Big Boy Blues

Damon Runyon

September 29 1945

It is along toward 2 o’clock one pleasant a.m., and things are unusually quiet in Mindy’s restaurant on Broadway and in fact only two customers besides myself are present when who comes in like a rush of air, hot or cold, but a large soldier crying out in a huge voice as follows:

“Hello, hello, hello, hello, hello.”

Well, when I take a good glaum at him I can see that he is nobody but a personality by the name of West Side Willie who is formerly a ticket speculator on Broadway and when he comes over to me still going hello, hello, hello, hello, hello, I say to him quite severely like this:

“Willie,” I say, “you are three hellos over what anybody is entitled to in Mindy’s even if there is anybody here which as you can see for yourself is by no means the situation.”

“Oh,” Willie says, “I happen to have a few hellos to spare and besides I am so glad to get back on the big street again that I feel liberal. We are here for a run.”

“Do you mean the war?” I say.

“I mean Gee Eyes, the soldier show I am with,” Willie says. “We are a riot on the Coast. We lay them in the aisles in Denver. We kill people in Cleveland. We will do a wonderful trade here.”

Then Willie sits down and explains to me that one day when he is in a camp in the desert out in California and practically dying by inches of the heat and the drilling and the victuals and the other hardships of soldier life and especially the victuals, his commanding officer sends for him and says:

“Klump,” he says, for such is West Side Willie’s family monicker, “they are organizing an all-soldier musical show at Santa Ana and there is a request out for the names of all enlisted men in this area who are formerly connected with show business.

“I understand,” the commanding officer says, “that you are familiar with matters of this nature and you will therefore report at once to Santa Ana to participate although personally,” he says, “I consider it all just so much fol-de-rol and how the hell we can win the war behind the footlights I do not know.”

Well, naturally Willie does not inform the commanding officer that his connections with show business is slightly informal but he gets on a train at once and goes to Santa Ana and there he discovers that the guy who is putting on the show is nobody but a playwright by the name of Hathaway Go who is once befriended by Willie to the extent of a meal in a one-arm gaff in West Forty-ninth and who is grateful ever since.

He is slightly surprised to see Willie appear in answer to a call for show people as he is aware that Willie does not sing or dance or play an instrument but after hearing Willie’s description of soldier life in the desert his heart is touched and he says he guesses he can use a surefooted guy to take tickets although when Willie asks what about selling them Hathaway Go gives him such a long slow look that Willie never renews the subject.

However, he is greatly downcast when he thinks of the opportunities in connection with these pasteboards because he feels that everyone will want them and when Willie is in action on Broadway he is known far and wide for his skill in manipulating with tickets to theaters and prize fights and hockey games and one thing and another that everyone wants but are unable to get unless they see Willie and pay his ice, which is a way of saying his premiums.

I often hear complaint that sometimes Willie asks more ice than the face value of the tickets but this is probably only for tickets that are very hard indeed to get and naturally Willie is entitled to some compensation for saving the customers the trouble of standing in line at the box offices to buy the tickets and then finding the tickets are all gone anyway. Besides Willie frequently has to take care of others out of his end to get the tickets in the first place so life is really not all ice with him.

“Well,” Willie says, “I make the best of the position to which I am appointed although I must say the spectacle of throngs of customers being permitted to buy our tickets at face value at the box office when they will be delighted to pay two, three, four, five or six slugs premium if they cannot get them any other way is most disheartening to me.

“But,” Willie says, “I become a terrific ticket taker. In fact,” he says, “I am known as the Eisenhower of the front door. Furthermore, this assignment come to me in nick of time because my original outfit is sent to Europe where I understand the victuals are even worse than they are in camp and there is practically no hotel life for an enlisted man.”

“Willie,” I say, “I am glad to see you again and I congratulate you on your military career and hope and trust you do not sustain any wounds such as tearing off a hangnail by mistake for the stub of a ticket some night. I am sure that your engagement on Broadway will be most auspicious.”

“Thanks,” Willie says, “but we are all nervous and worried over a situation that develops here. Do you remember Johnny Blues? The one they call Big Boy Blues?”

“Why, certainly,” I say. “I remember him as well as if he is my brother only I am thankful such is not the case.”

“Do you know Big Boy Blues has a son?” Willie says.

“Yes,” I say, “I know it. They call him Little Boy Blues.”

“Well,” Willie says, “Little Boy Blues is the star of our show. He is the greatest thing in it. He slays the customers. He is wonderful.”

“Why, Willie,” I say, “I am glad to hear this news. I not only remember Big Boy Blues but come to think of it I remember his ever-loving sheriff who is the mamma of Little Boy Blues, I hope. If he has any talent it must come from her because the only talent Big Boy Blues ever has that I recall is that he can crush a human skull with one blow of his fist even though the skull belongs to a copper.

“In fact,” I say, “I recall the night he performs this feat on a copper by the name of Caswell. I seem to remember that Caswell is in Polyclinic hospital for eight weeks but he finally recovers and is now a captain.”

“Listen,” Willie says. “Little Boy Blues appears in our show as a female ballet dancer. He dresses as a dame in a short skirt and one thing and another.”

Well, at this I am slightly horrified as I can see what West Side Willie has in mind. I can see that it is going to be a great shock to Big Boy Blues if he learns of the matter because it is only about a year back that he is along Broadway bragging about his son being in the Army and stating that Little Boy will undoubtedly destroy a large number of the enemy singlehanded.

Naturally, everybody agrees with him as Big Boy Blues strongly disapproves of anyone not agreeing with him and it is plain to be seen that after putting his son away as a destroyer he is apt to be displeased when he finds Little Boy is not only a ballet dancer but one in the attire of a doll and I so state to West Side Willie.

“Yes,” Willie says, “that is exactly what we fear. We fear Big Boy will be so vexed he will tear the theater down stone by stone and maybe peg the stones at us. However, it is our information from Little Boy’s mamma that Big Boy thinks his son is somewhere overseas and has no idea he is in our show and it is our hope that he does not hear of it until after opening night anyway.

“Then,” Willie says, “we expect to be rolling so good that we can replace Little Boy if necessary, but,” he says, “we positively need him for the first night because he is the best thing in the show by seven or eight lengths and it is a great pity we dast not give him some advance publicity. Well, I will bid you good night as I must catch myself a few snores. Our company gets into Grand Central at noon and I wish to be there to meet it.”

Then Willie takes his departure and I remain sitting there awhile thinking of what a great surprise it is to Broadway years ago when Big Boy Blues hauls off and marries a small canapé by the name of Miss Rosie Flynn who is singing in the old Golden Slipper Club in West Forty-eighth Street and how Bookie Bon goes around offering to lay plenty of 9 to 5 that Big Boy gives her at least two broken arms inside of two weeks and finding no takers as Big Boy is known to one and all as a crude character.

He is at least six feet three inches high and he weighs anyway 220 pounds and he has a loud voice that causes parties four blocks away to tremble when he lets it out and he has a record at police headquarters that consists mainly of mayhem. He is a doorman and a bouncer at the Golden Slipper when I first know him but one day he climbs on the seat of a stray truck and drives it off and the next thing anybody knows he has one of the largest trucking businesses in the city.

Now Miss Rosie Flynn does not weigh ninety pounds with her girdle on and she has red hair and freckles and is by no means a spectacular singer but she is practically famous on Broadway because it is generally conceded that she is pure. The chances are she can marry into much more genteel circles than those in which Big Boy Blues moves just on the strength of being pure and it is the popular belief that Big Boy frightens her into marrying him as no one can think of any other reason for this union.

Well, after they are married and before the stray truck comes along to provide the keystone for Big Boy’s success they live in a small apartment as far over on West Forty-ninth Street as anyone can live unless they live in a canoe in the North River and it is by no means a fashionable neighborhood but it is the best they can do on their income in those days and it is there a son is born to them who is so small that Big Boy is greatly mortified and slightly perturbed.

In fact, he brings the child over on Broadway and goes around peering into the faces of various Broadway personalities who infest the Golden Slipper and then gazing closely at the child as if he is making comparisons. I never see this child again and to tell the truth I seldom see Big Boy Blues afterwards and then only when I do not learn in advance that he is coming my way but I read now and then in the blats about him slugging his truck drivers or somebody else’s truck drivers or just somebody else, so I judge he is the same old Big Boy.

But as the years go on I occasionally run into Rosie Flynn who seems to be fatting up somewhat in spots and she tells me that Big Boy by no means admires the child that she now speaks of as Little Boy Blues because he remains puny and scary but I can see that Rosie thinks very well of him, indeed. In fact, Little Boy Blues is all she talks about and as he gets older I learn from her that she has him away at school as much as possible as he is a great eyesore to Big Boy who keeps him frightened half to death by yelling at him and sometimes giving him a few clops.

From what Rosie tells me, I judge Little Boy Blues is quite a weakling and far from being a credit to a virile personality such as Big Boy but when the war comes on and Little Boy is drafted, Big Boy becomes very proud of him and wishes to be real fatherly toward him.

In fact, one day at Dix where Little Boy Blues is stationed for awhile, Big Boy approaches him with his hand extended to shake hands and Little Boy is so alarmed that he turns and runs away and keeps running until he is so far from camp that he is two days finding his way back and is put down as AWOL.

Well, I become so interested in what West Side Willie tells me about the show that I go to the Grand Central at noon myself the next day to see the soldier company arrive and it is quite an impressive scene as the members are in full marching gear with rifles and all this and that and march from the station through the streets to the theater in West Forty-eight where the show is going to open.

West Side Willie does not march with them but joins me in following them only we stick to the sidewalk and people stop and applaud the company and the members bow right and left and smile and when I say to Willie that I consider this somewhat unmilitary, he says:

“Well,” he says, “you see most of these guys are professional actors even if they are soldiers and they are bound to take bows when they hear applause even if they are sitting in the electric chair waiting for the guy to pull the switch.”

He points out Little Boy Blues to me and I can see that he is small and frail-looking and seems to be buckling slightly at the knees from the weight of his pack and rifle and that he has red hair like his mamma. I also see Rosie Flynn on the sidewalk ahead of me following the march so I quit West Side Willie and overtake her and say to her like this:

“Well, Rosie,” I say, “I notice your offspring has your top piece but the way he does not resemble Big Boy in any manner, shape or form is really remarkable. By the way,” I say, “how is Big Boy? Not that I care, Rosie, but I wish to be polite.”

“Sh-h-h-h!” she says and looks around as if she is afraid Big Boy may be in earshot. “He is all right except his temper is shorter than ever. He chucks one of his own truck drivers into the river yesterday truck and all. I am so afraid of what will happen if he learns Little Boy is in this show. You see,” she says, “I tell him the last time I hear from Little Boy he is with Coogan’s Cobras in the Pacific.”

“Well,” I say, “you do not pick a soft spot for him, anyway. Coogan’s Cobras are supposed to be the fightingest outfit in our Army.”

“It is because I see the name in the newspapers so much,” Rosie says. “It pleases Big Boy to think Little Boy is in such company. I pray he does not learn the truth before the show opens. Poor Big Boy has no appreciation of the fine and delicate and artistic. I often wake up at night in trembling at the thought of his anger if he learns of the large fees I pay for Little Boy’s dancing instruction.”

I commence trembling myself right then and there thinking of such a situation and at this point I unload Rosie Flynn and go on my way because I realize that if Big Boy learns of the fees she mentions he may not only wipe out Rosie but anyone who ever even knows her. To tell the truth, I am a little disappointed in Rosie as I always figure her to have some sense and while I do not say it is wrong for anybody’s son to dance I consider it sinful to pay fees to encourage him to do it.

Well, the day of the opening I am surprised more than no little when West Side Willie hunts me up and gives me a skull, which is a way of saying a free ticket for the show and I figure it must be because business is not up to expectations but when I mention this idea to Willie he becomes quite provoked.

“Why,” he says, “we are sold out in advance for half the entire engagement already. This show is the biggest thing since nylons. If you examine your ducket you will observe that no seat is specified. That means you have standing room only.”

But standing room is by no means undesirable in a New York theater especially at openings because where you stand is in back of the last row which places you in a position to leave quickly and quietly in case the show is bad and this is where I am located for the opening of Gee Eyes.

I am a little late getting to the theater and the audience is pretty well seated when I arrive and as I am going in West Side Willie who is taking tickets with great skill holds back a Broadway columnist and his wife a minute and says to me:

“Who do you think we have with us tonight?” he says. “Why, nobody but Colonel Billy Coogan, the commander of Coogan’s Cobras. He is a tall slim guy with a lot of ribbons on his chest and he is in the third row center.”

“Yes,” the columnist says. “He flies in from the Pacific only today to get a new decoration tomorrow from the President in Washington.”

Naturally on taking my place in the rear of the house I spot Colonel Coogan at once by his uniform away down front and I am somewhat astonished to observe next to him a head and a pair of shoulders that even at long distance and from behind I identify as belonging to Big Boy Blues, and what is more he seems to be chatting with Colonel Coogan.

I am standing there wondering about this spectacle but just then the curtain opens and I dismiss the matter from my mind as I can see at once that this is a pretty good show although personally I like a little more sex appeal than it is possible to get into shows in which all the performers are hairy-legged guys with no bims whatever around.

The one thing I am looking for which is Little Boy Blues does not come on until the finale and this is a very large number, indeed, with the entire cast on stage when out comes a slim and graceful young ballet dancer in a flaring short skirt and all who can easily pass for a doll if you do not know it has to be a guy in this company unless somebody makes a serious mistake.

I can see that the dancer is undoubtedly Little Boy Blues even without looking at the program to make sure and while I am by no means a judge of ballet dancing and in fact can do without same entirely in a pinch, I realize that he gives a great performance. In fact, I realize that he is no doubt a genius at ballet dancing and as the curtain closes on him the audience lets out a roar of applause that I afterwards hear shakes the glasses off the back bar in the gin mill next door to the theater.

Then the curtain opens again as is always the case when there is great applause and Little Boy Blues stands there on the stage panting as if he just finishes a fast hundred yards and taking bows with one hand on his stomach and also perspiring no little and the audience applauds with even greater vigor than before and at this moment I observe Big Boy Blues jump up from his seat down front.

I notice his mouth is wide open so I judge he is yelling something and thinks I to myself well, here it comes, although there is too much noise for me to hear what he is yelling about, and besides at almost the same instant he jumps up a guy in the seat directly behind him jumps up too and practically simultaneously with Big Boy’s mouth opening a blackjack drops on his sconce and Big Boy sinks back quietly in his seat. Then I recognize the guy behind him as Captain Caswell in civilian clothes.

Well, the uproar from the audience continues but of course it is all over Little Boy Blues’ dancing and no one notices what happens to Big Boy although a couple of coppers come down the aisle and lift him out of his seat and drag him away still unconscious. Furthermore, no one pays any attention to Colonel Coogan who is up on his feet and saying to everyone around him that the slugging of Big Boy is the worst outrage since Pearl Harbor though no one seems to listen to him.

By this time Little Boy Blues is panting and perspiring more from taking bows than from his dancing so the curtain closes in on him and the first act for good and nearly everyone in the audience moves out into the lobby for the intermission to smoke and gas and all they are gassing about is Little Boy’s dancing. Then I see Captain Caswell talking to Rosie Flynn in a corner of the lobby and I get close enough to hear the captain say:

“Well, Rose,” he says, “you certainly do the community a service by requesting police protection here tonight. If it is not for your warning and my skill with a jack we will have serious trouble although to tell you the truth we have enough already with the guy we commandeer the seat from behind Big Boy. I only hope and trust that he does not have as much influence as he claims and anyway he can have the seat now.”

Then Colonel Coogan comes into the lobby still stating in a loud voice that the jacking of Big Boy is a scandalous matter and that somebody will hear from the War Department and maybe the OPI, too, when Captain Caswell steps up to him and informs him that Big Boy is jacked because he is about to start wrecking the joint in discovering that his son is a dancer in the show.

“No, no,” Colonel Coogan says. “There is a terrible error somewhere. He knows his son is in the show all right because someone calls him up this evening and gives him the information. Mr. Blues introduces himself to me and tells me about it while we are sitting there side by side waiting for the curtain. He does not seem to know just what to think about his son being in the show at first but he asks me as a special favor not to mention it to Mrs. Blues if ever I happen to meet her because she thinks her son is with my command and Mr. Blues fears it will break her heart if she learns the truth.”

“Colonel,” Captain Caswell says, “I distinctly hear Big Boy yell when he gets up from his seat and our experience with him in the past is that he always prefaces his acts of violence by yelling.”

“Yes,” Colonel Coogan says, “he yells all right, but so do I and what we are both yelling is bravo.”

At this point I hear a slight gasp behind me and on looking around I observe that Rosie Flynn slumps to the floor in a dead faint consequently there is more excitement during which I take my departure without even waiting for the second act as my legs are very tired from the standing room only.

I am again sitting in Mindy’s restaurant along about 3 o’clock in the a.m. still resting my legs when who comes in but West Side Willie and I am most distressed to note that he has two black eyes and swollen lips and that he seems greatly disheveled in every respect.

“Why, my good gracious, Willie,” I say. “Do you get run over by a tank division or what?”

“No,” Willie says, “Big Boy Blues belts me. By the way,” he says, “everybody is all wrong about him crushing the human skull with a single blow of his fist. He hits me on top of the head twice with his right and only raises a contusion and I think he damages his duke at that. However,” Willie says, “it is only fair to say Big Boy comes to the theater to find me fresh from the hospital after he is treated for the jacking he receives from Captain Caswell and perhaps he does not have all his strength. He inflicts most of my injuries with a left hook.”

“Well, Willie,” I say, “it shows you how Colonel Coogan is deceived by Big Boy and Captain Caswell is right all the time. I suppose Big Boy’s fury over Little Boy being in Gee Eyes flares up anew when he has time to think about it and no doubt he assaults you as a representative of the show.”

“Oh, no,” Willie says. “Big Boy is still all pleasured up over Little Boy’s performance, and what is more he and Little Boy and Rosie Flynn are enjoying a happy and very loving family reunion but Big Boy gets to brooding about the ticket speculator who calls him up and tells him of Little Boy’s presence in the show and hustles him into buying a ticket for a hundred dollars which is about a ninety-five dollar premium.”

“I see,” I say. “You are the speculator, of course.”

“Well,” Willie says, “I am stuck with a ticket that I pay six dollars for myself and I happen to need a hundred and I know Big Boy Blues will pay anything to get in the theater if he hears Little Boy is in the show although naturally I figure it will be only to tear the place apart. But I also know Rosie Flynn arranges for police protection so I do not see how he can do any harm even if he is there.

“So,” Willie says, “I call him up and promote him. It is more than human nature can stand to let such an opportunity pass. But besides getting belted I also undergo another slight misfortune tonight. I am relieved of my job with the show and ordered to Colonel Coogan’s combat unit in the Pacific.”