Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hey, Pachuco!

           Who’s that whisperin’ in the trees? It’s two sailors and they’re on leave.  I’m betting there are quite a few of my blog readers and lurkers who have heard the song Zoot Suit Riot by Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. But did you know that while the song is a fun homage to Swing’s heyday, it also tells the story of an actual event in American History in 1943? You didn’t? Well then, pull up a chair and throw back a bottle of beer and I will tell you all about the Zoot Suit Riots. The riots were a direct result of racial tension in wartime Los Angeles. The key players in the riots were White American servicemen stationed in SoCal and L.A.’s Mexican-American community.  
            The term “Zoot Suit” comes from the style of clothing adopted by the male Latino youth in the 1930’s. A Zoot Suit commonly consisted of a flamboyant long coat with baggy pegged pants, a pork pie hat, a long key chain, and shoes with thick soles. The men who dressed in this style referred to themselves as “Pachucos.” Like the teenagers of today, the Pachucos adopted their own music, language, and dress essentially creating a zoot suit subculture. As with anything that steps away from the accepted norm, the Pachucos and their dames worried the existing controlling culture, i.e. the old white people. The media had a field day painting the Zoot Suiters as evil, dangerous, and as menaces to society.
            On May 30. 1943 the riots started. About a dozen servicemen were walking down Main Street when they saw a group of women on the other side of the street. (Yes, the Zoot Suit Riots had a lot to do with racial tensions but the violence started because some sailors want to flirt with girls. Boys, are you listening? Don’t let your wieners lead you. Look what happens.) When the sailors crossed the street to flirt with the chicks they passed a group of Zoot Suit wearing Pachucos hanging out. One sailor, Seaman Second Class Joe Darcy Coleman, said as he passed he saw one of the men raise his arm in a “threatening” manner. So Coleman being a big tough sailor boy in dungarees (If any blog reader tells me what song that lyric comes from gets a prize) he turned and grabbed the other guy’s arm. Then Coleman was hit in the back of the head with something or by someone and he fell to the ground unconscious breaking his jaw in two places. (Seriously, if you’re going to pick a fight at least make sure the other guy is not simply picking his nose instead of a “threatening” arm gesture.)  A few days later several sailors also claimed to have been robbed and beaten up by a gang of Pachucos. Thus the Zoot Suit Riots began.
            On June 3, 1943 a mob of sailors, bored and fired up with bigotry, hired a fleet of cabs and rolled their way into East L.A and went on a violent spree. They robbed, beat up, and stripped any young Latino male they came across. The police, and the community, seemed to approve. A few arrests of sailors occurred at first but they were released relatively quickly. (To beat and strip again)  This only added fuel to the fire. The mob of sailors and soldiers swelled each night as they invaded the barrio, bars, and movie houses humiliating and beating any and all Latino males. Also young Black and Filipino males who happened to be in the area were also assaulted. The police department declared any man found to be guilty of public nudity could be arrested. They could also arrest you for being overdressed. So basically the boys who managed to get away from the mob with their Zoot Suits intact could be arrested, and those beaten to a pulp and stripped could be arrested. Hardly seems fair right? At the end of the riots more than 150 people had been killed or severely injured and over 500 Latinos had been arrested on charges of rioting and vagrancy.
            Finally on June 7, military authorities did what the civil authorities, i.e. the Los Angeles Police Department, wouldn’t do. Navy and Army Commanders declared the City of Los Angeles off-limits to their men in an effort to get control of them. Despite this intervention the Navy stance was the men were acting in “self-defense against the rowdy element.” Rigggghtt…
            First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt commented “The question goes deeper than just suits. It is a racial protest. I have been worried for a long time about the Mexican racial situation. It is a problem with roots going a long way back, and we do not always face the problems as we should.” The L.A times called her a communist. (Smart move, the First Lady a commie.)
             I bet you never listen to the song Zoot Suit Riot the same way again. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dark Lady, played black magic til the clock struck on the twelve.

            Marie LaVeau  was born a free woman color in 1794 or there abouts. (The records are very sketchy) She would become the most famous and powerful Voodoo Queen, New Orleans and America had ever seen. Marie was the illegitimate daughter of a rich Creole plantation owner and his mistress Marguerite. Not much is known about her until she was about the age of twenty five when she wed another free person of color, a carpenter named Jacques Paris. Paris soon went missing and was presumed dead. Mam’zelle LaVeau  referred to herself as Widow Paris as was the custom. Our Voodoo Queen was a hot blooded Cajun miss and soon entered into a common law marriage with a gentleman by the name of Christophe de Glapion with whom she had fifteen children. (Yep, I said fifteen. Girls, how you feeling right about now??)  During her life she worked as a hairdresser and purveyor of spells. This will come into play later, I promise.
           Mam’zelle learned her craft from a Voodoo Doctor or witch doctor named Dr. John, John Bayou, and many other norm de plumes (Yes, I am doing a Creole accent as I type this. Accents help with research. I promise. It’s not just something fun for me to do…much.) By 1830 she was one of several Voodoo Queens working NOLA , New Orleans. However, Mam’zelle was not happy with sharing the spotlight and soon demanded dominance. She achieved this by taking charge of rituals held at Congo Square and distributing gris-gris throughout the social classes. (Gris-gris is more than just spells it can be a bag filled with essential items to the spell which may be worn on the person or maybe something to pass to another. Voodoo dolls fall under the category of gris-gris)

Because of her position as a hairdresser, Marie was given admittance to the homes of many of the affluent ladies in the Quarter, thus allowing her to spread her Voodoo magic to whites, blacks, and mixed races. (United Nations of Magic) It also gave her the ability to set up a network of informants throughout those same homes. The intel provided by housekeepers, scullery maids, chambermaids, and cooks allowed her “insight” into her customer secret lives. She could easily tailor the spells and gris-gris bags to their specific needs. She parlayed her knowledge into a position of great importance. She was the high queen of voodoo. “No event in any household in New Orleans was secret from Marie LeVeau” She told fortunes, gave advice on love, prepared custom gris-gris to effect cures, charm, or hex. (Side note the s is silent in gris-gris)
          If anything Mam’zelle LaVeau was a colorful show woman and astute businesswoman. At Congo Square she would stage ceremonies in which people would dance naked before bonfires under the thrall of loas(Voodoo spirits of high regard) She, herself would also dance with her snake, Zombi. Marie was also known for seeming to be able to stay perpetually young for over a century until she died in 1881. Historians explain this longevity in LaVeau’s life with the fact that her daughter, who shared her name and voodoo training, simply took over when the elder LaVeau died and pretended to in fact be her mother.

           There is much controversy surrounding her burial ground. Historians are not even sure if the body in her grave is truly Marie LaVeau. She is believed to be buried in St. Louis 1 cemetery. (There are three cemeteries bearing the name St. Louis in New Orleans) For many years after her death people left silver on her grave out of love and respect. To this day people still go there and put their hand on her grave which is marked with three red Xs on one side, and ask her spirit to grant a wish. The asker is to leave flowers as payment once the wish is granted. In my research for this blog I came across a copy of the spell used at Marie’s grave. I have not posted it here, but if you would like to see it, leave me a comment and I will email it out.

           Did Marie LaVeau truly have powers or was her magic a direct result of her brilliant network of spies in the upper echelon and good old fashion belief in the lower classes? Voodoo is a powerful and mystical religious tradition that has been shrouding in mystery for centuries. The power of any religion relies in the strength of its practitioners. For Mam’zelle’s clients they believed she had the power of the Loas and the Lagebas. Perhaps she truly did have magic in her veins. Either way, Marie LaVeau will always remain American’s Voodoo Queen and the ultimate witchy woman.

(If you have questions about Voodoo, drop me a line and I will point you in the direction of literature and blogs that can give you the needed info)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Goodbye Norma Jeane

August gives us the anniversaries of the deaths of two cultural icons whose appeal goes beyond America. Of course I’m talking about the king himself, Elvis Aaron Presley and the blonde bombshell of all time – Marilyn Monroe. Today’s blog we will be talking about Ms. Monroe. (We’ll come back to Elvis later…I promise.)

On August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her L.A. home, an empty bottle of sleeping pills by her side. Did she overdose? Was she murdered? Or was it simply an accident? Personally, my intrepid readers, this blogger believes she was 86’d by some nefarious outside element. But that’s the topic for another blog.  She was only 36 years old.  And the world still mourns.

Marilyn Monroe was born in Los Angeles in 1926 as Norma Jeane Mortenson. However, she was baptized and raised as Norma Jeane Baker. She did not have the easiest childhood. Her mother, Gladys, suffered from severe depression and was placed in an institution in 1932. For a while Norma Jeane was taken care of by a close friend of her mother’s Grace McKee. However due to financial constrictions and issues, when Grace and her husband had to move away from Los Angeles, they couldn’t afford to take Norma Jeane with them. She was placed in foster care and orphanages from 1935 to 1937 until she once again lived with Grace and her husband in 1941. It was there she met her first husband, Jim Dougherty, who was five years older.

Norma Jeane spent the next few years working as a print model and trying to break into Hollywood. Her marriage, which was more of an arranged situation then love, began to deteriorate. She filed and was granted a divorce in 1946, the same year she signed her first contract with Twentieth Century-Fox Studios. And Marilyn Monroe was born.

Technically her first film role was in the movie The Shocking Miss Pilgrim in which she played an un-credited telephone operator (Ain’t movies grand) Next she landed a few speaking roles in films like Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! and Ladies of the Chorus which lead to…nothing. She flitted from Fox to Columbia with little success to show for it. It was until John Huston (Yes..that John Huston…Angelica’s dad, the guy who directed The Maltese Falcon and other such Hollywood Classics) cast her in The Asphalt Jungle did her star power finally start to burn bright.

Several movies, and marriages, followed as Marilyn built up her career and began to solidify her place in the Silver Screen pantheon. 1952 however brought a bit of a snag to the rising star, this was when the notorious nude calendar pictures made their appearance. It was the same story as other movies stars, past and present. Marilyn needed money and took some nudie pictures. Of course the photographer realized the money he could make now that our blonde beauty was standing on the precipice of Hollywood domination. Marilyn made no excuses for the pictures and took full responsibility for them. Her co-stars on the movie Clash by Night which she was filming when the pictures became public were rumored to be rude and cold to her. (Who’s laughing now, you brats. Anyone besides me remember who was in that movie?)  

Now comes Niagara one of my favorite Monroe movies. Its film noir mixed with Marilyn. How can you not love it! She played a ruthless, seductive, conniving killer. Awesome sauce at its best.  Plus it has the best line about Marilyn I have ever heard. The husband asks his wife after they have watched Marilyn saunter by in an amazing red dress, why she doesn’t wear something like that. The wife glibly responds “For a dress like that you have to start laying the groundwork at about thirteen.”

This was followed by a series of films that any movie lover will know,  Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – with the famous Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend number (Madonna, just because you put on a pink dress and dance around with red lips, doesn’t make you Marilyn. Never will) How to Marry a Millionaire- which paired her with the outgoing blonde bombshell, Betty Grable, the torch is passed in this film folks, and “The Seven Year Itch. White Dress. Subway Grate. Enough Said.  Some like it Hot – Jack Lemmon in Drag, and Marilyn getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop. The film is considered the number one comedy of all time. (It will make you pee with laughter. Trust me.)

Her last completed film came in 1961 with the amazing Clark Gable. It turned out to be the last completed film for both of them. Unlike any other film she had done up to this point, Marilyn played a more dramatic role and was, in my opinion, amazing.  The Misfits gives us a glimpse of what might have been had she lived.

I could write page after page about Marilyn, because frankly I love her. I have seen every movie she has even been in and read numerous books, and I’m not the only one. What is it about this petite, busty funny blonde that captivated a generation, and is captivating audiences to this day? Why is she still so popular? Look at her eyes. Look at her smile. Now you know.

A scene from one of my favorite Marilyn movies - There's no business like show business. Marilyn + Donald O'Connor = Court heart attack.  

Monday, August 8, 2011

Saucy Jack is back.

Let’s talk about murder. Grisly, gruesome, and seriously bloody murder. Everyone loves a good murder tale. They’re like train wrecks and Disney Channel shows, you can’t look away.  I’m sure all of you have heard of Jack the Ripper. Now I know what you’re thinking…’hey hold up there Courts. Jack the Ripper ain’t American history. He’s British.’

Oh, really?

Suppose the reason Saucy Jack’s murders stopping happening in London was because our intrepid psychopath had crossed the pond. We will call this a speculative blog then. Because no one knows for sure who Jack the Ripper was or if the murder of Carrie Brown in a seedy New York hotel in 1891 was the handy work of Jack or some other nut job. That said many Ripperologists (That’s what they call us crazies who are obsessed with the knife wielding weirdo. I’m one of them.) believe the murder in America is connected to the Whitchapel murders.

Edward Fitzgerald was pulling double duty at the East River Hotel in New York on April 24, 1891 when he found the mutilated body of Carrie Brown in room 31. Poor old Carrie was completely naked, a deep gash extended from the lower part of the abdomen upward to the breast, which disemboweled it completely. (Grossed out yet? No...keep reading then. Yes, look away foolish mortals.) The entrails, yep all of Carrie’s stomach-y parts, were torn from her body and scattered over the bed. There were also two deep slashes crossing each other on her back, forming an exact cross.  According to the New York Herald there was a missing organ, most likely the uterus but the paper never said what it was specifically. 

News of the slaying spread through the city like wildfire. Now the murder of a prostitute, which little Miss Carrie was, or violent crime in general wasn’t all that strange of an occurrence in New York’s fourth ward. It was the violent nature of the crime that scared the city. Its striking similarity to the Ripper Murders had the police scratching their heads and the public screaming for safety.

There was a certain irony to the police involvement in the case. During the hunt for Jack in Whitechapel three years prior, Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes of the New York Police Department had made some comments via the papers, stating that if Jack the Ripper ever decided to leave London and come to NYC, he would be caught in two or three days.  Basically Thomas was being a man and having a pissing contest with Scotland Yard. Not in so many words he called them incompetent boobs. When Scotland Yard heard about the Carrie Brown case I can imagine they stood, pointing and laughing at Inspector Byrnes.

Some facts about the murder quickly emerged. Carrie and an unidentified gentleman entered the East River Hotel around 10:30 and 11:45 on the evening of the 23rd. Edward was busy tending bar so he asked a local prostitute, Mary Minter, who lived and worked out of the hotel to show the couple to room 31.

Mary quickly became the police’s prime witness. She stated the man was about five feet eight inches tall, about thirty years old, with brown hair, a moustache, sharp nose, and wearing a derby and a cutaway coat. She said the man had a strange accent.

Now here’s where things get tricky…or sloppy police work is more like it. Two suspects emerged commonly referred to as Frenchy 1 and Frenchy 2. The local working girls told Byrnes of two ‘cousins’ who liked to abuse the streetwalkers. Both men were questioned. Frenchy 1 was questioned at length and Byrnes seemed to determined to convince the press that he was the killer.  After much deliberation and searching, Frenchy 1 was arrested. However, Mary Minter kept repeatedly telling Byrnes Frenchy 2 was the man she saw entering the hotel with Carrie Brown. So desperate to be right and to say he had closed the case, Byrnes dismissed her calling her an opium fiend.

The press and the public weren’t as accepting as Byrnes would have liked, especially when some startling revelations about Frenchy 2 began to make the rounds. Frenchy 2 was noted for his physical strength and prowess. As a sailor of a cattle steamer he was constantly back and forth from London to New York. The other sailors on the ship told stories of how Frenchy 2 took unholy delight in slaughtering the animals that had obtained an injury that required they be dispatched. (Translation…he liked to carve up the cows that had hurt themselves.) Also the most damning thing was that Frenchy 2 had been arrested by Scotland Yard on suspicion of being Jack the Ripper. Yet, Byrnes never arrested La Bruckman – Frenchy 2’s real name.  Frenchy 1 was eventually released after public outcry of his innocence had worn away Byrnes.  Carrie Brown’s killer was never caught.

It was worth noting that La Bruckman’s ship was docked in London during each and every time Jack the Ripper stuck.

Historians can’t say the La Bruckman was Carrie Brown’s killer, nor can they say he was Jack the Ripper.  Because we will never really know who Jack the Ripper was. (No matter how many books are written or how many famous criminologists come along and say they have new evidence.) The mystery surrounding the man who is considered to be the world’s first serial killer is what has kept the story alive all these years.  It sure makes a tantalizing tale doesn’t it? 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tonight under the Big Top...

I'm just old enough to remember when the circus rolled into town and put up a huge striped tent in an open field or in the case of my hometown, the Sam Boyd Stadium. Now when the Ringling Brothers, Barnum, and Bailey Circus hits Sin City they perform in the college campus basketball arena. Also they compete heavily with the Cirque du Soliel crowd. (You know those wacky French Canadians with a show in almost every casino that leaves the audience goers equal parts confused and amazed.)

But what of the Circus? The real circus. The one with Elephants named Bertha and Bettina. Ones with six hundred clowns shoved in the back of VW Bug. The circus that smelled of sawdust and popcorn and peanuts. A place where women in glittery costumes flew high above the crowd with the greatest of ease. (They still do that here in Vegas..but we call them Drag Queens) What about lions and tigers and bears? Oh, my! The circus is not a solely American institution but two of the most famous circuses (kind feels like that word should be circi) of all time traveled the country in America's past, and still do. 

P.T. Barnum was a showman of the highest degree. He could sell you beachfront property in Arizona and you would be grinning like a monkey as you handed over the cash. There is debate as to whether he actually said "There's a sucker born every minute." But the phrase really sounds like Senor Flim-flam. Prior to starting Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum Menagerie, Caravan and Circus in 1872 (Try saying the five times fast...go ahead, give it a try. I'll wait...) Barnum had established himself as a purveyor of freaks. Barnum collected oddities like "The Feejee Mermaid" (supposedly the jar held the mummified remains of a mermaid), befriended overly hairy women (bearded ladies), and guys who liked to bite the heads off of chickens (The original geek. Seriously, the word Geek used to mean this, not just computer guys who haven't seen a naked girl in a decade.) Barnum started the Barnum's Grand TMMCC (I'm writing it this way because frankly that is a long damn title to have to type fifty times.) because he felt American audiences needed a really big show. In fact, he felt that the people needed "The Greatest Show on Earth."

The circus was the main form of entertainment for many Americans at the turn of the century. With over 100 circuses, big and small, traveling the country by train and cavern, a good show was never too far away. There were six men, including Barnum, who helped shape the modern circus. Phillip Astley, the father of the modern circus; John Bill Ricketts,  the founder of the first American circus; Pepin and Breschard, who took the circus out West, Barnum, who brought the sideshow into the spotlight; Adam Forepaugh, who brought the Wild West under the big top; and the Ringling Brothers., the undisputed kings of the Greatest Show on Earth.

In 1888, P.T. Barnum joined forces with Bailey to from the Barnum and Bailey Circus. They traveled the rails with such attractions as Jumbo, a huge African Elephant and an impressive sideshow. While B&B worked the crowds, The Ringling Brothers were making a name for themselves as well with their tented circuses. The official title was Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of trained animals. (Simplicity was not these boys strong suit when it came to naming.)

In 1907 Ringling Brothers purchased their largest competitor. You got it, good old Barnum and Bailey’s. Out of respect the two shows were toured separately until 1917 when because of war time shortages, they were combined into one show. They would travel the United States for another forty years or so.

By the late fifties times and preferences had changed. Hollywood had captured the country’s imaginations with film and television. The circus was in trouble. The financially strapped Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus performed its final show under the Big Top on July 16, 1956.

This however was not the end of the American Circus. In 1967, Irving Feld purchased the crumbling business and rebuilt. To this day Feld Entertainment tours the circus around the United States. But it’s not the same. It may still be the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus but without the sawdust and the red and white striped big top is it really the Greatest Show on Earth?

I miss Lydia the tattooed lady.