“Secrets of 20th-Century Show Business”

Fiction by Howard Klein

    Harry Taradash’s office door was ajar so I gave it the old courtesy knock and walked in. He was crouched over, feeding glossy photographs into the paper shredder. He looked up, smiled, and waved me to a chair.                             
    “So boychick, this is gonna be your office?” he asked. His face had that beatific look of sweet resignation you occasionally observe among the elderly who have come to a quiet accommodation with their mortality.    
    “So I’m told. No rush about it Harry,” I said, easing into his client chair. “I understand you wanted me to stop by before I left for New York.”
    Harry sat up and rocked back in his seat. “What time’s your flight?”
    “I’m on tonight’s redeye into J.F.K.,” I said. He reached back for a crystal pitcher sitting on a tray on his credenza. “Want some? It’s fresh-squeezed ruby red Texas grapefruit juice. It’ll put zingading in your step.”
    “I suppose I could always use some extra zingading,” I said.
    He held up two carved glass tumblers. “Waterford crystal, the first gift I ever got from Chase and Carroll.” He poured the pink liquid into the glasses and gave me one. The juice was tart, quenching, and delicious with that bracing freshness that tingles the nostrils and did seem to put zingading in my step. I demolished the entire glassful in three gulps.
    “He — Jerry Chase — was your first client, right?”
    “First and only at the time. I signed him the summer of ’48. The year me and Harry Truman shocked the world,” he crowed.
    “You must have been barely out of your bar mitzvah suit,” I said, uttering a shamelessly transparent compliment. Nobody at the Elton Talbot Agency knew Harry’s real age as far as I knew. In L.A. you never knew. Out here that lively old guy look often radiates from men who trade in their shrunken old spouses for shopaholic chippies of 45. Nothing makes a man look younger and more serene than a snappy bimbo on his arm.
    Some guy in accounting told me Harry lived with a divorced daughter. So if it wasn’t a chippie his apparent vigor probably had something to do with his fighting spirit. He’d been at war with the partners over the past five years in a “twilight of the gods” struggle to force him out.
    Unfortunately for the partners, Harry held a sizable chunk of company stock, enabling him to block a big merger the partners had been salivating over for close to a year. Finally they sued. Harry lost a bruising court battle and the war. It was his last day.
    There wasn’t a thundering Gotterdammerung ending, only a cloying press release e-mailed to the world the week before, drenched in crocodile tears, about his legendary career. Why I’d been tapped to be the lone member of his bye-bye brigade mystified me. I hardly knew the man. When I’d been transferred to the L.A. office I’d listened to the lunch table gossip about his pathetic hanging on. We’d exchanged corridor nods and clamped lower lip smiles. Once we stood shoulder to shoulder in the executive restroom as we peed.
    I remembered him turning to me muttering, “Pissing goes from fire hose to leaky faucet with each passing decade, kid. Lessee, you look about like you’re at the public water fountain stage, right? Me, kid? I might be standing here an hour from now waiting for the last few drops to fall.”
    All I managed in response to his urinary chronological commentary was my usual silent nod and weak smile. I am a man who admits to himself that his success in life springs from little more than dumb luck and observing the rules of the road set down by one’s bosses.
    Cozying up to Harry while the firm fought to purge him could pose a danger to my recently elevated status as a vice president for live entertainment. So to me, Harry was just another antique around the office, like the 18th-century Gainsborough portrait of Lord Talbot opprobriously appraising the reality TV airheads and rap moguls who cooled their heels at reception waiting for their agents. The duke of course has nothing to do with the firm’s origins other than that he shared the same name as the bankrupt vaudeville hustler from whom the company founder had bought the New York office in the ’20s. A portrait of Al Capone or Meyer Lansky would have been more appropriate.
    Harry appeared to be unbloodied, and clearly unbowed. Still unshrunken at well over six feet, still ramrod straight, still sporting an immaculately barbered mane of wavy white hair atop a fine Roman head, he was a man who looked long accustomed to prevailing. He nodded approvingly at my little flattery.
     “I did start young. I joined the Marines in ’44 you know. I was 17. Served with the Fourth Division at Saipan,” he said, tapping his finger on a framed photo of himself in uniform. “See? That’s the Navy Cross pinned there on my chest,” he boasted.
    “Sounds loftier than a sharpshooter’s medal,” I said.
    “No lie, pal. It’s the highest decoration they could confer on a marine at the time, one under the Congressional. I don’t do geezer war stories so don’t ask me how I got it. The shorthand is stupidity and let’s leave it at that,” he said.
    “How’d you get from Saipan to here?” I said, shifting subjects.
    “I mustered out in L.A. in ’46. After a few weeks drinking and screwing my brains out in the sun, Brooklyn didn’t look so good anymore.” He laced his fingers into a tent below his chin pensively. His chunky gold comedy and tragedy cufflinks flashed in the sunlight streaming through the blinds. They had diamonds meticulously cut to form the mask eyes. They seemed to gaze eerily at me like gems in the skull of a jungle idol on a ’30s pulp magazine cover.
    “I hear they brought you out here from the New York office,” he said, changing the subject. I hear? What was that all about? His asking around the office about me? Curiosity and paranoia are usually a toxic mind brew but one tends to feed them anyway, like the Bob Slocum narrator in Joseph Heller’s “Something Happened.” Nonetheless I plowed ahead agreeably.
    “I covered live entertainment, mostly the Atlantic City and Connecticut casinos. I’m here — I’ve been told — to take over Vegas and the West Coast concert and live venues after Murray Pressman retires next month.”
    “Murray’s only 74,” he lamented, tossing a handful of Raisinettes from a jar into his mouth. He offered me some. My wife is a gauleiter in the sugar police. To her Raisinettes might as well be strychnine. I try to behave. Most of the time, really I do. For some odd reason a frisson of defiance passed over me and I cupped my hand as Harry dumped a hefty cascade of the little dark chocolate devils into my palm.
    “I’m the last dinosaur, kid. The tyrannosaurus rex with an inconvenient vault containing an inconvenient stack of Elton Talbot preferred stock certificates. But they finally got me, as you can see,” he said, waving his hand over the white Mayflower moving cartons stacked on the floor around his desk. He handed me a framed photo of himself on a golf course with President Eisenhower back in the ’50s. The younger Harry’s hair was still mostly black, his face beaming with that sweet expression of arrival he’d clearly believed he’d earned.
    “Impressive,” I said. Pivoting back to Harry’s history I said, “So you were saying, you remained in L.A.? After the war.”
    “Of course. I was going on 19. My testosterone was firing and this is where all the gorgeous broads on the planet were growing like low-hanging fruit. I took G.I. Bill night classes at U.C.L.A. and got a part-time gig here for afternoons. Solly Wachs himself hired me.”
    He produced another visual aid from another Mayflower carton. This one was a photo of him and company founder Solly Wachs posed with Humphrey Bogart at the l948 Academy Awards. “Solly had called me in a panic that night. He’d forgotten his tickets. I sped to the theater and saved him. My reward was getting to meet Bogart.”
    “He invite you to the awards?”
    “Nah. I was just a mailroom peasant. He slipped me a tenner and told me to take my girlfriend for a nice dinner at the Formosa chink house.”
    “Solly was a power in town by then,” I said.
    “For years already, sure. He’d originally fled Chicago in the ’20s. He was pressured by the mob after he’d bought a New York office, the Elton Talbot Agency, that’s where we got our name.”
    “Nothing to do with his worship hanging on the wall out at reception.” I said, lightly.
    Harry laughed. “Solly bought that in London in the ’30s — his sense of humor.”
    “He ran from the mob? He was supposed to be one tough dude,” I said.
    “He was. His running was a myth. Solly was the damn mob. Nobody, but nobody ever scared him. He was in the business of scaring everyone else.”
    “So you went direct to the mailroom?”
    “A year. Then Solly shipped me back to New York to train to cover nightclubs. That’s where I stumbled into Chase and Carroll before they were Chase and Carroll. A goofy comedian and a lazy crooner. I took these guys and conjured a legend.”
     I’d been told I was part of a youth movement designed to transform Elton Talbot from its fusty 20th-century roots into a new, hip, and headset-screaming army of banshees creating a 21st-century show business digitized money machine. The Ari Gold character on HBO’s “Entourage” was to be our avatar, not the blue-suited old gents who could no longer control their farting at staff meetings.
     Harry was skeptical. “Most of the young guys they’ve hired are idiots. But I did hear good things about you, kid.”
    He walked over to his paneled wall unit closet and opened the door with a full-length mirror inside. “Got time for a late breakfast? I got a back booth at Nate & Al’s. We can talk there. I explain better over lox, eggs, and onions.”
    “C’mon, boychick, you’ll hear it all.” Harry pressed.
    It was near 11. I’d had my usual fruit shake for breakfast at home that morning. My curiosity whetted, I agreed, not having the vaguest idea what old Harry had in mind.
    I watched him stand before the mirror observing each primping ritual of the great agents of yesteryear. He slid his long fingers down his pants, creating a razor-like crease. He ran a hand around inside his pants top to make sure his shirt was tucked in as flat as possible and didn’t balloon up over his crocodile belt with the big Hermes “H” pulled tight. He put on his suit jacket, held the collar fast with one hand and pulled the tail back with the other to make certain his jacket didn’t ride up and make him look like a clerk in the assistant water commissioner’s office or something. He popped his French cuffs so that his trademark comedy and tragedy gold links showed and finally tightened the perfectly pinched Windsor knot in his tie, smoothed his hands across his hair, and checked himself once more in the mirror.
    “Ready, boychick?” he asked. By continuing to refer to me in the Yiddish term of endearment for a young man, Harry was oddly seductive. On the one hand I felt like a consummate insider and on the other like a reporter for a high school newspaper come to interview some B-list old fogey who’d graduated a century before.
    I was fighting the idea of getting gee whiz about all this. This man had been the biggest of the big-time agents for over 60 years. Now he was just another pathetic old guy who had finally been shoved offstage kicking and screaming. One of those ghosts of show business past that everybody just nodded to when they’d passed his office, silently making book as to when he was going to be found slumped over his desk stone-cold dead.
    He had to have some kind of agenda. Agents don’t get out of bed in the morning without an agenda on something. Someone to hustle, someone to sell a has-been act, some Ivy League movie development moron to off a shitty script on.
    Did Harry have the Polaroids on old company secrets? If he did why offer them to me? Me of the personal appearances department which in big talent agencies like Elton Talbot were sort of the steerage sections of the sleek ocean liners that generated the big dollars out of the first-class deck of movies and television.
    I was just another shaved head grinder glad to have the job who lived in the valley barely paying a bloated mortgage. And come to think of it, why was I getting Harry’s big office to begin with? To tell the truth it was all beginning to feel spooky as hell but I didn’t have the guts to just beg off, wish the old guy well, and get back to my temporary cubicle and headset screeching.

    Howard J. Klein, a resident of Southampton, is a casino consultant. He was senior vice president at Caesars, Bally’s and Trump TajMahal in Atlantic City, where he created and produced the Grandstand Under the Stars outdoor concert series. He is the author of four nonfiction books and one novel written under a pseudonym.