The Park Theater: A Reeking Den of Infamy

3:31 PM
There is a lot of talk about how to reinvigorate theater nowadays, when the audiences are aging and the medium seems moribund. I think it is useful to look to the past, to when theater was still popular, and ask what they did right. As an example, I give you the now forgotten but once notorious Park Theater, which, between the years  1898 and 1904, sat in the basement of a saloon at 1324 Douglas Street.

So here is the theater’s first success: Location, location, location. It managed to center itself approximately between Omaha’s developing Sporting District, where gamblers tried their hands at games of luck, and the town’s long-established Burnt District, where prostitutes plied their wares. And the Park Theater offered both gambling and girls, and that brings us to the theater’s second success: content.

Setting a standard that I think Omaha fine arts should still try to live up to, the Park Theater only ever managed one review on the arts pages, by the Omaha World-Herald religious editor (more on this in a moment). But the venue managed at least 30 mentions on the crime pages, including a front page story from the Omaha Daily News from January 1900 that provided the illustration at the top of this story, and whose headline tells us everything we need to know about the theater: It was a “reeking den of infamy.”

THEATER OWNER “KID” FLYNN

The Park Theater was co-owned by a man named “Kid” Flynn, always referred to by his nickname in the local press, but for one article that gives his initials as P.J. He may or may not have been the same Kid Flynn who managed and trained local boxers — another then-disreputable professions that I shall detail more later — but he certainly was the same man who co-owned the upstairs bar, Stafford and Flynn, and was an associate of Omaha’s gambling king (and soon to be crime boss) Tom Dennison.

He was a rough, unpleasant man. In 1898, The Omaha Bee reports his arrest after Flynn assaulted a waiter in a Douglas St. restaurant. As the Bee describes it: “Flynn is a bartender for a saloon a short distance from the waiter’s place of business and was in the habit of having his meals brought in by the waiter. The latter claims that Flynn was overparticular and caused him to make many useless trips to secure articles. When he expostulated it is asserted that Flynn seized upon the waiter and threw him out of the saloon.” The punishment? A $10 fine, plus “costs.”

In 1902, Flynn was arrested for beating a woman. Her name was Myrtle Dubois and she was a music hall performer who frequently habituated Stafford and Flynn. Kid Flynn was convinced she had stolen several cocktail glasses and, when she denied it, struck her repeatedly in the face. He was pulled before a judge named Berka, who was somewhat famous for leveling large fines against woman beaters. He fined Flynn just $6, immediately causing howls of protest that Flynn was let off easy because his venue was “protected,” presumably by Dennison’s interests. A year later, when Dennison was in the midst of a power grab, Flynn would return the favor by testifying on Dennison’s behalf in a court case against one of Dennison’s competitors.

INSIDE THE THEATER

Thanks to the aforementioned religious editor of the World-Herald, writing in June of 1898, we know what the theater looked like, and the questionable quality of the performances it offered. Speaking in an awkward third-person, the author describes his experiences at the Park Theater:

“Passing down a hallway at the rear of the saloon, they came to a room in which a young lady sat tearing off tickets from a reel, which she sold at a dime apiece. The theater proper was divided from this room by a door of ducking. The religious editor stopped and inquired anxiously of the doorkeeper when the performance would begin, and when the latter told him immediately, asked if smoking was allowed. The doorkeeper replied that it was and volunteered the further information that he need not take off his hat, either, unless he wanted to. When he got inside, he didn’t want to.

“The Park theater has a fine solid floor of granite and the parquet and dress circle are plentifully refurbished with mahogany tables capable of holding four beer glasses. The floor slopes gently toward the stage, so that an unobstructed view can be had of the footlights and what is above them at all times. The two innocents were early and whiled away the first half-hour gazing at the advertisements upon the 10x12 stage and listening to popular ahs by the orchestra, a man in his shirt sleeves and closely clipped head at a piano. Along one side of the theater was suspended a curtain extending from about two feet above the ground to the height of one’s shoulders and from the stage door to the stairway in the rear leading up into some mysterious regions where the stars were perhaps dressing.

“After a suitable time had elapsed, the manager rang a gong on the stage and nodded to the top of the stairs. Down came the first performer, who passed unseen from stair to stage with nothing but her head and knees downward showing from above and below the curtain. She was dressed in sober Quaker brown with a white handkerchief chastely crossed upon her breast and after singing a pathetic song suitable to the costume, lifted her dress and disclosed a most wonderful combination of red silk and white lace petticoat in which she did some aristocratic kicking. “Little Edimia,” a 150-pound piece of humanity, was next called upon of skirt and hose through one solo, and after gazing upon her blue expanse one of the reporter’s blushes were so warm that they took their departure and cooled him off in the night air.”

THE CRIME PAGES

As I mentioned, the Park was not famous for its performances, which, from the above description, sound like a fumbling predecessor to the modern strip show (although they did at one point have a performing dog, who was stolen from the theater in 1902). In fact, the performers at the theater would thereafter consistently be referred to by the press as “actors” and “actresses,” in quotes — a delightful bitchy gesture on the part of our local press.

No, the Park was famous for its crimes. Most of them involved somebody going into the theater with a lot of money and leaving with none at all, as happened to George Lehnkuhl, a Sioux City gentleman who spent an evening in October of 1899 having what what the World-Herald describes as a “social session” with two actresses, and found himself $20 poorer for it.

Out of towners seemed to have an especially hard time of it, such as Iowa brothers Oscar and George Henry, who tried out the bar in June of 1900. The Bee describes the two bellying up to a table with a bottle of booze, and then the following happens to Oscar: “Then the chair on which he sat floated out through the roof and he soared majestically over the city. He experienced a sense of exhilaration. The buildings beneath him were mountains in volcanic eruption, the river was a sea serpent, the moon a constellation. In his ears was a tinkling as of fairy bells, in his blood the essence of starlit dawns. Then his cane-bottomed mount passed out into space, and he saw more solar eclipses, bobtailed comets and short-termed aerolites than he had ever dreamed of before. He was about to join Andre in a quest for the north pole when the day bartender awoke him with a rough shake and he found himself emerging from the ice chest.”

Brother George was missing.

Newspapers at the time had so much fun with the venue that I will include another tale, from the World-Herald, dated June 15, 1900, and telling of one Walter Kent, who became “temporarily but sadly deranged” at the theater as a result of “the mutlicolored fluids for 50 cents a bottle and dallying with the highly colored sirens.”

According to the story author, Kent “became filled with the noxious notion that he was sole master of a full and budding harem.” For a while, Kent “merely exercised the more peaceful and lamb-like prerogatives of a master seraglio but when he began to throw apple champagne bottles at the heads of the scantily petticoated damsels he came back to real life with a thud. One of the girls fastened herself like a pediculus capitalis in the roots of his hair. while another with a clubbed bottle attempted to separate brains and man with sundry hard and resounding smites upon the most vulnerable portions of his anatomy.”

At the moment, a policeman showed up and arrested Kent, probably saving him. By the way, “pediculus capitalis” is cod Latin, and refers to lice.

And there were sadder stories, such as that of the deaf Reverend Edward Matthews, a 55-year-old missionary who wandered into the Park Theater in November to get out of the cold. The bartender, Ned O’Brien, insisted that Thomas buy beer if he was to stay, and then overcharged him. When the reverend objected, O’Brien beat him. Then there was James D. Thomas, a cigar maker, who was found dead in the theater in January of 1902, reportedly of heart failure. The Park theater was no place for the old or the infirm, it seemed.

QUESTIONABLE ENTERTAINMENT

Aside from the venue’s painted actresses, shaven-headed pianists, and stolen performing dogs, it was repeatedly raided for other amusement, all questionable. In its first year of operation, police found a gambling room at the back of the theater. In March of 1899, the theater was host to an illegal pugilism match between Andy Dupont and “Mysterious” Billy Smith, the former a boxer who was notorious for having killed another fighter in a match in south Omaha just a few months earlier. Both boxers were arrested after the match ended.

In September of 1902, Park was raided by the police as part of a series of raids intended to confiscate “picture machines.” These were devices that were sometimes referred to by the rather marvelous name “peeposcopes,” and were machines that, for a nickel, would act like a slot machine, except instead of paying out money instead paid the gambler with a look at a lewd image.

The most questionable entertainment in the city at the turn of the century was opium, and while the Park Theater couldn’t provide the substance, according to a World-Herald story from April of 1900 (written by a journalist with the astonishing sobriquet “Cheyenne Bob”), Park Theater’s performers knew where. The story tells of a raid on an opium den in the basement of a building on Capitol Street, between 11th and 12th Streets, run by two Chinese men. The raid produces two men, and a woman dressed in black, and the latter identifies herself as an actress at Park theater. She tells the police that she is in mourning for her sister, who had died a few weeks ago.

“Do you wear those clothes when you are at the theater,” a police officer asks, rather dimly.

“Oh no, I have my stage clothes on now, but I put these on over them.”

The policeman then asks if she enjoys opium.

“No, not a bit,” she answers. “It tastes like old rags.” She explains that she only smokes to keep “George” company. George is one of the men she got arrested with. The policeman asks if they are husband and wife. No, they have just been dating for a few weeks. “I met him at a dance one night and I kinder toook a liking to him, but — “

 The officer asks if she ever intends to smoke opium again.

“Oh, no, sir: I assure that this experience has entirely cured me.”

The Park Theater closed in 1903, primarily as the result of a negotiation with a man named J. Martin Jetter, who held the liquor license for the building and may have been one of the owners of the theater. In order to continue having his license, he had to shut down the Park; he agreed.

Eventually, Jetter would run his own brewing company that produced Jetter Beer, and when he died in 1954 at the age of 79, his obituary in the World-Herald merely identified him as a “retired salesman.”

The Park Theater was, by this time, long forgotten.

About the author

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