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.
New York’s prohibition officer Izzy Einstein styled himself the “champion hooch hunter.” He and his partner, Moe Smith, had no background in law enforcement, but who needed that during Prohibition? They developed their own techniques and methods for catching bootleggers–techniques that involved impersonation, such as my character, Jessie, would use in her crime solving. Here are a few:
- The impersonator method: Pose as someone who would not be a suspected, such as football players, Texas Rangers, streetcar conductors, gravediggers, fishermen, ice deliverymen, opera singers, and a Yiddish couple. Buy a drink, bust the place.
- The emergency method: One would jump into icy water, his partner would rush him into a speakeasy and plead for a drink for a freezing man. Bingo.
- The straight-forward method: Go into a speakeasy, order a drink, pour some into a small bottle in a pocket, then arrest everyone who served them.
It worked. Izzy and Moe were perhaps the most successful and notorious prohibition agents in New York City.
On a trip to Alaska last month, we sailed into a cave that reminded me of the Oregon cave I wrote about in The Impersonator . . . especially because it was lined with starfish and other sea life, like I described in the story.
As I reached its mouth, the loose pebbles underfoot gave way to rough rock and slime. My thin soles fared poorly on the jagged floor. The cavern itself was larger inside than its narrow mouth suggested, about the size of a theater stage, and as high, with starfish decorating its walls and crevices. I called to myself and my own voice answered in the emptiness. I picked my way about halfway in until I could see the back wall, then turned back into the sun. No clues there.
. . . and later . . .
It looked like Nature had built herself one of those pointed-arch cathedrals I had seen in Oliver’s travel books and decorated its wet walls with frescoes of colored algae, red and white barnacles, and starfish. A narrow ledge, smooth from centuries of erosion and slippery with strands of green slime, skirted the north side of the cave all the way to the back. A few feet below, the rising sea churned like boiling water, even on a relatively calm day like today. The waves broke against the cave’s mouth and sloshed noisily inside, each one bringing the water level closer to covering my walkway. I had arrived just in time. It wouldn’t be long before the ledge was submerged. I wondered whether high tide regularly filled the cave, and one glance at the barnacles stuck high on the walls answered the question.
In my first Roaring Twenties book, THE IMPERSONATOR, I mentioned an act I called the Cat Circus. It had a young man named Walter who ran it, and one of Jessie’s friends, Angie, falls in love with Walter and leaves the act to join his Cat Circus. Angie and Walter appear briefly in the second book, SILENT MURDERS, when Angie helps send Jessie some information from Chicago, where the Cat Circus is playing.
Well . . . I made up the act, of course, but here it is, the real thing–the Amazing Acro-Cats! They came to Richmond two weeks ago while I was, sadly, on vacation. When I saw the article in the newspaper, I immediately thought: Walter and the Cat Circus has come to town! The Acro-Cats have a female trainer, however. It’s Samantha Martin, and she has trained a dozen or more cats to do tricks (when they feel like it). Performances took place through June 21 at the Richmond CenterStage theater. See http://www.richmondcenterstage.com for details. Maybe they’ll return next year and I can see them.
“The Amazing Acro-Cats are opening in Richmond today and, true to their name, their show features more than a dozen “amazing” cats performing acrobatics and tricks.
There’s Alley, who is a Guinness World Records holder for longest jump made by a cat; Tuna, leader of Rock-Cats, the world’s only cat band; and Sookie, who plays the chimes, to name a few.
The show is the brainchild of Samantha Martin, Chief Executive Human of The Amazing Acro-Cats, who trained all of her show cats — and rescued them all as well.
“I’ve been training animals since I was 10,” Martin said. “I started training the family dog.”
A lifelong animal lover, Martin said she started asking for a cat as soon as she was old enough to talk.
Cats, however, weren’t how the Chicago-based trainer got her start.
“I started training rats,” she said. “When I got out of college and moved to Chicago, I started my training business with rats” for television and film performances.
It was a fortuitous pet rescue, 10 years ago, that led Martin to cat training. “A very special cat came into my life,” she said.
So Martin made the shift from rats to cats. “Cats are actually the second-most requested animal” for movies and TV, she said. “You have to keep them working. Keep them socialized.”
Putting on a performance when her cats weren’t booked for TV or film kept their skills sharp, Martin said. But it wasn’t always easy.
“The show was a disaster in the early days. I was trying to figure out how to get these cats to do what I needed them to do. Cats are a little bit unpredictable. If someone showed up to a show with balloons — or if a clown showed up, the cats would be like, ‘I’m out of here,’ ” she said.
That’s why Martin introduced a chicken into the show. Yes, a chicken. Chickens, apparently, are much better behaved than cats, so if a show starts to go south, Martin knows she can bring out the chicken and save the day.
These days she’s on her third chicken, Cluck Norris, who plays the cymbals and tambourine in the Rock-Cats rock band, but a chicken has been part of The Amazing Acro-Cats since the very beginning.
The chicken even travels along with Martin and her 14-plus cats on their 35-foot-long tour bus. But don’t worry; everyone gets along.
“If anything, the chicken messes with the cats,” Martin said.
And there have been a lot of cats.
In 2009, Martin started fostering cats in addition to her regular performers. She was looking to add another performer, so she fostered a litter of kittens to see which one worked out. For the rest, she helped find their “forever homes.”
It’s a trend she continues — fostering whole litters of kittens and taking them on the road, hoping to find adoptive families for the animals after the shows.
In fact, in four years Martin has found “forever homes” for more than 150 cats and kittens — all of which come complete with some basic training from Martin.
“Every cat can be trained to do something,” she said.
Martin builds her show around that philosophy, working with each cat’s existing personality to develop performances.
“Some cats have different energy. I train active cats to do active things; cats that like to use their paws get trained for paw tricks. Some cats just like to do the bare minimum,” she said.
For Martin, training is an essential part of cat ownership. And she starts all of her cats off with one simple trick — one that could save their life one day: getting into their carrier.
To do this, Martin uses a whistle and then rewards the cat with a treat — semisoft chewables — when it gets inside.
“It usually takes three training sessions to get them to go in there,” she said.
For the rest of their training and for the shows, Martin uses a clicker — and treat rewards. Soft treats at home and the good stuff — boiled chicken, salmon or tuna — for live shows.
Under Martin’s training — and as part of the Acro-Cats show — these amazing cats walk tightropes, skateboard, jump through hoops, ring bells and balance on balls — when they’re not rocking out in their cat band (plus one chicken), which is the finale of the show.
The Acro-Cats show is basically live-action adorable cat Internet video-watching — and proof positive that if you can’t train your personal house cat, you might not be trying hard enough.
Running through June 21, the full show is one hour — 35 minutes of performance (“due to the short attention spans of these performers”) followed by a meet-and-greet. But face it, 35 minutes of trained performance is 35 minutes more than you’ve ever gotten out of your cat.”
Did you know that June is National Audiobook Appreciation Month? Me neither, but now that someone told me, I can use it as a good excuse to give away an audiobook copy of THE IMPERSONATOR. It’s a 9-CD issue that takes the talented professional actress, Tavia Gilbert, 11 hours to read aloud–if you want a sample, the amazon.com page let’s you hear her read part of a chapter. To enter the contest, go to my web page http://www.marymileytheobald.com and click on SUBSCRIBE to add your email address to my newsletter list. I’ll choose a winner on July 10 from that list.
When the Apple Genius at our local Apple store described me to another Apple Genius as “extremely challenged,” I realized I would never be part of the computer generation. After all, I don’t like for Facebook, can’t stand Twitter, and am baffled by Goodreads; however, I do understand Pinterest. Or, at least, I understand how I can use it to support my mysteries. I’ve illustrated my books via Pinterest.
My novels are set in 1924-1925, a time no one alive remembers–even those who, like my own parents, were born in the Roaring Twenties don’t remember that era, because they were too young. And many people haven’t been to Oregon and can’t visualize the unique Oregon coast, with its amazing sea caves, immense rocks, and agate beaches. Vaudeville is virtually a lost medium–the closest thing to it is the Ed Sullivan Show, which is itself too far back for most people today to remember. So how to overcome issues like this? Pinterest.
With Pinterest, I’ve posted photos of Jack Benny, before he was called Jack Benny, when he was young and handsome. I’ve posted pictures of vaudeville children who looked like Jessie, my main character, would have looked when she performed on stage; pictures of the mercury bichloride and Veronal, drugs which poisoned several of my characters; pictures of Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Myrna Loy, and other silent film actors as they appeared in the 1920s; pictures of cloche hats, period makeup, bobbed hair styles, cars of the mid-Twenties, and houses where the stars lived; and the Hollywoodland sign as it originally looked. So many pictures . . . I suspect this isn’t the way Pinterest was intended to be used, but it works for me and my readers. Have a look. And let me know what I missed: is there something else you read about in the book that you think I could illustrate on these pages?
Illustrations for THE IMPERSONATOR at https://www.pinterest.com/mmtheobald/jessies-world-the-impersonator/
Illustrations for SILENT MURDERS at https://www.pinterest.com/mmtheobald/jessies-world-silent-murders/
My interest in the Twenties steered me to Magic in the Moonlight, a film that came out last year starring Colin Firth and Emma Stone. It’s a light, romantic comedy set in 1928 along the Mediterranean coast of France and the plot sounded somewhat like the plot of my own first novel, The Impersonator, so I knew I’d enjoy it.
An experienced magician is asked by another magician friend to debunk a young woman who claims to be able to contact the spirits. The friend says he’s tried but can’t figure out how she does it. So the cocky Colin Firth enters the scene. (He’s playing a part that Houdini played in real life, debunking fake mediums.) Of course, he falls for the woman. Frustratingly, he can’t figure out how she’s doing it either, and at last he concludes that he was wrong, that some people really can contact the spirits of the dead in seances. And then there’s the ending.
My main character, Jessie, has worked for magicians in her younger days and has participated in similar scams to bilk gullible people who want to contact the spirits of their dead relatives. Jessie knows the tricks. She would have known this one. I did not!
It didn’t make much of a splash in theaters, but it’s available through Netflix. I recommend it to those who enjoy the clothing and cars of the era–not to mention the beautiful scenery.
Jack Benny died on Dec. 26, 1974, at the age of 39. (Okay, he was really 80.) His real name was Benjamin Kubelsky, and he really did play the violin–quite well, as it turns out, not horridly, as his stage character often demonstrated. He started in vaudeville where he met up with the Marx Brothers, who would be his friends for life, especially Zeppo.
Because of his solid vaudeville experience, I incorporated Jack Benny and to a lesser extent, Zeppo Marx, in my first book, The Impersonator. I made Jack a friend of my fictional protagonist, Jessie. He helps her out with some advice and some investigating. My story takes place in 1924, when Jack was a young performer of 30. He was good looking, unmarried at that point, so I made him a bit of a ladies’ man. I know he wouldn’t have minded!
. . . but we have a great time at the presentation dinner at the Library of Virginia!
On Saturday night, Oct. 18, the Library of Virginia literary award winners were announced by Virginia author Adriana Trigiani. There were 5 finalists in my category (The Impersonator is far right on this screen).
But I had a very nice consolation prize–the following day, Sunday’s New York Times book review section reviewed SILENT MURDERS, which just came out last month. (If you click on the newspaper, I think you can make it large enough to read.)
Hooray! My Roaring Twenties mystery, THE IMPERSONATOR, originally published by St. Martin’s/Minotaur Press last September in hardback, has just been made available in paperback form at all bookstores and online. The paperback version has a section at the end with suggested questions for book clubs, something they don’t do in hardcover versions, for some reason . . . probably because most book clubs choose books that are available in paperback to keep costs down.