Hardeen, the handcuff king, also known as Harry Houdini’s brother, was the headliner at the Bijou in Bangor in mid-December, 1912, a century ago. The next week, the top billing went to Mae West, fresh from Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater in New York.
The teenage “singing comedienne” impressed audiences with her cleverness and her fancy gowns, but not her singing ability. Mae, then a brunette, was still perfecting her art. Bangor folks were used to the best Broadway had to offer — up around the corner at the Bangor Opera House on Main Street.
Hardeen and West were just two examples of the acts topping the playbill at Bangor’s plush new vaudeville theater, which opened for business on Exchange Street in late August. Will Rogers, the rising young monologist and musical mimic, would be on the bill in February.
Bangor’s first movie theater had opened in 1907 and its first vaudeville house the next year. Meanwhile, the Bangor Opera House continued to play top Broadway and near Broadway shows, often with the original casts. But the Bijou at the moment was running the biggest newspaper advertisements with the flashiest acts, and, as if to upstage the Opera House, it even announced in December that opera singers who performed at the Boston Opera House would be coming to its fancy stage soon.
Bangor was movie crazy. Even the old Opera House occasionally marked time by showing movies for a week. During the two weeks Hardeen and Mae West appeared at the Bijou, the Opera House, the same theater that had featured the likes of Ethel Barrymore, Maude Adams and Billie Burke, advertised nothing but moving pictures — “First Balcony — 5 Cents” — just like the city’s three movie houses, The Nickel, the Graphic and the Palace.
The hype at the Bijou that surrounded Hardeen and West, who were second stringers on the country’s vaudeville circuit, tried to convince Bangoreans they were sitting on The Great White Way. But even the Bijou showed the newest and best motion pictures when the vaudevillians were taking a break.
Theodore Hardeen, Harry Houdini’s brother, created quite a commotion in the Bangor newspapers — much of it engineered by publicist press releases. “Can anyone in Bangor … produce a restraint device from which he cannot escape?” asked an early press notice published in the Bangor Daily News. After a few days, of course, it turned out the answer was in the negative.
During the week, Hardeen escaped from the city’s tramp chair and an army strait jacket. Other escapes were made from a “crazy crib” and “a punishment suit.” Various local people were recruited to apply the restraints of their choice including Old Town Police Chief O. B. Fernandez, employees of the local Army recruiting office, the City of Bangor and a local company, Cowan and McCarthy.
For those easily bored by predictable outcomes, the Bijou provided a full menu of other acts including the Mendelssohn Four, a quartet of “strictly high-class musicians” on the piano, violin and cello; the Two Macks, a “dainty duo” brother and sister team “who have been called the Ginger Girl and the Dancing Boy;” and James Horton, a singing comedian.
The next week the youthful Mae West was billed as a “bewitching comedienne whose display of Paris costumes will afford the ladies of Bangor a sartorial feast.” For those who liked gossip, the newspaper’s inaccurate hype alluded to stories about a run-in that West had with the French actress Gaby Desley in a recent Broadway play in which the Brooklyn girl upstaged the diva.
No matter what the publicists said, West was anything but a Broadway star at this early stage of her career. In the last couple of years, she had appeared in three Broadway productions, “not making it through two weeks in a single one of them,” according to one of her biographers. By 1912, vaudeville seemed to her a likely route to stardom, and she did not return to Broadway for several years. She became the icon we know today after she was writing and acting in her own plays and movies in the 1920s and ’30s, the mistress of the double entendre.
West’s act in Bangor consisted of five songs, including one called “Isn’t She the Brazen Thing.” The publicist said it gave her “an opportunity to travesty the remarks some people in some audiences make about some of the soubrettes they see on the stage” — namely her.
Other songs in West’s repertoire that week had suggestive titles as well including “It’s an Awful Easy Way To Make a Living,” and “I’ll Do That Little Thing For You.” Mae toned down the innuendo, probably having been warned by the theater management that Bangor was a fairly conservative town.
Mae had not yet become the tough-talking sex symbol that would make her famous one day as Diamond Lil and Lady Lou, and also earn her a few days behind bars for breaking censorship rules with her play “Sex”. But she was headed that way.
Her suggestive dancing while singing “Cuddle Up and Cling to Me” in New Haven around this time provoked theater owners to cancel her vaudeville act and inspired a riot by Yale students, according to her biographers. This event also inspired the newspaper headline “Her Wriggles Cost Mae West Her Job.” But she certainly didn’t violate any taboos in Bangor, at least not as reported in the newspapers.
A local review in the BDN declared Mae to be “a butterfly transplanted” from The Great White Way to Exchange Street. “She is typical of the gay life of Broadway. You see her prototypes in the feverish, scintillating, clever entertainments of the Winter Garden and the Moulin Rouge. In short, she is a certain New York type personified. Now please don’t gather from this there is anything in her act to disturb our chilled New England propriety; for there isn’t — no, not in the slightest degree. It is a very good little act, clever, pretty and refined,” wrote a Bangor Daily News reviewer on Dec. 17, 1912. He was probably trying to convince himself as much as the police who undoubtedly had taken a look for themselves.
Mae topped the bill that night over an acrobat with “a little snow-white fluffy dog who seems almost human,” a trio “snappy and bright,” and a playlet entitled “‘Bixby’s Baby,’ which is perhaps above the average.” Steve Bogrett, the manager, had seldom offered up a better-balanced show, declared the reviewer.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.