Need Christmas Present Idea?

Need a Christmas present or hostess gift for someone who likes to read? Consider giving a journey back into the Roaring Twenties via my Roaring Twenties mysteries, set in 1924 with a vaudeville and silent movies backdrop. The first in the series, THE IMPERSONATOR, won the national award for Best First Crime Novel in 2012, the second, SILENT MURDERS, had a terrific review in the New York Times. 

Find them in your local bookstores, libraries, or online at amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

Take one missing heiress, an unscrupulous uncle, and a young vaudeville performer fallen on hard times; add several murdered girls, a mysterious Chinese herbalist, and a handsome bootlegger; then move from the seamy world of Prohibition-era vaudeville to Oregon’s rugged coast, and what do you have? A formula for suspense, as Jessie finds herself torn between her deceitful charade and her determination to find out what really happened to the girl she is impersonating.

 

 

In the second Roaring Twenties murder mystery, Jessie trades her nomadic vaudeville life for a modest but steady job in the silent film industry. She quickly learns that all Hollywood scorns the Prohibition laws: studio bosses rule the police and gangsters supply speakeasies everywhere with bootleg hooch and Mexican dope. When a powerful director is murdered at his own party and Jessie’s waitress friend is killed for what she saw, Jessie takes the lead in an investigation tainted by corrupt cops. Soon tangled in a web of drugs, bribery, and greed, she finds herself a prime suspect as the bodies pile up.

The third in the Roaring Twenties mystery series takes Jessie from silent films back into the world of vaudeville to track down a performer with something to hide. At the request of her silent film star boss, Mary Pickford, Jessie uses her vaudeville talents to investigate the murder of an extra by a Hollywood actress already sentenced to death for the crime. Her inquiries lead to the discovery of a blackmailer and more than a dozen actors facing ruin or even death if their secrets are exposed. If the convicted actress is innocent, then who killed the blackmailer?

The fourth book begins in the fall of 1925 when a projectionist is gunned down in the theater booth. The killer flees to the balcony and vanishes. Jessie’s investigation succeeds where the police fail, thanks to her vaudeville skills and connections. A killer seeking revenge for an Old World massacre is targeting a group of Balkan immigrants, one by one. Jessie deduces the reason the killer is never apprehended—but fails to spot the killer until it’s almost too late. A young deaf girl whose mother has gone missing plays a significant role.

 

 

 

 

STOLEN MEMORIES, below, is not part of the Roaring Twenties series, although it is set in that decade, in France and England.

A brutal attack along the banks of the Seine leaves a young Englishwoman close to death in a Paris hospital without a memory in her head. She soon comes up against a vengeful husband who accuses her of the theft of priceless art, the French gendarmes who have linked her to a murder on the Riviera, and a scorned lover who is trying to kill her. The husband, who believes his wife’s amnesia is faked, spirits her away to an ancient chateau in the French province of Champagne, where prehistoric dolmens and standing stones dot the fields and caves hewn out of limestone are used for more than storing wine. For weeks he tries threats, bribery, and hypnosis to pry the truth out of her. As her memory returns piecemeal–some corroborating, some clashing with what she is told–she struggles to establish her identity. But who is trying to poison her and bury her in an avalanche of slate? Who is laying a trap for her deep within the wine caves of Champagne? The story takes place in 1928 against a backdrop of pagan ritual and an early Christian midsummer festival known as the Fires of John the Baptist.

 

 

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Vaudeville Travel

I spend a good deal of time in my mysteries dealing with vaudeville travel practices, because travel–especially train travel–was such an integral part of every vaudeville performer’s life. Performers paid for their own tickets. It was their single most costly expense they had, more than hotels or food. Most tried to leave town after the final performance on their last day, which would usually be late Saturday night, so they could sleep on the train and save the money for a hotel that night, and so they could arrive the next morning in time for rehearsal. 

Performers called each train ride a “jump.” They jumped to the next town on their itinerary. But booking agents were not arranging these jumps with any thought to efficiency, so often performers had to “back jump” or go in the opposite direction or re-trace their route. And railroad travel was unpredictable. Trains were often delayed by snow, landslides, or strikes, meaning the performers missed their next gig and a day’s or week’s pay. 

Here’s something I learned that doesn’t make it into my novels–trains in the 1920s were faster than they are today. Incredible? Yes, but true. Why? Less rail capacity and poorer rail quality, plus the dominance of freight travel over passenger travel.  Read this for more. 

Published in: on December 9, 2017 at 8:55 pm  Comments (2)  
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What Did Vaudeville Performers Earn?

In my mysteries, vaudeville performers play major roles, so it is critical that I understand how much they were paid, which tells you in turn how they lived.

Often salaries didn’t change over the space of many years–no incremental raises. No raises at all unless your act experienced a dramatic jump in popularity. Early in the twentieth century, most acts earned between $100 and $200 per week (regardless of how many people were in the act); that’s about $2,500 today. Not bad you say? They had to send at least 10-15% to their booking agent, and often more. According to Fred Allen (comedian who died in the 1950s), most performers sent more to their agents to gain favor. Graft was rampant throughout the industry. Performers paid for EVERYTHING: hotels, train tickets, food, costumes, publicity, and stage props. And the weekly fee didn’t necessarily get paid every week–few performers worked steadily. Maybe your schedule was 20 weeks a year, maybe it was 30 or 12. Newcomers, like the Spring Flowers act in Renting Silence, often earned less, since they were considered to be on trial. Child acts often earned less. 

Note that 2 of the performers are children (front center).

My conclusion is that only the best vaudeville performers made a decent living. Most scraped by.

Published in: on December 3, 2017 at 1:58 pm  Comments (2)  

Warning: Foul Language

Vaudeville was considered family entertainment and theater owners and managers took great pains to censor their acts for language or anything that could be considered offensive. I came across this notice that was handed out to performers at the Keith-Albee theaters back in the early years of the 20th century.

PERFORMERS PLEASE TAKE NOTICE.  You are hereby warned that your act must be free from all vulgarity and suggestiveness in words, action and costume, while playing in any of Mr. Keith’s houses, and all vulgar, double-meaning and profane words and songs must be cut out of your act BEFORE THE FIRST PERFORMANCE. If you are in doubt as to what is right or wrong, submit it to the Resident Manager at rehearsal. Such words as ‘liar,’ ‘slob’, ‘son-of-a-gun,’ ‘devil,’ ‘sucker,’ damn,’ and all other words unfit for the ears of ladies and children, also any reference to questionable streets, resorts, localities and bar-rooms, are prohibited under pain of instant discharge.” 

Can you imagine what Mr. Keith would think of today’s television and movies?

Published in: on November 26, 2017 at 9:39 am  Comments (2)  

A New Museum in Switzerland

Heading to Switzerland any time soon? There’s a new museum you might like to see. (I sure would.) They’ve taken Charlie Chaplin’s old home, located in a small lakeside town 50 miles from Geneva, and turned it into a museum–a fine museum, according to the New York Times article (attached), with re-creations of some of his more famous sets and of course, his films.

In my Roaring Twenties mysteries, Charlie Chaplin appears occasionally as the best friend of Douglas Fairbanks. They were inseparable for many years, until circumstances moved them apart. Fairbanks died quite young (56) in 1939; Chaplin lived to be 88 and died in 1977. Although he was English by birth and made Hollywood his home for decades, he spent the greatest portion of his life in Switzerland.

I’m going to be in eastern France next year, near the Swiss border. I think I’ll try to make this a side trip.

 

Published in: on November 19, 2017 at 4:11 pm  Comments (2)  
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American Experience film about Mary Pickford

Yesterday I watched one of the episodes from that great PBS series, American Experience, about Mary Pickford. Using phrases like “the first modern celebrity,” “the first superstar,” and “the woman who invented film acting,” the narrators told about the life of America’s Sweetheart and her contributions to acting, to filmmaking, and to the film production business. She “had a man’s brain,” said Charlie Chaplin once–it was meant as a compliment, since everyone knew women had no head for business.This information was all familiar to me. What the episode emphasized that I had never considered was that Pickford was also the “first to pay the price” for stardom. 

Douglas Fairbanks had to rescue his wife on more than one occasion, carrying her above the frenzied mobs that greeted their ships and trains when they traveled.

When Mary Pickford reluctantly began acting in short silent films, film acting was not respectable. It has often been said that actresses were considered a short step above prostitutes. She made acting respectable, and then glamorous. Before Mary Pickford, there had been no such thing as a superstar, and she was unprepared for the loss of privacy, the mobs tearing at her clothing and hair when she traveled, and the pressures that turned her to alcohol and made her a hermit in her own home for the last decades of her life. 

I acquired this episode through Netflix, with their DVD plan; it is not available if you subscribe to their streaming option. Someone told me it was also on Youtube. 

Published in: on November 12, 2017 at 8:44 am  Comments (3)  

Rejection of a Roaring Twenties author

I came across these rejections of authors who began writing during the Roaring Twenties. I’ve had plenty of rejections myself, so it makes me feel good to be in such lofty company!

After 5 years of continual rejection, the writer finally lands a publishing deal: Agatha Christie. Her book sales are now in excess of $2 billion. Only William Shakespeare has sold more.

An absurd story as romance, melodrama or record of New York high life.”Yet publication sees The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald become a best-selling classic.

Rejected by all publishers in the UK and US, the author self-publishes his novel in Florence, Italy, using his own press in 1928. After being banned for nearly 30 years, Grove Press publish the controversial work in 1959. A year later Penguin finally launch the UK edition. The book quickly sells millions, as Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence becomes a worldwide best-seller.

Read other amazing (and amusing) stories about the early rejections of famous authors here. 

 

Published in: on November 5, 2017 at 6:15 pm  Comments (2)  

Hollywood Calling

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a Hollywood actress and a producer/director who are interested in turning my Roaring Twenties series into a movie! I referred them to my agent, who pronounced them legitimate and gave them a year’s option so they could start trying to raise the money. A historical movie or television series is usually more expensive than a contemporary film, due to the extra costs of period requirements like costuming and motor cars, not to mention the difficulty in finding appropriate historic settings for outdoor scenes. It’s a long shot, of course, but it’s fun to dream. Stay tuned for updates! 

Published in: on October 25, 2017 at 9:46 am  Comments (5)  

The Man with the Green Hat’s House

The “man with the green hat” was famous in Washington DC during Prohibition. His name was George Cassidy and he was the unofficial bootlegger to Congress, the man who supplied all the “wet-drys” in the House of Representatives and the Senate. (A wet-dry is a politician who drinks but votes for prohibition.) Since most politicians were wet-drys, Cassidy had a lot of business. So much that he had to work from morning to late in the evening each day. 

It didn’t pay to be too blatant about delivering booze to Capitol Hill, so Cassidy played it carefully. Congressmen gave him office space in the House of Representatives building so they could pick up their illegal booze discretely. This went on for the first 5 years of Prohibition, until the Capitol Police busted him. He paid a fine. Banned from the House, he set up business in the Senate side, where complicit senators gave him space for his repository in what is now the Russell Building. Cassidy wrote in his memoirs that senators referred to him as the “librarian” and the product he sold as “new reading matter.” He was noted for wearing a green fedora. 

When I was visiting family on Capitol Hill yesterday, someone told me the house across the street was for sale–it had belonged to the Man with the Green Hat. And it’s even painted green! Check it out: 303 17th Street SE, listed for $650,000. No liquor included. 

How to be a success in Vaudeville?

How to be successful in vaudeville was a burning question in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many people, rural and urban, thought they had talent or a special trick that could make them a fortune on the stage, but few knew how to go about getting there. Frederic La Delle of Jackson, Michigan, wrote a how-to book for those people in 1913. Fred claimed to have spent 30 years on the vaudeville stage–might be true, but I couldn’t find a shred of information about him on line. He probably made decent money on this publication, but I doubt it propelled anyone to a successful career.

According to Fred, “Special talent is not necessary for acting any more than it is for any other profession.” Oh, good. No talent needed. And I smiled at the advice on how to write press notices: “It is an excellent plan to spend some of your spare time in writing up a number of clever anecdotes in which of course you figure prominently . . . A friendly newspaper reporter will generally help you in this.” Sure he will. Newspaper reporters are always looking to do free work for aspiring performers. And many pages are devoted to obscure, nonsensical descriptions of the various sorts of acts one supposedly sees in vaudeville, meant, I suppose, to inspire the talentless. Acts like Paper Tearing, Rolling Globe Acts, Statuary Posing, Iron Jaw Acts, Tambourine Throwing, and Chapeaugraphy (taking a hat and “by a simple twist” shaping it into “hundreds of different forms. . . a very realistic act.”) Sure it is.

But in my line of work (writing mysteries with a vaudeville backdrop), I found the book quite valuable. The section on vaudeville slang was useful, as were the pages on theater terms. I wouldn’t have known some of them, as they are only relevant to vaudeville, like “split week,” which my character, Jessie, and her partners play in book 3, Renting Silence. “Working in one” or “working in two” are also phrases I used in that book, with suitable explanations. Like this:

The three of us arrived at a seedy theater in Dayton, ready for our split week—a Sun Time innovation despised by all Small Timers. We started with the usual Monday morning rehearsal. No costumes, no makeup—just a run-through to get the orchestra familiar with the music for each act and let the theater manager determine their order for the program. At this theater, the “orchestra” consisted of a pianist, a fiddle player, and a boy pounding away on the drums.

“You gals working in one?” the manager asked. April looked at me, alarmed.

“No,” I answered. He made a note on his clipboard.

“’In one’ means in front of the curtain,” I whispered to April and June. “We’re working ‘in two,’ using the full stage. He needs to alternate the acts so they can set up for a flash act or a tab act—those come with their own scenery and props—while the preceding act is working ‘in one,’ in front of the curtain.” They still looked confused but we were up. “I’ll explain later. Now, give it your best,” I hissed. I almost added, “We don’t want to get stuck in the deuce spot,” but I figured that’s where we’d land, so I kept my mouth shut.

 

Published in: on September 16, 2017 at 1:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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