“Yo man, it’s the Geator! … I just got out of the hospital, but I’m dancing and doing my thing! … Yeah, why don’t you come out to dinner with us? … Modo Mio, 2nd and Girard … I bring my own wine … You’ll love the guys, the group of guys we hang with … Doctor Razor’ll be there … oh, you’ll flip over the food at this joint, you’ll flip.”
I only know the Geator by his legend. The Geator with the Heator, the Boss with the Hot Sauce: peripatetic founding father of rock-’n’-roll; breaker of countless hit records; deejay/performer/tastemaker whose influence on the shape of American music rivals Wolfman Jack’s; close personal friend to Dick Clark, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Kimmel, Bob Brady, and half the famous mobsters in Philly. And it sounds like he’s still got some sort of brat pack. So here we go. I’m in.
Wine’s on the table, as promised. The Geator snaps his fingers, beckons me to sit down to dinner at Modo Mio. It’s just the two of us for now. “The guys” are on the way. The Geator grins. Light glints off his white teeth. He’s five-foot-five and 67 years old. Tonight he’s wearing a kangol-style hat, brim rotated to the back, and a skintight black shirt and skinny black jeans — the uniform of a 22-year-old Brooklyn hipster pasted onto a guy who was born when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. The Geator starts to pour me a glass of barbera, from Italy. I decline, politely. His eyes flash with surprise, concern, pity. He leans forward and whispers — whispers — “You don’t drink?”
No, no, I do, but, ah, I’m basically on the clock, I just met you, I’m not supposed to take free stuff from —
“Don’t you like to drink a lot of wine? That’s what I do. I have dinner and I drink wine.”
The Geator is still technically recovering from heart surgery last week, although to hear the Geator tell it, he barely had to recover at all. Thirty-six hours after doctors inserted a long plastic tube through his groin and up into his heart, plugging a hole the size of a quarter in his atrium (“Next thing I remember, they’re shaking me … this beautiful assistant by the name of Dee. Beau-tee-ful”), the Geator was back at work, doing his weekly radio show at Philly Park Casino. “Incredible,” he says, “amazing.”
And now he’s here, with the wine, and with “the guys,” who’ve arrived — there’s a lawyer, Carl Poplar, who was once Jim Florio’s law partner and is a dead ringer for actor Ian McKellen, and another lawyer, Joe Pozzuolo, who has curly hair and apple cheeks and handles the Geator’s estate, and of course Doctor Razor (a.k.a. David Raezer, urologist), who is the last to join us, fresh off the operating table, in a rumpled suit. (“I’m starting with dessert, goddammit.”) The food has come streaming out of the kitchen in discrete glorious flights, ricotta and wheat bread, agnolotti, anisette cookies, and we’re all eating and talking, mostly about age and youth and death, on account of the Geator’s recent ordeal, and I start learning things.
I learn that when one of the Geator’s middle-aged fans approaches him in a restaurant, he stands up, rears back like one of the tinier dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, snaps his fingers five or six times — SNAP SNAP SNAP SNAP SNAP — and says, “Oh, I love ya, you’re the BEST!”
I learn that the Geator is not a “deejay.” He’s a “performer,” like his dear departed friend Sammy Davis Jr., who came up to the Geator when the Geator was just 14, dancing on Bob Horn’s Bandstand, and told him, “Hey, you’re like a white me.” I hear this story three times by the end of the night.
Hey, you’re like a white me.
I keep drinking, keep learning. I learn that there is only one kind of music, good music, and that the music of today is not this kind of music. I learn that kids today are nonetheless attracted to the “honesty” of the good music (the Geator calls it, simply, “The Music”), as delivered by the Geator: “Young people are intrigued by the energies that the Geator puts forth.” I learn that if you love what you do, you cannot get old. (“Charlie Chaplin was 90 years old and still zooming broads.”) And the Geator absolutely loves what he does, which is to narrate and interpret The Music for his thousands of superloyal fans — who, contrary to the wayward beliefs of the Mafia-busting New Jersey State Commission of Investigation, have always been the sole source of the Geator’s power and influence. The Geator says that if anyone ever prevented him from playing The Music the way he wants to play it, like certain station managers have tried to do in the past, the Geator would be like the Native American Indians, who used to “have the freedom to run, until we saddled them … until we put them on reservations.” Says the Geator, “I am a Native American going back to the very beginning, when they had the freedom to roam and hunt when they were hungry, to live off the land and be a happy people.”
I learn that the Geator is 100 percent not kidding about this.
Most importantly, I learn that “as long as there’s an audience out there, young or old, who wants to hear music as honest as it is, any time period, I’ll be around. Until the good guy upstairs says, okay, I need you up here with Sammy.”
The Geator is getting old people laid.
Stop by the Geator’s weekly Wednesday-evening radio show at Philly Park Casino in Bensalem and see for yourself. Check out the pretty ladies at the Circle Bar, an oasis of life and energy at the back of a sad slot-machine floor. The ladies are perfumed and husbandless, picking at gratis plates of neon-orange cheese and pepperoni. They shuttle back and forth between the bar and the “dance floor” — really just a clear stretch of carpet between some slot machines. The Geator stands on top of the bar, bobbing slightly to the beat, tapping his toes, grin frozen to his face. A large man who looks like Jonathan Winters is shining the Geator’s white-and-brown Nike Airs while the Geator spins The Music — “Hug My Radiator” by Dion, “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons — for live broadcast on WVLT, 92.1, out of Vineland, New Jersey. “Oh! … Ha ha ha HEY! You’re here with the Geator … now, why are you shining my shoes, young man? Ladies and gentlemen, let’s have a big hand for Jonathan Winters! … ”
I shake hands with “Jonathan Winters,” who is really Ron Motzer, 59, a retired printer from Phoenixville. “A year ago, I almost died,” Ron says, frowning. “He called my wife, every day, for a week.” Ron passes me to Dee, Dee passes me to John. Everybody has a story about why they’re back here every week, same time, same vodka tonics. Ed and Cookie like that they can still jitterbug to the same songs they jitterbugged to 40 years ago. Trudi, age 78, likes the Geator because “he’s not X-rated.” She adds, “I drink water on the rocks. That’s my drink when I come in here. I tell them, no lime please, I’m driving.” She punches my shoulder, laughs, then dips into her purse and hands me a pair of athletic socks that say “USA,” insisting I keep them as a gift.
“This is an unmarketed group,” says Mike the bartender. “Nobody else caters to them except the Geator.”
From the stage, the Geator reels off his schedule for the week — Feasterville, the Jersey Shore, South Jersey. “And then Sunday morning, I get on a plane and go to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino,” he says. He’s going to Florida to perform two shows, and also to take a meeting with singers Frankie Avalon and Connie Francis that will result in “some great news.”
For what won’t be the last time, a very sweet 60-year-old woman asks me to dance.
The Geator is a creature of routine. Every morning, he wakes up to music from 88.5 WXPN, his newest radio affiliate. His ’XPN show is called The Geator’s Rock & Roll, Rhythm & Blues Express and airs for an hour every Saturday. Lately the Geator can’t stop talking about it. He likes doing the show so much he does it for free. The ’XPN audience is the Geator’s youngest — the median ’XPN listener is a 45-year-old white person — and it’s revealing of his general strategy for continued creative potency in old age that his “youngest” show is also his rootsiest and most self-consciously historical. The show doesn’t assume that the listener has any prior knowledge of The Music. “It’s like you’re sitting next to somebody by the fire,” says Bruce Warren, ’XPN’s program director. “He’s got his collection of records.” And the records, you’re realizing, are kind of great, despite the fact that you, quite probably, grew up worshiping the Beatles and thinking doo-wop was crap. Even if you’re an indie-rock kid, Uncle Geator’s got a place for you by the fire. “Some of the same folks who are totally into The Hold Steady and Radiohead are e-mailing me about these, like, Etta James songs that the Geator plays,” says Warren. “It’s all connected, somehow.”
Young people are intrigued by the energies the Geator puts forth. …
So: The second he wakes up, to ’XPN, he’s keying into youthful energies. He walks straight to his “inversion slant board,” a black slab of plastic that can be rotated vertically, like a Ferris wheel. He straps himself to the slab and hangs upside-down for five minutes. “When you get old, the spine shrinks. This stretches the spine.” Then he does 50 push-ups and a 20-minute ab workout. Then he walks to a nearby cafe and reads the New York Times while drinking coffee sweetened with honey and eating a bagel with nova lox. The Geator seems to connect to his family history mainly through food. The lox is a legacy of his Jewish father, Louie the Gimp, a small-time South Philly bookmaker who was in the bail-bond business with ward leader Benny Glickstein: “They got ya out in the morning, ya got rearrested at night, ha ha ha.” At night, after his show, the Geator seeks out food cooked by anyone from the Abruzzo region of Italy, where his mother was from. Then he comes back to his condo and unwinds in the place he calls “my oasis,” on the 14th floor of the Society Hill Towers.
“See, this is an L.A./Florida-type look,” the Geator says, giving me the tour. “You don’t think you’re in Philadelphia.” The color palette is overwhelmingly black. There’s a stunning wraparound view of the river. The ceilings are popcorn, stippled with glitter, giving the apartment a celestial vibe. You enter the bedroom through double doors of stained glass. Above the master bed, track lighting. Behind it, a wall of mirrors. And everywhere, in every room, are Indians.
At first, Jerry’s Indian fixation seems like a weird fetish, a superficial affectation — the equivalent of the college girl who suddenly gets heavy into veganism. The problem with this view is that Jerry really does know a hell of a lot about Indians. Ever since he was a kid, when he listened religiously to a radio show called Straight Arrow, about a Comanche warrior, he’s sought out books and movies about Native American culture. Each Indian in Jerry’s apartment is precisely positioned according to tribe, clothing and spiritual energy; one by one, as he points out the authentic Apache tom-tom, the brass replica of a Frederic Remington statue, the Lakota Sioux holding a buffalo skull, he gives me capsule histories of their tribes.
After the tour, Jerry invites me to sit down in his kitchen and split a bottle of wine and listen to some music. “Now, wait till you hear this mix,” he says. “I want you to hear what I did with this. … I make this for me. … ”
I see your lips … the summer kisses … the sunburned hands I used to hold. …
This is “Autumn Leaves,” sung by Matt Monro, Britain’s own Sinatra. Jerry’s sitting on the counter, wineglass in his right hand, air-conducting with his left when the orchestra dips, swoons … and now it’s no longer Monro singing, but Gordon MacRae. Same song. “It’s just flawless,” Jerry says. His eyes close halfway. Jerry subscribes to the romantic view of art — to make great art, you have to have suffered. A love song is a direct communication of universal pain. This is hard to square with Jerry’s own love life, which is fairly ornate but also remarkably carefree. He has been married for 48 years, separated for 32 of them, and is in a long-term relationship with a 54-year-old Jewish woman who practices holistic healing. I once asked him what he looked for in a woman. In older women, their style, their “sense of life.” In younger women, “I’m attracted to their beauty. I’m attracted to their body.” Jerry’s urologist, the ubiquitous Doctor Razor, reports that Jerry has “a really big dick.” Jerry doesn’t argue with this assertion (“It’s been rumored that I have … whatever”), or with the idea that if he were so inclined, he could easily handle, just physically, without Viagra, one of the numerous 25-year-old hotties who walk by his outdoor table on the nights that he and The Razor eat at Melograno (“but I wouldn’t”). Does Jerry fuck around? “Do I fuck around? He-he-he.” There’s a long, long pause. Ten seconds. Fifteen seconds. “Only by looking,” he says, finally. “You know, there’s more to love than making love. A fucking dog can make fucking love. …
“This song is a killer. Listen to the words to this. … ”
Time is like a dream
And now for a time you are mine …
“It’s real,” Jerry says, “it’s real. Listen — ”
Loving you, I could not grow old …
Jerry says it: “I could not grow old.”
The more I hang out with the Geator, the more his world seems to expand. Tonight’s show, at the Dizzy Dolphin bar at the Hilton in Atlantic City, is just like the other shows. I walk in, the Geator introduces me from the stage (“Jimmy Kimmel, that’s Jimmy Kimmel”), people come up to me, shake my hand. Jerry collects people. He is incredibly good at it. A person born into privilege can be blasé about making friends, but not Jerry Blavat. Jerry never wastes a chance to tell his story to anyone, no matter if it’s the Prince of Wales (“He says, ‘Eh, what’s a Geator?’”) or Peggy, the 59-year-old Home Depot employee with a tattoo of a shamrock above her left breast. The life’s work of the Geator with the Heator has been to give The Music to The People. But the life’s work of Jerry Blavat has been to assemble a tribe.
These two projects are related, of course, because The Music is the common language and religion of the tribe, the thing that unites people from all these cloistered worlds in a state of woozy nostalgia for a time when a man could dance to the Village People without it being all gay. The only requirement for membership in the tribe is a certain respect for Jerry Blavat, the tribal chief. Jerry’s talent is to make that respect extraordinarily easy to bestow, even for people who aren’t accustomed to giving the time of day to runty half-Jewish dudes. Frank Rizzo gave it (“I respect a guy like that,” says Jerry, “because I know where you stand”), and so did slumlord Sam Rappaport (“Unfortunately, people called him a slumlord”) and press lord Walter Annenberg (“I used to make him laugh a lot”) and indicted lawyer Ron White (who successfully defended Jerry in a sex-harassment lawsuit 13 years ago). These bonds of loyalty allow the tribe to function in a semi-sovereign fashion. And Jerry will always side with his tribe members against any encroachment, even if it means he has to look the other way when those members do things that would cause most of us to piss our pants out of naked fear.
Jerry has been friendly with several bosses of the Philly mob, among them Angelo Bruno (the quiet, honorable don), Nicky Scarfo (the tiny, explosive, bloodthirsty don), and Joey Merlino (the young, flashy don). When the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation investigated the Scarfo mob back in 1992, Jerry took the Fifth. The commission later released a report that alleged, based on the testimony of mob snitches, that Jerry asked Scarfo to kill Hy Lit, a competing deejay, and that when Scarfo said that was “crazy,” Jerry asked if Scarfo couldn’t just “have Lit beaten.” There was other stuff in the report, too — stuff about Jerry being a loan shark, and allowing himself to be a front for Scarfo’s ownership of a $107,000 boat, and offering to help Scarfo poison a guy, and generally perpetrating a “successful intermingling of his careers in both the entertainment industry and organized crime” — but the Hy Lit hit was the one that got all the media attention.
Jerry has always denied these allegations and has never been charged criminally for any mob-related activity. Back then, he mostly issued brief denials through his lawyers, but now that Bruno’s dead (Jerry was an usher at his funeral) and Scarfo and Merlino are in prison, Jerry’s answer is basically this: “I grew up with these people.” Okay, but why actually befriend them? “Guy’s got leprosy — would Jesus walk away from a leper?” Of course not: Jesus would hook him up with a $107,000 boat. Allegedly.
“They never did anything wrong that I ever saw.”
Here’s the thing, though. Today, the Philly mob is dead or fatally crippled. Mob stories aren’t scary anymore. They’re just nostalgia. And Jerry, after years of roaming the plains with these dying tribes, has got the nostalgia market cornered. “Pick up the newspaper today,” he says. “There’s killing. There’s this, there’s dope, there’s war, there’s that. You wanna get away from all that. You wanna go back in time. To a better time.” So that’s what he’s selling, tonight, every night — little bits of dead worlds, packaged, Geator-hawked … stories about the Brat Pack, of course, here at the Hilton … and now he’s booking it back to Pennsylvania in the Geatormobile, which for now is an SUV but which he’s going to trade in next week for a sexy little hybrid … heading toward the site of his late-night show, a place called the Springfield Inn in Delaware County, where people are more likely to laugh at stories about how “9th Street used to be 9th Street, now it’s Chinatown, ha ha ha,” and where U.S. Congressman Bob Brady’s waiting by the bar with two aides. As a kid, Brady used to brawl at the Geator’s record hops, until the Geator set him straight. “Keepin’ us all young,” Brady says, nodding. “Philadelphia treasure. Good man. Don’t make ’em like that anymore. Broke that mold. Great heart, good mold.”
Brady readjusts his bulk. “Write nice things about him,” he says. “If you don’t, a lot of people are going to be upset.”
Over his morning bagel and lox, the Geator gets a call from a woman named Roseanne. He takes it on his Bluetooth earpiece. “Yo baby. Who’s this? … Frank? Oh really? He passed away? I loved him. … Oh, Jesus, I’m sorry to hear that. …” The Geator hangs up, shakes his head. “[Frank] had to be dancing with me since I was a kid. … ”
Tonight’s show — the last one before we head to Florida in the morning — is in South Jersey, at a catering hall next to a fire station. This one is a particularly deep dive into the past, Jack Nicholson in The Shining walking into that ghostly ballroom. By the end of the night, enough people have come up to me to tell me the same exact thing — as long as Jerry’s around, they still feel young and hopeful, and they’re afraid of losing Jerry because they’re afraid of losing that feeling — that I realize: Jerry’s preoccupation with living forever is an obsession, yeah, but it’s also simpler than that. It’s his job.
“The Ab Duo,” Frankie Avalon’s saying. “This machine, it’s amazing.”
We’re in Florida, fresh off the plane, having been conveyed by Lincoln Town Car to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and deposited at a crowded breakfast table with The Man Himself, he of the black hair, the smooth voice, and the Beach Blanket Bingo swim trunks. Avalon grew up blocks from Jerry in South Philly, and shares his preoccupation with muscle tone. He looks fit in a t-shirt and a black ball cap. Pretty immediately, Jerry tells Avalon the story of his recent brush with death. “There is no need for them to ever again cut you,” Jerry says, “unless you need a massive surgery.”
This comment triggers a round of surgery stories. The guy next to Avalon in the turquoise jacket turns out to be Dick Fox, Avalon’s manager, who also represents Jerry Lewis. Fox pipes up about his quadruple bypass. A woman at the next table hears this, leans in, and says, “If you’re not careful, I’ll talk to you about my brain surgery.”
“Are you kiddin’? … ”
“ … I got dizzy,” she says, “and I got a cyst. And the cyst started growing.”
“Check please,” says Dick Fox. “I just had breakfast.” He shakes his head. “I was 60 last week! Six-oh. It’s killin’ me.”
The Geator turns to me and says, “He’s one of the real old-time guys left. There’s no longer guys. Everything’s big agencies.”
What happens next is an informal game of Showbiz Trivial Pursuit. Avalon gets it going. “You know that song?” he says, and starts to sing, softly:
There’s a small hotel, with a wishing well …
Avalon’s asking who wrote it.
“Rodgers and Hart?” the Geator says.
“Charlie Chaplin,” Avalon says.
“ … I think he stole it from Rodgers and Hart,” the Geator says.
“Can you look it up?”
They’re looking at me. At my laptop.
I load Wikipedia, read the song’s entry out loud:
“‘There’s a Small Hotel’ is a 1936 popular song composed by Richard Rodgers, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart. … The song is a reference to El Encanto, a hotel in the Riviera neighborhood of Santa Barbara, California. … ”
“So I was half-right,” says Avalon.
This is more than mere trivia; it’s the marrow of the showbiz tribe. None of the institutions that created and sustained these guys are around anymore — no American Bandstand (just its tawdry copy, American Idol), no records (just singles, on iTunes), not even any record stores, the kind where a kid could walk in, spin a 45, and listen to the entire record before buying it. “You can’t do that today,” the Geator says.
“Well,” I say, “with iTunes, actually, you can listen to a 30-second preview of any song — ”
“Stick it up your ass with your iTunes,” says Dick Fox.
No call from Jerry. He’s supposed to call. I’m not exactly surprised.
The vibe here has shifted. I went to his show last night, at an outdoor food court the casino calls “Seminole Paradise,” and afterward, he said he’d call me in a little bit so we could get a drink. But he didn’t call. Instead, he went to a steakhouse with Avalon and Avalon’s bandmates — Avalon had just stepped off the stage at Hard Rock Live — and when I eventually walked into the steakhouse and sat down at the big boys’ table, it was like something in the room had died. Jerry was nice to me, welcoming as always, but it was clear I had pissed off Avalon. I drank a quick cup of coffee, talked to Jerry about a plan for today, and took off.
Our plan: Drive to an ultra-exclusive resort called Lago Mar (“It’s an oceanfront view, you’ll flip”) where Jerry’s thinking about buying some property. Nicholas Pileggi, the screenwriter of Goodfellas and Casino, has encouraged Jerry to write his life story so that Pileggi can buy the film rights, and Jerry needs a getaway where he can speak his life into a voice transcriber.
But no call. Was it my iTunes comment? Something else? The trivia thing, maybe — catching Avalon in a mistake? Or does Avalon, understandably, just want to shoot the shit with Jerry without a reporter tagging around? For whatever reason, I appear to be exiled from the tribe.
Secretly, I’m glad for the downtime. Despite the 40-year age difference between me and the Geator, I can’t keep up with him.
Later on, I walk over to the Seminole Paradise to watch Jerry’s show. He spots me and says, “You look well-rested, Jason.” Then he arranges for me to have dinner with Connie Francis while he finishes up his set.
“He sends me macaroni, boxes of homemade macaroni, every Christmas,” Francis says. “It’s great.”
Back in Philly. Back at Modo Mio, where we first had dinner a week ago. Back with the three bottles of red wine, back with “the guys” (well, one guy, WPHT-AM’s finance expert, Steve Cordasco, who manages Jerry’s portfolio), back with the generous plates of agnolotti and pine-nut torte. The Geator’s piling food on my plate, asking after my pregnant wife, catching me up on the stuff in Florida I missed. When you’re back in with the Geator, you’re really back in. “You’re part of my family now. You understand? I think of you as a little brother.”
I don’t think this is insincere. He really means it. It’s just a delicious sort of impossibility. Jerry can befriend a mobster, Jerry can befriend your grandma, he can get close to kings and king-high scumbags alike, he can live to be 115 years old — but only Jerry can do that. You can’t. That’s his power. He goes where no one else can go and comes back with a story that lets you feel like you’ve been there too. But you haven’t. That’s how much he loves you. He loves you enough to create a fantasy of deep and timeless togetherness even though he knows that when he dies, and when you die, you’ll both go your separate ways — you to wherever, and the Geator to Sammy’s secluded table in the sky.