Once, back when I was managing a small nightclub called “Porfle’s Playpen” on the south side of Chicago, I was fortunate enough to book Gladys Knight and the Pips for a solid week of what I was certain would be big, big, booming business. It wasn’t every day we had big, big big-name entertainment like that on our stage. Usually it was people like Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods or Neil Sedaka, or the guy who played Sam Drucker on “Petticoat Junction.” Sure, they’re fairly well-known, but nobody wants to see them naked.
Not that they ever actually got naked, but you know how people are–they hear that a certain celebrity is going to be performing somewhere, and they show up in hopes of seeing them naked for one reason or another. That’s why so many people really went to see Elvis during his declining years–they were hoping his pants would fall down or that tight costume would explode right off of his body or whatever, and they’d get to snap a picture of naked Fat Elvis. It’s also why so many people used to watch “The Golden Girls.” They were hoping, due to some incredibly unlikely but still slightly possible turn of events, to see naked Bea Arthur.
Anyway, Neil Sedaka was onstage the night I found out over the phone that Gladys Knight and the Pips were confirmed for the following week. I felt celebratory, so I indulged in something that was rare for me, which was to run out onto the stage and rip Neil Sedaka’s pants off. Then I signalled to Fred, who worked the canned music and lighting effects up in the booth, and he pressed the red button, which released several gallons of water onto Neil’s head. One moment he was in the middle of singing “Laughter In The Rain”, and the next moment he was standing there in nothing but a red spangled speedo with little candy canes all over it, dripping like a wet hog. It was horrifying. Several of my customers started to throw up, especially the ones who happened to be eating cottage cheese.
“I hate you! I hate you!” Neil screamed as he ran offstage, crying. But it was his last night anyway, so I felt lighthearted and optimistic. Then, suddenly aware that I might possibly have raised the ire of some of my patrons–especially the Neil Sedaka fans–I gaily announced, “Free club crackers for everyone!” This seemed to placate the goofy bastards.
Well, the weekend passed slower than molasses on Al Gore’s ass, but at last Monday came and it was time for Gladys Knight and the Pips to begin their engagement. I didn’t greet them when they arrived to set up, since back in those days I thought I was better than everyone else and felt it beneath my sanctified magnificence to actually associate with lesser human beings, which included the entire human race except for Ben Gazarra, Robert Loggia, and, of course, Doris Day. But I did make sure to be sitting at my special private table when the show started, basking in my own greatness and ready to be entertained.
As the lights dimmed and Gladys Knight and the Pips sashayed onstage, wave after wave of pure excitement washed over my body. It was just like that time I took a shower. Fred flicked the switch and the first sweet strains of “Midnight Train to Georgia” began to waft over the audience. Gladys assumed her position at the mike as the Pips danced in unison behind her. I looked around at all the happy-faced customers–or “pigs” as I jokingly referred to them back in the day–who had just lined my pockets with wads of sweet, sweet cash and were even now shelling out top dollar for day-old food that the cafeteria down the street sold to me for practically nothing every night instead of throwing it out. All was right with the world.
Suddenly, I sensed something was amiss. Gladys was singing “I’m leavin’…on that midnight train to Georgia” just as beautifully as ever. Two of the Pips were harmonizing the words “she’s leavin’…leavin’ on that midnight train” and dancing with their trademark precision choreography. But the third pip was a different story. Not only were his movements dreadfully erratic and non-choreographed, but the only sounds coming from his mouth were things like “ZZZRRRKKKK” and “SSSSKKKRRRTT.” As the song drew to a close, I arose from my seat and slowly made my way onto the stage.
“Thought you could pull one over on me, didn’t you, Gladys?” I said, hands on hips.
“Huh? What are you talking about?” she replied, trying to use the old “innocent act” on me.
“Oh, nothing,” I remarked nonchalantly. “Except that one of your so-called ‘pips’ seems to be, in actuality…A ROBOT!!!”
Her eyes went wide. “CURSES!!!” she screamed, realizing that the jig was up. Leaping from the stage, she grabbed a hanging light fixture and swung over the crowd, landing like a cat near one of the exits. I sprang into hot pursuit. An off-duty cop rose to stop her, but she gave him a vicious karate chop to the Adam’s apple and grabbed his gun. I dove over the bar and snatched the double-barrelled shotgun from beneath it. Gladys ducked behind the cop’s overturned table and fired. I returned with a double blast of buckshot that took out the jukebox.
“YOU’LL NEVER TAKE ME ALIVE!!!” she shrieked, crashing through the front window. I sprang from behind the bar and was out the door just in time to see her scurrying up the steps of a huge gasoline storage tank next door to the club. She turned to exchange fire with me again as several police cars converged on the scene, sirens blaring.
When she reached the top, she could see that there was no escape. Laughing maniacally, she emptied her pistol into the tank and raised her arms in victory as flames began to rise out of it. “TOP OF THE WORLD, MA!!!” she screamed right before the tank erupted into a massive, earth-rattling explosion that could be seen for miles.
After that, of course, I made it a point to check all further performing acts for robots before allowing them into my club. Which paid off, too, when the freakin’ Partidge Family tried to pass off a “Danny” robot on me. And there’s no telling how many robots had already performed in the club before I was on the lookout for them. I still have my suspicions about Jose’ Feliciano–that incident with him bursting into flames and his head falling off during “Feliz Navidad” is starting to make a little more sense to me now.
As for Gladys Knight–well, don’t ask me how, but, against all odds, she somehow survived that night. In fact, there she was hosting “The Midnight Special” on NBC the very next Friday night. The Pips all looked like real people this time, thank goodness, but I’m pretty darn sure Wolfman Jack was a robot.