Vamps, Villains, and Vaudeville
By: Ellen Mansoor Collier
“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 me and Agent Burton to our front-row seats.
Disoriented, I tried not to trip in the dark while the orchestra broke into a classic overture. We squeezed in the cramped seats, our elbows and knees bumping, Burton’s 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—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 try to enjoy the show,” I nudged him. “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 razzed him, feeling 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 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!”
Annoyed, I hushed him to keep quiet.
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 next Fanny Brice, Buster Keaton or Theda Bara.
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 little 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. Besides, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
My young man? She made Agent 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 Dan 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—then 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 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?”
“Dan 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.”
I knew he meant it as a joke—sort of. My black-sheep half-brother Sammy 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 staring after 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 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 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.
“It’s an emergency. Can you come by right away?”
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 tightened on the candlestick phone.
The line went dead.