IT'S 9 P.M. IN THE MIDDLE OF A HOLIDAY WEEK, and even the new, loud, 22-hour Hollywood is dead as vaudeville. Waitresses at the Sunset Room supper club dote upon young couples scattered about the cavernous room drinking apple martinis or picking at the Cali-Frog fare. Then, an odd apparition appears in the doorway: a diminutive, 96-year-old man with russet-dyed hair and glasses as thick as the Hubble telescope's. Vaudeville is suddenly alive, and he wants a table.
“Jack!” a manager exclaims. “How are you doing? It's great to see you.”
“This way, Jack,” purrs a waitress.
Apart from a few bizarre talk-show appearances, Jack Amster, “the world's oldest club kid,” has never been part of show business. Yet nearing the end of his life, he has willed himself into a kind of local celebrityhood, becoming a familiar face here and at places like Dragonfly and the Key Club, where doormen wave him in gratis and where he seems to have no trouble coaxing free drinks and women to dance with him.
“I'm well-known in Hollywood,” Amster tells me. “They treat me like I'm one of them, not as an aged person.” Amster's voice is grainy with a New York dialect that vanished long ago from Manhattan's streets — women are “goils,” and “Lindboig” was the anti-Semite “who drove that plane across the ocean.” His conversation rises and falls in oddly stressed rhythms that remind me of W.C. Fields. His eyes, in extreme old age, appear Asiatic. They've seen plenty, although it's not easy getting Amster to discuss his past. Eventually he'll open up a little, but only in matter-of-fact, throwaway comments:
“I was born in Austro-Hungary — it doesn't exist anymore . . . My hometown was a very famous resort — Lenin was there . . . We came over in 1914 on a boat called the Kaiser Augusta Victoria — on the way back it was torpedoed . . . Incidentally, I lost quite a bit of my family in the Holocaust.”
Amster's family arrived here to cold-water poverty on the Lower East Side — his earliest memories are of horse-driven fire engines and of stealing food from pushcarts and coal for the family's tenement stove. He quit school early and rode the rails west — landing, when caught, on chain gangs in Virginia and Texas. He also claims to have helped organize migratory laborers for the radical Wobblies of the Industrial Workers of the World, even meeting their legendary leader, Big Bill Haywood.
Compared to that rough-and-tumble life, the Great Depression was paradise, especially when Amster got a job installing heating and cooling systems in the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, spending the weekends partying and smoking pot with friends up in Harlem, and making the acquaintance of the era's more notorious characters.
“A fellow named Monk Eastman controlled Second Avenue — he was a thief, you might say,” Amster says somewhat modestly of the notorious Five Points racketeer who was gunned down in 1920. “He liked to ride a horse with no saddle and one day got me on top of the horse and it almost broke my ass! I also knew Meyer Lansky, Owney Madden and Benjamin Siegel, better known as 'Bugsy.' I talked to Ben a number of times at the Brown Derby at Vine near Hollywood Boulevard. 'Remember when we were growing up,' I'd say to him, 'how we'd play stickball and gamble?'”
Indeed, Amster's familiarity with underworld figures and the New York corrections system suggests an understanding deeper than the History Channel's.
“I lost a lot of friends who went to Sing Sing, Dannemora and places like that,” Amster says, then explains why these friends knew him. “I am gifted — blessed — you might say, by an extraordinary memory, and people in the so-called Mafia or syndicate tried to build me up and get me into their system, but I avoided it.”
When pressed further, he only admits to having been asked to take on a job overseeing pinball-machine operations in Warm Springs, Arkansas. He demurred and decided, in 1939, it was time to decamp with his wife to Los Angeles. Here, he embarked on a lifelong career of buying and selling heavy machinery along Santa Fe Avenue and Washington Boulevard. “Those streets were highly exciting,” he remembers with dreamy relish. “There was a lot of action, a lot of money — big deals were made.”
TOLEDO, THE SUNSET ROOM'S ENTERTAINment tonight, is a charismatic singer whose smoky, St. James Infirmary voice is reflected in his elegantly retro-Negro wardrobe: double-breasted suit, fedora and two-tone shoes. He is backed by three musicians and several dancers. Amster, who is friends with the band, seems mesmerized by Toledo's deep blues — and by the scantily clad chicks who swirl about the stage and into the audience.
“She must be a wild piece of ass!” he confides when one writhes along a row of banquettes. Then, perhaps anticipating my thoughts, he adds, “I can still get it up!”
Suddenly Amster is on his feet, approaching a group of young women drinking at a table. I've seen a clip of Amster on The Roseanne Show in which he steps toward the bewildered talk-show host and says, “You're going to dance with me. You're very sexy.” This is what I imagine he's saying to the goils at the table.
One blond accepts his challenge, while the rest of the women offer giggles and throaty encouragement. The couple takes to the floor, the only ones dancing.
Clearly, Amster's lindy-hopping days are over, and he reverts to a strange kind of Adam West-
inspired “Batusi” — gesturing with fingers that make LSD trails from his face to the eyes of his partner, as though he's trying to hypnotize her.
“Go, Jack, go!” the women at the table cheer, obviously no strangers to Mr. Amster's charms.
“I'm very popular as a dancer,” Amster tells me when he returns, rearranging his hair. “I never took a lesson, but I went to the 1939 World's Fair when swing was a big thing, and I developed a love of dancing. Once, at a place called Peppermint West between Cahuenga and Vine, there was a girl with Jimmy Durante who was looking at me. I danced with her twice. She was very beautiful, but I could tell she was troubled — she was Rita Hayworth.”
These days, says Amster, “Men come over to me and say, 'My girlfriend wants to dance with you.' I swear on my mother, who I really love, I'm not lying or exaggerating.”
At the end of his night out, Jack Amster is pleased.
“I'm known in most of the Hollywood nightclubs right now,” he declares. “I'm on all their guest lists. No one at my age in Hollywood dances like I do. No one.