Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is BORN TO KILL, starring Claire Trevor, Lawrence Tierney, and Walter Slezak.
After he discovers that Laury Palmer, the owner of a Reno boardinghouse, was romancing him only to make her boyfriend Danny jealous, Sam Wilde, a seductive but violent drifter, kills both her and Danny. Cool, sophisticated Helen Brent finds the bodies in the boardinghouse, where she has been living during her divorce proceedings, but instead of notifying the police, she calmly boards the next train to San Francisco.
Before it became home to B-girls in the 1950s, 513 S. Main Street was the location of a shooting gallery. I have never understood what would compel a person to work in a business that involved handing a stranger a loaded weapon. It’s impossible to know if the person firing the rifle is depressed or angry until it’s too late.
On December 2, 1939, a patron of the shooting gallery used his last quarter to buy six shots. He fired five times at the moving targets before he turned the weapon on himself and fired the remaining slug into his heart. The unnamed man died at the scene.
It was December 14, 1940 when Duncan Adams, 37, an employee of a local dairy, strode up to the gallery, gave the clerk a quarter, and picked off targets shaped like furry little squirrels. He emptied the rifle, but then reached over and grabbed a.22 caliber target pistol and squeezed the trigger. The gun misfired, but before any of the horrified witnesses could stop the man, he frantically pulled the trigger until the sixth chamber clicked into place and discharged a bullet which ripped a hole through his skull. He died four hours later at Georgia Street Receiving Hospital.
The last tale in this grim litany occurred on September 23, 1942. In exchange for the usual quarter, Thomas Nelson, the proprietor of the shooting gallery, handed 22-year-old Willie Davis a rifle. Nelson’s story was that Davis had attempted to steal the rifle, so he grabbed a weapon and pursued him down Main Street. Davis told a different tale. He claimed Nelson had tried to pick a fight with him after renting him the rifle and he was trying to get away.
The ensuing gunfight sent bystanders fleeing for cover and tied up traffic on the busy street for at least twenty minutes. Nelson and Davis both sustained serious wounds. John Hagen, an innocent bystander who was seated at the counter of a nearby café, was also wounded in the melee.
The B-girls who eventually replaced the rifles at 513 S. Main Street could be dangerous when loaded; but less likely to kill.
Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open! Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat. Tonight’s feature is the LADY OF BURLESQUE (aka THE G-STRING MURDERS) directed by William A. Wellman and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Michael O’Shea. While not a classic noir film, it is a murder mystery and, I think, it pairs nicely with the post on Betty Rowland.
LADY OF BURLESQUE is based on the novel The G-String Murders written by strip tease queen Gypsy Rose Lee. There have been claims that Craig ghosted the book, but I believe Ms. Lee did it on her own.
If you’re not familiar with Craig Rice, she wrote mystery novels and short stories, and is sometimes described as “the Dorothy Parker of detective fiction.” She was the first mystery writer to appear on the cover of Time Magazine, on January 28, 1946.
Before we roll the feature, let’s enjoy one of Gypsy Rose Lee’s dance routines–followed by a clip from a Tex Avery cartoon starring the lecherous wolf character.
S. B. Foss, owner of the Old Opera House on Broadway in New York City, promotes his new recruit, burlesque dancer Dixie Daisy, hoping that she will draw a large audience. Dixie’s performance draws cheers from the crowds and from comedian Biff Brannigan, who ardently admires Dixie even though she hates comics because of past experiences with them. When someone cuts the wire to the light backstage that signals the presence of the police, the performers are surprised by a raid, and pandemonium ensues. As Dixie flees through a coal chute, someone grabs her from behind and tries to strangle her, but her assailant escapes when a stagehand comes along.
In November 1939, police took into custody several performers and comics at the Follies Theater at 337 S. Main Street. Among them was Betty Rowland, the “Red-headed Ball of Fire” and charged them with exhibiting an indecent show. The defense spent a day in jury selection trying to assemble a “shock proof” panel who could withstand seeing the forty-four photos secretly shot by police photographer George T. George, and handle hearing the “hair curling” transcripts from the show read by undercover Policewoman Cheryl Goodwin. Would the jury of nine women and three men be up to the task?
The halls surrounding the courtroom became a popular hangout for citizens hoping to catch a rare glimpse of a burlesque queen in daylight. The ladies arrived demurely dressed, sans makeup, disappointing the gawkers.
The highlight of the trial came when Officer Jerry J. Uhlick, a husky 200-pounder, stood up at the request of the City Attorney and demonstrated the bumps and grinds he’d witnessed from his seat in the audience.
As the courtroom convulsed in laughter, Uhlick quipped, “Miss Jo Anne Dare performed the dance on the theater stage better than I can!” Although he admitted that he “took a fling at the stage in my younger days.” We assume the fling wasn’t as a dancer.
The defense showed photos of jitterbug dancers and said that moves every bit as suggestive as the bumps and grinds seen on the Follies stage were being performed by young people nightly all over town. They also showed photographs from popular movie magazines showing scantily clad movie stars.
Despite the vigorous defense, Judge Arthur S. Guerin convicted all the defendants. The judge ordered each of them to pay $250 fines as a condition of their two-year probation. During their probation period, they must not engage in immoral shows. The owner, Tom Dalton, paid $3,000.00 in fines.
Betty was a force to be reckoned with during the heyday of burlesque. She had a stage presence that belied her diminutive stature, and she was the highest paid dancer in her field.
Betty was only in her teens when she began dancing professionally at Minsky’s in New York. Burlesque houses thrived in NYC during the early 1930s, but by 1935 citizens’ groups were trying to close them, and Mayor LaGuardia had deemed burlesque a “corrupting moral influence”. The city’s licensing commission tried to pull Minsky’s license, but the State Court of Appeals refused to do so without a criminal conviction. In 1937, the mayor and the citizen’s groups finally got the break they’d been waiting for when they discovered a stripper at Minsky’s working without her G-string. That was enough for criminal charges to be filed, and they revoked Abe Minsky’s license. New licensing regulations would allow the burlesque houses to remain in business, if they didn’t employ strippers!
Burlesque gigs in New York dried up. In May 1938, Betty and her troupe opened in Los Angeles at the Follies Theater. It was supposed to be a limited engagement, but Los Angeles audiences loved Betty. She continued to perform at the Follies for most of her long and successful career.
I met Betty a few times several years ago. I found her soft-spoken, charming, and a natural storyteller with a wicked sense of humor. Betty graciously answered my many questions.
I asked her about the dispute over Barbara Stanwyck’s costume in the 1941 film, “BALL OF FIRE.” She chuckled and told me the dispute was a publicity ploy. Stanwyck’s costume is a knock-off of one of Betty’s.
Because I love vintage perfume and cosmetics, I asked her if she had a signature scent. She said she loved Coty’s L’Aimant. L’Aimant is the first fragrance from Francois Coty, launched in 1927. L’Aimant means magnet in French. The composition is elegant, sophisticated, and classic combination of flowers—perfect for her. I sent her a bottle in the hope it would evoke happy memories.
The slow slide to the end for the Follies began after the 1930s, as the theater fell into disrepair. By 1967, it was the last working burlesque house in Los Angeles. That same year Eleanor Chambers, assistant to Mayor Sam Yorty, failed in her bid to get the city’s Cultural Heritage Board to protect the theater and the Burbank Theater down the street at 548 (which was a combo film and live performance house in 1967). We give Eleanor high marks for creativity. She suggested to the board there were historic costumes from the Gilded Age stored inside the building–the building opened in 1904 as the Belasco.
Unfortunately, Eleanor’s best efforts failed. They bulldozed the Follies in 1974.
Joni Mitchell is right:
Don’t it always seem to go That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot!
Betty Jane Rowland passed away at 106-years-old on April 3, 2022.
Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.
Tonight’s feature is BIG TOWN AFTER DARK, starring Philip Reed and Hilary Brooke.
Enjoy the film!
When Lorelei Kilbourne (Hillary Brooke) leaves her job as the police reporter for the Illustrated Press, Managing Editor Steve Wilson (Philip Reed) employs the publisher’s niece, Susan Peabody (Ann Gillis), to replace her. Susan becomes involved with gangsters in plotting a $50,000 swindle against her…
Not everyone celebrates the 4th of July with fireworks and a BBQ.
On Friday, July 4, 1941, two men armed with a sawed-off shotgun entered the California Kitchen cafe at 410 Glendale Boulevard and held staff and patrons at gunpoint while they stole $67.50 from the register and $35 from their victims. As soon as they left, twenty-year-old Carson Citron, a talented cartoonist who sketched visitors to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, called for a pencil, grabbed a paper bag, and drew realistic likenesses of the robbers.
Jerry Towslee, manager of the Kitchen, and all the patrons, attested to the accuracy of Citron’s art work. The police immediately reproduced the sketches for circulation.
Over the next week, the Cartoon Bandits continued their spree of robberies, car thefts and kidnappings stretching from LA to Oakland and back to LA. They carjacked Paul Ashbrook and his date, Katherine Dietz, in Oakland. They drove the couple 80 miles east to Stockton, where they tied them up and left them in a cemetery. Ashbrook told police one of their captors said, “We’ve got to scram out of here now, but we’re going back and get that cartoonist!”
Police had victims of the bandits compare Citron’s sketches to mug shots and they identified the suspects as Edward Walker, a twenty-six-year-old robber paroled from Folsom Prison, and twenty-two-year-old Carl Westover, a San Quentin alum.
Early on the morning of July 10th, the gunmen abandoned a car in a lot at 450 S. Spring Street. They kept the lot attendant, Fred Hunt, at bay while they transferred a suitcase to another vehicle, which they drove off in.
For the next few hours, the bandit pair added new names to their roster of victims. Alvin Marshall lost $40 in a liquor store on Whittier. They took $8 from Ray Eckenroth at a gas station on W. Washington Blvd. Then they pulled into a gas station at 3251 Eagle Rock Blvd., bought gas and soft drinks, then pulled guns on the attendant, O. R. Bates and relieved him of $40. Evidently proud of their newfound fame, they boasted, “We’re the cartoon bandits. You can tell those—Los Angeles policemen we’re back in town and going to be plenty of grease in their hair.”
The bandits headed south.
Later in the day, as San Diego patrolmen Earl Myrick and Thomas Hays cruised in their radio car, they recognized a stolen sedan. They followed the car for four blocks, then drew up alongside it with their revolvers drawn. Westover had a.38 caliber revolver in the pocket of his pants. All the way from Los Angeles to San Diego, he held a sawed-off shotgun in his lap. He said, “But we decided to go to the Grant Hotel garage, so I broke the shotgun down and put it in a handbag in the back of the car.” Then he sneered, “If I could have got my gun, I’d have blown you cops all over the place.”
On July 11th, Detective Lieutenants Claude Thaxter and H. C. Henry drove down to San Diego to take the bandits into custody. Westover, the younger of the two and a former San Diego schoolboy, admitted to Municipal Judge Philip Smith how he and Walker robbed a liquor store.
The bandits also confessed they’d staked out Citron’s home and planned to beat but not shoot him, but there were police cars out front and they changed their minds. That is when they left for San Diego.
Westover claimed responsibility for a $3000 supermarket robbery, but it was quickly determined he was still in prison at the time of the crime. Called to the stand and asked about committing perjury, Westover mused, “Well, I committed so many stick-ups I can’t remember them all, and won’t be able to serve out all my time anyhow!”
In October, the Cartoon Bandits pleaded guilty to one count each of robbery in Judge A. A. Scott’s courtroom. Each of them received a sentence of five years to live in Folsom.
In 1957, Carl Westover, serving his life sentence as an honor worker in the San Quentin prison dairy, escaped. Oceanside policeman Ray Wilkerson captured him as he attempted to break into a car. Westover attacked Wilkerson with a screwdriver and ice pick, fracturing his skull, but two other officers arrived in time to subdue him. A career criminal, it appears Westover may have died in prison in 1998 at age 79.
As for Walker, he, like Westover, began his criminal career as a juvenile. The 1950 Federal Census shows him incarcerated in Folsom. I don’t know what happened to him after that. If anyone has information on Walker, please share.
Welcome! The lobby of the Deranged L.A. Crimes theater is open. Grab a bucket of popcorn, some Milk Duds and a Coke and find a seat.
Tonight’s feature is WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney and Gary Merrill.
Enjoy the film!
New York City police detective Mark Dixon and his partner Klein return to the 16th precinct where Inspector Nicholas Foley introduces them to their new commander, Lt. Thomas. Later, Foley meets with Dixon to inform him that more battery complaints have been filed against him, but Dixon is unrepentant.
Two years passed with police no closer to a solution for Elizabeth Short’s murder. The 1949 Los Angeles Grand Jury intended to hold LAPD’s feet to the fire for failing to solve the Dahlia case and several other unsolved homicides and disappearances of women during the 1940s.
On September 6, 1949, the jury’s foreman, Harry Lawson, told reporters that the administrative committee scheduled a meeting for September 8.
“There is every possibility that we will summon before the jury officers involved in the investigation of these murders. We find it odd that there are on the books of the Los Angeles Police Deportment many unsolved crimes of this type. Because of the nature of these murder and sex crimes, women and children are constantly placed in jeopardy and are not safe from attack. Something is radically wrong with the present system for apprehending the guilty. The alarming increase in the number of unsolved murders and other major crimes reflects ineffectiveness in law enforcement agencies and the courts, and that should not be tolerated.”
In his statement, Lawson places the blame for the unsolved homicides squarely on the shoulders of law enforcement and the courts. What Lawson failed to understand was that crime was changing. No longer could police assume a woman’s killer was her husband or boyfriend. Stranger homicides were nothing new, but neither were they common.
The population of post-war Los Angeles skewed young and, because of a variety of factors, like the acute housing shortage, they were transient. A potent and deadly mix of opportunity and a large victim pool made it easy for the criminally inclined to do their worst. Women had a false sense of security about men in uniform. Behavior considered risky by today’s standards was acceptable during the 1940s.
From the outbreak of the war, the government encouraged women to support men in uniform. Newspapers and women’s magazines devoted countless column inches to ways in which they could aid fighting men. Women formed “Add-A-Plate” clubs. The mission of the clubs was to invite a soldier home for a meal. Women also routinely picked up soldiers and sailors hitchhiking because it was their patriotic duty.
On April 2, 1943, the Pasadena Post wrote about a “ride waiting zone” which gave military men a place to stand and be visible to passing motorists who would then give them a ride. Most of the men were decent and law-abiding, but some returned home severely damaged by their war experiences. How many of those men were capable of murder?
LAPD detectives spared nothing in their investigation of Short’s slaying. They took over 2700 reports. There were over 300 named suspects. They arrested fifty suspects who they subsequently cleared and released. Nineteen false confessors wasted law enforcement’s time and resources.
In 1949, the DA’s office issued a report on the investigation into Short’s murder. In part, the report stated:
“[she] knew at least fifty men at the time of her death and at least 25 men had been seen with her within the 60-day period preceding her death. She was not a prostitute. She has been confused with a Los Angeles prostitute by the same name… She was known as a teaser of men. She would ride with them, chisel a place to sleep, clothes or money, but she would then refuse to have sexual intercourse by telling them she was a virgin, or that she was engaged or married. There were three known men who had sexual intercourse with her and, according to them, she got no pleasure out of this act. According to the autopsy surgeon, her sex organs showed female trouble. She had disliked queer women very much, as well as prostitutes. She was never known to be a narcotic addict.”
Distracted by the continuing saga of local gangster Mickey Cohen, the jury turned their attention away from the carnage. In the end, they passed the baton to the 1950 grand jury–which also found itself sidetracked.
What happened to the women who disappeared? It is unlikely that we will ever know. It is also unlikely we will identify the killer(s). People will always speculate about the cases, and every few years a book about the Black Dahlia slaying will emerge claiming to have solved the decades long cold case. None of the books I’ve read so far is credible.
I do not accept theories which rely on elaborate conspiracies perpetrated by everyone, from a newspaper mogul to a local gangster to an allegedly evil genius doctor. My disbelief is based in part on the fact that most people are incapable of keeping a secret. Benjamin Franklin said, “Three (people) can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” Eventually, someone talks.
Elizabeth Short’s killer probably kept his depraved secret but, even if he didn’t, anyone who knew the truth is long dead.
NOTE: This concludes my series of Black Dahlia posts for now. I hope you will stay with me through 2023 as I unearth more of L.A.’s most deranged crimes.