Happy 133rd Birthday, Texas Guinan!

Actress and Queen of the Nightclubs Texas Guinan was born Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan 133 years ago today in Waco, Texas. Here are 10 TG Did-You-Knows:

  • Guinan was one of seven children. Her parents were Irish-Canadian immigrants. She attended parochial school at a Waco convent.
  • When Guinan was 16, her parents moved the family to Denver, Colorado. There she began to appear in amateur stage productions before marrying newspaper cartoonist John Moynahan at age 20. The pair moved to Chicago, where she studied music. She eventually divorced Moynahan and began to perform in vaudeville as a singer.
  • Guinan’s singing was reportedly no great shakes, but she had lots of pep and she soon found that she improved her prospects as a performer by regaling the audience with (perhaps exaggerated) tales of her “Old West” upbringing.
  • In 1906, Guinan moved to New York City, where she worked as a chorus girl before finding additional work in vaudeville and on the New York stage.
  • In 1917, Guinan made her movie debut and soon was a regular in western pictures. She is said to have been the first movie cowgirl (her nickname was The Queen of the West). Guinan would go on to appear in more than 50 features and shorts before she died in 1933.
  • With the passage of the 18th Amendment, Guinan became active in the speakeasy industry, serving as hostess and emcee for a long string of illicit (but very popular) nightspots. Her outsized, sassy personality and her skill at evading justice, despite her many arrests for operating a speakeasy, made her a legendary figure in Prohibition-era NYC.
  • Guinan’s speakeasies featured an abundance of scantily clad fan dancers and showgirls, but her penchant for pulling the legs of the rich and famous served her just as well. “Hello, suckers!” became her standard exclamation for greeting customers. Her well-to-do patrons she referred to as her “butter-and-egg men” and she coined the familiar phrase “Give the little ladies a big hand” while serving as emcee.
  • Texas Guinan’s nightclubs were often backed by gangster Larry Fay and such legendary bad guys as Arnold Rothstein, Owney Madden and Dutch Schultz frequented her establishments—alongside relatively “good guys” such as George Gershwin, Walter Chrysler, Pola Negri, Mae West, Al Jolson, Gloria Swanson, John Gilbert, Clara Bow, Irving Berlin, John Barrymore and Rudolph Valentino.
  • Ruby Keeler and George Raft both got their starts in show business as dancers as Guinan’s clubs, and Walter Winchell acknowledged that the inside access Guinan gave him to Broadway’s cornucopia of colorful characters helped launch his career as a gossip columnist.
  • Guinan died of amoebic dysentery in 1933, one month before Prohibition was repealed. She was just 49. Bandleader Paul Whiteman and writer Heywood Broun were among her pallbearers.

Happy birthday, Texas Guinan, wherever you may be!

Texas Guinan

Happy 115th Birthday, George Raft!

Actor George Raft was born George Ranft 115 years ago today in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City. Raft is perhaps as well known today for the movie roles he turned down as those he accepted. Here are 10 GR Did-You-Knows:

  • His parents were of German descent.
  • From his youth, Raft took a great interest in dancing, and his skills as a hoofer would serve him well as he found his way as a performer. In his salad days, he made money performing (and dancing with the lady patrons) at establishments such as Maxim’s, El Fey (with Texas Guinan) and various other night spots.
  • He married Grace Mulrooney, who was several years his senior, when he was 22. They separated early on, but never divorced (perhaps because Raft’s family was Catholic), and he supported her until she died in 1970.
  • Raft was known to run with a pretty rough crowd. He was childhood friends with gangsters Owney Madden and Bugsy Siegel; Siegel stayed at Raft’s home in Los Angeles when the gangster first moved there.
  • Raft reportedly turned down the lead roles in High Sierra (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942) and Double Indemnity (1944). The first three of those roles proved to be great successes for Humphrey Bogart.
  • Raft appeared in Mae West‘s first (Night after Night, 1932) and last (Sextette, 1978) pictures.
  • In James Cagney‘s autobiography, the actor wrote that Raft prevented Cagney from being rubbed out by the mob. Cagney was president of the Screen Actors Guild at the time, and the story goes that he was adamant the Mafia wouldn’t become active in the union’s affairs, which was not a popular stance in certain circles.
  • Raft was a lifelong baseball fan, attending the World Series for 25 years in a row in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
  • As a teen, Raft was a bat-boy for the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees).
  • In the late 1950s, Raft worked as a celebrity greeter at the Hotel Capri, a Mafia-owned casino in Havana. He was there in 1959 when rebels stormed Havana to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Happy birthday, George Raft, wherever you may be!

George Raft

Happy 123rd Birthday, Mae West!

Actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter, comedian and sex symbol Mae West was born Mary Jane West 123 years ago today in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Here are 10 MW Did-You-Knows:

  • West was delivered in her family’s home by her midwife aunt. Her father was a prize fighter and, later, a private investigator.
  • Her first public performance is said to occurred at the age of five, when, ironically enough, she entertained at a church social at a still-extant Queens establishment called Neir’s Social Hall (now Neir’s Tavern). After that, she performed in local talent shows.
  • West’s first Broadway appearance came in a 1911 revue called A La Broadway, which was mounted by her former dancing teacher and long-time impresario of juvenile theatrical acts, Ned Wayburn. The revue folded after just eight performances.
  • Her first review in The New York Times, when she was 18 years old, stated, “A girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, pleased by her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing.”
  • West began writing risqué plays under the name Jane Mast, and her first starring role on Broadway came in a 1926 play she wrote called Sex. Conservative critics and church groups objected to the play, but the production was a hit. Eventually, the pressure put on by the groups led to West being arrested and placed in jail at Jefferson Market Courthouse (it’s now a public library).
  • West could have paid a fine and remained free, but she opted for a sentence of ten days in jail, figuring it would be good publicity (it was).
  • Of the twelve pictures West appeared in, she wrote or co-wrote nine of them.
  • From the 1920s forward, West was an outspoken supporter of gay rights.
  • West’s 1928 play, Diamond Lil, earned her a ticket to Hollywood (the play was eventually adapted for the screen as She Done Him Wrong and costarred Cary Grant). She was nearly 40 when she signed her first movie contract.
  • After strict enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code began in 1934, putting a damper on her popularity (a toned-down Mae West wasn’t as appealing to the public), West performed in nightclubs, mounted a Las Vegas revue, made records (something she’d been doing since the 1930s) and wrote books. Her final film, Sextette (1978), closed out a career that had spanned more than seventy years.
  • Happy birthday, Mae West, wherever you may be!

    Mae West

    Snapshot in Prose: West, Vallée, & Crosby

    In this week’s Snapshot in Prose, we visit not just one performer, but three: Mae West, Rudy Vallée, and Bing Crosby. It’s interesting to see what the attitudes toward these performers were in 1935. Pipe-smoking, sweater-wearing Bing Crosby as a “futuristic painter”? Who knew?

    Personalities makes hits!

    Somewhere a voice is singing. A tenor, slightly off-key, is yodeling from the confines of his morning bath. Love in Bloom is being watered by splashes from the shower and is interrupted only when our singer asks for a towel.
         Somewhere a voice is humming. A cracked soprano voice is coming from the cabinet files and trying to render Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries. To her fellow workers that voice is making Life a Bowl of Lemons.
         Somewhere a youth is whistling. He was coasting down the street on a bike and averring I’d Like to Spend One Hour with You.
         Who is responsible for the bathtub tenor? Who inspired the filing clerk, who put the song into the heart of our bicycle boy?
         Not just the songwriters, but the first one who injected into the songs enough of his personality and individuality to make the tunes stay in one’s memory. The bathtub singer is unconsciously imitating Bing Crosby, the filing cleark is secretly understudying Ethel Merman, while the boy on the bike is an embryo Eddie Cantor.
         Lucky is the songwriter who has an ace performer to “introduce” a song. An introduction in this case means a lifetime acquaintance; it means that like love another hit is sweeping the country!
         Who, for example, can take a song and make it a sensation quicker than Come-Up’n-See-Me-Sometime West? The lady of the curves may not have a soprano like Tetrazzini yet her aria, My Old Flame, or Troubled Waters, found more favor than Tettrazini’s Bell Song from “Lakme.”
         For this West, where men are men who fall in love with her and women do their best to imitate her, has as much sex appeal in her voice as she has in her body. Close your eyes and picture a scene as Mae sings you her songs.
         The humor of it, the meaning of it all is in her voice, in her insinuating drawl, in her half-closed eyes. It lies in the none too subtle movement of her hips. For West personifies what little children of my day used to call Sex. Her singing is frankly designed to appeal to the physical senses. Her voice conveys naughty meanings and we understand, laugh at it, and eat it up.
         If West can’t help you throw off you inhibitions, no one can. Her songs, you will notice, bear titles in the manner in which Mae herself talks: I Like A Man Who Takes His Time, He’s A Ban Man But He Loves Me So Good, How’m I Doin’? Mae is doing very well, thank you, so well that we sing her songs to see if we can’t do a little better ourselves!
         Why has practically every song Rudy Vallee introduced gone into the hit class? The answer is easy. Vallee gave the public something new. He coined the word “crooner” for us and then said it didn’t apply to him—but that was after his style was getting imitators.
         Our ears, attuned to the none too gentle voices of blues singers, were duly grateful. We found we could take the cotton out of them and still not have them jarred. Here was a suave, young man; casual, soft and gentlemanly in his singing.
         Poise and culture lay behind the tones. He sometimes sang more slowly than his orchestra—sometimes more quickly—but we knew he would come out right in the end and we liked this new rhythm.
         To Bing Crosby goes the honor of having more men in showers trying to sing like him than any other singer in the country. Walk along the corridors of your apartment house any morning at seven-thirty (Sundays 9 to 12). There’ll be dozens of boo-boo-boo-boos accompanying the splashing.
         Bing Crosby is to song what our futuristic painters are to art. Bing is a 1935 pleader. Take me, he says, or to hell with you. It’s all very casual and sophisticated.
         It it remarkable, isn’t it, how these men and women have managed to convey so much of their personalities to their voices and how this personality made hits emerge from Tin-Pan-Alley? The people who make some darned tune run around in our heads are the little tin gods of the songwriters. What shall we do with them—kiss ’em or kill ’em?

    Personalities makes hits!