On his desk lay a brown paper bag, wrinkled at the top and bulging at the bottom; the kind of bag to carry salami sandwiches in, or to carry money to the bank in. Sitting at his old, worn desk at the N.Y. Karate Academy on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, Aaron Banks handed the brown paper bag to Arthur Taub, his assistant, and said to him, "Go lock yourself in a room. Take some rubber bands and envelopes." No one locks himself in a room to count salami sandwiches.
A onetime actor, singer, pool-hall hustler (he is an expert at three-cushion billiards) and currently the country's most successful promoter of the martial arts, Banks had just finished presenting the Oriental World of Self Defense at Madison Square Garden's Felt Forum. It was the second such show in six months and, like its predecessor, an astounding box-office success.
"This June I'm taking it into the big Garden where I expect to fill almost 20,000 seats," he said. Felt Forum, with its measly 4,600 seats, can no longer hold the likes of Aaron Banks. Every show is basically the same, but Banks tries to add something new each time, something no one else has thought of. In June, for instance, he will feature a karate expert against a Kung Fu master, judo vs. wrestling, kick boxing against Western-style boxing—not mere exhibitions but genuine interdisciplinary contests, strictly judged.
Banks is 45. His voice is a resonant bass-baritone and generally he does his own announcing, bringing his performers on with a flair reminiscent of vintage midway barkers.
April 14, 1974
"May we have absolute quiet, please," he says, "for this master who is going to take his sword and slice a cucumber resting against his student's throat!" Banks has been accused by his critics of putting on a circus, but he replies, "Anything that demonstrates that kind of control, with or without a weapon, is martial arts. When William Chen lies on the stage and shows the strength of his body by allowing himself to be run over by a motorcycle, that is martial arts. When Joseph Greenstein, a 92-year-old vegetarian known as the Mighty Atom, drives spikes through steel with his bare hands and bursts a chain with the strength of his chest, that is martial arts. After all, what was Houdini but a master of the martial arts?" Were Houdini alive today, he undoubtedly would be appearing in one of Banks' shows.
But if Banks' extravaganzas often have a carnival flavor, a fact that he admits, there is also plenty of solid karate demonstration, along with judo, aikido and other not-so-gentle arts still unfamiliar to a Western audience. Performers enter the ring in a weird assortment of costumes and protective masks to demonstrate such obsolete forms of battle as iaido, kendo, kenpo, nunchaku, tai chi chuan, sai, bo and ninjutsu, as well as the better-known kick boxing and jujitsu. And, absolutely basic to any such exhibition, the wholly spectacular breaking of wood, bricks, stone, cinder blocks and ice. Danny Pai, the star of Banks' last show, crushed blocks of ice totaling 1,500 pounds with one fist, an achievement worth $800 on the current market (Banks' market, that is) for his two-minute stint.
"My critics never complain about the breaking of wood," says Banks, "but what has wood to do with anything? A piece of wood never attacked anyone. I'll tell you. It's martial arts because it demonstrates strength and control."
Martial-arts shows are almost always too long. Banks' exhibitions are more sophisticated than most, but even so they are produced without rehearsal and with no more than the most cursory attention to timing. Performers turn up, are introduced, and simply go on, sometimes staying on until they, and the audience, are stupefied with exhaustion. One karate demonstration looks much like another to the uninitiated, and the subtle differences between Okinawan and Japanese karate may be lost between yawns. Banks' October show, scheduled loosely for two hours, continued for four, leaving only one hour between the afternoon and evening performances. On the other hand, his presentation of the Oriental World of Self Defense last April almost did not go on at all when some of the participants who had agreed to perform "for publicity only" demanded money once they got a look at the full house. Banks, moving quickly, and with what for him amounted to arbitration, told the strikers to get lost. The show went on without the disgruntled faction, though one demonstrator did apologize to Banks and ask to be allowed to perform. "I am not a revengeful man," Banks says. "I let him go on and then he tried to sabotage the show by performing for 40 minutes, almost putting the audience to sleep. He didn't get off stage until I threatened to turn out the lights."
Banks is no stranger to the problems of martial-arts production. His first karate exhibition in 1966 netted him "three bologna sandwiches and a Coke." His first successful promotion at Manhattan's Town Hall in 1968 made a profit of $2,000. At Sunnyside Garden in Queens he promoted the first N.Y. State Professional Karate Championships, asking for a percentage of the gate, a deal that netted him $15,000 and a lot of trouble. Toward the last of the 14 tournaments held there, the show almost turned into the very last word in race riots, with. Banks says, "Orientals fighting Americans, blacks fighting whites, and spectators jumping into the ring to take sides, some of them with guns." Banks thought karate might never recover from the disgrace. His next promotion was an invitation-only tournament, with the contestants carefully selected, a practice he continues to follow. "There is still so much evil in the world!" he mourns. John McGee, of Official Karate magazine, perhaps the most literate writer in the field, sees it a little differently. "There are a lot of sick people in the martial arts," McGee says, and cites as an example the student of weaponry who, in the course of a tournament, launched a shuriken (a sharp-bladed instrument used in ninjutsu) at McGee's head. "He didn't like an article I had written about his instructor," says McGee, who ducked the flying missile just in time. Undisturbed by such testimony, Banks will tell anyone who has an hour or two to listen that the martial arts in general have a gentling influence and that karate, in particular, made him the "honest, decent, law-abiding citizen" he is today—a virtual teetotaler and non-smoker who once drank and smoked himself into an almost fatal bout with double pneumonia.
He was an experimenter with drugs before that became a fad, a drifter, a dreamer who could not make a living. The second son of a New York sports-writer and a registered nurse, young Aaron was an exceptional underachiever. His formal education stopped when he was graduated from Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, where he lived with his parents.
At the age of 19, he was tall and slender. High forehead and cheekbones accentuated the narrow face and long, esthetic nose. Dark brown eyes and unruly black hair gave him the look of a poet, and the handsome young man had an ego to match. He left home to make his way as an actor. Aggressive, he managed to get a few parts. He played a gangster in the movie Greenwich Village Story and he made Broadway briefly in Two By Saroyan, with parts in both plays. "Always the heavy," he says, "but never a star."
Dissolve one career, start another: singing. Banks studied with Alan Greene, who was also coaching Harry Belafonte. Greene recalls that Belafonte insisted on singing folk music, which was not then likely to get him into the big time. Banks didn't make it into the big time then, either. A few club dates, and he was headed into career No. 3, as an acting coach and a director of plays. In 1963 he opened a studio, held auditions and scouted for talent. "I remember hearing this tape of a girl singing. I said, 'Oh, she's terrible.' It was Barbra Streisand."
Between failures Banks took on odd jobs: short-order cook, salad-maker, dishwasher, theater usher. By this time he was 31 years old, defeated and resentful. Finally, he tried a job as salesman at the Colony record shop. An incident there changed his life.
"I had a fight and lost." The statement is so succinct, so beautifully simple for the usually verbose Banks, that one concludes the subject is still painful. His opponent was a fellow employe. An argument started in the store and proceeded to the street. The fight that followed was out of all proportion to whatever started it, and, says John McGee, "All the discontent, the bitterness of the past few years boiled up and Banks erupted." Later, McGee wrote, "By the time a 20-man detachment from the New York Police Department had arrived, the two men had clawed, chewed and punched each other almost a block down the street. Banks had reached a maniacal frenzy and relentlessly hurled his scrawny and battered 6'1" frame at his taller, heavier opponent. Bystanders reported the skinny man fought like a crazed animal with little chance of winning.
"When two of the policemen attempted to pry the brawlers apart, the larger man cooperated and backed off, but Banks somehow overpowered the officers and continued his screaming, headlong charges. He had nearly gotten a stranglehold on his enemy, when four more police joined the fracas and helped drag him off to the tank."
It was shortly after this luckless episode that Banks enrolled in a health studio and studied karate with one John Slocum. He gave up drinking and narcotics after the first 10 lessons. (As a philosopher has put it, "The trouble with the martial arts is that it turns killers into gentlemen.") Banks, in pursuit of physical and spiritual excellence, went from teacher to teacher, filling in gaps, learning this technique from one, that technique from another. Within four years he was promoted to black belt in the Goju ryu karate system and was ready for tournaments. This career was also brief. Still lacking proper control at strike point, Banks "won" his only two tournaments by rendering his opponents unconscious, for which he was, of course, promptly disqualified. His favorite techniques were, and still are, the reverse punch and front kick.
"Karate was never meant to be a sport," he says. "It was designed for self-defense. Judo is a sport. Jigaro Kano, the founder of modern judo, took the best techniques from jujitsu and modified them so that two contestants could fight without hurting each other. Karate has a lot of tension in it at strike point. It is based on stop-start movement. Kung Fu, on the other hand, is circular, with continuous motion, lacking tension. Kung Fu is more effective than karate because it flows—it's hard to stop a waterfall—and Kung Fu is also harder to master because our bodies are conditioned to stop-start movement. It takes about 15 years to become expert at Kung Fu, about eight years to master karate."
Kung Fu, scarcely known in America five years ago, is now one of the hottest items around, thanks to Hollywood and television, though most of the fighting in films is faked with trick camera shots. "Even a Kung Fu expert can't jump 50 feet in the air," says Banks wryly. But Banks was an admirer of the late Bruce Lee, who rose to stardom as Kato in the Green Hornet TV series, and whom Banks describes as a genuine Kung Fu master. His death at 32 last July from no immediately apparent cause created shock waves in the world of martial arts that still have not subsided.
In October, convinced that Lee had been murdered, Banks asked the audience attending the Oriental World of Self Defense show to stand for a moment's silence "in honor of the slain warrior." Banks reasons: "It is possible for a Kung Fu expert to touch a man on a vital spot that will cause him to die about a month later. Lee did more to take the mystery out of Kung Fu than anyone else. He was a success. He had enemies. There is nothing a failure hates so much as someone else's success." Then, pointing his long, esthetic nose toward the window, in the direction of the world, he repeats, "Oh, there is still so much evil!"
The majority of students who register for lessons at Banks' academy now sign up for Kung Fu, which has replaced karate in popularity. Banks' chief instructor, Chester Chin, gives lessons to 150 Kung Fu students three days a week. "Chin teaches the real thing," says Banks. "There is still this idiotic fetish of secrecy about Kung Fu, and it's difficult to find an instructor who will teach it to Americans." Ads in the martial-arts magazines, however, offer pamphlets revealing "the deadly fighting secrets of Kung Fu" for $5.
Banks' day starts at the N.Y. Karate Academy at one o'clock in the afternoon, on the third floor of a building that used to house a pool hall. He is often there until 11 p.m., though he shoos students out earlier. The neighborhood is famous for muggings and other Manhattan hobbies, and Banks worries about the influence of the go-go club that recently opened on the street floor. Arthur Taub starts work at noon, sorting mail and answering the telephone that rings constantly, mostly with queries about classes ($35 a month, six days a week for karate, $35 a month, three days a week for Kung Fu; $30 for a uniform, $5 per month for a locker, $3 to watch a class in progress). A fee to watch discourages mere curiosity seekers.
At about five p.m. the students begin to climb the stairs, following arrows on the wall and signs painted in bright yellow on the steps: Tai chi chaun (first step), Jiu-Jitsu (second step). Judo (third step), Kung Fu (fourth step) and, finally, Karate. After three flights of this martial graffiti, one arrives at a creaking door that the Inner Sanctum people would have envied; it opens into a reception room, where Banks has his desk. Five practice rooms lie beyond. Students present their registration cards on entering, and Banks checks them to see that they are paid up. He says he is idealistic about the martial arts but not to the point of putting himself out of business. The creaking door opens and closes all evening long.
Two little boys arrive breathless, hoping to buy one of the posters of Bruce Lee—temporarily sold out, as they have been for weeks. A karate student wanders through the room exposing a bare torso. "Put your top on. This is an office, not a swimming pool," Banks says sternly. Another student appears five minutes after the Kung Fu class has started. "If you were late for my class, you would do 100 push-ups," Banks tells him. The boy grins and heads for a dressing room.
"No discipline anymore," mutters Banks. Someone calls his attention to the fact that tai chi chuan, on the first step downstairs, is misspelled. Arthur is instructed to call the sign painter. He must come over immediately and repaint the step. "It makes me look bad if people think I can't spell the things I advertise." More students arrive, dollar bills float across Banks" desk and disappear into a drawer. Click, snap. The telephone rings. Banks listens. It is clear from the expression on his face that evil has once again entered his world.
The role he had discussed with the producer of the motion picture Three the Hard Way, starring Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly, has fallen through. A secretary explains to Banks, not very tactfully, perhaps, that they are now thinking of a walk-on part that will involve his getting beaten up by Kelly; originally Banks had agreed to choreograph the fight scenes and to take a speaking role. Would Banks still be willing, the secretary wonders, to supply four karate and Kung Fu extras, as promised? And will he accept the part?
Banks bites off the reply. He tells the secretary that he choreographed the fight scenes for Lysistrata with Melina Mercouri; gave Actor Fred Williamson free karate lessons; once taught karate to the Rockettes en masse; has instructed such luminaries as Buddy Rich, Steve Lawrence (for his role in What Makes Sammy Run?) and actresses Barbara Barrie and Shelley Winters. Only he, Aaron Banks, can "lend authenticity to such a picture," and no, he will not allow himself to walk on and be beaten up by Jim Kelly. Or anyone else. Yes, he will still supply the extras because he, at least, is a man of his word. Other than that, he wants no part of Three the Hard Way, and he hangs up.
The next phone call puts him in a better mood. A young fan compliments him on the October show at the Felt Forum but wants to know why Ralf Bialla, billed on the program as "the man who catches bullets in his teeth," was not in it.
"He got shot," says Banks matter-of-factly. Fortunately, Bialla has recovered and will appear in the June show. He, Chen (to be run over by a small truck this time) and Ronald Duncan, who catches flaming steel-tipped arrows with his bare hands, will be featured; Bialla will be the best-paid performer. "The Living Target," Banks says after hanging up, will get $3,000. Bialla takes on his own medical costs (including those of a funeral), in case of accident, or, as Bialla put it in a letter to Banks, for "face-liftings." He has had nine of those so far in his precarious vocation, certain bullets having gone astray. What makes his act unusual, Bialla feels, is the marksman. Possibly preferring not to share top billing, he simply chooses someone from the audience to fire the gun.
"He'll have a marksman in my show," promises Banks, and quotes from the final paragraph of the letter from Bialla, who is a German. "My wife who assists me," Bialla wrote, "wears a long, green gown. I wear a black silk tail."
Banks is a bit defensive about presenting Bialla. "Catching a bullet in the mouth is a feat," he says. "Who would think of a man against weapon? Who? In karate you block a punch. This man blocks a bullet...well, most of the time."
In October 1973 Banks entered the New York mayoralty race on what a newspaper called the Black Belt ticket, which now makes him laugh. "My whole purpose, seriously, was to get crime off the streets, but it occurred to me that I knew nothing about housing, welfare, highways and all those other things mayors have to concern themselves with. I figured I could learn, but there were a lot of clowns entering the race, and I withdrew after about three weeks. Besides, I have my hands full here."
A young man came in to sign up for 10 private Kung Fu lessons and slowly doled out $200. Click, snap went the desk drawer. Another brown paper bag was well on its way to being filled.