January 21, 1996
DALLAS (AP) – The announcement late last month tHat Bette Midler will play Texas Guinart in a forthcoming Martin Scorsese film biography no doubt prompted many to ask: Who the heck was Texas Guinan?
‘ How soon they forget. Once upon a time, everybody knew about the wisecracking, Waco-born entertainer and New York speak-easy queen. Her antics amused and amazed a nation bored by Prohibition and jaded by bathtub gin.
When she died in 1933, 12,000 people lined up to view her coffin, many, no doubt, not entirely convinced she was dead. Newspapers filled pages with stories about Texas Guinan and her smart-aleck quips, the ”Guinanisms”that kept her on front pages during the Rapper Era.
It was Texas Guinan who coined the term “big butter-and-egg man”to describe any free-spending rube off on a toot in the big city. Her plea at the end of a song and dance, “Give the little girl a great big hand,” still echoes in show business.
Though she has been dead 63 years, here and there memories linger. Over the years, she has been played on stage and screen by Betty Hutton, Ruta Lee, Martha Raye, Barbara Nichols, Phyllis Diller – and, now, Bette Midler.
Still, one suspects the reality outstripped the legend.
‘ -A Catholic schoolgirl who became a pal to some of New York’s most notorious gangsters, Texas Guinan was a combination of Belle Starr, Mae West and Madonna. Frequently busted, she was never convicted ‘ (she spent a total of nine hours in jail), and she claimed that she never touched a drop of the stuff she served in her clubs. Her greeting to patrons as they came through the door became by word of the 1920s: “Hello, sucker.”
”¢ Yet she never quite reached the front ranks of stardom, and information on her life is scant. According to Several show-biz biographies, her real name was Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan. She was born Jan. 12, 1884, in Waco, the daughter of Irish immigrants. Father was a partner in a wholesale grocery business that eventually failed, and Mary Louise attended Sacred Heart Academy in Waco. Classmates later remembered her gift for mimicry and her pranks.
The most recent account of her life is “The Story of Texas Guinan: Hello Sucker!,” by Glenn Shirley “(Eakin Press, 1989).
In 1902, the wholesale grocery business failed, and the Guinan family moved to Denver where Mary Louise sopn joined a traveling theater troupe. She appeared in vaudeville and rodeos, on the musical stage, and toured the Schuberts’ theatrical organization, astonishing audiences by singing ballads suspended high over their heads in a basket.
By the end of World War I, she had established herself as a silent film actress in series of one-reel Westerns, in which she was invariably cast as the toughtalking, gun-toting Calamity Jane-type who beat the men at their own game.
The Texas Guinan of legend, however, emerged at a party one evening in the early 1920s. The 18th Amendment had banned the sale of alcoholic beverages, which did not inhibit the show-biz folks who had gathered in a New York hotel after a performance at the Winter Garden.
Nor did it slow down Texas Guinan, who was the life of the party. Larry Fay, an enterprising bootlegger and gangster, recognized her talents and proposed to set her up in business as mistress of ceremonies at his El Fey Club.
She quickly became a character that might have stepped right out of the pages of Damon Runyon, presiding over the smoky club from a tall stool in the middle of the room, trading insults with patrons, periodically blowing a police whistle and greeting each new arrival with a cheery “Hello, sucker.”
Feds and the police raided the El Fey club, but it reopened within days a few blocks away as the Del Fey Club, with Ms. Guinan at her old stand. When the Del Fey was raided, she turned up again at the Texas Guinan Club, also raided, then the Del Fey Club in Miami, likewiseÂ raided. Then the 300 Club, the Club Intime and finally Texas Guinan’s Salon Royale.
In the meantime, she returned to the theater in several musicals about her speak-easy career and appeared in two of the new talkie movies.
By 1929, however, her New York career was on the skids. She took her show to Chicago, where, one night at the Green Mill, a local night spot, the club manager was shot in a dispute over rent. Ever the professional, Ms. Guinan told the band to keep playing and kept up aÂ stream of wisecracks while the police arrived, gathered up the injured club owner, conducted an investigation, arrested the suspects and left.
Afterward, she showed up at police headquarters dressed in ermine and pearls to declare she knew nothing of the shooting. It was pure Guinan.
The end of Prohibition was in view, however. She made another attempt to take her show to London and Paris, but both refused her visas on the grounds of “poor taste.” Ever resourceful, she renamed the show “Too Hot for Paris” and attempted a U.S. tour with mixed results. She was performing in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1933 when she was stricken with an intestinal infection and rushed to a hospital. She died Nov. 5, 1933.
Exactly one month later, Prohibition was repealed.
As she reportedly told a nurse in the hospital during her final illness: “Tell ’em I’m not dead I’m on my way to recovery.”