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.
"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.