You Don't Know Jack

A new play exposes the life of the late proprietor of Durant's, the Valley's legendary steak house

"Knowing something about Jack Durant is like knowing where the corner of 19th Avenue and Indian School is," Sankovich booms like a Barrymore. "It means you're a Phoenician."

Durant's and Sankovich were born in the same year. His father and Jack Durant were friends, and he figures he's been eating at the restaurant since he was 4 years old. Sankovich's earliest memory of Jack Durant is hearing that the old man ran the cathouse on Central Avenue in his spare time. "I was 15, and I thought they were talking about an animal shelter," he quips. "I've been coming here so long I remember the parquet dance floor and the four-piece combo, and my mother and I doing hotcha steps over in that corner. But please, don't ask me who the man was. We could be here all night, and then you'd go ask someone else and they'd tell you about an entirely different man."

It's true, says Terry Earp, who wrote the play about Jack Durant, In My Humble Opinion, that opens at The Space Theatre Phoenix this week. "You could know the guy your whole life and never really know who he was."

Actor John Sankovich enjoys a smoke and a cosmo at the table that bears his name.
Jeff Newton
Actor John Sankovich enjoys a smoke and a cosmo at the table that bears his name.
"Being nice to Mr. Durant was your real job," says BJ 
Thompson, a Durant's legend who hostessed at the 
restaurant for nearly 15 years.
Jeff Newton
"Being nice to Mr. Durant was your real job," says BJ Thompson, a Durant's legend who hostessed at the restaurant for nearly 15 years.

Earp based her script on Mabel Leo's 1996 biography, The Saga of Jack Durant, and took her title from a long-running ad campaign that went, "In my humble opinion, Durant's is the Finest Eating and Drinking Establishment in the World -- Jack Durant," which was considered amusing because Durant wasn't known for his humility. In the play, a postmortem Durant is found seated at set designer Robert Severance's dead-on copy of the restaurant's bar, regaling a face-down drunk with a rambling narrative about himself, some of which is acted out upstage. The drunk, who has no lines and never lifts his head from the bar, will be played by various local celebrities. So far, Earp has signed Bill Thompson, who played Wallace on The Wallace & Ladmo Show, and a former Phoenix Sun, and is hoping to score appearances by Durant's fans Alice Cooper and Pat McMahon.

"The script is heavily sprinkled with 'fuck,'" Earp admits. "I really couldn't bring myself to use 'cocksucker,' which was his favorite word. There's a lot of 'bastards' and 'assholes,' but I know a good portion of our audience is going to be elderly. I figured they could go with 'fuck,' but not with 'cocksucker.'"

"Oh my God, he did have a foul mouth!" former governor Rose Mofford says of her late friend. "He swore like a buzz saw. He could call you an SOB, but you knew he liked you. He was full of twists and turns that way, and he always had a story."

Mabel Leo spent years trying to untangle those stories. "Jack was such a prolific liar, I had no idea how to tell his story. You can't prove very darn much about Jack Durant except that he was a pretty complicated man. He'd break your leg with a baseball bat and then pay the hospital bill."

The first thing Leo discovered was that Jack Durant wasn't Jack Durant at all. According to her account, the former James Earl Allen of tiny Tellico Plains, Tennessee, left home at age 14, hopping a freight train that eventually dumped him off in Miami, Arizona, where he worked as a copper miner and part-time gambler for a while. His dream to play semiprofessional baseball -- he'd played briefly for the L&N Railroad Team -- inspired him to change his name, just as some members of the Chicago White Sox had recently done. They'd been busted for trying to throw the 1919 World Series in what came to be known as the Black Sox Scandal, and were banned from baseball forever. Anyone caught playing with them would be banned as well, and several of them were playing in the Arizona league under false names. To protect his hoped-for baseball career, James Earl took the name of burlesque comedian Jack Durant, because Durant was tall and handsome, and James Earl figured if you're going to name yourself after someone, why not someone good-looking?

He landed a job pitching for the Miami Miners, but baseball pay was lousy, so he moonlighted as a bartender and later opened a gambling parlor and whorehouse called the Keystone Room, reportedly with Miami's mayor as his partner.

When gambling was outlawed in Miami in 1933, Durant headed for Phoenix. Leo claims in her book that in order to raise capital for the move, Durant visited each of the numerous Chinese families who ran Miami's laundries and grocery stores and who lived in fear of deportation. Impersonating a federal agent, Durant told the families that in return for $100 per person, he would see to it that they were not deported. He pocketed the money and blew town.

In Phoenix's gambling dens, Durant met local cattleman Swede McElroy, and Gus Greenbaum, a professional gambler and soldier of Al Capone. Greenbaum sent Durant to Las Vegas, where he worked as a mole, spying on Bugsy Siegel. Durant wound up befriending Siegel and worked for the mobster at Siegel's trendsetting Flamingo Hotel until his murder in 1947.

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