Budd Friedman hired me to play piano at The Improv. He liked the fact that I could put musical shtick into the comic’s acts: chase music, for instance, or space music for Lenny Schultz, who did an Astronaut routine.
One night Jackie Vernon came in. He was rising fast, had done five or six shots on the Ed Sullivan show and was way beyond most of the struggling guys who made the Improv their second home. He got onstage and did his Photo-Carousel routine: “This is me on the beach at Bermuda.” Click. He had a clicking tin cricket that he’d point into the audience. “This is me 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 (“I did what?”) and he gets to the finish and turns to me, behind him: “When I say, ‘and that was the last we ever saw of him’ give me Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
He shrugged. This happened all too often, amateur guys would show up without knowing their keys and I’d have to wing it. I did some hasty figuring: from the timbre of his voice, I hear that he’s a baritone and his top note probably won’t be above a C. If the peak of the song sits around a B, this would dictate the key of G.
I played it in G, and Jackie – not a singer by any means – actually sounded good. This surprised him. He got a nice hand and stepped off the stage with a big smile.
A few minutes later I went to the bar and he comes up. “Hey, Knuckles, c’mere, I wanna talk to you.” Calling me Knuckles is his mode of affectionate kidding.
“Jackie, you killed, absolutely killed.” Even though I was put off by his grossness, I had to hand it to him, he was good. But as we started talking, I saw him pick his nose and then roll the booger between his thumb and forefinger.
“John, I’m lookin’ for someone to conduct. You wanna go to Vegas with me?” Whoa, I thought, this could mean real money. The only problem was, I’d never learned to conduct. “You mean lead a band? Ten or twelve men?”
“Whatever. However many you need.”
“Oh, Jackie, I’m sorry, I’d love to, but I don’t conduct – I just play.”
He nodded impatiently. “Awright,” 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?” I asked, afraid I might actually have to read some music.
“Nah, just Battle Hymn of the Republic, like we did tonight. Bring your tux. I’ll give you two-fifty.”
Now in 1967, two-fifty was like fifteen hundred dollars.
“Yeah, OK, that sounds good. If Budd will let me get a sub for here.”
“Work it out, willya?” Jackie said. “We’ll be leavin’ from my place, the Excelsior, east Fifty-Seventh. At noon, OK?”
I spoke to Budd and he let me off for the Saturday, so, carrying my tuxedo in a garment bag, I showed up at the Excelsior. Of course Jackie would live here, in this garish, sixties Miami Beach-ish apartment building with a lobby full of tear-drop chandeliers and gold-flecked mirrors. And a fountain in the circular driveway.
A guy in a chauffeur’s cap stood by a white Cadillac limo, a coupe de Ville. “You the piano player?” he called to me.
“Jackie’ll be down in a couple minutes. We’re waiting here. Whadja say your name was?”
“You can call me Paladin.” I said. At this a voice came from inside the limo: “C’mon, John, we all know you.” I turned and saw a shaved head atop a toothy grin. It was Danny Davis, a not-too-funny comedy writer for whom I had little affection. One night at the Improv he had heckled a brilliant comic, Jackie Gayle, off the stage. I’d never forgiven him for this.
“John Meyer, we call him Knuckles.” Danny shouted gleefully, pleased to have someone from his milieu along for the ride. “He likes to play in the cracks, right, Knuckles? This is Bernie.”
“Hiyuh,” said Bernie, without taking his hands from his pockets. I noticed Bernie was missing a few teeth. “Me ‘n Jackie were in the army together.” On whose side, I wondered, as Jackie appeared from the depths of the Excelsior lobby. He carried a garment bag over his arm.
“Hey,” he barked to me, by way of greeting. Danny got out of the backseat and did a couple of mock boxing moves, feinting, weaving, his hands raised defensively in front of his face. Jackie punched him affectionately on the shoulder. “You idiot prick, 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 rituals continued as Jackie puffed his way into the limo. The rear window to Jackie’s left was down perhaps three inches.
As Bernie came round the back of the car, he looked to his right, his left, and then, in a quick, furtive move, unzipped his fly, pulled out his penis, and -standing on tip-toe – stuck it through the top of the window towards Jackie’s face.
Jackie gave a walrus snort and pushed the window button, hoping to trap Bernie’s flaccid member, but the ignition was off, so this retaliatory move failed.
Everyone had a big laugh over this except me. I was shaking my head in disbelief, amazed by the sheer grossness of it. Some things are so unbelievable you either have to laugh – or go blind. The guys, of course, thought I was joining in their camaraderie. I should get another two-fifty, I ruminated, for putting up with this childishness. I could feel my own hopelessness building at the realization that I was going to have to join in their kindergarten antics.
“Hey, Jackie, d’ja hear the one about the Polack rapist?” This was Bernie, doing seventy-five mph along the New Jersey Turnpike.
“No, what?” said Jackie, and then in a quick aside to Danny: “Yeah, I heard it, but I wanna hear Bernie tell it—“
“This dumb schmuck Polack is inna police line-up,” Bernie continued. “He’s there on a rape charge, tried to rape some chick, y’know? So he’s there on the platform 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 started chortling. “- this dumb Pollock sonofabitch, he points at the chick and he says, ‘Yeah, that’s her’.”
We all pretended to laugh, even Danny, who considered jokes and all comedy his private preserve. He had adopted the comedy maven’s habit of never laughing at prepared humor. He would nod sagely, moving his head up and down. “That’s funny,” he’d say, turning the corners of his mouth down judiciously, “Oh, that’s funny.”
Hours later, Bernie turned off the turnpike and slowed for the toll. In the lane to our left an attractive blonde sat in a Mustang convertible with the top down. She was wearing a maroon spandex top with no sleeves and she looked hot. Jackie nudged Danny. “Go,” 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 of the backseat, he called to the girl in the Mustang: “Hey Miss—“ he shouted, “Miss, how would you like to be Jackie Vernon’s guest for his performance tonight at the Holiday Inn, Wilkes-Barre?” I saw now why Jackie brought Danny along.
The girl leaned towards the passenger side of her car. “What?” Danny repeated his invitation, this time adding the phrase, “Nationally acclaimed TV personality.”
The girl waved dismissively and drove off. Danny turned to Jackie with a shrug. “We struck out.” he explained.
“Y’mean you struck out.” said Jackie, with a smile, but I could tell he was really pissed. But me, I was delighted. I tried to rub salt in the wound. I turned to Danny. “You have much success with this method of recruiting?”
“Ooh, a five dollar word,” Danny riposted, evading any answer. “Where’d you learn that, one of your fancy schools?”
“I mean, if I were a blonde in a convertible—“ Jackie gave me a look. “Yeah, well you’re not.” The subject was definitely closed.
The sign outside the Wilkes-Barre Holiday Inn was a glaring white, with black letters. It read: “Tonight: Nationally acclaimed TV star JACKIE VERNON.”
Checking in, our party was met by a Mr. Apthwaite, the assistant manager. He wore a dark suit with a lapel badge and was very conscious he was dealing with a celebrity. “Welcome, welcome, Mr. Vernon, we’re so pleased to have you here. Mr. Lomonaco has a room all ready for you and your staff. 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 coffee table…and a bedroom with a quilted bedspread and thick, thick drapes.
Danny hung Jackie’s garment bag carefully in the bedroom 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.
“I’m gonna lie down for a few minutes,” Jackie told us. “I’ll see you guys downstairs. We’ll eat at six.”
I almost said Aye aye, sir, but I headed, with Danny, obediently to the door. Bernie hung back. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
As Danny and I rode to the lobby, I said “Bernie and Jackie seem to have a very special relationship.”
“Yeah, they go back a long ways.”
“Does Bernie keep Jackie warm on those long winter nights?”
“That’s not funny, you putz.’
“What war were they in, anyway?”
“They weren’t in any war. 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.”
The elevator doors opened. I put a paternal arm around Danny’s shoulder. “Well, Danny,” I murmured, “as General Sherman once said…” I paused. Danny looked at me expectantly. “What?” he asked me. “ What did General Sherman say.”
“He said: ‘I can resist everything except temptation.’” It was petty of me to take my irritation out on Danny. Why couldn’t I just take the money and shutup?
The King Arthur room had shields of silver plastic hung on the walls. The design was a plumed helmet above a brace of crossed swords. Beneath the swords was a ribbon with the legend Dieu et Mon Droit in raised lettering. The menu was printed in Ye Olde English script with each selection named for a different knight of the roundtable. The roast beef was Sir Lancelot’s cut and for dessert there was Morgan Le Fay’s rice pudding. The wallpaper was mock red velvet, with a fleur-de-lys pattern running through it.
I kept a straight face, as I sensed that allowing any speck of ridicule to surface would jeopardize my chances of landing further gigs like this at two-fifty a shot.
Jackie had the Sir Gawain, a double-thick cut of roast beef – joust-size – served from a burnished silver trolley, the kind where the lid rolls up to reveal the entire haunch. As Jackie dug in, I flashed on the image of Charles Laughton as Henry the Eighth.
Watching Jackie 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?” Jackie, mouth full, waved appreciatively.
“Oh, and Mr. Vernon, there’s a young lady waiting in the lobby. She says she has an appointment with you.”
Jackie looked up, quizzically. “Yeah? What’s her name?”
“She wouldn’t tell me. She said she had to speak to you.”
“No kiddin’?” Jackie rose from the table and began heading out. Danny gestured to his throat. “Napkin,” he said. Jackie snatched the napkin from his collar and threw it on the floor.
The three of us looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Jackie 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 Jackie, 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. A most enticing 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, Jackie 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 Jackie 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. Jackie had placed her in a place of honor, by herself at a ringside table for eight! With a full bottle of J&B Scotch (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. 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, Jackie, 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, eleven 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 the 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 said we could see him in the lobby.
I saw Jackie 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…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 Jackie’s ready.” he said. And when is that likely to be? I asked, mentally. I ordered a cranberry juice.
Suddenly Jackie 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 Jackie 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, Jackie,” 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 Jackie 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 go by 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 Jackie 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, Jackie’s frustration having sealed our mouths. Bernie unlocked the car, popped open the back, and I laid my tuxedo on the floor of the trunk. 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. Vernon, Mr. Vernon—just a minute—“ It was Apthwaite, the assistant manager, his thinning hair waffling in the breeze. “Mr. Vernon, I just have a few questions for you—‘
Jackie flung open the door. I could see he was still in a state of puzzled agitation. Apthwaite, when he spoke, was extremely animated. “Mr. Vernon, 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 Jackie, 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?”
Jackie 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. Jackie, 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 coon’t 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 Jackie’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; Jackie Vernon is so gross he can’t even get laid by a hooker!
“Oh, Jackie, oh, Jackie” 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 Jackie.
“What’s the joke?” Bernie leaned to his right to hear better.
“That great-looking brunette that said she had an appointment—“ But Jackie 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 two-fifty gigs for Jackie, playing Battle Hymn of the Republic. But this story was beyond the two-fifty, it was priceless.
In fact, Jackie 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 Jackie 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. “Jackie!” I called, with false bonhomie, “how the hell are ya?” I left my table and crossed to where he was sitting. Jackie was forced to introduce me.
“Dis is my wife, Ceil, and this is Mr. and Mrs. Steinmann, John Meyer.”
I smiled a brief acknowledgment. “Jackie and I did a club date in Wilkes-Barre once upon a time. In fact Jackie, 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, Jackie.” 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. You’re still at The Excelsior?”
Again, Jackie 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, Jackie approached me. “That wasn’t nice, John. Embarrass me in front of my friends.”
“So pay your bills, Jackie, and this kind’ve thing won’t happen.” Jackie 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 Jackie’s style, he was…a bumbler.
But something in me couldn’t let him have the last word.
“Jackie, I just want to know one thing: have you found a girl yet who’d 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.