Vamps, Villains and Vaudeville, page 1part #4 of Jazz Age Mystery Series
Vamps, Villains and Vaudeville (A Jazz Age Mystery #4)
By Ellen Mansoor Collier
Copyright 2015 Ellen Mansoor Collier
Published by DecoDame Press at Smashwords
Discover the first three mysteries in the Jazz Age series by Ellen Mansoor Collier:
Flappers, Flasks And Foul Play (Jazz Age Mystery #1)
Bathing Beauties, Booze And Bullets (Jazz Age Mystery #2)
Gold Diggers, Gamblers and Guns (Jazz Age Mystery #3)
First Edition, License Notes: This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to third parties without the express written consent of the author. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Cover Artwork illustration: George Barbier “Pantomime Stage” (c. 1924)
Cover Graphic Design: S. J. Catizone (2015)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
VAMPS, VILLAINS and VAUDEVILLE
1920’s JAZZ AGE SLANG
VAMPS, VILLAINS and VAUDEVILLE
By: Ellen Mansoor Collier
Before Las Vegas, Galveston, Texas reigned as the “Sin City of the Southwest”—a magnet for vamps, villains and vice. Inspired by real people and places, the Jazz Age Mystery series is set during Prohibition in 1927 Galveston, where businessmen rubbed elbows with bootleggers and real-life rival gangs ruled the Island with greed and graft. VAMPS, VILLAINS AND VAUDEVILLE incorporates a fictitious vaudeville troupe with actual Galveston gangsters to create a make-believe series of events and murders.
Starting in the 1880s, vaudeville remained popular for decades, originating as a burlesque show and evolving into more of a variety show with animal acts and a wide range of performers, much like the travelling carnivals of that time. With the advent of the movies, and especially the talkies in 1927, vaudeville quickly fell out of favor and by 1932, had all but disappeared. VAMPS, VILLAINS AND VAUDEVILLE attempts to capture the fading glory days of travelling vaudeville shows and describes a fictitious director’s desperate efforts to keep the shows alive.
During Prohibition, Galveston’s Beach and Downtown gangs fought constant turf wars for control over booze, gambling, slot machines, clubs and prostitution. To keep the peace, the gangs tried to compromise by dividing the Island into two halves: Bootleggers Ollie Quinn and Dutch Voight headed the Beach Gang, south of Broadway and on the Seawall, along with the notorious Maceo brothers, Big Sam and Papa Rose.
Colorful crime boss Johnny Jack Nounes ran the Downtown Gang, the area north of Broadway, and partnered with a dangerous Syrian thug, George Musey. According to Gary Cartwright’s book GALVESTON, second-hand man George Musey only had one arm, and VAMPS fabricates a possible scenario in which Musey loses his right arm. (Gangsters tended to be camera-shy so actual photos of Musey aren’t available, to my knowledge.)
The infamous but long-gone Hollywood Dinner Club on 61st Street was located in the Beach Gang’s territory, near West Beach. Mario’s Italian restaurant is an invented Downtown Gang headquarters off Broadway, not connected to the current pizza parlor in Galveston. However, Martini Theatre and most places mentioned in the novel are actual locales still in existence.
The Maceo brothers, Rosario and Sam (Papa Rose and Big Sam), were Sicilian immigrants who eventually took control of the Island, known as the “Free State of Galveston” for its vice and laissez-faire attitude, for roughly 25-30 years, from late 1927 on, until the Maceos’ deaths. Sam Maceo died in 1951 of cancer and Rose Maceo passed on due to heart disease in 1954.
VAMPS, VILLAINS AND VAUDEVILLE is loosely based on actual and fabricated events leading to the Maceos’ gradual take-over of both gangs in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The Galveston Gazette is a fictitious newspaper but the headlines in the novel are based on actual stories that appeared in national newspapers and The Galveston Daily News, the first and oldest newspaper in Texas, founded in 1842 and still in publication. Since many of the gangland crimes and activities went largely unreported and/or under-reported, the main characters and circumstances in the novel are invented and not intended to malign or distort actual persons, places or cases, but are purely the author’s imagined version of possible events.
For more information on “Jazz Age” slang, please visit these sites:
VAMPS, VILLAINS AND VAUDEVILLE
“Please take your seats. The Villains, Vixens and Varmints Vaudeville Show is about to begin.” The master of ceremonies’ mellifluous voice boomed across Martini Theatre, and lights dimmed as a uniformed usher escorted us to our front-row seats.
Disoriented, I tried not to trip in the dark while the orchestra broke into a classic overture. Agent James Burton and I squeezed in the cramped seats, our elbows and knees bumping, his long legs stretched out in front. Always a gentleman, he rarely took my hand in public though we’d dated steadily for four months now.
You’d think I still lived in my old University of Texas dorm with its strict code of conduct: No ODA—over-display of affection.
To ward off the nippy November air, I’d gotten decked out in a black burnt-velvet frock and a snug velvet cloche with a rhinestone hat pin. The society editor—my boss, Mrs. Harper—had snagged two front-and-center seats to Friday night’s opening performance. No doubt the traveling troupe expected the Galveston Gazette (rather, me) to give them a rave review.
Well, we’d see if this dog-and-pony show lived up to its billing, literally. The MC gave a short introduction and a chubby clown paraded onstage with a spotted pony, a small terrier-mix perched atop its back. When the clown tried to coax the pup to stand on its hind legs, the spunky mutt refused to cooperate, while the audience laughed with glee.
Next Farmer Brown came onstage with Polly, a “talking pig” that oinked and grunted to Old McDonald. Luckily the pig drowned out Burton’s groans of, “You call this entertainment?”
“Relax and enjoy the show. You’ve got to admit, it’s funny.”
“I’d rather catch crooks than endure this nonsense.”
“Hogwash! Personally, I think the pig is cute.” I felt sorry for the poor farmer who beamed proudly at his porky pig. “You do your job, and I’ll do mine.”
Burton could be so stubborn and yes, pig-headed at times.
After the animal acts came a beautiful ballerina, a French mime, a boyish barbershop quartet, and a short scene from Gilbert and Sullivan’s H. M. S. Pinafore. A chorus line of long-limbed hoofers clad in sparkly sequined tap pants and tops danced to lively Cole Porter tunes, reminding me of the bathing beauties.
When Vera, a burlesque dancer, appeared in a Gay ‘90s costume and feather boa, Burton perked up, saying, “This is more like it!”
“Hush!” I nudged him.
Fortunately she only strutted around the stage twirling her boa, not disrobing, while the men clapped and whistled. What a relief! Overall, the performers seemed more polished than the local yokels who competed in talent shows, hoping to be the ne
Still, I couldn’t concentrate, I was so excited about going to Houston on Saturday. My best friend Amanda and I planned our first weekend visit there since my half-brother Sammy had relocated to Houston. Our pal Nathan agreed to chauffeur us in his Model T because he couldn’t wait to see his “Miss Houston” bathing beauty, Holly. Could they rekindle their summer romance?
I’d tried to beg off this assignment to prepare for our trip, but my boss always found a way to make me work until the last minute.
“Vaudeville is so old hat,” I protested. “Wouldn’t you rather attend? It’s right up your alley.”
“What do you mean by that, young lady?” Mrs. Harper eyed me under her wide-brimmed floral Edwardian bonnet. “Are you implying that I’m an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, not as modern as you young flappers?”
Yes, that’s exactly what I meant. “Not at all. I thought you’d enjoy the show more since I prefer moving pictures. I can’t wait to see The Jazz Singer!”
“Hold your horses, Jasmine. After you write your review, then you can go on your jaunt to Houston. You need to turn it in to the copy desk by morning.” She softened her tone. “Take your young man and have a good time. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
My young man? She made Burton sound like a pet Scottie. Sure, I was sweet on him, despite my mixed feelings: Did I really want to date a Federal officer with such a dangerous occupation? As the lone Prohibition agent in the “Free State of Galveston”—where mobsters mingled with police and politicians—I worried his days might be numbered. The Treasury Department could ship Burton off to a new town on an even riskier assignment. Worse, Galveston gangsters could gun him down any moment, just for doing his job.
During intermission, the MC announced a last-minute replacement for Dick Dastardly in the final act. So far, the routines seemed accomplished yet rather outdated, a point I’d make in my review. No need to be rude or demeaning, but a little constructive criticism never hurt, right?
“Now we can make our escape,” Burton half-joked.
“The show’s almost over. Besides, I can’t give my honest opinion without seeing the whole production. What kind of critic would I be?”
“A happy one?”
After the break, Burton stayed seated, stoically suffering through two corny comedy acts. He perked up after a sword-swallower appeared, and applauded a knife thrower who narrowly missed his victim, a beautiful showgirl in a silky gown. I yelped when he aimed an arrow at his brave target—and struck an apple on her head.
“These are my type of acts,” Burton said with a grin, while I clutched his arm, trembling.
Next “Milo the Magician” took the stage, elegant in a tux, top hat and white gloves, and performed his requisite card tricks and rabbit in the hat act. Millie, his pretty redheaded assistant, flitted around in satin tap pants and top, diverting the audience’s attention.
I cringed when Milo sawed his willing sidekick in two halves while Millie smiled sweetly at the audience. Then he made her disappear in a large painted box—and reappear again in a gypsy outfit. Voila’!
Last but not least, Milo invited a volunteer to participate while he distracted the audience with his sleight-of-hand, deftly stealing the man’s wristwatch. “Do you have the time?” Milo asked the flustered fella, who fumbled for his missing watch. The crowd gasped in astonishment when Milo pulled it out of his top hat.
The final act highlighted a short scene from The Perils of Pauline, featuring a dastardly villain wearing a black mask and cape trying to kidnap helpless, hapless Pauline. Twirling his handlebar moustache, the evil masked man tied poor Pauline to a tree while the Tom Mix character managed to chase off the villain, and rescue his beloved damsel-in-distress. Yes, the act was so corny and hammy that it was comical, but I enjoyed the melodrama of it all.
I knew Amanda, an aspiring actress, would love the show. Too bad the troupe stayed in town for only a week.
After the show, the performers gathered on stage, and as each act stepped forward to take their separate bows, the applause grew louder. When the Perils of Pauline actors appeared, the audience stood up, clapping wildly and cheering as the performers grinned and waved. Seems I was wrong about vaudeville: The appreciative audience gave all the actors a standing ovation.
Strange, I noticed the villain smiling at me from his vantage point onstage—or was he? Surely I imagined it...until he took off his top hat and held it out to me like a rose, or a bribe. Then he gave me a bold wink—right in front of Agent Burton. Blushing, I did a double-take: Was the villain flirting with me? Or did he know I worked for the Gazette?
“Looks like the mystery man has his eye on you,” Burton teased. “Should I be jealous?”
“Dick Dastardly?” I laughed it off. “He must want a mention in the Gazette. You know actors and their egos.”
“No, I don’t. Do you?”
“Only Amanda.” My best pal reminded me of a bottle of Champagne: sparkly, bubbly and ready to pop. “Say, we need to shake a leg. I have to write my review tonight, and start packing. Why not come to Houston with us?”
“Some other time. Give my regards to Sammy. I don’t want word to get out that I’m consorting with criminals.”
“You’re a riot.” I knew he meant it as a joke—sort of. Sammy, my black-sheep half-brother, owned the Oasis speakeasy on the Downtown Gang’s turf, and their rivalry with the Beach Gang provided a constant source of trouble and turmoil.
As we left, I glanced at the stage and saw the villain watching us, his arms crossed, looking puzzled.
What did he expect—an interview? A bouquet of flowers? My phone number?
“What are you going to do in Houston?” Burton asked during the drive to my aunt Eva’s boarding house.
“See the sights, visit Sammy, go to his new bar...excuse me, restaurant.”
“What sights? A bunch of oil wells and cows? I hear Houston is a cesspool,” Burton cracked.
“Why were you so eager to take Sammy there?”
“We needed to make a quick get-away. And it’s not exactly a resort so I thought he’d be safe. Only wildcatters and wild women show their mugs in Houston. Not worth a trip for local lawmen.” He snorted. “I doubt the water is even clean enough to drink. Full of germs and gunk, like oil and chemicals.”
“Gee, thanks,” I pouted, sinking in my seat. “Now I’m really excited to visit Sammy.”
“Sorry, Jazz, I’m just razzing you. Guess it’s my way of trying to talk you out of going.”
“You had me fooled, mister. Glad to know you care.” At the boarding house, we lingered on the porch, enjoying the crisp fall air. “I wish you’d take the weekend off and come with us.” I smiled and squeezed his arm. “You can stay with Sammy or share a hotel room with Nathan.”
“They’re not my first choice of a roommate...” He gave me a wink. “Sorry, Jazz. Weekends are my busiest time. That’s when all the rats and racketeers come out at night.”
Despite the gangs’ control, Burton still believed he could make a difference in Galveston. I admired his conviction, his willingness to confront local mobsters and bootleggers. Since he knew he couldn’t single-handedly stop the constant flow of alcohol, at least he wanted to create a few detours.
We sat on the porch swing, saying our good-nights. But before he could even give me a peck on the cheek, my aunt Eva rushed out, exclaiming, “Jazz, you’ve got a telephone call. The same fella who called ten minutes ago.”
“What fella?” I asked Eva. “Nathan?”
“He wouldn’t give his name, just said it’s important.”
My heart skipped a beat as I raced to the phone.
“Jasmine? It’s Frank. We’ve had some trouble here and we can’t reach Sammy.”
“What’s wrong?” I held my breath. Frank and Dino had run the Oasis ever since Sammy escaped to Houston, and they’d never once called me, though I stopped in each week to check on the bar.
I heard panic in his voice.
“What kind of emergency? Is anyone hurt?”
“I’d rather not say over the phone.”
“I can ask Agent Burton to drive me—he’s here now.”
“Sure, as long as he keeps his mouth shut.”
“Shut about what?” My hand gripped the candlestick phone.
The line went dead.
“Frank said there’s an emergency at the Oasis!” I rushed over to Eva and Burton, waiting in the hall. “We’ve got to go there. Now.”
“What else did he say?” Burton frowned.
“He didn’t explain. Can you drive me?”
“Ready when you are.”
“Please be careful.” Eva turned to me. “Before you go, Jazz, don’t you have work to do?”
“My review can wait.” I sighed, worried about my deadline and my trip to Houston. “Don’t stay up. May be a long night.” I raced out the door with Burton, telling him what little I knew. “Frank sounded panicked, said he couldn’t reach Sammy. He’s never called me before so it must be serious.”
“Does he know I’m coming?” Burton asked.
“He said it’s fine as long as you don’t spill the beans.”
At the Oasis, the door opened automatically. What, no password? Frank motioned us inside, his face dripping with sweat despite the cool fall climate. He bolted the heavy wooden door behind us, hands shaking. What was wrong? Cigarette smoke mingled with a sweet smell I think was marijuana or hashish—not that I had any experience with the stuff. Reefer madness failed to reel me into its clutches.