''Step right up! Get the Famous Morrrrrris Met-ric slicer! Forget about the two dollars they usually sell for! We're cutting the price to a dol-LAR. Now watch this, ladies and gentlemen, I'll slice this tomato. Look at this! You can slice the tomato so thin you could read a NEWS-paper through that slice! Why,I know a lady in Bayonne who had one tomato last all summer long!'' The Atlantic City boardwalk. 1949. Yokels bleed cash playing crooked games of chance, and families dodge jitneys and electric rickshaws. The rich float out of Rolls-Royces wrapped in scented powder and mink as jazz trickles through the windows of the great old hotels: the Shelburne, the Traymore, the grand Marlborough-Blenheim. The air is perfumed with tobacco, salt, and lust. The night sparkles with hope. Step right up! Ed McMahon stands amid this mad swirl, smack in the middle of the boardwalk. He's a handsome young man. Twenty-six years old. Big, block-faced. Red cheeks, shining eyes, and an easy smile. He's on Pennsylvania Avenue. Ron Popeil's cousin Archie is down on Jersey, and the man who would later found Revlon is shouting about some product in the distance. There are about two dozen hawkers in all. Some of the best in the country.
And McMahon? McMahon may be the best of them all. He can pull down an astounding $500 a week on the strip as much as $1,000 when he travels cross-country to hit gullible crowds on the Midwestern state-fair circuit.
''Just watch this now, folks. Watch!'' He moves with sublime grace. He is the master of the Morris metric slicer. He chops and dices, peels potatoes, and flutters his hands like a concert pianist. He looks every member of the gathering crowd in the eye and they look square back at him.
Two men come up, novice buskers employed by Ed's dad, who works the other end of the boardwalk running bingo games and ring-toss booths. They have been sent here to learn from young Eddie, so they get up on their tiptoes and crane their necks, angling their way into the crowd to observe. And so Charles Bronson and Jack Klugman watch McMahon at work, without a clue what history has in store for any of them.
''And today, today only I will throw in the rotisserie cutter invented by Peter Nathemelee, dean of the Parisian School of Potato Surgery! Step right up!''
Klugman and Bronson shake their heads in admiration. People are practically thrusting dollars into McMahon's hands. Metric slicers are flying. The best salesman on the Atlantic City boardwalk, the child of carnies, the man who would become the greatest sidekick in the history of popular culture, looks purely, simply happy.
NEXT PAGE: ''At the end of the night my parents would stash the money in my carriage and wheel me along the boardwalk. No one was going to rob a baby!''