The Strip, the Stars, and the Shady Cast
Damon Runyon, who ran away from home at 14 to serve in the Spanish-American War, was a journalist whose writing I always admired. A critic once called him "the prose laureate of the semi- literate," because he focused on New York City's gamblers, bookies, gangsters, and chorus girls. He described them with slangy humor and affection in such hits as "Guys and Dolls." His world of these Broadway types always made lively reading.
Not that many people in my age group in the 1960s had ever heard of Runyon. I was managing recording artists, young musicians whose recordings sold like items on the House of Pancake's menu.
One of them, a Monkee in both moniker and spirit, was a young Englishman named Davy Jones. When he hired me as his manager, the first thing he did was drive me over to a house in Hollywood.
He was barely able to open the garage door for me to see inside. Stuffed within, in mail sacks stacked wall to wall up to the ceiling, was fan mail he'd received but not yet opened. "Congratulations," David said to me. "You are my new manager, so you get to open and answer this mail." I was freshly minted at the game of management, so I tried to look calm. "How?" I asked. "I dunno," he replied. "You're the manager."
So that's what managers do, I thought. But I heard I could talk to a real pro named Elmer who would tell me what to do. He knew all about the world of musicians, for he ran a sort of nightclub or cabaret on the Sunset Strip where all the best bands played. Recording executives came shopping almost every night. It was a place I got to know very well.
My first problem was meeting Elmer. I drove to the address on Sunset Boulevard, but it was locked. Then a man came out of its rear exit. I said I was looking for Elmer. He looked me over carefully.
"Why?" he asked. I told him I was a new manager of rock groups and had been told he'd teach me the ropes if I had questions.
"I'm Elmer Valentine," he said, sticking out a huge paw to grasp my hand. Elmer Valentine? What a name! I had fallen into the world of Damon Runyon right in Hollywood. I didn't have to go to New York.
Elmer was true to his reputation. He knew everything and everyone. With me he was always a perfect gentleman. He later said he had "respect" for me. I could connect an entire English sentence without a pause; I didn't lie or cheat in our business dealings; and frankly, I liked him. He made me laugh. Soon we were pals. He quickly solved the fan-mail problem by giving me the name of a fan-mail office we hired to take care of my clients' mail.
When Elmer heard I also represented other famous musicians, he started booking my acts into his club. Elmer must have been the smartest math student in his class, because his club, especially on weekends, had lines two blocks long of people waiting to get in, and he always knew what the grosses would be that night. His computations were never off.
He was very easy in negotiating with me on the prices for my clients. I'd name a price, and Elmer would grunt and then nod. Certainly not the way I had heard it would be with him, from other managers. "Elmer will have you for breakfast," one manager said to me. Well, he did, a number of times. Then at other times, I'd pick up our check for breakfast. Soon enough, I was a fixture at Elmer's club and got to meet all of his friends. That's what kept me awake.
As manager, I was expected to be there when the club employing my clients opened up at, perhaps, 9 o'clock at night and stay until my clients had finished performing. This was my real problem. My clients were almost always the headliners. They got their names in bigger letters on the illuminated marquee outside than anyone else, and as stars they played last. If Elmer had been as boring as that entire atmosphere was to me, I'd have been sunk, for I fell asleep around 10 every night. Even with my eyes open.
But Elmer wasn't boring at all. In fact, I relied on him. I stood and talked with him outside the club a lot. He'd eye the Strip and point out, and sometimes introduce me to, its cast of amazing Runyonesque characters.
Elmer knew who was who and what was up. With me, he brushed up his English, but when his own pals came by, he fell into Damon Runyon dialogue. I'd make notes of some of the language I had heard, because someday I was sure I'd immortalize Elmer in a book or two. The nights seemed like days, my clients loved playing there, and the cash came rolling in, making everyone happy.
One night my mother insisted on coming to the club to hear a rock group that, out of all my clients, she liked the best. To my surprise, two of my aunts, some of her friends from her bridge club, and her best friend from the literature distribution committee at our church were with her. I thought of fleeing, but Elmer saw what was happening and rose to the occasion.
The seven ladies got the best table in the place. They then ordered up a storm of drinks: six colas and one ginger ale, which they nursed the entire evening.
LATER I tried to apologize to Elmer. "Listen, those ladies are all right," he said to me. "Lettum stay and have a good time. Of course, it is our best table: I've had to sit the vice president of A & M Records at the corner deuce, as a matter of fact - and they have been here four hours and we've sold seven sodas total, but..." "Gee, Elmer," I said. "Let me make it up to you...." But Elmer laughed and waved me away. He shook hands with each of the ladies as he left, telling them "the drinks are on the house" (all seven), winning their hearts and making them feel like true celebrities.
"What a wonderful man that Mr. Valentine is," my mother phoned to say the next day. "We had such a nice time. None of us had ever been in that kind of - uh, place - before, and we really enjoyed the music and the dancing and the crowds. Your boys really played well, we thought." It was a wonderful group, called The Byrds (animals were "in" at that time) and they did play well. I murmured something polite, and hung up to get some more sleep.
That night I ran into Elmer. I quickly apologized for the previous night. "Naw," he said. "Don't give it no thought. You know, they were real nice ladies. They...." and here I could see Elmer was struggling to say something very special. "They sorta gave my club some class." I beamed.
"Gee, Elmer, I was just thinking," I said. "We could book them on slow nights to sit there and give your club some class." I was about to laugh, when I heard Elmer say: "How much for all seven?"