Damon Runyon's Broadway
America in the thirties...the hopes and fears of a nation rebounding from Depression doldrums were spotlighted along New York's Broadway.
Over 15 miles long -- within city limits -- Broadway wanders from Bowling Green on the business end of Manhattan Island...north through residential Upper Manhattan and into the city of Yonkers.
But all this wasn't Damon Runyon's Broadway.
His "beat" was the Great White Way...a scant mile of bright lights and brighter nightlife. Runyon was a journalist in the Thirties, and he saw it all --bootleggers, horse players, goldfish swallowers and high society dandies at play.
There were youngsters on Broadway, tugging at their dads' jackets, eyes up at the avenue's towers, heading for the movies to be entertained by their storyteller -- Walt Disney. Oh, the thrills and excitement of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Pinocchio!
Then there were the open-mouthed oglers watching flagpole sitters. The fad reached its peak in the summer of 1930...Shipwreck Kelly beat all past records by perching sky-high for 50 days and 1 hour! Publicity-mad mothers all over the country boosted youngsters onto pillars and posts...and a 15-year-old named Avon Foreman established the "juvenile flagpole sitting record" by remaining aloft 10 days, 10 hours and 10 minutes!
Patrons poured into dance halls to see marathon dancers-- called "infantile" and "barbaric" by turn. When dancers were exhausted..kicking and punching each other to keep awake...people paid admission to watch the couples collapse on the floor.
Veteran movie-maker Frank Capra once dubbed Damon Runyon "Creator of the American Fairy Tale" -- the man who mixed magic with real-life on the Great White Way.
There's magic in the fantastic names he gave his Broadway characters -- Madame La Gimp, Harry the Horse, Sam the Gonoph. There's magic in the hearts of gold he found under rough-tough exteriors...and in the hilarious comedy plots that always included a tug at the heartstrings.
The guys and dolls of Runyon's Broadway came alive in the film Pocketful of Miracles. He must have known a dozen bedraggled, derelict peddlers like Apple Annie, the one he built the story around. Some of them, once respectable citizens, learned reliance on soup kitchens and bread lines. Others turned to panhandling along Broadway...for theatergoers were fast to flip a coin to impress glamour-girl dates.
And glamour was "it" in those days. The "frankly feminine figure" had blossomed forth out of slim-boy lines of the Twenties. Sequined chorus girls like Runyon's Queenie Martin drew diamonds and protection from the millionaires and syndicate gang lords.
Gangsters, pickpockets and rum runners -- all were grist for Damon Runyon's story mill. Which of New York's feared young toughs did he have in mind when he composed Dave the Dude, who appears in Pocketful of Miracles? Gun-slinging characters like Dave mingled with Broadway's real-life crowds.
When Runyon wrote about characters like Judge Henry G. Blake --who was not a judge at all but a "well-dressed bum" -- he must have been thinking of some less lovable habitues of Broadway pool halls and game galleries.
In the Thirties when millions of Americans were jobless...nickels pushed into New York's 5,000 slot machines grossed $100,000 a day for their owners. In Pocketful of Miracles, Judge Blake is coaxed from his Times Square hangout to play Apple Annie's socialite husband...in a plot cooked up by Dave the Dude to help Annie. The Cinderella apple hawker, portrayed in the film by Bette Davis, moves from the street into a penthouse high above Broadway -- another Runyon touch, with soft hearts trumps!
Little Manuel was a name given to a card-sharp by Runyon in his Cinderella story. Did he invent the tiny make-believe character because he'd gotten such a laugh out of a midget who made news in the Thirties? J. Pierpont Morgan, Jr., was sitting in a Senate committee room one day when a circus press agent thrust a female midget on his lap...and the camera boys had a field day!
His "beat" became Runyon's whole life. He put its excitement, danger and glamour before any other interest. Born in one Manhattan (Kansas), he died in another...and didn't permit even death to separate him from his slangy guys and dolls and the Great White Way.
When the sports writer-turned-reporter died in 1946, his ashes were scattered over Times Square by his good friend, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, from a plane high above the lights and glitter. Broadway's Damon Runyon wanted it that way.
(Note: From a 1961 Press Release for the film "Pocketful of Miracles." Copyright permission granted for photos, prints and text.)