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Al Martinez

Tales of the Last Showman

October 24, 1985|AL MARTINEZ

He is sitting in Nate 'n' Al's deli hunched down in a booth under a blue baseball cap that says "Duke" on the front in gold letters. Tufts of white hair stick out from under the cap, making him look a little like a slightly befuddled grandfather in the gently fading moments of his own twilight.

Then suddenly, he begins talking.

Everything changes. The arms move with a speed that makes the air buzz, the eyes glow, the face turns pink and the whole restaurant lights up with an energy that crackles around him like the pyrotechnics of a Frankenstein movie.

"I am the last showman," Maurice Duke is saying with a grin that flashes neon. "Everybody knows me! I am an invited guest wherever I go!"

He digs into a plate of prunes, still smiling, still gesturing, still somehow shooting Roman candles over the heads of the Beverly Hills breakfast crowd, pinkie rings flashing.

Maurice Duke. He is somewhere between 60 and 80. Some call him the world's oldest active producer. His career in show biz spans the years from early radio to current television. He has a collection of 200 hats, plays the harmonica and walks with a cane and a brace because of childhood polio.

Al Martinez

"I got polio," he says, anticipating response, "before it was popular."

He doesn't wait for the laugh. He leads it.

"I am the main man," he likes to say. "I am in front."

I heard about the Duke from a press agent named Bob Abrams who said that among his other accomplishments, the man had taught the waitresses at Nate 'n' Al's to swear and that he had produced the worst movie ever made.

Both true. He manages to work an expletive into even the mildest sentence, but it is so a part of the Duke's persona, the innate character that drives the man, that the words are drained of their vulgarities.

Because he has been coming to the deli for breakfast every weekday for 25 years (surrounded by musicians, agents, network executives, hotel owners and actors), the waitresses began picking up his style of talking and before long were telling the Duke where he could put his scrambled eggs if he didn't like them.

"They love me," he says, waving a lighted cigar around.

They do. There is a fondness for the Duke that is deep and abiding. True, he lends money all over town and always picks up the tab and tips big, but it's more than that.

I suspect it has something to do with the immense amount of energy required to overcome a handicap which, years ago, threatened to prevent him from ever walking again.

The withered legs didn't stop him. A cane and a brace and a specially equipped yellow Barracuda convertible get him where he wants to go. The energy surging through generates its own will.

"It's the urge to live," Duke says, meaning it. "If you wanna die, go ahead and die! Not me. Not the Duke. I'm still after the young broads!"

About that awful movie. It was called "Bella Lugosi Meets the Brooklyn Gorilla."

"I made 103 movies, all bad," the Duke says. "But 'Bella' was so bad it was camp. It won a plaque in 1958 as the worst movie ever made."

A famous brain surgeon tries to join us at the booth but Duke waves him off and says, "You'll have to sit with the B Group today." He gestures toward an overflow table.

The surgeon leaves and Duke says, "I loaned him $2 for a tip once. I told him he could take it off the bill when he did my brain."

Breakfast over, the Duke snaps the leg brace into place and stands. He is just over 5 feet tall and slightly pot-bellied.

"The comic Jack E. Leonard introduced me from the stage once," the Duke is saying as he adjusts his suspenders and tucks in his shirt. " 'There's my friend Maurice Duke. He's the only one who walks around with his own erector set.' "

Then he tells about the time, driving back from New York with a friend, where every thousand miles the friend secretly cut a little off the end of the Duke's cane. When he went to use the shortened cane, the Duke says he shouted, "Jesus, I've gotten taller!"

"The thing is," he says, waving to the deli crowd as he takes his leave, "there's nobody left like me, you know what I mean? I am the last of the breed."

I watched him as he struggled toward his yellow convertible, leaning heavily on the cane, dragging the brace, and I thought: There is something about this man, something special, something beyond the one-liners, beyond the hype, beyond the cigar and the pinkie rings.

"I've got four development deals going for television now," he says, climbing into the car. "I meet with these baby executives at the network and they say, 'What's your background?' and I say, 'You first!' "

The Duke laughs loudly, gestures and starts the engine of the Barracuda.

"I'll never be a millionaire," he says, "but I really go. I wanna live!"

The convertible peels away from the curb and disappears down Beverly Drive, and the morning turns quiet again.

I stand there for a very long time. There is something about that man . . . .

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