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A Conversation with the Mann
By John Ridley
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“I want the Ed Sullivan Show.”
At the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, like a lot of black Americans, comedian Jackie Mann wanted to be somebody. And for him there was only one way to achieve that: to make it big. Make it, no matter the cost: friends, family, one’s own self-esteem and self-respect. This is the story of a young man’s journey from Harlem to stardom, a story of Hollywood royalty, New York glitterati, Vegas Mafiosi, Northern bigotry, and Southern racism. This is a story of love, honor, betrayal, and redemption; of fame bought and paid for by any means necessary. It is the story of one man’s desire and an entire race’s demands, and the incredible moment when the two came together as one. This is the story of Jackie Mann.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2002 by John Ridley
All rights reserved.
Warner Books, Inc.,
Hachette Book Group, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017
Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com.
Originally published in hardcover by Warner Books, Inc.
First eBook Edition: June 2009
also by John Ridley
Everybody Smokes in Hell
Love Is a Racket
IV JER V
The Green Kitchen was where I first met Jackie Mann. The Green Kitchen was on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The Green Kitchen was a little restaurant/diner kind of place where me and the boys—Sweeny, Richie, Raider, God bless him—used to chow down after doing sets at The Strip, Catch, and Stand Up, among very few other comedy clubs we were limited to working. That is, if you call hanging out till two A.M. hoping to go on for the six people left in the audience working. But that's what we did, hang out, because the two A.M. slot was when all the hotshot club bookers—who used to be bartenders before the comedy boom in the eighties turned their saloons into comedy spots and made them hotshot club bookers— would swing young comics like us. Of course, the eighties ended, and so did the comedy boom, and most of the clubs closed and the hotshot club bookers went back to being bartenders. But that's not the story I'm trying to tell.
I'm trying to tell the story of how I met Jackie Mann at the Green Kitchen, where us wannabe comics used to chow down. It was a good hangout. After a hard night of fifteen minutes of joke telling, there was much griping to be done and many road stories to be swapped. One morning, post-griping and swapping, when the boys were ready to head home, I took our collected money to the counter to pay the bill. Standing there was an old black guy who mumbled at me: "Gimme a dollar. I don't have enough to pay for my fries," or something close to that. The man didn't look shabby or indigent. He just looked like a guy who'd left home a little short and was asking to get covered for a buck. But he'd said what he said sharp and matter-of-fact. He said it like I owed him a dollar. He said it in a way that made me think the entire world owed him a little something.
I gave him two dollars.
I got no thank-you from him. He said, instead, that he had seen me around a few times and wondered what I was doing at the Green Kitchen so late at night, and I told him I was a comedian and he laughed a little and said "Yeah?" and I said "Yeah" and he said "You know, I used to be a comic."
I didn't know that, not even knowing who this old black guy was.
He told me his name was Jackie Mann and I told him—young and cocky like I used to be—my name, and that he should remember my name because one day my name was going to be real well known. One day I was going to be very famous.
Jackie laughed again. At me. And then he told me that I shouldn't get any ideas about being a star, because that's all they would most likely ever be.
This time I did the laughing. Who was this guy to tell me I wasn't going to be famous? All of us, me and the boys—Sweeny and Richie and Raider, God bless him—were going to be big.
Didn't much work out that way. Sweeny went on to write gags for talk shows, Richie kept plugging away in the club scene in New York. Raider … God bless him. But that's not the story I'm trying to tell.
I'm trying to tell the story of how, after I met Jackie Mann, I couldn't quite get him out of my head. I don't know why. I had never heard of him, and that right there should've made him very forgettable. I was a comic and I knew comics and I don't just mean the big guys with the sitcoms or the bigger guys with the movie deals. Pigmeat Markham, Olsen and Johnson, Ernie Kovacs, Godfrey Cambridge, George Kirby. Famous or not, black or white, I knew my history, and if I didn't know anything about Jackie Mann, then Jackie Mann wasn't worth the energy it took to speak his name.
The way he laughed at me, said to forget about having big dreams, it made me think he knew what he was talking about.
There was a comedienne who hung out with me and the boys whose father used to work in television back in the golden age. I asked her to ask her dad if he had ever heard of Jackie Mann.
She asked him.
Boy, had he heard of Jackie Mann. He remembered, pretty clearly, the stories that I would come to know real well: Jackie's days doing shows at the Copa and Ciro's, mixing company with the likes of Sinatra, Dino, and Damone. His on again, off again, up/down relationship with his girl Tammi, the surprise wedding, the thing with the Fran Clark show. And, of course, the Sullivan show.
I feel embarrassed now, listing events and incidents that, remembered and familiar to many, were once unknown to me. I feel ashamed that a guy like me, a guy who thought he knew a thing or two about the history of both comedy and his people, was so completely ignorant.
I chose to be ignorant no more.
I went back to the Green Kitchen a few times before happening across Jackie again, and asked him—begged him—to share his memories with me.
Thankfully, he did.
And over many plates of french fries Jackie told me tales of a long-gone era with a verve and lingo that made every moment fresh and vivid. Putting Jackie's story on record—a story of time and place and history—has taken well more than a decade. It waited as I went from New York to Los Angeles, from stand-up to television and screenwriting to finally—thankfully—publishing. Fortunately, like a fine wine, Jackie's is a story that has only gotten better with age.
And that is the story I'm trying to tell.
March 28, 2002
Let me tell you:
You stop. You can't go on. Can't say another word. The clapping roadblocks you; the sound of the flesh of a thousand hands beating against each other. Men's hands—manicured, most likely, and pinky-ring-decorated. Women's hands—most likely jeweled on five or six or seven out of ten fingers; rings that match bracelets that match necklaces that match earrings. Most likely. You don't know. Not for sure. To all that you're blinded: the gems, the bouffants and pompadours, the sharkskin suits and the satin dresses; you're blinded to the high style of the times. The arc light spotting you cuts your vision and knocks down the people and all their finery to a silhouetted mass—a living ink blot—that jukes and jives and howls as a single thing.
Let me tell you:
It's better that way. Better they should be unreal and unintimidating, and that you are ultrareal, illuminated. Glowing. Three feet taller on the stage where you stand over the tables where they sit. Sight gone, all you're left with is the taste—yeah, the taste—and smell of the people; the smoke belched train-style from Fatimas and Chesterfields, chewably thick and unavoidably swallowed, but overpowered by twenty varieties of perfumes that run the scale of stink from Chanel to Woolworth's. You're left with the sound of the thousand hands and the whistles and the roaring voices with the occasional call that comes after a joke: "That's true. That's funny 'cause it's true." And all that keeps you from saying another word. You can't go on.
So, let me tell you:
I didn't go on. I stopped and I stood and waited for that ink blot to finish cracking up. I stood and I waited and I soaked up its applause and affection. I waited, and the waiting took time. The time the waiting took made the second show in the Copa Room at the Sands hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, run long. Like an unbreakable law of nature, the second rule of casinos was that the entertainment shows never ran long. The first rule was that you let the customer drink for free. Drink for free, eat for free, lodge for free … Generally you kept 'em happy so that you could keep 'em at the tables, where the odds are so stacked against them it's nothing but easy to separate money from their well-liquored, well-fed fingers. But for the casino to get their dough the customer had to be at the tables, and they couldn't be at the tables when they were in the show room laughing it up, swinging to some crooner, or otherwise engaged in non-gambling. The management, the boys from New York and Chicago and Miami—a balancing act of strong-armed Italians and slick-minded Jews—who quietly, very quietly, ran the casinos, didn't much care for their customers to be non-gambling. They hadn't traveled from city to desert to open a chain of hospitality suites. So rule number two: The entertainment shows never ran long. Hardly ever. The first day of October 1959 was an exception; twenty-four hours that were particular otherwise only in their insignificance: The Russians were behaving themselves. The Donna Reed show was new to TV. It'd only been a bunch of months since Barbie's first date with America. Freshly fifty-stated America. Other than that it was just another Ike-is-president Castro-is-evil Elvis-is-God day. Except, the second show in the Copa Room at the Sands hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, did the unthinkable and ran long, and it ran long because of me, and I wasn't worried in the least about upsetting the Italians or the Jews. I was the opening act for Mr. Danny Thomas. The opener of any show got exactly six and a half minutes to warm up the audience for exactly forty-three and a half minutes of headline, straight-from-Hollywood, star-powered entertainment before they were herded back out to the casino for another complimentary mugging. But on that night, same as a lot of nights, I'd killed. I hadn't just done well; I'd slain the crowd, left that ink blot flopping in the aisles. I had to stand and wait for the people to drain themselves of laughs and claps.
Some headliners don't dig an opener going over big. You get rolling and they'll have you yanked two and a third into your six and a half. The show is about them and only them, and don't even try to give them something to follow. But Danny Thomas wasn't Charlie Small-time. Danny Thomas was the spit-taking star of the number four Nielsen-rated show on television. Danny Thomas could follow whatever I put out and take it higher. He tossed me the signal to stretch, to do an extra couple of minutes. An extra couple of minutes that would make the long show run even longer. So what? The management wasn't so Guido they didn't know an audience that good-time high translated into a bunch of crazy bets once they got back to the tables.
So let me do some extra bits.
Keep that customer happy.
I finally wrapped and Danny hit the stage, bringing me back out for a few bows. As he launched into a trademarked "Danny Boy"— the backing band big and brassy—and rode the crowd into his own special groove, I took up a spot at the back of the room, got perspective, and started questioning myself: How did I get here? A black kid from Harlem working the finest club in the glitziest city in the world, opening up for one of the biggest acts in entertainment. After only a handful of years of really making a break in show business, and there was almost nothing I didn't have. There was almost nothing I couldn't do.
Nothing, except walk out the doors of the Copa Room and into the casino itself.
It was 1959, and the only difference between Las Vegas, Nevada, and Birmingham, Alabama, was that down South they posted signs telling a black man where he couldn't go and what he couldn't do: WHITES ONLY, COLOREDS NOT ALLOWED. In Vegas you had to figure that out on your own. You figured it out quick-style. Stay off the Strip, stay in Westside. Stay the hell away from their casinos. Didn't matter how well you did in the show room, didn't matter how much the audience laughed or clapped or how many bows you took, out there it was still 1959, and out there blacks weren't welcome. Not to stay overnight. Not to eat. Not to gamble.
More than anything in the world I wanted to gamble.
Not for the jazz of laying a bet, or the sake of wagering money. What I wanted was to stand at a table with all those people—suited men, ladies in their best dresses—living high and living fast and living Cocktail Society. I wanted to see them do a Red Sea-part as I made my way to the roulette wheel and listened to all their starstruck bits: "Great job tonight, Jackie." "Heck of a show, Jackie. Don't know when I cracked up as much." "Would you mind saying hello to the Mrs., Jackie? She's such a big fan of yours. It would mean so much." I wanted them to fawn and gush and throw me their love same as they threw it at me when I was performing, when I was standing three feet above them.
I wanted them to accept me.
Accept me? They couldn't even see me. I got paid nearly a grand a week, I got pulled back up onstage to do more time by the biggest stars alive, I got standing O's … And when it was all over I got sent out the back door.
You know what went out the back?
Trash went out the back. Stinking garbage and rotting food and black comics got sent straight to the alley, never mind how well they'd just done in the show room.
Danny Thomas had the audience swinging. He had to swing them hard to keep them from thinking back and recalling a bit I'd done and murmuring about me. I was that good.
I felt warm. I felt vain. I felt a shot of pride, and it made me high.
And then I did it. No back-and-forth debate with myself, no working my way to a decision. I just did it. I just pushed open the doors and walked out of the Copa Room and into the casino.
Loud as the casino was with all the pinging of slot machines and the mucking of chips, with crisp new money being crackled across the green felt, I swear the second I took step one onto the floor the place went morgue silent and twice as cold. I could hear every whisper. I could hear every look. Some of the looks said: Isn't that Jackie Mann? A few said: I didn't know this joint was progressive. Most of the looks said and said quite clearly: What the hell is a nigger doing in here?
And all that big-star bravado I'd carried with me melted from their hot stares and quiet contempt. I got the shakes. I got the sweats. I could feel a sheen of it collecting across my forehead. I remembered those pictures of the Little Rock kids, the ones who'd integrated the high school. I remembered the Jesus-don't-lynch-me fear sopped up in their race memory that seeped from the cracks in all that stoic jazz they put on. I knew that's how I must have looked just then: Jackie Mann, Negro agitator for gambling rights.
But I kept on. Doing my best high-class bits, I swaggered Peter Lawford-style for the roulette wheel, my eyes on the prize. A hundred-dollar bill came up out of my pocket. Let them all see. Let them see how big Jackie Mann plays. I just hoped they couldn't see the sweat stain that Ben Franklin's face had soaked up from my palm.
So close to the table …
That's when I got stopped. Blocking my path, one of the casino housemen—horned into a suit that didn't begin to cover his heft—planted himself between me and the roulette wheel.
"No" was all he said. That plain. That simple. That harsh. Not "I'm sorry, Mr. Mann" or "You know the rules, Mr. Mann" or atleast "Hey, Charlie, beat it before you find out what hot water is." He just said no like I was some dog he had to scold for soiling his favorite afghan.
Everywhere else in the casino the stares got louder, they encouraged the chucker to do something about the uppity colored who'd wandered into their playground.
I tried to peek around the guy. If I couldn't gamble, at least let me see the table up close. At least let me get tossed from the floor having accomplished that much. Or that little. I couldn't hardly see anything. The goon was not an easy cat to look around.
He said to me again, "no," then cracked the knuckles of his right fist, weeded with black hair, in the clutch of his left hand. The sound was the same as rocks getting crunched. This one got paid to deal with trouble. Trouble was what he was hoping I'd give him. Hell, trouble or no, he was ready to throw me a beat down just for practice—one more in a string of abuses I'd been taking the whole of my life.
Defeat crawled over me. Humiliation crawled with it.
From behind: a hand on my shoulder.
Swell, I thought. The houseman's got pals. A beating was about to come at me from all sides, front and back, panoramic and in Vista-Vision.
Except … The houseman's eyes went wide and his lips started to jump around. A lyrical voice behind me said to the heavy, told him: "It's okay. Charlie here's with me."
First off I thought it was Jack Entratter, the hey-boy who fronted the Sands for its out-of-town owners, who'd stepped in to square things for me. But as I looked, I saw the hand on my shoulder was dark-skinned. Dark-skinned to the point it made me look octoroon. The sight of it was a sock that knocked me over to Queer Street.
What black man, what black man in Las Vegas in 1959 could put that kind of fear into a roughneck on the casino payroll?
I turned and I saw. I turned and I looked into the eyes, the one good eye, of Mr. Sammy Davis, Jr.
In America, in the late 1930s:
The average annual income for a white male was right around three thousand dollars. A black male earned about half that.
One in eight white men couldn't find work. For black men it was one in four.
On average a white man could expect to live sixty-one years. A black man, ten years fewer.
Per year, just about sixteen blacks were killed by lynching— hung or burned or beaten to death.
That is the world I came into.
I don't think you can imagine the loneliness of a child born different. Not physically different, not handicapped, not deformed or marked. A child born different in a way you can't describe or recognize, but that's just as real as the kid with a bad leg or mangled hand—always the outcast, always the one standing in a corner, ghosdike, watching the rest of the world parade by. It's as if there's something about him, some odd and un-normal thing inside him, invisible but clearly advertising he's not the same as everyone else. The response from everyone else being laughs and ridicule because they don't know what to do with a kid born different except to mock it. And that feeling of not belonging, of lonely isolation in a world of people and the knowing that you will never ever be like them and will never ever be accepted by anyone … It's a feeling that lasts a lifetime. It's a scar that never fades.
I WAS BORN IN HARLEM. More than that, the specifics, the exact where and when of the event, are lost to me. By the time I was old enough to want to know those things about me I had no one to ask. My pop, Kenneth Mann, and I didn't talk much. My mother, Anna, I couldn't talk to at all. What I can say for certain is the fondest memory I have of my childhood is the day I was able to leave it all behind me.
I was an only child. The only child my mother would have, and the only child my father would want, and to say "want" is an assumption, as he often made my desirability questionable. My father was a big man, over six feet and carrying nearly two hundred pounds, and is best described as a combination of angry and pathetic. His anger was easy to understand. He was a black man, and being a black man in the early parts of the twentieth century would be enough to give the mildest of men some rage. He was a poor man, too. Even in the North, the industrial, progressive North, finding a steady, good-paying job was a trick he never got down to habit. My father took whatever work he could: a shoe shine, a bathroom attendant, a janitor in the subway system. A newsboy. A grown man, six feet plus, working as a newsie. "Don't Look" jobs, I heard my father call them. The people you serve don't look at you while you clean their shoes, pass them a towel to dry their hands. Just do your work, make change for their crisp new fives and tens, and give them a "Thanks yuh, suh" when you're done. To them you don't exist. You don't matter. I said before: Pop's anger I could understand.
What I couldn't understand was him being so pitiful. It had to do with, I guess, his accident. About as far back as I can remember my pop had been debilitated. At one point he had worked in construction. Not as any kind of skilled laborer or tradesman. Blacks didn't much get the education needed for that kind of work, and if they did they just plain didn't get that kind of work. So my father, like a lot of other black fathers, was a human pack-mule: lifting lumber, carrying bricks. Doing whatever kind of labor was too much or too hard or too far beneath the whites. One day, on the job, he'd injured himself, his back or hip lifting or hauling or doing whatever. I'm not exactly sure how. I'm not exactly sure how badly. He walked fine, without much of a limp I could see. Had no problem with stairs or heavy loads that I could tell. But he was hurt. So he'd say. He was hurt enough to stop working and start on the dole. Start, and never quit. Why should he? To his way of thinking, why should he slave; why shine shoes or shill newspapers when he could be handed money? Why try when not trying paid the same? With nothing else to do, he passed the hours with booze, and pretty soon, when a liquor buzz couldn't last him the day, he graduated to grass and pills. Pop became an equal-opportunity abuser. He would drink anything too thin to eat. He would smoke anything you could roll. In a tight spot, glue in a bag would do just fine. His highs expressed themselves with their own personalities. The speed high that kept him jittery and dancing, eager to get somewhere even though he had nowhere to be. His booze high was a sullen low that put heat to the anger he carried. It recognized no one, came at whoever crossed it with swinging fists looking to pay back the whole world for all the no-good it'd handed him. And there was the weed high that kept Pop laughing when there was nothing to laugh at. Didn't matter. Pop would make up things to laugh about, act a clown and laugh at himself if he had to. He would make noises, do big, broad pantomimes of people who lived in the building. Put on a whole little crazy act. Watching him was no different from watching a program on television. Better than that. A TV show didn't chase you around the apartment, tickle you to the ground when it caught you. A TV show didn't take you, lift you in the air, smile at you with a grin that was almost coonish but full of love, and tell you: "You my boy, Jackie. That's my boy." And me and Mom would laugh along and play along, and bad as things were, even though we were laughing at a man lifted on dope, for a while Pop could make us forget the troubles we lived with. If I had to pick, without a doubt that was my favorite high. Thing of it was, the pop I left when I went to school in the morning was never the same one I returned to at night. That made going home real frightening, every step of the walk asking: Is there a hug waiting for me, or a slap? A story that won't end, or a whupping that'll go on and on? Sometimes I'd be too scared to climb the stairs to the apartment. Long after the other kids had gone home for dinner and there was no one to play with, I'd sit on the stoop of our building and try to listen through all the other noises that fought each other in the city. If I could hear laughing from our apartment, I'd go up. If I heard screaming, crashing dishes … Well, it got so I taught myself to sit on the stoop well into night when I had to.
But no matter the high, Pop was high. Always. The drink and drugs made him useless, and being useless—a father that was no good for his family—that's what made him pathetic. That left caring for the family, what the three of us had that passed for a family, to my mother.
My mother was beautiful. I remember that most about her. She was a very dark-skinned lady, from the Caribbean, or at least her family was. She had soft features and was a little plump, which made her face more round than angular. Her hair had no kink. It was wavy and near shoulder-length, what back then got called "good hair." In my memory, my mother was without blemish.
- On Sale
- Aug 1, 2009
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Grand Central Publishing