Yesterday, Malcolm Hardee Award winning performer Matt Roper (aka character act Wilfredo) was in court in New York City.
“Run me through how it happened,” I told him today. “It started about a month ago, didn’t it?”
“I was performing at The Slipper Room,” he said.
“You have a regular slot there?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he told me. “A couple of times a week; I host on a weekend. It’s a variety theatre – a burlesque joint as well. Often I don’t get offstage until 2.00am and then, to get up to 137th Street in Harlem where I’m living, it’s bit of a schlep at night: I have to catch two subway trains.
“I had been up since 7.00am the previous day and it was now 3.30am. I knew my train terminated at 96th Street and the carriage was more-or-less empty, so I thought I would just swing my legs across the seats, put my head against the window and get a little bit of shut-eye. so that’s what I did. When I woke up, two police officers were looking over me, saying: Get off the train please, sir!
“So I got off the train onto the platform. ID, they said. So I gave them my passport. Do you know it’s a crime what you’re doing? It’s outstretching. It’s a crime.
“I said: I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.
“That was the annoying thing: I didn’t know. There are no signs saying it’s a crime. Feet on the seats we know is not cool, but these were just plastic seats, the carriage was empty and it was filthy because it was 3.30am in the morning – There were beer cans and pools of whatever. What was it Kenneth Williams said? I’m sick and tired of offending everybody. My crimes are nothing compared to Mussolini.”
“I would have thought,” I said, “you would get off for being a foreigner and, by definition, ignorant.”
“They either wanted to make a bit of an example of me,” said Matt, “or there was some sort of incentive: I really don’t know. But they said: You’re going to have to come back to the station with us while we take your details and, as they said it, one of the officers was putting my hands behind my back and putting handcuffs on me. I just couldn’t believe it. I asked: Are you serious? – I was told: Yes, sir. They were quite sweet; they were charming. They took me back to the police station. I was fingerprinted and they photographed me, then put me in a cell for three or four hours. They locked me up and then released me. It was an interesting experience because I had never been arrested before – I’ve been all the way around the world without being arrested – so part of me was quite enjoying the experience but then, after the first hour passes and you’re still in a cell, locked up, the novelty wears off.”
“And, unusually,” I said, “you were not in a cell with prostitutes and gangsters?”
“No. which says a lot about Harlem these days. It was an empty cell and, if my crime was as bad as it gets at 4.00am in West Harlem, then I think its reputation is a little unjust.”
“Why,” I asked, “did they lock you up for three or four hours? What were they waiting for?”
“I really don’t know,” said Matt. “When I researched it later that day… I spoke to you that day, I came back, had a sleep and then got up and Googled this ‘outstretching’ charge and it seems some people are just given a fine; one African guy was deported.”
“He was?” I asked. “Just for putting his feet on the seats in the subway?”
“I don’t know if he was an illegal or not,” said Matt.
“So,” I said, “there are police photos of you?”
“Well,” said Matt. “I wanted to get a copy of my photograph. They say it doesn’t exist, but I saw the form with my photograph on it. I said to them: Can I get a copy of this? Because I’d quite like it framed, really. They said: You can get it when you go to court.
“But, when I got to court, they said: No, no, we don’t have copies of that; you have to go up to the sixth floor. So I went up to the sixth floor and they said: No, no. Because we decided not to prosecute you, it doesn’t exist. But I don’t quite believe that.”
“Why did they say they were not going to prosecute you?” I asked.
“I think because they were having a busy day.”
“What was the court like?”
“It was a proper high court. You go in through these huge doors and there’s the flag, there’s the eagle, there’s In God We Trust. all sorts of people making notes beside the judge. All these people on pews and all of them were on desk appearance tickets like me. They’d been speeding or busted with marijuana. They were mainly kids – mainly Latin-Americans and African-Americans. I was one of the few white people in there. I guess it shows the police go for a certain type of person.”
I said to Matt: “You playing comedy in a burlesque club is a bit like… Well, I think your father (comedian George Roper) was too young to do it, but like British comedians playing at The Windmill in London.”
“I think it’s exactly like that,” said Matt. “You know my dad was up in court with six striptease performers… You blogged about it…”
“Did I?” I asked.
“My dad was tried for obscenity in the 1960s…”
“Did I actually blog about this?” I asked.
“I really must read my own blogs,” I said.
“It would have been in December 2012,” said Matt. “In the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s, women were allowed to be nude on stage in England but, if they moved, it was considered obscene.”
“Were the girls dressed and your father was naked?”
“Anyway,” I said, trying to change the subject away from this blog I had forgotten. “Your act got stolen in New York.”
“Yes, about three weeks after the arrest,” said Matt, “I was in a bar having a wonderful time, I put my bag down by my feet and it got stolen. I’m rather amused by the thought of whoever took it – hoping for a laptop or an iPhone – unzipping it and finding Wilfredo’s costume inside… The trousers were just… and the wig and the teeth and the shoes. They must be the most disappointed thieves. Though it was a pain in the arse because I had a gig a couple of nights later and Wilfredo is quite difficult to replace.”
“But you had a spare set of teeth?” I asked.
“Yeah. He’s all back to normal, though the hair is a little bit longer.”
“Did you go to a wig shop in New York?”
“Yeah. One of the burlesque dancers said she would cut the wig for me. And now he has been cast in a feature film which we’ll be shooting this winter.”
“Made by?” I asked.
“James Habacker, who runs The Slipper Room, is now making films. He’s just made his first film called The Cruel Case of The Medicine Man, which won Best Feature at the Coney Island Film Festival.
“But his second film is an out-and-out comedy: The Mel and Fanny Movie – James and his wife are Mel and Fanny Frye – he plays this character from the Borscht Belt. Wilfredo has been cast as Mel and Fanny’s personal chauffeur.”
“That’s something to look forward to,” I said. “Wilfredo’s teeth in the movies.”