He Didn’t Know He’d Joined THE MOB
It’s like one of Dash Hammett’s lesser novels, or a run-of-the-mill pulp: Charlie Square joins a “labor organization,” but Charlie doesn’t know his nice little union is actually a front for peddlers of deceit.
That may be a bit rich, but it ain’t too far from from how this card-carrying Charlie Square feels today.
In ‘98, I made my bones in Seattle, doin’ a respectable version of Willy the Shake’s “Othello.” When those union swells sent me a shiny new card, I thought they hung the moon. I was a made man; a pro-FESH-uh-nal.
Sure, I coulda stood more work, but what actor can’t? I was in love with the art of the craft and the craft of the art. Pretty soon, I decided to shake the sticks and head to the Big Time. New York? Nah. Mama didn’t raise no fools, and this mama’s boy knew that the Big Money was in the tiny screen, the idiot box, the public pacifier, so I hitched my wagon and headed south, to the City of Angels.
Times were good, then. A workin’ stiff could ply his trade at Warner Brothers or Paramount, then head to a small Hollywood theater to slake his thirst on new works by up-and-comin’ playwrights. The union had a reasonable take, in those days: “If ya don’t make money, ya don’t owe money.” And they had 99 ways to make sure ya didn’t make money.
Then, suddenly, things changed. The union boys decided there was more of a cut to be had by cuttin’ a little deeper, so they shook the apple tree to see what would fall. “It’s all for YOUSE guys,” they claimed, while privately grousing about the lack of dough produced by the penny-ante operators who ran the smallest joints in town. They saw a way to get more action, so their President, a smooth talker by the monicker of Nik The Grin, went on a hard-sell tour to convince Los Angeles that what it really needed was more moolah and fewer opportunities.
Plenty of folks bit. When you believe, in your heart’s bottom, that you’re Carey Grant, taken for granted, you’ll run to that dog whistle like a Rottweiler on rye. Alky is a hell of a drug, just like whacky weed and Coca-Cola, but nuthin’ beats ego for a pure, unadulterated high.
The union bosses missed the mark, though, when they decided their Great LA Snow Job had worked so well, they would put it to a vote. “Let the rubes cut their own throats,” they said. What could be cleaner? Only the locals didn’t fall for it. When the votes were tallied, turned out they told New York to go fund themselves, and that set the stage for the next act.
In comes this dame we’ll call Campaign Cate, a brain with beauty to match, who saw an opportunity for her own ascension in the union ranks. She was pretty sure she could use the Angelenos to take down The Grin, so with a sympathetic tone and a warm smile, she assured them that they had her ear and she had their backs. When it came time to vote for the new Top Dog, LA put her over the top. Shortly after that, she lost their number.
But lest we be too hard on Nik and Cate, they were both just dancing to a tune. The piper was Boss McAll, The Dragon Lady. She called the shots, and the rest just did as they were strongly suggested. Why? Who knows? Some say a gaggle of shysters put the scare in her. In any case, there was little doubt that she was the power behind the powers.
So the word came down from New York: no one was doin’ any art without the union getting its cut. Imagine their surprise when the LA gang went to John Law to seek relief. That’s right; a handful of brave souls went to court to keep the Yankee’s mitts off. “Alright, alright!” the union shysters cried, “Let’s talk. No need to be hasty.” LA agreed to hold off on the suit while the suits pow-wowed.
But The Dragon Lady’s shysters were savvy, see, and they had an idea: “These LA rubes only have so much gelt, and parleys cost money, what with facilitators and all. Why not meet for a series of ‘discussions’ (never call ’em ‘negotiations’, because that implies good faith) that’ll run out the clock and spend all their cash?”
“Brilliant!” shrieked The Dragon Lady, “That’s what we pay you for!”
Now, inconstant reader, you’re all caught up. We’re in the third act of this little drama with no curtain in sight. Dragon Lady and her bully boys made a big show of wipin’ their hands as they got up from the table. “Youse just won’t be reasonable,” she cooed, “-and you have such a nice little theater town. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.”
Meanwhile, a birdie tells me that a certain actress is suing a certain small theater she signed up to work for under no misconceptions. The terms were clear, her eyes were open, and from what I hear, she brought the house down. Now, it seems, she wants to bring the house down. If the union mob ain’t behind that, I’ll eat my Smith-Corona.
Of course, the Organization has to seem to be on the up-and-up so all the Charlie Squares out there will keep chippin’ in their franklins. Lucky for the union, they got a great, big Rolodex full of members they can ring up in a heartbeat. They don’t share that list with nobody, much less those of an opposing nature. As a former Charlie-Square-turned-wise-guy, I saw a couple of those messages. To hear them tell it, they’ve been so reasonable, so saintly — and the LA bunch? They’re the gang that couldn’t shoot straight; two parts crazy and a dash of mean. When the Charlie Squares in the Dragon Lady’s Rolodex read that hooey, well, if ya don’t know better, ya don’t know better, ya know?
Now, the vig I pay the union is goin’ up against the vig I paid the lawyers to fight my so-called “advocates” for my right to be left alone. Ain’t that a stinker? I don’t know who’s gonna win, but I got a feelin’ card-carryin’ Charlie Square is gonna lose. I’ll keep doin’ what I do, of course. Just like my old man worked metal his whole life, I work the stage, and always will. The only difference is, now, when I look at that shiny card I earned so many years ago, instead of pride, I feel like takin’ a stiff belt and a hot shower.