This is Ben Kerner," said Ben Kerner the other day. "This is the symbol of what started from nothing. Today I'm a national figure. I could have been a national bum." Today Kerner, a darkly intent talker with the swift, clever, rapturous face of a Yiddish character actor, a triumphant laugh and a whining, exclamatory voice which modulates from an outrageous shout to a fierce whisper in a sentence shorter than this, has built the St. Louis Hawks, which he owns, into a million-dollar business and the most successful franchise in professional basketball. "The best franchise," Kerner explains, "is the one that makes the most money, not the one that wins the most games. That's all this thing revolves around. You can only exist if you sell tickets. Nothing else."
Kerner brought the Hawks to St. Louis in 1955 after 10 desperate years of not selling tickets in Buffalo, his home, in Tri-Cities ( Moline and Rock Island, Ill., Davenport, Iowa) and Milwaukee. He was $165,000 in the hole, had never drawn a salary or taken a vacation. Now that Kerner can afford vacations he doesn't enjoy them. "I can't relax unless I'm doing something," he says. "I can't wait for tomorrow to start when I go to bed." "Ben has on his night table a pencil and a little book," Kerner's mother says. "Middle of the night I can hear him write something." Kerner, who is 43, lives with his widowed mother. He has never married.
There are three bad weeks in show business: Holy Week, Christmas Week and a week in Milwaukee. Kerner played Milwaukee four years, finished last in the Western Division of the National Basketball Association four years. "We worked and hustled and drew 360 opening night," he says. "After that it fell off. No, that's not true. You can make a big thing bigger. You can't make an ordinary thing big. You can't publicize a funeral, but you can glamorize it."
"Wanted!" Kerner advertised in the Milwaukee papers, "Basketball Fans. No Experience Necessary." During a coffee shortage he tried giving away coffee retailing at $1.08 a jar to women purchasing $1 tickets. "Meaning," he says, "if you hated basketball you could still make an 8� profit. And this is a woman's sport. To see those guys running around in their shorts, that's really something. I should have thrown in bus fare.
"I can incite a riot faster than anyone. I can't incite nothing in Milwaukee. In Milwaukee they said the guy's a lunatic. This is a nut. In St. Louis they say: This is a genius. I do a lot of funny things. I call myself Benny the Boob. I camouflage myself. I fight with referees, fire coaches, tear programs. You sell yourself as a character, you get space. Jack Benny changes his act. Gleason changes his. Not Kerner. I got Kernerisms!" He also has an imitator, a sure sign of success, who mimics Kerner at banquets. In turn, Kerner, when he runs low on Kernerisms, imitates his imitator.
"Not everybody likes me," Kerner says. "I don't intend it. What am I? An angel? God? Here, if I back my car out of the garage it's news. In Milwaukee I could crawl on my knees, I couldn't get three lines in the paper. In Milwaukee I tell them that my biggest disappointment was that I was a failure in Milwaukee. I never knock. I got to tell the people they're great. I got to tell them they're a great sports town. They didn't know whether we were playing in the municipal league or on wheelchairs!
"I came to St. Louis on a gamble," Kerner says. "There was no other place to go. Everybody left here, they said. What's his angle? they said. My angle! I'm trying to stay alive. This is success. You're looking at success. This isn't the story of the Hawks. This is the story of me. I out-drew the Browns. I have the second-best attendance in the league, and I'm sixth in capacity. I'll sell 3,500 season tickets this year." Indeed, his has been called a Horatio Alger story. " Horatio Alger?" Kerner gags. "I don't get the reference. Who does he play for?"
Why Kerner and the Hawks succeeded in St. Louis cannot, of course, be scientifically determined. In Kerner's opinion, population has a lot to do with it. "Why's a major league town a major league town?" he asks, rhetorically. "Population. You can only get a certain amount of people to an attraction, and every year you lose 15% of them. Why? They move away, lose interest, take up golf, buy a boat, join a country club, lose their job, buy a home and can't afford it. We had this girl and fellow, met at a Hawks game. They sat next to each other. They fell in love, got married. Then they couldn't afford tickets. They had to buy furniture! I romanced them. I paid for their honeymoon. I'm a smart guy?"
Dance bands, tennis and fireworks
"In reverse, the other thing's happening. There's a continual turnover. Eventually, if you don't have a big city, you play yourself out. That's why I'm trying to build in other categories." Last season, for instance, Kerner staged 18 special attractions at no extra charge after his basketball games: principally, such bands as Harry James, Sammy Kaye, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. This year he's adding Jack Kramer's tennis troupe and Althea Gibson. "You got to give the people more than just a place to go," he says. "Only about half the people stay for the dancing, but it's like Bill Veeck's scoreboard. If they come only for the fireworks, O.K. The hell with the baseball. Sell tickets and have a fireworks night."