Read American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee Online
Authors: Karen Abbott
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Historical, #Entertainment & Performing Arts, #Women
Baby June and Rose Louise, “the Doll Girl.”
(photo credit 8.1)
She lay the back of her hand against her forehead, wilted a bit to the right. The mogul jumped from his desk. She’d be fine, Rose assured him, so long as she and her babies got something to eat and just enough money to get home to Seattle. She fingered the lodge pin and the mogul noticed her rings, just as she knew he would.
“What about your husband?” he asked.
“He deserted us a year ago,” Rose said, sotto voce, and lowered her eyes.
“A lodge brother! To think a lodge brother would do a thing like this! Let his wife and two babies go out into the world alone!”
Within minutes, the mogul had an event booked at a hall and a guaranteed audience of lodge brothers. The hall manager even agreed to split the proceeds fifty-fifty and pay for all publicity and “exploitation,” as Rose called it. Seventy-eight dollars and ninety cents, quite a take for one night. She called it their little “
nest egg” and said they mustn’t tell Grandpa Thompson.
He still didn’t approve of their trouping or of the “
harum-scarum” Hollywood excursions, running up and down the West Coast without proper food or rest, just asking to catch that influenza pandemic now circling the globe. The carnage was unfathomable. A cough gave way to a pain that settled behind the eyes and tunneled through the ears. Your heart rate soared, your body caught fire inside, your own lungs fought to drown you. People died walking on the way to work.
Four women played a late-night game of bridge and three of them passed by morning. Volunteers drove horse-drawn carts through neighborhoods and called for people to bring out their dead. Bodies couldn’t be buried fast enough. Children skipped rope in alleyways, singing, “
I had a little bird, its name was Enza, I opened the window, and in-flu-enza.”
Theaters across the country shut down for weeks at a time. Hollywood carried on, but Rose had finally given up on her silver screen dreams. After June’s early successes, her progress came to an abrupt and puzzling halt. She wept on cue for Cecil B. DeMille, yet another child, who couldn’t cry at all, got the part. It happened again with a Mary Pickford film,
Daddy Long Legs
. Rose blamed the failures on her refusal
to visit the casting couch. “
June would be in pictures today,” she told anyone who would listen, “if I would have stooped to what those other mothers stooped to.” Back in Seattle, she told Grandpa Thompson that June was never in the movies at all, aside from being an extra in a crowd. It was proof, Grandpa said, that Rose hadn’t forgotten her upbringing.
She decided, finally, that vaudeville was the Baby’s surest path, and so here she sat behind the piano inside Seattle’s grandest theater, waiting for both her girls to take the stage.
The Palomar loomed over the corner of Third and University, bulbs spelling
in bright lemon letters along the facade. Before Alexander Pantages built his vaudeville empire, he worked as
a waiter, a bartender, and a pimp.
He owned fifteen theaters throughout the northwestern United States and Canada and had a controlling interest in twenty-eight others. He rivaled the team of Timothy Sullivan and John Considine for dominance in the region’s vaudeville market, and the three of them resorted to all manner of nastiness and trickery, trying to outbid each other for acts, making threats they weren’t afraid to carry out.
Each man shanghaied performers, literally dragging them off railway trains. Pantages offered fourteen weeks of playing time, even though he could guarantee thirty-two, and he made certain the tours always ended on the West Coast. Stranded, the performers had little choice but to sign on for another eighteen weeks—at a 25 percent cut in salary. “
Take it or leave it,” Pantages told them. He also
vowed to burn the musical instruments of any performer who defected to Considine, a tactic that never failed.
Pantages wasn’t exactly the “big time,” in the parlance of vaudevillians, but his circuit was a requisite stop along the way. His lineups were idiosyncratic and
occasionally disturbing: Alice Teddy, a 236-pound roller-skating bear; an ex-convict who had spent sixteen years in solitary confinement;
Guglielmo Marconi and his “electrical act”; Fatty Arbuckle, on an ill-advised comeback tour after three trials for the murder of starlet Virginia Rappe. But the building was grand and stately, more like a castle than a theater, with Corinthian columns upholding the balcony seats and a soaring dome ceiling carved like lace. One of Pantages’s
booking agents now sat in a velvet front-row seat, listening to the pushy lady at the piano instruct her two daughters to sing out, sing out, even louder now.
You’ll hear from us, one way or the other,” he said. “Next act, please.”
ach afternoon, Rose stared out the window of her father’s home, watching for the mail carrier. When Big Lady wasn’t traveling she huddled next to Belle on the couch, trading complaints and criticisms as the neighbors did recipes, stitching garters for Nevada’s sporting girls. Charlie Thompson reported for work at the Great Northern Railroad and weeded his garden, where the fall air had dimmed all the blooms to brown. Louise watched June arabesque and rose-step through the streets. “
She was so ruffley, fluffley,” according to one neighborhood child, who
always mistook Louise for a boy.
Two weeks after the Pantages audition the mail truck lumbered up to Charlie Thompson’s house, carrying a letter for Rose. She slammed the door behind her and held the envelope aloft, letting bills and catalogs flutter to her feet.
It’s here, papa, it’s here! Girls, the letter is here!” Rose closed her eyes. “Oh, please, please God, make it good news.”
She ravaged the envelope and read its contents, lips moving wordlessly. God still listened to her every thought.
gainst his better judgment, and after a calculated chorus of weeping by Rose, June, and Louise, Grandpa Thompson fronted the money for a wardrobe trunk, publicity photographs, winter coats, and new costumes. With the addition of a boy named Kenny, whom Rose rechristened “
Master Laddie Kenneth,” the “
King of the Ballad Songsters,” Baby June and Louise became “
Baby June and Her Pals.” Rose couldn’t decide what role Louise would fit best, so her older daughter was billed, alternately, as “
Honey Louise,” “
The Doll Girl,” and just plain “Rose
Louise,” a “
clever Juvenile character actress.”
Pantages offered $100 per week, about $5,000 in today’s dollars, for twenty-five consecutive weeks. But the act wouldn’t get top billing, and they’d be stuck, invariably, with the dressing room on the very top floor.
They trouped by car since it was cheaper than by train, cramming into Charlie Thompson’s early-model Tin Lizzy alongside props, costumes, Rose’s two dogs, and NeeNee, June’s dog from her Hollywood days, still alive and well despite her mother’s frequent insistence to the contrary. Rose strung a sign across the passenger side door with the words
TO-NIGHT! TO-NIGHT! VAUDEVILLE
On to Tacoma, Portland, Vancouver, Spokane, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Winnipeg, and Victoria, where Rose, Louise, and June slept in one bed, the mutts sprawled across their feet. Master Laddie Kenneth merited a mattress on the floor. Rose cooked breakfast and lunch over a Sterno stove or gave the kids coffee and rolls. Dinner was at the closest Chinese restaurant. They must order yaka mein noodle soup, she insisted, the cheapest dish on the menu. She set down saucers of coffee for the dogs.
Master Laddie Kenneth, Louise, Baby June, and NeeNee.
(photo credit 8.2)
During every free moment they practiced the act. Rose reminded them to sing out and speak out—they were performing in theaters that seated three thousand people, remember, without microphones or amplification of any kind, and they had to train themselves to be heard.
Louise and Master Laddie Kenneth appeared onstage first, dressed in what Rose considered the fashion of “rich children”—a tailored velvet suit for him and a short dress for her, long shiny necklace skimming the hemline. Tapping a drumbeat rhythm on slates, they sang:
I think and think and think and think
Till my brain is numb
Put down six and carry two
Oh, I guess I’m just that dumb!
June skidded into sight on her rear end, shoved out by stagehands. Barefoot and in grubby coveralls, she held up a thick piece of rope.
“What a vulgar child!” Louise said. She loved any line that made her feel superior to June.
“C’mon, help me, will you?” June begged. “C’mon, take an end of this rope.”
An exaggerated count of three, a swift tug, and the other end of the rope rose into view, revealing a small dog. Rose believed that even the animals had to earn their keep, and NeeNee’s cameo got a big laugh.
“Don’t talk to her, sonny,” Louise said to Kenny. “She’s just an adopted child.”
“Oh, yes?” June lisped. Her mother insisted that she blur all of her consonants so she still sounded like a baby. “Well, just remember this. When my ma got me, she picked what she wanted. But when your ma got you, she had to take what she got.”
Another big laugh.
The girls then met backstage for June’s costume change. When the Baby reemerged she waited, expectantly, for the spotlight to follow her. She wore a short tight skirt held together with a safety pin. A straw hat sprouting a plume sat askew atop her curls. The end of the feather
pierced June’s scalp, sharp enough to draw blood. She sauntered across the stage gangster style, hands on swinging hips, a seven-year-old version of Texas Guinan, one of her vaudeville idols.
“ ’ullo, Gov’nor!” June shouted. Master Laddie Kenneth, dressed like a miniature hoodlum, stepped out to join her. The music swelled, all mournful violin and menacing bass. He clutched her, lowering her into a deep dip. She sprang forward, taking the lead. Back and forth they went, an underworld brawl masquerading as dance, bumping knees and elbows and shins. June would awaken black and blue and scabbed all over but prepared to do it again—hours of practice, matinees, evening performances. “
I got hurt a lot but it wasn’t important. I just had to cover that bruise and get out there again,” she said. “
It was safe. The affection of the audience was like a big, warm blanket.”
From behind the curtain, Louise watched her sister, halfway wishing it were hers—the broken body, the salve of applause, the endless bows—and all the way pretending not to care.