Stories told in September, 2010

SNCC

This story takes place in 1965. It was told on September 29th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

I remember watching a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in San Francisco, when for the first time, instead of cowering and taking the Fifth Amendment, people were answering, “Sure I’m a communist. Aren’t you?” And in essence, that was the end of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

I think this was the spirit I identified with when I met the young people who were running the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1965. I was interested in SNCC from the very beginning. The kids in SNCC were putting their butts on the line and doing everything they were supposed to. The students had organized themselves, they had gone down to the south, they had conducted a struggle that I think to this day was an example of what a movement should look like and how it should conduct itself. And they inspired people all over the country. They brought out the best in black youth, and they brought lots of white youth out too. Above all, they blew the shop whistle and told us it was time to get back to work. It got my political juices flowing again.

We recorded the Freedom Singers for Mercury, the only commercial label that ever did that, something I took great pride in. It took some guts on Green’s part, too, because at that point there was still great fear. I worked out the terms with Mike Standard, the lawyer for SNCC. They produced it themselves; we did nothing but roll the tape. Everybody was scared to interfere, which was ironic because the always-pompous left press reviewed the album as a crass commercialization of what had been a good, pure folk group.

One night we had Henry Mancini and Peter, Paul and Mary doing McCormick Place, and we decided to throw a fundraiser for SNCC before the show. John Lewis was there to give a little talk. It was not a big event, to say the least; if there were 15 people there it was a lot. We did it on three days’ notice and it was at 4:30 in the afternoon because they were doing two shows at McCormick Place. We raised two or three thousand dollars, because my neighbor and Peter, Paul and Mary and I and Mancini each gave $500. But to Henry it was one of the most significant things in his life. Twice I ran into him years later and he remembered it as a big thing he had done. Each time he had to remind me, because I’d forgotten it – it wasn’t very successful, really.

Sinatra redux

This story takes place in 1968. It was told on September 20th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

My phone rang one afternoon and it was Mickey Rudin, Frank Sinatra’s lawyer, personal manager and so on. I’d met Rudin shortly after the first Sinatra date, when I’d helped him get some tickets to the Beatles concert in Los Angeles. He was already a powerful Los Angeles lawyer by then; later on, he succeeded Sidney Korshak as the elder statesman of show business. Rudin had a red phone on his desk that was a direct wire to the chief. (By coincidence, he was also a cousin to Milt Okun, the man who arranged most of the Chad Mitchell Trio’s songs, and those of Peter, Paul and Mary and who knew how many others.)

Rudin told me it was time for another Sinatra tour. “We’d like you to handle Madison, Cleveland and Detroit as well as Chicago,” he said. “Do you think you can do it? We’re arranging the dates ourselves this time around, so you’ll be dealing directly with me and Peter Epstein.” I refrained from asking what had become of Willard Alexander.

l’ve dealt with people who’ve been very tough negotiators, but when that spills over into a general neurosis, it’s something else. Talking to Rudin, I could feel the pressure coming all the way from the top. The contract came in the mail two days later, and it was indeed the toughest deal I ever signed: a guarantee of fifty thousand dollars, plus sixty-five percent of the gross. I had to mortgage my house. I had to take out insurance on Sinatra’s life, because in the event that he died they were not obligated to return the deposit. But I got out my pencil and did my figuring, and I did two other things: I made sure that I had more than one date, and I booked the International Amphitheater, a hall that did not charge a percentage. Otherwise the numbers didn’t make sense, no matter how big a draw Sinatra’s handlers thought their man was.

So we made the deal. I signed my life away.

I called Peter Epstein to see what his ticket needs might be. “Let’s get together and talk about it, Frank,” he said. “Come to think of it — did you get your invitation to our Pontiac party? Why don‘t we talk there?” Peter Epstein was the biggest Pontiac dealer in the world. He got that way by figuring out how to sell status, not just steel. One of his gimmicks was to throw a huge cocktail party to show off each year’s new line of Pontiacs. I had to hand it to him, it was probably one of the cleverer promotions I had seen. lt would never work today — everybody would know it was a scam.

But in those days to get an engraved invitation to a cocktail party was a big deal. I remembered an envelope, hand-lettered and silver—embossed, that had come in the mail the week before and I’d forgotten to open.

The party was a profusion of overdressed middle managers and their wives, milling about with martinis and exclaiming over the latest whitewalled wonder.

When Francoise and I got there, the booze was all gone and the buffet food was cold. We stood in a corner by ourselves, part miserable and part amused.

Soon I caught sight of Peter Epstein himself, gladhanding his way through the crowd. He was headed in our direction. When he saw us, he came over and I introduced him to Francoise, and we made the obligatory small talk.

I told Epstein what Mickey Rudin had said, and what he hadn’t said. “Willard? Oh, he didn’t handle things properly,” Epstein explained, leaning in close to us for privacy. “Too many people looking after themselves, if you ask me. Especially in New York — you had all the local promoters bringing their friends backstage, and they all thought they were going to be Frank’s new best friend.”

“I suppose Frank has all the best friends he needs,” I agreed. Epstein’s own patron in the court, I’d heard, was Jack Entratter, the man who owned the Sands Casino in Las Vegas and was without a doubt one of Frank’s very best friends. Epstein had worked hard to get this far into the inner circle.

Meanwhile, he and I were now bosom buddies. We had been through the Sinatra wars together once, and I was one of only two promoters who got dates the second time around. They’d found fault with everybody else. So my I star was still ascending.

Epstein resumed his rounds, and Francoise and I waited until he was safely out of sight and made our escape.

We did everything the organization asked for, but still we could feel the tension mounting as the dates approached. When the backstage crew flew in ahead of the tour, I did not recognize any of the faces — the old crowd had all been purged. I couldn’t stop thinking we were coming up short in some way and we would be next.

Poland

This story takes place in 1966. It was told on September 5th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

It was about 1966 when I first got a phone call from Sigmond Zarchevski. He identified himself as a senior culture ministry official from Poland. He was in New York. “Let me get right to the point,” he said. “I saw your Chad Mitchell Trio perform at Carnegie Hall two nights ago, and I have never seen a more exciting group of singers. How can we get them to visit Poland?” It turned out we would both be in New York about a month later, so we agreed to get together. A month went by, and I was sitting down for dinner with Zarchevsky in New York.

Zarchevsky was a cultural bureaucrat, so I wasn’t surprised that he was conversant with the arts and culture. He was also, it turned out, sophisticated politically and we found that we could relate to a lot of the same things. He had fought with the partisans in the civil war, and had been a communist in the pre-war Polish party, which was one of the best — it had been purged by Stalin three times. He was fully acquainted with Deutscher. He had a historical appreciation of Trotsky.

Tragically, I thought, Zarchevsky reflected the view of many honest Communists who I think thought they could cheat history. “I understood what Stalinism is,” he told me. “l understand the problems in the Polish Party and the Polish state. But in spoite of it all, we are still the future. In spite of ourselves, you might say, we will overcome Stalinism. Bourgeois democracy surely has no future: for better or for worse, we are it.” Zarchevsly had met some of the CP periphery in New York. He thought they were political morons. “You are the only political person I have met in America,” he said expansively.

After that I made a point of meeting Zarchevsky whenever he was in the UNited States. We kept trying to set something up for a Trio, but the Polish Culture ministry couIdn’t even pay their air fare. “At least you, Frank, should go to Poland,” Zarchevsky told me more than once.

I did not hear from Zarchevsky again. Two years later, word came that he had died of cancer. I found out from the man who was named to replace him.

“My name is George,” he told me on the telephone. “I am right now in Chicago. May I meet with you?” There could have been no clearer contrast between the two men. Where Zarchevsky was urbane and continental, George looked so much the caricature of the broad-faced Polish peasant that you could picture him playing the lead in some of those dumb Polish jokes. The first time he came to our office he was wearing an orange sport coat and he was dead drunk. It was noon. Next to Zarchevsky, I thought, this man certainly doesn’t bathe the Polish culture ministry in glory.

I took George out to lunch, mainly to get him out of the office. “My former boss left your name on a list of excellent American contacts,” he said. “He spoke quite warmly of you.” I thanked him, wondering how I would break the news that the Mitchell Trio was no more and that he was wasting his time on me.

“I am to invite you,” he continued, “to come to Poland next year for our biennial international contest of performance and talent. You will be the American judge.”

This was the first I had heard of this angle. “Sopot is a typical middle European resort town,” George told me. The pop music festival was created because they had a ten-week classical music festival, and they had an extra week to fill and wanted tourists to come to Sopot. It takes place in a gorgeous natural amphitheater in the forest. Without thinking too much about it, I realized that I wanted very much to go to Poland and be a judge, and I accepted the invitation.

In the interim, I almost forgot about my promise to attend, until George would come through town and I would see him for another drunken luncheon. George was always drunk, and he was always trying to cage records or tickets. I tried, on one of these visits, to get him to talk politics, but he was a stone wall. With George, what you saw was evidently what you got.
When the time came to make the trip, I paid wholesale for a box of Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd records for George’s kid and brought them along.

George was waiting for me at the Warsaw airport, which was the first surprising thing. There was very little traffic to contend with, and none of the sense of a major country’s international hub. It wasn’t that I felt like I was going into the cold war enemy’s territory, it was more like going into the airport at Michigan City.

The first day I went to the Warsaw ghetto, alone. The next day George appeared at my hotel room. “I am to take you all over,” he pronounced. We took a cab to the Whispering Forest, where 40,000 partisans were killed in World War ll. Afterward we sat down at a restaurant on the edge of the forest that had been Chopin’s home. It was one of the better restaurants I had ever eaten in. Once again I attempted to bait George into a little politics.

Finally, George banged his hand on the table. “You want to know about politics?” He demanded. “You want to know about communism? My parents were killed in World War II lighting with the partisans.

“At the age of fourteen I went too,” he said. “l was a part of the young communist league. Most of my family was killed. It didn’t matter. We were fighting the fascism, building the future.” He stopped, stared at me for a moment, and held up the half—empty bottle. “Now, there is only one future that I know of,” he said, and paused again.

I worried that I had lost him.

“This is the most corrupt regime in the world,” George said suddenly, putting the bottle down hard. “The bureaucracy is strangling the country and the only thing I live for is my son and my booze. And my dacha in Yugoslavia.” I thought it best not to point out that he hadn‘t mentioned his wife.

“Don’t talk to me about communism,” he said. “Don’t talk to me about socialism. I know all about it. I‘m living it. You are not.” We both were silent for a while.

“You may have romantic ideas,” he said finally, glaring at me. “That is probably why Zarchevsky took a liking to you. He was a romantic too.”

George delivered me to the festival the next day, where I met his wife and handed over the records to his son. After that his responsibility for taking care of me was over. He had told me more about Poland and Eastern Europe I than I cared to know. If I had been more perceptive, I suppose I might have detected the seeds of the future in what I’d seen, but all I really took from it was that you can’t judge a man by the color of his jacket.