The last kazoo

If it were not for Scott Brooks and Jeff Ellison, two Detroit labor lawyers, I may never have learned about working class hero Eugene V. Debs – or had so much fun in the process. Like hundreds of others, I began to appreciate the 20th century labor leader while I attended a Detroit Tigers baseball game.

But Debs’ memory may fade a bit with the new millennium. For 17 years Ellison and Brooks gathered family and friends at the stadium bleachers to host the Annual Eugene V. Debs Memorial Kazoo Night. They say this season will be its last.

Year after year, Brooks and Ellison have passed out hundreds of kazoos and song sheets to everyone who wants to hum "Solidarity Forever," "Union Maid" and other ditties between innings. After a line or two of each song, the semimelodic buzz of kazoos seems to diverge with each kazoo wandering off in a different direction; without the song sheet you wouldn’t know what tune we were attempting. But I know I won’t be the only one sorry to see this end.

Ellison and Brooks have known each other since 1973; they became high school pals at Cass Tech and have been practicing law together 15 years. They came up with the wacky event when a friend spotted someone at a Tigers game who looked like Debs.

"When you go to a ball game you almost always see someone you know," says Ellison. "On the rare occasion when we didn’t see someone we knew, we made someone up. We’d say, ‘Hey isn’t that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn?’"

When Debs’ name came up, Ellison and Brooks didn’t know much about him. Doing a little research, they found that Debs ran for president five times as a member of the Socialist Labor Party and was sentenced to prison for opposing World War I. From behind bars, he got 3.5 percent of the 1920 presidential vote, his best showing and his last race. Ellison and Brooks decided to honor him with the annual kazoo night.

"The ultimate tribute," adds Ellison laughing, but explaining no further.

Ellison and Brooks invite such notables as Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Maryann Mahaffey and U.S. Rep. John Conyers. For several years Mahaffey has loyally served as the kazoo conductor. She intends to do it again this year, says Ellison, if Eugene McCarthy doesn’t show. McCarthy ran as an anti-war candidate in the 1968 Democratic primaries, helping to dissuade Lyndon Johnson from seeking re-election.

Ellison says that this year they also invited Pat Boone, Jimmy Carter, Art Linkletter and Francis Ford Coppola. All declined.

"Carter said he was busy with the Carter foundation," says Ellison, "and Coppola can’t come to anything in 1999, that’s what his publicist said."

In 1991, Brooks says, they invited presidents of major corporations to Debs night, including the head of Chiquita Banana who did not show. "But he sent five cases of bananas," says Brooks. (That year Brooks and his wife were married the weekend before Debs night. He says he couldn’t convince her to have their ceremony in the bleachers.)

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch was invited repeatedly. And on more than one occasion he threatened to show – with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, as Brooks and Ellison tell it.

"But he was pretty mean to Anita Hill so we decided to stop writing him," says Ellison.

So, why is all this ending? "Gene doesn’t do luxury box seats," says Ellison. When Tiger Stadium closes down, so does kazoo night. "We don’t think it’s right to do a tribute to a populist hero at a stadium named after a bank," he says, in reference to. Comerica Bank’s naming rights to the new stadium.

Though Debs Night will end in Detroit, Ellison and Brooks hope to take their show on the road. "We’re thinking Chicago one year, Boston the next," says Ellison.

Like Debs, the longtime friends don’t give up easily. See you at the game Monday, August 2, at 7:05 p.m.

Other events: Debs Night follows the Emma Goldman Invitational Golf Tournament, the DebUThant Bowling Ball and the Joe Hill Memorial Softball classic. For information, Ellison says to call Brooks at 313-567-2782.