Dance caused commotion in Bangor

Posted Jan. 09, 2011, at 6:06 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

Surely, the day the Rev. Mr. Wilbur F. Berry, superintendent of the Christian Civic League of Maine, performed the “Hoochee-Coochee” at one of Bangor’s finest hotels before a convocation of dignitaries deserves at least a footnote in local history books. The League, an influential player in Maine politics, frequently made its presence known in the Queen City, visiting saloons and gambling dens in an effort to get public officials to enforce vice laws. The group’s target this time was the Eastern Maine State Fair, where there had been longstanding rumors of immorality on the midway.

The state’s commissioner of agriculture, A.W. Gilman, and the assistant attorney general, Charles P. Barnes, came to Bangor on Dec. 20, 1910, to listen to Berry’s charges at a public hearing in the clubroom at the Penobscot Exchange, the big hotel located just up Exchange Street from Union Station. At stake was the stipend given to the agricultural fairs each year by the state to promote farming. If Berry could prove fair managers had allowed an immoral act to appear, Commissioner Gilman would have to withhold the cash, which amounted to $1,750 — about $40,000 in today’s money — that year, according to the Bangor Daily Commercial. Fair officials had already spent that amount that summer.

Mr. Berry was the only witness. He said that on Aug. 25 he had visited one of the midway acts staged by vaudeville impresario “Diamond Lew” Walker. Berry paid the 10-cent admission to see this particular show twice that day, in the morning and the afternoon. The show was divided into two parts. The Rev. Berry objected to part of the first part, in which a young woman performed a “Spanish dance.” Her clothing was modest enough, said the minister, but her movements were immoral.

After the act ended, the barker had promised an even steamier show if the gentlemen in the audience would pay an additional 25 cents and step into a nearby “annex.” There, they “might see the dance as it was danced when John the Baptist lost his head,” giving the act biblical overtones.

Many of the men, including Mr. Berry, paid their quarters, but the result was a letdown. Inside, a girl “in a cabinet” wearing pink tights and “a flounce about her hips” did some “poses,” which were so unobjectionable Superintendent Berry did not include them in his complaint. Then, adding insult to injury, the original young woman of the infamous Spanish dance reappeared and rudely dismissed the crowd, saying, “You bald-headed sinners are as bad in Bangor as anywhere else. You’re the easiest group of suckers that ever bit a bare hook.”

Commissioner Gilman said he was puzzled about the Rev. Berry’s notion of immorality. He asked him to re-enact the Spanish dance. “Could you put your body in the same positions?” he asked (perhaps with a little smile quivering around the corners of his mouth?).

“I shouldn’t care to,” responded the witness modestly.

“Then how am I to know that the dance was immoral?”

Mr. Berry replied that if the stenographer (apparently a female) was sent out he would attempt the dance. After all the testimony had been taken and the stenographer had left the room, Mr. Berry then agreed to put on a little demonstration. He went through various “grotesque motions,” reported the Commercial, barely suppressing its editorial laughter

During this ridiculous display, Flavius O. Beal, one of the fair owners and a former Bangor mayor, said he didn’t see anything immoral about it. “It looks to me just like the motions a lame man would make in turning around, and I haven’t heard of any lame men being held up because they acted immorally.”

The Commercial, which had a long-standing feud with the League, exhibited its story jubilantly that evening with this sensational headline: REV. MR. BERRY DOES THE “HOOCHEE-COOCHEE” DANCE.

Berry was questioned closely about why he had waited weeks to file his complaint instead of doing it the day of his investigation. He replied that two years ago a detective employed by the League had been rudely rebuffed by local officials, when he reported gambling at the fair. Berry also said that the part of the act that he objected to was dropped at his behest at later fairs in several Maine towns and cities, hinting other communities might be just a little more moral than the Queen City, a thought highly offensive to Bangor’s leaders.

Berry said he had never seen such a dance “in the lowest theater that I have visited …” He was asked to define an immoral show. The statute said that “it was any show that tends to corrupt the morals of youth.” Berry added, “If you had seen the looks on the faces in that tent and seen the nudges between the men, you would have believed it immoral alright.”

Speaking in defense of the fair were 14 witnesses including the mayor, fair officials, several policemen and the police chief and Levi B. Walker, “Diamond Lew” himself. They all agreed the dance display had been properly modest and the fair had been the cleanest in history.

“I guarantee a good show for the price,” said Lew nonchalantly, adding he believed the Spanish dancer was proper for anyone to see.

A few weeks later Commissioner Gilman issued his predictable decision. THE WIGGLE DANCE WASN’T IMMORAL, crowed the Bangor Daily News on Jan. 3, 1911. While that newspaper favored prohibition, it had little use for the Civic League’s tactics. The complaint was dismissed. The fair association got its money. If anything objectionable was introduced into the program, it must have been done secretly against the instructions of officials, said Commissioner Gilman.

The fair doubtlessly would continue to be on its guard next year, however, just as were the Queen City’s saloonkeepers and slot machine proprietors. You could never tell when Civic League spies might be in the crowd.

An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com

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