McCormick Place was where I produced most of my shows in Chicago; you might say it was my bread and butter. My relationship with the managers at McCormick Place, while profitable for both sides, was always a little tense.
Nobody could figure out where I came from. I was running a legitimate business and getting good press and a good reputation. But there was a feeling in the air that I was a little different. Call it paranoia, or call it the vestigial wariness of someone who has grown used to sharing rooms with real police informers.
The Chicago police in the late 1940′s had a Red Squad to keep an eye on the radicals in their jurisdiction, as well they might. If there was going to be an American Revolution, it was obvious to us that the Socialist Workers Party was the vanguard that would lead it. Not only were we the historical heirs of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s Revolution, we had been steeled by our own history. We had helped build the CIO in the thirties, struggled almost alone against the no- strike pledge during the war, and poured a lot of hard work into what was known then as the Negro movement.
We also sang the Internationale in defiant unison, fists raised, at all our party meetings. Every January our Red Chorus sang at a memorial meeting for Lenin, Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht; every August we commemorated Trotsky. In October we celebrated the Russian Revolution, and May first was May Day, the international workers’ holiday. Three of the four events were more or less alien to the American political scene, and the fourth, even though it was invented right there in Chicago after the Haymarket rebellion, was ignored outside the radicaIs’ ranks, but it was all very exciting.
The agents, of course, spent far more time on the Communist Party than they did on the much smaller Trotskyist group. But they did have one sergeant who was assigned to come to all our party meetings, buy our literature and pretend to be a sympathizer. He was a Lithuanian guy who gave his name as “Joe Turnas.” (If I ever found out his real name, I’ve forgotten it.)
One night Joe showed up at a party meeting with another man none of us had seen before, and it was obvious that he was breaking in a new agent. You could tell Joe had told his recruit to just keep his mouth shut and do what everybody else did.
The meeting went along routinely, and the time came to sing the Internationale. The members raised their fists ritually in the air. So did the young policeman. Joe nudged him hard and whispered loudly, “All right, that’s going too far,” and the anthem trailed off as the whole place broke up in laughter.
After McCormick Place was rebuilt in 1971, I had Engelbert Humperdinck playing there to open the new theater. Jesse Jackson was presiding over a fund-raising dinner the same night in another part of the complex, so it was easy to do the dinner and walk over to the show. My associate Fred Fine and I, with a knot of McCormick Place functionaries, got off the elevator and walked down the hall to the theater lobby, and there was Joe Turnas standing at the foot of the stairs, staring at me.
I waited for Joe to say something, and he waited for me. It would be one thing to identify me, but it would be another thing to say he saw me sing the “lnternationale.” There were certain things in my past that embarrassed me, and others that I had no trouble defending, but that didn’t matter: Joe had seen them all. I looked at Fred, standing next to me without an idea why I had stopped walking. It occurred to me that Fred himself, years before, had been put on trial under the Smith Act for being a leader of the Communist Party.
Joe greeted me; I greeted him. He looked at Fred and said, “I think I know him.” That’s it, I decided. We’re finished. It’s going to be all over the Chicago papers.
Nothing happened. Joe followed me backstage, and when we were alone he grabbed my arm and said, “Boy, l’m proud of you.” He had been fired from the Red Squad, for what I gathered was alcoholism, got a job at McCormick Place as a security man, and had been telling anyone who would listen that he had reason to know I’d always worked hard for a living. I’d come up from nowhere, and he knew it better than anyone. After that Joe was my biggest booster at McCormick Place.