This story begins with an opera house that once could be found in downtown Omaha. It was called Boyd’s, on Farnam and 15th, and had been built by a man named James E. Boyd. He had been born in County Tyrone, Ireland, but had made his fortune in Pioneer Omaha as the founder of the city’s first packing house. He eventually went on to two terms as Omaha’s mayor and was Nebraska’s 7th governor. Incidentally, in a story generally left out of the official history, he was also brother-in-law to Dr. Charles A Henry, who, in 1855, killed a man in a land dispute and was the subject of Omaha’s first murder trial. Dr. Henry later built Omaha’s first pharmacy. I mention this because this is exactly the sort of story you find when you rummage through Omaha’s early history. Great men and criminals often knew each other, or were kin, or were even the same man.
And I mention this because Boyd built the venue for another Irishman to come to Omaha in the spring of 1882, and this was another man who was both great and a criminal. His name was Oscar Wilde.
There was an operetta at the time called “Patience,” written by Gilbert and Sullivan. The production satirized a movement called aestheticism, which favored beauty for its own sake, and was a cousin to decadence, an artistic movement that favored pure artifice. Wilde represented both, and there was a character in Patience named Bunthorne, a giddy, simpering poet, and it was widely thought that this character was based on Oscar Wilde. In fact, Wilde’s connection to the play was a publicity stunt. Wilde shared a theatrical agent with the star of the show, and, when the operetta opened in America, Wilde was hired to publicize the show.
He did this by crisscrossing the country, speaking on aesthetic subjects such as “The English Renaissance” and “The Decorative Arts.” Wilde was not unknown in Omaha. When he began his 1882 American tour, the Daily Herald ran an unexpectedly supportive piece denouncing the “blackguards” in the press who mocked Wilde as being anything other than “an elegant gentleman, a scholar, and a poet of no mean pretensions.” Wilde’s tour created an international reputation for the author, who was, at the time, only 28 and had so far produced exactly one book of poetry.
Despite the Herald’s original defense of Wilde, the author became something of an ongoing figure of sport in the paper. In fact, in five days after they wrote the piece defending Wilde, the Herald wrote of him: “Oscar Wilde, the apostle of the beautiful, is as ugly as a mud fence.”
The World-Herald covered Wilde’s tour across America, continuing this schizophrenic back and forth between supportiveness and mockery. One day they might publish one of his lectures or complain that college youths in Boston who mocked Wilde were “flapdoodles” and “nincompoops,” and on another day they might write “Oscar Wilde acquired his first distinction by wearing a yellow cravat.” That’s it, by the way. That’s the entire news item. Later, an irritated letter writer would accuse the paper of slinging “borrowed mud.”
And then, on March 14, the Herald announced the news: Wilde would appear at Boyd’s Opera House under the auspices of the Social Arts Club, which the Herald sometimes called the Omaha Ladies Art association. And on March 21, Wilde stood before the people of Omaha, as well as curious visitors from Council Bluffs and Lincoln, at Boyd’s resplendent venue. He spoke on the subject of “Decorative Art.” “He wore a suit of black velvet,” the Herald informed readers the next day, “with knee breeches which has been his usual dress in this country. His hair fell about his shoulders in heavy masses and his dreamy, poetic face grew animated, and his large dark eyes lighted up as he entered upon his subject.”
“Do not mistake the materials of civilities for civilization itself,” Wilde informed his listeners. “It is the use to which we put these things that determines whether the telephone, the steam engine, electricity, are valuable to civilization.” He also complained that he did not like machine-made ornaments and demanded schools for design.
The reporter for the Herald also wrangled an interview with Wilde, who was disappointed to discover the writer could not speak with any authority about the architecture of Omaha. “The west part of America is really the part of the country that interests us in England,” Wilde told the reporter, “because it seems to us that it has a civilization that you are making for yourself.”
“Patience” made it to Omaha eight years after Wilde did, on November 3 of 1890, also at Boyd’s. It was presented by the J.C. Duff Comic Opera Company as part of a series of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The review the next day allowed that the opera had some “historical interest” but that the actor playing Bunthorne “[did] not speak distinctly enough to bring out the full effect of his lines.” Another performer was “indescribably unsatisfactory,” and the reviewer complained the second act in this performance was “colorless and insipid.” He also mentioned that the lyrics included “atrocious doggerel,” but since that was the point of the dialogue, it is hard to tell whether this is a criticism or not. One senses that local interest in aestheticism, even in parody form, was cooling, It would cool further as Wilde went from international celebrity to international scandal.
When Wilde died, young and disgraced, in 1900, The World-Herald took the opportunity to take a potshot that strikes me as undeserved, based on Wilde’s gentlemanliness and genuine interest in our city. Discussing his visit, the paper wrote: “It was at a time when ‘aestheticism’ was at the full bloom of its glory and when Wilde, handsome, boyish, with his weakly sweet baby face, his mannerisms and affectations in dress, was at once the chiefest apostle of the cult and the adoration of scores of silly women.”
And with that, in Omaha, the flapdoodles and the nincompoops had their day.
In November of 1946, John Jacob Niles came to Omaha. The lean-faced, sometimes mightily bewhiskered folk singer brought a collection of homemade dulcimers and spent a week at the University of Omaha, then the name for UNO. He played a variety of songs, including the music of Appalachia, which had first inspired him when he worked for the Burroughs’s Corporation in Eastern Kentucky in the second decade of the 20th century, a company begun by author William Burroughs’s grandfather. In a way, through an allowance provided to William, the company helped underwrite the beat movement of the 50s. And through giving John Jacob Niles a job in 1910, helped inspire a folk explosion a half-century later, in the 1960s in New York, which saw Niles as a patriarch. Pretty good for an adding machine company.
But it’s not the 1950s or the 1960s yet, and this is not City Lights in San Francisco or the Bitter End folk club in New York’s Greenwich Village. This is Omaha, and our story, as I said, is set in November of 1946.
During his week in Omaha, Niles met with an old friend. Her name was Sarah Gibson Blanding, and, as a girl, she had grown up one farm over from Niles in Kentucky. She was now president of Vassar, where there are still dormitories named for her. She was coincidentally in Omaha at the same time Niles was, speaking at the University of Omaha’s Town and Gown club, an organization intended to develop relationships between academics and prominent local citizens. Niles and Blanding met on campus. Afterwards, she went to speak, and he went to sing.
During the week, Niles performed at Central High School, singing, among his many songs, a melody titled “I Wonder as I Wander.” It was an original composition, but inspired by a fragment of a song he first heard in 1933 in Appalachian North Carolina at a fundraiser. The funds were for a homeless family, the Morgans, who the police had ordered out of the town of Murphy. Niles joined a group of Evangelical Christians to help the family find the funds to relocate, and it was there that Niles heard the daughter, Annie Morgan, sing a song. He wrote:
“It was then that Annie Morgan came out—a tousled, unwashed blond, and very lovely.
Annie sang, and Niles listened. There wasn’t much to what she sang, but he had spent decades coaxing songs out of rural farmers and itinerant laborers, and he was determined to coax this one. And so he offered Annie a quarter for every time she sang the song. According to Niles:
“After eight tries, all of which are carefully recorded in my notes, I had only three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material — and a magnificent idea.” He composed the song based on what he had heard, Niles sang it for the rest of his life, and it has gone on to be a popular Christmas hymn.
The World-Herald covered Niles’ week in town, intrigued by the man and his music, paraphrasing him in a short article on November 12. They said of Niles the following: “Uncovering of old folk songs, he contended, has been most neglected west of the Mississippi. The only way to get them out, he said, is to get out and dig.”
At the end of the 1800s, songwriter Stephen Foster was a perennial in Omaha. The Nerbraska State Fair, which then alternated between Lincoln and Omaha, performed an annual medley of his songs. Here in Omaha, it provided a background to a state fair that was so freighted with vice that the Knights of the Aksarben formed to provide the event with something “other than saloons, gambling houses and honky tonks,” as an unsourced quote on Wikipedia puts it, making the fair sound like an appealingly dangerous place.
Alas, just 14 years later, Foster’s marvelous music was firmly in the territory of the squares. On March 17, 1914, the Omaha World Herald took a bold stand against a musical trend that was then sweeping the nation. They wrote: “[T]he simple songs of our fathers — the beautiful music and the heart-stirring words will again come into their own. And when they do the great American balladist, Stephen Foster, will be recognized as who, who perhaps more than any other caught the spirit of his times, and rendered it into music and words that were sung by millions of his countrymen and women.”
The World-Herald wasn’t entirely innocent in authoring this editorial, mind you. They were then selling a Stephen Foster songbook called “Heart Songs,” a title you would associate with a K-Tel collection of soft rock hits of the 70s, but in this case offering “Old Black Joe,” “Old Kentucky Home,” and “Old Folks at Home,” among others. And the musical trend they had chosen to denounce in this editorial? Ragtime, which, with an awesome lack of foresight, they described as a “temporary aberration.”
Looking forward to 1926, we see that Stephen Foster still had his fans in Omaha. The World-Herald peeked in on the music department of the Omaha Women’s club on July 4 to find them preparing for a swimming party at Carter Lake that would be accompanied by musical selections of Stephen Foster, who would have turned 100 that year. The club’s music director, Miss Edith May Miller, would, as the paper tells us, “continue her piano classes until August 1,” giving the whole event certain schoolmarmishness.
In the meanwhile, as sometimes happens in newspapers, the coincidence of layout gives us a peek into other entertainments of the day. The small article on the Women’s club abuts an ad for the World Theatre, a beaux-Arts palace and 15th and Douglas where a parking garage now stands. The World was then offering a show titled “Blossom Time Revue,” subtitled “The Act Magnificent,” and they weren’t kidding when they said magnificent. The show promised “An explosion of mirth, melody, dance & sensation,” and here’s a sampling of what they offered:
Julia Kelety, a Hungarian-born musical-comedy singer who appeared in the premiere of “The Merry Widow” in Vienna.
Norwegian actress Greta Nissen, who had just completed a New York play called “Beggars on Horseback” and relocated to Hollywood, where she was under contract to Paramount. She was to star in “Hell’s Angels,” directed by Howard Hughes, until the aviator decided to reshoot it with sound and fired her for her strong Norwegian accent.
The dashing Norman Kerry, a film actor and friend to Rudolph Valentino and who starred in “The Little Princess” opposite Mary Pickford, as well as appearing in both “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” His career sank with the advent of the talkies, and, at the start of World War II, he joined the foreign legion.
Art Hays, a local organist who offered such comic performances as “Anniversary Antics” and “Radio Ramblings,” which featured a character named “Old Doctor Applesauce.”
And there was Montana, the celebrated Cowboy Banjoist, who always wore a white cowboy suit and was reported to be the highest-paid banjo player in the world, and whose son Bob Montana would create the Archie comics. Despite his western appearance, Montana played a style that the Richmond Times Dispatch called “well-played syncopation,” which was one of the words then used to describe jazz.
The fact that Montana played jazz isn’t surprising, despite the World-Herald;s pronouncement about ragrime. Montana started as a performer in a minstrel show, giving him early exposure to music inspired by African-Americans. The William H. West Minstrels, specifically, an offshoot of the astonishingly named Haverly’s United Mastodon Minstrels, which, at one time, featured more than 100 performers. The curtain would rise, revealing 19 minstrels, and then another would rise behind them, revealing more, and then another, revealing more, and on, until the stage was filled with performers.
The Cincinnati Post tells a story from 1884 about the death of one of the Mastodons. The others gathered around his grave, singing, which gives us a glimpse into to the music sung by the group, which would eventually influence Montano, the Celebrated Cowboy Banjoist, who played in Omaha in 1926 while a Women’s Club at Carter Lake sang the songs of Stephen Foster.
And what song did they sing at the graveside, all those years back?
“Old Kentucky Home” by Stephen Foster.
This stately looking fellow was Walter Murray Gibson, an adventurer, tall-tale-teller, and deposed Prime Minister of Hawaii under the legendary King Kalākaua, who he encouraged to make what Wikipedia politely calls “rash political moves.” These included the formation of a Polynesian Empire, which helped lead to the 1887 Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii, which functionally ended the monarchy in Hawaii.
Why do I mention Gibson? Because, according to a World-Herald story from July 23, 1887, Gibson was briefly an Omahan during one of the many times his adventuring led to disaster. The World-Herlad claims Gibson had tried to cause insurrection in Java until the Dutch seized all his possessions and threw him in jail. Gibson was in prison several years until, according to the World-Herald, “[He] escaped by the connivance of a native princess.”
“In the winter of 1858-59,” the World-Herald tells us,”a wretched looking outfit in the shape of an old wagon, a pair of lean horses, a cook stove and a bed, made its appearance in Omaha. It was driven by Walter M. Gibson, and he was accompanied by a good-looking young woman who he had said was his daughter. He had traveled across Iowa and, on his arrival, was dead broke. Out of provisions, with no money, in a cold winter, he camped on the bottoms an object of sympathy, mingled with respect. A few, knowing the man’s history, aided him, as best they could, in these dark and troubled days. They started a lecture course for him, and he delivered several lectures on the climate, products, people, flora, and forma of the islands of the Indian Ocean. These brought in a little money, and when the grass was sufficiently high in the spring, he started across the plains, ostensibly bound for California …”
Instead, he wound up in Hawaii, pressing the last king to his unhappy rendezvous with history. Omaha: Where future failed empire builders can get back on their feet.
Trick or treating was serious business in 1894 — in fact, Halloween was more like a small war between children and the local police than it was like the holiday we enjoy now. Then-chief Seavey dispatched 50 police officers to look out for mischievous children, who spent the night removing gates and wagons and putting them up in trees, as well as tearing up the sidewalk (they managed to tear up 75 chunks of sidewalk in South Omaha alone).
According to the World-Herald, an officer named Drummy decided to roust some kids on 13th and Vinton, but the children had strung a wire across the street and Drummy fell over it, breaking a finger.
Things were better in Omaha than in Council Bluffs, where a man named W.I. White actually created a dummy that looked like a policeman and left it on his lawn, successful scaring off children and remaining as a neighborhood curiosity the next day (his house was visited by “a large number of curious persons,” according to the World-Herald.)
Real Council Bluffs police fared worse — in response to beer kegs being piled on the steps of a church and obstructions being placed all the way across the street on Story and Fourth, as well as “depredations” being done to the high school, an officer named Headley chased after a gang of boys and smacked into a hitching post, breaking several ribs.
Of course, all this was mild compared to Kansas City, where a man named Haywood decided to take the law into his own hand when his house was accosted by children, firing a shotgun out his window at the boys. Among the injured: E.C. Childs, Jr, hand mangled; Frank Anderson, scalp and face filled with shot; Bill Kennedy, shot in abdomen.
As some of you know, some years ago I wrote a play based on the horrific lynching of a man named William Brown in Omaha in 1919, so when I stumbled across this story from a 1893 newspaper, it caught my attention: Another William Brown, another ghastly murder. This one was more prosaic, but featured the gruesome detail of a hammer to the head.
The details, such as they are: On October 5, 1893, an African-American man named William Brown, who claimed to have been a Pinkerton detective, staggered into the Omaha police station with his head wrapped in bandages. He had received a blow to the head so severe it rendered him insensible — the Omaha Bee report misidentified him as a deaf mute.
He finally managed to communicate his story. He had been drinking with a woman named Julia Smith, who lived at 12th and Jones St., and who the World-Herald insisted had the sobriquet “Big Jule,” while the Bee names her “Black Julia.” The Bee also bluntly states that she was a prostitute — I find no evidence of that, but Big Jule traveled with some rough company. She had been one of the main witnesses in the 1890 trial of a man named Sam Davis, who had cut a man with a straight razor during a dance at Big River.
Brown said that he had been drinking with Smith, had fallen asleep, and woke to discover he had been robbed of $16. When he confronted her, she seized a hammer and smashed him across the head. Smith immediately fled to Council Bluffs and claimed self-defense, and refused to come back to Omaha without requisition papers. At the time, the police thought Brown would survive, and so left her in Iowa.
But Brown’s condition worsened. He lay in bed at St. Joseph hospital, the upper half of his torso paralyzed and unable to speak. The police questioned him by writing queries on a piece of paper, to which Brown nodded or shook his head. They showed him his hat, which had a hole torn in it, and he indicated that this was caused by the hammer. Doctors determined that his skull had been cracked and bone was pressed into his brain, and declared that Brown’s death was imminent.
In the meanwhile, there is a third character in this story, a rather pathetic figure named Frankie Thomas who would die a few years later, destitute and suffering pneumonia. Thomas had been arrested in Brown’s beating, having been present when it happened and perhaps having stolen some money, and Thomas immediately dropped the dime on Smith. Police when across the river to collect Smith.
And here’s where the story grows strange. Smith immediately took sick and was transferred into St. Bearnard’s hospital. She was suffering from peritonitis, probably caused by a previously undiscovered tumor. She underwent an emergency operation, and not just one but two tumors were discovered and removed. Both she and Brown lay ill for about a week while police waited, unable to do anything until one or both recovered or died. On October 18, both died. Brown’s age was given as 36; Smith’s age was never disclosed. “Both murderer and murdered are dead,” the World-Herald reported, under the headline “They’ll Meet Across the Styx.”
Hey guys! Good news! In 1892, the O.E. Miller company, with offices in Omaha, cured rupture! Non-surgically! Now, I know, you’re thinking the following: Isn’t a rupture a hernia? How can that be solved non-surgically?
A truss and an injection of an astringent irritant, which causes the abdomen to swell enough to mask the symptoms of the hernia, which return as soon as the swelling abates. By then, the original “physician” who worked for Miller will have moved on — they migrated every few months — and the new physician would claim ignorance of what the last one did, making it difficult to prosecute when the cure fails.
It all worked out pretty well for Mr. Miller, who claimed to have made $20 million in six years (a half billion in today’s money). Enough that Miller converted Chicago’s hotel Woodruff into a for-pay sanatorium for addicts. And then it burned down, killing 13. A string of deaths followed Miller’s various treatments — he attempted a treatment of tuberculosis that left at least 36 of 51 patients dead — by Miller’s own accounting! He eventually fled to England, where he opened a sanatorium that managed to kill a few royals, and then reverted to treating dyspepsia using the “sand cure,” which just involved eating sand. Unpleasant, but generally not fatal.
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 904, 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.
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.