Crystal Theatre Lineup Makes You Smile

What secrets does this small vaudeville playbill from the Crystal Theatre hold? A couple very interesting ones . . .  

It dates from the 1909-1910 season, making it a century old and a bargain for $6. While it’s not quite the Roaring Twenties, there was little difference in vaudeville between that decade and the next.

Let’s investigate the program. A jewelry store advertisement on the back (genuine diamond engagement rings anyone? Only $25-$150) reveals that the theater is in Milwaukee. An old city map from 1910 shows it on Second Street; further checking places it there from 1903 until 1929. It was demolished sometime shortly thereafter. The Crystal contained 1032 seats, so it’s boast of being “High Class Vaudeville” (also known as Big Time) rings true. Another clue to quality is the fact that the theater had its own orchestra. Few did. You’ll note the orchestra opens the program.

My research failed to turn up anything about most of the acts. The Four Magnanis, described as “Musical Barbers,” must be a Barbershop Quartet. I haven’t a clue as to the third act, nor did I find any information about the novelty sister act of Lester and Mildred. Lester doesn’t sound like a girl’s name, so maybe that’s the novelty? Nor could I discover anything about the short play that followed or about Carroll & Cooke, and I’ve already mentioned the Holmen Brothers (Swedish gymnasts) in a previous blog. So far, nothing interesting. But wait! They saved the best ‘til last. Crystalgraph: Animated Pictures.

Crystalgraph had me stumped for a while. 1910 is too early for cartoons as we know them, so what could they mean by “animated pictures?” I believe it was a film, “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces,” made by J. Stuart Blackton in 1906—the very first animated film ever. Honest! It has to be–it was literally the only one from those years. Mr. Blackton drew comical faces on a blackboard, took a picture, stopped the film, erased one face to draw another, and filmed the new face. Audiences were amazed.

Here—join the 1910 audience and have a look yourself, courtesy of the Library of Congress. The film is only 3 minutes long and I know it will make you smile.

The Scandal of the Decade

     The Fatty Arbuckle trial was Hollywood’s most sensational scandal of the Roaring Twenties. Really, trials would be more accurate—the poor man endured three during 1921 and 1922, as the first two juries were deadlocked.

     Large since birth, Roscoe had been nicknamed Fatty as a child. He reportedly hated the name but it stuck, and he made the best of it. His weight (reportedly 250-300 pounds) certainly didn’t diminish his career on the stage and later in silent films. If you are familiar with the Keystone Cops, you know Fatty Arbuckle—he’s the biggest cop in the bunch, the one on the far right in this picture.

     Fatty was a good actor (see an early Keystone Cops film here, a great singer, a wonderful dancer, and a kind person: he was supposedly responsible for discovering or mentoring young comic actors, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Bob Hope. But that wasn’t enough to save him when he was accused of rape and murder after a wild party in a San Francisco hotel.

     The yellow press of that era went wild with the story, fabricating lurid details and printing anything that would sell papers. Fatty was accused of raping a woman and crushing her to death with his huge bulk. Or he raped her with a coke bottle. Or a champagne bottle (and this during Prohibition!). Or ice cubes. Whatever. Evidence was next to nothing, and the prosecution’s star witnesses had stories that changed every day, but the gullible public swallowed it whole. And gutless Hollywood moguls, who controlled the actors at that time, forbade anyone to comment on the story in a way that would support Fatty. They were terrified that the scandal would spread to Hollywood and ruin business, which to some extent it did.

     What actually caused the death of the young woman (an alcoholic who had undergone repeated abortions) only four days after the party was a ruptured bladder, possibly brought on by a recent abortion. She never accused Fatty of rape, and doctors found no evidence of rape or violence. The reason she wasn’t taken to the hospital sooner was because her friends all assumed she was drunk or hungover, and would sleep it off as usual. When she finally reached the hospital, peritonitis had set in, and she died.

      The first trial was a travesty of justice. The second was an exercise in stupidity—the defense decided to show their contempt for the prosecution’s case by not putting Fatty on the stand or even making closing remarks, something some members of the jury interpreted as an admission of guilt. So a third trial became necessary.

Next: Fatty’s vindication—and then punishment!