Miami Splice

Before TVs and VCRs made a theater out of every living room, Marty Abrams and his cronies were kings of black market bijou

"Everything goes on in this world, until you get caught."
-- Marty Abrams
It didn't matter that Marty Abrams was the smart one. That didn't mean you could turn your back on him. Hell, you didn't turn your back on anyone while the Price Wars were raging. Not your partner. Not your neighbor. Not your own stinking mother. Al Capone was gone, the casinos kaput, Miami Beach's illicit glamour wrung out like a used mop. But to the purveyors of bootlegged movie prints who entertained the hotel lobby crowds 40 years ago, America's southeast crust was a war flick minus the marquee, a place where you stayed on your toes or found your footing gone, your clients swiped, your projectors sabotaged, and your celluloid shredded like cabbage for corned beef.

Remorse? The film pirates didn't feel one iota. These were boys cast in the Depression and tempered by World War II. Maybe not gangsters, but decent enough stunt doubles. They'd scuffle on the sidewalks, slip sawbuck bribes to night managers, dupe FBI agents, and stage stag shows at fading nightspots. The bravest and saddest of the breed, the road show men, drove their makeshift Bijous into the backwoods, pitched a portable screen, and let Fred and Ginger waltz across the crickety night.

To the Walt Disneys of the world, Abrams and his lot were two-bit hustlers who robbed the movie studios by screening films without buying the distribution rights. To just about everyone else, especially the downtrodden, they were scrappy middlemen who provided an uplink to Tinseltown in the pre-VCR era.

Abrams, the smart one, eventually realized that the big payoff lay in foreign distribution. During the Sixties he leapfrogged the globe, building an empire that stretched from Fiji to Cape Town to Bangkok. Then, when the dough got too good, the studios finally moved in on him, hollering copyright murder. Eight lawsuits hit his desk at once. Wayne Huizenga was still knee-deep in garbage when Marty Abrams, notorious film pirate, was dragged into court, looted by lawyers, and blacklisted.

You'd never believe it now, watching Abrams pad around his Coral Gables home, the prosperous retiree with his season tickets and his loyal wife and his walletful of Kodak grandchildren. That this goofy man with limbs thin as tripod legs harbors such a seedy past. But there are hints. The movie posters. The yellowing documents. And, most of all, the stories that spill out once he gets rolling, the candy box of his life overturned, the memories stuck to his teeth like Jujyfruits, picked out in a Bronx mutter that might be Groucho Marx imitating James Cagney.

"C'mon, take a look here," he cackles, dashing across his carpeted living room. He lifts aside a painting to reveal a projector stashed in a hidden cubbyhole. "That's what we used to make sure the films we got were in good condition. Nobody wansta see a picture that's all beatup."

Certainly not when, like Marty Abrams, you had a reputation to uphold.
"You write movies, kid?"
Abrams wants to know because, in his humble opinion, the Marty Abrams Story is Oscar material. And frankly, he's not so sure he wants to waste the good stuff on a novice. "So many stories," he says. "So many angles."

Abrams learned early that a well-lived life was to be achieved through the diligent pursuit of angles. Play the angles -- all the angles -- and you're bound to find a shot worth filming. Line up enough desirable shots and you've got yourself a moneymaker.

It was Abrams's father, of whom he was never very fond, who managed to impart this lesson. A dental technician, the senior Abrams faced a rather unappealing set of angles: wide-open mouths in varying states of decay. Thus it did not take him long to find a different angle, after his two snotty-nosed daughters, both victims of lingering sinusitis, forced the family to relocate from New York to South Florida in 1939.

"He'd take a mimeograph in the back of his car and go out to the race track and get the results for the first five races," Abrams explains. "Then he'd make up a stencil and put those winners on it and pick out the rest of the races, and when people came out at the end of the tenth race, he'd hand out these sheets with his phone number on it, calling out, 'Five winners today!' or, 'Seven winners today!' Then people would call him up, and he'd give them the horses, and if they won they gave him money, and if they lost, well, they lost."

Abrams quit high school in about the eleventh grade, having found the endeavor of little concrete benefit. In winter of 1944 a draft notice rescued him from a job selling nickel burgers at Royal Castle. The nineteen-year-old rifleman landed on the French coast a month after D-day, weighted down with a pack and picking a path around corpses, only to march to the freezing frontlines, where daring German infiltrators were known to blow men to smithereens during visits to the latrine. In sum, the army was gruesome from all angles, until the blessed trench foot.

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