Speak Easy, and Carry Some Hard Liq!

October 5, 2016 § Leave a comment

For most of us, speakeasies were a hallmark of the Jazz Age, which flowered with the 18th Amendment and Prohibition, and died with the 21st Amendment in 1933.

remembering when instructions manualIn the process of researching Austin in the Jazz Age, I was impressed by the amount of booze University of Texas eds and coeds guzzled, but disappointed in the paucity of information on speakeasies. With the new searchable Austin American-Statesman historical database, I’ve been able to ferret out what little I hadn’t previously found.

Austin had its share of speakeasies, but they were a far cry from the luxurious, decadent clubs in Chicago, New York City, and Hollywood movies: The “21” Club, and El Fey, where Waco’s “Texas” Guinan greeted customers with “Hey Suckers.” Her two biggest competitors were Helen Morgan and Belle Livingston.

But speakeasies were nothing new. Jazz Age speakeasies operated without a license because what they sold was illegal.

Earlier speakeasies were simply unlicensed saloons and were “so called because of the practice of speaking quietly about such a place in public, or when inside it, so as not to alert the police or neighbors” says the Online Etymology Dictionary. Saloon owner Kate Hester, who ran an unlicensed bar in the 1880s in a Pittsburgh area town, is credited for the term.

The word, “speak-easy,” first showed up in print a September 1895 Statesman article about bribery, corruption and blackmail in Pittsburg, Pa. Madames of the night paid protection money to police inspectors, who in turn, allowed the houses to run. The inspectors also hit on “speak-easy” proprietors for protection; they evidently sold a great deal of liquor.

For owners who didn’t pay their vigorish, the results could be fatal In May 1904, Statesman readers read an article about a raid on an Allegheny Wharf “speak-easy,” again in Pittsburg, Young Leroy Carver died from a police gunshot wound while trying to escape.

Prohibition had existed locally in Texas long before imposition of the Volstead Act. But most all of the supposedly dry towns had surreptitious “wet” venues often called “Blind Pigs” and “Blind Tigers,” indistinguishable from the speakeasies to come. Many of them were arranged in such a way that a man had to pass through three doors before he was inside the main entrance. He also had to pass two men, who determined whether or not he was a good one. Once inside, you could get practically anything you wanted. A fellow would walk in and asked for an “I Know.” And of course, the bartender would know.

In Georgetown it was sold by the bale at a certain unnamed business house. A farmers would drive up and ask for a bale of hay. What size bale do you want?” the proprietor asked, “A quart or a gallon.” “A gallon” was the reply, and the farmer left with his hay, no doubt the most expensive bale on the market.

Austin, especially the University of Texas, had been awash in illegal liquor, mostly bad, since prohibition came to town in January 1918. Cedar choppers operated dozens of stills in the impenetrable hills west of town. The better stuff came from New Braunfels. UT frat and club dances were legendary sinkholes.

landa park

The term speakeasy, in reference to Austin goings-on, did not appear in the Statesman until the late 1920s.

And most of the establishments reported on were house-based, walk-up or drive-by operations, and they dealt in beer. If any of them had a name, it was never mentioned.

The September 12, 1932 edition of the Statesman carried news of a successful raid on a “Curb Service Speakeasy.”

CURB SERVICE at an alleged speakeasy in the 900·block of West Milton street, paved the way Sunday night for what sheriff’s officers claimed was the largest beer seizure ever made here and resulted in the arrest of a 50-year-old man.

Sixteen hundred and eight pints of beer were confiscated in the Sunday night raid which was a short distance from a house where sheriff’s officers seized a few days ago 1356 bottles of beer, Deputy Sheriff Paul Blair said.

Blair said he and Sheriff Coley White and Deputy Sheriff Jack Newman drove up near the purported beer bungalow Sunday night and waited in the darkness.

”Soon a car came up, the horn honked and a man came out of the house,” Blair related. “We could hear the man in the car talking to the other man. Finally, when the car occupants had identified themselves, they were served in the car.

”We then drove on up and went in the house.” Blair said the place was equipped to brew 110 gallons of beer at a time. The officers, besides the 1356 bottles, found two 55-gallon barrels, which they claim were used for brewing the beer.

The man arrested at the house was placed in the Travis County jail.

But some of the houses were sit-down affairs.

Texas Ranger Capt. Frank Hamer (who later gained fame for hunting down Bonnie and Clyde) and other state rangers raided a residence selling alleged beer within the shadow of the state capitol on the evening of August 28, 1928.

While the raid was in progress the telephone rang. Hamer answered it. A man wanted to come over and bring a lady friend. Hamer told him to come on. After the couple was seated at the table, the rangers came in to “take the order.” The situation was reported to be extremely embarrassing to the escort. The rangers had their laugh and let the couple go.

But the rangers said that charges would be filed in federal court (now O. Henry Hall on West 6th Street) against the house’s residents.

Rangers said the place had been very well patronized, being only a few steps through the summer afternoon heat from the capitol.

Sheriff’s officers arrested two black men in a raid on an establishment in a downtown office building on the evening of Saturday, January 10, 1929. After arresting the pair, one of the officers said he waited in the place and took several telephone orders for liquor from offices in the building.

Two speakeasies, one in Austin and another in Giddings, were padlocked in August 1932. The Austin house was on South First Street. Restraining orders were issued to Jasper and Melissa Billings, and Ed and Bessie Plumley: no manufacturing, selling, bartering, keeping, or storing intoxicating liquor for one year.

That same day, liquor complaints were filed against Raymond McCutcheon, Mrs. Viola Pool, and Maria Garza, alias Maria Perez.

McCutcheon was charged with possession of 26 pints of beer at 1007 Holly Street, Mrs. Pool for possessing 14 pints of beer and selling two pints of beer at 2101 Washington Avenue.

Garza/Perez was charged with possession at 2007 East 14th Street.


The “Lit Liza Jane” chapter in Austin in the Jazz Age deals with the often filthy nature of the bad liquor distilling process and the mortal dangers of drinking bootleg.


One of many drives against the East Austin bootleg industry was started In earnest on the morning of January 8, 1930, by Constable Arthur Woody after Judge Frank Tannehill rendered a verdict that Manual Reyana, about 50, died of “denatured alcohol or other poisoned liquors.”

While Woody said that looking for the bootlegger that sold the victim the poisoned rum as like looking for a needle in a haystack, he would nevertheless conduct several raids in the territory near where the man died.

An establishment suspected of being a Mexican speakeasy was raided but Woody said that all the liquor had been removed. He did predict that the sudden death of the man together with Judge Tannehill’s verdict would place a crimp on bootleg trade for several weeks.

The constable’s department raided places, but never found their needle in the haystack.

Austin had its share of “Walking Saloons.”

Liquor traffic was a ”straight from the-hip” process with Austin’s black bootleggers in the spring of 1929. And the quickest on the draw got his sale first.

Recent arrests of a number of “Walking Saloons” by police and Constable Arthur Woody and his deputies got them wondering just how extensively the hip pocket racket had become in Austin’s “darktown.”

The black “leggers” didn’t ply their trade in speakeasies, but filled their pockets with half pint bottles of corn whiskey of doubtful quality and “nigger gin,” and then went out for a stroll. They worked East Sixth street, Rosewood avenue, Chicon, Red River and Comal, then the thoroughfares of downtown life to Austin’s black community.

Police thought competition may have forced the ‘leggers out into the open. Some of them actively solicited business and they sold it to other blacks “whether they belong to the same lodge or not,” the Statesman joked.

The week before, police caught one with a half-pint of whiskey in each of six pockets of his coat, vests and pants and he had room for more. The officers had caught several “Walking Saloons” with more than a dozen bottles on their persons.

“So if the hip pocket ‘legger has enough pockets he can go out with a sufficient stock to do a good day’s business and carry on his social life at the same time,” the Statesman remarked.

Only one classic speakeasy raid is chronicled in the Statesman annals, which went down on the evening of March 4, 1929, and it too appeared to involve beer instead of the harder stuff.

Physical clashes between city officers and attendants in a downtown speakeasy and the speakeasy dog furnished “color” when the place was “shaken down” Monday night.

When the noise of the raid had died down, a man and two women were in the jail, a half pint of whiskey had been saved out of the struggle. Officers Klaus and Jack Newman had been dog-bitten, and the speakeasy locked up.

Described by police as a ‘fort’, the place had been watched for weeks by officers, but their frequent raids were futile because of the proprietor’s system. He always managed to pour the whisky out while they were getting through the two doors, and presenting the search warrant.

But his best laid plans went “agley” on this occasion and as a result he was hauled in on charges of violating the Dean law.

Klaus acted as the process server and let the smaller officers sneak under his arm. By that system they were able to enter quickly.

One of the women grabbed Klaus around the neck and gave the alarm. Four pitchers of amber fluid were quickly poured in the sink but the raiders salvaged some evidence.

During the preliminary skirmish a big white bulldog, which apparently was part of the proprietor’s fortification system, tried to take a sizeable mouthful of Newman’s leg.

After Newman had managed to shake him off he attacked Klaus and left the print of his teeth in his leg, Klaus finally shook off the woman and kicked the dog in the

Snout until he howled with pain.

Outside one of the women reared and pitched considerably and two officers were required to put her in the squad car and take her to jail. Rather reprehensive terms were used during the process, officers said.

Austin finally, almost got its first “Speakeasy” in 1947 when a building permit was taken out in August for construction of a building in Bradford’s Alley, between Congress Avenue and Colorado Street from Seventh to Eighth Street, behind the Motor Round Bowling Alley. This “Speakeasy” was going to be a charcoil broiled hamburger joint serving nothing but food, brainchild of E. M. Hudson, young refrigeration engineer who planned to have the cafe open by September 15.

He chose the name “Speakeasy” because of its exotic back alley location.

He got the idea for charcoal-broiled hamburgers while he was in York, Pa., at refrigeration school where he saw the ground beef broiled over charcoal tor the first time.

Returning to Austin, he decided to put the plan to work for downtown working people. He chose the Bradford’s Alley building site because of its central location.

But the place opened on November 10, at 714 Bradford’s Alley (behind the Capital National Bank building) as Harvey’s, managed by Elsie C. Milroy, former assistant manager at the University of Texas Cafeteria.

“Broilburgers” headed the menu, followed by home baked ham, “really Italian” spaghetti, and ham and eggs served in the skillet.

Well, that’s it for this installment from The Blunderbuss. For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of Austin in the Jazz Age.

Coda: I work to write clever headlines, but sometimes I fear that I am too clever by half. This tale’s title is a defliction of the west African proverb popularized by Teddy Roosevelt, “Talk Softly, and Carry a Big Stick.” But if you have never heard that proverb, you’d probably think I was being crazy, not witty. So how about, “Speak easy, but with some big schtick”? Any better?


Jazz It, Red!

September 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

Austin in the Jazz Age, as originally written, was 322 pages long. In order to meet the Isabelle Caro-thin manuscript requirements imposed by the History Press, more than two-thirds of the original work was left on the “cutting room floor,” so to speak, including many of the era’s other colorful characters. No one was more colorful than Red Stanley.

C.R. “Red” Stanley (born 1900 in Denton) was one of that first wave of jazzers who came out of the post-war Longhorn Band, which included Jimmy Maloney, Steve Gardner, Burnett “Blondie” Pharr, Red Bourn, and J.D. Howell.

red-1920-cactusStanley, the greatest slip horn artist on campus, was best known for his “Shimmie” trombone performances at Clark Field football games with the Longhorn Band.

The fiery-thatched Longhorn Band trombonist left in 1921 for the bright lights of New York with his trombone under his arm, a grin on his face, and hands in his pockets. He joined Irving Aaronson’s orchestra, the Crusaders. The Crusaders made their first recordings in 1925 for an underground company. Victor signed the group to record in 1926 and the group changed its name to the Commanders. The Crusaders made their first recordings in 1925 for an underground company. Victor signed the group to record in 1926 and the group changed its name to the Commanders. During their time with the Victor label (1926 to 1929), the band enjoyed success with Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave” in 1927, and they appeared in the Broadway show, Paris, in 1928, which featured six Cole Porter songs and made Stanley a star. Red choreographed Paris. According to his wife, Anita Garvin (the dark-haired beauty best known for her work with Laurel and Hardy) Stanley was a marvelous dancer, to the point that his music was nothing compared to his dancing. His talent for comedy and comic voices is evident in several of the Commanders’ recordings, such as “Hi Ho the Merrio” and “He Ain’t Done Right by Nell” in 1926. In 1929, the Commanders’ cover of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love,” was one of the year’s top hits.

Red Stanley made his movie debut as a dancer in The Painted Angel, aka The Broadway Hostess, a 68-minute musical drama that opened on December 1, 1929. The movie’s tag line was “Do you want to know the Truth about NIGHT CLUB HOSTESSES?” It starred Billie Dove, a beautiful ex-Ziegfeld Follies girl, as Mamie Hudler, a New Orleans salon singer who escapes a checkered past by moving to New York City to become Rodeo West, the “queen of the night clubs.” In the process, she finds herself torn between two men. The trouble is, she only desires one of them. It featured five Herman Ruby-M.K. Jerome songs and plenty of dance numbers. Several near-undressing scenes were jammed in, obviously for the sexy, The Film Daily noted at the time.

In 1934, Stanley played in three different 20-minute musical shorts, two of which starred the young Betty Grable. In Love Detectives, two young men competed for the affections of a beautiful blonde, played by Grable. Stanley played one of them, a character named Wells.

In Susie’s Affairs, he plays a character called Putty Face. Young Susie Lee (Betty Grable) and her friends pretend that they’re rich society kids. Susie Lee concocts a scheme in which she takes over a socialite’s apartment in order to fool her boyfriend, played by singer/band leader Art Jarrett into believing that she comes from a wealthy family. What she doesn’t realize is that it is Jarrett’s apartment, and Grable and her singing and dancing friends, including Stanley, entertain him.

Red jumped from the Commanders to play with Rudy Vallee, in addition to his movie career.

orange-flameIn 1935, Stanley married the beautiful Anita Garvin, an Earl Carroll’s Vanities and Ziegfeld Follies alumnus who made her Hollywood debut in 1924, and soon landed a co-starring role opposite Stan Laurel in the comedy short, The Sleuth.  The two became friends, which earned her a place at Hal Roach studios, where she often played the shrewish wife or “other woman” in 11 Laurel and Hardy comedies, including Why Girls Love Sailors, as the Captain’s Wife; With Love and Hisses, as one of the ladies admired by Sergeant Banner; Sailors Beware! as jewel thief, Madame Ritz; The Battle of the Century, as the girl who slips and sits into a pie; From Soup to Nuts, as hostess Mrs. Culpepper; Their Purple Moment, as one of the girls “the Boys” pick-up at the Pink Pup; Blotto, as Mrs. Laurel; Be Big, as Mrs. Laurel; Swiss Miss, as the first potential mousetrap customer; and A Chump at Oxford, as hostess Mrs. VanDerVeer. She quit the soundstage in 1940, after A Chump at Oxford, to raise a family.

Red and Anita went on to operate a restaurant in Los Angeles together.

In 1938’s feature-length musical, Cocoanut Grove, Stanley played Dixie, a bandleader. The legendary Cocoanut Grove nightclub was the setting for this all-star Paramount musical. Fred MacMurray headed the cast as Johnny Prentice, a small-time bandleader who comes to the Grove for an all-important audition. The skimpy plot serves as an excuse for an unending stream of specialty numbers featuring Royal Hawaiian orchestra leader Harry Owens, comedian Ben Blue, the zany Yacht Club Boys (a WASP version of the Ritz Brothers), funny-noise specialist Rufe Davis and bandmaster Red Stanley. Nine new original songs were performed, none of which graduated to hit-parade status.

In 1941, he played in Blondie Goes Latin as an uncredited orchestra musician in conga band aboard a South American cruise ship, in Sing for Your Supper as an uncredited musician, and in Melody Lane as “Slim.”

In Melody Lane, Stanley played Slim, a supporting character, along with Leon Errol as McKenzie, behind the stars, a quartet called the Merry Macs, composed of the three McMichael brothers (the Macs) and Mary Lou Cook (the Merry). The Merry Macs are cast as a foursome of entertaining farm boys from Iowa who head for New York but get involved in some trouble when a radio sponsor interferes with the show. They find themselves in trouble when the radio sponsor finds himself accused of kidnapping a girl. Songs include “Septimus Winner,” “Peaceful Ends the Day,” “Cherokee Charlie,” “Let’s Go to Calicabu,” “Swing-a-Bye My Baby,” “Changeable Heart,” “If It’s a Dream Don’t Wake Me,” “Since the Farmer in the Dell,” “Caliacau,” and “Listen to the Mockingbird.” The Merry Macs were popular during World War II and did backup work for Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, working on such tunes as “Mairzydoats.”

In 1944, he made a series of “soundies” with his all-girl swing band, the Ding Dong Dollies: “Big Fat Mama,” “Big Man from the South,” and “Girls from Amarillo.” Soundies were short films, usually lasting about three minutes. They were produced in the 1940s for visual jukeboxes where customers paid a fee to view and hear popular songs of the day.

Stanley played a swing band trombonist in Raoul Walsh’s The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), a fantasy comedy feature starring Jack Benny as the third trumpeter in a band who falls asleep and dreams he’s Athanael, an angel deputized to blow the Last Trumpet at exactly midnight on Earth.red-flame-an

In his twilight years, he enjoyed going with Anita to the many Laurel and Hardy fan club events she attended. He died on April 18, 1980, in Oxnard, CA



Please, “Heinie,” Won’t you warm my wiener, ’cause he really don’t taste right cold

October 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Thanks, Bo Carter. May your wiener stay forever warm.

The Wienerwurst Man as Much a Mystery as Are the Ingredients of the Delicacy He Dispenses — Extent of His Trade.

When day merges into night the fakirs of day, as if they were a race of ephemera, disappear or are metamorphosed and an entirely new set of characters are found scattered along the streets downtown. They come out when the electric lights begin to buzz and sputter just like the storms of insects which besiege the white globes and fall to the sidewalk, where they crackle under the feet of the pedestrian. Conspicuous among these people of the night is the wiener wurst man. He is invariably German, and as much a mystery as are the ingredients of the delicacy he dispenses. He is at times a stationary institution, though more often peripatetic, for he cannot long occupy any corner without attracting rivals to his place to destroy his business. The traveler by night runs across him in all kinds of dark places, tramping through dark alleys with the light under his can flashing on the stones or the walls on either side.

Then, again, he is found posted at a corner with his steaming can upon his big basket and ever and anon giving vent to a lugubrious cry, “Hot veeny,” or perhaps he’ll vary it by rasping out “Hot veeny v-e-r-r-r-s-t,” with a sound as though he was tearing the shirt off his back or running his hand down the movable slats of a window shutter. He answers indifferently to the name “Chorgh” or “Owgoost,” or anything else bestowed upon him by his customers in their humor, and he’ll say in reply to a question as to his price, “one,” or maybe “two f’r-r-r-r a niggle.” When the lucre is forthcoming he opens his can with his knife, dips his fork down through a cloud of steam and draws forth the ruddy and odorous sausage red hot. Then he shuts the can, pries open the lid of his big oval basket and whips out two slices of bread and a square bottle. With his knife he spreads out some horseradish on one of the slices, deposits thereon the wurst and then slaps on top of that the other slice of bread and hands it over, a kind of a sandwich, with the heads of the wurst sticking out like amputated fingers and the horseradish oozing out all around under the pressure. It is eaten just like a sandwich, with much spluttering, because it is very hot, but it is a delicious morsel to the man who is filled up with beer or something stronger. He sells, perhaps, 100, in a night, providing the hoodlums don’t kick over his hand or steal it from him, or fill it up with beer or play some other pranks upon him. Where he obtains his wurst no one knows. His stock for a night costs him maybe 10 or 15 cents, and his sales when business is good may net him one dollar. When sold out, he just turns off the little jet of gasoline burning under his can, thrusts his arm through the basket handle and and boards an owl car with one wurst as a kind of offering to the driver in lieu of his fare. Occasionally the gasoline tank on his can explodes and he loses all his stock, but a dollar or so will fit him out again all right. His life is not a happy one, for his customers are mostly gay young men who are “out for a time,” and they guy him or take his goods and refuse to pay, or otherwise treat him badly. He is uncomplaining, however, and he cherishes no ill will towards those who pester him.

But one thing ruffles his temper, and that is to speak disparagingly of his wurst. When a purchaser, holding out a nickel, remarks, “give me some dog,” a shade of sadness passes over his face. When he has a rush he can turn out the wurst as rapidly as cook flips pancakes, and his face is a perfect picture of enjoyment as he watches a crowd around burying their faces in their wurst and rolling the hot morsels in their mouths to prevent their being burnt. He pays tribute to the policeman on his beat and to the various night barkeepers. From the former he receives protection when he don’t particularly need it, for the policeman isn’t around when the gang bothers him. From the barkeeper he receives a glass of beer in exchange for a wurst and in the winter is allowed to warm himself at the stove.  He makes his rounds two and three times in a night, and can be heard calling out his wurst in the darkness where he can’t be seen. He is never visible in the daytime; he sleeps until night, and then he’s out with his can and his basket, and his cry, “hot Veeny” or “Veeny ver-r-r-r-s-t. ”

St. Louis Globe Democrat, August 1887.

Green Grow the Lilacs, Red Flows the Ketchup: Tex Ritter and the Fickle Finger of Fame

January 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

On January 26, 1931, the Theatre Guild’s “Green Grow the Lilacs” opened on Broadway at the Guild Theater. A Western show with cowboy songs, “Green Grow the Lilacs” was set in pioneer Oklahoma and the Theatre Guild would rework it into the enormous hit, “Oklahoma!”, in 1943.

Green Grow the Lilacs” made Woodard Maurice “Tex” Ritter a star for the first time. The show’s cowboy and folk songs were the type of music Ritter had studied and collected during his years (1922 to 1927) at the University of Texas.

When Ritter first heard that the Theatre Guild was putting together “Green Grow the Lilacs,” he was part of the cast of “The New Moon.” While “The New Moon” was playing in Chicago late in 1929, Ritter enrolled as a law student at Northwestern University, where he had appeared as “The Singing Lecturer.” But when “The New Moon” moved from Chicago to Milwaukee, and then to Indianapolis, Ritter was forced to miss his final law school exams.

Then Ritter heard that the Theatre Guild was putting together “Green Grow the Lilacs.” When he auditioned in the fall of 1930, his drawl — which had negated any speaking role in The New Moon — proved an invaluable asset. He read his lines with a natural twang, and then sang cowboy tunes in his matchless style, prompting actress-singer and music consultant Margaret Larkin to declare, “This boy’s authentic.”

Ritter was cast as Cord Elam, and as understudy for Curly McClain, the male lead part. During three musical interludes between scenes, Ritter’s character led the other cowboys and cowgirls in singing such cowboy standards as “Git Along Little Dogies,” “Goodbye Old Paint,” and “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” In Scene Four, Ritter soloed on the classic “The Old Chisholm Trail.” Ritter wore fancy stitched cowboy boots, checkered shirt, red bandanna, and a felt hat.

Following rehearsals the show first opened at the Tremont Theater in Boston on December 8, 1930. It moved on for runs in Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Baltimore before opening on Broadway. The program defined for its New York patrons such cowpoke terms as “Dogies” and “Mavericks” and “Shivaree.” The set featured a rustic, turn-of-the-century farmhouse interior. “The whole affair is likable,” remarked one reviewer. The reviews were favorable, and there was special praise for the “old songs born and reared humbly in the West.”

Green Grow the Lilacs” ran for eight weeks on Broadway and then hit the road again, playing Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago. Ritter and Everett Cheetham roomed together. Ritter’s exuberant performance of his cowboy songs made him one of the hits of the show, while Cheetham, who played banjo, attracted special attention with his rendition of his own composition, “Blood on the Saddle.”

Before the show left Chicago, Ritter and Everett auditioned for radio work at NBC’s studios in Chicago and were offered attractive contracts, with work to begin within a few weeks. They eagerly signed, because after its Chicago engagement, Green Grow the Lilacs was scheduled for only one more week, in Detroit.

They traveled by train back to New York, where Cheetham had stored his car, and drove to Chicago, where they learned that they would be working in NBC’s New York studios. They returned to New York, made rehearsal tapes, and then went on the air. Ritter performed his songs and dialogue capably, but the microphone scared Cheetham “to death,” and his discomfort was obvious to listeners. After a couple of weeks NBC canceled the pair. Cheetham went home to Wyoming, while Ritter decided to visit Texas.

After his visit to Nederland and Austin, Ritter was back in New York by the fall of 1931. He could not find theater work, so he sang for his supper at Greenwich Village, where his staggering rendition of “Rye Whiskey” was a hit. He regularly made the rounds of theatrical and radio agencies, but landed only a few radio commercials. At Thanksgiving he found only ten cents in his pocket. “That time I took my dime down to a restaurant and ordered french fries and poured ketchup all over them,” he reminisced. “This Greek that ran the joint gave me hell for using so much of his ketchup.”

But with the dawning of 1932, Ritter won the role of “Sage Brush Charlie” in The Roundup, a revival of a 1907 romantic comedy that had made Fatty Arbuckle a star. This updated version included Western music during the interludes between the four acts, a device adapted from Green Grow the Lilacs. Ritter sang and played the type of cowboy ballads that had been such a popular feature of Green Grow the Lilacs.

The Roundup opened at New York’s Majestic Theater on March 7, 1932. The reviewer for the New York Herald-Tribune wrote that “Tex Ritter is excellent as a bronco buster,” while the critic for the New York Evening Post found that Ritter “has an exceptionally winning personality.” Otherwise, The Roundup did not fare well with reviewers. The best seats in the house cost only one dollar, but crowds did not materialize, and The Roundup folded after a short run.

Ritter could not find another theatrical role. Aware that the American Record Corporation was producing Western recordings by radio singer Gene Autry, Ritter approached Art Satherly, head of ABC’s hillbilly division. Satherly had seen Ritter in Green Grow the Lilacs, and he let the singer record “The Cowboy’s Christmas Ball.” Ritter accompanied himself on the guitar. The song was recorded on October 31, 1932, but was never released.

Nevertheless, Ritter’s recording career had started, however haltingly, and he would go on to become the country western star we remember and revere today.



Sex Me Up — Old Skool

September 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s the beginning of the fall semester at UT and a young man’s (and young woman’s) thoughts turn to sex.

Same as it ever was.

Let’s step into the Way-Back Machine and go back to the beginning of the modern sexual revolution in Austin, (venereal) warts and all, which began with our entry into World War I. This is an excerpt from my still-unpublished book, “If You Can’t Dance, Get On and Ride: The Jazz Age in Austin.”

The (Soldier) Boys Are Back in Town

With the end of World War I, life in Austin, at least for UT students and the rest of Austin’s youth, didn’t settle back down to the normalcy of the pre-war years, despite the passage of Prohibition in 1918. Their lifestyle took off in the direction of the 1960s and ’70s, with racy cars and racy attitudes.

With the end of the war, young veterans came back to the UT campus and things took a decided turn to the wild. They had stared death in the face: if not in battle, in the infirmaries full of young boys dying of the killer influenza that swept the world. They determined to live for the moment, for who knew when you might die? The boys who went to France found ways to assuage their angst; the popular song chorus, “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” was not a rhetorical question. Texas boys have always been able to enjoy a good time, and they brought a French-kissed taste for life back to Austin with them.

World War I got people talking about sex for the first time, albeit in a negative sense. The trigger was the rate of venereal disease in the U.S. armed forces. In the 12 weeks ending December 7, 1917, 31 camps across the country reported 21,742 new cases of venereal diseases. And because doctors were repressing or retarding the disease at best, not curing it, many of those men who were subsequently shipped to France to fight were not cured, their disease had only relapsed. The American generals had seen the lessons from the French line, when one regiment that had been in a furious attack went back of the line to recover. Their replacements were a regiment that had been back of the line and had yet to see combat. These replacements had kept busy, but not from fighting the enemy, unless that enemy was the man who wanted the same prostitute you did. Those replacement regiments had more men out of commission from VD than the front-line regiment had lost in the attack. Of the 2300 patients in one hospital, 25 percent had syphilis. In another section, 17,000 cases of VD were concentrated.

And actually, the American generals didn’t have to look to Europe to realize the terrible results that followed upon the toleration of prostitutes near soldiers’ camps. During the Army’s campaign into Mexico, just the year previous, there were regulation on the matter, but the trouble was that commanders used their discretion as to enforcing them, sometimes winking at the evils going on before their eyes, sometimes using half-way measures. The upshot was that venereal diseases spread at an appalling rate.

With our entry into the world war, military camps appeared by the dozens across the country. Thousands of country boys who poured into these camps got their first tastes of booze and booty on their trip to camp, entertainments formerly unavailable to them unless they had a taste for heifers or sheep.

According to the Surgeon General of the War Department, venereal diseases constituted the greatest cause of disability in the army. The large proportion of venereal diseases in the army originated not in the cities near the army camps, but in the home towns from whence the men came, and the cities through which they passed on the way to camp.”

Faced with the fact that 80 per cent of the venereal diseases discovered in the military camps were infected before the men left civil life, military authorities threw aside evasion and prudery – the old shams and fakes about “sexual necessity” and “licentious pleasure is compatible with health.’”

Military authorities began their battle with the clap by educating their soldiers and treating those that were already infected. They set up five-mile zones around their camps to make it harder for the horny young men to have their fun. Finally, they got their fight into the newspapers. They made people talk about it, and use frankly the terms which they had hitherto spoken only in whispers, reminiscent of the time 69-odd years later when folks became uncomfortable when the media talked openly of the dangers of sex without a condom, and how, although the chances of infection were lower, you could catch HIV from oral sex.

In England, by the fall of 1918, the pages of newspapers, even the most conservative, which before the war blinked at such subjects or thrust them into the background, the names of these diseases blazoned forth in large type, and you could read discussions of preventative measures (the rubber), written with frankness, which, three years ago, would have been absolutely impossible.

Even Bishop Lawrence of Massachusetts challenged the country’s newspapers to publish whatever statements of facts the Medical Departments of the Army and Navy were ready to give them. “It is a war question as vital as food and fuel. They say that the people do not like such facts: they offend their taste. Let the people try the people. It is the time that the lid be off and men and women meet this problem as they have met diphtheria and tuberculosis. People are talking. You are talking. I am talking. Our boys and girls are talking. Why not come out into the open and let the talk be healthy, sane, medical, and practiced.”

Good advice, for VD problems were not confined to the armed forces. In August 1918, the Council of National Defense estimated, on a conservative basis, that more than 500,000 adult Texans had some flavor of VD. Texas’ State Health officer was of the opinion that at least one million Texans currently infected. Keep in mind that according to the 1920 U.S. Census, Texas had 4.663 million citizens of all races, ages, and sexual preferences, which means that about half of the adults in Texas had VD, if you wish to believe worst-case estimates.

Even after the war was over, the United States Public Health Service and the Bureau of Venereal Diseases of the Texas State Board of Health urged local communities to keep up the military’s fight against venereal disease as their boys came marching home.

“You may hear from the unthinking, ‘You are fanatically hounding the poor prostitute,’ or ‘tip up the lid a bit so that everybody can have a good time, and business will be better. An open town may mean more business for some doctors, hospitals, and undertakers. It certainly means prosperity for the pimps and landlords who live on the earnings of the unfortunate prostitute.”

The crusaders even appeared to acknowledge the prevalence of paid homosexual relations when it said, “By county and municipal co-operation isolation detention hospitals are provided for, to minimize the danger from the chronic prostitute – male and female.

In January 1919, “an interesting sex hygiene exhibit” was on display at the local YMCA. It had been sent out by the YMCA’s National War Work Council and was “of particular interest in that it deals with conditions caused by the war.”

All said, it can thus be said that the sexual revolution began with World War I. Once people started talking frankly about sex for the first time, even in a negative sense, the genie was out of the bottle. Men’s wallets began to sport the familiar ring-shaped impression of the reliable rubber, and sporting women could throw most of their inhibitions away, now that disease and pregnancy were options only for the careless.

Those who survived France came home knowledgeable, if not practiced in, those tasty three French pleasures, French kissing, smoking the “French cigarette” and soixante-neuf. The Army and Navy had taught them to bathe and brush their teeth daily, Add to this the post-war daily bath campaign launched by the nation’s plumbers to inform the rest of the country, there was now little to discourage these practices except societal inhibitions and those were wilting fast among the young, especially the students at public, non-denominational colleges, like the University of Texas.

First Jazz Festival?

September 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have spent several years researching If You Can’t Dance, Get On and Ride: The Jazz Age in Austin. It is as yet yet unpublished, although you can get a PDF version from me. Austin had quite a scene happening, most of which has been forgotten, until now. I will be culling material from this book from time to time for this blog.

The title derives from the motto of one of Austin’s earliest jazz bands, and perhaps it’s most successful, Jimmie’s Joys. Like most all the early white jazz bands in Austin, the members of Jimmie’s Joys were UT students. Their fame was such that in May 1924, when they left Austin in May 1924 to conquer the rest of the country, the Cactus yearbook’s benediction read, May our long to be remembered jazzters be so prosperous that in a few years the motto on the dollar will have been changed from “E Pluribus Unum” to “If You Can’t Dance, Get On and Ride.“

Jimmie’s Joys played Galveston in the summers of 1921-24, where they met Peck Kelly and Jack Teagarden, among others.

Jimmy (Jimmie) Maloney founded and led Jimmie’s Joys, and his claim to fame was playing two clarinets at once, a feat later imitated by a number of other clarinetists.

Jimmy (Jimmie) Maloney founded his first band, the Sole-Killers, in 1920, which morphed into Jimmie’s Joys

Jazz Jubilee, 1921

Jazz Jubilee, 1921


And it is at this point that I get to the point of this post. In Jazz Masters of the Twenties, Richard Hadlock states that “almost certainly the first jazz festival on the books” took place in Houston in 1922.

I beg to differ (at least a bit), and offer as evidence the accompanying ad, from November 1921. Depending on your definition of “jazz festival,” I suppose both of us Richards could be right.

Let the debate begin!

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