Friday, November 5, 2021

 Musicians and Eddie Cantor

One topic that my grandfather Ralph wasn’t reluctant to tell me about was the night clubs that he and Uncle Al owned, and the famous singers and musicians who performed in those clubs, especially the Cotton Club in Cicero, Illinois.
It was like a who’s who in entertainment in those years, and for many subsequent decades:  
Duke Ellington, Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Fats Waller, Ethel Waters, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Mae West, Harry Richmond….the list goes on.
I reminded Ralph of the night we went to the Chez Paree, the most famous night club in Chicago from 1932 to 1960, to see Nat King Cole perform.  I think it was on my sixteenth birthday.  I Ioved his voice and the way he played the piano. I was so  thrilled when he came to our table after his act, and shook hands with Ralph, followed by a hug.  Ralph introduced me, and he sat down and chatted with us for couple of minutes.  Then he  invited us to come back stage.  While showing us around he told me that my grandfather and Uncle Al gave him his start in show business, as they did a lot of other black entertainers, and that he would be forever grateful to them.
In those days some gangs would extort money from the entertainers.  They would threaten to break their legs or even kill them unless they gave the thugs thousands of dollars.
At this point Maffie jumped in to tell what she said was her favorite about this extortion racket:
“One evening when Eddie Cantor, one of the top entertainers in the country , was starring in Ziegfield’s musical comedy hit, “Whoopee,”  at the Illinois Theater in Chicago, he heard a knock on the door of his hotel room just before he was about to leave for the theater.  When he opened the door he was confronted by two big, burly men.  They pushed their way into the room as Cantor back peddled asking what they wanted.
One of the big apes said, “We’re with Al Capone’s mob.  He sent us here to tell you to bring twenty five grand to your dressing room Thursday night.  We’ll pick it up at 7:30.  If you don’t have the money waiting for us, it’s going to be really bad for your health.”
When they left Eddie sat down for a moment, and he was shaking like a leaf, thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’  Suddenly, he jumped up, grabbed his coat, and rushed to the Illinois Theater.  When he got there he told the company manager that he needed the New York backers of the show to send him an advance of $25,000. – Immediately!   And he said to call them right away and tell them that he had to have it by Thursday. No later!  The company manager asked why, but Cantor shouted, “Never mind!  Just call them!”
At that moment the house manager, Rollo Timponi, approached them and said, ““What’s going on here?”  When the comedian told him what had happened, Timponi said, “Don’t make that phone call.  I’ll handle this.”  Then he said, “Mr. Cantor, don’t worry about this, just go back and get dressed for the show.”
Timponi waited until Cantor bounded out onto the stage with the chorus girls, and then he picked up the phone.
At this point Ralph took over telling the story.
“Rollo called me on my private number and explained the situation.  I told him I’d be in his office at the theater in less than twenty minutes.  I grabbed Jack McGurn who was reporting to me on another matter, and said, ‘Come on, I’ve got job for you.’
We arrived at the Illinois Theater, which was only a few blocks away, in fifteen minutes. I talked with Rollo for a minute or so, and we headed to Cantor’s dressing room, where he was dressing for the second act. I told McGurn to wait in the hallway, and Timponi knocked on the door and brought me into the room and said, ‘Eddie, I’ve got someone I want you to meet.’
I reached out and shook hands with him and said,’ I’m Ralph Capone. (I couldn’t believe how small he was. I’m about 6’2” and his head only came up to my chest.)  I asked him to tell me about the men who came to see him at his hotel that night.  So he told me what happened.
I told him, ‘Eddie, those men are not connected with my brother.  They’re just pretending to work for him to in order to scare you.  You have nothing to fear.  Just go along with us and we’ll help you.  Is it a deal?
Cantor breathed a sigh of relief and, and said, ‘Absolutely!’
Then I opened the door and motioned for McGurn to come in.  Deirdre, you remember meeting Jack when you were a kid, don’t you?  I nodded, and Ralph added, ‘Then you remember he was a big kind of a dapper looking man, but he was also about the toughest guy you’d ever want to meet.
I said, ‘Eddie, this is Jack McGurn.  He’ll stay here tonight and take you back to your hotel.  Then he’ll bring you to the theater tomorrow.  He’s gonna be with you every minute.  Just do what he says, and you’ll be safe.  Okay?
Cantor said, ‘whatever you say Mr. Capone.’
So now the little guy had his own personal bodyguard…and though he didn’t know it, probably the best in the world.”
Maffie chimed in and said, “Deirdre, here comes the best part…let me tell it Ralph.”  He nodded, and with raspy half-laugh said ‘Go ahead.’ as he leaned back in his chair and relit his cigar.
Eddie told me later, that he wasn’t too impressed with McGurn at first because he seemed to well-groomed and mannerly to be able to single handedly cope with those thugs.  He would just loaf around his hotel and dressing room and read the paper or racing forms.  And by Thursday night Eddie was a bundle of nerves, and not sure he was going ever be able to perform again.
When it was almost 7:30 he actually jumped when he heard heavy knocking on the door.  McGurn quickly moved behind the door and motioned for Eddie to open it. In walked the big apes.
One  of them growled, “Well, did you get the dough?”
“What dough?” McGurn said calmly.
The two extortionists turned around, and were facing two .45 automatics.
“What dough?”  McGurn  repeated as he glared at them.
The two of them turned white, as they recognized ‘Machine Gun’ Jack McGurn who was a legend in Chicago.
“I ought to take you punks out back and blow your fuckin’ heads off.  But that would cause too much heat. Now listen real good, creeps, the orders from up top are very clear and simple:
Both of you get your asses out of town by 8:00 tomorrow night.  Understood?
The thugs nodded their heads, and quietly said ‘Yes sir.’
McGurn said, ‘Are you packing heat.?’  They shook their heads and raised their arms for a search.  McGurn grunted , and said, ‘You wouldn’t have the guts to go for them if you did!’ ...and with that,  his .45’s vanished in the blink of an eye. He sternly added:  ‘Now get the hell out of here!  And you better hope I never see you again!’
Eddie told me that for the first time in days he could finally relax. Then McGurn turned to him as he was leaving and said:  ‘You won’t have no more trouble with them, Mr. Cantor….or nobody else, for that matter.  The word will spread fast that you’re a friend of Al Capone.  Nice getting to know you.’
Deirdre, that’s why he and all the other leading stage entertainers would appear at the Cotton Club for midnight performances from then on.  And almost immediately extortion plots against entertainers were eliminated.  But just to be on the safe side, Al and Ralph would often provide bodyguards for entertainers, especially black singers and musicians, when they had to travel into or through neighborhoods that weren’t safe for them.”
Virtually every big time entertainer who appeared in Chicago wanted to meet Al Capone and offered to perform at the Cotton Club after their regular gigs at the theaters in downtown Chicago.  They usually weren’t scheduled or advertised, or under contract, but Al would stuff hundred dollar bills in their pockets after nearly every number they did.
They all wanted to be a friend of Al Capone, not only for the protection he provided, but because he loved to party and he charmed the hell out of them.  In addition, as was the case with Nat King Cole, many of the entertainers in Al and Ralph’s clubs were unknown when they started with them but appearing, especially at the Cotton Club helped launch their careers. They were life-changing opportunities!”

Thursday, November 4, 2021

 The following gem is probably my favorite story about Uncle Al:

Uncle Al was convicted of income tax evasion on Saturday October 24, 1931and sentenced to eleven years in prison.  He was then sent to Cook County Jail in Chicago, pending appeals.
He is still in that jail on March 1, 1932 when the entire nation reacts with horror and fascination to the kidnapping of the infant son of Charles Lindbergh, an American hero.  Lindbergh had been celebrated both home and abroad for his prowess and daring since his solo transatlantic flight five years before….the first person to accomplish such a feat.
Word gets out that Al Capone, who considered kidnapping a child to be about the worst crime imaginable, is willing to help the authorities in any way he can to bring the baby home safely.
Arthur Brisbane, a famous writer who was described by William Randolph Hearst as the greatest journalist of his day, asks to interview Al Capone in Cook County Jail.  Although Al had been misquoted many times, he reluctantly agrees to the interview which was later printed nation-wide, on one condition: a trusted friend of his, who is well respected in the community must also be present for the interview.
Al’s friend greets Brisbane when he detrains from the Twentieth Century Limited a few days later. On the way to the County Jail, the sharp-eyed, elderly editor asks many questions about Capone.  He was astonished to hear that there was no discernible element of fear in the allegiance of his followers.
“That is most interesting,” says Brisbane.  The idea prevails that he rules by brutality and money.”
“He would never have survived by those methods,” says Al’s friend.  “There are men in his organization who are much more vicious than he.  They are ex-convict murderers, gun bandits, confidence men, burglars, automobile thieves and professional terrorists.  They submit to his superior mentality and they believe he deals fairly.”
At the County Jail, Assistant Warden John Dohmann conducts the two men to Al’s quarters where the federal marshal on guard authorizes their admission through the steel-barred door into the ward. Al rises from a table and comes forward with a smile.  Brisbane extends his hand and says:  “I’m glad to meet you, Mr. Capone.”
Here is Brisbane’s article verbatim:
“Capone’s greeting was: ‘How are you?  Is there any news?”  He meant about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.
“For an hour the talk was of little except the child, and on that subject what Capone said will be given as nearly as possible in his own words.
“I don’t want any favors if I am able to do anything for that baby.  If they will let me out of here I will give any bond they require….I will spend every hour of the night and day with Thomas Callaghan, head of the United States Secret Service.  The government knows that it can trust him, I think.  And I will send my younger brother to stay here in jail until I come back.’
“….Capone continued:  ‘What could I do if I were out?  Let them give me a chance to show what I could do. I have a good many angles, and anybody that knows anything would know that he could trust me.  There isn’t a mob that wouldn’t trust me to pay that money, if the relations of the kidnapped child wanted me to pay it, and there isn’t anybody that would think I would tell where I got the child, or how I got it and had it.
“’Can I find it?  How do I know?’  He pointed to a big pile of letters on his table, all addressed to him, all opened before he got it.
“’They don’t do that for everybody but they do it for me.  You can’t expect anybody to send a letter to me here.  But if I were out it wouldn’t take long for anybody that has information to get at me.  I am easy to find and to recognize.
“’……I would soon know whether the child is in the possession of any mob that I can contact with, or in the possession of an individual working his own racket that would have sense enough to know that he could trust me, and that it might not be a bad idea to do me a good turn.
“’I want to repeat, I don’t ask any favors, don’t want any gratitude or anything else in case I can be of use. I can imagine how Colonel Lindbergh feels.’
“He pointed to a picture of his young son framed in his cell.
“’ It would be hard for anybody, any man that found the man that stole that baby not to take a crack at him.  But I would give my word through my different angles, as I give it now, and nobody would be afraid to trust me.  If it turned out that I couldn’t be of any use, and of course that is likely enough, then I could come back here and take my brother’s place and just let justice go on with her racket.’
“Capone went into some detail, but not for publication, as to the methods he would adopt to get information of the baby’s whereabouts and knowledge of those who are withholding it from its mother.
“His power in whatever he undertakes is known to many.
“I have been informed by an unimpeachable source of instances in Capone’s career indicating that the wise members of any ‘mob’ would oblige Capone if they could, and not ignore any reasonable argument or request that he might advance.
“……Whether it would be possible to give Capone a chance to try putting up a large sum in the way of a bond, putting his brother in a prison cell as a guarantee of his return, and taking a secret service man with him, the government must decide.
“……This writer believes that whether he succeeded or failed, Capone would return.
“Some perhaps would say: ‘Since you spent an hour with Alphonse Capone, tell us what he looks like.’
“He is of the average height, enormously broad shouldered.  His head is of the brachycephalic type, almost round, very wide from ear to ear.  He wore a suit of plain, dark blue flannel with a tan colored shirt, collar attached, no tie.  His hands are big and powerful, the muscles of his upper arm bulge through the soft flannel.  His feet are small, shoes pointed and ornamented with many holes pierced in the leather.
“His eyebrows, heavy and black, meet below his forehead.  The eyes beneath them you would not soon forget.  They are small, round, a greenish gray.  He does not actually look big and he is not fat.  When you ask him how much he weighs, he replies, ‘Two hundred and forty pounds----two ounces less than a horse,’ and laughs.
You do not see the real Capone in a prison cell.  As well expect to see a real tiger after it is caught in a trap. But caught, Capone keeps his wits about him and is constantly thinking.
“An associate of mine who knows him as well as anybody outside his organization, says Capone has a violent temper; in a rage he raves and storms, his eyes blaze.  But he never does anything while he is angry.  He sits down until he is calm, then he gives his orders.
“Capone does not make any secret of his business.  ‘I am in the booze business,’ says he.  ‘I handle beer, and beer never did anybody any harm.  Everybody is a bootlegger nowadays, either selling it or buying it.  The man that buys it violates the law as much as the man that sells it and has not as good an excuse.’
“Capone also feels that the government insisting on sharing the bootlegger’s profits in the way of income tax is something of a law breaker on its own account.  ‘It is as though the government demanded its percentage of the bank burglar’s haul.’
Capone is convinced that he is a young man who has worked his way upwards against odds and has been harshly treated.  ….’When I came to Chicago eleven years ago I only had $40 in my pocket.  I went into a business that was open and didn’t do anybody any harm.  They talk about the unemployed.  I have given work to the unemployed.  At least 300 young men, thanks to me, are getting $150 to $200 a week, and are making it in the harmless beer racket, which is better than their jobs before.  I have given work that has taken many a man out of the holdup and bank robbery business and others worse…. They couldn’t get $30 a week in any legitimate racket.  What do you think they would do?  Go on the streets and starve?  No.’
“…….The treatment that he has received puzzles Capone.  I have always been a Republican, and my young men are 100 percent Republicans but we don’t ask for any profit out of politics.  That isn’t our racket.’

Citizens of Chicago who are interested in Capone’s appearance of unusual power should go to the Art Museum on Michigan Boulevard and look at the equestrian statue of Colleoni by Verrochio, finest equestrian statue in the world.
Colleoni, greatest of Italy’s Condottieri, had powerful shoulders like Capone’s with a neck and a head like his.  If Colleoni and Capone had changed places in history, Capone might be riding a bronze horse in Venice today and Colleoni who fought for and against this city and that, and finally left his great fortune to Venice, might be sitting now in the jail on the West Side.
“…….A prominent Chicago hotel man tells you that three more speakeasies have just opened close to his big hotel for the convenience of hotel guests, making competition more keen.
“No wonder Capone says, ‘If I am a bootlegger, so are they all.’”
The day after Brisbane’s story appeared, another great news commentator, Will Rogers, dashed off one of his inimitable terse reviews.  It read:
Two weeks ago I talked for two hours with Al Capone.  That raises Mr. Brisbane one hour.  He told me all he told Mr. Brisbane and more.
“But there is absolutely no way I could write it and not make a hero out of Capone, and even as superb a writer as Mr. Brisbane couldn’t, either.  Everybody you talk to would rather hear about Capone than anybody you ever met.
“What’s the matter with an age when our biggest gangster is our greatest national interest?  It is partly the government’s fault for not convicting him of some real crime.  Now will somebody please suggest what to do with the story I got bottled up in me and be fair with everybody?”
After he left the jail that day Brisbane remained for some time under the spell of Capone’s forceful personality.  He was quoted as saying:
“I have talked with royalty, statesmen, and leaders in every field of human activity.  I have never had as interesting an hour with anybody.  The man is amazing!”
When Arthur Brisbane died on December 25, 1936, world famous writer Damon Runyon said:  “Journalism has lost its all-time No.1 genius.”