An Impromptu Performance at Billy Maloney's

4:28 PM

We make such a fuss about nontraditional venues nowdays. We pat ourselves on the back for turning non-theaters into theaters, and for taking nonactors and making them actors, and this is supposed to be new.

It's not new. Not in Omaha. At the end of November in 1902, the entirety of Billy Maloney's Saloon in Omaha became an impromptu venue, with many of the employees and habitues serving as performers, all at under the direction of one man.

But first, a brief sentence about Billy Maloney's. There's not to much to say about the venue, except the owner seems to have been a down-on-his-luck boxer with some ties to the underworld -- he is on one occasion connected to kidnapper Pat Crowe. He owned a place that onetime bartender Jud Cree described to the World-Herald in 1942 as having "color" and being populated by real "characters."

Among these was Ferdinand Ahler, a small man from Augusta, WI, who inebriated himself in the bar that day in 1902 and declared himself a great fighter. Someone objected, and here is where the story gets a little theatrical. I'll let the World-Herald take over the narration here:

"... Ahler grabbed a chair and made the whole bunch, audience, waiters, and performers stand up against the wall with their hands at their sides like little soldiers.

"When he had everyone arranged to his satisfaction Ahler picked out the piano player and bellowed:

"'You play!'

"The piano player played and, to the tune of 'I Don't Know Why I Love You, But I Do,' Ahler piled up the tables and the chairs in the center of the room. Then he picked out a likely looking damsel and ordered her to sing. She did. Meantime Ahler placed a chair on a table and himself on a the chair and reigned supreme over the whole roomful of men and women. As soon as one singer had exhausted her repertoire he would make her take her place in line again and another fairy would be ordered beneath the limelight."

Ahler continued like this, threatening patrons with a lifted chair, sometimes conducting them with the chair, until one press-ganged performer managed to sneak out and alert the police. They sent an officer, Dan Baldwin, who raced back to Billy Maloney's.

There, he met a man exiting the bar and singing jauntily, so he arrested him. It wasn't until he got back to the station that the mistake was uncovered, and so Baldwin returned to the bar. When he entered, Ahler was still conducting, and briefly menaced him with the chair in order to force him into line. Ahler then noticed Baldwin's badge.

"The game is played," Ahler said dejectedly. "I'll go with you, Mr. Officer, but I want to tell you if there's anyone can run the music shop I'm it."

Ahler was fined $1. The police wanted to charge him with running an unlicensed theater, but the judge wouldn't hear it.

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.