Unable to compete with pictures, vaudeville had begun to fade from preeminence. Performers who’d long been treading the stages for the Orpheum, Keith and Loew’s circuits were now trying to save their careers by going into pictures. Tubby Taylor intended to give it a try. Mack Sennett was in need of a funny fat man for his studio and Tubby, who could do a double take and pratfall as well as anyone, had gotten an offer to make pictures for the Sennett Studios in Edendale, California.
Jack was happy for his partner-in-shenanigans, but wondered if maybe it wasn’t a little late for Tubby to be breaking into pictures. Although he didn’t say it, he doubted that his friend had the discipline needed to weather the long hours of filming and even the legendary Sennett wasn’t the force he had once been during his Keystone days when he’d had Mack Swain, Ford Sterling and Roscoe Arbuckle on the payroll as his court jesters. But Sennett still at least had the extraordinary Mabel Normand and Tubby told Jack that he’d probably be partnered up with Mabel in her next feature.
“Does Miss Normand know how big you are?” Jack asked straight-faced as they had one last beer together at Billy LaHiff’s Tavern. “You might just crowd her out of the picture.”
“Ho, Ho,” Tubby said with a smirk. “So suddenly you’re a comedian?”
“Someone has to be.”
“Please! Do I go around doing your job? Don’t do my act.”
“You got an act? Funny, I’m not laughing.”
“Oh, people will be laughing soon enough.”
“Yes, at you, Tubby, but not with you.”
The fat man grinned warmly. “I’ve taught you well, Jack. Back in the old days when I first met you couldn’t do a comeback to save your life. I guess the last ten years that we’ve been pals haven’t been entirely wasted on you, have they?”
“No, they weren’t,” Barrowman told him, raising his glass of beer in salute. “I’m going to miss you, you know that?”
“Don’t get soft on me, pally,” Tubby said, blowing a Bronx cheer, yet trying to keep his emotions in check. They’d been friends for a long time and in every sense of the word this was probably goodbye. “I can’t stand a man who blubbers.”
A going-away party for the big man was deemed essential. A not-so-well-kept secret, it was held at the Hotel Gotham in its long-closed bar. Arnold Rothstein, a gambler pal, arranged for the use of the space and provided some bonded liquor. Most of Broadway showed up to wish the well-liked comic a fond farewell. Of course there were showgirls to liven up the proceedings as well as some slightly less virtuous young ladies with practiced winks and hard faces. They were from Legs Diamond’s stable. Rothstein’s notorious bodyguard ran a cadre of whores on the side.
“Who invited trouble?” Jack asked Tubby after spotting Diamond mingling among the guests.
“Don’t know,” Tubby said, his arms wrapped around two impossibly tall Follies beauties. “You gonna ask him to leave?”
“I don’t care what that scumbag does,” Jack said with a sniff.
He should have minded his own business, but it bothered him that Legs was having his girls work the party. The man was a parasite and there was something reptilian about him. He had a mean streak and he noticed how the girls snapped to with just a crossways look from their pimp. Prostitution was a part of Broadway going way back to the days of the Tenderloin district and despite the best efforts of “reformers” it wasn’t ever going to go away. But seeing these girls and how sad and lost they looked, Jack wondered how someone could fall so far and just how far it could be.
There was one particular girl in Diamond’s stable that was young, very young. She was a brunette, cute, but very much still a child. The dress she was wearing was for someone older and looked ill fitting on her. She also looked very unsure of herself, yet when she attracted someone’s interest she turned on a dazzling smile as if she knew exactly what she was doing. Maybe she did.
“Like her?” Diamond asked him slithering up, drink in hand. He’d seen Jack studying her. “That’s Elisabeth. She’s new. Nice-looking, ain’t’ she?”
“She’s a kid.”
Diamond shrugged. “Some ain’t too particular about age.”
“Doesn’t look like your average street girl, Diamond. Where did you find her? Robbing them straight out of the cradle now?”
“Jack, Jack,” he replied with a cold smile. “Do I ask you about your personal business?”
“Oh, I see. You’re a businessman…not a lowlife pimp.”
“If you were anything other than a two-bit publicity hustler, Barrowman, I’d take offense. By the way, hear you got a pretty new wife. Say, maybe you’d like her to come work for me.”
Jack had every intention of punching him in the mouth for that comment, but Tubby stepped in. “Legs,” he said to the weasel-faced gunsel. “Like the suit, but I think your tailor forgot to put the bullseye on it.” Diamond had been shot so many times that they called him the clay pigeon of the underworld.
Diamond grinned at him. “You were always funny,” he said. “Unlike your friend here.”
“I was trying to tell him that earlier,” Tubby said, shooting Jack a look that said, calm down.
“Shove off, Diamond,” Barrowman hissed, his face flushed.
The gunsel glowered, turned and walked over to Elisabeth. He put his arm around her and the girl winced as if she dreaded what was coming next.
Tubby shook his head. “Jack, what’s the matter with you? Can’t play nice?”
“He’s a bag of shit,” Jack said with a nod towards Legs. “Look at him getting cozy over there with that girl. Jesus, Tubby, she’s old enough to be my daughter.”
“Everybody has to survive somehow,” Tubby replied wearily. “Look, don’t go trying to change the world, pally. It doesn’t want to change and nobody really cares anyway.”
The Capitol Theatre’s box office opened every day at noon. Shows were at 2 p.m., 4 p.m. 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Each show consisted of several acts or “units” carefully scheduled to begin at a precise hour and timed to the second so that the total performance lasted exactly two hours. Roxy was adamant that the show be kept moving at all times. If things fell behind schedule, he would order the projectionist to run the photoplay at a faster speed or Erno Rapee would conduct the orchestra at double-time. Sometimes the results weren’t exactly artful, but according to Roxy no one had ever complained to him that things were moving too fast.
Unit No. 1 was a ten-minute musical stint by the Capitol Grand Symphony. For morning and afternoon matinees associate conductors David Mendoza and William Axt led the eighty-five-member orchestra. Erno Rapee, the Musical Director, took over baton duties for the evening performances. Settling into their seats, patrons could expect to enjoy selections from notable operas like Pagliacci played at break-neck speed. The orchestra also seemed to find the time somewhere to include an overture to the picture playing that week. Wagner’s Tannhauser was a favorite, or if the picture had an energetic story, the William Tell Overture was always a popular choice.
Unit No.2 featured the Capitol News, a compilation of items of “pictorial news,” accompanied by Dr. Alfred Robyn on the big Estey organ, and lasting no more than fifteen minutes. Often the news items were current: a Yankees game shot that afternoon at the Polo Grounds or Mayor Hylan welcome foreign dignitaries to City Hall. Roxy was particularly keen on stories of human interest. Baby pageants and patriotic parades could be counted on to get the lion’s share of the newsreel. The showman was very sentimental about such things. Jack, on the other hand, usually had a smoke in the lobby until they were over.
The Capitol Grand Symphony starred again in Unit No. 3, playing selections such as Victor Herbert’s operatic musical, The Fortune Teller. The “Capitol Double Quartette,” provided the vocalizations from other operas or respectable Broadway musicals. Roxy didn’t think too much of ragtime or jazz and wouldn’t have them in his presentations.
For Unit No. 4, there was a ballet excerpt performed by Alexander Oumansky, Maria Gambarelli and the other dancers in the Capitol Ballet Corps. Dainty Maria Gambarelli (left), “Gamby,” was the darling of patrons and Roxy’s favorite. She would leap and twirl across the stage, moving effortlessly and kicking her legs so high as to appear to be in mid-flight. Sometimes, the show had to be delayed when her admirers, and there were more than Jack could count, would toss bouquets of roses on the stage.
“There’s so many men at her dressing room door after one of her performances that we have to beat them back with a broom,” Jack told Sophie as a joke.
Then to give everyone a chance to catch their breath, Unit No. 5 would consist of a one-reel moving picture short, usually a comedy or one of the scenic “travelogues” that Roxy was so fond of booking. Jack personally thought that the audiences preferred laughs to seeing pictures of faraway places, but Roxy insisted on showing his patrons places that they would otherwise never get to see.
Then, for those that couldn’t get enough of the lovely Maria Gambarelli, she returned to do a solo dance in Unit No. 6 that might last all of three minutes. Accompanied by the classical strains of the orchestra, she might personify butterfly floating in the breeze or a flower turning towards the light of the sun. It was all very classy and artistic and it bored Jack to tears.
Then it would be time for the featured photoplay: Norma Talmadge in The Branded Woman or Bessie Love in Whispering Devils. Musical accompaniment was provided in the afternoons by the Capitol Grand Organ and by Erno and the formally dressed orchestra in all of their glory during the evening “deluxe” shows. Sometimes, as during the run of Lon Chaney’s The Miracle Man, Roxy might offer the deluxe show audiences an extra number or two afterwards as an epilogue to the picture. Then as the No.1 curtain slowly closed after the conclusion of the picture, the show would end with the strains of the Capitol Grand Organ or with Erno leading the orchestra through one last rousing rendition of the movie’s overture as the house lights came back up to show patrons the way back up the aisles towards the exit.
Jack was a big fan and admirer of Roxy’s presentations and enjoyed watching them as much as any regular moviegoer…maybe more. He’d been hanging around theatres most of his life. He’d ditched most of his schooling to be a “theatre rat”: running errands for house managers and producers, then writing columns about what was happening on Broadway, some of which had ended up being published in Variety. He had a flair for words and “selling” shows…which had naturally led him into publicity and Flo Ziegfeld when he’d started his annual Follies pageants. Now he had a premier job with the Capitol and he was working with Roxy Rothafel in putting over the very best show on Broadway. Life was great for Jack Barrowman.
He’d been in every theatre in the city and there was something about that moment wihen the house lights dimmed and spotlights swept the stage, picking up the symphony as the music quickly swelled into full and unrestrained fury. It always gave Jack goose bumps and no matter what troubles he had outside the theatre they became meaningless once the show started. He sat through as many performances at the Capitol as his duties allowed. He’d quickly become an avid fan of Maria Gambarelli and he couldn’t help but be a little envious of the musicians in the orchestra. Just once he would like to be up there on the stage, bathed in the glow of the spotlight, and be the center of attention. But his job kept him in the wings. All he could do was watch.
Not that it was so bad. There was something soothing about sitting in the half-dark and watching the show in opulent surroundings that had once been a province only of the wealthy. The Capitol was a spectacularly democratic place. No matter the social standing, education or job, everyone in the auditorium were treated as a King or Queen by the ushers and doormen and then entertained royally with an exciting stage presentation. In a city where private clubs and schools admitted the few, it was the theatres that admitted the many and provided dreams of riches and beauty solely for the price of a ticket that everyone could afford and “all for your delight.”