A Club Date in Wilkes-Barre
In the mid-sixties, the Improvisation was the cutting edge comedy room. The rising stars of the decade would come in to test new material, and we had Steve Landesberg, Robert Klein, Richie Pryor, really funny guys. Some nights established names, people like Alan King and Milton Berle, would show up to get some adulation, maybe do a bit or two, and check out the young Turks.
I was the house pianist, my job was mainly to accompany the occasional singer, but often to supply opening fanfares, play-off music and scoring for the comics’ bits. Car chases, for example, or love scenes, like a silent-movie accompanist. I had a theatrical instinct for punctuating comedy routines musically, and I could tummel, throw lines with the comedians.
One night, Eddie Corman (not his real name) came in. He was hot, having done five or six Ed Sullivan shots, and he got onstage and did his Photo-Carousel routine, with the cricket clicker: “This is me on the beach in Bermuda –going down for the third time.” Click. “This is my wife, ignoring my cries for help.” Click.
He finished with a Civil War bit, Abe Lincoln, something about freeing the slaves, and he gets to the finish, and he turns to me and says, “When I say, ‘And that was the last we ever saw of him’ give me Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
He shrugs. This happened sometimes, amateurs would show up without knowing their keys, and I’d have to wing it. I do some hasty figuring: from the timbre of his voice I get that he’s a baritone and therefore his top note probably won’t be above a C. If the body of the song sits around a B, this will dictate the key of G.
So I play it in G, and Eddie, who is not a singer by any means, actually sounds GOOD. He gets a big hand, and steps off the stage with a smile of satisfaction.
A few minutes later, I go to the bar to get some juice, and there he is.
“Hey, Knuckles—c’mere, wanna talk to you.” Calling me Knuckles is his idea of affectionate kidding. I moved next to him. “Hey, Eddie, you killed. You absolutely killed.” I said, shamelessly flattering him. It was true. I had to hand it to him, even though I was put off by his grossness. He was really too heavy. While we were talking, I saw him pick his nose –and then roll the catch between his thumb and forefinger.
“John, I’m lookin’ for someone to conduct. You wanna go to Vegas with me?”
Whoa, I thought, that could mean some real bread. The only problem was, I’d never learned to conduct.
“You mean lead a band?” I asked. “Ten or twelve men?”
“Oh, Eddie, I’m sorry, I’d love to, but I don’t conduct, I just play.”
He nodded impatiently. “Ahright,” he said, “then how about this weekend? Saturday. I gotta go to Wilkes-Barre. You wanna come along and play for me? It’d just be you.”
“What’s the music? Do you have charts?”
He looked at me blankly. I realized he hadn’t understood me. “Or even a lead sheet?”
“Nah. Just ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’. The way you did it tonight. It sounded good.” He meant HE sounded good. “Bring your tux. I’ll give you two-fifty.”
Now in 1967, two-fifty was like fifteen hundred dollars. My eyes began to glitter with greed, but I kept my cool. “Yeah, OK, that sounds good. If I can get a sub for my gig here.”
“Work it out, willya?” Eddie said. “We’ll be leavin’ from my place, The Excelsior, East fifty-seventh. At noon, OK?”
“Yeah, yeah, Eddie, but gimme your number, I’ll confirm with you tomorrow.” He wrote his number on a cocktail napkin and went back into the main room to get more plaudits.
I was able to find a sub for the Improv, and that Saturday, at noon, carrying my tuxedo in a garment bag, I showed up at the Excelsior. It was indicative of Eddie’s world-view that he lived here, an expensive, garish yet ordinary sixties apartment building with –in the lobby- tear-drop chandeliers and gold-flecked mirrors. Right out of Miami Beach, down to the fountain in the circular driveway.
There was a guy in a chauffeur’s cap, standing by a white Cadillac limousine, a Coupe deVille. As I approached he called to me.
“You the piano player?”
“Eddie’ll be down in a couple minutes. We’re waiting here. Whadja say your name was?”
“You can call me Paladin,” I said. In those days I had a smart mouth,
which served me well with the comics in the Improv.
“C’mon, John, we all know you.” This came from inside the limo,
I turned to where the voice had come from and saw a shaved-headatop a bright, toothy grin. He looked like Lex Luthor. It was Danny Davis, whom I knew from the Improv, a not-very-funny comedy writer for whom I had little affection. Danny had once heckled a brilliant comic, Jackie Gayle, off the stage. I had never forgiven him for this. I had no idea what he was doing in the back of Eddie’s car.
“John Meyer, we call him ‘Knuckles’,” Danny shouted gleefully, pleased to have someone from his own milieu (he thought) to heckle, throw lines at. “He likes to play in the cracks. This is Bernie.”
“Hiyuh,’ said Bernie, without taking his hands from his pockets. I noticed Bernie had several teeth missing. “Eddie ‘n me were in the army together.”
I had barely started speculating about this when Eddie appeared from the depths of the Excelsior lobby, a garment bag over his arm.
“Hey,” he barked, by way of greeting. Danny got out of the backseat and made a couple of mock-boxing moves, feinting, weaving and holding his arms defensively in front of him.
Eddie punched him affectionately on the shoulder. “You fuckin’ idiot, how are ya?”
I could see what the tenor of this ride was going to be. Comedy-jock. All the way to Wilkes-Barre, a four hour trip. The male bonding ritual continued as Eddie puffed his way into the back seat. If he’d had to climb a fight of stairs, he would’ve needed an oxygen tank.
The rear window was down, perhaps a third of the way. As Bernie passed outside, in a quick, furtive move he looked both ways, unzipped his fly, pulled out his penis, and, standing on tip-toe, pushed it through the window towards Eddie’s face in the backseat.
I couldn’t accept what my eyes were seeing.
Eddie gave a walrus snort –something between a grunt and a guffaw- and reached over to buzz up the window, hoping to trap Bernie’s flaccid member. Since the ignition was off, this retaliatory move was a failure.
Everyone had a laugh over this except me. But as I shook my head in disbelief, I had to smile at the sheer grossness of it. Some things are so stupid you either have to laugh or kill yourself. The guys of course, thought I was joining in their camaraderie.
I always felt like a pretender when I had to adopt the tone of a conversation or an emotional environment that I didn’t really feel, like this comedy-jocko grossness. Would I have to keep up this pretense for the whole trip?
“Hey, Eddie, d’ja hear the one about the Polack rapist?” This was Bernie, doing seventy-five mph along the Jersey Turnpike.
“No, what?” said Eddie, and then in a quick aside to Danny: “Yeah, I heard it, but I wanna hear Bernie tell it—“
Danny gave Eddie’s arm an intimate squeeze.
“This dumb schmuck Polack is inna police line-up. He’s there on a rape charge, tried to rape some chick, y’know?. So he’s there with a dozen other guys, the other suspects, y’ know, for the chick to identify, and they bring the chick in, and this dumb Polack—“ Bernie was chortling through his spittle- “this dumb Polack sonofabitch, he points at the chick and he says, ‘That’s her.’”
We all pretended to laugh, even Danny, who considered jokes and the entire comedy arena his private preserve. He had adopted the comedy maven’s habit of never laughing. Instead he’d nod sagely. “That’s funny,” he’d say, turning the corners of his mouth down judiciously, “Oh, that’s funny.”
Hours later, Bernie turned off rte 80 and slowed for the toll. In the lane to our left, a very attractive blonde sat in a Mustang convertible with the top down. She was wearing a Spandex top, no sleeves…and she looked hot.
Eddie saw her, and nudged Danny. “Danny.” he said, and thrust his chin in the direction of the window.
Danny took a look and buzzed down the glass. Kneeling on the floor, he called to the woman in the Mustang. “Hey, Miss—“ he shouted, “Miss: how would you like to be Eddie Corman’s guest for his performance tonight at the Holiday Inn, Wilkes-Barre?”
The woman leaned towards the passenger side of her car. “What?” Danny repeated his invitation, this time including the phrase, “nationally acclaimed TV personality”.
The woman was more gracious than she needed to be, having been propositioned like this. She smiled, waved, and drove off. Danny turned to Eddie with a helpless grin. “We struck out”, he explained.
“Y’mean you struck out,” said Eddie, without smiling. He angled his body away from Danny in an attitude of displeasure and dismissal. Danny was definitely in the doghouse now.
I, of course, was delighted. Of all the piggish behavior. I decided to rub salt in the wound.
“Do you have much success with this method of recruiting?” I said to Danny.
“Ooh,,.a five dollar word,” Danny riposted, evading an answer. “Where’d you learn that one? One of your fancy schools?”
“I mean, if I were a blonde in a convertible—“
Eddie gave me a look. “Yeah, well, you’re not.”
The subject was definitely closed.
At check-in, Eddie was met by the assistant manager, a Mr. Apthwaite. Apthwaite was small and detail oriented, rather like the actor Bob Balaban. He wore a dark suit with his name on a badge on his lapel.
“Welcome, welcome, Mister Corman, Mr. LoMonaco is so pleased to have you at his hotel. I’m the assistant manager. Your room is all ready for you and your staff, your associates. If you’ll follow me…”
He led us into an elevator, down a carpeted hall, and into a Suite, room 214. There was a living room with a couch and a coffee table and a bedroom with a shiny, maroon quilted bedspread. And thick, thick drapes, also maroon. Danny, who was carrying Eddie’s garment bag, hung it carefully in the living room closet.
“You’re all welcome to dine in our King Arthur room,” said the diminutive manager. ”I would suggest you visit the room in the next half hour or so, before it fills up. We’re expecting quite a crowd for your show.”
It was now five-fifteen. The show was scheduled for seven-thirty. Right, I thought, we are in the Boonies here.
“I’m gonna lie down for a few minutes,” Eddie told us. “I’ll see you guys downstairs. We’ll eat at six.”
I almost said, Aye aye, sir. But I headed obediently to the door, waiting -out of some misguided politesse- for the others. Danny followed me, but Bernie hung back.
“I’ll be down in a minute,” Bernie said.
As Danny and I rode to the lobby, I said to him, “Bernie and Eddie seem to have a special relationship.”
“Yeah, they go back a long ways.”
“Does Bernie keep Eddie warm on those co-wo-old winter nights?”
“That’s not funny, you putz.”
“What war were they in, anyway?”
“They weren’t in any war, jerk. They were in the peacetime Merchant Marine.”
“I’ll bet they never left the Brooklyn Navy Yard.”
“I think they were stationed in Norfolk, Virginia.”
“Well, Danny,” I said expansively, putting my hand on his shoulder, “as General Sherman once said…” I paused. Danny looked at me expectantly. When I let the pause lengthen, Danny said, “What? What did General Sherman say?”
“He said: ‘I can resist everything except temptation.’”
The King Arthur room lived up to its name. Plastic shields hung on the walls featuring a plumed, silver helmet above a pair of crossed swords. The crest said Dieu et mon droit. in raised plastic lettering. The menu was printed in Olde English script, with each selection named for a different Knight of the Round Table. The roast beef was Sir Lancelot’s Cut and for dessert there was Lady Guinevere’s Bread Pudding. The wallpaper was red, with a fleur-de-lys motif running through it. I made an effort to keep a straight face, because I sensed that allowing even a speck of ridicule to surface would jeopardize my standing with Eddie. And I didn’t want to blow my chance to do a few more two-fifty gigs.
Eddie had the Sir Gawain roast beef, a double-thick cut, (Joust-size) served from a scratched silver trolley, the kind where the lid rolls up to reveal the entire haunch. As Eddie dug in, my mind flashed on Charles Laughton as Henry the Eighth. It wouldn’t have surprised me to find a large mastiff prowling beneath the table.
Watching Eddie eat was not pretty. Let me just say that he had to tuck a napkin under his chin to avoid anointing himself in beef blood.
Halfway through our meal, Apthwaite came to the table. “Are you gentlemen enjoying your dinner?”
Eddie, mouth full, waved appreciatively.
“Oh, and Mr. Corman, there’s a young lady waiting in the lobby. She says she has an appointment with you.”
Eddie looked up, quizzically. “Yeah? What’s her name?”
“She wouldn’t tell me. She said she had to speak to you.”
“No kiddin’?” Eddie rose from the table and began heading out. Danny gestured to his throat. “Napkin,” he said. Eddie snatched the napkin from his collar and threw it on the floor.
The three of us looked at each other with raised eyebrows.
Eddie did not bother with dessert or coffee and did not return to the table. About ten of seven Danny and I went to the lobby and saw him in deep conversation with the most stunning woman. She was a bit taller than Eddie, perhaps five foot ten, the word that came to my mind was ‘statuesque’. Shoulder-length brunette hair and a black, ribbed knit dress, belted at the waist that gave the promise of a juicy bosom. Her only jewelry was a thin silver bracelet, a subdued pair of earrings and a rectangular tank watch, from Cartier.
This lady was a most enticing, classy package.
I approached the two of them, ostensibly to discuss any last-minute musical notes, but actually to get a closer look at this vision. However, when I was about five feet from them, Eddie put out a restraining hand.
“I’ll see ya onstage,” he said.
For the next twenty minutes I wandered outside, brooding about the perks of celebrity. God. If you were a celeb, I ruminated bitterly, even if you were the grossest, most tasteless piece of drek –as I believed Eddie was- you could still attract a woman like this. In fact, she had sought him out, checked the Holiday Inn entertainment schedule and made sure she found him.
Probably a singer, I speculated, who’d like to open for him, or maybe a fledgling PR person who wants to represent him. She’s gotta have some objective, she’s not tracking him down because he’s Robert Redford.
As I took my position on the piano-bench I could observe her clearly. Eddie had placed her in a place of honor, by herself at a ringside table for eight! With a full bottle of J&B (his idea of class) in the center of the gleaming white tablecloth. Yeah, sure, whatever you want, drink the whole bottle, we spare no expense. Not for a girl like you.
I watched her throughout the show. After all, I had nothing to do for fifty- five minutes till the finish of his act. This is me in Bermuda. Click. This is my wife, ignoring my cries for help. Click, click, click. It was a clever piece, I wondered who’d written it. Not Danny, I was sure. It was too good to be Danny’s.
Delilah seemed to be amused (I’d christened her Delilah). Her lips were set in a constant grin. Once in a while she’d bend forward in laughter, clapping her hands together. Oh, Eddie, you imp. How can anyone be so funny? Listen to them, you’ve got ‘em eating out of your hand.
The audience was, indeed, eating him up. There were middle-aged ladies in the audience…in house-dresses! With their hair from the afternoon, still in curlers, a bandanna tied around their head! Unbelievable. And they’d brought their kids and their grandchildren, eight year olds, twelve year olds, to see the TV star, the guy they’d seen on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town! Look, Mikey, there he is! Remember the funny man on TV?
“HIS TRUTH GOES MARCHING ON” and the loud, genuine applause, Thank you, thank you so much, you’ve been a wonderful audience, and at the keyboard I’m repeating Battle Hymn of the Republic as play-off music, over and over, six times till the clapping dies and the excited after-show buzz fills the room: Mikey, keep the menu, we’ll get him to sign it, would you like that? Sure he will, they told us we could see him in the lobby.
I saw Eddie in the lobby a few minutes later. He was signing the kids’ menus, but looking over their heads for something. He’d take a menu, glance down, then look up and crane his neck around, seeming to search for…guess what.
I went into the bar, where Danny and Bernie were sitting on stools, having a drink.
“We gonna get going, or what?”
Danny motioned me to a stool. “Soon as Eddie’s ready.” he said. And when is that likely to be? I asked, mentally. I ordered a cranberry juice.
Suddenly Eddie materialized beside us. “Hey, any of you guys seen Monica?”
“Which one is Monica?” I asked, knowing there was only one person she could be, and dreading the thought of having to wait around for Eddie to get it on with her before we made the four-hour return trip.
“You know, the chick. The one I was talkin’ to before the show.”
“Shit, no, Eddie,” I said, “you wouldn’t even introduce us—” Danny shifted uncomfortably on his bar-stool. “Wasn’t she, di’n you put her at a table?”
“Yeah. Never mind.” And Eddie scooted out again, towards the lobby, moving as fast as I’d ever seen him move. In the next ten minutes I saw his corpulent, sweaty form cross in front of the lounge door three or four times.
Bernie lifted his head from his drink. “What’s goin’ on?” I slid off my stool and, carrying my glass, went to the door. Two minutes later Eddie came round again. I didn’t have to say anything, he came right up to me.
“You guys just wait in there while I get this thing organized.”
“What’s the story?” I prompted him.
“Well, y’know, we had, we made an appointment…” he looked like a little kid who’s lost his shovel.
“Like a date?”
“Well, y’know, after the show and all. We were s’posed to meet right here, in the lobby, after I did the autographs. But…”
But. But he couldn’t find her, that was the But. Disappearing Monica.
He spent another twenty minutes searching for her. Finally he appeared in the bar carrying his garment bag. “OK, let’s go,” he ordered brusquely. He was not happy.
Nobody said anything as we walked to the parking lot, Eddie’s frustration having sealed our mouths. Bernie unlocked the car, popped the back open, and I laid my tuxedo on the floor of the trunk. Then I opened the rear passenger door and got in. Bernie turned the key and the Coupe DeVille was purring smoothly into action when behind us we heard a voice:
“Mr. Corman, Mr. Corman—just a minute—” It was Apthwaite, the assistant manager, his thinning hair waffling in the autumn breeze. “Mr. Corman, I just have a few questions for you—”
Eddie flung open the door. I could see he was still in a state of puzzled agitation. Apthwaite, when he spoke, was extremely animated.
“Mr. Corman, everyone is still laughing from your wonderful show. We’ve had nothing but positive reaction, and I hope you’ll be able to come back to us next year.”
“Yuh,” said Eddie, ever gracious.
“I wanted to make sure everything went well. How was your room?”
“Yeah, yeah, fine.”
“And your dinner? Anything you’d like to see on the menu, perhaps, that we could provide next year?”
“No, Yeh, yeh, i’ was good, very good.”
“And the young lady. Did that work out okay?”
Eddie frowned. “What young lady?” Then a light of recognition broke over his face. “You mean Monica?”
Apthwaite gave a noncommittal smile. “I mean the young lady.” he repeated, with mysterious emphasis.
Eddie, guileless, launched into a complaint. “Well, yeah, no, I mean, we were supposed to…she was supposed to, uh, meet me, but, you know, afterwards I co’ont find her. We never connected.”
“Is that so?” Apthwaite responded with a slight frown. “Mr. LoMonaco will be very distressed to hear that.” A beat. “I’m sorry.” He took a step back. “Well, have a safe trip home.”
He closed the door gently but firmly. Bernie put the car in Drive and pulled out of the parking lot…as my mind whirred with absolute astonishment.
Sonofabitch. The gorgeous brunette was a working girl, set up by management for Eddie’s pleasure. But on meeting him, he grossed her out so much that she split! Couldn’t go through with it, not even for the hefty fee LoMonaco had obviously guaranteed her. Wow. Wait’ll I tell the gang at the Improv, I thought; Eddie Corman is so gross he can’t even get laid by a hooker!
“Oh, Eddie, oh, Eddie” I crooned, next to him in the back seat. “Wait’ll the guys hear this.” I knew I was cutting my throat in terms of future jobs with him, but I couldn’t stop myself, I was chortling with glee. “That girl was a hooker. And you were so protective, you wouldn’t introduce any of us –man, she woulda taken us all on. Except you!”
I was breaking up. Danny was in the middle –in more ways than one. Sitting between me and the comic, wanting to join in the ridicule, but restrained by his allegiance to Eddie.
“What’s the joke?” Bernie leaned to his right to hear better.
“That great-looking brunette that said she had an appointment with—” But Eddie broke in. “Ahright, that’s enough, Knuckles. Skip it.”
When he called me Knuckles, I knew I’d had it. I wouldn’t be doing any more gigs for Eddie playing Battle Hymn of the Republic. But this story was beyond the two-fifty, in fact it was priceless.
In fact, Eddie never paid me the two-fifty. He kept saying his accountant was getting to it, getting to it, but the check never arrived. After six months or so, I even contemplated taking him to small claims court, or writing to his union, or his agent, but…well, you know how that goes. The time went by and I forgot about it. And so you could say Eddie got his revenge for my ridiculing him.
But a year or so later, I saw him in a restaurant, the Brasserie on East 53rd street. He was in a booth for four, his wife and another couple. Obviously, to look at her, he was still on his first wife. In a word, Dumpy. Mousy brown hair and a body like his, corpulent.
Seeing him there, about to start spilling gravy on himself, the old grievance returned. “Eddie!” I called, with false bonhomie, “how the hell are ya?” I left my table and crossed to where he was sitting. Eddie was forced to introduce me.
“Dis is my wife, Ceil, and this is Mr. and Mrs. Steinmann, John Meyer.”
I smiled a brief acknowledgment. “Eddie and I did a club date in Wilkes-Barre once upon a time. In fact Eddie, you still owe me for that date, you know? I never got that check you kept promising.”
There was a silence. Then he said, “I paid you.”
“No, you didn’t, Eddie.” The silence continued. I let it hang in the air
as long as I could. Nobody said a word. Finally, I said, “I’ll invoice you again, Ed. You’re still at The Excelsior?”
Again, Eddie made no reply. Then Mr. Steinmann said, “Yes, John, he’s still at the same address.”
“Right,” I said, and then, to the Steinmanns, “Nice to’ve met you.” And I went back to my table.
Minutes later, Eddie approached me. “That wasn’t nice, John. Embarrass me in front of my friends.”
“So pay your bills, Ed, and this kind’ve thing won’t happen.” Eddie shifted his gaze from side to side, as if concerned he might be overheard.
“Y’know,” he said in a soft voice, “ I could have a friend of mine take a look at you.”
I knew what he meant, one of his unsavory connections; but I also knew this was an empty threat. It wasn’t Eddie’s style, he was…a bumbler.
But something in me couldn’t let him have the last word.
“Eddie, I just want to know one thing: have you found a girl yet who’ll take your money?”
He turned and went back to his table. I like to imagine he might finally have seen the humor in the Wilkes-Barre incident.
But I don’t believe he ever did.