Stories told in February, 2010

Big, big, big

This story takes place in 1962. It was told on February 25th, 2010 by The editor.  4 Comments

Peter Epstein took the stairs up to my office two at a time, his blue silk jacket unbuttoned and floating along behind him. “I knew this was gonna be big, big, big,” he announced. “Harold Gibbons is coming in ahead of the Sinatra tour!” I sat up. “The Harold Gibbons?” “Teamster Number Two,” Epstein nodded triumphantly.

I wondered what Epstein would think if he knew what I knew about Harold Gibbons. I decided to keep it to myself for now.

Eight weeks ago I’d taken a long-distance call from Willard Alexander in New York. All I knew about him was that he was the agent who booked Count Basie, Harry James, and some other big ballroom acts.

We exchanged pleasantries. “Sinatra,” he told me, “is going out on tour with Basie.” Alexander had come up with the idea himself, he said. “I told him just last month, I said, ‘Frankie, you ought to be playing with Basie. You should go out on a tour.’ He says to me, ‘Gee, you think I can draw that many people?’ Of course he can, right?” Right, I agreed.

I was not in the ballroom business, however, and I knew very little about that side of the market. “What does this have to do with me?” I wondered.

“You, my friend, are the promoter on the Chicago dates,” Alexander said, exhaling again. My eyebrows went up. “Who says?” “Me,” he answered. “Frank says Iet’s do it, so right away I think, who’s the only guy in that town for the kind of show we want to do? Frank’s people want a first-class production at a major venue. Mr. Fried, of course.” He was gilding things a bit, I thought — I had never done any business with Alexander. He was the agent for most of the remaining big bands. I didn’t do big bands. But I said, “Yes? Go on.”

“We’II take a thirty-five thousand dollar guarantee against sixty percent, you keep the rest. Deal?” I thought for a moment. It was the most money I’d ever paid for an act. But this was a huge infusion of prestige to be handed without so much as asking.

I had a virtual lock on the use of McCormick Place, and I knew I had enough in the bank to come up with the front money. “DeaI,” I said.

“Peter Epstein — do you know him? He’s gonna be taking care of some things for Frank on the Midwest part of the tour, outside of the actual concerts,” Alexander said. “He’ll be in touch.”

That evening I was sitting across the table from a booking agent friend of mine at the Chicago Hilton, my favorite place for dinner. When I told him about my unexpected conversation with Willard Alexander, he straightened up and gave me a long look. “I hope you know what you’re getting into,” he said.

“What do you mean?” He shook his head. “Frank, Frank. Haven’t you been paying attention? Sinatra played the Villa Moderne last year with Sammy Davis and Dean Martin. People said it was the biggest floating crap game in America.”

“ReaIly?” I asked. The Villa Moderne was a small club outside the city limits, where you could do things the authorities didn’t want to know about.

“The heaviest collection of heavies in many years,” he nodded. “Word was they were paying off some kind of obligation. Obviously, Sinatra’s people want to clean up their image. There’s a lot image and money riding on this comeback of his, and they don’t want to jeopardize it by letting the mob reputation get out of hand.” Aha, I thought. Hence the presence of Willard Alexander, a booking agent who never booked anything like this. Add the innocent Frank Fried, and you have yet another layer of kosher. I told him about the man who was supposed to be calling to oversee things.

“Epstein? The biggest Pontiac dealer in the country? Nice guy. They say he’s General Motors’ link to the mob.” I stared at him for a moment, wondering, not for the first time, if I knew what I was doing.

Running

This story takes place in 1977. It was told on February 2nd, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Finding myself suddenly with some free time in January 1977, I asked Eddie if there was something I could do to help raise support around Chicago.

“Forget Chicago, Frank,” Eddie said. “Come on the road with us. We have a station wagon and a few guys that are handy at passing out fliers. You’ll be right at home.”

Eddie Sadlowski’s decision to run for president of the union had not come easily. I’d seen that during the spring of 1976, when I went along with Eddie on a series of trips he made to talk to people about whether to declare. Every time he was invited to speak at some conference or other, he’d take some time before and after to meet up with rank and file steelworkers.

Eddie had been elected District Director the year before, and then had the election stolen from under him. When the affair was settled, Eddie was out of a job but with a heightened public presence. Steelworkers Fightback, the organization that had emerged to help him fight it out, just kept on going, funded mostly by lots of kielbasa and mostaccioli parties for a buck a head, and raffles. I went to a lot of those.

The International wanted to offer Eddie a deal. The deal was essentially to be the house radical: do whatever you want to, but stay out of union politics and we’ll give you your staff and stay out of your district. Eddie reject that, on principle. I myself thought it was the best he was going to get and that it would have been good to have a radical voice like Eddie Sadlowski’s representing the union’s largest district. But hindsight is 20-20. Eddie never considered it. I think he knew he had to go for the whole pie.

What we didn’t realize was that his victory took place against the background of the decline of the steel industry, the decline of the labor movement as a whole. The fact was that workers’ standard of living from 1973 on would be in a constant spiral. The steel industry was being “rationalized,” and to fight that you would have needed not just a movement in steel, but an awareness across the whole working class that the country had to be turned around. Instead, the opposite was happening. People in general, and steelworkers right along with them, seemed to be hunkering down for tough times ahead.

There were already signs of collapse, but I don’t think anyone realized how truly complete the steel industry’s collapse would be. If we had, I suppose Eddie might have hung it up. To win would mean to preside over the destruction of wide sections of the union and the industry, and I don’t think that is the role he wanted to play.

The decision to run was made at my summer place up in Michigan. I had grave feelings then that it was a mistake. I didn’t feel a hundred percent convinced that were at the beginning of a new labor militancy that would permit a guy like Sadlowski and the movement he represented to express itself.