THE picture in the fan-mag showed this gangly kid in jeans and a sweat shirt, his face contorted, mouth wide open, beating with both hands on a bongo set round his shoulder, over it the headline BONGO SCORES AT TOM-TOM. The same terrible stuff, but this time it was good, because it was me who dropped the dead-beat drunk columnist a fiver to run it. Because this new boy Bongo Herbert, playing nightly for the past week at the TomTom expresso back of Frith Street, is under contract to nobody but me. Half of the ten pounds he picks up this Friday comes to me. Half of everything he beats out of those little bongos for the next three years comes to me.
I checked my capital of twenty-three pounds and some shillings useful for unavoidable tips, the balance of a fifty-pound fee for publicizing the Wally Burn Flames tour. Free as a pimp or an artiste’s manager I walked over to the Tom-Tom to collect my first week’s unearned income.
Not so unearned. For three weeks after I found my property beating and shouting himself into a frenzy on the corny Jazz Boat Stomp which the Flames signed off with, I had wet-nursed that kid along, bought him cigarettes and coffee and sandwiches, a couple of sweat shirts with bongos painted on them, a pair of tailored black jeans, and a fancy haircut, turned him from Bert Rudge, snotty-nosed nobody, to Bongo Herbert, Britain’s latest answer to America’s latest solution of how to keep discs selling by the million. Not that Bongo was answering back yet. I wouldn’t be in profit for another couple of weeks, and then only if Leon at the Tom-Tom kept him on that long.
“The boy’s great, isn’t he Leon?” I said.
“I’m getting my Italian peasant-style cups and saucers broke,” Leon complained, “from where these mad kids keep time bashing on the tables. Two tables also is already broke in the legs.”
“You’re doing great business Leon,” I told him, and showed him the fan-mag.
“It’s a good publicity,” he said. “How much costs a whole page in this paper?”
“More than the ten you’re paying my boy,” I pointed out.
“I keep him another week maybe,” Leon said grudgingly as he handed over ten dirty but attractive notes.
“You take him for six weeks Leon,”I replied, “or we beat our tiny brains out in some other expresso.”
“Six weeks at ten,” he said.
“At fifteen,” I corrected.
So I sold Bongo to Leon for twelve a week for six weeks. At this rate Bongo would be a very old teen-ager before I could retire to the South of France. Kids with imitation American gimmicks were rocking their managers into comfort while I wasted my life on café expresso and doughnuts. It was humiliating.
Still, Bongo was a good boy — a good simple unspoiled boy. When I gave him his five, his first week’s money, there were great oily tears in his eyes.
“That only leaves you five for yourself guv,” he muttered. “You should take more. I wouldn’t get nothing without you.”
Such trust and honesty deserved my support.
“Take it Bongo,” I told him with a he-man pulled-punch to his jaw. “Half of everything you make is going to go to you kid.”
I knew Bongo could be the answer. After all, Tommy Steele had been standing in for Elvis Presley (who was too busy counting his dollars to bother coming after softer currencies in person) for a year now. A year is a long time in the life of a teen-age idol. The seventeen-year-olds make the most capricious public in the world. They want someone new to get excited about every few months. It has to be someone who is (or can act) not much older than themselves, and since the mob is mostly female, the talent has to be male and sexy (or able to act it). It has to be someone with a nobody background — rags to riches in five yelping stages — from dirty sweat shirt to gold lamé sweat shirt. It had to be Bongo.
That night at the Tom-Tom it was.
The place was stacked with sweating teenagers (and a few who would like to be) wearing Vince Man’s Shop jeans with heavy rollnecks, close-fitting Charing Cross Road teddy trousers and velvet-collared coats bought on the hirepurchase, string ties hanging in the cold coffee, suède Jeff Chandler lumber jackets, and bright strained cotton sweaters dashed with cigarette ash and crumbs from Leon’s special pizza. There was smoke in the Tony Curtis hair styles, and smoke around the pony tails. Thick badly applied mascara ran down the face of a girl in a black jersey and ski pants crying in a corner, while a spade with big white teeth chipped one of Leon’s valuable cups beating it out with Bongo.
Backed by a frantic skiffle group called the Beasts (hungry for pizza and applause), Bongo found rhythms which were crude enough for these simple-minded low-budget good-timers to believe in. He bashed the baby drums, twisted like an electric eel, and shouted a meaningless string of words we had thrown together.
The boy had something — a something which wasn’t commodity in the days when talent with polish was expected. He was contemporary-style: elementary violent energy coupled to an inane but genuine gaiety (at this price what did he have to be gay about?) which hooked these yokels from Elephant and Castle and points south by the grubby scruffs of their immature emotions and flung them far away from the kitchen sink, the stale oilcloth, the nagging mothers, and the bellowing bewildered fathers, and dropped them writhing into a synthetic tropic confusion. Or, as Bongo, yelping and chi-yiking in his hoarse Hoxton voice, put it:
Ex-presso — bongo
Fla-menko — bongo
Tooo-baygo — bongo
Caa-lypso — bongo
Bongo — bongo — calypso — bongo
WHILE Bongo broke off for a while to pour coffee down his gravel throat and let his bongos cool off, I turned to the thin, oily-eyed dyspeptic whose poker face had grown longer with every bongo!
“Another cappuccino Mr. Mayer?” For it was no other than the hard-to-get talent spotter from Garrick Records himself whom I had caressed through an expensive dinner and dragged into this hellhole to hear my talented client. His eyes showed the glaze of six brandies and a genuine dislike for this kind of music.
“Have another, Mr. Mayer?”
“Keeps me awake,” he complained.
I might as well get it over with, I thought. “What’s your feeling about the boy?” I asked him.
“Nausea,” he replied.
Well thank you and good night, Mr. Mayer, I thought.
“The kid’s got a great gimmick, Mr. Mayer,” I said, my eyes bursting with enthusiasm, my teeth bared in the full smile of the confident loser.
Mayer wiped coffee stains from the corners of his dry mouth on a grubby handkerchief monogrammed “O" — must be for ostrich. He refused to see something great when it happened.
“You know,” he said, “I am really by nature an opera man. I think Aïda is a work of beauty and excitement. All this” — he waved a thin, contracted claw in the direction of Bongo and the Beasts — “all this kind of thing is deeply sickening to my temperament. It so happens, due to the irony of fate, in opera I lost my shirt . . .”
“You put on some great shows, Mr. Mayer, show business doesn’t forget,” I said, sycophantic as ever. I waved the fan-mag with the Bongo headline under his nose like potpourri. “This boy’s not doing bad.”
Mayer sighed. “I lost my shirt,” he repeated. “Yet from this disc lunacy I make money.”
It was getting too late to sit listening to the reminiscences of an old O-for-ostrich has-been impresario.
“Well thank you Mr. Mayer for being so frank,” I said (he should be this frank once more and drop stone dead).
“Like I say,” he continued sadly, “for me personally this kind of thing is torture. I’ll give thirtyfive pounds for your client and the group, two sides, no royalty, one-way option to the company. Record next week. All right?”
“Mr. Mayer,” I said, blinking, “so you really think the boy has something?”
Mayer got up to go.
“I don’t know — I don’t care,” he said. “These young idiots seem to want this kind of thing so let’s sell them what they want. Maybe next week, with this Bongo boy, we lose a few pounds. So what? The week after we find a Tommy Steele and make a profit.”
The mob had gulped down the pizzas and expressos and was shouting for more Bongo.
“Listen to them Mr. Mayer,” I said with missionary fervor, “they want him — they want him, Mr. Mayer.”
“Don’t get so excited,” he said, as he rose, a thin lost waif of an impresario. “Here they don’t have to pay for him. A record costs six shillings.”
As the kid, fresh again, began to beat on his little skin money boxes, I worked out how many discs at six shillings Mayer had to sell before Bongo earned me my first thousand.
Assuming we got onto a royalty basis of 1½d a disc with our second recording, it came to almost half a million.
Meanwhile, take off a fiver for the skiffle Beasts and the evening’s work showed me and my boy fifteen apiece cash. Not exactly the late Mike Todd’s kind of money — but I was in profit.
I love those words.
WHEN I came out after the recording session Regent Street looked mellow in the late afternoon sunshine. The traffic was soothing after the six hours of bongo and skiffle, bad jokes and adolescent exhibitionism which we had condensed into two sides of a wax disc.
I crossed by Liberty’s and cut through Poland Street to take a late lunch at the Roll-Mop.
It took two salt-beef sandwiches to revive me. Then I started to sketch a review of our great contribution to teen-age dream life.
Expresso Bongo/ Bongo Calypso
(Garrick Pop. 786)
The up-and-coming bongo boy starts to beat his way into tomorrow’s hit parade with his own number, Expresso Bongo, a foaming, furious farrago of tropicality powerfully supported by the Beasts bongo group. Hate or hug him, Bongo has something that’s new, a swaying calypso beat woven around a rock foundation. Here it is kids. Bongo you beasts.
Good, I told myself, that earns you the giant slice of cheesecake.
I forked the cheesecake up, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. Because supposing Bongo’s disc did get the notices — so what? The only way you ever sell a record is by getting it heard — which means plugs by TV or radio, preferably both. I’m not saying such plugs can be bought — but supposing they could, was I in a position to outbid the established managers? Even this cheesecake was, strictly speaking, a luxury I couldn’t yet afford.
Now we were started on this success kick and I saw the whole terrible long drag stretching before me, Bongo didn’t seem such a wonderful property any more.
I looked him over as he sulked in the kitchen of the three-up and two-down Hoxton hovel he lived in with Mum, a baggy old harridan, Dad, a brick-faced bricklayer, and younger sister Edna with adenoids stunting the growth of nothing except her brain.
Bongo, the hope of Hoxton, his cockscomb of platinum-tinted hair drooping under Mum’s accusing predatory hen’s eye, our breadwinner — with both of us doubtful for the moment.
“You say, mister whatsit,” she gobbled. “How much is he making at that West End place where he’s been night after night?”
“Just a fiver a week Mrs. Rudge,” I said, “but it’ll get —”
“A fiver,” she whispered hoarsely. “A fiver!" she screamed as if it were a swearword. “The little bleeder’s still giving me two pound a week when he’s knocking up a fiver?”
“Haven’t I got expenses?” Bongo muttered. “I got a lot of expenses.”
“Have kids,” she told me, “go on, have kids. I don’t know what we have them for.”
“He’s a good boy Mrs. Rudge,”I told her. “He’ll look after you fine.”
“Have kids,” she went on. “I got that drunken loafer can’t have two ha’pennies in his pocket without being a good-time Charlie with drinks all round for every Tom Dick and Harry. And that Edna always after the boys — where’s she going to end up? And him,” she pointed accusingly at poor beaten-up Bongo, high-living his way out of her heart on three pounds a week. “I don’t know what we have kids for,” she repeated querulously.
Then it was Bongo’s solo. “I know what for,”he said quietly. Then all that energy came roaring up like a hot geyser. “So you can bleed the poor bastards white,” he screamed. “Call yourself a mother,” he hissed. “I never had a mother. Just you, that’s all — you.”
When Bongo finished telling her, she looked like a pricked bladder of off-white lard — a tired, gray old char who had scrubbed millions of square miles of floor to find at the end that the earth was flat and the edge of it a precipice complete with only son to push her off.
So Bongo walked out, leaving the home fire doused and faintly smoking behind him.
By the time we’d got back into Town with Bongo simmering his injustices fitfully all the way I had enough case history. I wasn’t strong enough to sustain another bongo that night. So I dropped him at the Tom-Tom and wandered over to a small-time nude revue off Brewer Street which included an occasional friend of mine called Maisie whom in her way was very fond of me — or you — or whoever paid for her singing lessons, a subject on which she was hipped as a result of having the ambition to be a Judy Garland but not the voice yet.
Maisie was representing Coventry that night, by wrapping her legs round the neck of a stuffed horse behind the chorus. Neither she nor the horse was permitted by law to move. After the tableaux (laughingly called “Vivant”) were finished, we had some dinner in a Chinese restaurant and she complained for a while about how everybody neglected her voice. Then we followed the indigestion and neglect up with a bottle of Irish whisky at a club where a Negro sang a calypso about how much worse than a man-scorpion a womanscorpion can be. Then we two scorpions went back to her nest. In the morning I had two pounds left but there was still the indigestion. I also seemed to have won the calypso singer, because I couldn’t get the song out of my head. If I ever write a book I’ll call it What Maisie Did and sell it in purple cellophane covers.
You can tell the temper I was in when I walked into my flat at midday and found the kid sleeping slob-like in his sweat shirt on my bed.
I dragged the blankets from under him and he shouted, “No Mum,” and woke up.
“You missed a great night at the Tom-Tom,” he grunted.
“I’ll live anyway,” I replied. “Thank you for keeping my bed warm and get out of it.”
“The telly boys were there last night,” he said as he pulled on his jeans.
“The who?” I kicked Bongo’s shoes over to him and opened a window.
“The television film boys. They was there all night shooting.”
What was he saying? Could I have, after so many years, this kind of luck?
The short answer to that was — I couldn’t. I checked up with the television boys and, yes, it was true they’d been filming Bongo at the TomTom all evening—for a big documentary program called Teen-age Rebellion. The bill co-starred Bongo and other delinquent types with a magistrate, a psychiatrist, and the governor of a Boys’ Remand Home. This was exactly, I told them, the kind of plug Bongo needed.
“The material is magnificent.”the eager young director told me. “That boy is demonic.”
He agreed to do his best to get the demonic boy a variety spot if we didn’t object to the documentary.
“The way things are.” I told him, “just get us a few quid in cash and you can insult my client as much as you like.”
Every cloud has its silver lining, as Mrs. Rudge herself must have observed more than once during her long, dreary, silverless, and clouded life.
We didn’t know that the cloud had turned and was shining for us until a fortnight later when Teen-age Rebellion turned out to be a big hit. And it wasn’t for the magistrate, the psychiatrist, and the Remand Home governor either. It was Bongo who got the notices.
They had used his sound track all the way through the program. The shots of him beating the life out of Mother and Hoxton in the shape of a pair of midget drums had real power. When the camera moved right close in on Bongo’s face those tired TV critics woke up and reached for their adjectives. Myself I just felt frightened of what was going on there behind the bright eyes and that twisted dry mouth.
Mayer moved fast and got Bongo’s disc out ten days early, and now we didn’t need any help to get bookings. In quick succession Bongo skinned the black cat on Jack Jackson’s program, was introduced by Jack Payne as “that terrifying teenager,” and was discovered by four radio disc jockeys in the same week. Whereupon Cyril Stapleton gave Expresso Bongo the lead in his Daily Express column, and the fan-mag that had been the first to feature Bongo ran him as a cover story, giving Mum big play for her golden heart and undying faith.
Bongo, you beasts.
PEOPLE who don’t know (and this includes quite a few who should) see a lot of pictures, headlines, blurbs, and puffs, they hear a name being talked around, and straightaway they start counting how much money it means in the bank account of the overpublicized one.
But if publicity was dough, every little starlet in Town wouldn’t be plotting how to marry a millionaire — she would be one. Similarly with me and Bongo. We were making a big impact but there was still a lot of merchandising to be done before you could say that my property was a solid investment.
Certainly Expresso Bongo was running away but, if you remember, I had sold Garrick Records the whole show outright for thirty-five pounds. Stupid of me — but poverty and Mayer had taken advantage of both my good nature and my judgment. All the good that particular best seller was doing us was in those newspaper clippings.
Of course, Bongo was picking up television fees here and there, but booking agents just laughed and laughed when I asked a hundred a week for him on tour. According to them, in the provinces the public didn’t watch television or read the newspapers. But the fact of no bookings apart, maybe to let Bongo get lost up North for a few months would be bad businesswise. The reputations were made here, in the Smoke. So what the hell, so long as a few pennies were tinkling in nicely — why be greedy? In fact, how be greedy, when no one is offering you enough to get greedy about?
Still we didn’t need the Tom-Tom any more. It cost him blood, but Leon went as high as thirty a week for Bongo to stay on. “It’s not the money Leon,” I told him, “it’s just that we need a little more class than you can offer.”
As to class, at the top there’s the Café de Paris booked solid with Dietrich, Coward, Bankhead, and Steele. After that there’s the Diplomatique — not in the same team but trying hard and spending plenty. In fact the Dip had spent so much, their publicity boy Mavers told me (over a drink in the Café de Paris), that the cabaret budget was going to be axed for a while.
“What?” I asked, luxuriating in the champagne cocktail he stood me on his as yet unaxed expense account. “No more of those great, completely unknown American artistes hot-foot from their phenomenal success at a barn dance not far from Las Vegas?”
“No more,” he replied. “We had Danny Reno, fell flat on his face; Beulah Heat, fell flat on her back; Gig Rand — the Tommy Steele of America — would’ve been a better show if his guitar had electrocuted him.”
“Not to mention,” I mentioned, “that animated corpse delectable of the silent screen — ”
“Don’t mention her name,” Mavers sighed. ‘She fell flat in her coffin. So anyway,” he continued, “you can see why the Dip is dipping. Don’t I hear that you are now operating as an honest manager, if you’ll pardon the contradiction in terms?”
Suddenly I could see it all clearly, and so, within another champagne cocktail (which I sportingly paid for) could Mavers. For patriotism, youth, vitality, and the business graph of the Dip, why not try Britain’s own new star — the only boy with a gimmick the Americans hadn’t thought of first — Bongo Herbert.
“What have you been paying these transatlantic hams?” I inquired discreetly. “Your press stories, possibly exaggerated, said thousands.”
“You might get a hundred a week on a single week booking,” he replied. “Provided you agree to announce that we’re paying him five.”
“For you,” I said to him, putting my arm round his shoulders, “I’m prepared to make that sacrifice.”
YOU’VE got to hand it to Mavers. True, he was in danger of being axed himself if the Dip’s business didn’t improve. But Mavers deserves all the credit in the world for stage-managing Bongo’s first night.
The Dip was crammed with those indispensable free-eaters who carry knives under their Moss Bros. dinner jackets, accompanied by the pretty publicity-hungry pouter pigeons who settle wherever there’s a flashlight. My pigeon these days was usually Maisie. She was after all perfectly equipped to be a temporary fixture, except she wouldn’t give up learning to be Judy Garland — but I am a man who, when in funds, does not object to wasting the price of a few singing lessons. All of us there that night agreed that whether Bongo was good or not, Mavers’ production had star quality.
Because suddenly, out of nowhere, there was a Fan Club complete with bongos beating its way past the commissionnaire to mob Bongo as he came down the stairs at the end of his act.
Who bothered to ask wasn’t this the Danny Reno fan mob divorced from Danny; who cared that six weeks ago they were screaming for Gig Rand, or that next month they would foam and swoon for some as yet unbooked talent? Fans all look alike and are expected to materialize magically from nowhere like maggots. Normally they’re kept outside on the pavement. Mavers’ innovation was to tip off the commissionnaire to let them break through. The resultant pictures were much appreciated by all.
There was a good selection. Golden boy acclaimed, hysterical bobby-soxers swoon, a fine set of grainy action shots. But the best of all was the dressing-room picture of Dixie Collins, the wellknown myth, giving Bongo the look that had sold sixty-eight films and withered about the same number of leading men. Dixie was always good for a quote, and this time the quote was really quotable. “This slim, vibrant boy doesn’t need talent,” she said throatily. “He has more life in him than a dozen talents. Vitality is the greatest talent of all.”
Call it vitality, talent, or genius if you like, but personally I am not inclined to kid myself. I am rather one who prefers to kid others. And this is something you can only do so long as you have a strict regard for the truth. If you really believed you were selling gold bricks how could you offer them so cheap? The gold on Bongo was no more real than the white beard on the Father Christmas at Selfridge’s, yet look how that show runs year after year.
So far as I could ever see, Bongo was a normal healthy crazy and mixed-up kid, plus a crude sense of rhythm and an amateur-night talent, which altogether looked like a big gay escapist time to a younger generation which didn’t know where to go. The older generation, with a belly full of wars and post-wars, was too tired from jumping over rising costs and crises to see the worry behind its children’s gaiety. So the kids were on their own — except for their discs and their fancy dress, and scrappy bits of excitement like Bongo.
But whatever Bongo had, that first night at the Dip it rattled like a pair of loaded atomic dice, and even if you thought it was mad or had nothing to do with art or talent, it made a fascinating show.
I happened to know why Bongo was more hopped-up than usual that night. In the afternoon he had been tracked down by his mum who, like the rest of us, needed money. You know all the dancing around that these Spanish performers do to get a bull excited? With Bongo all you had to do was produce his mother, or if she had a sick headache and was lying down, just mention her. However, the public is always right, and if Bongo was great for the public, then with me too he was great, just great. If anyone had any doubts about it, that picture and quote from Dixie clinched it.
There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that Dixie Collins is great because she has the name, the credits, and the important and celebrated friends to prove it. Furthermore, everybody feels a little proud that Dixie, the daughter of a Brixton bailiff’s man, has been a fabulous American success without taking out citizenship papers. When Dixie resettled in England she was accepted as a pillar and oracle of café society. For a woman admitting to fifty she didn’t look too bad either.
So there he was, my little gutter lily, glistening up at the fabulous Dixie Collins in the fabulous star dressing room of the fabulous Diplomatique. The headline over the picture quite rightly recited “Hoxton Boy Hits High Society.”
If it all hadn’t been so fabulous I would have seen she was giving him that look. I would have been warned.
IN Bongo’s third week the Diplomatique was doing capacity business. I’d had six numbers written for him, and Mayer rushed out another record which was climbing the hit parade very steadily. I was now working from a furnished apartment-office off Bond Street with Maisie as not the only secretary in London who couldn’t write shorthand or use a typewriter.
But she could do other things, like try to sing Over the Rainbow between answering the telephone. It wasn’t too hard to bear because the telephone hardly stopped ringing. The Dip was paying two hundred and fifty a week, we had a regular spot on a weekly television program for teen-agers, and Mayer was so embarrassed by the success of Expresso Bongo he had changed the habit of a lifetime and was now, after the first half million, paying us a small — a very small — percentage on it. True, Bongo was signed to Garrick Records for life, but then as Mayer himself put it, “Nothing is for nothing.”
I saw plenty of Bongo, rehearsing and polishing him till, with his natural audience sense and all the experience he was getting, he was beginning to look like a star, even to me.
So that Bongo’s life was now not only his problem, it was mine too. Not that there was any danger in that motley band of badly dressed and grubby girls who hang around every backstage. It was high society I didn’t trust, which though it includes some equally badly dressed and grubby fans, also comprises more dangerous animals. In this jungle, like in every other, the enemy is the dog with the bone. After years of fighting for other dogs’ bones, I now had my own. Experience told me that I would need to protect it.
I watched Bongo being salivated over bone-like by hordes of hybrid managerial canines. They didn’t frighten me because I have the same kind of teeth.
No — it was these classy kittenish debs, the doggy younger sons of dukes, and the tired old fashion-wise operators of neither sex I had to watch. And listening one night with my friend Maisie and her friend (whom he ignored) to Bongo talk, I realized that the favorite in the race for the bone was Dixie Collins.
It was all Dixie says this and Dixie says that, and what it amounted to was that now we were a success whatever the management said was corn for the birds, while Miss Collins was all of a sudden the female Gandhi of show business.
And Dixie had plenty to say. First she completely re-dressed us. That sweat-stained reality which had caught the reporters’ eyes was slicked up and deodorized out. We were a very chic Bongo when Dixie had finished having us dressed by the most chi-chi couturier her influence could get wholesale. Our hair was shaped into the Bongo bob featured by four women columnists on the same Sunday. Even our bongos were studded with rhinestones. We were now a pretty slick Bongo. We were also a Bongo that didn’t want to know whatever I had to say.
“Look kid,” I told my fast-growing love child, “you are great with the teen-age public just so long as you’re one of them. Start going fancy on them, just think of creeping out of your bracket, make as if you were, for one brief moment, superior to those immature bighearted cats who think you are themself only successful and rich — and you, my chick, have had it.”
“What do I care?” replied the sophisticated star. “What do I care about those grimy yobs? What do they know?”
“They know when you’re going high-hat on them,” I told him. “And furthermore, what do I care what you care? I am the one who cares. You think I am working to provide for your middle age, or maybe endow a bed in a children’s hospital? Your job, my sweet unspoilt Hoxton beauty, is to beat me out more and better hangovers in plushier settings. Don’t get ideas above your station, Bongo boy. There’s plenty more where you came from.”
Maybe I overstated my case, because that sensitive kid didn’t say another word. He just treated me as if I was his mother, and walked out. After the show that night I went round to his dressing room and saw that he had walked in on no one less than Dixie herself.
From now on it was Dixie and Bongo together in every column. She made him smart — so smart he even got into the habit of having his fingernails manicured, learnt which fork to pick up when the forks were real silver and there were several of them, and knew that with meat you took red wine. He was now so fashion-wise and poundfoolish he actually performed at a couple of important deb dances without being paid. It was at this point I felt compelled to object.
“Do what you like in your own time — I don’t worry,” I lied. “But when you take a booking, you fix it through me. We are not in this business to give your society friends inexpensive laughs. I still own 50 per cent of you no matter which part you’re giving to Dixie Collins.”
Afterwards I phoned Mavers at the Dip to tell him that one more week was all we could give him. Tomorrow I was signing in Bongo’s name a contract for a twelve-week tour at four hundred a week, and nothing the Dip had to say could be more interesting.
That tour was a perfectly planned operation. Mayer was to issue another disc, the fans and the publicity were ready and waiting, and even if Bongo looked too clean and had ideas above his station, nothing could stop us from making real money.
Nothing, that is, except that slumming bitch Dixie Collins. Although there are so many ways to break a contract, and she knew them all. the one she put Bongo on to was the dirtiest ever.
Like any innocent manager might, I had signed the deal for the tour on behalf of my client. But where, when the tour opened at Birmingham, was my client?
I’ll tell you where. He was staying at the villa near Nice of a lady in her own right. Among the distinguished guests was none other than that fabulous fifty-ycar-old female grifter, Dixie Collins. And among the undistinguished gate-crashers was me.
He was frying himself to a deep brown expresso tan when I arrived, sweating under the palms in the two-acre garden of the Villa Esperanza. His friend was out shopping with her ladyship, so we were able to be cosily boys together.
“Why are you crucifying me, Bongo baby?” I asked him gently.
“You’ve been a good start for me,” he generously conceded. “But can’t you see I’ve outgrown your kind of show?”
“Outgrown? I invented you, you big-headed moron.”
“That tour isn’t a good thing for me. A tour with a lot of kids screaming their heads off. Is that the best you can do for me? Is that all you want for me?”
“Four hundred a week is bad?” I asked.
“With you anything that’s money is good,” he shouted. “You’re just like that old woman of mine. You don’t care about me — it’s only the money. Dixie and me are talking about a film together,”
I see. He was an actor all of a sudden.
“I see,” I said. “I suppose it’s about this great star who is underneath it all just a lonely woman, and this great boy who is underneath it all just a cheap rotten little scut.”
Then Dixie and Lady Rosemary arrived back, wearing bright-colored sailcloth sun suits and loaded with expensive shopping. They had that elegant sinewy leathery smart look which is the sterling mark of the middle-aged woman-abouttown. Dixie had never spoken to me direct before. This time she did.
“This is one artiste you won’t be cheating any longer, you Soho Square shark.” she said concisely.
“Don’t think I’m pushing myself forward Miss Collins,” I replied, “but this artiste has a threeyear contract with me.”
“In a pig’s eye you have a contract,” she spat back, so unladylike that Lady Rosemary left the patio. “That contract is about as legitimate as you are. It gives you 50 per cent and doesn’t even guarantee him cigarette money.”
“What’s more,” she continued, her eyes glinting with the same kind of vitality she found so admirable in Bongo, “he was underage when he signed.”
“I can get his parents to sign that contract any time,” I countered confidently, but my heart was shrinking with fright.
“No you can’t,” she said, and it sounded like a rattrap snapping. “Because I’ve seen them and explained how you took them for a ride. The contract’s null and void so far as they’re concerned — and so are you. Bongo’s underage.”
I gave her that slow, dirty look that doesn’t change anything but is guaranteed to hurt a woman’s feelings.
“To me,” I said, before I turned and left her my property, “to me he looks all of a sudden very, very grown-up.”
WHEN I got back to Town the sky was hot and tired and heavy, the air dusty, each breath another stale coating on the lungs. I should smoke tipped cigarettes and have my cancer later in life I thought, standing in the apartment frowsty with Maisie’s clothes and phone messages from the Tovey Agency scattered all over. I read a letter from Tovey’s solicitor and lit an untipped cigarette. I might as well get my cancer as quickly as possible because the agency was suing me for failing to produce Bongo for the tour I had contracted.
For those who don’t get the strategy let me draw a sketch map.
I had been maneuvered by Dixie into a situation where, in order to protect myself, I had to disown my client. I had no alternative now but to go down on my knees to Tovey and try to crawl right out of the Bongo business. Of course I could go to Court, but that is something which, if you are a manager, you try not to do because everyone knows how artistes are so terribly exploited by us managers.
So with one sweet old-fashioned Dixie-style number here I was — off the gravy train.
Can you understand now why I smacked Maisie hard enough across the left eye to turn it black when she came in gaily chattering that she had found herself a new singing teacher who specialized in Judy Garland style?
Things were even worse by the end of the week, because although the Tovey Agency, having made me crawl and sweat, had finally let me off with a warning, they at once announced that henceforth they were solely and completely acting for that great new British star, Bongo Herbert — unfortunately forced to cancel his announced tour because of a slight operation. They didn’t say the operation involved was cutting me off Bongo.
I walked down Shaftesbury Avenue and it had never looked so grimy. A sandwich-board man, his gray jowls hanging hound-like below wet bloodshot eyes, puffed and blowed along the gutter. “The End of the World Is at Hand" was the message on his board and so far as I was concerned this rancid summer, he was right.
I walked slowly through the jammed, irritable traffic into Frith Street. As I turned the corner I noticed a fat man trimming delicately between two buses, holding onto his stomach with both hands, placing his feet carefully as if they hurt badly. By the time he caught up with me his face looked like a freshly boiled hunk of silverside. Naturally, on such a day, who else should buttonhole me but old gray squirrel-eyed Kakky Katz, formerly K. Arnold Katz, an extinct Hollywood producer. “I didn’t see you in a month of Sundays,” he said.
“You certainly didn’t,” I agreed. “It’s a small world but not really small enough.”
“At last I got a proposition which is hunderd and ten per cent,” he wheezed. “Such a heat today. Come in for a ice coffee, with whip cream, delicious.”
He put his arm round me and steered me into my least favorite expresso — the Tom-Tom. I looked round for Leon. He wasn’t there. Instead, there was an “Under New Management” sign and a pretty young man playing the Gaggia coffee machine with the dash of a theater organist. How quickly things change in this town.
Kakky squeezed his backside into a stall. It was an encouraging thought that someone as passé as Kakky could still keep fat. He was so dead that the long-haired cineastes (who hate live film makers) put three of his pre-accountancy-era movies into a National Film Theater series. There was a hundred-word tribute on the back cover of the program. “Pioneer of Spectacle” they called him.
The pioneer of spectacle bubbled contentedly until his iced coffee was finished. Then, as he sucked up the blob of whipped cream from the bottom of the glass, he told me his news.
“To cut off a long story short, Feigele-Lox want the remake rights of my great picture Rubáiyát. You remember my Rubáiyát?”
I remembered — a rambling, magnificent, phony-poetic, sex-saturated epic which, a quarter of a century before Todd, had taught housemaids the world over the secret life of Omar Khayyam.
“They want to make from it in the first place a stage musical in the West End. In the second place a musical on Broadway, and then, if everything goes, in the third place they will make a paronamic movie.”
“How can all this,” I asked with tired patience, “concern either you or me?” To twist the knife, the jukebox had started to play Expresso Bongo.
He belched delicately, settled back, and smiled. “By a slight oversight on the part of those hyenas that threw me out of Hollywood at the peak of my career, I happen to own the stage rights. Who thought the stage rights will ever be worth something?”
“So you’ll sell out,” I said, “and retire for the second time. Congratulations. It couldn’t happen to a nicer pioneer of spectacle.”
“Sell out nothing,” he replied. “I told Feigele it can be a musical only if I produce it.”
I chewed my straw slowly. “You know something K.A., I have on contract to me exclusively someone who could be great for Rubáiyát.” I spat the straw out.
“You made that Bongo Herbert wasn’t it?” he said shrewdly, doing a quick recheck on my credits as a talent judge.
“I certainly did,” I replied. “I don’t want to sell you anything K.A. Another iced coffee?”
“Rubáiyát, the way I see it” — he spread his hands wide to show the scope of his vision — “Rubaiyat is like for a new Judy Garland.”
“Kakky,” I said, “K.A.—you are so right. That’s what this kid of mine is — an absolutely brand-new, all-British, entirely gorgeous, real sexsational Judy Garland.”