With our theatre soon to play host to Guys And Dolls, we take a look at Damon Runyon – the chronicler of New York life behind the guys and the dolls – not to mention the gamblers, gangsters and hustlers.
Appropriately for a man so associated with the city of New York, Damon Runyon was born in Manhattan. However, Runyon’s birthplace was a long way from the Big Apple. This Manhattan was in Kansas, in the US mid-west, a far cry from Broadway and Brooklyn.
Runyon was born in 1880, and his birth name was Alfred Damon Runyan. The spelling of his surname was changed, apparently accidentally, at a newspaper he worked for, but he allowed the change to stand. The name Alfred was later dropped from his byline after he arrived in New York – whether this was accidental or not isn’t clear, but it’s perhaps significant that ‘Damon Runyon’ was essentially a creation of the city of New York.
Young Alfred Runyan left school early – by some accounts he completed only the American fourth grade, which would have made him just ten when he quit full time education. He began working on newspapers in the town of Pueblo, Colorado, where his family had settled following financial difficulty a few years after his birth. His father – previously the editor of his own newspaper – was working in journalism in Pueblo, and helped his son find work. After a short spell in the army during the Spanish-American War, he established himself as a sports reporter (specialising in baseball), working for a number of papers in Colorado. It was during this period that the spelling of his surname changed.
In 1910, Runyon moved to New York. It was in his first byline in the city, for the American that the name Damon Runyon first appeared in print. It wasn’t until 1932 that the first of the collections of short stories that would make his name appeared in print. It was called – as you might be able to guess – Guys And Dolls. The musical of the same name was adapted mainly from one of the stories within this collection, The Idyll Of Miss Sarah Brown, which tells the story of the unlikely but eventually triumphant romance between the titular missionary girl and the inveterate gamble Sky Masterson. It also features elements from another story in the same collection, called Blood Pressure, and several other Runyon short stories.
The musical makes use of the same slang employed by Runyon in his writing, where a knife is ‘shiv’, a gun an ‘equaliser’ or a ‘John Roscoe’, and a ‘pineapple’ a grenade. Some less violent examples are more recognisable, like ‘noggin’ for head, or ‘snoot’ meaning nose. Runyon was also famous for writing almost entirely in the present tense, a trait perhaps derived from his work as a journalist.
As well as the slang, Guys And Dolls contains many themes which run throughout Runyon’s work. One was gambling, whether on horse races or craps (a dice game), perhaps because he was a habitual gambler himself. Another was the explosion of crime which took place in America in the Prohibition era, from 1920 to 1933. During this time, the production and sale of alcohol was illegal in the United States – the unintended result of this was that a whole criminal industry sprang up to supply the taste was alcohol, which could not simply be legislated away.
It’s this world, of gangsters and gamblers, that Guys And Dolls will bring to life on our stage – along with some fabulous songs!
Guys And Dolls: Tuesday 28 June to Saturday 2 July. Book here.