Damon Runyon, a question of characters

March 20, 1994|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,Sun Staff Writer

Even back then, when he was still creating with words the enchanted Broadway that would become internationally celebrated through Frank Loesser's beloved musical, "Guys and Dolls," Damon Runyon was himself perplexed, and maybe a little off-put, by all the fuss about "Runyonesque characters" and the question, posed by interlopers, of what made one. He wrote about this sometime, as best I can tell, in the early 1940s.

"There was quite a to-do in my set when a fellow with a camera came around taking pictures and said they were for a layout in Life magazine on Broadway 'Characters,' " Runyon wrote in one of his syndicated columns for the Hearst papers. "Some of my constituents asked me if I thought it was all right for them to hold still for exposures and what is a 'Character,' and I said sure to the first question, but to the second I had to say I do not know anymore. To me any 'Character' used to be a distinctive, colorful and interesting person and a Broadway 'Character' merely one of that description who happened to make the big street his habitat."

Of course, the best way for Runyon to define "characters" -- the way his readers preferred -- was not to say what they were but to show what they were. So it figures the rest of that column went on to describe the eccentric behaviors of the likes of Cheesecake Ike, who took credit for the fabulous cheesecake at Lindy's, the famed Broadway restaurant, and apparently used that con to bilk a "rich dame" who offered to invest in a cheesecake factory. Runyon mentions horseplayers named Mendel, Alabam' and Memphis, and tells of their financial exploits, and adds to his "character" roster a guy named Happy Maloney, "a member of the pickpocket squad of detectives, who is nearly always lurking in the background of the theatrical crowds and other Broadway gatherings on the lookout for the whizz boys."

Those characters and dozens more -- including a race track tout with Baltimore roots known as Harry the Horse -- populate Runyonland, that bygone, neon-bright underworld of theatrical agents, showgirls, relatively harmless (by today's standards) gangsters, bookies, gamblers, bunco artists, vice cops, restaurateurs, singers, dancers, bartenders and nobodies who became somebodies once Runyon met them, listened to them and wrote their stories.

With great style, he did something that hadn't been done much in American newspapering -- he wrote from the street. He wrote about people who, because of their low station or lack of public office, never once dreamed of getting their names in the newspaper. He didn't write about the major political issues of the day, but how people worked, played, dreamed and schemed. He put flesh and blood where there had been only the vaguest outline of humanity.

Runyon didn't live by the old newspaper editor's edict, "Names is news," though he liked to drop a celebrity's name in a column now and then. For instance: "I was in the Stork Club with Mike Todd, the theatrical producer, and Lenny Lyons, the Broadway columnist, when Billy Rose, the theatrical producer, stopped at our table and gave me a real big double-breasted hello, the kind you usually reserve for a creditor, unexpectedly encountered."

And here's another column lead that put Runyon up close and personal with a celebrity of the day: "I think one of the saddest spectacles I ever witnessed is Jimmy Durante on a diet. When he did not have two white quarters to rub together in his pants

pocket, he dreamed of a day when he could step into a restaurant and order all the food he pleased. Now he is making maybe $200,000 a year and he has been limited as to food by his croaker, or M.D. It's ironical. 'No,' said Jimmy, 'it's gall bladder trouble.' "

Of his lesser-known characters, Runyon later said: "We have never met a completely uninteresting person. Some are just more interesting than others, that is all."

And some have been granted eternal life through Loesser's 1950 musical -- in Tony Award-winning revival on Broadway for two years now, and headed to Baltimore's Lyric Opera House this week.

"Guys and Dolls" was based on a Runyon short story titled "The Idyll of Sarah Brown." Nathan Detroit, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Big Jule, the lovely Miss Adelaide -- these are the residents of Runyonland known by Americans who, in the age of television, never read a Runyon newspaper column or short story. But it was in those columns and short stories that his characters first strutted their stuff and shot their cuffs. "I took one little section of New York and made a half million writing about it," Runyon said.

Jimmy Breslin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York-based columnist and novelist who has been under the influence of the Runyon style since his early sportswriting days, paid tribute to him in a biography published three years ago.

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