The sudden sound of a gunshot shattered the working calm of the television studio, bringing everything and everybody to a halt. That week’s guest star on the Montclair All-Star Comedy Revue, the Hollywood leading lady Maisie De Loren, visibly jumped. But everyone else had become used to it.
“For Christ’s sake, people!” Jackie Plumm shouted, sticking the eight-shot revolver back into his belt. “If you’d pay attention and do it right, then I won’t have to be the bad guy!”
The television audiences who had made Jackie Plumm the hottest on-air personality of 1950 saw only a tall, limber, smiling, rubber-faced man who looked like the kind of guy you could invite over for dinner. His co-workers, however, saw more of the one-time middle-heavyweight Johnny Palumbo, a man filled with huge ego, restless, intimidating energy, and the physical strength of a Kodiak bear.
Firing off a blank cartridge to get attention was simply one of the control techniques Jackie Plumm employed, and despite the fact that the show had a director and an experienced producer, everybody understood who was the boss.
“Buddy!” Plumm shouted, and a diminutive, plump man stepped toward him. Taking the little man by the shoulders, Plumm screamed, “What the hell were you doing over there? How can the audience see you over there? You’re supposed to be here, in front of the camera! Do I have to explain this to you every goddamned week?”
“I guess so, boss,” Buddy Barker said, meekly.
Bernard “Buddy” Barker had been in show business since the age of ten. He had played brats in the early silent comedies of Mack Sennett, often bedeviling Charlie Chaplin or Fatty Arbuckle. But in the coming years, when he failed to grow up so much as grow out, Buddy knew he would never be a leading man. Not even a leading comedian, like Jackie Plumm. Buddy was a stooge-for-hire, willing to take a pie or a pratfall for any top banana who wanted him in order to make a living. For Jackie, though, his duties went further. Buddy was also Jackie’s personal assistant, an often-demeaning position that nevertheless allowed his wife Hazel to buy a new coat every year.
After he was finished yelling at Buddy, Jackie Plumm went to where the little man had been standing, out of the view of any of the cameras, and took the hand of Maisie De Loren. “I’m very sorry,” he said, walking her to the camera, “but I’m surrounded by idiots. You will need to be here, you see, so the people at home will be able to see you. Remember, this is live television. We can’t do second takes.” Then turning around, he screamed, “Okay, people, let’s do it again!”
While the cameras were readjusting their positions on the stage of the Columbus Theatre in New York, from whence Montclair was broadcast, Maisie de Loren sidled up to Buddy Barker.
“It was all my fault, Mr. Barker,” she whispered. “I know you were trying to get me to move, but I didn’t understand.”
“Don’t worry about it, honey,” he said. “Taking heat from Jackie is part of my job description.”
Guest stars were an important element of Montclair, which was why nothing could ever be considered their fault, no matter how badly they actually erred. Maisie De Loren, though, seemed more lost than most. Perhaps that was because she had come in at the last minute, replacing a hot young starlet named Marilyn Monroe who had dropped out.
“The way he fires that gun,” Maisie said. “Isn’t it dangerous?”
At first Buddy thought she was making a joke, but her face betrayed no flicker of humor or, frankly, awareness. The gun was, of course, loaded with blanks, like a starter’s pistol, but apparently Maisie De Loren could not figure that out.
“We wear bullet proof vests,” Buddy said.
It’s gonna be a long three days, Buddy thought.
The rehearsal went smoothly after that. At lunch break, Jackie Plumm retreated to his dressing room and ordered Buddy down to Arturo’s Italian Deli in Hell’s Kitchen to fetch an Italian sandwich. That was nothing unusual. Jackie’s mood, however, was.
“Hey, look, Buddy, sorry about the ass-chewing I gave you out there,” Jackie said, smiling. “I was angry at that woman. She’s impossible. But I can’t yell at the guests.”
“Yeah, I know that, Jackie.”