The short-tempered midget spent the last 25 years of his life as doorman-greeter for Hawaii Kai, a schlock tourist restaurant next door to the Winter Garden Theatre in Times Square. Come bend your ear to another voice of Lost New York.
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NARRATOR: This is Tales of Times Square: The Tapes. I’m Josh Alan.
When I was a teenager in the 1970s, the mysteries of Times Square loomed large. 1,200 prostitutes raged across 8th Avenue from 34th to 50th Streets with a corridor of super-fly pimps in their Cadillacs, so many that the police department set up a cordoned-off walkway described by one sergeant as “two pimps wide.” There were dozens of clapboard massage parlors that sprung up week by week with homemade psychedelic signage. Criminality was out of control right outside the legitimate Broadway theaters. All of this mixed uneasily with the history of old Broadway whose Guys-and-Dolls senior denizens still survived in their old age amid this new squalor.
By the time I was 30 years old in 1986, I’d spent 10 years on old Broadway, culminating in the publication of the book, Tales of Times Square. But I forgot about the tapes, disintegrating cassettes from 35 years ago that I recorded during research for my book; an audio landscape of Times Square in the 1970s and ’80s where local people I’d spent years getting to know bared their souls.
It’s 1982 and the hit musical, Cats, has just opened at the Winter Garden, but next door a short-tempered black midget paces at the doorway of Hawaii Kai like Napoleon. He’s been serving time here since 1960, greeting folks with his cane and pointing the way upstairs at the shlock tourist restaurant next to the Winter Garden. His domain resembles a tropical Hawaiian Disney Land exhibit with a coat check and restrooms. Business is terrible. If you grease his palm, he’ll sit you down by the mock waterfall and tell you his life story.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Oh, what’s your name?
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: My name is Josh Friedman.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Josh Friedman, this is Pee Wee. I’m Pee Wee, been on Broadway the last 50 years.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Fifty years?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Yeah, almost 50 years.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: What year did you first come here?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: 1943, 1943. Don’t come over here and bother me now.
SPEAKER: I’m not going to bother you.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: This is my business.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: And where you working – where were you working in 1943?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Oh, well, let me see. (Inaudible 3:00). I was singing and dancing at that time.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Where was that? Which club?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Well, after I got here. Let me tell you where I come from. I come up from Nashville, Tennessee. I was singing and dancing with the late Francis Craig, only white band down South who had a black man performing. The late Francis Craig, white band. And after he gave his band up during the war days (ph 3:29) and I came up to New York. Francis asked me to – he said, “Pee Wee, do you want to go back to Montgomery?” I said, “No, I don’t want to go back to Montgomery, Mr. Craig. I want to go to New York and we’ve already been up there. And I like it up there and I think I can do good.” So he gave me $100, a roundtrip ticket, and a letter of introduction.
So in August 1943, I came up. I had met the great Billy Eckstine down in Nashville, the great singer. He gave me his address when I met him down there, and told me whenever I come to New York City I could stay with him until I got something to do. So I knew exactly where he lived and I got a cab, rode up to Harlem.
NARRATOR: From the 1930s until the 1960s, 52nd Street had the most famous stretch of jazz clubs in New York, probably the world. Standing only 4’ 8”, Pee Wee still managed to take 52nd Street by storm. Right after he arrived in New York, he was working at the Three Deuces and Zanzibar and spent almost two decades at Birdland. But he would shake down the musicians and demand a 50 cent tip in order to pronounce their names correctly. So Horace Silver, for instance, he announced as “Hor-ass Silver” because Silver didn’t pay him tribute.
Lester Young referred to Pee Wee as “half a mother fucker.”
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: What clubs were you working then?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Three Deuces on 52nd Street, as well Eddie Heywood, the great pianist, would play. And --
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: What was the nature of your act when you --
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Sing. I’m the singer.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: What kind of songs did you sing?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Well, ballads, jazz, rhythm. That was my act. And then I just turn out to be emcee. Now, I sang and danced there over two or three years on 52nd Street. Billy Eckstine was there, the man that friended me, the late Charlie “Yardbird” Parker – I met him there. Dizzy Gillespie and all the big bands, Teddy Wilson, and all the great musicians.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: And you worked with all of them?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Yeah, I worked with all of those people. Gradually, I introduced all of those people in the latter years at Birdland, jazz corner of the world.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: You introduced them into a microphone.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Yeah, yeah, up on the stage, up on the stage.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: The emcee.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Emcee. I ran the show, everything. I ran the show, everything. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro – late Fats Navarro, late Bud Powell, late Dan Tamarind (ph 6:27).
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Did you go to some of their funerals?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Oh, no. I didn’t never go. I always wanted to remember them as I saw them.
NARRATOR: In 1982, all I knew was that there was this crazy midget in a military uniform pacing back and forth in front of Hawaii Kai yelling at people. I found it hard to believe that he was a legendary emcee when I finally got to know him.
Here’s Pee Wee on Art Blakey’s 1954 record, A Night at Birdland.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, we have something special down here at Birdland this evening: a recording for Blue Note records. When you applaud for the different passages, your hands go right on the record there. So when they play them over and over throughout the country, you may be someplace and say, “Well, that’s my hand on one of those records that I dug down at Birdland.” We’re bringing back to the bandstand at this time, ladies and gentlemen, the great Art Blakey and his wonderful group featuring the new trumpet sensation, Clifford Brown, Horace Silver on piano, Lou Donaldson on alto, Curley Russell is on bass. And let’s get together and bring Art Blakey to the bandstand with a great, big round of applause. How about a big hand now for Art Blakey. Thank ya. (Applause.)
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: When did you stop singing? What happened --
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: No, I stopped singing – oh, I stopped signing after ’44 after I got into the nightclub business and they made me greeter and host. And I was introducing the – greeting people and introducing the show.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Did you prefer that to singing?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Yes, I did at the time, because so much red tape in getting started here in New York. You had to have an agent, you had to have an agent and all that kind of thing.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: So you had more fun even --
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Right.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: -- as an emcee?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: That’s right. I had more fun as the emcee.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: How long did you do that?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Well, I did that for about 25, 30 years, 25, 30 years.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: At the Three Deuces?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: No, no, all over New York – Birdland, the jazz corner of the world, Royal Roost, Zanzibar, uptown in Harlem.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: What was your favorite place of all that you worked at?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Oh, my favorite place was Zanzibar.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Where was that?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: That was in the ’40s, 49th Street and Broadway.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Why was that your favorite?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Well, because it’s beautiful down there. And the real old-timers there, the great smart boys, smart guys there, mobsters and everything like that I knew and met.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Did you know Damon Runyun?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: No. I’d seen him around but I never hadn’t a chance to meet him. But I met Walter Winchell, the great, late Walter Winchell, the great, late Ed Sullivan and Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and all those people.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: You knew everybody.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Yeah, everybody.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Where did you live back then?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: I lived in Harlem.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: So you’d commute every day.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Yeah, I lived in Harlem, hotel – that’s when Harlem was Harlem.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Hotel --
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Theresa.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Theresa, right.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Hotel Theresa.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: And in those days, of course, there was a lot of – a lot more going on.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: It was clean, a lot more going on; wasn’t no mugging, wasn’t no – nothing like that. Nobody thinking about mugging you, sticking you up, or nothing like that. Everybody was beautiful.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Now, it was sort of like that down here too back then, 30, 40 years ago.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Yeah, back in those days, beautiful places.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: How did you feel about Times Square back then?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Well, Times Square was clean because you go – you could drop a – you could drop a match), and so clean you could eat off the sidewalk down here at that time.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: You never did that?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: No, I didn’t do it but that’s how clean it was. And they had movies. You could go to the movies all night, an all-night movie, all night. When you get off your job, it’s 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, you go to the movies down in Times Square.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: You would do that sometimes?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Yeah. I used to go down with a friend of mine. We used to go to see all-night movies.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: And there was --
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: I don’t mean no bad movies, ugly movies, nothing like that. Regular, legit movies, legit, clean.
NARRATOR: Pee Wee is referring to what now seems like a wholesome lost era of 42nd Street where you could catch John Wayne’s latest western, Boris Karloff’s latest horror flick, or Abbott & Costello’s current comedy release. Whereas in 1982, practically every single marquee boasted filth and ugliness, like Deep Throat, The Devil and Miss Jones, Trap Them, Kill Them, and most irritatingly staring him in the face from a marquee around the corner, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: We’d go there, then we’d have dinner at Romeo’s, Romeo restaurant that serves spaghetti and meatball and sausage, and the prices were right. And it was no problem then. Everything was clean, everything was beautiful, good people.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: So what started to happen?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Hey, baby, how you doing?
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: What started to happen? When did it change around here?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Well, when the ’60s came along, when the ’60s started coming up.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: About when in the ’60s? Early ’60s?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Oh, no, latter part of the ’60s. It started changing after Martin Luther King got killed and Bobby Kennedy got killed.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: But how did it affect Times Square with the deterioration here?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Well, it affected – people’s thoughts. It affected people’s thoughts. People wasn’t happy. People’s mind got boggled up with all this hate and permisiveness. And they just went wild and that dope came on the scene.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Who? Dope.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: That dope stuff and Vietnam came on the scene.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: What were the first things that you remember seeing change in Times Square when it started to get bad in the ’60s?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Well, when they had the Strand Theater down there, 47th Street, had the Capitol Theater across the street here on 50th, when they had Roxy Theater over here on 50th and 7th Avenue.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Which is that?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: The Roxy Theater.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Roxy.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Paramount Theater where the great Frank Sinatra performed.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: When they closed those, that upset you?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Yeah. When they closed all those things, yeah, then that’s – that was the beginning of the downfall of Broadway.
NARRATOR: The downfall of Broadway. The great jazz clubs of 52nd Street disappeared in the ’60s, the Roxy, which my parents and grandparents went to, opened in 1927 as the world’s largest motion-picture cathedral, capacity 6,000; a stage show each week with a rising orchestra pit and symphony of 110 musicians, and also a battalion of uniformed ushers. The Roxy closed in 1960 and was demolished by developer William Zeckendorf, just one of hundreds of New York landmarks destroyed by real estate cannibals.
The Capitol Theater was right across from Hawaii Kai, where Pee Wee and I are now standing. It opened in 1919 and seated 4,000 and featured big bands along with the premiers of all of MGM’s films. It was demolished in 1968.
And the Paramount opened in 1926 and became ground zero for the whole big-band era. The Wurlitzer organ there weighed 33 tons. It’s where Sinatra became a sensation as well as Martin and Lewis. It closed in 1966, but at least the Paramount building remains in Times Square.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: How do you remember the highlights of Broadway, the heyday to you, the biggest --
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Oh, it used to be a great white way. Everybody dressed up, tuxedos, gowns, no muggers, no overalls, no short pants, no khakis, none of that mess around there. They had cops on the beat all night long, stood around for hours. Kept the peace, nobody mad at nobody.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: You never thought twice about walking down the street at night anytime?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: No, no, never looked back, nothing like that. Walked anywhere I want. I don’t care what time.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: And now it’s – what’s it like now?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Well, I can’t get home fast enough.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: You live nearby?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: In the cab – around the corner.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: You take a cab just --
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: I take a cab, yeah.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Just around the corner?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Yeah. It’s not easy to walk around.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Yeah.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: It’s tough.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Have you been hassled?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: What you have to do now is get in and get out. When you come to work, that’s it. Pray that you get to work and pray that you get home.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Have you had any trouble in the past 10 years? Have you been mugged --
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: No. Thank God I haven’t and that’s because of the man upstairs. I’m a very religious person and God always takes care of me, all these years. I’m 68 years old, 4’ 8” and God takes care of me, so I don’t worry about anything.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: When did you come to Hawaii Kai?
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Oh, after Birdland closed after 17 years. That was 52nd Street and Broadway. After being there all those years introducing all those great singers and entertaining, I just got tired of staying in the nightclubs singing and dancing and carrying on. I just wanted to be with the people on the street, so I came down there to Hawaii Kai. A fellow named Artie Schindler, a fellow named Joe Kipness– they’re both gone now, they’re dead now.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: I remember Joe Kipness.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Yeah. They gave me the job as greeter and host. That’s what I was when they was here. I was with them 10 years. After a few years, they sold it to these Chinese people, Mike Shaw. And he took it over and he kept me here. Now, they’ve been here 14 years.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: So you’ve been here a total of --
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Total of 10 and 14.
JOSH ALAN FRIEDMAN: Twenty-four years at Hawaii Kai.
PEE WEE MARQUETTE: Right, that’s right.
NARRATOR: In case you were wondering, here’s what the show sounded like upstairs. I can assure you that the music was better than what they served in the restaurant.
EMCEE: Ladies and gentlemen, it is show time. Welcome to the Hawaii Kai and welcome to our show. We’re going to take you to visit Hawaii, New Zealand, and Tahiti. And folks, we’d like to start our show with a number we call Honalaminor (ph 17:16). (Music plays.)
NARRATOR: I’d like to play you the entire evening’s show, but let’s get back to Pee Wee down on the street.