I-595, the east-west thoroughfare from the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to the Everglades.
Says his brother Michael: "You can't be first any more like you used to. They don't seem to be building toll bridges and tunnels like they used to. I'm glad the Metrorail finally came around."
Catch that? Michael is glad. The older brother began picking up Omero's slack after moving to Margate in 1981. On May 21, 1984, Michael was the first paying customer on Miami's Metrorail. He arrived at the Dadeland South station five hours before the first train arrived at 6:00 a.m. Omero had been invited, Michael says, but declined because of illness. So it was only Michael who received a plaque from the Metro-Dade Transit Agency. It was only Michael who got his mug plastered on the front page of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. The Miami Herald's story about the opening blurred the line between Michael and Omero even further: "The first paying customer was Michael Katen, a 72-year-old former New Yorker now living in Margate, known to his friends as 'Mr. First.'"
Although Michael is the older brother, he looks younger. His face and arms are tanned from the air conditioner repair work he still does. As a hobby he makes music boxes from copper bric-a-brac he finds at flea markets. An active life, he says, keeps him fit.
Omero, in contrast, is showing his years. He takes a pill each day for a heart condition, and two pills to prevent blood from leaking into his system. Water is seeping into his limbs. He keeps near his wife, who broke her hip, lost one vocal cord to paralysis, and suffers a variety of other ailments.
Partly because of his health, Omero declined to attend the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Lincoln Tunnel's north tube, the tunnel where Michael pinch-hit during the war. Omero had already been to several other such celebrations, and they seemed to be no big deal. He attended the 50th anniversary of the Triborough Bridge to little notice. He had been at the 50th anniversary of the opening of the first tube of the Lincoln Tunnel, and few people cared. So when Terry Benzick, publicist for the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, invited Omero to the anniversary of the opening, and said that he would have to pay his own way, Omero chose to stay home.
But Michael went. Happily. This was important. This was history. For months he and his wife had been planning to make the trip. Even when his wife died just a few weeks before the event, his daughter insisted he still go. It was a lucky thing he did, he says. This anniversary was different from the others Omero had observed in near solitude. This one benefited from a media snowball.
Benzick, the publicist, had extended a special invitation to the New York Times. That paper, she had noticed, had practically owned the original "Mr. First By Proxy" story. She asked reporter James Barron if the paper might be interested in another feature. Barron said yes, but only if he could get to Michael a day before everyone else. No problem, Benzick replied. Barron and Michael held a dry run on January 31.
When the other reporters in New York City woke up on February 1 -- anniversary day -- they saw an article on the front page of the Times's "Metro" section about two brothers who had spent their lives being the first on bridges and in tunnels. Michael and Omero were equals, even though Omero was credited with opening far more things than his brother. A veritable army of New York's press followed the Times's lead and showed up at the tunnel to meet Michael at the ceremonies. On that night's evening news, several television stations showed him smiling before a bank of microphones.
"You could see it on the reporters faces. People really appreciated his concern for history and also the fact that he cared enough to come back," recalls Benzick. "Honestly, it was one of the best days I ever had at work." David Letterman's Late Show took it from there, trying (but failing) to book Michael and Omero as guests. Filmmaker Nelson Hume of New York City proposed a short, informal, and humorous documentary. A producer in Hollywood sent the brothers a contract in March offering them $50,000 for their life stories. A small but significant portion of the world was consumed with Mr. First fever.
Omero, on the other hand, came down with Mr. First indigestion. He sat fuming in his trailer, annoyed by the attention and by the Times article. In the article, he says, Michael committed several factual errors. For example, Omero takes issue with his brother about exactly how the two came to be the first paying customers to land at Idlewild airport (now JFK). And he disapproves of Michael's sloppy accounting. "Look here," Omero insists. "Michael claims that we were at over 600 openings. He knows that there have been only 537. Why would he lie like that? He's my brother, but he's the biggest goddamn liar in the world."
The core concern is not the precise number of openings, of course. It's that Omero, who labored intensively to be Mr. First, is now having to share the glory -- however surprising its arrival may be this late in life -- with his carpetbagging sibling. "I can count all the times he was with me on my finger, or maybe on one hand," Omero huffs. "It was a rarity that my brother came with me. He is such a liar!"
While he can't stop his brother from attending the anniversaries or from talking to the press, Omero isn't simply surrendering the Mr. First limelight. His brother may be in the papers and on television, but if Omero has his way, Michael will never be in the movies. That's because unknown to Michael or to the other interested filmmakers, Omero's story was no longer for sale. It was already sold.
A year ago a Wisconsin man Omero will only describe as "Bob" drove down to Florida in a beat-up car. He offered Omero ten dollars for the rights to his life story. If a film is ever made from the story, Omero will get only $1000. Assured that his character in any film would be paramount, Omero signed.
Today Hollywood is stunned. George Zaloom, head of ZM Productions, can't believe Omero rejected much bigger money to sign with an unknown, out-of-the-mainstream company. Zaloom's outfit, located on Universal's back lot and described by the Los Angeles Times as "one of Hollywood's hottest mini-studios," has a relationship with Disney and is responsible for such films as Encino Man, Hearts of Darkness, and a series of ABC Saturday night family specials. Zaloom thought he had a lock. "We wanted to do a major Hollywood picture about the two brothers," he says with a heavy sigh, "and one brother goes off and signs a contact with this nothing company. I can't believe it."
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No one contacted at the state film board in Madison, Wisconsin, knew anything about the brothers or about the person who bought Omero's story rights. Chip Duncan, an established Milwaukee-based documentarian, also is unaware of the "Bob" who might have made a deal. "In terms of well-known filmmakers in the state, there really aren't that many," Duncan says.
Michael contests the validity of the Wisconsin contract. It is impossible to tell the Mr. First story without including his participation, he says, and he didn't sign anything. He wants the contract voided -- not for the money, but only to have the true, complete story told. A story, he says, that acknowledges the many times he stepped up to fill in for his brother, his trip to New York for the anniversary, and his inaugural ride on the Metrorail. A story that admits this is no longer simply Omero's tale. "Take a look at this here," Michael implores, holding up a laminated copy of the New York Times article. "It has the two of us, together. Even though he's number one -- Mr. First -- we're still tied together. That's the way it wound up now. We're one. We're not two any more. We're one. That's just the way it is."
Omero disagrees. As early as 1936 he told a newspaper reporter that all he wanted to do with this Mr. First business is collect a scrapbook to show his family. "Someday my children and all my descendants will look back with pride and say, 'My ancestor was the first man to drive across that bridge.'" He has that book now A he has three of them to be exact -- sitting on a shelf in his trailer, keeping company with his rock collection. The first two bulging books are all Omero, clips blackened with age and glue that still show the genuine Mr. First crossing one threshold after another.
The latest scrapbook is different. The newest clips are primarily about Michael, and they just might give the impression that Omero did not act alone, that he was always accompanied by his brother. Omero and Michael: Team First. But if the Wisconsin movie, small as it may be, keeps Michael out, the preservation of Omero's legacy will be worth far more than the $50,000 he gave up with Hollywood. "There is only one Mr. First!" he shouts, his hands raised as if to fight. "That's not my brother. That's not anybody else. That's me. I am Mr. First!