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