The death yesterday of boxer Max Schmeling yesterday in Berlin couldn't help but trigger thoughts in my mind of his great adversary in the ring AND eventual vanquisher, Joe Louis. Which, in turn, brought to mind memories of Joe's old friend, Leonard Reed. I worked with Reed off and on (more on than off) for nearly ten years on an as-told-to autobiobiography, which was also a memoir of his life and times with Louis. They toured a knockabout vaudeville act throughout the world for more than a decade, with Leonard performing as a character named Bearcat. But due to a combination of factors, our book never saw the light of day.
Reed was ultimately a pain in the ass to work with, but I remain convinced that his was truly A Hell of a Life (the proposed title of the autibio). The book I worked on with Leonard would only have drawn much attention if he were around to help publicize it. . . which he was more than capable of doing well into his nineties. Now it is too late. Most of the following was written almost ten years before the passing of Reed in 2004.
"When did I first realize there was a black/white difference? Back in 1920 or so when I was thirteen or fourteen I suppose. I was working in a carnival in Enid, Oklahoma. All the comedians were on stage in blackface, and all the girls were up there, too, singing and dancing. And just then, this woman---one of those people in every town who came around to see if the show was 'moral'---snatches me right off. She thought I was white. She said, 'Get down from there with them n****rs! Don't ever let me catch you up there with 'em.' So I went and put on enough cork to pass for black. And that's how I got back on stage."
This is the voice of Leonard Reed, a man who not only "got back on stage" but who when he spoke these words to me he was celebrating his celebrating his celebrating his 75th year in show business. He may be far from being a "household name," but to those in the know, Leonard Reed remains one of the most unique, fascinating and well-respected figures in modern entertainment history.
Reed was unquestionably a household name for a half-dozen years in Harlem when he was a jack of all trades for 125th Street's famous Apollo Theatre. Starting out in 1952 as emcee of the legendary Wednesday Amateur Nights, after a year Reed went on to co-manage the showplace., in addition to rehearsing the productions and acting as emcee and comic for many of the shows. MORE