Conversation with the Mann
By John Ridley
Published by Warner Books
June 2002; 0446528366; 480 pages
You stop. You can't go on. Can't say another word. The clapping roadblocks you; the sound of the flesh of a thousand hands beating against each other. Men's hands-manicured, most likely, and pinky-ring-decorated. Women's hands-most likely jeweled on five or six or seven out of ten fingers; rings that match bracelets that match necklaces that match earrings. Most likely. You don't know. Not for sure. To all that you're blinded: the gems, the bouffants and pompadours, the sharkskin suits and the satin dresses; you're blinded to the high style of the times. The arc light spotting you cuts your vision and knocks down the people and all their finery to a silhouetted mass-a living ink blot-that jukes and jives and howls as a single thing.
Let me tell you:
It's better that way. Better they should be unreal and unintimidating, and that you are ultrareal, illuminated. Glowing. Three feet taller on the stage where you stand over the tables where they sit. Sight gone, all you're left with is the taste-yeah, the taste-and smell of the people; the smoke belched train-style from Fatimas and Chesterfields, chewably thick and unavoidably swallowed, but overpowered by twenty varieties of perfumes that run the scale of stink from Chanel to Woolworth's. You're left with the sound of the thousand hands and the whistles and the roaring voices with the occasional call that comes after a joke: "That's true. That's funny 'cause it's true." And all that keeps you from saying another word. You can't go on.
So, let me tell you:
I didn't go on. I stopped and I stood and waited for that ink blot to finish cracking up. I stood and I waited and I soaked up its applause and affection. I waited, and the waiting took time. The time the waiting took made the second show in the Copa Room at the Sands hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, run long. Like an unbreakable law of nature, the second rule of casinos was that the entertainment shows never ran long. The first rule was that you let the customer drink for free. Drink for free, eat for free, lodge for free . . . Generally you kept 'em happy so that you could keep 'em at the tables, where the odds are so stacked against them it's nothing but easy to separate money from their well-liquored, well-fed fingers. But for the casino to get their dough the customer had to be at the tables, and they couldn't be at the tables when they were in the show room laughing it up, swinging to some crooner, or otherwise engaged in non-gambling. The management, the boys from New York and Chicago and Miami-a balancing act of strong-armed Italians and slick-minded Jews-who quietly, very quietly, ran the casinos, didn't much care for their customers to be non-gambling. They hadn't traveled from city to desert to open a chain of hospitality suites. So rule number two: The entertainment shows never ran long. Hardly ever. The first day of October 1959 was an exception; twenty-four hours that were particular otherwise only in their insignificance: The Russians were behaving themselves. The Donna Reed show was new to TV. It'd only been a bunch of months since Barbie's first date with America. Freshly fifty-stated America. Other than that it was just another Ike-is-president Castro-is-evil Elvis-is-God day. Except, the second show in the Copa Room at the Sands hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, did the unthinkable and ran long, and it ran long because of me, and I wasn't worried in the least about upsetting the Italians or the Jews. I was the opening act for Mr. Danny Thomas. The opener of any show got exactly six and a half minutes to warm up the audience for exactly forty-three and a half minutes of headline, straight-from-Hollywood, star-powered entertainment before they were herded back out to the casino for another complimentary mugging. But on that night, same as a lot of nights, I'd killed. I hadn't just done well; I'd slain the crowd, left that ink blot flopping in the aisles. I had to stand and wait for the people to drain themselves of laughs and claps.
Some headliners don't dig an opener going over big. You get rolling and they'll have you yanked two and a third into your six and a half. The show is about them and only them, and don't even try to give them something to follow. But Danny Thomas wasn't Charlie Small-time. Danny Thomas was the spit-taking star of the number four Nielsen-rated show on television. Danny Thomas could follow whatever I put out and take it higher. He tossed me the signal to stretch, to do an extra couple of minutes. An extra couple of minutes that would make the long show run even longer. So what? The management wasn't so Guido they didn't know an audience that good-time high translated into a bunch of crazy bets once they got back to the tables.
So let me do some extra bits.
Keep that customer happy.
I finally wrapped and Danny hit the stage, bringing me back out for a few bows. As he launched into a trademarked "Danny Boy"-the backing band big and brassy-and rode the crowd into his own special groove, I took up a spot at the back of the room, got perspective, and started questioning myself: How did I get here? A black kid from Harlem working the finest club in the glitziest city in the world, opening up for one of the biggest acts in entertainment. After only a handful of years of really making a break in show business, and there was almost nothing I didn't have. There was almost nothing I couldn't do.
Nothing, except walk out the doors of the Copa Room and into the casino itself.
It was 1959, and the only difference between Las Vegas, Nevada, and Birmingham, Alabama, was that down South they posted signs telling a black man where he couldn't go and what he couldn't do: WHITES ONLY, COLOREDS NOT ALLOWED. In Vegas you had to figure that out on your own. You figured it out quick-style. Stay off the Strip, stay in Westside. Stay the hell away from their casinos. Didn't matter how well you did in the show room, didn't matter how much the audience laughed or clapped or how many bows you took, out there it was still 1959, and out there blacks weren't welcome. Not to stay overnight. Not to eat. Not to gamble.
More than anything in the world I wanted to gamble.
Not for the jazz of laying a bet, or the sake of wagering money. What I wanted was to stand at a table with all those people-suited men, ladies in their best dresses-living high and living fast and living Cocktail Society. I wanted to see them do a Red Sea-part as I made my way to the roulette wheel and listened to all their starstruck bits: "Great job tonight, Jackie." "Heck of a show, Jackie. Don't know when I cracked up as much." "Would you mind saying hello to the Mrs., Jackie? She's such a big fan of yours. It would mean so much." I wanted them to fawn and gush and throw me their love same as they threw it at me when I was performing, when I was standing three feet above them.
I wanted them to accept me.
Accept me? They couldn't even see me. I got paid nearly a grand a week, I got pulled back up onstage to do more time by the biggest stars alive, I got standing O's . . . And when it was all over I got sent out the back door.
You know what went out the back?
Trash went out the back. Stinking garbage and rotting food and black comics got sent straight to the alley, never mind how well they'd just done in the show room.
Danny Thomas had the audience swinging. He had to swing them hard to keep them from thinking back and recalling a bit I'd done and murmuring about me. I was that good.
I felt warm. I felt vain. I felt a shot of pride, and it made me high. And then I did it. No back-and-forth debate with myself, no working my way to a decision. I just did it. I just pushed open the doors and walked out of the Copa Room and into the casino.
Loud as the casino was with all the pinging of slot machines and the mucking of chips, with crisp new money being crackled across the green felt, I swear the second I took step one onto the floor the place went morgue silent and twice as cold. I could hear every whisper. I could hear every look. Some of the looks said: Isn't that Jackie Mann? A few said: I didn't know this joint was progressive. Most of the looks said and said quite clearly: What the hell is a nigger doing in here?
And all that big-star bravado I'd carried with me melted from their hot stares and quiet contempt. I got the shakes. I got the sweats. I could feel a sheen of it collecting across my forehead. I remembered those pictures of the Little Rock kids, the ones who'd integrated the high school. I remembered the Jesus-don't-lynch-me fear sopped up in their race memory that seeped from the cracks in all that stoic jazz they put on. I knew that's how I must have looked just then: Jackie Mann, Negro agitator for gambling rights.
But I kept on. Doing my best high-class bits, I swaggered Peter Lawford-style for the roulette wheel, my eyes on the prize. A hundred-dollar bill came up out of my pocket. Let them all see. Let them see how big Jackie Mann plays. I just hoped they couldn't see the sweat stain that Ben Franklin's face had soaked up from my palm.
So close to the table . . .
That's when I got stopped. Blocking my path, one of the casino housemen-horned into a suit that didn't begin to cover his heft-planted himself between me and the roulette wheel.
"No" was all he said. That plain. That simple. That harsh. Not "I'm sorry, Mr. Mann" or "You know the rules, Mr. Mann" or at least "Hey, Charlie, beat it before you find out what hot water is." He just said no like I was some dog he had to scold for soiling his favorite afghan.
Everywhere else in the casino the stares got louder, they encouraged the chucker to do something about the uppity colored who'd wandered into their playground.
I tried to peek around the guy. If I couldn't gamble, at least let me see the table up close. At least let me get tossed from the floor having accomplished that much. Or that little. I couldn't hardly see anything. The goon was not an easy cat to look around.
He said to me again, "no," then cracked the knuckles of his right fist, weeded with black hair, in the clutch of his left hand. The sound was the same as rocks getting crunched. This one got paid to deal with trouble. Trouble was what he was hoping I'd give him. Hell, trouble or no, he was ready to throw me a beat down just for practice-one more in a string of abuses I'd been taking the whole of my life.
Defeat crawled over me. Humiliation crawled with it.
From behind: a hand on my shoulder.
Swell, I thought. The houseman's got pals. A beating was about to come at me from all sides, front and back, panoramic and in Vista-Vision.
Except . . . The houseman's eyes went wide and his lips started to jump around. A lyrical voice behind me said to the heavy, told him: "It's okay. Charlie he's with me."
First off I thought it was Jack Entratter, the hey-boy who fronted the Sands for its out-of-town owners, who'd stepped in to square things for me. But as I looked, I saw the hand on my shoulder was dark-skinned. Dark-skinned to the point it made me look octoroon. The sight of it was a sock that knocked me over to Queer Street. What black man, what black man in Las Vegas in 1959 could put that kind of fear into a roughneck on the casino payroll?
I turned and I saw. I turned and I looked into the eyes, the one good eye, of Mr. Sammy Davis, Jr.Copyright © 2002 John Ridley
Reprinted with permission. (back to top)
"What do you want?"
"I want the Ed Sullivan Show."
At the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, like a lot of black Americans, comedian Jackie Mann wanted to be somebody. And for him there was only one way to achieve that: to make it big. Make it, no matter the cost: friends, family, one's own self-esteem and self-respect. This is the story of a young man's journey from Harlem to stardom, a story of Hollywood royalty, New York glitterati, Vegas Mafiosi, Northern bigotry, and Southern racism. This is a story of love, honor, betrayal, and redemption; of fame bought and paid for by any means necessary. It is the story of one man's desire and an entire race's demands, and the incredible moment when the two came together as one. This is the story of Jackie Mann.
John Ridley is a multi-faceted talent in film, television, and publishing. The author of three highly regarded novels and a former producer on NBC's Third Watch, he wrote and produced the film Undercover Brother, conceived the story for Three Kings, and wrote and directed Cold Around the Heart. His critically acclaimed novel Stray Dogs was made into the movie U-Turn, directed by Oliver Stone. In addition, he is also a regular commentator for National Public Radio.