Googling Bygone Beaneries, Tough Guys and Rich Gals

We love old movies on their own merits, but we watch them in a way that’s very different from the way we watch modern films. For us (and we’re confident we’re not alone in this), old movies are like time travel. We listen closely to the dialogue for slang we might not have heard before, we examine all the actors from head to toe to take in their vintage clothing, we watch for period billboards and advertisements to discover long-forgotten products and businesses, and when we do uncover something new, we quickly turn to our good friend Ms. Google to see what knowledge she has to share.

Recently, we were watching Undertow, a film noir from 1949. It stars Scott Brady (he was Lawrence Tierney‘s brother, you know) and an actress we weren’t sure we recognized named Peggy Dow.

We looked up Dow on IMDb.com and learned that, after just a handful of pictures, she gave up Hollywood to marry a guy named Walter Helmerich, who was just getting started in the family business, which just happened to be oil drilling. The Helmeriches resided in Tulsa, Oklahoma (our native state), raised five sons and must have done pretty well for themselves, because the theatre department at the University of Oklahoma is now named the Peggy Dow Helmerich School of Drama (we figure they must have kicked in with a pretty sizable donation to earn that honor).

We graduated from that very school (though it hadn’t yet been named after Ms. Helmerich at the time) with a BFA in Theatre, so we feel a certain connection to her now. If we hadn’t watched Undertow and been inspired to do a little digging, we’d have never known.

By the way, as of this writing, Ms. Helmerich is still with us. And not only is OU’s drama school named after her, so is the auditorium at Northwestern’s Annie May Swift Hall (her alma mater). And since 1985, the Tulsa Library Trust has annually presented the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award to a deserving writer.

Now, back to the movie: At one point in the picture, Brady returns to his hometown of Chicago and there are some nice shots of South Wabash Avenue as he tries to ditch a cop who’s tailing him. How do we know it’s Wabash Avenue? Well, a restaurant called Lander’s caught our eye as Brady strolled past it (In Chicago, It’s Launder’s was the eatery’s slogan).

It had an appealing vintage look to it, glass bricks and all, so we turned again to Ms. Google with fingers crossed to see if it had somehow managed to survive to the present day.Read More »

Bohemians in the Attic: In Search of Ruth Larson Hatcher

Ruth, age 12, as seen in the 1924-25 Clinton (Oklahoma) High School yearbook

Our mom used to mention an Aunt Ruth, her mother’s sister, who lived in Taos, New Mexico, and was an artist. We’d met Ruth on a couple of occasions, she assured us, but we had been so young at the time, we had (and still have) no recollection of those encounters.

But as we grew into adulthood and came to more greatly appreciate creative types—bohemians, as they are sometimes called—we began to wonder about Aunt Ruth and to fervently wish we could at the very least see some of her artwork, which Mom had led us to understand would be paintings.

We did an internet search every few years but never turned anything up, in large part because didn’t know her last name (we assumed she’d been married at some point).

We even included a heavily fictionalized version of Aunt Ruth in one entry in Men My Mother Dated and Other Mostly True Tales, the collection of humorous essays and stories we published some years back. In this particular tale, Ruth and her husband lived not in Taos, but in Amarillo, Texas, where they operated a roadside eatery. The story had it that Mom, feeling restless as her senior year in high school approached, was given permission to spend the summer with Aunt Ruth and work as a waitress in the diner.

As the story progresses, Mom meets Jack Kerouac, who is traveling south from Denver with Neal Cassady to visit William S. Burroughs in Mexico City. A mildly fictionalized account of that trip is found in Kerouac’s novel On the Road, but Mom’s encounter with Kerouac isn’t, of course, mentioned there, since it never happened (except in the pages of our book).

In recent years, we’ve become an avid (if entirely amateur) genealogist, digging gleefully into the various branches of our family tree via ancestry.com and other, similar sites. But only very recently did we make any serious progress in learning more about Aunt Ruth, who was, it turns out, a citizen of some prominence in Taos, so much so that one Mary Alden penned a 1,000-word profile of her for The Taos News that was published on March 4, 1999, nearly a month after Ruth passed away.

From that profile, we learned much more than we’d ever known about Ruth (which was admittedly next to nothing).
Read More »

Past Paper: The Mystery of the Vintage Magazine

Vintage magazine cover-The Oklahoma WhirlwindOn a recent visit to a paper ephemera store in our hometown of Oklahoma City, we came across a vintage magazine called The Oklahoma Whirlwind. Dated 1928, it was tightly sealed in plastic and the crusty proprietor of the shop wasn’t willing to let us to peek at the publication’s contents, but we found the cover illustration intriguing.

Was it even remotely possible that in 1920s Oklahoma, there was a magazine that was marketed to—or, heck, even friendly toward—the gay community? Surely not, but here was this cover, plain as day, right before our eyes.

As you’ve already guessed, we broke down and bought the vintage magazine, ripping open the plastic as soon as we stepped out of the shop. We quickly ascertained that The Oklahoma Whirlwind was a college humor magazine, published by students at the University of Oklahoma. The material is pretty typical of the era and of limited interest (though a few of the advertisements have appeal). No mention is made of the illustration of the cover.

But a closer inspection of the illustration revealed a couple of details that suggest the cover wasn’t so gay-friendly, after all. The tiny depiction of a rat chasing a mouse and a bird giving the go-by to a willing-to-be-eaten worm (see below) suggests that the point the artist is making is that a gay couple canoodling on a park (or campus, perhaps?) bench is against nature, or something along those lines. As depictions of homophobic sentiments go, this one’s pretty mild, thankfully, and perhaps even crosses over to good-natured.

A mouse chases a catA bird refuses a worm