Posts Tagged ‘Harry Belafonte’

The Belafonte Way

September 9, 2011

A beak eagle nose hung from his ruddy face. His forehead dramatically sloped back into soft grey hair, Semitic, yet somehow suggestive of Native American, Marty Green looked like a Jewish Indian Chief and he knew it.  He wore crusty brown leather loafers that suggested moccasins. The crude hand carved sign on his basement office door perpetually read, “The Chief Is In” even when Marty was across the street at the Villa Bar.

I had an appointment with Marty because I was trying to impress Harry Belafonte, my new boss, Harry and his band were rehearsing for an eight month tour to sixty-one U.S. cities and another forty-two in Europe. Before Harry hit the road for such an adventure he needed a full tech rehearsal with lights, costumes, sound and an invited audience.

I was across the East River in Brooklyn at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic to wheel and deal with Marty Green, one of the all-time slick wheeler-dealers. Head Carpenter for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Marty definitely was a chief. He had the authority to negotiate for the union stagehands and teamsters. He set the minimums, the rates, the overtime requirements, the meal penalties, the car loaders calls and the number of men required.

If you were smart and you wanted to work at the Brooklyn Academy, first you struck a deal with Marty. I was so smart I made a deal to rent the stage and to pay the stagehands in cash. No taxes, no pension, no welfare. Just pictures of presidents slid under the table. I counted my fingers after I shook Marty’s hand. This was my brilliant idea of how to impress Harry and save him some money, as well.

In real life Harry Belafonte was bigger then life. Action, voice, presence, talent, commitment, everything was about 10% larger. He was like statue, an athlete, a cross between Paul Robeson and Abe Lincoln. His 6′ 2″ height was offset by his fluid gentleness. Huge hands, intense absorbing brown eyes, Harry had flawless coffee skin that I later discovered was carefully managed by a secret concoction and then baked in the San Maartan sun. Offstage Harry wore dark solid-color crisp shirts, but his pants were positively cinematic, a ballet, a moving work of sartorial art, creased with such razor precision. And they hung so well.

Today, Harry was unhappy. He put his arm around my shoulder, an uncommon gesture, and led me into his darkened office. The Russian Tea Room was across the street. Harry’s window overlooked the crowded sidewalk in front of the second most famous lunch spot in Manhattan. Guided to the shiny grey leather sofa, I sat down. Harry took the formal armchair across the book-scattered coffee table. I sank in the sofa and settled in for a long, long winter. This was my second meeting with Harry since I’d been hired the week before.

“Look, man,” he said in that gravel-husky whisper,

“I know you’re trying to do a good job but let me tell you a story. You know, Dr. King was a friend of mine. In the early ’60 when the movement was just getting started, Dr. King and I talked on the phone almost every day. He was down in Montgomery, Alabama and I was here in the office.”

Harry gestured unceremoniously to his award-encrusted walls.

“One day, while we talked on the phone, I heard babies wailing and all this pot-banging noise and commotion, so I asked,

‘What’s going on down there? Is there trouble?’
And Dr. King says ‘No, just the kids have the flu and Coretta is out shopping and things are a little hectic.’

So, I asked him, ‘Don’t you have any help down there?’

Harry rose from his chair and sat on the edge of his ebony desk. He continued,

“And Dr. King said no, he didn’t believe in asking the movement volunteers to help him with his personal affairs. No, he couldn’t afford help. He lived on his $6800 a year salary as Minister of the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama. So, the next day I hired a male secretary, a nice young kid, and sent him down to Atlanta to help Dr. King.”

“Years later J. Edgar Hoover rose to power. As head tyrant he called up the IRS and told them maybe they ought to take a closer look at the Civil Rights movement. When the IRS got to Dr. King, they asked him,

‘How can you afford a male secretary on your salary of $6800 as Minister of the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama?’

Dr. King said, ‘ I can’t, but my generous friend in New York, Mr. Harry Belafonte put my secretary on his payroll.’”

“Four hours after the IRS agents in Atlanta heard that story, there were two IRS agents here in my office in New York.”

Harry held up his right hand in front of my face and then dramatically folded a thumb into his broad palm to emphasize the four hours.

“And they stayed for ten months. They tore the place up. They went through everything. Every file, every contract, every recording deal, sheet music, movie scripts. They went through so much of my coffee, I finally put up a ’10¢ a cup’ sign. They wouldn’t pay. After that they brought their own.”

Harry’s voice quickened, “At the end of ten months, you know what they found to use against me, to use against Dr, Martin Luther King, to use against the Civil Rights movement? Nothing!”

He hit the pile of books for emphasis.

“That’s what they found. Nothing.” This time a copy of the Beat Street screenplay hit the floor.

“And I’ll tell you why they found nothing. Because Dr. Abraham Brilloff wrote the New York State Tax Code, that’s why! Dr. Abraham Brilloff, is also my accountant. He follows the letter of the law because he wrote the law.”

Harry leaned in very, very close to make a point. “And that’s how I do business. When you work for me, don’t be cute. I know you’re honest but I want you completely, thoroughly and scrupulously above-board. “How can you see where your going, if you have to keep looking over your shoulder?”

I went back to Brooklyn to face Marty Green and to tell him we needed a new deal. I told him Harry wouldn’t go for it, wouldn’t let us pay the crew in cash.

Marty said he was not surprised. “Harry never does.”