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Runyon’s Other Broadway Still Thrives, But the Characters Are Gone

September 16, 1992 GMT

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (AP) _ He was known as ″the Boswell of Broadway,″ but the Great White Way wasn’t the only place Damon Runyon mined for characters.

Runyon was a regular visitor to this world-famous thoroughbred racing mecca. Each August he followed the northward migration of gamblers, con men, gangsters, small-time hoods and prostitutes who left their natural habitat of Times Square for a monthlong binge of gambling at the Spa. And like those he wrote about, Runyon fell under Saratoga’s spell.

″Runyon loved Saratoga, not only for the racing, but for the atmosphere,″ says Pat Lynch, a retired sportswriter who has been coming to Saratoga for nearly 60 years.

″In those days the gambling was wide open here. He circulated in that scene and tapped them for all they were worth.″

Nearly 46 years after his death, Runyon is hot again. A revival of ″Guys and Dolls,″ based on his short stories about New York City street characters, won four Tonys and helped fuel one of Broadway’s best box-office seasons in years. A Runyon biography, written by Jimmy Breslin, was published recently, and movies based on Runyon stories are a staple on cable television.

Such Runyon characters as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Nathan Detroit, Apple Annie, Dave the Dude and the Lemon Drop Kid were fictitious figures drawn from his experiences as a reporter and columnist for the old New York American newspaper. In Saratoga, he encountered such real-life characters as Gloomy Gus, Blue Jaw Magoon, Crazy Moe, Gashouse Lil, Jenny the Factory and The Dancer, additional fodder for Runyon’s columns and short stories.

″There was a rich motherlode of characters at the racetrack which in the modern world has sort of subsided,″ said Lynch, a cub reporter for the American in the 1930s when he first met Runyon, who by then was at the peak of his fame.

Saratoga in 1920s and 1930s was a gambler’s paradise. The horses ran in the afternoon, betting parlors abounded and Saratoga’s lake houses rollicked at night. The houses on Saratoga Lake were top-notch night clubs out front, full- blown casinos out back. Gangsters such as Meyer Lansky, Dutch Schultz, Owney Madden and Lucky Luciano ran the illegal gambling operations.

Arnold Rothstein, reputed to have fixed the 1919 World Series, owned The Brook, a toney casino where millionaires gambled away fortunes. Rothstein, who had plenty of enemies in the gangster world, was murdered in a New York City hotel in 1928.

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Runyon, who knew Rothstein, wrote: ″Life for the average man who minds his own affairs is even money. When he walks out of his door in the morning, it is 50-50 that he will return safe and sound.

″Arnold Rothstein was the only man I ever encountered who was ‘NO PRICE.’ When he stepped beyond his threshold he was ‘out’ in the betting.″

It was Runyon who observed, ″All horse players die broke.″ That never stopped him from wagering on horses, or from owning them. At Saratoga he became friends with a young trainer named Hirsch Jacobs, who, unlike the heavy-smoking, heavy-drinking writer, neither smoked nor drank. Runyon’s eye for trainers proved as good as his eye for characters. Jacobs wound up in the Racing Hall of Fame.

By the mid-1930s, Runyon was a familiar figure at racetracks, including Saratoga.

″Everybody would stop him at the racetrack,″ Lynch said, ″one half to enjoy his celebrity, the other half to tout a horse or give him a story so they could see their name in the paper.″

Saratoga’s racetrack crowd holed up in the big hotels along the town’s main drag, also named Broadway. The United States and Grand Union, the two biggest hotels in town, had wide verandas where the bookies and bettors gathered after each day’s races to discuss the next day’s card. Runyon, a nattily dressed fellow in wire-rim glasses, usually could be found in the vicinity, taking it all in.

″He was a penetrating observer,″ Lynch said. ″He listened most of the time. He wasn’t marching to his own music, he was marching to yours.″

Time has changed things in Saratoga. State and federal investigations put an end to the casinos and betting parlors in the 1950s. Parimutuel clerks replaced the trackside bookies more than 50 years ago, and today’s trackgoers can make a wager using computers. Families armed with blankets and coolers picnic where touts and gangsters and molls once eyed the horses in the saddling area.

Lynch, one of a dwindling number who remember the old days, laments the passing of the Runyonesque characters: ″I don’t know where the hell they’ve all gone.″

Runyon may have taken them all with him when he died in December 1946, the same year Saratoga’s United States Hotel was demolished. A few years before, news of the hotel’s closing moved Runyon to write about the hotel and one Frankie Buzzsaw, an acquaintance from his Saratoga days.

It seems Frankie was hiding out in the hotel, since he was broke and owed quite a sum of money to a bookie who threatened to break his legs. With no hope of paying up, Frankie decided to end it all. The hotel was so old, each room had a rope that in a previous era served as a fire escape. Frankie tied it around his neck and jumped out the window.

The rope was frayed and broke. Frankie fell the last two stories, landing on the bookie, who had been on his way to tell Frankie that his credit was good for another day. But when the bookie saw who had landed on him, he chased Frankie clear out of town, Runyon wrote.

That wasn’t the worst of it. The next day, Jim Dandy, a 100-to-1 shot, beat Gallant Fox and Whichone, two of the greatest horses of the day, in the 1930 Travers Stakes. Frankie had been waiting all month for Jim Dandy to race, intending to bet a bundle on him.

″I could never understand why he did not go ahead with his suicide idea in some other form when he got the result, but the last I heard,″ Runyon wrote, ″Frankie is still alive and quite hearty, only he hates ropes.″