Big, big, big
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.