Posts Tagged ‘Prohibition New York City’

The showgirl and her notorious 1920s speakeasy

October 3, 2013

TexasguinanMary Louise Cecilia Guinan was a born entertainer.

Nicknamed “Texas” after her home state, she got her start in show business as an actress, touring the country with theater groups, rodeos, and vaudeville shows at the turn of the last century.

After a failed marriage, a stint in Hollywood making silent films, and with dreams of stardom, she moved to New York City in 1905. Bubbly and extroverted, she scored roles in musicals and movies.

But her biggest role wasn’t on the stage or screen—it was in one of Prohibition-era New York’s most popular speakeasies.

It happened by accident. After impressing early 1920s crowds with her brassy attitude as a hotel lounge singer, she became the club’s emcee.

Elfayclub

She connected well with customers and was hired to emcee at other nightspots—at the Knickerbocker Hotel on 42nd Street, for instance, and a place called the El Fey on West 48th Street.

“Nights at the El Fey, and later at Texas’s other clubs, blended alcohol-fueled mirth and sportive bedlam,” wrote Leo Trachtenberg in City Journal.

Texasguinanpolice“Armed with a clapper, a police whistle, and her ever-derisive wit, wrapped in ermine, and sporting an array of gigantic hats, Texas impaled big spenders with insults and made them love it.”

In 1925, Texas opened the 300 Club, at 151 West 54th Street.  John Barrymore, George Gershwin, and Clara Bow were regulars. The club was targeted by officials, who were constantly padlocking the door and arresting Texas.

Her cheeky explanation: patrons brought liquor with them, and that the place was so small, the showgirls were forced to dance close to customers.

The Depression ended the party. Texas went back to acting, and in 1933 while on the road in Vancouver, she contracted dysentery and died at 49.

Mostly forgotten today, the “Queen of the Night Clubs” is immortalized in some Damon Runyon short stories; she’s the basis for the nightclub operator “Miss Missouri Martin.”

In the photo of the El Fay club, two swastikas flank the entrance. They had nothing to do with Nazi Germany; the swastika symbol was a good luck symbol, according to the City Journal article.

A Village speakeasy attracts a bohemian crowd

August 13, 2012

If you think New York packs in a lot of bars today, imagine what it was like in the 1920s.

During Prohibition, 32,000 speakeasies were operating in New York City, twice the number of legal saloons that existed in 1920.

Cousins Jack Kriendler and Charles E. Berns ran one of them: a little basement space called the Red Head, opened in 1923 off Fourth Street in Greenwich Village, then under the dark and grimy Sixth Avenue El.

“The Volstead Act had gone into effect in January 1920, so the illegal club in a tea room was an immediate hit,” states Dorothyparker.com.

After it was gutted by a fire, “the pair moved their speakeasy to a basement at 88 Washington Place at the height of the bootlegging, Jazz Age New York.

“Called the Fronton, it was now a real speakeasy, complete with live music and huge tables.”

Club Fronton had a Spanish theme and catered to artists and writers, such as Edna St. Vincent Millay (below) and Dorothy Parker (above), plus nightlife-loving politicians like Mayor Jimmy Walker.

Police raids didn’t close the Fronton down—eminent domain did. After a year, the property was condemned by the city so the West Fourth Street subway station could be built.

Kriendler and Berns moved to midtown this time. In 1928, they set up a speakeasy at 21 West 52nd Street. The 21 Club was an instant success—and 80 years after Prohibition, still packs them in.

[Above photo: 88 Washington Place today, a condominium residence]