The Dauntless Deacon of Cauliflower Row
Acrobats, marathon dancers, bailiffs and barflies, and always a stable of fighters, weave in and out of the checkered career of John Finlay Allen
JOHN FINLAY ALLEN, a gentleman who was born somewhat earlier than Shirley Temple and somewhat later than John L. Sullivan, is one of the milder inhabitants of that half-world populated by pugilists, wrestlers and other representatives of the athletic entertainment industry.
Mr. Allen, who is known among his business associates and drinking companions as “the Deacon,” customarily observes the world quizzically from behind a pair of thick cheaters in the secondfloor office of his little gymnasium in one of the older sections of Toronto.
The Deacon was awarded his sobriquet by New York sports writers who watched his dolefully dignified progress through Madison Square Garden in the days when he acted as assistant matchmaker for James Joy Johnston, the late lamented “Boy Bandit.”
Sports writers have always been delighted by the Deacon and, gratuitously, they have established his reputation for erudition. They have described him as a bibliophile outranked only by John Kieran and the curator of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The facts have been exaggerated grossly in the interests of colorful newspaper prose.
Allen’s busy life in the athletic abattoirs leaves him little time for literary research, although there are numerous reliable reporters who will vow steadfastly that they have surprised him in the act of reading a book. This circumstance causes him to be regarded with grave suspicion by rival box-fight managers who confine their intellectual relaxations to reading the small type in the columns of the Daily Racing Form.
Similarly, great liberties have been taken with the subject of the Deacon’s age. Some observers have hinted darkly that he is the only survivor of Custer’s Last Stand and others have insisted that he played second base with Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y. Actually, he is in the mid-fifties and his mother still is hale and hearty in Alameda, California, whence she writes him letters of sage counsel in a bold hand.
Although he has been a colorful figure in the Canadian sporting scene for 30 years Allen was born in Sacramento, the son of a boomer telegraph operator. He comes of Irish-Catholic stock, but the church lost an active adherent through its stubborn refusal to hold services in the afternoon or evening. The Deacon, through the processes of trial and error, has convinced himself that it is virtually impossible for the human body to function normally before noon. His life in the gymnasia has made him allergic to sunlight.
Just as the Deacon defies classification as any specific type of human being, his exact current position in the bifT-and-bofF business is somewhat nebulous. He operates a gymnasium dedicated to the manly art of modified murder; he manages a string of professional and amateur pugilists; and he is a partner with Frank Tunney in the promotion of bouts at Maple Leaf Gardens.
None of these ventures is particularly lucrative, but Allen, who always has proved to be a stationary target for the slings and arrows of an outrageous fortune, refuses to be stampeded by such minor economic phenomena as the rising cost of living or the collapse of international trade.
The gods have seen fit to enrich his declining years with an unexpected bonanza, a solid-gold pugilistic nugget. Continued on page 31
This nugget is an 18-year-old featherweight named Alan McFater, from Mimico on the western outskirts of Toronto. McFater walked into the gymnasium one day, about three years ago, and, diffidently, began sparring with another youngster.
Allen took one look at McFater. and reeled. Clutching his trainer, Tommy McBeigh, by the shoulder and pointing at young McFater, he whispered hoarsely: “Take a look! Do you see
what I see or are my lamps playing tricks on me?”
Indeed, the youthful McFater, who had no boxing training, moved about the gym with the instinctive feline grace of the boxer born. His blows traveled like shots from an .88 howitzer. McBeigh quickly leaped between McFater and his sparring mate to save the other boy for his mother.
It was then that the Deacon, who has assaulted the heights as often and as valiantly as The Rover Boys, knew that he was destined to have one more try in The Big Time. Every manager dreams of the day when he will have a world champion and the unexpected appearance of McFater meant that Allen could dream again.
But, let’s go back to the beginning.
A Change From Bull Fights
John Finlay Allen first burst into obscurity in Fresno, Calif., where, in the infant days of the flickers, an acrobat known as The Great Morton, devised an act that was a come-on to lure patrons into theatres. He would erect a tall pole in front of the picture house and then make a death-defying slide down a tightwire, hanging by his teeth. Allen was his manager.
The Great Morton had played a successful week’s engagement in Fresno and, on their closing night he told Allen to pack their equipment while he, as the more muscular member of the duo, went to the theatre manager to extract their emolument.
When Allen sauntered up to the box office later he discovered to his chagrin that The Great Morton had collected the swag and had shaken the dust of Fresno from his outsize brogans.
Allen left the cable in tbe roadway and hitchhiked back to Sacramento where he began to promote fights in association with his friend Ancil Hoffman who afterwards gained considerable international fame as the manager of Max Baer and Buddy Baer.
Allen’s next reported stop was at Mexicali. There, his fight shows were staged, appropriately enough, in a bull ring.
His Mexicali playmates were those piratical extroverts, Marvin Allen, Booze Byers and Carl Worthington who afterwards founded a gambling empire in Tia Juana.
The Deacon liked Mexicali but the periodic outbursts involving Mexican Government troops and rebel bands made him nervous. The Mexicans were fond of discharging their firearms, their aim was notoriously poor and they experienced difficulty in distinguishing between friend, foe and innocent bystander.
The heat of Mexicali having proved oppressive Allen switched the scene of his activities to comparatively frigid Anchorage, Alaska, where, in some mysterious manner, he became the owner of two taxicabs. Anchorage was a U. S. Government town in 1917 and there were no liquor stores within the limits.
The demon rum had to be imported at considerable trouble and expense from distant points and the good Deacon’s taxicab company became an unofficial distributing agency for spirits. He is justifiably wounded when historians, referring to that stage of his career, describe him as a bootlegger.
There wasn’t a dry eye on the dock at Anchorage in November, 1918, when Allen boarded the coastal steamer for Vancouver.
But Anchorage’s loss was Vancouver’s gain. The bustling Canadian seaport town was just beginning to flex its muscles in the postwar period and Allen felt at home immediately. The familiar odors of arnica and resin smote his nostrils and, before his suitcases had become acclimatized, he was promoting his first fight show in the old Dominion Hall on Pender Street.
Postwar Vancouver brought Allen one of his rare periods of affluence. He opened a club which became a gathering place for some of the city’s gaudier citizens who had nocturnal habits. Trade boomed to such an extent that he was compelled to remain open 24 hours daily and he employed three shifts of bartenders.
Despite his desperate attempts to spend his money as quickly as he acquired it his bank balance continued to increase alarmingly and, one day, he surprised his friends by closing the club.
“It was this way,” he explains. “There was always a quartet singing in one corner and a couple of clients staging a fight in another corner. I liked singing tenor but, just when we got going good on ‘Sweet Adeline,’ a couple of eggs would start belting each other and I’d have to quit to referee the fight. I couldn’t make up my mind whether I’d be a tenor or a referee so I closed the joint and threw the key into the h.^rbor.”
However, his amateur and professional boxing shows produced some formidable fistic names such as Vic Foley, Jimmy McLarnin and Billy Townsend. He made modest fortunes as manager of Foley and Townsend and the only blot on his escutcheon was failing to sign McLarnin who went on to be world’s welterweight champion. The fact of the matter is that in those Vancouver days McLarnin was overshadowed by other pugilistic prodigies.
A Walkathon in Winnipeg
His fistic peregrinations with Foley, Townsend and a stable of lesser lights gave the Deacon an opportunity to indulge his fancy for foreign cooking, exotic viands, rich raiment and the produce of the lush vineyards in such grape-growing centres as Hoboken, Hell’s Kitchen and Passaic, New Jersey.
Scores of discouraging experiences in Fresno, Mexicali, Anchorage and Vancouver had left him prepared for any crisis and, accordingly, it didn t surprise him unduly when Townsend, who had been steered into the enviable position of a main-eventer in Madison Square Garden, suddenly expressed an overwhelming desire to recapture the aroma of the seaweed on Vancouver’s waterfront. Townsend explained that he was homesick and, furthermore, he was pining for his current inamorata. Bidding a regretful adieu to the Broadway bright lights Allen escorted his pugilist into the rumble seat of his roadster and returned to his little grey home in the West.
It was at this stage, early in the Threadbare Thirties, that the Deacon permitted himself to be lured away from the ringside long enough to engage in an abortive venture. Someone convinced him that he should become a partner in the promotion of those dance marathons—known as walkathons—which briefly infested the cities of North America.
The gendarmes descended on the theatre and arrested Allen and all the contestants on charges of operating and engaging ii. a public performance without a license. Meanwhile, the walkathon treasurer had correctly diagnosed the symptoms of impending disaster and had absconded with the scanty funds on hand.
The Deacon gloomily was contemplating spending some years in the inhospitable confines of the Winnipeg sneezer when he was struck by a brilliant thought. As he rode to the Ruppert Street police station in the bumping patrol wagon he remembered that one of the marathon contestants was singularly adept at feigning epileptic fits.
When the woebegone crew was being booked by the desk sergeant the Deacon nudged the talented contestant. The gentleman in question croaked gruesomely, hurled himself to the floor, gasped, moaned and gave a shockingly accurate imitation of a man in extremis.
“Murderers! Assassins!” screamed Allen, thumping himself on the chest and bellowing at the desk sergeant. “These contestants have been under the observation of competent medical men while they have been competing in our show. If one of them dies in these cells the city of Winnipeg will be responsible! Call my lawyers immediately!”
The Winnipeg constabulary knew how to act in such an emergency. The jail doors swung open and Allen and his emaciated performers were given the freedom of the Highway. It was stipulated only that they should leave town aboard the first freight train.
To settle his nerves after this ghastly disaster, Allen decided that he should seek the peace and quiet of New York. Nursed back to health by a Broadway bartender who placed two olives in every Martini, the Deacon soon felt strong enough to seek a gainful occupation.
His record appealed to James Joy Johnston, who realized that the Allens of Sacramento were made of sturdy stuff. In addition to hiring the Deacon as his assistant at the Garden he assigned to him the task of managing a beetle-browed heavyweight rejoicing in the name of Yale Okun.
Mike Levinsky Moves In
After watching Okun cling to an opponent one night the late Damon Runyan observed in print that, without a shadow of a doubt, Okun was the inspiration for that old college football war cry: “Hold ’Em, Yale!”
After 18 months of hilarity Johnston was deposed by the Garden hierarchy and the Deacon returned to Vancouver to gather his forces for his final pugilistic safari. With Gordon Wallace, a welterweight, as his chief attraction, he traveled to Toronto in 1936 and soon was matchmaker for Jack Corcoran.
He gathered together a stable of fighters which, in addition to Wallace, included Henry Hook, Indian Billy Lee, Johnny Gaudes and Phil Zwick. They didn’t make him enough money to purchase a country estate, but Wallace, Gaudes and Lee were Canadian champions at their weights and Hook beat Sixto Escobar, the world bantamweight king.
Ever since 1936 Allen has lived in one tiny room in the Walsingham Hotel, an ancient Jarvis Street hostelry which is known among his intimates as “The Dancing Pig.”
No story of John Finlay Allen would be complete without reference to that
strange character, Mike Levinsky. Inspired scribes have seen fit to describe Levinsky as Mr. Allen’s “social secrjte^v,” but the truth of the matter is that Allen needs a social secretary about as much as he needs a hole in his head.
Michael is a harmless stray from St. Catharines. He shades five feet in height and he weighs a bit more than a full-grown quail. He seldom shaves, combs his hair with a towel, and can take two steps before his clothing moves.
The circumstances under which Mr. Allen acquired Mr. Levinsky are marked by the undertones of unreality and frustration that have characterized his entire life.
One day, the Deacon was watching a couple of earnest would-be pugilists sparring in the ring. On the other side of the ring he noticed a motionless pile of clothing which resembled a human being. It was Mr. Levinsky who was staring at the gladiators hungrily.
“Scat!” shouted Mr. Allen waving his arms. “Blow! Hit the road!”
Mr. Levinsky looked at him mildly.
The Deacon picked up a small club and headed for Mr. Levinsky who sped through the doorway and down a long flight of stairs into the street with Mr. Allen in hot pursuit.
We’re Eggs, Bums or Kooks
Fifteen minutes later the Deacon was watching another pair of boxers when he saw Levinsky again. Mr. Allen picked up his club but Mr. Levinsky was well in front when they reached the street for the second time. They ran four more foot races that afternoon with Levinsky winning every heat.
The next day, shortly after noon, Allen climbed the stairs and unlocked the door of the gymnasium. Levinsky, smiling uncertainly, was peering at him from the centre of the ring where, apparently, he had spent the night.
Allen’s proud spirit was broken. Since that day Michael has been a non utilitarian member of his staff. The Deacon sees that Michael is fed and clothed and he protects the little fellow from coarser characters who don’t realize that Mike dwells in a pleasant dream world of his own. Michael suffers from the innocent delusion that once he was a great fighter, although, actually, he never participated in a bout.
Usually Michael can be found dozing in a chair in the gymnasium office. His occasional barking laughs have been known to cause sophisticated visitors to become jumpy. He has suggested some ring strategies that, to say the least, are original.
One day lie proposed to the Deacon that Teddy Swain, a featherweight preliminary boy, should be fed garlic cloves before his next bout. Then in the first clinch, Swain would breathe heavily on his opponent, causing him to swoon.
At such times the Deacon looks at Michael and, aloud, observes gently that, “Today, Mike’s wheels are clanking in reverse.”
Part of Allen’s reputation for erudition stems from the fact that he writes his own publicity releases which he describes as his “blurps.” In his lexicon human beings are described as “eggs,” “bums,” or “kooks.” There is no approbrium attached to his use of the words “egg” and “bum”— indeed, he employs them in referring to his closest friends. The word “kook” is a corruption of “cuckoo” and is reserved for rival box-fight managers or persons who currently are in his disfavor.
He is something of a gourmet and, in driving through the cities of the United States and Canada, he can point out the restaurants where the crepes suzettes are as thin as parchment or where the filets mignon and lobsters are cooked to perfection. He has been known to make flimsy business excuses for a 200-mile return trip to Buffalo to tarry over a mound of spaghetti and, regularly, he clambers into his car for an 80-mile round trip to the outskirts of Hamilton where the chef in a tiny roadhouse grills steaks to his taste.
From his long years of experience of the biff-and-boflf business the Deacon adheres to the reasonable theory that the fighting should be done by professional pugilists while their managers should remain pacifists. In recent years, there have been only two recorded instances of the Deacon striking a blow in anger.
How to Make Friends
The first of these incidents occurred when a bailiff attempted to dispossess him on New Year’s Eve. The Deacon, who reasoned that the bailiff was displaying lamentable bad taste in bothering him at the festive season, knocked him down stairs.
On another evening the Deacon and a box-fight manager were toying with a couple of convivial glasses in Allen’s hotel room. The manager committed the grave error of suggesting that a lightweight, presently under his directio«, was a great pugilistic prospect.
The Deacon, who had seen the pugilist in action, passionately denied the truth of this statement. He went even
farther—he announced that the boy in question couldn’t lick his lips.
The manager, forgetting that he was a guest, picked up a glass and broke it against the Deacon’s unyielding skull.
The ensuing clamor brought Sam McKelvie, the night clerk of “The Dancing Pig,” to the door on the dead-run. Before the dignified Deacon and his antagonist had been separated the room looked like a set for that old motion picture, “The Spoilers.”
The next morning an associate of Allen’s obtained a passkey and entered the room. The walls were splashed with dried blood. The Deacon, considerably the worse for wear, was lying with his head on a blood-soaked pillow.
“What happened?” enquired the visitor.
The Deacon sat up. Gingerly he touched a swelling cheek, then mumbled gallantly through broken lips, “I dazzled him with footwork!”
Now, after 50-odd rowdy, happy years, the Deacon admits that he is beginning to creak a bit but he has lost none of his lust for life and his friends are legion. In a business which has more than its share of larceny and chicanery he has retained the respect and even the affection of those who have come in contact with him.
If there is a clue to his character it was contained, perhaps, in a remark which he made one night to a newspaperman who was speaking disparagingly of a mutual acquaintance. It sheds a glimmer of light on his own philosophy of life.
“To make a friend,” said the Deacon, “you’ve got to close one eye. To keep a friend, you’ve got to close both eyes.” ★