Purple Crackle Becomes The Pony

On our way over to Thebes this afternoon, we passed The Pony, a “gentleman’s club” that used to be the Purple Crackle. I commented that I didn’t think I had ever been in the Crackle or the old night club near it, The Colony Club.

Mother said, “I’ve danced there.”

I assumed that meant that she and Dad had gone there in its heyday for a nice evening of entertainment, but I’ve watched enough lawyer shows to know that it’s a bad idea to ask a question that you don’t know the answer to. I let the topic drop and pretended an interest in the road construction along the way that has apparently stalled.

A typo made the Purple Grackle the Crackle

You can tell when you start calling up old newspaper stories that every rewrite pulls stuff out of what we called, in the old days, The Morgue. You can count on reading the same accounts and anecdotes every time an editor says, “We haven’t done a story about so-and-so in five or 10 years. See what you can dig up.” You hustle out to find some minor new peg, then go back to see Sharon Sanders in what’s now called The Library.

So, I don’t know if it’s true or not that the place was supposed to be named the Purple Grackle when it opened in 1939, but a 1979 story quotes owner Clyde “Bud” Pearce Jr. as saying “The club didn’t have a very extravagant beginning. It opened with a bottle in a box and a crap game. And the name — Purple Crackle — was a mistake. My father had named the club the Purple Grackle, after the bird, but I guess the crack of the dice led everyone to call it Crackle, and the name stuck.”

Since I have no direct knowledge of the facts, I’ll perpetuate the story like any good reporter.

Goodman, Ellington and Herman played up front

Up front was band music played by the greats: Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Woody Herman. Hometown boy Jerry Ford played the trumpet there when he was 15. The house band, Jack Staulcap’s Orchestra, made more than 850 appearances before the club’s format changed in 1979. The club was known for having some of the first and best Chinese food in the region.

In the back, legend has it, was gambling.

The landmark business transitioned to a “gentleman’s club” in 2006.

Clubs kept blowing up or catching fire

I can remember hearing people talking about mob activities in Southern Illinois. Night clubs and juke joints seemed to blow up and / or catch fire on a regular basis. Dad said you’d better keep your life insurance paid up if you were in the pinball machine business in Illinois.

Missourian reporter Ray Owen mentioned that “The first bomb dropped on United States soil was in Williamson County [Illinois] when members of the Shelton gang flew over the Charlie Birger roadhouse and tossed three dynamite bombs at the Shady Rest. The only one to explode did little damage.”

One-Shot Frony came into The Missourian sporting a new telephoto lens one afternoon. “What are you going to do with that?” I asked him.

“I going to stand over here in Missouri and shoot corruption in Illinois,” he growled.

The Purple Crackle burned at least twice, with two men arrested for arson in a 1984 fire. A 1982 fire was blamed on a neon sign.

East Cape depended on Purple Crackle taxes

Purple Crackle owner Bud Pearce was instrumental in the birth of East Cape Girardeau. In 1975, when the area reached a population of more than 400, he led the drive for incorporation.

His business was essential to the city. When it burned in 1982, the village board had to cancel plans for landscaping and equipping the city park due to the loss of tax revenue from the night club. Pearce estimated that he paid about $500 a month in sales tax to the village. When the club burned again in 1984, the tax roll took a similar hit.

Stories about the Crackle and East Cape

I’m sure some of you have stories that are more interesting than the ones from The Morgue. Just don’t share any about my mother dancing.

Don’t Stare at My Mother’s Arm

Liberty with the truth warning: there may be some parts of what you read next that might not exactly be lies, but they stretch the truth to the point of snapping. [The story was originally written to promote the Convention Bureau’s Storytelling Festival.]

What’s the matter with her arm?

Mother couldn’t figure out why my brother Mark’s friends always looked at her funny. They’d appear to be staring, then glance away quickly when she looked at them.

She found out later that Mark had told them, “Don’t stare at my mother’s arm, she’s self-conscious about it.”

“What’s the matter with your mother’s arm,” they’d ask.

It’s a long story

Here’s how he tells it in (mostly) his own words:

After Dad died and all of us boys scattered all over the country, Mother got a little lonely. She was okay financially, but she wanted to do something a little different to keep busy, something that would let her see the sights, be around other people and make herself feel useful.

She was a cook on a riverboat

She decided to work as a cook on a towboat, The Robert Kilpatrick. She worked 20 days on and got 20 days off.

She had her own small utility boat that was kept on the barge on a hoist.  When she  ran low on supplies, she would have the captain radio ahead to the nearest town and give them the “grocery list.”  As they came close to the town, they would lower her boat into the water. She would take off, load up the supplies (the store would meet her at the river with them), and then she’d floor it to catch up with the tow.

One day as the tow was being broken up and put into the lock and dam (modern day tows now “push” as many as 30 barges at a time and dams/locks were not designed to accommodate more than eight at a time, two abreast),  she decided she wouldn’t launch her own boat, she’d stay with the tow. She was getting ready to climb a steel ladder from the the barge  to the top of the lock so she could board a waiting cab to go into town for the supplies when something went terribly wrong.

Tragic accident took her arm

Suddenly the barges shifted in the lock and her arm was caught between the edge of the barge and the concrete dam wall. It pinched it clean off at the elbow.

Tragic, yes, but not enough to keep our mother down.  No  sir.  In fact, some of the guys in the machine shop – the burly  guys who ate steak for breakfast and kept the massive engines working  down below – fashioned her a couple of custom “snap on” tools that were a little more functional than the basic hook that was all insurance would cover.

One was a spatula that could easily turn extra large omelets (and used to scrape the grill to keep food from sticking to it); the other was a meat fork with three tines.  Two tines faced the the same direction so she could pick up meat from the grill, and one tine was bent 90 degrees in the other direction, so she could open and close the oven doors with it.

OSHA said somebody’s gonna get an eye poked out

OSHA thought the custom tools created a hazard to workers who might get impaled if the boat hit rough water and caused her to stumble, so she quit rather than kowtow to bureaucrats.

She became a Happy Hooker

Her next job was working for the city of Cape Girardeau as a wrecker driver.  She drove a tow truck all over town looking for scofflaws who had outstanding parking tickets so she could impound their vehicle.  Nobody ever tried to  stop her after she raised her artificial arm and clicked her custom tool fingers at them like mad magpies.

Prosthetic technology progressed to the point where she decided to give up the hook and custom attachments for an arm that was covered in soft plastic that was almost lifelike. The doctors did a great job of matching her skin tone, too.

She got so she’d play along

When Mark’s friends threw him a surprise 50th birthday party, Mother, Son Adam and I showed up. When she noticed some of the guests giving her arm a quick glance, she pulled her hand up into her sleeve so it looked like she had left her prosthesis  at home.

“You can’t take that slot machine”

Storytelling is in our genes.

My mother’s family owned several businesses in Advance at one time or another. One was a tavern that had a few slot machines to bring in some extra (if illegal) income. Her parents had to leave one afternoon and left her in charge. She was all of about 13 years old.

It must have been an election year, because the place suddenly filled with law enforcement officers who were going to confiscate the slot machines as being illegal gambling devices. Mother knew that one of the machines was full of money, so she stood up to the sheriff and said, “You can’t take that one. It’s broken. If it doesn’t work, it’s no more a gambling machine than that bar stool.”

They left it behind.

Don’t forget the Storytelling Festival

If you made it all the way down here, you must appreciate tall tales. When this story was first published, you could click on the photo below, which would take you to the Convention Bureau’s Storytelling Festival website. I had optimistically written, “It’ll help me convince the convention bureau folks that this would be a great place to advertise, and it’ll set you up for a weekend that sounds like a lot of fun.” It might have done the latter, but the former never happened.

Dancing in the Bank Parking Lot

I have a couple dozen photos slugged TAC, Teen Town and Teen Age Club. I know a lot of you spent a lot of time at some combination of those things. I think they’re all the same, but going by different names. Can someone clear up that mystery?

Rocking in the First National Bank Parking Lot

I thought the guy in the middle of this picture (with his mouth open like he’s catching flies) looked like Bill East, so I sent it to him for confirmation. I also postulated that Chuck Dockins might be in a striped shirt behind and to his left.

Bill pleads guilty

Here’s his reply:

It is. And is is Teen Town. During the summer of ’65 ( I think) the original teen town, which was on the second floor of a building on the  corner of  Themis and Spanish, was shut  down on an emergency basis. The ceiling of the store below was bouncing and the building inspector ruled it unsafe.

Bob Swaim got his father to give permission to use the bank  parking lot during the summer. A second temporary site was found, and I  don’t remember where, and then to the corner of Clark and Broadway.  Later, a more  permanent move was to a building on Broadview.

The negative sleeve is marked Teen Age Club 8/21/64, so I’m pretty sure that’s an accurate date. There were some other sleeves of what looked like the same event that were called TAC, with no date. Maybe I got lazy and figured that spelling it out once was enough.

Is that Pat Sommers in the middle?

I’ve always been lousy matching names and faces, but I think that’s Pat Sommers in dead center. The girl on his right, wearing a dark shirt, looks a little like Joan Amlingmeyer.

Gallery of Dance Photos

To keep from embarrassing myself by making other wild guesses, I’m going to take the easy way out and post the pictures in a gallery. I’ll let you fill in the dots in the comments section. Click on any image to make it larger, then step through them by clicking on the left or right side of the picture.

If you were involved with TAC / Teen Age Club / Teen Town in the 1964 – 1967 era and would like to help me ID some photos, leave me a note. I have film labeled Johnny Rabbit petition; TAC Fashion Show; Fund Raiser at Ruesslers; TAC opening and TAC meeting with Logan 8-10-67. Hints welcome.

They Have Vampires; WE had Beatles

September, 1965, I heard that The Beatles’ movie Help! was going to play at the Esquire. It had gotten all kinds of buzz everywhere else it played, so I decided to do something unusual to cover it.

Beatles movie Help! plays at the Esquire Theater in Cape Girardeau in 1965I was going to use infrared film and infrared flashbulbs to photograph the audience’s reactions without drawing attention to myself. If you were looking directly at the flashbulb when it went off, you might see a dull glow of the filament, but it was otherwise invisible.

Infrared light makes some colors and skin tones look strange and the years have not been kind to the negatives, but it’s still fun to look back at a more innocent age.

The goal was to be unobtrusive

The Missourian normally wanted full names, addresses and the names of parents, but the editor understood that I needed to be unobtrusive and waived the rule.

Because of that, I only know (or can guess) at a few of the audience members.

The girl on the left, for example, is Marty Perry Riley, who would become my sister-in-law four years later.

A few Central High students showed up

Pat Sommers, second from left and Phil Vinyard, to his right, watch Help!The person second from the left is Pat Sommers; Phil Vinyard is next to him on the right. I think the popcorn muncher on the right is Jim Stone, but he denies it. He thinks the fellow on the far left is Bill Wilson; Terry Hopkins guessed Jim Wilson. I’ll let someone else make the call.

Pat Johnson watches Beatles movie Help!I’m sure the girl on the right is Pat Johnson. We not only went to high school together, but we spent eight years as classmates at Trinity Lutheran School.

Everyone else is a mystery to me. Feel free to comment and I’ll update the information.

Denny O’Neil wrote the story

Denny O’Neil was the reporter assigned to do the story to accompany my pictures. He went on to gain fame in the comic book business after he left The Missourian.

His best-known works include Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Batman with Neal Adams, The Shadow with Mike Kaluta and The Question with Denys Cowan, all of which were hailed for their sophisticated stories that expanded the artistic potential of the mainstream portion of the medium. As an editor, he is principally known for editing the various Batman titles. Today, he sits on the board of directors of the charity The Hero Initiative.

Beatles movie Help! plays at the Esquire Theater in Cape Girardeau in 1965He was one of the best newspaper feature writers I ever worked with. You’ll hear more later about us pairing up to cover Millie the Duck at Capaha Park and Buck Nelson’s Flying Saucer Convention.

Excerpts from The Southeast Missourian

By Dennis O’Neil

Missourian Staff Writer

Dim the house lights. Let the ritual begin.

Beatles movie Help! plays at the Esquire Theater in Cape Girardeau in 1965The screen flickers, there are a few lines of dialog, a few titters from the assembled worshipers, then the ear-splitting shriek of a hundred young female voices raised in simultaneous adoration.

A great, natural phenomenon is present. On the movie screen four young men – The Beatles, the pop-songsters supreme, the Twentieth Century’s equivalent of minor deities – are singing “Help, I need sumbodah” and every girl in the audience would like to be that sumbodah.

Beatles movie Help! plays at the Esquire Theater in Cape Girardeau in 1965Grandmothers and spinsters, too, would like to help these shaggy performers. Because, astonishingly, their’s is not sex appeal. Other pop singers raised to the stars on heaps of adolescent dollars – Elvis, the young Frank Sinatra, and going way back, Rudy Valle – made a strong appeal to the three-lettered feeling. Not the Beatles.

They are funny, these Beatles, they generate giggles, not sighs. they are cuddly, like teddy bears. And they are genuinely talented. Leonard Bernstein, conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, composer and conductor of the classics, calls their home-brewed music a “small art form.”

Enjoy the gallery

Click on any image to make it larger, then step through the photos by clicking on the left or right side. And, like the Beatles, I need help from sum-bodah to put names with the pictures. Please leave comments if you recognize yourself or a friend.