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

365 Nights in Hollywood: Bunk Boulevard

Jimmy Starr began his career in Hollywood in the 1920s, writing the intertitles for silent shorts for producers such as Mack Sennett, the Christie Film Company, and Educational Films Corporation, among others. He also toiled as a gossip and film columnist for the Los Angeles Record in the 1920s and from 1930-1962 for the L.A. Herald-Express.
Starr was also a published author. In the 1940s, he penned a trio of mystery novels, the best known of which, The Corpse Came C.O.D., was made into a movie.
In 1926, Starr authored 365 Nights in Hollywood, a collection of short stories about Hollywood. It was published in a limited edition of 1000, each one signed and numbered by the author, by the David Graham Fischer Corporation, which seems to have been a very small (possibly even a vanity) press.
Here’s “Bunk Boulevard” from that 1926 collection.

BUNK BOULEVARD

 
 
Hollywood Boulevard. . . .
Late afternoon. Women shoppers with tiny beads of perspiration on once powdered noses. Magazines used as fans. Coatless men. Heat waves make a pale blue haze come from the black asphalt. Car tracks glisten in the sun.
Cahuenga Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard . . .
The Forty-second and Broadway of the movie village. A thin man, coatless,but with open vest, smelling of sweat, shouts from across the street:
“Joe, didja’ get me that gang for th’ night shot?”
“Yeh,” comes the hasty answer from someone in the movie crowd.
The thin man scuffs from sight around the corner.
The sun is tired. As it sinks a shadow remains. Shop owners crank up their awnings.
Seven giddy schoolgirls with books and papers make a sudden loud entrance into the drug store. There is a rush for the cosmetic and soda counter. Some believe in interior decorating first.
Four tall glasses with syrup concoctions slide along the marble counter.
One with pimples on her forehead sucks hard on the chocolate in the bottom of the glass.
A rosy-cheeked youth enters in striped flannels.
Five pairs of sparkling eyes greet him.
His cheeks become redder and his chest swells a bit—and probably his head. He has no hat for a test.
There are muffled giggles, and the girl with the prominent teeth lisps something.
A fat lady with a rabbit neck-piece fanning herself with a theatre program has difficulty in getting on the high soda stool.
More giggles.
The youth pays the cashier for a stick of pink make-up.
A man with checkered pants and gaudy shirt calls for a “cherry-coke.”
There is almost a cool breeze outside.
A flivver truck with steaming radiator skids around the corner. The driver dumps out stacks of green evening papers.
Instantly familiar newsboy shouts pierce the hot silence.
A long, heavy under-slung street car rumbles to the corner and stops, discharging groups of high school students.
The screaming brakes on a taxi cab, the sound of sliding rubber on warm pavement, a tiny girlish squeak, a muffled scream of the fat lady and he hoarse cry of the crippled newsboy.
A crowd collects from nowhere. Girls shut their eyes—afraid to look.

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Talmadge in the Times

A couple of worthy recent stories from The New York Times — one by Dave Kehr about the life and career of silent star Norma Talmadge:

An Independent Woman, Nobly Suffering in Silents
She was perhaps the biggest female star of the silent era. Her dark, depthless eyes gazed from the covers of influential fan magazines, projecting a nobly suppressed pain and longing; in the stories inside, she — or her ghost writers — advised the emerging independent American women of the 1920s on matters of fashion and home décor. She regularly topped the popularity polls, outdistancing rivals like Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri and Mary Pickford. She and her husband, the producer Joseph Schenck, founded their own production company in 1917; by 1924, The New York Times was identifying her as “the highest salaried screen actress.”

Yet Norma Talmadge is barely remembered today. Worse, she is misremembered, having inspired two unfair caricatures that have lived on in a pair of popular films. In “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), she is parodied as Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), a silent diva whose Brooklyn accent undermines her talking debut in a French historical drama. (Talmadge’s second sound feature, the 1930 “DuBarry, Woman of Passion,” was indeed a failure, but Talmadge’s faint accent was the least of its problems.)

More malignantly, Billy Wilder used Norma Talmadge as the obvious if unacknowledged source of Norma Desmond, the grotesque, predatory silent movie queen of his 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard.” Enthusiastically interpreted by Gloria Swanson, Talmadge’s rival in the 1920s, the Desmond character draws on Talmadge’s reclusiveness (she left films in 1930, living in a Beverly Hills mansion on the considerable fortune she had earned in her prime), her well-known affair with a younger man (the actor Gilbert Roland, her co-star in several ’20s hits) and her reputation for erratic behavior (suffering from severe arthritis, she became addicted to painkillers and in 1946 married her doctor) to compose the movies’ ultimate symbol of female sexual hysteria.

Norma Desmond has become ubiquitous in American popular culture, but Norma Talmadge has become all but invisible. Although an unusually high percentage of her films survive — “Of her 51 features, 32 are currently thought to be complete and 10 more are preserved in part,” Greta de Groat writes on her excellent Talmadge Web site (stanford.edu/~gdegroat/NT/home.htm) — until now only a handful of her earlier movies have been available on home video.

The Norma Talmadge Collection” from Kino International corrects that lamentable situation by offering two Talmadge features from her glory years: the 1926 comedy “Kiki,” directed by Clarence Brown, and the 1923 melodrama “Within the Law,” directed by Frank Lloyd. Oddly, neither film is typical Talmadge. “Kiki” is a wholly anomalous comedy, with Talmadge as a Parisian street urchin who becomes a music hall star, and “Within the Law” strays from melodrama into crime-film territory. But there is enough here to get a sense of who Talmadge was and what her gifts were…. [read more]

And another, by Dan Barry, about a century and a half in the colorful life of a small hotel on the Bowery in New York City:

On the Bow’ry
Open the door to a small hotel on the Bowery.

A small hotel, catering to Asian tourists, that used to be a flophouse that used to be a restaurant. That used to be a raucous music hall owned by a Tammany lackey called Alderman Fleck, whose come-hither dancers were known for their capacious thirsts. That used to be a Yiddish theater, and an Italian theater, and a theater where the melodramatic travails of blind girls and orphans played out. That used to be a beer hall where a man killed another man for walking in public beside his wife. That used to be a liquor store, and a clothing store, and a hosiery store, whose advertisements suggested that the best way to avoid dangerous colds was “to have undergarments that are really and truly protectors.”

Climb the faintly familiar stairs, sidestepping ghosts, and pay $138 for a room, plus a $20 cash deposit to dissuade guests from pocketing the television remote. Walk down a hushed hall that appears to be free of any other lodger, and enter Room 207. The desk’s broken drawer is tucked behind the bed. Two pairs of plastic slippers face the yellow wall. A curled tube of toothpaste rests on the sink.

Was someone just here? Was it George? [read more]