Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit Grows in the 1890s

When I write my Roaring Twenties mystery series, which is set in the 1920s, I depend on my research about the vaudeville circuits of the early 20th century. One thing I learned was that these “circuits” (groups of theaters that joined together to host an itinerant group of performers) didn’t materialize out of nowhere. In the 1890s, the Orpheum Circuit, which was largely made up of west coast theaters and a few in the Midwest, needed to find some theaters in between so that performers didn’t waste a week of unpaid time traveling from the Midwest cities (like Chicago) to the west coast. Yes, it could take three or four days to travel from the Midwest to the far west by rail, which meant the performers lost that week. Anything less than one day of travel cut into their 6-day week, rendering the act unemployable for that week.

The first in-between theaters added were in Kansas City, MO, and Omaha, NE, both railway hubs that were growing in population and sophistication. After that came Denver, in those days, the largest city between Kansas City and San Francisco. The Denver Orpheum was built in 1899 at the unheard of cost of $350,000. (Sadly, it was torn down in the 1930s.) But with this stunning theater, the Orpheum Circuit could at last attract big names, because performers could travel between engagements one day at a time.

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Published in: on July 10, 2017 at 4:45 pm  Comments (1)  

Houdini’s Rise to Stardom

I mention Houdini briefly in a couple of my mysteries, so I became interested in his remarkable life and unusual talents.

Houdini began as a small-time magician in vaudeville. Fortunately for him, he was spotted by Martin Beck, an immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian Empire who became one of the top booking agents in vaudeville thanks to his uncanny ability to discover new talent. When he saw young Houdini, he told him he should cut out the regular magic tricks that other magicians did and concentrate on one big thriller that only he could do–escape-artist tricks like the handcuffs in the trunk.

Houdini took his advice and became a vaudeville sensation. Beck became the Orpheum Circuit’s general manager.

Published in: on July 1, 2017 at 6:19 am  Comments (1)  

Murder in Disguise Gets a Nice Review

Author: MARY MILEY

Title: MURDER IN DISGUISE

Publication: PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

Issue: 19TH JUNE 2017

 Murder in Disguise: A Roaring Twenties Mystery, Mary Miley. Severn, $28.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-7278-8714-6

The shooting murder of projectionist Joe Petrovitch, during a showing of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush at a Hollywood movie theater, propels Miley’s engrossing fourth Roaring Twenties mystery (after 2016’s Renting Silence). The police rush to the theater, but the gunman escapes without a trace. The victim’s wife, a hairdresser at the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, asks script girl Jessie Beckett, who’s a skilled amateur sleuth, to investigate. With help from Adele Astaire (Fred’s glamorous sister and dance partner), actress Myrna Loy (later to achieve fame in The Thin Man), assorted vaudevillians, and police detective Carl Delaney, spunky, resourceful Jessie sets to work. Aficionados of showbiz history will delight in the technical details of filmmaking in the silent era and the peripatetic lives of the performers. Readers will also get the lowdown on bootlegging, speakeasies, and gin joints. Series fans will be pleased to know that David Carr, Jessie’s love interest, has a tidy subplot of his own.

 

Published in: on June 26, 2017 at 3:26 pm  Comments (2)  

Vaudeville Wars: Book Review

With a title like Vaudeville Wars: How the Keith-Albee and Orpheum Circuits Controlled the Big-Time and it’s Performers, I knew it would be right up my Roaring Twenties alley. I was right, and I learned some things. But the book itself was excruciatingly dull reading. Granted, it was published by Palgrave-MacMillan, the academic imprint for MacMillan publishing company, so I should have expected dry. 

Basically this is a book about how Keith, Albee, and other vaudeville tycoons monopolized the business and screwed the performers as they made boatloads of money.

In pursuit of their goal to make vaudeville a form of family entertainment, Keith and Albee stressed the Three C’s — cleanliness, comfort, and courtesy. “The city’s (New York) social reformers and religious leaders attacked the concert saloon for its drinking and lewd amusements and instead avidly supported wholesome recreation for the working class. Keith’s refined vaudeville was exactly the type of entertainment the city’s leaders wanted.” In the early years (1880s and 1890s), Keith himself welcomed audiences at his Grand Opera House and emphasize the rules: no hats, no smoking, no whistling, and no stamping feet, spitting or yelling obscenities. Playbills pointedly mentioned the wholesome environment. Performers were forbidden to use profanity or off-color jokes. Profanity meant something different in the 1880s: words like slob, son-of-a-gun, and gee, would result in an act’s cancellation. Keith hired a Sunday school teacher to censor the jokes. From then on, vaudeville was family entertainment. Those looking for more risqué fare could visit one of the many burlesque houses where raunchy jokes and semi-nudity were common. 

Published in: on June 18, 2017 at 3:46 pm  Comments (2)  

ABC Agents Talk about Moonshine, Then and Now

An interesting lecture today at the Library of Virginia involved 2 agents, one retired, from the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control), who talked about busting illegal moonshine operations in Virginia back in the Prohibition days and today. I had no idea stills were so common! I learned that Virginia’s ABC was formed in 1934, the year after liquor became legal again, to regulate and control liquor sales. I learned that while it has been okay to make wine or beer in your home for your own consumption since the 1970s,  it is NOT okay to make distilled beverages. 

I also learned that Franklin County in southwestern Virginia, which was said to be the moonshine capital of the state (and of the country or world, according to some) continues to have the most illegal stills today. In the 1920s, a lot of Virginia’s illegal whiskey was shipped to Chicago. One of the agents, who was from that general region, said his father and grandfather made moonshine and that they remembered the mule-drawn wagons hauling moonshine to the Galax, Virginia, train station to send it to Al Capone. Maybe I can work that tidbit into my next story . . . 

Published in: on June 7, 2017 at 4:22 pm  Comments (2)  

Last Call in Virginia 1916

On November 1, 1916, all saloons, breweries, and distilleries in Virginia shut down. (Or they were supposed to. Some stayed open secretly and illegally.) There was one great, last-minute stampede to buy drinks, and it was reported in the Alexandria Gazette.

“The rush for liquor refreshments [in Harrisonburg, VA] Monday night and yesterday morning resembled a football mass attack or a charge of women on a bargain counter . . . it was like a Christmas holiday rush” as people swarmed the saloons for a last, legal drink.

So when national prohibition came around to the rest of the country in 1920, Virginians hardly noticed.

Published in: on May 27, 2017 at 1:36 pm  Comments (1)  

Hidden Flasks

This is a common photo–I’ve used it several times. But only last week did I come across an actual example of a hidden flask like the one pictured. A handy size, it could tuck into a gentleman’s breast pocket or under a lady’s skirt . . . too shocking for words.  (From the Library of Virginia exhibit on Prohibition.) 

 

Published in: on May 22, 2017 at 3:49 pm  Comments (4)  

Prohibition Exhibit at the Library of Virginia

An exhibit at the Library of Virginia tells the story of Prohibition in Virginia. Titled “Teetotalers and Moonshiners,” the exhibit traces the prohibition movement from its start in Virginia in 1914 (6 years before national prohibition began in 1920) to its end. As in all states, implementing the new federal laws proved impossible, in part because so little money was allocated for enforcement. “Having only fifteen inspectors in this state, it is impossible for us to give prompt attention to the hundreds of complaints that come to the office,” wrote Harry B. Smith, Director of Prohibition in Richmond. He didn’t mention that their low pay made it easy for law-breakers to bribe them to look the other way. 

It’s a good exhibit! It runs through December 5, so you have plenty of time to drop in and see it. And there is free parking in the underground garage below the Library. 

Published in: on May 14, 2017 at 6:27 am  Leave a Comment  

Henry Creamer (Little-Known Today, Well-Known in the 1920s) Resurfaces Last Night

Last night, I attended a wonderful musical event at the Library of Virginia that featured two groups who played and sang music from the Prohibition era. The musicians gave some historical background and told little stories about the original singers and composers, then played their pieces. So were funny, some were hokey, and the talent was terrific.

One of the songwriters mentioned Henry (Hank) Creamer, an African-American lyricist and vaudeville performer well known in his day. Coincidentally, I mention him in passing in the first of my Roaring Twenties mystery series, THE IMPERSONATOR, so I was familiar with the man. What I didn’t know was that Creamer was born right here in Richmond, VA–a nice surprise for me. One of his most famous songs was “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” (1922), which was still popular in 1939 when it was included in a dance numbers in Fred Astaire’s The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. 

Here’s the passage from THE IMPERSONATOR that mentions Creamer. Jessie is speaking to the man she’s just danced with. 

“What’s the matter?” I asked finally. “Aren’t you going to tell me how pretty my frock is?”

“Like everyone else? You can’t need that many compliments. I’ll tell you that your shoes are delightful, but I’ll wager your feet will be killing you by dinner. How can you dance in such high heels?”

The band began playing “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.”

“Oh, that is one of my favorite jazz tunes!” I said.

“Hmmm, yes. Sadly, this is not a jazz band, and I’m afraid poor Hank Creamer wouldn’t recognize his own song if he were here tonight.”

I laughed. “You’re right, this is awful. Let’s sit.” We moved to the nearest table and I couldn’t resist saying, “As a matter of fact, I know Hank. He’s written a number of popular songs and is a talented song-and-dance man himself.”

“He’s a friend of yours?”

“I haven’t run into him in a while, but yes, we’ve shared billing a few times.”

“But I—but, I thought he was colored?”

“He is.”

“Oh my god,” he said, clearly horrified. “How very . . . interesting.”

 

Published in: on May 6, 2017 at 9:32 am  Comments (1)  
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Rumrunners on the Seas (and Great Lakes) Part II

The constant cat-and-mouse chase of rumrunners by the Coast Guard led to a sudden evolution of power boat technology. Speed was essential–for both sides! The Coast Guard tried to develop new, faster boats so they could outrun the smugglers, but there was one huge problem. When they did, federal law required them to make the specifications public so that any boatyard could bid on the construction contract . . . and, you guessed it, that let the smugglers in on the new design, which they then copied.

When Congress extended the three-mile limit (territorial waters) to twelve miles in an attempt to force party boats and smugglers out of business, they inadvertently made it even harder for the tiny Coast Guard, which now had to patrol a much larger expanse of sea.

Published in: on April 30, 2017 at 8:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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