Monday, June 18, 2007

Lenny Bruce, Part One

A man who wrote a regular column for the jazz "Bible" DownBeat Magazine in the early 1960's, invited me to accompany him to hear a rising comic who was already known for his incisive and irreverent humor. In a small basement room of The Madison Hotel in New York City, the unadorned brick wall the only backdrop, and a simple spotlight focused on a tall stool, I saw Lenny Bruce for the first time. He was a darkly handsome young man, with thick curly hair and flashing eyes full of mischief and intelligence. He proceeded to skewer political bloviates, celebrities, organized religion and certain American Puritanical attitudes regarding sex. He peppered his comments with frequent use of street lingo and hip musicians' terminology, often using language embellished with four-letter words and many phrases I'd never heard before. If I'd still been a practicing Catholic, I would surely have been heading to the Confessional because I enjoyed it all enormously.


In 1961 Lenny had been imprisoned on obscenity charges and in 1962 he was refused permission to enter Britain. "The comic, Lenny Bruce, was booed offstage in England," claimed the controversial radio journalist Walter Winchell. Eventually Bruce's show was banned both in England and Australia.

After a number of nervous nightclub owners began cancelling Bruce's show, assuming that it would only lead to police arrest, he was unable to perform his material. In 1962 the United States District Court in San Francisco, in support of a bankruptcy action, declared him a pauper. The idea for Bruce's autobiography, HOW TO TALK DIRTY AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE, was suggested by Hugh Hefner in 1963. It appeared in Playboy over the next two years and in book form in 1965.

Max Gordon, owner of The Village Vanguard, was no doubt acutely aware of the many problems and possible disruptions which might occur featuring Lenny Bruce as headliner, but he was (1) a fervent supporter of the First Amendment and (2) a shrewd business man. He knew the club would be filled with the curious, the true fans and the presumably humorless, under-cover members of the Vice Squad who would have to pay to be admitted like everybody else.


Max hired me to open for Lenny's two-week engagement beginning on December 4, 1962. The club was jammed every night, and famous comics including Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Professor Irwin Corey, Alan King, and Buddy Hackett were often found in the audience. I realized these comics were curious, maybe even hoping they would witness Lenny being busted. Obviously, Lenny was saying things on stage they also said, but only at a Friars Club Roast or in Las Vegas. I overheard one or two of them advising him to "tone it down", "cool it" and generally clean up his act. He of course did nothing of the kind.


On Saturday, December 8, 1962, the newspapers of New York City went on strike. The walk-out was initiated at the behest of Bertram Powers who led New York's Local 6 of the International Typographical Union for 29 years until his retirement in the mid- 1990s. Mr. Powers called this, the union's first strike in 88 years, against New York's eight daily newspapers over demands for higher wages and a contract to expire at all papers at the same time.

The walkout shut down four papers, led to a lockout at four others and affected 20,000 employees before a settlement ended it April 1, 1963, and landed Mr. Powers on the cover of TIME magazine.

The strike also affected Max Gordon, Lenny Bruce, Carol Sloane and hundreds of Village Vanguard patrons.

Watch for "Opening for Lenny Bruce, Part Two: Carol Fetches Lenny's Socks" coming to this space soon.

1 comment:

Pip said...

I met Lenny Bruce and his wife (or x wife) in Sydney in (I think) 62 when he was banned from performing. I would really like to find out what the dates were when he was in Oz but I can't find any reference except 62. Have you any idea?