Black Ties And Corsages/Shooters And Chasers

There were two big dances during the Christmas season, the White Ball and the Charity Ball. These were formal dances held at the Fort Henry Club. The young ladies wore all white, floor length evening gowns for the White Ball, and the Charity Ball was a beautiful array of colored gowns. Of course, the men all wore black tuxedos with board-front shirts with studs, cuff links, and a black bow tie.

The men would pick up their dates at their homes and sit in the living room with the mother making light talk, until the date descended the stairs. She would be a walking testimonial to the skills of hairdressers, family, or friends who assisted in the dressing and application of makeup. As part of the standard ritual before departure, a corsage, usually delivered by a florist, was ceremoniously pinned to the dress, commonly a gardenia or an orchid. The family automobile had been approved for this important occasion weeks in advance.

The older club members were given tables in the ballroom on the third floor, while the younger set was seated on the first or second floors, which necessitated taking the elevator or climbing two flights of stairs to dance to the orchestra. Since the older folks didn’t dance much, we thought the seating of the two groups should be reversed, but it never happened.

These were lovely affairs with the young ladies showing off their mutton fur coats and those home from southern finishing schools, their newly acquired southern accents. The needs of all the tables were attended to most efficiently by a small army of help, all black, and dressed in white starched jackets and black trousers.

These affairs were memorable because of all the planning that was involved. The dates, that is the young ladies, were discussed, planned, and asked weeks ahead of time. Then, of course, the cars for transportation had to be arranged.

There were similar affairs at the Wheeling Country Club, the Elks Club, and a number of others. I remember the Elks Club had a party in the afternoon before Christmas with three roasts of beef set out, one rare, one medium, and one well done. The Fort Henry Club had its eggnog party where families came for lunch. All those who had been away at school or had married and left the town had a wonderful time catching up on the latest news.

A near tragedy occurred when a prominent gentleman left his family at the Fort Henry Club and told them he was going to the Twilight Club, a men’s shooting enclave in the country. The club burned to the ground late that afternoon, and the fellow did not come home. The “widow” and her children went to the remains of the clubhouse and were involved in looking for his body in the ashes, to no avail.

In the meantime our gentleman had been diverted from the Twilight Club by an ol’ buddy who persuaded him to have just one at the Elks Club, a short walk from the Fort Henry. While his distraught family, friends, and Twilight Club members were kicking through the ashes, he was having a jolly old time at the elks Christmas Party.

The Alpha Bar and Grill, under the active management of the owner Frank Miller, had a party on Christmas for its regulars who had no family. All food and beer and booze (liquor was illegal then, and the only allowable was 3.2 beer) was free and a local M.D., who was a domino player, helped Frank tend bar.

I ran out of bourbon at the house and went to the alpha to borrow a fifth, which everyone did when the state liquor store was closed. I knocked on the locked door and Frank opened it saying “Bill, you can’t come in here, you have a family.” He passed a fifth out the door and wished me a merry Christmas. In those days the Alpha acted as a state store (on a loan basis), cashed checks, and ran all sorts of games for every level of gambling interest. It was the neighborhood club house. Arch told me he was sober six weeks before he found out you could cash a check at a bank.

Frank was one of the coolest men I have met. I was playing poker in the back room, and Frank was dealing and dragging the house cut of the pot. When the “open” or the “man under the gun” rotated around the table, all hell seemed to break loose. We could hear a big brawl with crashing tables and chairs. We were afraid to leave the room. The bartender called him on the intercom, used mainly to order drinks and sandwiches, and said “Frank, there is one hell of a fight out here. Do you want me to call the police?” This was a dicey decision, since it was well after hours with an active game and illegal booze. As the fight raged on, Frank pressed the button and said “No, Babe, just tell them to keep it down.”

There was a foundry foreman named Fred who was a regular and who drank above the national average. He was loud with a gravelly voice, and outlandish statements were expected of him. He took great delight in telling the newer veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars that he had fought in “the big war”, World War ll , “the only real war”.

He would sit in the poker games, put in his ante, but never play, and drink the free drinks provided to the players. When he had had his fill, he would struggle to his feet and proclaim loudly that he was going somewhere else so he could get a decent brand of scotch. Frank would push the intercom button and tell the front to put Fred in a cab and send him home.

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Tom O’ Brien’ s son, Tommy, married a French girl and when Tommy’s father in law visited Wheeling, Tom took him to the Alpha. As they were winding their way through the bar, stopping for introductions, Fred careened into them, apologizing in his loud voice, to which the Frenchman replied that it was nothing.

Fred stopped cold in his tracks and asked him if he were French.

The Frenchman replied with a big smile and said that he was indeed French. Fred answered “Well, if it weren’t me you’d be a German today” and then lurched off.

In town it was happening! Prostitution was kept south of the creek. There was also a large black and tan section where the most famous joint was “Tootsie’s” down at the end of an alleyway.

My brother Jim got rolled going in there one evening. When he got himself back together he went into Tootsie’s and demanded his wallet back. Tootsie set Jim up at the bar, and in about twenty minutes handed him his wallet, intact!

Jim was a character, a man about town, a real “boulavardier”.

Mary Ann, my wife, had a cousin who was a classics professor at the University of Vermont and an authority on Cicero. Brady was well versed in classical Latin and Greek. He was also pretty good in modern Greek. Jim took Brady, the blonde, blue eyed professor, who lifted weights as a hobby, out on the town. They were sitting at the bar in Billy’s drinking metaxa, and Brady was practicing his Greek conversational skills with the bartender, when “Big Bill” Lias came in and wondered who the blonde Greek was. He invited Brady to his table for a drink. For a conversational opener, Brady asked Lias if he were born in this country. There was a flurry of excitement. Brady, who was from Vermont, didn’t realize the government was fixated on Lias as an undocumented alien. It was soon apparent that Brady was a naive visitor from out of town.

The next day when Brady was telling me about the excitement he had caused, I told him that there were deportation proceedings underway. The blood drained from his face and his hangover was intensified by the knowledge of how close he had come to big trouble.

After things settled down, Brady told me they had discussed Plato’s apology in Greek and that it was a most enjoyable conversation.

There were many clubs up and down Market and Main Streets with piano players or small combos.

I remember Martha Banks and a blind fellow, Lebanese I believe, who was a very natty dresser. These were very popular piano players who had their followers.

The old town was a wild and wooly place south of the creek.

One of my favorite stories concerned a young lawyer who was drinking it up in a beer joint called the Menu Cafe, I believe it was located on the southwest corner of Chapline and 26th Street.

This was one of the many dumps that existed selling illegal drinks to a barroom crowd of men mostly standing and talking. There was no kitchen, just beer and shots from the bottle kept out of sight under the bar. This is back before the post office and other urban renewal projects were built in an effort to clean up the town.

Our young lawyer ran out of money but wasn’t ready to go home so he borrowed enough from a buddy to walk up the street and rent a prostitute, bring her back to the bar, parade her around then raffle her off. He paid off his loan and continued to enjoy the evening.

One of the more popular places was the “ETC”, the Executive Travelers’ Club, which first started on the ground floor, then moved to the second, up a treacherous flight of stairs. The prosecuting attorney fell down them early one morning but was so relaxed he received only minor bruises. In deference to the law, Morry, the owner, had the steps carpeted.

The place was notorious for over charging and short changing customers. There was a very popular barmaid who was well endowed with beautiful smokey eyes and long black, wavy hair named Gypsy. There would be four or five fellows sitting at the bar in deep animated conversation with their change sitting in front of them. One would say “Give us another round here, Gypsy”. The drinks would be set up, and gypsy would take the money for the round from his change laying in front of him and also from the change in front of one of the other fellows who just assumed it was his round. Once in a great while someone would notice and remark, “She just did it again!” And on with the conversation.

At the ETC, it seemed that there were always very attractive women around to keep a lonely traveling salesman company. They were very laid back (couldn’t help myself) and would only respond to a pass made by a customer. The food was another attraction. Lobster and prime beef steaks were excellent and well prepared and served.
I am probably very lucky to have come through those years and be able to tell about it from an advanced age with only a few dents in my fenders. Maybe because I always said that I never got drunk enough to eat the pickled pigs feet that sat in jars of vinegar on the bars of so many joints.