A Rogues Gallery Of Roxies (Or Are They Velmas?)

christie brinkley

I’d think the choreography alone would scare the pants off all but the hardiest stage stars…well, the dark stockings in this case. But evidently a lot of actresses – and even non-actresses – are eager to slip into a flimsy flapper dress on Broadway and in Chicago road show tours, with just a few of those jazz-baby bad girlz shown here (Christie Brinkley above):

prince_smokingun_2

Brooke Shields

Emma Bart

Emma Bart

jennifer nettles

Jennifer Nettles

marilu henner

Marilu Henner

rita wilson

Rita Wilson

lisa rinna

Lisa Rinner

paige davis

Paige Davis

Rumer Willis

Rumer Willis

The Real Chicago.

Velma And Roxie

Understandable if you only think of Chicago as Broadway darling Bob Fosse’s brainchild (along with John Kander and Fred Ebb), the hit musical debuting in 1975, revived in 1997 and adapted for the 2002 film with Renee Zellwegger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere. But it really begins with journalist, playwright and screenwriter Maurine Dallas Watkins’ creation, originally running on Broadway in 1926, adapted to a 1927 silent film and again in 1942 as Roxie Hart starring Ginger Rogers.

Ginger ROgers - Roxie Hart

Louisville, Kentucky native Maurine Dallas Watkins (1896 – 1969) attended college back east, studying to be a playwright, but ended up in Chicago where she landed a job as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in 1924. The Trib was one of seven dailies, each competing for attention in what may be the then Second City’s most colorful era, with Prohibition in full force, speakeasies on every corner, Al Capone-Bugs Moran gang wars turning the streets into a war zone and Chicago’s legendary political corruption overseeing it all. Watkins had no shortage of tawdriness to cover, including the Leopold And Loeb kidnapping/murder case and the sensational trials of two photogenic ‘jazz babies’ accused of crimes of passion: Cabaret singer Belva Gaertner, “the most stylish on murderess row” and Beulah Sheriff Annan, “the beauty of the cell block’. Far from sympathetic, Watkins was frustrated by the ease with which the two women managed to manipulate her male colleagues, particularly since she was convinced that both women were guilty as hell.

old posters

Soon after leaving the Tribune, Watkins returned to school and drama workshops, where she penned The Brave Little Woman, which she soon revamped into Chicago, in which Beulah became Roxie Hart and Belva morphed into Velma Kelly. The play debuted on Broadway in 1926 and was an immediate hit, spawning successful road tours (one with a very young Clark Gable) and inevitably landed in Hollywood…Watkins ending up there as well. Her play was adapted to the silent screen by Cecil B. Demille, and with major changes, into 1942’s Roxie Hart. Meanwhile, Watkins became a moderately successful screenwriter, her best-known film being Libeled Lady from 1936 with William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow. She retired to Florida, quite well off and by then deeply religious, turning down further offers for the rights to Chicago, regretting the part she played in glorifying two murderers who escaped justice. But after she passed away in 1969, her estate sold the rights to Bob Fosse, who glammed up the jazz baby killers more than ever.

He Had It Coming Book

The story behind all this will be told in detail soon. Chicago Tribune Publishing will release Kori Rumore and Marianne Mather’s He Had It Coming – Four Murderous Women And The Reporter Who Immortalized Their Stories in November. The book grew out of Tribune photo editor Mather’s discovery of decades-old boxes of photo negatives of the ‘real’ Roxie, Velma and others collected by Maurine Dallas Watkins, which led her to research the fifty-plus Watkins’ Tribune bylines. The result is a biography of Maurine Dallas Watkins and a profile of the sensational Belva Gaertner/Beulah Sheriff Annan trials — a long overdue honor for one of the Trib’s own, and aiming to set the story straight on a couple of flapper-fatales from history and the real story behind Roxie, Velma and Chicago.

No Hoods Left In The Hood?

Noir Gentrification

Background research on settings? Search engines can only yield so much, and eventually you just have hop on a bus or get in the car, ready to pound the pavement if you really want to get the look and feel of a place for whatever it is you’re writing about. Obviously that’s a problem if you live in Newark and your project’s set in Novgorod. But if it’s just another neighborhood in your home town, you’re good to go. For some (me, for example), the trick is accessing a time machine in order to capture not just a place, but a place-in-time.

Adam Abramowitz, the Boston writer of A Town Called Malice and Bosstown, had a terrific piece in the March 19th CrimeReads (link below), “Noir In The Era Of Gentrification: What Happens To Spenser & Scudder When Their Cities Are Gone?” He opens by recalling childhood trips to neighborhoods that were ripe with danger and which later became settings for his writing. But in the ensuing years, those blocks once lined with strip joints, gin joints and sundry other joints populated by lethal predators were gentrified building-by-building into rehabbed lofts and pricey rebuilds, the strip joint now a Starbucks, the gin joint a trendy bistro, and the only predators still lurking about are snooty sales clerks in fancy boutiques.

“Big city noir is under siege,” he writes. “As a noir reader, I become as attached to a city as to the main character working those pitiless streets…(Gentrification) threatens to render our stories sentimental and nostalgic until we all sound like a lamenting grandparent: Back in the bad old days.” Abramowitz refers mostly to New York and Boston, but acknowledges the same for James Lee Burke’s New Orleans and even Chandler’s and MacDonald’s Los Angeles.

Here beside the coast of the ‘inland sea” (the Great Lakes), it’s no different. Endless blocks south and west of Chicago’s Loop seemed destined for permanent skid row status after WWII. Now the South Loop has exploded with residential hi-rises, and west of downtown where independent food service distributors stretched for a mile beneath the Lake Street El and the Fulton Market strip, McDonald’s erected its new headquarters, just over from Google’s Chicago HQ, and suburban corporations are elbowing each other aside, determined to find suitably sized industrial lofts to gut or tear down so they can erect faux-rehabs. The SRO’s and their hoboes, homeless, hookers, pimps, muggers and wino’s have been pushed a couple miles south and west once again, and if the migration continues, eventually they’re going to cross the border into Indiana or be halted at the Mississippi.

Brighton-Archer

My own work is set in a very particular time and place, and while that place has changed considerably, it definitely hasn’t been gentrified. 1959 landmarks like the sprawling Miami Bowl 24/7 100-lane bowling complex or the once-luxurious Brighton Theater are long gone, along with countless Mom & Pop storefront bakeries, bars, hardware stores, dress shops, jewelers and deli’s (and all of the loan sharks, card games and B-girls that worked their back rooms). Some are no-brand phone stores and vaping shops now, others just vacant. The discreet Mowimy Popolsku signs in their doors have been replaced by a different language, perhaps, but I’m sure there’s no shortage of punks, thugs and crooks around. They’re just busy spray-painting their colors on garage walls before they get down to business these days. Now the word is that retiring Yuppies and monied Millenials from landlocked Chinatown are buying up two flats as investment properties. Not exactly gentrification, but enough change to make it hard to recognize anything from the old B&W photos sourced online.

Still, there’s no substitution for actually walking the main streets, side streets and even the alleys (which were only paved with cinders from the nearby ComEd plant back in the era I’m writing in). The sights, sounds and smells are all a little different from what my characters experienced in 1959, I suppose. But as Adam Abramowitz writes in his CrimeReads essay, “Don’t cry, noir lovers. Change is cyclical and as long as the slums of the heart keep burning, there’s always going to be material to mine.”

https://crimereads.com/noir-in-the-era-of-gentrification/

The Noir Chanteuse: Ute Lemper

Ute Lemper

Broadway actress and recording star, or is she really a cabaret chanteuse at heart? German singer (and so much more) Ute Lemper just seems to have a way of evoking a decadent Weimar era German basement nightclub when she’s singing or merely posing for a photo. Maybe it’s her association with roles like Lola in The Blue Angel, Velma Kelly in Chicago (publicity photo in that role below) or Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Then there’s that whole Kurt Weill songbook thing.

Ute Lemper: The Noir Chanteuse.

ute lemper as velma kelly 1998

Chicago Crime (Writers)

crime reads chicago

I don’t know if Chicago really produces more or better crime fiction. I’ll bet New York and L.A. writers would scoff at the notion. In fact, most writers working on either coast, or in Cleveland, Spokane, Omaha, Little Rock and everywhere in between would rightly argue that their home range is best.

My own current projects are set in Chicago, among some of the very same bus routes and neighborhoods Julie Hyzy — author of the White House Chef and the Manor Of Murder mystery series and the just-released thriller Virtual Sabotage — mentions in her Crime Reads piece “For Crime Writers, Chicago Is The Place To Be”. She isn’t cheerleading for the Windy City so much as pointing out what a surprisingly nurturing mystery/crime fiction community she’s discovered there. And if she did indeed wait at a CTA stop near Cook County Jail or ride the California Avenue bus south to the Marquette Park neighborhood commuting to high school, then she sliced right through a hunk of real Chicago: the southwest side’s ethnic blue collar bungalow belt. My in-progress ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’ series is set primarily in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, just across the river and past the as-yet unbuilt expressway south of Cook County Jail, and immediately to the north of Ms. Hyzy’s high school destination. California Avenue – two lanes choked with cars and buses most of the way, sometimes residential, sometimes commercial, and unrelentingly brown bricked – is basically my novels’ eastern border.

Who am I to argue with her when she asks, “Why does the Windy City produce so much good crime fiction?” in her article’s subtitle. It’s an interesting read for Windy City dwellers, writers or any mystery/crime fiction enthusiasts. Check it out at https://crimereads.com/for-crime-writers-chicago-is-the-place-to-be/

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