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.