Hayseeds, Dancing Girls, and Crime: The Nebraska Music Hall

9:55 AM

THE VENUE

Back in the 1930s, in the middle of the Great Depression, the US government tried to write a history of Omaha. They hired writers through the Federal Writers' Project of the Work Progress Administration, set them out to document the city, compiled the results, and then just … failed to do anything at all with it. I’m not clear on what happened, except that, from the sounds of thing, the incomplete manuscript showed up at the Omaha Public Library, where some industrious librarian glued it all together and then bound the results. The results are something called “Omaha: A Guide to Its History and Environs,” which looks less like a book than a photocopied college thesis.

But it’s just the best. I mean that honestly. When I first moved to Omaha, it was my guide to the town, and it was especially useful, as it has divided Omaha up into a series of walking tours. Following one of the tours, I discovered the story of William Brown, who was lynched at the courthouse in 1919. I wrote a play about it, and have had more than a little success with that play. I also read that Oscar Wilde performed here at Boyd’s opera house, a story that I don’t merely retell here on this blog, but also turned into a play. I read about May Allison, a brutal thief who lived in a now-long-gone part of town called Ramcat Alley, and I have mined that story a few times, once in a play called boyElroy, once for a zine. The book has a collection of slang terms from the meat packing houses in South Omaha that I lifted for a one-act I wrote for the Shelterbelt last year. I have been robbing this history since the day I arrived, and will continue to steal from it until the day I leave.

And so here is yet another story from the book, the story of the Nebraska Music Hall, which is mentioned very briefly. The WPA book has this to say about the venue:

Douglas between 13th and 14th the former Academy of Music: In the late nineties it was occupied by the Nebraska Music Hall, a playhouse patterned after the Haymarket theater in New York. Police records of the day reveal that more robberies were perpetuated here than in any other resort in the city. Cheap cigars, beer, vulgar sketches and the display of the charms by the women performers attracted many rustics

VICE AND PERFORMANCE

So, firstly, the Haymarket theater in New York. This was a three-story dance hall in Manhattan’s vice-ridden Tenderloin district, and was finely built to look like a Broadway theater. From outward appearances, it was a legitimate venue, featuring Moulin Rouge-style dancing girls, but it was a front for prostitution and theft.

And this is precisely what Omaha’s Nebraska Music Hall offered. In fact, the two daily newspapers, the Omaha-World Herald and the Bee, ran parallel histories of the venue. In the World-Herald, it shows up exclusively in the crime section. At the Bee, where the Music Hall ran advertisements, it showed up in the amusements section. So it is that, unique among these sorts of dismal Omaha venues of the era, we can see what sort of aboveboard entertainment they offered to camouflage the vice.

This blog being what it is, we shall start with the vice. We’ve mentioned the Academy of Music before -- it was Omaha’s first dedicated theater building, built in 1866 and home to the city’s first stock company. It first appears in the newspaper as the Nebraska Music Hall in 1896, and, in the World-Herald, it was already a source of nuisance. The paper ran a brief item on May 11 telling of a farmer, Sam Bowen, who was found unconscious at the back of the theater. He had two wound in his head and told the police he was robbed.

Just three days later, the paper ran another tale of an abused farmer. This time, it was a man named William H. Vincent, who was involved in an increasing violent dispute with an employee of the theater named William A. Randall. Farmer Vincent seemed to think he had been taken advantage of, and was about to pull some brass knuckles and settle the matter when a police officer interfered.

Brass knuckles showed up again in August, when a clerk named Clark from Denver received a severe beating in the alley behind the theater, the brass knuckles injuring him so badly the World-Herald expected he would die. The police arrested several people in connection with the beating, including Frank Lawler, the Music Hall’s bartender.

Clerk Clark did recover, and it is another four months before the Music Hall finds itself in the World-Herald again. This time, it appears in a story titled “He Intended to Murder Her,” telling of a machinist named John M. Kinkenon, who shot his wife and then himself. Now, the story starts at a notorious bar at the near northside called The Arcade, which will be the subject of future posts, as it had its own theater and its own history of violence, and Mrs. Kinkenon was employed here as a cook. She left the building with her son and soon found herself stalked by her husband. She contacted a police officer, who questioned the husband, but released him when he pleaded innocence. He followed her around downtown for a little while longer and then, in front of the Music Hall, shot her in the neck and committed suicide. He had been threatening to kill her for weeks, but then, as it too often is now, these sorts of threats were met with official indifference.

In January of the next year, the police commission decided to appoint a special policeman named HD Fisk to the Music Hall. The police force wasn’t terrifically large then, and it’s a sign of the city’s deepening concern over the Music Hall that they assigned one officer specifically to the venue. Shortly after that, arrests began at the venue with some frequency: A waiter named Jack Howard who stole from a patron and from the till; a patron named Ed Clark who started a fight; waiter Charles A. Antwell, arrested for fighting with “a Jew.”

In July of 1898, the World-Herald ran a story about one of the Music Hall’s performers, Professor Alfred Lunblum. He was a 40-year-old violin player who had come from Chicago just a few days earlier for an engagement at the theater. The newspaper wasn’t especially interested in his work as a performer, however. Lunblum, it seems, had abandoned his wife and come to town with $135 of her money and with another woman. The wife showed up, complained to the police, Lunblum left for Chicago with her, and, as the World-Herald puts it, “[t]he girl he brought to Omaha with him will be left behind to paddle in her own canoe.”

On December 12 of 1898, the manager of the theater, George Mitchell, suddenly ran off to Chicago, leaving significant debt behind him and claiming that the theater had not been a success. This was a bit of a surprise to the property’s owner, W.A. Redick, who Mitchell owed money to. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Mitchell’s primary business was as a liveryman, and he had been guilty of crooked dealings previously: In 1895, he accused a man of stealing a wagon and harnesses; these charges were dropped when it came out that the man had bought the items from Mitchell.

1898 had been a bad year for Mitchell. In March, he had slipped under a heavily loaded wagon and lost a good portion of his big toe on his right foot. If he didn’t leave Omaha broke, he did leave it somewhat defeated.

But if Manager Mitchell was gone, the theater remained, and within a year ads began to appear in the World-Herald, such as this one from August 29 of 1899: “WANTED -- One 1st violinist and one cornet player. Apply J. C. Clark, Nebraska Music Hall.”

One suspects this is the same J.C. Clark who made frequent appearances in the World-Herald, starting in May of 1890 in a story called “Sunday Sinners: Fifteen People Tell Why They Did Not Go to Church.” In Clark’s case, he was not in church because he was arrested:

“Clark is undoubtedly a smooth man and is one of those run in with the gang of thieves captured early Sunday morning. He had in his possession a lot of blank checks on every bank in Sioux City. When he was brought before the judge, he sprung a lot of crocodile tears, and a snivel and a pathetic story about his poor wife and dear children, and the judge discharged him despite of the fact that he failed to remember where he had been or what he had been doing during the past year.”

A CHANGE IN MANAGEMENT

The Music Hall quickly made its way back into the crime papers. Interestingly, it seems likely that when Manager Mitchell absconded to Chicago, he left behind a debt to the Bee, as this publication immediately lost interest in the Music Hall as a performance venue and started looking into its criminal activities. So it is on April 16 of 1899 the Bee runs a story called “Dance Artist in Trouble,” telling of Laura Woodson, a song and dance artist of the Music Hall, who was arrested for “getting too fresh with hayseeds.”

The victim was John Long of Auburn, Nebraska, who made the acquaintance of Woodson and soon found his money purse was missing. He complained to management, who brought him to a former boxer who “offered to furnish him the trouble he wanted at reduced rates.” Long decided to prosecute, saying that “he wishes to impress it upon their plebian minds that men from the country should be accorded the same reverential treatment as the most urbane citizen who enters the hall.”

Note that this seems to be a paraphrase on the part of the Bee’s writer. Long himself is quoted upon being ejected from the hall, and he says “These fellows get altogether too fresh with hayseeds.”

In September, the Bee offered a rather odd story called “Baby Wins Rough Man,” telling of performers at the Music Hall becoming concerned when a ragged man with unkempt hair brought a baby girl into the theater with him. He claimed the baby was his own, and had been taking the girl on a tour of Omaha saloons and music halls, but the performers called the police on him. When questioned, the man admitted the baby was not his, he had just found her in the street, but “was attracted by her cute ways.” The infant was returned to her desperate mother.

The rowdiness of the venue continued. On September 4, the World-Herald reported that Richard Leoni, a performer at the music hall, attacked a man named Abram Marks, who gave him a severe drubbing. Leoni claimed Marks had said insulting things about his wife. On the 15th, a woman named Susie Hill and four police officers chased a man into the theater and arrested him. He had blackened Hill’s eye, and when he told the judge that he milked cows for a living, the judge retorted “you’ll pull no udders for many a day.”

In November, according to the Bee, police were looking for “Curly,” the “spieler” for the Music Hall. According to the paper, Curly was a “hot air virtuoso,” which presumably referred to his speaking abilities, but was now wanted for stealing horses from a local livery stable and attempting to sell them in Glenwood, Iowa.

What was a spieler, you may be asking. Well, as it happens, a story from later that month in the World-Herald tells us. The story is one of Charles Anthill, a man who had recently quit his job, brutalized a woman, and was making a reputation on Douglas Street as a desperado. This night in November, Anhill accosted the Music Hall’s spieler, who was standing in front of the venue crying out “Walk right in gents -- the greatest show on earth --” Anthill informed the spieler that Anthill planned to “drink some one’s blood that night.”

Later he shot Dave Hill, the proprietor of the nearby Owl Saloon, grazing his neck. “A one-legged man in the barroom ran out the back way without his crutch and a man with two limbs ran out as though shot in the leg,” the World-Herald tells us.

And that’s the last we hear of the Music Hall, at least in local papers. The venue makes one last appearance in January of 1900 in a Utah paper, The Deseret News. The story, reprinted from the Omaha News, tells of a cattle dealer from the Beehive State who liked to come to Omaha for a good time.

“He had heard that the Nebraska Music Hall has a number of attractions and drifted in there first night in town,” the paper tells us. “What he drank, and how much he drank, or whether he drank at all, he has no positive knowledge, yet his expense bill showed that he had bought early and often. One of the serpentine dancers entertained him from start to finish and did not hesitate to call to her assistance all of her friends.”

The night ended up costing the cattleman $100. The next day, he returned to the Music Hall and demanded to see the woman who had cost him so much money. The manager hesitated, but the cattleman insisted he meant no harm, so he brought her down. The cattleman then proceeded to toast her, saying “In my earliest days, I have rustled cattle, put my brand on my neighbors calves, and now have the reputation for compelling my cattle to drink more water than is good for them just before they are weighed up, but miss, I doff my sombrero to you as the most expert grafter I ever met.”

The venue’s manager, J.C. Clark, makes one more appearance in the World-Herald in 1900, when he arrested in Allegheny after he and his wife shoplifter what the paper described as “considerable loot.” “It is believed that his real name is J. C. O’Neill, and that he was one of the notorious Blinky-Morgan Gang who operated so extensively in this section a number of years ago.” He had, it seemed, been arrested in St. Louis is 1899 and charged with murder, “and police think they are wanted in other cities.”

MUSIC HALL PERFORMERS


So there we have it, a history of criminal mischief in one Omaha performance venue. But as I mentioned, we also have a fairly detailed inventory of the sorts of performance to be found at the Nebraska Music Hall, and I will end this by listing a few of the notable performers:

Della Latham, “contortion dancer”
Ella Dunbar, “the burlesque queen”
Freda Maloof, “muscle dancer”
Ed Brumage, “silence and fun”
Ruby Knight, the “plain American girl”
Thomas Gibbons, “negro delinerator”
Sig. Almon Zrinyi, “the great hand balancer and equilibrust”
Tom Hardle, “Irish character”
Leo La Reno, “the strong man”

It was, in other words, the sort of mixture of dance, comedy, and novelty acts that could be expected from early vaudeville. There was ethnic and blackface comedy, young girls singing popular standards, other girls dancing somewhat risque dance numbers, and a large selection of the sort of entertainment that is mostly lost now. One suspects Ed Brumage offered a silent comedy act, while Almon Zrinyi demonstrated feats of juggling. A “negro delineator” was a one-man blackface show, generally involving songs and monologues, and was a bit different than a minstrel show, in that the white performer was generally attempting imitation rather than mockery -- negro delineators prided themselves on producing performances in which audience members genuinely thought they were African American.

There’s another story, but it is a longer one, and so I will tell is separately. But, for a while, Omaha was home to a performer who claimed to be the original Little Egypt, the belly dancer who had wowed America at the Chicago World Fair. She came in to town on a train dressed as a tramp, and she quickly found work at the Nebraska Music Hall, and we will come back to her story soon.

It’s tempting to view these performances as merely being a front for vice -- especially when so many of these performers were guilty of vice themselves. But vaudeville survived its reckless early years to become one of America’s entertainment institutions, generally offering the same mix of music, dance, comedy, ethnic performance, and novelty acts. Knowing this, the Nebraska Music Hall, and venues like it, seemed to offer a partnership of convenience.

Both vaudeville and vice could do very well without each other -- so much so that one Omaha paper could write exclusively about performance while the other wrote exclusively about crime, and you might not think they were even writing about the same venue. But cheap liquor, cheap entertainment, and cheap companionship are three tried-and-true ways to fleece a hayseed, and Omaha, thanks to the then-booming industries of rail and meat packing, had hayseeds aplenty. All you needed was a building, a show, a liquor license, and a few unscrupulous employees and you had a business plan.

The hayseeds came to town rich. One way or another, they were going home broke.

About the author

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