Wednesday, August 27, 2014

LEONARD REED: A HELL OF A LIFE


Leonard Reed (no relation. . .that I know of) was born in 1907 and in his adolescence was swept up into the romantic world of live performing: carnivals, minstrelsy, medicine shows, vaudeville, and the legitimate theater. When he entered show business in 1915, traveling tent shows and carnivals were still in full sway. And although he soon gravitated to more sophisticated realms, Reed's career was based almost exclusively on "live" performance. It is somehow fitting that when Reed managed the Apollo Theater in Harlem during the 1950's---perhaps the last theater in the United States to present stage shows on a regular basis---he was also presiding over vaudeville's final rites. The Apollo struggled on for a few more years as a live showcase after Reed left in 1960, but the man himself rolled on. When I met Reed in 1985 he was celebrating more than seventy years in show business as a dancer, producer, comic, songwriter, choreographer, librettist, and manager.

Until the 1950's, with the rare exception of such entertainers as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Duke Ellington, the world of black show business was almost entirely segregated from that of white show business. Fair, with delicate features, Reed managed to troupe and tap his way through both worlds as the situation demanded. If work was available as a barker with a traveling carnival and it was expedient to do so, he "passed" for white. But if the action was with an all-black revue in Chicago as, for example, the ones he worked with as a choreographer and dancer in Chicago in the 1920's, then you'd find him there as well. I met Leonard in the summer of '85 when I was looking for people to talk about Dinah Washington, about whom I was thinking of writing a book. My friend, dancer Fayard Nicholas, suggested, "Call Leonard Reed. I think he worked with her early in her career." I set up an appointment to talk with him.

Reed was then operating out of quarters in a ten-story Hollywood office building owned by Scientologists, one occupied mostly by fringe entertainment industry types, including two-bit talent agencies, scuffling record promoters, and exploitation movie producers. . .all just a scream away from downtown Rape at High Noon (Van Dyke Parks' expression). Nevertheless, the man still had class. Impeccably groomed in a manner typical of show business veterans, Reed finished working with his last student for the day, and began to tell me about Dinah Washington: How he'd given the singer one of her first professional jobs, at Chicago's Regal Theater in the late 1930's; how he was "the first one to teach her, the first one to say, 'Here's what you do. Here's how to walk on stage, here's how to walk off.'" Possessing just enough black blood to have made things terribly difficult for someone born in racist America at nearly the turn of the century, the very light-skinned Reed has had to shoulder the burden of being a member of both races. "But," he jokes, with more than a trace of irony and bitterness, "I always knew what I was in Mississippi."

After my first meeting with Reed, I sensed that here was a kind of Don Juan and the Show Business Way of Knowledge: I wanted to hear as much of his own story as he was willing to tell. Reed perhaps sensed this; for when I left his office that first afternoon, he called after me,
"Do you have a place to hangout?" (He might just as well have added "kid.")
"No," I said.
"Well, you do now!," he shouted out as the elevator doors sprang closed.

And so, the next time I went to his office, it wasn't so much to talk of Dinah Washington, but about Reed and this show business in which he had been such a major player. And as the weeks wore on, I was hit with stories that jumped all over the chronological map and spanned the globe. One moment he was in Paris in the 1950's performing on the same stage as Edith Piaf; the next he'd leapt back in time to 1920, galloping across the Oklahoma landscape in a medicine show wagon pulled by wild horses. . .just like in the movies: With Reed performing from the back of the wagon with his partner Crackaloo, while a Fieldsian character by the name of Doc Clark conned the locals out of their last few pennies by selling them a patent medicine of turpentine and sugar. Another day, he quantum-leaped forward three decades in time to the Apollo Theater in the 1950's. And for months, through all of it, there was never a thought of getting it down on paper, just a desire on my part to hear recalled, first hand what it was like producing shows at the Cotton Club; working for AI Capone at the Grand Terrace in Chicago, and, of course, acting for many years as a theatrical straight man, golfing partner, and aide-de-camp to Joe Louis. Reed's last major show biz outing was working with producer David Merrick on a production of the Gershwin's Oh, Kay! In 1990.

In 1992 I co-curated an exhibit at the California Afro-American Museum about Black Hollywood in the 1940s. Part of the show was devoted to Reed's activities as a producer-choreographer on Central Avenue, Los Angeles' fabled entertainment strip. In the course of working on "Hollywood Days/Harlem Nights," I interviewed a number of old-timers---African-American entertainment professionals and "civilians" alike. Invariably I was told that Reed was a "very famous man in his time" who had performed "everywhere." But he was thought by many I spoke with to be no longer among the living. Not so surprising when you consider he had managed to outlive nearly every one of his contemporaries; moreover, premature reports of his death had already begun to circulate nearly a half-a-century earlier due to a serious auto accident. (Reed eventually DID die in 2004.)

Finally, in the early 1990s, I committed the biggest gaffe---let's call it major stupidity---that I've ever enacted before or since. To wit:
Beginning in 1985, I began tape recording an oral history of Leonard. This consisted of many dozens of hours of conversations. Parallel to this activity I also started the actual writing of a Leonard Reed memoir. Completing the book in 1992, I sent super literary agent Julian Bach a manuscript copy. Among his many successful clients were runner Jim Fixx (running guru) and Pat Conroy (The Prince of Tides). Bach got back to me almost immediately; he liked it very much and wanted to represent Leonard and me. I didn't tell Reed about this until I had all of our ducks in a row with Bach; and so I hopped the red eye from L.A. to NYC where I had scheduled a meeting with Bach. He already had a contract drawn up. Forthwith I jetted back to L.A. and phoned Leonard to tell him the good news. The phone conversation went something like this:

ME: Leonard, one of the biggest literary agents in the country wants to represent our book.
LEONARD: Who is he? How do I know I can trust him? I don't trust agents.
ME: Well. . .you trust me.
LEONARD: Well, I'm not sure I trust you either.

At which point I committed the above-noted unprecedented “stupidity”: I angrily hung up on Leonard who was the classic case of a “piece of work.” Knowing this, I should've just said, “Awwww. C,mon Leonard.” And he and I would have no doubt set up a meeting for a signing of the contract with Julian Bach. Instead, all communication ceased between us for a year-or-so until, finally, one day I received a phone call from him:
LEONARD: It's me.
ME: (annoyed) What do you want?
LEONARD: I had a dream last night that you died and I was just checking up on it.
Leonard must've sensed that this would amuse me and take the edge off of the phone call; if so, he was right. I don't think I've ever laughed harder in my life; this was just sooooo "Leonard." A degree of friendship was henceforth restored. But Bach was no longer interested in repping us and---now---neither was anyone else. Don't know why.

A couple of months ago I received an email from a former student of Leonard's asking me (not knowing that this book had never come to pass): “Do you have any extra copies of the book you did on Leonard?” I wrote back to him about how the publication of the book had managed NOT to play out. He laughed:
All that time with Leonard and you let him get to you like that. You should have known him better than that. That was classic Leonard. We all had to deal with that.
He couldn't have been more spot on.

--- Bill Reed, 2014


Thursday, August 14, 2014




















A while back I sent this self-published memoir, Early Plastic, to the chief editor at Harper Collins with the hope that "house" might be interested in republishing it. The editor wrote back that he'd laughed, cried, loved every minute of it, couldn't put it down (or words to that effect) but did not feel that he was in the position to publish a book by a---something along the lines of--- "nobody," "non-entity," "total unknown." But I hope that won't stop YOU from reading it. Kay Francis makes an appearance on the last page breaking wind in a summer stock production of "Hay Fever." And on p.157 I'm discovered hanging---ever-so-briefly--- with Charles Manson. Elsewhere in these pages I'm waking up from a bad acid trip in the arms of Barbara Parkins, swimming with Nico, and getting high with Tim Hardin. I might have been a nobody/non-entity/total unknown, but they, certainement, were not!

CHAPTER ONE: Beans and Kool-Aid My father, Tom Reed, traveled out of the state of West Virginia only twice in his life: once during a brief stint in the service in World War I, and a few years later to Staunton, Virginia. Reading my parents' love letters sent back and forth in 1918, when he was a student at West Virginia University and she was enrolled at Mary Baldwin Seminary, the pent-up passions between the lines makes it clear they couldn't wait any longer. So when she was sixteen and he twenty-two, my dad hopped a bus to Staunton, where the pricey girls' school was located, and they eloped. The next night found them blissfully back in West Virginia standing before a Justice of the Peace in whose chambers they wed in a double ceremony along with another couple. But the next normative step, settled domesticity, was a
long time coming. My parents did pretty much everything they could as members of the local fast set to avoid the reality principle, including commission of the Big Three No -No's: partying, drinking and smoking (in public yet!), with a possible fourth social transgression, my mother's bobbed hair. These Scott and Zeldas of the Hills were probably as responsible as anyone for what little of the Roaring Twenties that made its way to the medium -sized Bible Belt city of Charleston, West Virginia, where they set up housekeeping. Their unconventional behavior continued on well past the early 1920s with the birth of their first child, my oldest sister Ruth Dolores, and didn't stop with the arrival, a few years later, of my only brother, Tom, Jr. 

When I came along in 1941, more than twenty years down the line, it was an unexpected and apparently painful birth for a woman entering her forties. Later my mother appeared to revel in telling what seemed like rooms full of strangers how my breach birth had nearly killed her. I squirmed and felt guilty (and later angry) but eventually decided, in fashionable dysfunctionalese, to "forgive" this overwhelmed and overworked woman. My mother would end up having minors in her charge for forty years plus: four kids whose births were evenly spaced out over slightly more than a twenty year period. I find it a chore to care for a child more than a few hours at a stretch. 

As people once put such things, my mother, Mary Shelton, came "from money," but thanks to a combination of the Depression, thieving relatives, bad marriages, and terrible investments, by the time I came along the family's oil and gas empire had all but vanished. Anyone on my mother's side who had barely escaped "relief"-as welfare was once called-was considered fortunate. One of my mother's brothers, John, hacked and hewed away in area coal mines all his adult life only to expire poor of black lung in the early 1960s. During the summer, I would sometimes stay with John and his two sons, Joe and Sonny, at the shotgun shack they lived in at the nearby coal fields. There was a company store where you paid for goods with funny money known as scrip. At the time I remember thinking there was something quite fascinating about food and staples being bought with this "other" kind of money-almost as if one were living in a parallel universe . This was, I later learned, a classic example of peonage that kept American workers in their place with no possibility of looking for more advantageous employment elsewhere (vide the song" Sixteen Tons" and the narrator who "owes my soul to the company store"). I also remember my uncle had the thickest, bushiest eyebrows I'd ever seen, like twin canopies perfect for keeping coal dust out of the eyes and an homage to the equally hirsute miners' crusading champion, union leader John L. Lewis. 

Unlike many of my generation I was spared the usual Depression tales of hard luck and having to eat the family dog. With my father's bohemian sails somewhat trimmed by the late 1920s , he found himself steadily employed as a bookkeeper for a concrete supply outfit where he remained for the next two decades. As a result, our immediate family managed to move fairly smoothly through the Great Crash and its aftermath. Tom Reed, in the parlance of the times, was "a good provider" for his wife and eventual four kids-in addition to Ruth and Tom, my sister, Nancy, was born in '30 . I came along a few months before the start of World War II. About the only thing I remember were ration stamps which adults in the house had to keep away from me; if they didn't keep a sharp look out I would paste them allover everything in sight. I also dimly recall those gaudy, gold-stitched silk pillow covers with a painting of Mt. Fujiyama (and the like) my sailor brother, Tommy, brought home from the war. One other thing leaps to mind , that long ago precursor to eco-recycling, WW II Paper Drives. 

We weren't poor, we weren't rich, but whatever we were was a far cry from the affluence in which my mother had been raised. Around the turn of the century my maternal grandmother, Dora Downey, had married my prosperous grandfather, Richard Shelton. She was still in her teens and he was more than twice her age. Six children came along in fairly rapid order before he died of an eye infection in North Carolina sometime around 1915-fully a quarter century before my own birth. I still receive three and four checks every once in a while from oil and gas deals my grandfather made nearly a century ago. Not exactly like Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies but enough to warrant the comparison, when my grandmother was in her sixties she still had four of her six aging children (unmarried, widowed or divorced) along with several of their offspring still living under her roof . At one time, the matriarchal menagerie included my mother, my sister and I, when we stayed with her for a time in the late 1940s . Also on an itinerant or regular basis were my coal miner Uncle John and his two sons, Joe and Sonny, my Uncle Richard, a state government functionary, and my Aunt Ruth, a stereotypical old maid who loved and doted on her surrogate son, me (perhaps even more than my mother did). Years later as she lay on her hospital bed wracked with cancer, my prim and demure aunt looked up at me and dazedly let fly with a volley of four letter words when I hypocritically insisted she was going to be "just fine." I was astonished. It was probably the first time Ruth Shelton had ever uttered any such epithets in her life. Leaving her hospital room, the doctor assured me of my aunt's suspicions : she was not going to leave the hospital alive. But she did! The Cursing Cure had apparently saved her. The next five years she lived were probably her best. I have a packet of letters from her to that effect: "I'm reading Mary. Queen of Scots, also The Persian Boy. I just finished reading Nicholas and Alexandra. I thought it was very good. I read an awful lot but there isn't much else to do." All this has caused me to have a slightly queasy feeling regarding euthanasia. 

A half century earlier as a spoiled and pampered young wife and mother, my grandmother Dora Downey had acquired the habit of leaving her six children in the charge of governesses while she---and this was the word employed by nearly everyone in the family to describe her peregrinations---" gallivanted" about the state of West Virginia " spending money as fast as her husband earned it." And so it was that forty years later, living in a house now overrun with her children's children, the only things she could "cook" were beans, Kool-Aid, and Jello. Well into the late 1940s my eccentric grandmother still had an old-fashioned icebox in her kitchen the kind that called for the iceman to cometh on a regular basis. Because she preferred it over one of those new electric or gas jobs, I was sure this automatically meant it was a more efficient and economic method of preserving food. Maybe it was.

Having had parents as well as a grandmother with roots solidly sunk in the soil of an earlier time, I regard myself as more a child of the 19th than the 20th century. Heavily horizoned and cautious to a fault, I bought my current auto 25 years ago, always say Sir and M'am, call an increasingly dwindling supply of elders by their last name, and am often the last to pick up on the latest technological advances. 

AND THOSE ARE JUST THE FIRST THREE PAGES.



I'll be there. . .will you?


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

HAPPY HUNDREDTH TO. . .

. . . Gladys BENTley (clicksville)