Treva, my writing partner, and I hooked up after I came back from a year in Europe (more of this later). In fact, over Christmas vacation we’d gone to Julius Monk’s new revue room (a boite, yes) to see a show called Take Five, which featured comic Ronny Graham, remembered from New Faces of ’52.
The room was in a cellar on 51st street and sixth avenue, it was called Julius Monk’s Downstairs Room; five performers and a spinet on a tiny stage in the basement, and they were funny. And just when you thought the comedy had reached a peak, the show delivered a ballad –which held you in suspension until you could begin laughing again, refreshed by the pause. Julius had re-packaged intimate revue. Ronny Graham came out with a joint and pretended to get stoned –marijuana was just gaining prominence (again) among ‘bopsters’ “-and don’t breathe in,” he wheezed, “it’s mine!” Jeanne Arnold sang about discovering love (or at least lust) in the supermarket:
WE MET AT GRISTEDE’S
I WAS LOOKING FOR WHEATIES
YOU WERE LOOKING FOR KIX
And there was another Bart Howard ballad, Perfect Stranger. Treva and I were enchanted, dazzled. God, we thought, if we could only get a piece of our material into one of these shows, what a coup that would be! How hip would we be then?! We agonized and compared notes: which pieces would we select to present? We decided to go down to 51st street, talk to Mr. Monk and make an appointment to show him our numbers. We presented ourselves at the club one September evening and found Julius readily approachable. In fact, he played intermission piano at the spinet upstairs. As we came in the door, I recognized what he was playing, Rodgers & Hart’s Quiet Night. Portia Nelson sang it on my Goddard Lieberson recording of On Your Toes. Oh, God please let him grant us an appointment.It felt as if we were seeking an audience with the Pope.
We were only partially prepared for Julius’ rococo manner of speech. He was from Oxford, Mississippi, but seemed to believe he was from Oxford, England. We had heard some of his bizarre locutions: “Ladies and gentlemen,’ he would say, “Friars, Congregants and conceivably Elders. May ah direct yaw attention and applawse to our post-prandial prank, a prank for the shank, Take Fahve!” I waited till he was just getting up from the piano. “Mr Monk?” He turned towards me without a smile, but with eyebrows quizzically raised.He was attired in a navy pinstripe suit, very elegant. He was, we knew, currently modeling for Hathaway shirts. He sported a British Colonel’s mustache, graying, as was his hair. “Yes?” “I’m John Meyer and this is Treva Silverman. We’re writers, and we’ve written some numbers we’d like you to hear.” Now he smiled, displaying a set of uneven, yellowing teeth. “Well, how utterly charming, how positively Marie Antoinette of you.” I had no idea what he meant, but he was moving towards the head of the stairwell which led to the cellar. He stretched out his arm, inviting us to follow him. We did.
It was a real basement. As I recall, the floor was stone, painted gray-blue. A platform had been set at one end, with a curtain drawn around it in a semi-circle. I could see the spinet behind the scrim, set down center. There were perhaps twenty half-dollar sized tables placed before the platform; people were drinking, smoking, chatting away. It was intermission. Mr. Monk led us to the side of the stage. He pulled the scrim aside, creating an opening. “Well, mes enfants, the stage is yours.” Treva and I stared at each other in horror. Could he mean…could he possibly mean…? “You mean…now?” “Pourquoi pas?” said Mr. Monk with a wide smile. It never occurred to either of us to do anything but follow his request. This was the chance we’d prayed for: you had to grab your opportunities when they appeared. Who knew when Mr. Monk would be receptive again? We were twenty-one, we didn’t know enough to say No. But…there were people out there, the audience, we could see them just beyond the gossamer scrim. Wouldn’t they hear us? Nonetheless, we spread our music sheets out on the piano, on top of the show’s score. I went first. I was so nervous that even now, I can hardly remember what I played. A couple of my Pheasant Under Glass songs, probably, like Chewgum Smith and Santa Claus is Welching This Year and a ballad, Carousel. I was careful to keep my voice low, away from the paying customers. This did NOT help my performance.
Then Treva went. As she was playing, I saw the some of the show’s cast standing to the side, listening. Gerry Matthews and Ceil Cabot. They were smiling to themselves. Did they think it strange that Mr. Monk was auditioning new material in the middle of their performance? Treva finished. The room’s ambient noise filtered back into our consciousness. We both looked at Mr. Monk. “Step into this area, won’t you, if it doesn’t strahk you as too much of a cul-de-sac”. Treva collected our music from the piano and together we followed Mr. Monk into a small area adjacent to the stage. “Well, children,’ Mr. Monk began, “you are both obviously extremely gifted. Permit me to express mah deepest gratitude for your visit, impromptu as it may have been. Ah’d be pleased if you could entertain the idea of coming to see me encore next year.”
In this manner, Julius gave us to understand that he didn’t want -couldn’t use- any of the songs he’d just heard. It has always been painful to me when my material is rejected, and my reaction to my humiliation is to scamper away immediately, to evade any sympathy and to stew in my own feelings of shame and disappointment. But I was with Treva. “Let’s go,” I whispered urgently. However, Mr. Monk was offering an invitation. “Would you enjoy staying and seeing our second act?” he queried. I didn’t wait for Treva (who would gladly have taken him up on it) to respond. “Thank you, Mr. Monk, some other time.’ I said, and headed for the stairwell.
Once outside on Sixth Avenue, I was overcome by a mix of anger and shame: I’d been forced to perform at a disadvantage, and then judged not good enough! “Jesus, how could he put us on the spot like that–?” “In front of everybody!” Treva cried. “Did you see the performers, trying to listen–?” “Oh, God. Let’s get out of here. Let’s go to…Reubens.” Reuben’s, the great sandwich joint, was on East 58th street, a ten minute walk.
We settled into our booth, and we each ordered sandwiches. Treva got The Dorothy Kilgallen and I went for The Joey Adams. “And I’ll have a Dewar’s and water.” said Treva. “Yeah, a drink, that’s a good idea. I’ll have a glass of Cotes-du-Rhone.” A moment passed. “Is that what your folks drink, Dewar’s?” “My sister, Corky. She graduated from rye and ginger. She said she’s getting to like the taste. Very grown up, she says. You know, I could tell he wasn’t responding. When you were doing the Santa Claus song–?” “Yeah?” “His eyes kind of, like, clouded over.” “And at one point I saw him put his head down.” “And at one point he scratched his knee.”
I glanced down at the pile of music Treva had hurriedly snatched from Mr. Monk’s piano. “Treva” I said, “did you write a song called Perfect Stranger?”Treva shook her head. “Unh unh.” I picked up the sheet. The name on the song was Bart Howard, a name we both knew well enough, he’d written Walk-Up. Beneath it was a song called The Night the Hurricane Struck. By Bud McCreery. Oh, Jesus. It suddenly struck me– “Treva, when you grabbed our music from the piano—“
“What?” “Didn’t it feel heavy to you? Heavier than usual?”
“No. What is it?”
“We’ve just walked off with the music for the second act of Mr. Monk’s show.” “Oh my god.” We broke into the kind of raucous laughter that starts big and gets bigger. “Oh my God, oh shit, Jesus Fucking Christ—“ I pounded the table. “And he wants us back next year!” “Oh, sure, next year we’ll take the piano!” The drinks came, but we were half-way to the door, leaving a bill on the table. Outside we hailed a cab and I had the agonizing duty of running into the club and throwing the music at the maitre d’: “I’m sorry, we ran off with this by mistake –it’s the music for the second act. Would you make sure Mr. Monk gets it? And tell him we’re sorry. Thank you, thank you so much.”