Spent a day with my aging father-in-law last week. Conversation is difficult, but memories always flow. We watched the movie version of “Guys and Dolls,” with Sinatra and Brando, and Stubby Kaye’s get-up-and-sing version of “Sit Down! You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”
He was happy to see the thing again, though in the first few minutes he said he didn’t think he’d ever seen the film. My fondness for the piece, and for Damon Runyon’s stories, goes back (too many) decades to a production of the play by the Utah Valley Opera Society. They hired our high school drama director, David Larson, to direct. On a lark I auditioned, telling them I couldn’t really sing or dance, and ended up with a lot of lines in a couple of supporting roles, and singing and dancing both in the chorus.
When my father-in-law joined in the movie chorus of “Fugue for Tinhorns,” I knew we had a good couple of hours. We laughed, watched, reminisced, and sang along.
Damon Runyon could tell stories, true stories about real people. Sometimes the names were changed to protect the innocent, or the guilty; sometimes the real names were more entertaining than the fictional names Runyon invented.
Some time ago I stumbled across the story of Runyon’s son, Damon Runyon, Jr., using an early airplane to spread the playwright’s ashes. It’s a story Runyon would have appreciated. It’s appropriate for the day after the anniversary of the Wrights’ first flight; December 18 is the anniversary of the event.
On December 17, Orville and Wilbur Wright got their heavier-than-air flying contraption to actually fly with motor driving it along.
On December 18, Damon Runyon, Jr., got Eddie Rickenbacker to fly over Broadway to scatter the ashes of his father, Damon Runyon.Not exactly the next day. 43 years and one day apart. The Wrights first flew in 1903; Runyon died in 1946.
On this day in 1946 Damon Runyon’s ashes were scattered over Broadway by his son, in a plane flown by Eddie Rickenbacker. Runyon was born in Manhattan, Kansas; he arrived at the bigger apple at the age of thirty, to be a sportswriter and to try out at Mindy’s and the Stork Club and any betting window available his crap-shoot worldview: “All of life is six to five against.” Broadway became his special beat, and in story collections like Guys and Dolls he developed the colorful characters — Harry the Horse, the Lemon Drop Kid, Last Card Louie — and the gangster patois that would swept America throughout the thirties and forties.
A lot of history packed in there. Runyon’s early reportorial career included a lot of that history — he wrote the lead story for United Press on the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt, for one example. Runyon found a uniquely American vein of literary ore on Broadway in New York City, and in the ne’er-do-wells, swells, tarts and reformers who flocked to the City that Never Sleeps to seek fame, or fortune, or swindle that fortune from someone else.
As a reporter and essayist, he smoked a lot. Throat cancer robbed him, first of his voice, then his life at 56.
Runyon’s ashes were spread illegally over Broadway, from a DC-3 piloted by Rickenbacker. Runyon would have liked that.
You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Factoids of history:
- Twenty movies got crafted from Runyon stories, including “The Lemon Drop Kid” — in two versions, 1934 and 1951. Appropriate to the Christmas season, the 1951 version introduced the song, “Silver Bells” composed by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. (Great explanation of the movie, and song, here.)
- Runyon got fame first as a sports writer. He was inducted into the writer’s wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967.
- According to Wikipedia, Jerry Lewis and others owe a great debt to Damon Runyon: “The first ever telethon was hosted by Milton Berle in 1949 to raise funds for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.”
- One might salivate over the varied fare offered in the theaters of Broadway in 1946, Runyon’s final year, “Annie, Get Your Gun” through Shakespeare, and everything in between and on either side
- Runyon and H. L. Mencken both covered the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, the accused (then convicted) kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh’s baby son
- Yes, of course, “Guys and Dolls.” Frank Loesser created it, but not of whole cloth, but from the stories of Damon Runyon; it is a masterpiece, perhaps in several realms. In homage to Runyon, Adam Gopnik wrote:
Just as Chandler fans must be grateful for Bogart, Runyon fans have to be perpetually happy that the pure idea of Runyon, almost independent of his actual writings, produced the best of all New York musicals: Frank Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls,” which made its début in 1950 and is just now reopening on Broadway in a lavish and energetic new production. But then “Guys and Dolls” is so good that it can triumph over amateur players and high-school longueurs and could probably be a hit put on by a company of trained dolphins in checked suits with a chorus of girl penguins.
Your author here, Dear Reader, was once one of those trained dolphins. It was magnificent.
“Silver Bells,” from “The Lemon Drop Kid,” with William Frawley, Virginia Maxwell and Bob Hope (1951 version):
- Gregg Allman, the National Sing ‘Silver Bells’ With Stephen Colbert (freshwaddabrooks.com)
- My Favourite Christmas Story: Richard Smyth on Damon Runyon’s “Dancing Dan’s Christmas” (liarsleague.com)
- Roger Angell Heads to Cooperstown (newyorker.com)
- Hope For Christmas (theinnerwildkat.wordpress.com)
- Actor/writer Danny Strong To Pen Guys And Dolls Remake (contactmusic.com)
A view of New York City in 1946:
Times Square, showing part of Broadway, in November 1946, from the magnificent archives of Life Magazine: