Chapter One: A CAPITOL IDEA
“Our one true intent is all for your delight.”
—Capitol Theatre advertising slogan
Number of feature-length films released (1919): 646
Picture palaces on Broadway (1919): Strand
New York City, July 1919
The new Capitol Theatre at 51st and Broadway was going to be a splendid place indeed. Playing the part of the proud father, Messmore Kendall insisted on giving Jack Barrowman a tour of the premises, all the time apologizing for the mess and the deafening noise of the on-going construction work. Over in the lobby another crew of workmen, laboring on their hands and knees, polished the white marble staircase step-by-step, rubbing the veined stone until it gleamed like translucent glass. In the auditorium the towering scaffolds climbed some six stories to the top while craftsmen smoothed over wide sections of plaster lathing in the ceiling dome that smelled raw and wet.
“We’re running a little bit behind schedule,” Kendall told him, looking a little harried. His real estate company was behind the new theatre and erecting such a massive structure had been difficult with so many wartime restrictions on steel and concrete still in place. “We’re not quite finished yet, mind you, but with a little luck we should be ready for opening night.”
Jack was impressed. The sheer size of the place, the feeling of enormity, and so much luxury on such a grand scale was awe-inspiring. Nothing else on Broadway came close to the Capitol. Kendall and his investors had sunk over two million dollars, a veritable fortune, into building the most ornate playhouse in the city.
“Mighty big place. How many seats did you say it had?” he asked Kendall as they stood in the auditorium.
“Five-thousand plus,” the lawyer and financier told him, shouting over the din of the orchestra going through their rehearsal for opening night. “The biggest theatre in New York.”
“Biggest in the world, I would say,” Jack declared, taking in the enormous auditorium with its endless rows of seats. “Might take some doing to fill this place up.”
“That’s why we want you with us, Jack,” Kendall said. “You’re the best press agent on Broadway.”
“That goes without saying, Mr. Kendall.” Jack had no shortage of ego. He had handled publicity duties on Broadway for a long time, most recently for Florenz Ziegfeld and his famous Follies beauties. His talent for getting press or “ink” was legendary and had earned him the moniker, “Broadway” Jack Barrowman. “Sign me up.”
The two men shook hands and the dapper financier looked pleased. “You’ve made the right choice, Jack. Being connected to the top house on Broadway will mean a world of prestige for you.”
Prestige was nice and the title, Director of Publicity for the Capitol Theatre, fit very well when Jack tried it on himself. He was moving up in the world. Nothing was going to hold him back.
Tubby Taylor was eating alone at a table in Leo Lindy’s diner, devouring a breakfast of runny eggs and beer. Lindy’s Diner on 43rd Street was a Broadway favorite and attracted actors, business types and card sharks to name a few among the flotsam and jetsam of the Great White Way. The modest diner’s fare was “all you could eat” and Tubby, true to his nickname, could eat a lot. Leo Lindy repeatedly groused that the fat man was going to eat him out of house and home.
“Hey, Barrowman,” he said when Jack walked into his place.” You want to get that human garbage pail out of my diner?”
“Eating his weight in gold is he?” Jack asked with a grin, handing Leo a cigar.
“I should have that much gold,” Leo said, sniffing the cigar and pocketing it.
Jack walked up behind Tubby and swatted him across the shoulders with a copy of that morning’s paper and showed him the headlines trumpeting news of the big fight that had everyone talking. “Dempsey knocked out your Jess Willard, Mr. Who-Knows-Everything-About-Boxing,” he said, sitting down at Tubby’s table. “Pay up, you louse.”
The baby-faced fat man shot him a look of annoyance and spoke with a full mouth. “You mind? I’m tryin’ to eat here.”
“So when are you not eating? We had a bet, Tubby. Dempsey won. You owe me ten dollars.”
The big man looked up from his plate. “Jack Dempsey is a draft-dodger and a bum.” He was no fan of the boxer who had been accused of everything from laziness to treason for refusing to serve his country in the last war. “The man doesn’t deserve the championship in a gentleman’s sport.”
“Boo-hoo. You still owe me a tenner.”
“You’ll get your money soon enough. I’ve got a couple of long shots at the ponies that are just waiting to pay off.”
“There’s a reason why they call those nags long shots, you big dummy.”
“Hope always springs eternal, Jack.” The fat man stuffed eggs into his mouth and gestured to Lindy to bring him another helping. Leo Lindy shook his head in dismay.
Barrowman handed Tubby another cigar out of his pocket. “Here.”
“A Cuban?” Tubby asked, sniffing the cigar with delight. “You don’t usually spring for the good stuff, pally. So what’s the occasion?”
“I got the job.”
“What job would you be talking about, my friend?”
“With the Capitol, you dope! The new theatre on 51st Street?”
Still chewing on a mouthful of eggs, Tubby shrugged like an innocent babe. “I don’t know…probably read something about it somewhere…”
Jack glared at him and the fat man broke into a bray of a laugh.
“Ho, ho. Very funny,” Barrowman groused.
“Had you going there, didn’t I?” Tubby asked with a laugh. Eugene “Tubby” Taylor was Jack’s best friend, a vaudeville comic with an ever-expanding waistline and an angelic baby face that belied his wicked and often vulgar sense of humor. “I’m happy for you, pally, really I am. But are you sure you’re up to it?”
“Do I look scared to you? Is there anyone in New York who knows more about publicity than me?”
“Ain’t any such person.”
“Darn right, there ain’t.”
“Working for the Capitol…so I guess that means that Broadway Jack Barrowman is going legit, huh?” The fat man belched noisily. “Moving up in social circles, are we? I guess that means that you’ll soon be refusing to associate with known scoundrels like your old pal Tubby.”
“Well, you have always been a low life, my friend.”
“May I point out to you, Mr. Barrowman, that all of your friends are low-lives?”
“And I do consider you my dearest…and lowest friend.”
“Thank you, Alphonse.”
“My pleasure, Gaston.”
Tubby grinned. “Anyway, congratulations, Jack, really. Being a big shot with the Capitol should get you about any girl that you want.”
“News flash: I’m taking myself off of the market.”
Tubby Taylor stopped in mid-chew, egg dropping off his fork and into his lap and stared at Jack in shock. He wasn’t often speechless. “Oh, my God,” he muttered in dismay. “Don’t tell me that…”
“Yep, I’m going to ask Sophie to marry me.”
Tubby shook his head and pushed his mostly-finished breakfast away. “Jesus, Jack…I just lost my appetite.”
“Good. You could stand to eat less. Anyway, I’m getting married so you’re looking at a one-woman man from here on out.”
Tubby snorted derisively. “Baloney. Showgirls are your kind of poison, my friend. Don’t deny it. Hell, I can’t think of a Ziegfeld girl who hasn’t slept with Jack Barrowman and gone on to better things.”
“I think it’s time I settled down with a nice girl,” Jack said, lighting his friend’s cigar.
The comic took a puff and rolled his eyes. “Oh, spare me the rib-tickler! Okay, I admit that your Miss Sophie is a nice-looking doll and all, but usually you go for the flashier talent—blondes with long legs, big tits, and all that. Why you wanna marry this one?”
“This job is my ticket to a higher class of people, Tubby. Respectability means a lot in those circles and Sophie is the kind of girl that will make me into a solid citizen. You think that I really want to stay a two-bit Broadway hustler the rest of my life?”
“Come on, Jack. Do you really think that getting hitched will make you respectable all of a sudden? No offense, but you are a hustler…one of the best, mind you…and you always will be. But zebras don’t change their spots…”
“It’s leopards that don’t change their spots. Zebras have stripes.”
“The point is that marrying your pretty little piano player won’t make you what you aren’t.”
“Does that vicious crack mean you’ll agree to be my best man at my wedding or not?”
“Best man? Me? Please, Jack, you know that I’m morally opposed to weddings. Just the idea of watching people get married gives me the heebie-jeebies. “
Jack sighed, sat back in his chair, and tossed the fat man’s napkin back at him. “Okay, Eugene, if that’s the way you feel about it then I guess I’ll get Flo Ziegfeld to stand up for me.”
The comic took the bait, almost rising out of his chair in indignation. “You’d take him over me? Don’t you dare!” He then shook his head in surrender. “Oh, alright, I’ll be the best man at this funeral of yours, okay?”
“Christ, Jack, is all of this wedding stuff really necessary?”
“It’s a step up into a better class—I told you.”
“Gee, Jack, I would have thought it might have somethin’ to do with love.”