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Local reporters owe a lot of stories to the late Frank Curry, circus promoter, ex-rodeo clown and man of mystery

Death of a Hat Trickster

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Back in 2009, a few months after I started working for SouthComm, my phone rang with a blocked number. The caller never identified himself. But he hinted he had documents I might like to see.

At the time, the Predators' ownership group was going through a PR nightmare that made the lockout boondoggle look like a Zamboni ride. Attendance was slumping. Lead owner David Freeman's federal income-tax liens were in the spotlight. Now the Sports Authority was asking whether the team had abrogated its lease. I was in the tall grass on the story, mostly because I never intended to be a sports business reporter.

But this mystery caller said he had some things that might help me out.

"Sure, just drop what you've got at my office," I said.

"Oh, no, no, no," crackled the voice on the other end. "Let me find somewhere else to leave them."

About an hour later, my phone rang again.

"There's an envelope for you with Maria, a pretty señorita at Las Cazuelas," the mystery man said. "She's expecting you."

So I drove to the restaurant, an out-of-the-way Mexican joint on Nolensville Road. Not to get all Guy Noir on you, but yes, I found Maria. Sure enough, she had a manila envelope with my name on it.

By the time I got back to the office, I already had a voicemail from my mystery man, thanking me for my quick handling of the whole thing.

Had he been watching me? Was Maria an informant?

There were days this mystery man would call me a dozen times. And then there would be months of silence. He'd praise me when he liked my work, and he'd berate me when he didn't. He always had a tip — big or small — and it was clear he was a voracious consumer of news. He had reporters in town he loved and columnists he abhorred.

It took me about six months, but I finally figured out who this man was. There aren't that many people who attend Sports Authority meetings religiously.

My mystery caller was a man named Frank Curry.

Frank — he'd hate it if I called him by his last name, and even though he'd know it's journalistic custom to add an honorific to the name of the dead, he'd probably slug me if I called him "Mr. Curry" — was a professional circus promoter. A four-day, seven-performance stretch of Ronald McDonald Circuses he put on at the arena once sold more than 86,000 tickets.

Frank was physically impressive, even into his 70s. He was tall, broad-shouldered and strong, with a map-of-the-world face topped by a white Stetson big as a Texas oilman's. He once worked as a reporter for the New York Post, and somewhere in there he was also a rodeo clown. And for a man who so despised government toadies, it's shocking to learn his granddad led Tammany Hall.

He was, by most accounts, self-made, learning the circus and rodeo businesses the hard way. And maybe that's why he demonized the handouts — the "incentives" — the Sports Authority and Metro government give to professional sports teams in town.

Our joint devotion — or psychosis — of attending Sports Authority meetings forced Frank to reveal his identity far earlier in our relationship than he probably intended. By comparison, former Scene writer (and new attorney!) Matt Pulle said it took seven years before Frank told him his name.

He was a true pain-in-the-ass and he had a thousand stories and he loved to help write a thousand others. My anecdote about Las Cazuelas seems improbable, I know, except to people who knew Frank.

"If I wrote something he liked, he'd call me on the phone at 11 p.m. and start reading it aloud to me, cackling at the end of every quip," Pulle said. "He was one of those lovable, quirky, mysterious characters that only reporters get to meet."

I never wrote a sports business story without wondering how Frank felt about it. Sometimes, if I was lucky, he'd call and let me know.

Frank Curry was one of a kind: smart and funny, a lover of mystery and cloak-and-dagger, a hater of yes-men, a player as versed in the ins and outs of the Sports Authority's relationship with the Predators as anyone in town.

And in early August, at age 71, he was found dead in a Bowling Green, Ky., park from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. I am saddened that such a vital man, such a back-whomping, larger-than-life figure, would leave this as his last mystery.

As for those documents he left with Maria? I still refer to them. They've helped me a million times.

So did Frank.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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