Stories told in March, 2010

The steel mill

This story takes place in 1953. It was told on March 25th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

I went into the mill for the job. I had no illusions that the workers needed me. They already had a union, they didn’t need me to do that for them. Only a fool could ignore the reality of the times: there were grave limitations on what you could do in the working class. We knew this was not the period when great struggles were going to take place, when radicals could step in and play a leading role.

There were many things I missed about life in the mill after I left it, but I particularly remember four-handed pinochle. For years I have wished I could find a game like it. Four-handed pinochle, also known as Polish pinochle, was my favorite card game, and I never again met anybody who played it. I did not much care for the traditional three-handed game. My friends on the maintenance welding crew and I would play Polish pinochle every day at lunch, and then try to sneak out a little early on the day shift to play some more.

The main social event in mill life was the retirement party. This affair, which came along about once a month, was the only place where black and white workers socialized with each other off the job. They were always stag events, and the formula was always the same: K, C, and B — kielbasa, chicken and beef — with sauerkraut and potatoes, lots of beer and whiskey, and a craps game. The parties would often go on for ten or twelve hours.

Once a month I would play a regular poker game with some friends, all of them from the mill except for one guy who ran a funeral home. He would carp constantly about what penicillin was doing to his business. Penicillin was new in those clays, and winter — pneumonia season — was always good for business. It occurred to me, listening to him complain, that death is a commodity like everything else in this country. I told him, “Don’t worry, you‘re still in a growth business. You’lI get ‘em in the end.” He said, “But I might not be around to take advantage of it.”

I loved to play Chicago-style slow-pitch softball, the kind that uses the extra-large ball, but the mill was such an all-consuming environment that hardly anyone had any urge to play left in them after a shift. Your only real agenda once you got out of there, besides stopping for a drink at your favorite tavern, was to get the hell home. The union’s softball team was mostly populated by upper-level workers and white-collar types who could spare the energy.

There were stranger hobbies in the house than anything I had been aware of before. One of my fellow welders in the maintenance department, a Norwegian, had been one of the “premature anti-fascists” who went to Spain to fight for the Loyalists during the Civil War. He told me he regretted nothing about going to Spain, but he was not interested in politics any more. Whether it was the witchhunt that did it to him or the attraction of earthier pleasures, I never found out for sure. He made a few attempts to convert me to his new cause, which was pornography. I guess he was on the cutting edge, in the sense that he was anticipating the sexual revolution by about fifteen years. You could say he was a premature pornographer.

My own main concern, off the job, was to help lead a small circle called the American Socialist Club. We were trying to fight McCarthyism, speak up for the black civil rights movement that was beginning to take shape, and get a dialogue going with other radicals. It was one of the early efforts, in a period that was increasingly frustrating for leftists, to regroup and plant the seeds for a comeback. Most of us came from the ranks of the Socialist Workers Party, a small group inspired by the Russian revolution and its leaders, V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky.

The SWP had had its heroic years — it led the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike, one of the key steps toward creating a militant labor movement in the United States, and many of its leaders had served prison terms under the Smith Act. But by the early 1950s it had became a marginalized band of die-hards — caretakers, not cultivators, of the revolutionary idea. Many of its younger leaders and labor union representatives in the Midwest had left in protest against the passive, sterile thinking that had overtaken the once-proud party.

The way things were going, we thought, revolution was clearly on the back burner (if it was on the stove at all), and our best hope was in more modest projects: educating people, laying new groundwork, and defending the integrity of the socialist vision. To do that, we published a magazine called The American Socialist. The editor, Bert Cochran, was a United Auto Workers representative and a leading SWP theoretician with a lot of credibility in labor. Another editor was Harry Braverman, a self-educated sheet-metal worker closer to my own age. He had become a noted scholar of American history; later he wrote Labor and Monopoly Capital, an influential Marxist account of the labor process.

Eddie

This story takes place in 1974. It was told on March 18th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

It was a winter day late in 1974 when Quentin Young, my doctor and long-time friend, called me at my office to invite me to his office in Hyde Park. “You gotta meet this guy Eddie from the steelworkers,” he said.

The press had been following SadIowski’s struggle — happenings in the steelworkers union were big news in those days, especially around Chicago — and the chance to meet the man seemed interesting.

Of more interest was that Sadlowski had come out of US Steel’s South Works, the same plant I had worked in as a young man. I hadn’t thought about the place much for years, but I was suddenly curious what sort of stamp the place might have left on another man. Quentin had invited Bob Adams, another guy who had been in the mill as a young man. On the appointed evening, I was there.

The steelworkers’ union in the early 1970s could fairly be described as a huge system of interlocking fiefdoms, refereed from a skyscraper in Pittsburgh by I.W. Abel and his small circle of advisers. Abel’s men would pick Directors for the union’s 30-some districts, nominate them and then have them rubber-stamped by a membership vote.

Ed Sadlowski was a relatively small cog in this machine when he realized that he was fed up with the arrogance of the Abel group and that he would have to do something about it. With the help of a few younger unionists from Local 65 and some of the remaining progressives in the district, Ed had run for District Director and, he claimed, won.

The official vote, however, had Eddie losing by 2,000 votes. Eddie and his men were sure they had been “counted out,” and immediately lodged complaints with the courts and the National Labor Relations Board. Now Eddie was in the middle of a grueling round of fund-raising meetings to sustain his legal challenge.

Meanwhile, his position as a District 65 staffer, with the protection of the staff workers union, made the International afraid to fire him outright. He had used the position to emerge as the leading thorn in the side of the Steelworkers Union’s national leadership.

Ed Sadlowski was a burly, roughly handsome man in his early forties with an air of confidence and large appetites about him. You could tell right away he had that gift for getting people to underestimate him so that he could surprise them when the time was right. Here in Quentin’s office he could speak stirringly in the old labor tradition, and he meant it, but one got the sense that at the plant gates he could translate just as easily in the other direction and put radical ideas in language that made sense to the average steelworker.

This was a man who aspired to be director of the union’s largest district, but he projected a different persona from the average trade union leadership in steel. This was no gray-suited bureaucrat; Eddie Sadlowski was in office to carry out a Iife-Iong project, and every aspect of his complicated personality, down to the Iinesmanlike set of his shoulders, reflected that determination.

It became clear very quickly, despite all the rhetoric for the moneyed supporters, that Eddie was about more than just getting a union office. “If anything is going to change in America it isn’t going to be changed by business men, and it isn’t going to be done by the youth by themselves, either, unfortunately. Any progress we get will have to come from the working class.” (I paraphrase, because I wasn’t taking notes.)

Of course, the real purpose of the gathering was to raise money for Eddie’s recount campaign. We handed over our checks, and I agreed to host a similar meeting in our place up in Evanston the coming spring.

I liked Eddie, and I believed in what he was doing, but even more than that, I felt like this was a great opportunity to reestablish contact with my past. We spent more and more time together that winter and spring. (People assumed we had known each other in the mill, which wasn’t true, but it sounded good. He’d come into the mill as a machinist’s apprentice just when I was laid off in 1956.)

Very soon, the NLRB discovered that the official union leadership had faked the ballots in Gary, one of the biggest locals. I think they probably faked them just about everywhere, but Gary was where they were caught. A new election was set for the following year and Eddie won by about twenty thousand votes, which showed how egregiously the original election had been rigged.

Norman

This story takes place in 1962. It was told on March 16th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

The worse the investment, the easier it is to get people to invest. This was the first time I encountered that principle in my show business life. Something makes people invest in pop concerts, plays, movies, when similar odds in another field would send them running. In a word, the upside is limited, and the downside is not.

I think our investors lost thirty-five cents on the dollar. I knew nothing about taxes, or I would have known it would cost somebody in the seventy-percent bracket thirty cents on the dollar, so an investor who lost thirty-five cents on the dollar really ended up losing only about fifteen cents.

In the end, the reputation I gained from that first Johnny Mathis series gave me a foothold in big-concert promoting, because even though I lost money, I was seen to be handling it professionally.

I knew everybody who put up money, except one fellow my accountant had brought in, Kevin Norman of Norman Lock Co. He had lost five thousand dollars. Norman came into the office one day in November. We were there putting together the Henry Mancini and Andy Williams concert at the Arie Crown Theater, and Barbra Streisand’s first solo concert the week after that.

Norman said he wanted to see me. I was overcome with guilt. I didn’t ask what the guy wanted; I figured he was going to read me out for being an opportunist and not even calling him. But all he wanted was to buy a block of tickets for the Streisand show. After the business was concluded, he said, “You know, you did a great thing for me.” I thought to myself, let’s see… he was probably in the seventy percent bracket, which meant losing fifteen percent of his five grand. That’s not so terrible, but I didn’t think I deserved to have it put on my tombstone that I’d done him a great favor. So I said, “Why?”

He said, “Well, I was sitting in the Pump Room later on, and Eddie Bracken was there. He overheard that I was an investor in the Mathis show.” One the strength of that introduction, Norman had produced two Broadway shows, he told me, one of which closed in Connecticut and the other on Broadway the first night.

I was not in that business, but I knew a little about how people invest in theater, I knew they sank four grand or ten grand apiece into a show. I asked, a little rudely, “So, how much did you put into it?” He said, “Twenty thousand in each show, and it was the greatest experience of my life.” I was speechless. But if he thought it was the best thing that ever happened to him, who was I to argue?

I never did have the nerve to call Norman again. Mathis came back a year later for a one-night show that sold out instantly, and I never lost another penny on a Mathis show.

The Yipsels

This story takes place in 1944. It was told on March 15th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

If I was going to be a radical, I figured, I had a lot of reading to do. l began to spend a lot of time at Marshall‘s Bookstore, a local dissident hangout in a basement on 57th Street, down the street from my rooming house. I met an older student there named Dave Lerner, a frail, intellectual fellow with a fluttering heart who called himself a Social Democrat. Dave offered some uncomfortable ideas for me to chew on. My hero Franklin Roosevelt had thrown people in jail under the Smith Act, he told me, and the Soviets had done the same in the Moscow trials.

An avid New Dealer, and a Russophile in honor of the Soviets’ victory over Hitler, I was shocked. l didn’t believe a word of it. I remember poll watching that year for Emily Taft Douglas, a New Deal Democrat running for Congress against a right-wing Republican. She won because the election officials just cut up all the minority party votes, both the Republicans’ and the leftists’, and gave them away. l saw it myself: the official at my own polling station came over to me and handed me sixteen extra votes for Mrs. Douglas. When I objected, he almost had me arrested.

That and Dave Lerner got me to thinking. I read Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed and his History of the Russian Revolution. I explored the Communist Party, which right then was enthusiastically supporting the war effort, vowing not to organize any strikes and offering slavish subservience to Roosevelt, even after he dumped the progressive Henry Wallace. The party chairman, Earl Browder, had recently been quoted as saying he wanted to shake the hand of J.P. Morgan. For a first taste of Communist Party ideology, this seemed like pretty thin soup. Why be a Communist if you were a capitalist? Why not just stick with FDR?

Very soon I became convinced of the imminence of revolution, and naturally everything else had to take a back seat to that. I already was not paying a great deal of attention to my studies. I was at college to be away from my mother and to get some kind of an education, in that order, and my grades had begun to reflect my priorities. Now I had something even more important to think about, and school moved even further down the list. The idea that the system could last as long as it did never seriously entered my mind.

I joined the Young People‘s Socialist League after the November election.

Johnny

This story takes place in 1963. It was told on March 12th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

It was a series of coincidences that made it possible for me to break into the pop concert business, and if they came perhaps a little before I was ready for them, that didn’t mean I was about to pass them up. Helen Noga, Johnny Mathis’s manager, wanted to do a week-long solo gig with Johnny in Chicago, and there was just nobody else around that was in a position to do it. Harry Zelzer was busy with a Harry Belafonte concert at the Opera House, and Zelzer was not inclined to take on competing attractions on the same night.

It was the summer of 1963. Mathis was the biggest artist I had ever booked, and the closest one to the commercial mainstream. For the first time I had to mount the whole elaborate backstage operation, hire an orchestra, arrange for special lighting, and do all the things that in the folk world would be regarded as outrageously indulgent. But I’d never had any religious commitment to the folk scene, I reminded myself. People could say I’d sold out, but I’d never been a member.

Mathis’s fee was forty thousand dollars, which seemed fair when I looked into it — it was his going rate. Of course I didn’t have forty cents, much less forty thousand dollars. I set up a limited partnership, with a friend and an accountant, and raised the money. The next problem was to find an appropriate venue. The Opera House was booked up with Harry, and the Chicago Symphony was playing Orchestra Hall.

There was one other place. Medina Temple was one of the better halls in Chicago, and it was in a pretty good location, but the Shriners had contradictory policies on renting it out. Their priority was operating the shrine and running around in their fezzes; that was what they had built it for. On the other hand, if you had the kind of show that could play that stage – a rather odd-looking apron that jutted out in a partial in-the-round sort of arrangement – you had an intimate room for forty-five hundred people, and the acoustics were said to be the best in the city.

My mistake was that I should have paid him the forty thousand for four or five shows in three days. The business was all going to be on the weekends: I wasn’t thinking about what we would do to bring people in Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. No matter how big your attraction, trying to get people into downtown Chicago at midweek is pushing it. On top of that, I don’t think Johnny’s crowd was used to seeing him outside of the small club circuit and the Dick Clark bandstand shows. Maybe it was a little early to try for such a large concert hall appearance.