High Priestess of Whoopee – Texas Guinan

Texas Guinan (pronounced Guy-nan) came to fame during the roaring 20s in New York City. She was a mistress of ceremonies, singer, and all around entertainer who held court in various speakeasies. Movie stars Ruby Keeler and George Raft were discovered as members of her dance entourage and Walter Winchell credited her with opening the insider Broadway scene and cafe society to him when he was starting as a gossip columnist (Walter Winchell pops up in Viv and Charlie #3).

Texas had some trouble with the government over violating the Volstead Act (aka Prohibition), so she brought her talents to Chicago’s infamous Green Mill in the winter of 1929/30, booming her trademark “Hello, Suckers!” from the stage of the cabaret. (The Green Mill still exists, of course, but I believe what was the cabaret on the second floor is now either office space or part of a Mexican restaurant.) As fate would have it, a very young Vivian Witchell snuck out of her bedroom one evening and attended a Guinan performance at the Green Mill.* You can read about it in HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS.

Click here to read a first-hand account from a Tribune journalist who knew Texas and attended her run at the Mill. He also mentions Ted Newberry (who also briefly plays into Vivian’s memories of Mill, but you’ll have to read HFTH to find out how).

Unfortunately, Texas got into even more trouble with the law when her manager/boyfriend was involved in a shooting at the Mill in March 1930 that shut down her show. 

According to the article in the Tribune she was quite the sass-mouthed dame: After the shooting, she showed up at the police station and said, “I’ve brought the Rolls who’s got the coffee?” (referring to her Rolls Royce). She is also quoted as saying, “This is my first record at this police station. I usually make them for the talking machine people.” She offered to type up her own statement (they declined), then she offered to take the policemen to dinner (they declined), and she finally left them with, “You can always reach me at any court in New York.” (referring to all of her legal troubles in that city).

She left the US for Europe with her troupe after that. Here’s a newsreel clip of her upon her return to the US where she recalls her infamous greeting by calling herself “the biggest sucker in the world…”

Sadly, Guinan died in 1933 of amoebic dysentery that she contracted at Chicago’s Congress Hotel. Here’s a clip of her appearance in a movie called Broadway Through a Keyhole that was released three days before her death (and written by Walter Winchell).

Here’s further reading on Texas if you’re interested.

*The dates don’t quite line up, historically speaking, but I took some license and fudged it a year to get such a colorful character into the book. Hey, it’s fiction, right?

Old Time Radio Wednesday – Ray Bradbury (The Ravine and Zero Hour)

Ray Bradbury grew up in Waukegan, IL and there’s a storytelling festival each year around Halloween that honors him. I went to it a few times, and it’s excellent. I think Bradbury’s short stories are particularly well-suited to radio and that’s where I first heard most of them. I’m sharing two of my favorites today (because I couldn’t pick just one).

“The Ravine” is the first episode of the show Bradbury 13 from the early 1980s. The fictionalized ravine is based on a very real one in Waukegan. Waukegan itself was fictionalized often as “Green Town” in Bradbury’s stories. This story is chilling. There are 13 episodes in this series and all are fabulous.

“Zero Hour” is a Suspense episode from April 5, 1955 is chilling in an entirely different way. I don’t want to give anything away except that it’s very 1950s, and the main character is a seemingly sweet little girl named “Mink” (which I love).

Old Time Radio Wednesday – It Happened (Lights Out)

Lights Out is one of my favorite shows. It was a pioneer of horror/sci-fi and was originally produced in Chicago (and Harold Peary of Great Gildersleeve fame, star of last week’s post, guested on it a few times). Lights Out began in 1934 to as “a midnight mystery serial to catch the attention of the listeners at the witching hour.” True to that aim it aired at midnight and soon switched to an anthology format with new stories presented for each program. Lights Out almost certainly inspired The Twilight Zone.

I have so many favorite episodes, but this one stands out as especially creepy. “It Happened” aired May 11, 1938. It’s the story of a girl trapped in the catacombs under Paris – and that’s all I’m going to tell you. (Despite the name of the show, you might want to listen to this one with the lights on.)

 

Old Time Radio Wednesday – The Great Gildersleeve

In honor of summer being in full swing I’ve chosen a summery episode of one of my favorite radio comedies, The Great Gildersleeve. “Vacation at Grass Lake” aired on August 29, 1943 and is a pretty typical episode for poor, put-upon, mildly bumbling, lovelorn Gildy. Harold Peary plays Gildy (and if you’re a child of the 70s or early 80s you may recognize his distinctive voice as that of Big Ben, the clockwork whale, in Rudolph’s Shiny New Year). The episode also starts with a stellar wartime Parkay Margarine commercial.

Peary originated the character of Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve on Fibber McGee and Molly in Chicago. (He also worked on another fabulous Chicago show, Lights Out, which will be featured in a future OTR Wednesday on this blog). The Great Gildersleeve is considered one of the first spin off shows… and probably one of the first modern sit-coms style shows.

I was introduced to the show through a strange coincidence (or perhaps a sign from the universe?). We moved to a new town in the fall of 2009, two months before I started writing THE DARKNESS KNOWS. It just so happened that the local radio station – actually the radio station of a local Lutheran church –  broadcast old time radio shows from 6:30 to 9:00 every evening and the 7:00 hour was dedicated to comedy – often The Great Gildersleeve. I listened while I did the dishes. The station has about a 5 mile radius, tops, and our house received the station perfectly.

The show is really well done and holds up (unlike Fibber McGee, in my opinion. Fibber is based in that corny vaudeville comedy that the stars excelled in – the kind that seems old fashioned now). Anyway, give Gildy a listen. I think you’ll like him.

Old Time Radio Wednesday – Evening Primrose

I mentioned this episode of the popular adventure/fantasy radio program Escape in my last author newsletter, and I thought I’d share it here as well. In fact, I’m going to make sharing my favorite radio episodes a regular feature here on the blog.

“Evening Primrose” (aired November 5, 1947) is the creepy story of a writer who lives among the mannequins at a department store. It was adapted from a John Collier story (and later made into a TV musical by Stephen Sondheim (really?)) If you have a spare half an hour give it a listen. I think you’ll agree that Mrs. Vanderpant just might be the best character name of all time.

Time is a Flat Circle

I’ve been researching early 1920s Chicago for a new book idea. By chance recently, I picked the date August 17, 1921 to look at the Chicago Tribune archives to check out what was happening that day. I was rewarded with this.

This was not only the front page banner headline and lead story, but there was an ad on page 3 for the KKK. An ad. In the Chicago Tribune. To recruit people into the Ku Klux Klan.

This rally/circus of ignorance was held in Lake Zurich, which was then a country backwater, but is now a booming and well-to-do suburb. It’s also not far from where I currently live.

The KKK  started after the Civil War and enjoyed something of a resurgence in the 1910s and early 1920s, not just in the South, but all over the US. It was big in Oregon – which was originally founded to be some sort of white supremacist utopia. Really. (Listen to this Dollop podcast about it. Warning: The Dollop is an American History podcast hosted by two comedians so it can off-color – and hilarious).

The Tribune at this time was owned by Colonel Robert R. McCormick. It was incredibly conservative and called itself “The American Paper for Americans”. You don’t have to read much into that slogan, do you? By the way, this was just your average, everyday racism in 1921. It wasn’t radical. It wasn’t right wing. It just was. Most (white) people at the time probably read that headline and shrugged.

I guess I wasn’t the only one shocked by this, because there was a follow-up about this 1921 event in the Chicago Tribune in 2015.

I study history, because it is not the orderly procession of dates and events that we’re led to believe in our history classes. History is messy and complicated and an endlessly fascinating chain of cause and effect. I study it because what happened in the Chicago suburbs in 1921 still matters and affects what’s happening today. This was not an isolated incident relegated to the dusty past – KKK leaflets were distributed anonymously in some Chicago suburbs a few months ago. If you don’t understand what fuels the rise of ignorant idiots like this every so often how can you hope to fight it?

Making it Rain – Radio Sound Effects

Radio was called “theater of the mind” because the listener had to imagine everything that was happening. That meant, of course, that if was a fight, someone had to make the sound of that fight while the actors performed the dialog.

Take for example, this section from the first chapter of THE DARKNESS KNOWS.

The well-choreographed struggle began on cue. The organ hummed. The soundman punched a fist into his open palm once, twice while he scuffled his feet through the small tray of gravel in the corner. Graham growled, “Take that!” There was the sound of a single gunshot – a blank fired into the air from a real pistol – then a beat of silence.”

And this is from HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS (during a live production of The Scarlet Pimpernel).

“The head soundman opened and closed a metal door on its special stand. It clanged ominously.

 Another soundman stood far off in the corner, covering his mouth with his hand to muffle the sound. “Ready!”

The head soundman and his assistant picked the prop muskets off the table and locked them.”

“Aim!”

A pause. All was silence in the studio. Vivian looked at Graham, his eyes trained on his script, waiting for the blast. Her eyes flicked to the control room. All were rapt with attention, mouths agape, including the ad man practically on his toes in anticipation.

“Fire!”

Then the thunderous sound of rifles firing filled the studio. Vivian flinched, even though they’d been through this scene ad nauseam in the past week.”

Depending on the size and importance of the production there were likely several people at a table off to the side in the studio behind a table full of sound props. They were responsible for anything beyond dialog that was needed for the production: rain, gunshots, doors slamming, footsteps, car engines revving, squealing tires, thunder, wind… use your imagination – the list is endless. Plungers were used to mimic the sound of horse’s hooves slogging through mud. A crackling fire might be made by crinkling cellophane in front of a microphone. Car doors were often the actual doors detached from the car itself and brought into the studio. And believe it or not, real guns were often fired in the studio (as in the excerpt above) to simulate gunshots.

Later on, after recording became popular, they started to use sound effect records for the more unusual or hard to produce sounds.

Here’s a Chevrolet-produced short from 1938 that shows the behind the scenes of how it was done:

 

A Father’s Love – Eddie and Butch O’Hare

You may know that Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is named for WWII flying ace Butch O’Hare who was shot down over the Pacific in 1943. What you may not know is that the only reason Butch became a pilot at all was because of his father – lawyer, crook, and known associate of Al Capone.

Edward (Easy Eddie) O’Hare was never the most upstanding of lawyers. He bamboozled a client’s widow out of the patent to those mechanical rabbits that greyhounds chase around the racetrack.

That’s how he made his fortune, and that’s how he met Al Capone. Capone owned a greyhound track outside Chicago. They eventually became associates and business partners (and the greyhound track was turned into Sportsman’s Park for horse racing. Conveniently, Eddie became its president).

Needless to say, the 1920s were a high time for Easy Eddie, that is until the apple of his eye, his eldest son Edward Jr (known as Butch), told Eddie that he wanted to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD and become a pilot. Eddie could deny his boy nothing. The problem was that the sitting local congressman needed to nominate Butch to attend the academy, and no congressman in his right mind would nominate the son of a known Capone associate. Not even in Chicago.

What was a father to do? Well, Eddie decided he needed to change his ways. Through a journalist intermediary, he made it clear to the Feds he would give them info on Capone’s organization if they helped him get his son into the Naval Academy. He did – and they did. Butch went to the academy and eventually became a fighter pilot and hero over the Pacific, but Eddie wouldn’t live long enough to witness that. Eddie was gunned down while driving his Lincoln on Ogden Avenue in November 1939. His murder remains technically unsolved, but it’s pretty safe to assume that his double-crossing of The Outfit finally caught up to him.

I’m telling you all of this, because it’s a fascinating story, but also because Easy Eddie O’Hare was the inspiration for Viv’s father, “Easy Artie” Witchell, in HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS.