Tim & TomAn American Comedy in Black and White
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2008 Tim Reid
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-226-70900-0
Chapter One Club Harlem, Atlantic City: 1973
Most of Atlantic City was still asleep when the party started at Club Harlem. It was six o'clock on Sunday morning, a sunrise service for the customers of nearby clubs that had closed at three or four a.m. The owners of those clubs were there too, and the entertainers, bartenders, waiters, and waitresses who worked in them. There was another client base, too, one that had come to town from brothels and back seats up and down the eastern seaboard.
The arrival of the pimps and their prostitutes, many from as far away as New York, Philadelphia, and Newark, was as carefully choreographed as any of the dance acts on the bill, and for the same reason. They were there to be observed, admired, and envied. Everyone knew that the pimps brought only the women who had done the most trade during the week. Those who did not measure up were not invited to Atlantic City, while those who did put on their most elegant gowns, those that fit the tightest and displayed the most skin, for a very late night on the town.
But the pimps were not only exhibiting their women, they were placing themselves on display as well. They would drive up in Rolls-Royces, Cadillacs, and Lincoln Town Cars and wear colorful three-piece suits with matching hats, gold chains and watches, and large jeweled rings. Stylin' at the Harlem, it was called, and nowhere was it more evident than in the pimps' entrance to the club. What was the point of putting on a show, after all, if not to attract the widest possible audience?
They would arrive late, after most of the crowd had been seated, and walk the entire length of the room so everyone would see them and the women trailing behind. Since the Sunday breakfast show was invariably sold out, a lavish tip, as much as five hundred dollars, would have been delivered to the maitre d' hours earlier to reserve a table near the stage.
"Hey, you sure look good," a pimp would be told by friends and acquaintances as he passed by.
"Yeah, I do, don't I?" he would respond. And then, pointing to the women, he would say, "I'm doing good, too. This is my stable." Only then, would he and the women take their seats and wait for the show to begin.
Backstage, Tom Dreesen looked at Tim Reid and saw he was composed and calm. There had been little conversation between them since Reid had returned that afternoon from his sad journey to Virginia that had left Dreesen concerned for his friend and-he had to admit it-for their act on this big night they had been waiting for so long.
"Did you bury him?" Dreesen asked.
"Yes," Reid replied, offering no more details about his father's funeral.
"OK," Dreesen said. "Let's have fun out there."
They stood and watched the other acts on the bill, whose progression never changed. First, there was a twenty-minute dance act to rev up the crowd, get it applauding, laughing, having a good time. On this June morning in 1973, that role was filled by Mama Lu Parks, a large, energetic woman who danced by herself on the stage while half a dozen couples danced around her to songs from the 1920s through the '60s accompanied by a full orchestra. A male singing group, the Sons of Robin Stone, was next with some pop songs, and it was followed by the Quiet Elegance, three women whose songs ranged from laments about the men who treated them so mean to more uptempo numbers. After they had finished, the audience, energized now by all this music, knew there was one more act before the headliner of the evening, the young singing star Ronnie Dyson, came on. A comedy act.
Reid and Dreesen were ecstatic when, after years of trying, they were booked into Club Harlem. In its glory days in the 1950s, long before gambling came to Atlantic City, it was one of six thriving establishments in the resort city's Kentucky Avenue nightclub district, and at one time or another it had provided a stage for virtually every top black entertainer in show business. Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, and scores of other headliners had worked at Club Harlem and as the years went by they were followed by a new generation of top musical acts-the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Gladys Knight and the Pips-and by young performers who had a hit record and were likely to draw a crowd. Like the other Kentucky Avenue clubs, some of which dated back to Prohibition, Club Harlem had seen better days and it had even been shut down for a time after a gangland shootout while Billy Paul was singing "Me and Mrs. Jones."
But the club still had its name and its reputation and during the summer it still drew large crowds of vacationers to the Jersey Shore. For Reid and Dreesen, who had worked in far less glamorous venues, it was a validation of the time they had spent polishing their act. And certainly no one could deny Club Harlem knew how to throw a party. Nowhere else on the Chitlin' Circuit, a loose confederation of black owned and operated nightclubs, was there anything like it. Not at the Apollo in Harlem, not at the 20 Grand in Detroit, not at the Sugar Shack in Boston, not at the High Chaparral or the Burning Spear in Chicago. Club Harlem, which put on shows at 10 p.m., 2 a.m., and 6 a.m., stood alone.
"And now," they could hear the emcee say, "are you ready for some comedy?"
A few cries of "Yeah!" were heard, accompanied by more clapping, but the emcee wasn't satisfied.
"I said, are you ready for some comedy?"
A larger cheer went up this time as the audience, having fun now, filled the room with sound.
"Well, we got us a comedy act. They came all the way from Chicago and ..."
A voice in the audience interrupted. "They better be good."
"They're good, brother," the emcee said.
"They better be good."
"Now, man, don't hold me to it. To tell you the truth, I ain't seen these turkeys myself. Don't blame me if they ain't good. And now here they are, the comedy team of Tim and Tom."
A polite round of applause greeted Reid as he walked out on stage alone. A few women whooped in appreciation of the tall handsome young black man as he approached the microphone.
"Thank you very much," Reid said. "We are so happy to be here. We just came in from Chicago and we've never been here before."
As Reid kept repeating "we," the audience rose to the bait.
"We?" a loud voice called out. "Who this motherfucker calling we? I don't see no we. I see he."
Reid held up his hand, as if he were about to continue, when a spotlight fell on a lone figure standing at stage left. The audience began to react, slowly at first, and then with gales of laughter, at the sight of the only white man in the club, on stage or in the audience. Shading his eyes with his palm and peering out into the crowd pretending to be searching for someone, Dreesen took a few tentative steps onto the stage and a female voice rang out.
"Look out! What we got here?"
Reid, oblivious, continued talking.
"We drove here from Chicago and we had a hard time finding a room," a line that drew laughter from the crowd as it considered the implications while Dreesen tiptoed toward the microphone.
Finally, Reid noticed Dreesen, stopped in midsentence and waited impatiently for his partner, eyes still shaded by his hand, to take the last few steps to the center of the stage.
"Where the hell have you been, man?" Reid said. "And what are you looking for?"
"I don't see any of my people out there," Dreesen said nervously, still looking around.
Reid walked to the edge of the stage, ducked his head under the stage lights, brought the edge of his hand to his forehead and looked left to right around the room.
"No, I don't think any of your people are here," he said.
"Well, then we better be funny."
Still bigger laugh.
"What do you mean we, white man?"
Biggest laugh yet.
They felt comfortable now, relaxed, sure they had the room on their side. Confidently, they swung into a set routine.
"Let's get on with the show," Reid said. "These people came here to see something funny."
"Wait a minute," Dreesen interrupted. "Every time we perform somewhere, you get to be the black guy."
"Just once, I want to be the black guy."
Big laugh interspersed with calls from the audience of, "Ain't gonna happen tonight, brother." And, "You got a long way to go." And, simply, "Sheeee-it."
"Tom," Reid said, "black isn't just a skin color. It's an attitude. It's spirit. It's soul. You understand what I'm talking about. Soul, Tom, soul."
"Well, I think I can do it. I want to try."
"All right, man, I'm going to give you a test. I'm standing here waiting for a bus. You're a brother and you're going to come up and start a conversation with me."
Dreesen walked a few steps away, then abruptly turned around and returned.
"What corner are we on waiting for this bus?" he asked.
"What difference does it make?"
"It's important. I've got to get into the spirit of the thing, right? What neighborhood are we in?"
"Oh, all right. We're in Harlem, 125th and Amsterdam."
"125th and Amsterdam? Come onnnn, bus."
"Stop that now," Reid said. "Just come up and start a conversation with me, all right?"
Dreesen walked off, then returned and said, "Look here, man, do the bus stop here?"
Boos and catcalls came up from the audience as Reid buried his head in his hands.
"Look," he said. "You wait for the bus and I'll be the black guy-wait a minute, of course I'm the black guy, now you're getting me confused-and I'll come up and start a conversation with you."
Reid walked off, muttering "Do the bus stop here?" then turned and returned to center stage with a confident strut.
"Look here, brother," he said rapidly. "Is this where I catch Big Mac? I've got to ease up town, get me some new rags, a couple of fronts and a pair of gators so I can check out them traps, do a little night crawling through the hood."
Reid smiled as the crowd reacted with approving laughs and shouts of "Talk that talk, brother," and "Tell him about it now."
"Damn," Dreesen said. "I didn't know you spoke a foreign language, Tim."
"That's not a foreign language, Tom. That's soul talk. Now, you come up and repeat what I just said."
Dreesen walked away frowning, mumbling to himself as if trying to remember what Reid had said. When he reached the edge of the stage, he turned around and, in an uncoordinated version of Reid's walk, approached.
"Look here, man," Dreesen said, "is this where I catch big rag? I want to ease up town and buy me a bus, get in front of a couple of gators and trap them so I can go through the neighborhood at night with a hood on."
Big laugh and catcalls. "Look out now!"
"I don't think you better be crawling through any black neighborhoods with a hood on," Reid said as the audience, applauding now and cheering, shouted, "I hope you heard that, white boy!"
They paused for a moment now, smiling at the audience and at each other. Things could hardly be going any better, and now it was time to address the audience directly.
"I'm Tim Reid ..."
"And I'm Tom Dreesen ..."