Stories told in August, 2010

Dick Gregory

This story takes place in 1961. It was told on August 27th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Dick Gregory came to me in 1961 to promote a series of concerts for him at the Opera House. l think Dick already had an idea where l came from, or at least he understood the wavelength l was on. When l met him, Dick was picketing Mayor Daley’s house every day to protest the mayor’s opposition to integrating the Chicago public school system. A number of people were doing that — my wife Francoise was out there with him all six weeks — but what set Dick apart was that he was playing an engagement at the Hungry i in San Francisco at the same time. Every night after his show he would get on the red-eye flight and show up at Daley’s house to resume picketing. Dick was a very unusual man, but we understood each other well.

Dick wanted to produce his own shows right then, to take charge of his own career. The problem was, even though Dick had zoomed out of nowhere — and he did put on a good show by this time — he and his people had an exaggerated idea of how far he had zoomed. Papering the house was not what I was hired for, but by the day of the first concert that’s what l was doing. It was part of the game: when the show doesn’t sell, you discreetly give away seats to fill it up. This house was especially difficult to paper, because Dick had scheduled three nights, which was ambitious at best.

The traffic cop who worked the Opera House beat in those days used to make his money by letting people park in the ubiquitous no-parking zones on show nights and collecting a fee for not ticketing them. He sent for me to come out of the lobby the night of the second concert. “Are you the promoter?” he demanded, glaring down at me from his saddle. l admitted it, and he began to chew me out for bringing in this kind of show. l was thinking he must have racist objections to Gregory’s material, until he pulled out a sheaf of complimentary tickets and said, “l can’t even sell these.” Someone had given him a handful of tickets in lieu of parking money, and he had thought he’d be able to double his take. A guy had to make a living, he explained to me, and he couldn’t afford these shows that didn‘t sell. Didn’t l have any brains? Didn’t l know what l was doing?

l gathered that this was the way one worked with the police in Chicago. On this level, the corruption was wide open. This man regarded himself as a businessman who had been given the franchise to the Opera House, and l was putting his franchise in jeopardy.

Stool pigeon

This story takes place in 1971. It was told on August 15th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

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.