LUNA'S OPENING NIGHT

 

    I was sitting in a booth in Tiny's Tavern having a beer with Lew Gable, the A & R man, when Sid Pumpernickel ran in and hurried back to the men's room.  It was a chilly day outside, but Sid wasn't wearing a topcoat.  I thought he looked like he might be in a jam of some kind, which was no surprise.  Sid didn't lead a calm life.  He was a small-time promoter and sometimes the personal manager of talent when he could find anyone inexperienced enough to let him manage them.  Sid wasn't a bad guy.  He wanted to do the right thing by his clients.  But circumstances sometimes caused him to disappoint them.

    Sid's last name was Barron, but everybody called him Sid Pumpernickel.  Years ago he got into a beef with a borscht-belt comic, one of his clients, over at the Broadway Delicatessen.  When he walked into the place and saw this comic jump up from a booth and run toward him, Sid snatched a giant loaf of pumpernickel from the counter display and threw it right in the comic's face.  The comic caught the thing and stood there, surprised, with his arms wrapped around it, as Sid ran out through the kitchen, saving himself from a punch in the nose.

    He deserved one.  He had booked the comic for two weeks at a club in Wheeling, West Virginia, without telling him that the salary for doing his act three times a night would be room and board and a third of the customers' donations to the kitty, which had to be split with the shake dancer and the torch singer.  The comic barely made enough money on that gig for a ticket back to New York, and he was very put out with Sid.

    In better times, Sid Pumpernickel had rented a cubbyhole in the office building next door to Tiny's Tavern.  But lately, during a slump in business, his office was a telephone booth in the lobby of that same building.  Sid would hang around that booth every afternoon, and whenever anyone approached, he would step inside it and pretend to make a call.  He wanted to keep the line free in case anyone responded to the business cards he left around the Broadway area in bars and restaurants.  His cards read: "George M. Barron, theatrical agent and producer," and gave his phone number (the telephone booth), and the hours during which he could be reached.  He had probably been watching his booth just before he ran in to Tiny's.

    Shortly after Pumpernickel vanished into the men's room, Luna Rogers yanked the front door open.  She ran her dark eyes quickly along the line of musicians standing at the bar, obviously too angry to say hello to anyone.  She stalked past the booth tables across from the bar, giving each group of occupants a quick once-over.  Her scrutiny was returned with interest by everyone in the Tavern.  Luna was wonderful to see, even when she was furious.

    She glanced into Tiny's phone booths, and then stopped at the men's room door.  With her long, dark red fingernails, she tapped an angry tattoo on the metal sign that read "MEN," waited a moment, and then shoved the pointed toe of her right shoe, a black and gold number with stiletto heels, into the edge of the door, cracking it open about an inch.

    "Pumpernickel, you low-life!" she shouted.  "I know you're hiding in there!  Get out here and explain yourself!"

    There was no response from the men's room.  Luna toed the door open a little farther.

    "Okay, if you don't come out, I'm comin' in!"

    The door opened, and Sid stood there, adjusting his tie, and wearing his professional, thirty-six tooth smile.

    "Luna! How nice to see you!"

    "Nice ain't exactly the word, is it?  You split when you saw me coming!  What about my opening next week at the Furnace Room?  You told me that was all set."

    "Well, Luna, there are still a few details to work out."

    "Details!  What details?  I just went over there to see about using the place to rehearse, and they got Dinah Washington booked in there for next week!  Her picture's all over the front of the place!  What kind of jive are you handing me?"

    Sid looked crestfallen.  "I wanted to break it to you gently, Luna.  They had a chance to get Dinah at the last minute, and they've postponed your opening."

    "Postponed!  For how long?"

    "Well, I can't exactly be sure.  They book so far ahead, you know.  I'll have to talk to the owner.  I'll drop by this evening and consult with him, and then I'll call you immediately."

    Luna shook a fist in front of his nose and hissed, "Consult this!  You couldn't manage a two-bit hooker!  This is the last time I listen to your jive, Pumpernickel!  Cross me off your list!"   She strode back along the length of the bar and slammed out the door.  Sid heaved a deep sigh, adjusted his tie, flicked some imaginary lint from the lapel of his gray pin-striped suit, and walked over to the bar.

    "Let me have a short beer, Tiny, and put it on my tab."

    Tiny drew the beer and placed it in front of Sid.  Then he opened a well-thumbed ledger that he kept beside the cash register and penciled in an entry.  Squinting at it a moment, he muttered,

    "You ought to whittle this down some, Sid.  It's getting pretty long."

    "Right, Tiny.  I'll take care of it on Monday.  I'm collecting a few accounts payable this weekend."

    Tiny nodded, and slipped the ledger back in its place.

    A lot of the regulars at Tiny's ran tabs, and Tiny always issued his reminders of mounting debt in the same offhand way.  Usually, when a customer got a pay check, he would settle his tab, or reduce it.  On rare occasions, Tiny would shut off a guy’s credit until he saw some cash, but he understood the sporadic nature of the music business and made allowances.  He had been known at times to advance a little pocket change to regular customers who were down on their luck, adding the loan to their tab.

    Pumpernickel never let his tab get out of hand.  He needed to be able to buy a client a drink without being embarrassed by Tiny's reminders.  Whenever any sort of windfall came his way, Tiny was one of the first people he took care of.  He considered Tiny's goodwill essential, at an even higher priority than that of his landlord.

    He called in our direction, "Hello Lew...Fess," and brought his beer over to our booth.  As he slid in next to me, he asked Lew, "Any new talent recording for you these days?"

    "Sid, I got no new stars for you," said Lew.  "I'm only recording established talent, and all of them got managers already."

    Pumpernickel shrugged, sipped his beer, and turned his attention to me.

    "Fess, I'm glad you're here.  I have a proposition.  I think I can get Luna a week downtown at the Lotus Blossom, but that's a very low budget operation down there.  They'll put ad ad in the paper, and they'll give me half of the door.  I can't promise you what the money will be, but I can guarantee you twenty-five a night plus a free meal, and twenty per cent of whatever our split with the house is. If business is good, you could come out way ahead."

    "Yeah," I said.  "And if it's bad, I'll be chasing you for the twenty-five."

    "No, that's guaranteed."  He gazed at me piously.  "You have my word on that."

    Actually, Pumpernickel's offer wasn't completely out of the question.  It was the month of August, and I didn't have any bookings until the fall.  I had been filling in at the Chameleon for two weeks while the intermission piano player was drying out at Bellevue, but he was back out now, and nothing new had turned up.

    "How soon?" I asked Sid.

    "Actually, they're looking for somebody to fill in next week.  The act they had coming in got held over in Chicago for more money, so they cancelled out.  If you're up for it, I'll go to work on Luna right away.  She's mad, but she needs the exposure.  I think she'll come around.  And the way she looks, she should do some business.  All the wise guys along Broadway have the hots for her.  If just half of them show up, the split on the door should make us all a nice taste."

    Pumpernickel must have really spread on the honey when he talked to Luna that evening.  She agreed to the deal, and she and I got together the next day to run over her tunes.

    Luna's opening night was a little bigger than she expected.  When she arrived at the club, there were three reporters waiting for her, each with his own photographer.  As Pumpernickel helped her out of her taxi, they began shouting questions at her.  It was so noisy, and there were so many flashbulbs going off, that for a minute or two Luna couldn't figure out what they were asking her. Pumpernickel pushed her through the crowd and into the club, but she heard voices behind her yelling, "What about the Earl?  Is he really your father?"  and, "Did the Duke give you a ring?"

    "What the hell is going on?" demanded Luna.  "Are they talking about Earl Hines?  And why would Duke Ellington be calling me?"

    "Never mind all that," said Sid, hurrying her inside.  "You have to get ready. You're on in half an hour."

    "What are you up to, Pumpernickel?"

    "It's just publicity.  Forget about it.  Have you got all the music set with Fess?"

    Luna was amazed to see that the room was already full.

    "Where did all these people come from?"

    Sid shrugged.  "The house put an ad in the paper, and I've been doing some work myself.  Go get ready to knock 'em dead!"

     Still puzzled, Luna made her way to her dressing room.  I went back to remind her of her entrance cue, and then went up on the tiny stage and sat down at the piano.  I was supposed to play a couple of tunes by myself before bringing her on.

    Half way through my rendition of I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart, I heard Luna's voice from her dressing room beside the stage:

    "Pumpernickel, you bastard, where are you?  I'll wring your damn neck!"

    Sid was out front, talking earnestly to two of the reporters who had been outside.  He seemed to be telling them to wait until after the show.  Luna's dressing room door flew open, and she strode out with fire in her eyes, heading around the back of the crowded club.  She had a newspaper in her hand.  Something in it had clearly lit her fuse.

    Sid saw her coming.  He headed her off before she got out to where the reporters were waiting, and shooed her back into the dressing room.  As I continued to play, I could hear the sharp edge of Luna's voice through the closed door:

    "What do they mean, illegitimate?"

    Sid must have talked a mile a minute to get her calmed down enough to come onstage.  And Luna did a hell of a show.  Her voice was stronger than usual, and she seemed to radiate an inner fire.  The audience loved her, and I could see Sid, standing in the back, smiling with satisfaction.

    As soon as the show was over, I followed Luna into the dressing room, and there I found the Daily Mirror article that had upset her.  The headline said, "EARL NIXES SON'S WEDDING," and the sub-head continued, "Can't Marry His Secret Sister."  Underneath, accompanied by Luna's sultry publicity photo, was the story:

    "When the young Duke of Devon recently told his father of his betrothal to the beautiful American chanteuse Luna Rogers, the old Earl was forced to disclose to his son that Miss Rogers was actually the Duke's half-sister, and the Earl's illegitimate daughter.  The singer's mother had been a New York chorus girl with whom, some twenty years earlier, the Earl had had a liaison for several months.  Miss Rogers, his secret child, had been provided for by the Earl, but never had been acknowledged as his daughter until now."

    While I read the article, Luna fumed.  "It's a bunch of Pumpernickel's lies!  He cooked up this jive story just to get my name in the papers.  But, damn!  What will my daddy out in Cleveland say if he sees this?  He thinks he's been putting me through business school!  And, how do I explain this to Jimmy?"

    "Who's Jimmy?" I asked.

    "My boyfriend!  He's going to think I've been dating this Duke!  He'll be sore as hell!"

    Pumpernickel hurried in, beaming.

    "Luna, darling, you're a hit!  There are a couple of promoters in the house, and they want to do something with you right away.  I may even be able to make a deal for a Broadway show!"

    Luna waved the newspaper at him and sputtered a little, but he was talking fast.  He kept telling her that she was about to hit the big time.  I went back out to the piano, and when she came out to talk to the reporters, she was a changed woman.  She denied the story with such charm that the representatives of the press remained convinced it was true.  They happily wrote down her vague answers to their questions, and hurried off to write their stories.

    On her second show, Luna had the audience eating from her hand.  I think Pumpernickel had her believing that she might really be related to British royalty.  At least, he'd talked her into feeling like a star, and that was half the battle.  Well, you know the rest.  Luna got a nice record deal and some TV shots, and pretty soon she was in a position to write her own ticket.  Oh, she was right about her boyfriend Jimmy.  He was sore as hell.  They had a big fight and split up.  But she soon found a new guy...a lawyer.  And the first thing he did was sign her with a new, big-time manager with Hollywood connections.  Pumpernickel was out.

    The next time I saw Pumpernickel, I asked him if there were any hard feelings.  He shrugged.  "Show business, Fess.  Par for the course.  I discover them, develop them, and they move on. Luna is now a star.  My work with her is done."

    I hear Sid is back scouting the show bars in Queens and Brooklyn, looking for undiscovered talent.  And I see him now and then at Tiny's, so I guess he's still keeping ahead of his tab.

copyright 2001

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