I went to a yacht club on the Chesapeake Bay for lunch last week and there in the bar was a wall of liquor lockers. Does anyone remember these? In places where alcohol was illegal, people could come to private clubs and bring their own liquor. They would keep it in a locker like these and whenever they came to the club, the bartender could take the liquor and make them a drink. Ridiculous, isn’t it?
Yep, the Roaring Twenties roared in urban China as well as in the Western world. I was browsing through a really nice antiques store in Williamsburg, VA, recently and came across these restored furniture pieces. For some reason, they screamed “Shanghai” to me, so I asked the owner what they were and I was right! (That doesn’t happen very often.) These came from Shanghai and they date from the 1920s. The buyer thinks they are hotel furniture from that period. Aren’t they cool?
As most of you know, authors have little or nothing to say about the cover design for their books. I am very fortunate that my publishers have always listened to my comments and have adjusted their artwork accordingly. Here is what happened earlier this month when the publisher sent me the cover art for my next book.
It’s a beautiful cover, one I would love to have if I had written a romance novel. I responded that I was disappointed because it was so similar to the previous book’s cover (also shades of brown featuring a girl wearing a cloche hat) and because the cheerful smile on the pretty lady looked seemed more suited to a romantic romp than a murder mystery.
Next they sent this, a cover that had been developed at the same time but was their second choice. I preferred it over the pretty girl cover because it was 1) different, 2) red and black are good mystery/thriller colors. But when I showed it to 3 people, only one of them could identify the round thing. One person thought it was a part of a gun; another thought it was a gear. Can you tell what it is? It’s a film reel. I was similarly perplexed by the reddish thing on the right, which at first I thought was a rosebud. Only later did I see a hat. I expressed my concerns.
So they sent this version, where you can see a bit of film looping from the reel and where the man in the hat is sharper and carrying a gun. This is good for another reason: the story begins with the shooting death of a silent-film projectionist in a movie theater in the Roaring Twenties. I’m very happy with the final results. So . . . what do you think? Is it a compelling cover? (P.S. The book is due for release August 1.)
People often ask where writers get their ideas. The answer is “everywhere.” Here’s one specific example:
I read this marvelous article in the Richmond newspaper about twin brothers who made moonshine in the 1950s and 60s when it was illegal in Virginia. Being identical twins helped when they reached a courtroom, because witnesses couldn’t identify the accused for certain. Which brother was it? They couldn’t say for sure. That gives me a good idea for a plot device: having identical twin bootleggers beat the rap because no one could tell them apart. Read the whole article here:
Of all the excesses brought by Prohibition, the story of Etta Mae Miller must be at the top of the list. Etta Mae Miller, a 48-year-old mother of ten, lived in Michigan, a state with some of the toughest anti-alcohol laws during Prohibition. One 1927 law was one of those “three strikes and your out” sort of laws, whereby the third felony landed you in prison for life. Well, possessing a pint of alcohol was a felony in Michigan, and you know where this story is going.
Etta Mae was the first woman sentenced to life in prison under this law. She was found guilty for having two pints of gin in her home. (Police could get a warrant to search a private home if they thought they smelled liquor nearby.) With 2 previous felonies for alcohol possession on her record, she was sentenced to life in prison. Her husband, by the way, was also in jail for liquor-related offenses, but not under a life sentence. (I could not find a photo of either Mr. or Mrs. Miller, and these are not the Miller children, just a picture of 1920s children I found on the Internet–excuse the liberty.)
Public outcry against the “Life for a Pint” law was strong, and Michigan’s Governor Fred W. Green was not pleased to find 10 new orphans placed in the state’s care. The state supreme court reversed the decision and Mrs. Miller went home to her brood.
On January 17, I like to mark the anniversary of the first day of Prohibition back in 1920 with a drink! That’s what most drinkers did that year, they held a wake at their favorite bar on January 16, the last legal day to drink, and went home to mourn.
They need not have bothered, as it soon became clear that the gangster element would quickly step in to fill the demand for booze, bringing far more problems and anguish than existed when liquor was legal. In fact, historians now say it was probably easier to get a drink during Prohibition than it was when Prohibition ended in 1933 and regulations limited people’s access.
So join me on January 16, the last day of legal drinking, and again on January 17, the first day of Prohibition, and lift your glass to one of the biggest mistakes in American history.
Vaudeville’s heyday lasted from about 1890 to about 1930. During that time, an estimated 2 million people EACH DAY attended a vaudeville show somewhere in the U.S. That’s from a population of about 70 million (in 1900).
For comparison purposes, today 3.6 million people see a movie each day, from a population of 325 million. That works out to 4 1/2 times the population watching about less than twice the number of movies. Why the decline? Surely it’s because there are so many alternatives in entertainment today. Vaudeville’s only competitors for entertainment were theater (called legit, for legitimate theater as opposed to variety), circuses, and musical concerts. Today . . . well, we have radio, television, movies, computer games, and social media in addition to live entertainment and recorded music.
When I created my bootlegger character David, I had in mind the real bootlegger, Roy Olmsted. I learned about him in Daniel Okrent’s LAST CALL: “Olmsted had entered public life as a promising member of the Seattle Police Department, praised by the department’s very dry chief as ‘quick and responsive . . . bright and competent.’ But Olmsted’s competence extended beyond ordinary police work, and while still a member of the department . . . he began running liquor from Canada. Roy Olmsted was handsome, personable, intelligent, and remarkably ethical. He never diluted his imports or blended them with industrial alcohol as so many other bootleggers did, and he dealt in such volume that he was able to undersell every other bootlegger in the Pacific Northwest. . . he ‘avoided the sordid behavior of others in the same business–no murder, no narcotics, no rings or prostitution or gambling’–and as a result, ‘many people could not regard him as an authentic criminal.'”
What happened to Roy? Like my fictional David, he served time in prison–four years. President Roosevelt later pardoned him. Not sure whether a pardon is in David’s future . . .
Benny Kubelski, born in 1894 in Chicago, died 42 years ago on Dec. 26, 1974. He got his start in vaudeville at the age of 17, playing his violin, sometimes with a musical partner. He struggled for years, changing his name to Ben K. Benny and then to Jack Benny. It wasn’t until World War I when he was in the navy and entertaining servicemen that he began adding comedy to his act. After the war, he returned to vaudeville and found greater success, but it was radio that made him a star comedian. I have many fond memories of watching him on television–his humor and sense of timing was legendary.
I’m always on the look-out for unusual vaudeville acts that I can weave into my novels. When I met a woman whose mother and aunt had been unusual vaudeville performers, I knew I had a keeper! These two young women were violinists and acrobats, which gave them a most interesting profession: bio-contortionist. Helen Myra, my friend’s mother, was a ballerina who performed Pavlova’s Dying Swan while playing the violin. Her sister, Olga Myra is pictured below, playing the violin as she performed acrobatic feats. They performed in the mid-1920s, which is when my Roaring Twenties series is set, so I incorporated these usual acts into the fourth book in my series, due out next year.
Here are some of Olga’s reviews, courtesy of her niece. I found them fascinating to read.
Pittsburg Daily Post, 3 July 1923, p. 10
“Olga Myra’s high kicks and her violining while she did the split…”
Rochester, NY Democrat and Chronicle, 25 September 1923, p. 23
“Olga Myra and her Southern Entertainers “stopped the show” in the fifth position. Miss Myra was also favored with a fetching personality…and in a variety of picturesque costumes she exhibited marked suppleness and more or less originality of style in dancing. Hers was mostly “stunt” dancing, and she excelled in “splits,” back bending and kicking.”
Amsterdam, NY Evening Recorder, 9 October 1923
“No other performer on the stage has been able to execute a happy combination of acrobatic dancing and violin performance at the same time as young and winsome Olga Myra…She is a finished artist in her line, having devoted eight months of continuous study and practice at the Theodore Art School in New York.”
Louisville, KY Courier-Journal, 20 December 1923, p. 4
Olga Myra will top the new vaudeville program that will be offered at B.F. Keith’s National this afternoon and the remainder of this week. She is a dancer who combines violin playing with a characteristic form of acrobatic dancing…”
Variety, 1 April 1925, p. 11 (reviewing the show at the NY Palace)
Olga Myra and the Bitter Sisters, a Foster Hip turn, with a big production and swift changes of pace, costumes and methods in dance, ran 13 minutes and seemed like six. Miss Olga Myra is an accomplished contortionist, but of the refined and subdued order. She does some unusual fiddling while going through her bends…”
Rochester, NY Democrat and Chronicle, 13 October 1925, p. 18
“Keith’s Theater: One of the most colorful and artistic dancing acts presented at Keith’s vaudeville house this season, or any other season for that matter, is the offering of Olga Myra and her two assistants, Betsey Rees and Margaret Litchfield. All three are graceful and agile dancers of an exceptional order. Then the act is staged with exceedingly good taste, a charming simplicity of setting being used for each dance number so that the audience’s eye is centered on the dancers and yet conscious that all surrounding details are satisfying artistically. In fact, it is one of very few dance acts that is not over done in setting and costuming. Olga Myra herself is a supple dancer who seems capable of achieving any position at all with her agile limbs. The other two are toe dancers and interpreters of charming dance designs, which their grace and ability make remarkably appealing.”
In separate article on page 23: “Keith star offers real dance novelty…Olga Myra offers a distinct novelty in the nature of acrobatic dancing with violin playing. She knows how to fiddle well, and she lays her instrument while exerting exceedingly difficult acrobatic dancing feats. Miss Myra is the only performer who does this novelty. In various numbers she also displays ability to do true aesthetic dancing. Hers is obviously a genuine dancing temperament coupled with an understanding of vaudeville showmanship…”
Pittsburg Post-Gazette, 22 December 1925, p. 15
“Olga Myra, dancing violinist, and two other dancing artists who are featured in the same act, Misses Betsy Rees and Margaret Litchfield, the latter a Pittsburg girl…Miss Myra was the embodiment of ease of movement in a waltz that lofted toes sideways, forward and backward with equal smoothness and rhythm. She also played sweetly on the violin as she performed an acrobatic obbligato in slow movement. The entire act was prettily staged and it was one of the most popular on the bill.”
In separate article on p. 11: “A much-admired dancing attraction by Olga Myra includes her curling and uncurling herself to her violin playing, her backward bending and high kicking and splitting…”
Variety, 16 June 1926, p. 21 [a review of the act]
“Olga Myra and Company, Dancing, 16 minutes, Full Stage, at the Palace.
“Olga Myra formerly appeared with a band. In her new turn are but two girl brunet dancers, while a special musical director, Fred Hathaway, is in the pit. Betsy Rees and Margaret Litchfield dance with Miss Myra, the minor members opening the act with a Columbine-Pierrot dance, backed scenically by a Venetian Canal drop revealed through a set frame mounted upon a platform. Miss Rees, a toe dancer, was the Columbine and Miss Litchfield (hair short) the Pierrot.
Opened well and led to a solo waltz by the featured artist, whose forte in this number was high side kicks, helping to send her off well. A special drop backed the frame for this.
For the following number, “The Enchanted Rose Bush,” Miss Litchfield was a pensive lover admiring a rosebush, which suddenly opened, disclosing a toe dancer who went into some nice steps to the measures of “La Traviata’s” ballet music and ending with the dancer retiring to the bush, the lover resuming the pensive attitude.
Then, Miss Myra for a violin solo played as she went through a difficult contortionistic routine on the platform. This was her old specialty and is built up to be the act’s feature. A Russian trio dance closed the act [other accounts note this dance trio was entitled “Boots”]. The turn was moved from fourth to closing intermission and scored in that good spot. In addition to the good work of the principals, especially the featured girl, the costuming is not only handsome and lavish but in excellent taste.
As a dance-flash turn for vaudeville or the big picture houses, this one frames all around. With some speeding it would be a set-up for the cinema palaces, where they appear four- a-day, but pay more money than in vaudeville.”