You Don't Know Jack

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

If you believe Leo, Durant's FBI files claim he killed a man himself in a Vegas alleyway right around this same time. Things were reportedly "taken care of" by his mobster friends, and Durant was hustled off to Burbank, where he began trolling for work in the movies. He landed a small part in a Western playing a train conductor, and married B-movie starlet Helen Gilbert, who'd appeared in a handful of programmers before becoming -- practically at gunpoint -- Mrs. Jack Durant.

"Helen told me that Durant stationed a couple of goons at her hotel room door," Leo says, laughing, "and told them not to let her out until she agreed to marry him." The marriage took place in Gilbert's hotel room that same night, before she had a chance to change her mind.

Durant's movie career never got off the ground, and he returned to Phoenix, where he and McElroy purchased The Midway BBQ from the bankrupt estate of George Vaugh for $26,000. Durant renovated the interior in upscale '50s Vegas chic and painted the exterior Pepto-Bismol pink in homage to the Flamingo. The brass handles on the front doors, which were rarely used by patrons who preferred to tromp through the restaurant's steamy kitchen, were shaped into Jack Durant's initials.

"Jack Durant could be a real asshole," says Terry Earp (left), shown here with set designer Robert Severance and Durant biographer Mabel Leo. "But the staff still loved him."
Jeff Newton
"Jack Durant could be a real asshole," says Terry Earp (left), shown here with set designer Robert Severance and Durant biographer Mabel Leo. "But the staff still loved him."
Like a million-odd diners before him, actor Robert Bledsoe enters Durant's through the kitchen.
Bob Rink
Like a million-odd diners before him, actor Robert Bledsoe enters Durant's through the kitchen.

Inside, tuxedoed waiters (waitresses worked days, because Durant believed that gals should be home with their kids at night) served steaks and sweetbreads and Yankee pot roast and Durant's signature baking powder biscuits with honey. ("Oh, remember those biscuits and honey?" Mofford trills. "They're how I got these hips!") The food was simple and hearty and filling, like at the best steak houses in Vegas. Durant was no culinary expert, no closet foodie with a secret hankering to serve specialty dishes or to reform the palates of backward westerners. Nor was Durant's a front for anything nefarious; no money laundering was going on there; no one was pouring cement shoes in the coat room. So why open a restaurant?

"Jack's thinking was, 'If you want to make money, you don't manage things, you own shit,'" Earp says. "Running a casino was hazardous to your health, and you couldn't open one here, anyhow."

Robert Bledsoe, who's playing Durant in Earp's play, believes that opening a restaurant is how mobsters went legit but stayed connected to both the underworld and the stars linked to it. "If you were John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe and you were going to Phoenix, you'd call the mob and say, 'Where do I eat?' and they'd send you to Jack's place," Bledsoe says. "Which meant he was a big deal because he was hobnobbing. And once the movie stars started coming in, the politicians and local celebs turned up, because this was the place."

It's still the place, Mofford says. "After the presidential debate in Tempe last October, I went to Durant's to have dinner, and who did I run into but John Edwards and his wife. They'd been told that they absolutely had to go to Durant's for dinner. Now, I don't know about Jack and any mob connections. But there were more lawsuits filed and more bills passed at Durant's than any other place in town. We all hung out there, politicians and lawyers and ballplayers."

Movie stars, too. Ernie Canez, who's been Durant's head cook since the night in 1957 when the chef didn't show up and Durant handed him the job, can rattle off a hundred names of glamour types who've frequented the place. "Some of the people you saw the most were John Wayne, Burt Reynolds, Jim Nabors, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Lucille Ball." Asked if today's celebs still frequent the place, Canez thinks for a moment. "Yes. Engelbert Humperdinck was here not long ago."

Durant's famous back entrance, which drags diners past the busy cook staff en route to the dining room, stumped movie star Jane Russell during her first visit. "So, this is Durant's," she's said to have hollered. "What a dump!" At which point one of the kitchen help interjected, "This is the kitchen, Miss Russell."

Sankovich remembers Robert Mitchum hanging off the bar, reciting poetry, and of being dragged over to Barry Goldwater's table on the occasion of the senator's birthday. "But my favorite is the time [stage actress] Lisa Fineberg Malone climbed up on the bar to do her impersonation of Charo singing 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.' You don't see stuff like that in there anymore."

Gone, too, are references to Jack Durant as a former gangster. Canez just shrugs when asked if his old boss was a small-time mobster. And BJ Thompson, a hard-boiled dame who was a hostess at Durant's for 15 years and knew the man better than most, says, "Everyone likes to tell about him being a gangster because it makes the restaurant and Jack himself seem so much more glamorous. He probably wouldn't mind."

Others mind very much, according to Leo. "The guys down at the restaurant don't like that part getting out," Leo says of Durant's gangster days. "When I wrote my book about Jack, they said I made it all up. They don't want to believe it, but in the 1950s he was considered one of the top 10 most dangerous men in Arizona. He was capable of ordering a murder or of doing it himself. That's in the FBI records."

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