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!”

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