"Goin' up to Cripple Creek, goin' on a run
Goin' up to Cripple Creek to have a little fun."
--traditional folk song
The old mountain at 9,500 feet is a remnant of it's primordial splendor. It perseveres. Now on Man's clock it flaunts its rocky crest at the top of the sky. At dawn the sun slices through the rare ether, casting inky shadows in its bright wake. The top of the peak, here above the timberline, falls away into a black hole, a pit deep enough to hide the greed and offal in the slaughterhouse of human legacy. But the sun climbs the sky and lets in the light. Shame and secrets obscured by night's deceit are visible again, truth through a chalky veil. Then more deliberate, inquisitive and bright.
The mountain is a dormant volcano and dawn exposes the landscape's ragged wounds. Chunks gouged from the peak, trenches chiseled into the rock and scrub, rotting timbers in the collapsed debris of abandoned mineshafts. Gigantic corroded conveyor systems, busted down shaft elevators, deteriorated water pipes that washed the gold from the chaff, abandoned minecarts scattered and toppled along rust-red tracks that stretch into black, haunted mineshafts. All timelocked in the 1800s and decaying at Nature's pace. These are monuments to the human proclivity to suck the assets from a region, and then forsake it for fairer fare. When the gold gave out the big mining companies moved on, leaving the mauled earth to be nibbled and gnawed by the pickaxes of prospectors and mountain men and women.
Here in the volcanic bowl, a town frozen in time at the top of the world with frightening access and brutal nine-month winters. Stretching up the sides of the bowl a grid of homes and businesses cling like tenacious saprophyte upon the slope. This is the blemish of civilization, an indelicate stain on a perfectly good grazing area for elk, a generous hunting ground for bear and an arena for the faultless savagery of the cougar. Instead there are abandoned whorehouses, a few bars, a jail, a church, wooden sidewalks and history suspended in amber.
On the rim a wind-blown figure stands guardian in the dawn. The cold high-country at his back as he surveys the town below him, like a demon keeping watch of his flock. Behind him the mountain range plays out and fills the bright blue skay from edge to edge. He patrols the only road up the mountain, over the rim and into town. The man is blind, and at his feet a small herd of goats perch on promontory rocks and bray and nuzzle the craggy sod in search of the earth's elusive delicacies. Frigid winds whip at the taciturn figure like angry spirits, tearing at his clothing and burning his flesh. Impassive on the stone rim he surveys through his blind eyes, the beauty of Nature's caprice. The bleat of goats and the clank of goatbells violate the quiet as he inhales daybreak's crisp ozone and detects the titillating scent of trouble rolling up the pike.
By 1965 things were starting to churn. In March LBJ sent the first ground troops into Vietnam. Martin Luther King turned up the heat in Selma, Alabama, and the police responded with tear gas, dogs and clubs. Malcolm X is shot and killed at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Augustus Owsley Stanley manufactures and distributes 300,000 hits of LSD. The L.A. Free Press starts publishing regularly. Dylan releases his first all electric album, "Bringing it all Back Home". Watts burns. Che Guevara heads for Bolivia. The Selective Service starts calling up thousands of young men a month. The SDS launches the first anti-Vietnam march in Washington -- at 25,000 strong it equals the number of troops in southeast Asia. The Beatles play to 55,000 screaming girls at Shea Stadium. Mini-skirts appear in stores. And Pop art fills NYC's trendy galleries.
In Canton, Missouri, life chugged along at its usual prosaic and colorless pace but we made do. Cecilia Einhaus and I were in love and spent as much time as possible hitting it in the backseat of my Dad's Ford Falcon stationwagon. I was a young, bearded art kid trying to be as bohemian as the environment would allow. And Cecil was going all Carnaby Street in a small town Missouri way. The infectious Counterculture had set down roots but it would be a couple of years before it became a full-blown taint.
In the meantime I was 20-years-old and had completed my sophomore year at Culver-Stockton college when a summer job opportunity came my way.
In April 1965 Truman Capote was at the Lansing Correctional Facility to witness the executions of Perry Smith and Dick Hickok. He had already spent considerable time in the Kansas sticks researching the murder of the Clutter family for a book that would become "In Cold Blood".
When Tru needed to blow off a little steam he would escape the outback for the relaxation and entertainment of Kansas City's transvestite clubs. And the primo tv club in Kansas City in '65 was the Jewel Box Lounge, a Mafia-run business (operated by mobster John Trucillo) at 3219 Troost -- next door to the Yum-Yum Club, a popular strip joint. The headliner at the Jewel Box was Rae Bourbon.
Bourbon was a legendary drag queen fond of rewriting his own history. He claimed to be born Hal Wadell in Texarkana, Texas, in 1892. Another time he said he was born Ramon Icarez near Chihuahua, Texas, in 1889. Or that he was the illegitimate child of a Texas Congressman. He finally settled on claiming to be the son of Franz Joseph of Austria and Louisa Bourbon. As a young man, at his family ranch on the border of Texas and Mexico the story goes he assumed the identity of "Senora Diablo" and, in Mexican drag, smuggled guns and supplies to Pancho Villa. In 1917 He entered a Photoplay contest and won first prize, a studio contract. He was given small parts is several silent films including "Blood and Sand", "The Volga Boatman", "Manslaughter" and "The Ten Commandments".
By the mid '20s Bourbon was on the vaudeville stage with Bert Sherry (straightman to Bourbon's exuberant queen) as half of the act "Bourbon and Sherry". By the '30s Rae was working full-time as a female impersonator at Jimmy's Back Yard in Hollywood and other L.A. and San Francisco nightclubs. In 1933 his live radio broadcast of "Boys Will Be Girls" was raided by the police and Bourbon was arrested for the first of many times for performing his art. In the late '30s and early '40s Rae was the headliner at his own Los Angeles club, The Rendezvous, in his revue "Don't Call Me Madam."
In 1944 Rae Bourbon caught the eye of Mae West who cast him in stage productions of "Catherine Was Great" and "Diamond L'il. He performed "Don't Call Me Madam" to sold out crowds at Carnegie Hall. In the '50s and '60s he played clubs and dives throughout the U.S., and recorded dozens of record albums. During these pre-Stonewall days Bourbon was like the connective tissue for a community of homosexuals in tanktowns to urban areas. In a sequined frock, Rae planted his pansy bon mots nationwide. Bourbon's act was simultaneously trashy and covertly seditious. His show was vulgar, hilarious, rude and brilliant. As part of his act he had four or five trained dogs dyed different colors who would urinate on cue.
Over the years Rae was arrested for the crime of impersonating a female in Los Angeles, Seattle, El Paso and New Orleans. In 1958 he was arrested in Miami for impersonating a man.
Despite his close connection to the homosexual community, Rae was a switch-hitter. He had been married a couple of times, had a son and would perform in and out of drag. He enjoyed robust relationships with both sexes, though he had an affinity for young boys. And he had developed a deep love for animals. At one time he had 40 dogs, several cats and two skunks. And Rae Bourbon was homicidally intolerant when it came to animal cruelty.
By the 60s Rae Bourbon's career was on the skids and he was having a difficult time making ends meet. He had written (with input from Mae West) a largely autobiographical play, "Daddy Was a Lady". He had negotiated with R.W. Elsenpeter Productions to produce his play, first in Cripple Creek, Colorado, then Off-Broadway in New York.
So in June, 1965, Rae, with his 18-year-old lover, Pat Lee, motored his beat-up 1955 Cadillac Sedan into the sunset hauling a ramshackled house-trailer filled with a couple of dozen dogs -- he'd pick up a few more strays along the way.
POSSUM HOLLER OPRY
Possum Holler Opry was a country and western jamboree television show that was broadcast live from WGEM-TV, channel 10, out of Quincy, Illinois, every Sunday at 12:30. The announcer would call out "Hi Ho neighbors! It's Possum Holler Opry time!" Then the fun would begin.
The producer of the show was Richard Elsenpeter. He was also the host and performed under the persona of "Toby Dick Ellis", a goofy, carrot-wigged, bib-overalled country bumpkin. He imbued the show with a crazy pedestrian sensibility -- a state of human consciousness that civility prevents us from enjoying as the Good Lord intended -- that we are basically knuckle-heads even though we consider ourselves erudite and Byzantine.
The "Toby" character was a Midwestern show-business phenomenon born out of an attempt to bring entertainment and culture to the hinterlands. Early in the century traveling tent shows would tour rural America. The idea was to bring teachers, entertainers, speakers and specialists to those who normally would not have exposure to such enlightenment. Over the years the high-end cultural nature of the tent shows eroded into vaudeville-like performances. And out of that was born the "Toby and Susie" shows.
Toby and Susie were kind of a provincial American Punch and Judy played out by actors instead of puppets. They were cut of broad humor, sight-gags, pratfalls and marital rumpus designed to appeal to rural audiences. The Toby character was always a dimwitted bucolic lout in bib-overalls, bare feet and an orange fright-wig. And that was Elsenpeter's role on Possum Holler Opry.
I was a avid fan of Possum Holler Opry and I wasn't alone. It was the most popular show on WGEM, reaching 75,000 viewers a week. And when Toby Dick made a personal appearance at the Keokuk, Iowa Street Fair (Billed as the largest Street Fair in the USA.) in 1963 he drew the largest audience in the history of the fair.
Toby Dick's sidekick was Al Harvey. Al was short, bald and paunchy in an over-sized ten-gallon hat and sequined duds. Toby and Al would banter and joke and, occasionally Al would break out his guitar and croon a country ballad or two. At some point in the show Toby would break into the "Possum Holler Strut". To the music of a bluegrass breakdown Toby would go as ridged as a board from the waist up but frenzied spaghetti-legged hoedown stomping from the waist down.
The guests on the show were usually country & western performers on the way up or on the downhill glide to obscurity. And the end of every show was a Baptist-flavored religious message. Somber organ music swelled "Nearer My God to Thee" and there stood Toby Dick, country bucktoothed goofus fright-wig and all, imploring us all to love one another and to get to church and worship the God of our choice. Fade to black.
Elsenpeter lived and bled show business. He had appeared in numerous tent shows throughout the Tri-State area of Illinois, Missouri and Iowa, as well as on radio, television and in motion pictures. Members of the Possum Holler Opry gang made personal appearances and often provided backup band support for country stars like Flatt and Scruggs, Tex Ritter and the Wilburn Brothers. They appeared to capacity crowds at the Illinois State fairground during the winter months hosting Gran Ole Opry acts and were heard live over seven radio stations in Illinois. Toby Dick handled the emcee chores providing comedy, chatter, song and interplay with the audience. And during the summer months R.W. Elsenpeter Productions produced summerstock stage-plays from St. Louis to Cripple Creek, Colorado.
In late Spring I'd received a call from Toby Dick Ellis (aka R.W. Elsenpeter) asking if I would be interested in helping with the publicity for a summer-stock show he was producing in Colorado. The show was "Daddy was a Lady", starring and written by Rae Bourbon. The fact that I'd never handled publicity didn't bother me or Dick Ellis. I was after escape and adventure, he was after cheap.
I agreed to meet Toby Dick at Tony's Pizzeria just down the block from the WGEM-TV studios in Quincy, Illinois.
I drove twenty miles south and crossed the Mississippi into Quincy, Illinois, a boisterous river town of 45,000 originally settled by German Catholics. With a bar on every corner and a church in every block, Quincy was known as "Little Chicago" in deference to its corrupt politics and its organized criminal elements. And, during Prohibition, Al Capone would retreat there when the heat was up. It was the city to my village where my companions and I would go to drink, barrelhouse and seek the spirited mischief that we, in our youth, considered fun.
I walked into Tony's Pizzeria, shook hands with Dick Ellis and ordered a beer.
Tony's Pizzeria was not a carry out pizza joint but an Italian restaurant that specialized in pizza in order to appeal to the pedestrian taste-buds of the midwestern locals. It was owned and operated by Tony Aleman, a thick-necked and sturdy Sicilian who enjoyed a infamous reputation around town. Tony was a tough guy raised on west Taylor Street in Chicago, a member of the iniquitous Aleman family who were footsoldiers, enforcers and hitmen for the Outfit. Some said Tony was coerced to leave Chicago due to some transgression that, under normal circumstances, would have called for five or six small caliber cartridges emptied into his brainpan. But Tony was a Aleman, and in accordance with a code of respect in deference to his family's position, he was allowed to live but was banished from Chicago and forbidden to return lest he suffer an encounter with concrete overshoes.
Tony ended up in Quincy in the restaurant business, an efficient way of masking other, more lucrative, enterprises. Upstairs Rose, Tony's girlfriend, rode herd over a gambling den and a couple of hookers. And Tony was a bit of a loan-shark. His enforcer was his bartender, "Curly", a bald mountain of menace who somewhat resembled "Curly" on the Three Stooges. Only more homicidal.
"So, Skip" says Toby Dick, "I'm producing a couple of summerstock shows this year. One is a melodrama in the Ozarks. And the other one is in Cripple Creek, Colorado. The one in Cripple Creek is an original comedy called 'Daddy was a Lady', written by Rae Bourbon and Mae West. Rae will star in the show. He's known world-wide as the best female impersonator in show business."
"He isn't a queer, is he?" I chirped.
"Naw! This guy is legitimate theater. He's been on the Ed Sullivan Show. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby are his friends. He produces record albums like Redd Fox and Rusty Warren. Y'know...party records for sophisticated adults. He's been around a long time, a real Hollywood character."
"We want you to design the posters, showcards and print ads." continued Toby Dick. "You'll prepare press releases and act as the spokesman for the production to newspapers, radio and television. You'll be Mr. Bourbon's personal press agent. We plan to take the show to New York in the Fall. If you work with us now, you're with us Off-Broadway."
"Why Cripple Creek?" I asked.
"There's lots of summertime tourist trade there because of its history as a Gold Rush boomtown. Military bases pepper the area. When these guys are on leave they need to have a couple of drinks and a little nasty repartee. We can give them one-stop service because we'll be operating a restaurant, a saloon and a theater out of the Grubstake Hotel. Cripple Creek is a page out of the Wild West complete with prospectors, wild donkeys and half-breed Indians. Tony and Curly are going out to run the bar and restaurant for us." Toby Dick said. "We'll pay you thirty bucks a week plus room and board. And we'll provide you with a car."
Over that beer my soul left my good counsel and entered in league with a seventy-two year old cross dresser, no matter how homo his sexuality. The deal was made. The promise of adventure and thrill serenaded provocatively, stage left.
For me it would be a Coming of Age experience. For Curly, a more Coming of Death thing.
In the early days of the 1890s the valley between Pike's Peak and the Sangre de Christo mountain range was largely uninhabited. But by the time Cripple Creek was incorporated in 1892 there were 5,000 residents in the district that included Cripple Creek and the town of Victor ten miles due south. By 1900 the gold-rush was on and the population of Cripple Creek had swollen to 35,000, and Victor to 5,000. At that time Cripple Creek had 49 grocery stores, 20 meat markets, 14 bakeries, 5 livery stables, 90 doctors, 2 undertakers, 73 saloons and 16 churches. 15 newspapers were published in the district -- 8 in Cripple Creek, five of which were dailies.
But by 1965 Cripple Creek was largely a ghost town. There were maybe 2,500 residents but the physical town remained as an abandoned grid of homes, businesses, whorehouses, churches and a jail -- like history suspended in amber.
Early in June Cecilia Einhaus and I -- freshly in love and awash in young lust -- said our tearful goodbyes. I hopped into Toby Dick's car and we hit the road.
We headed west across Missouri and Kansas -- past the skeletal remains of farms and homesteads ravaged by dust storms during the 1930s -- until the Rocky mountains loomed out of the flat plain. We followed route 24 through Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs and past the Garden of the Gods. Then up the mountains until we were above the timber-line. When we reached the Florrisant Pass we turned down route 67. About a mile from our destination we passed the remains of the Mollie Kathleen, a gold mine abandoned by the big mining companies when the gold was depleted enough that the operation was no longer cost effective. All that was left were corroded conveyor systems and rusted-out ore carts scattered and toppled, a monument to Man's propensity to suck the assets of a given area and then to forsake it for fairer fare. Then up over the rise of an ancient rim of a prehistoric volcanic crater. In the valley created by the crater lay Cripple Creek. As we crossed over the rim a cluster of wild angora goats bleated and announced our arrival to an old blind man who lived among them. He greeted us and welcomed us to the Gold Camp.
It was twilight as we rolled into town and down Bennett Street to the lowest recess of the antediluvian crater and parked in front of the Grubstake Hotel.
As the sun set behind the Sangre de Christo range a female figure brushing her long hair was silhouetted in a second floor window of the hotel singing "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child". Her crystalline voice resonated and echoed the tuneful harbinger across the mountain top. "That's Princess Bodeen" Dick Ellis said. "Her boyfriend, Dean Gattis, will be playing the role of Rae's son."
As we unloaded our goods some hapless soul had been collared by the bartender and tossed onto the street through the swinging doors of the Grubstake saloon.
"And stay out!" the bartender barked.
We entered the saloon, found a seat at the bar and I ordered a beer. I turned to an hammered customer sitting next to me and asked "Who was that guy who just got tossed out?"
"The sheriff," he answered.
The Grubstake Hotel was a three-story red brick building. The entrance was through the swinging doors that accessed the bar. The bar was on the left and the tables were on the right. Beyond the tables was the stage. Behind the bar and restaurant area was a broad stairway that led to the second floor. Though not palatial by any means, the rooms were large. Each room had a pot-bellied stove and a big brass bed. The bathrooms had a big claw-foot cast-iron tub and an old fashioned gravity toilet with an elevated tank and a flush chain hanging down. At one time these were pretty fancy digs for prospectors and greenhorns, their pockets bulging with nuggets. The place reeked of history. The ghosts of desperadoes and gun-toting fortune-seekers roamed the halls.
Evoking Hollywood's golden age, behind the bar there were several large aging photographs of a doe-eyed, platinum Jean Harlow look-alike. It turned out that the time-worn woman co-bartending behind the bar -- now wild-eyed and gray-haired -- was the starlet in the photos. She owned the Grubstake with her prospector husband, Jack. And shortly after Rae Bourbon arrived, she and Jack headed into the wilderness in search of gold. She had been a crony of Rae's back in the early Hollywood days. And Rae confided in me during the Summer that "the old dear" was suffering the advanced ravages of syphilis, and was quite batty as a result .
Except for the population deficit, the streets of Cripple Creek hadn't changed much since the 1800s. Individual prospectors were still successfully panning for gold in the wild country around Cripple Creek and Victor. Grizzled mountain men would stumble into the gold camp in search of alcohol and diversion after weeks in the outback. Bleary-eyed Indians and buckskin-wearing owlhoots openly packed sidearms. And packs of wild donkeys roamed the countryside where they'd bred for generations after being abandoned by prospectors back in the day.
Cripple Creek, snowed-in without access nine months out of the year, was a self-sustaining community that operated quite effectively as a small city-state bordering on -- and often dropping into -- pure, glorious anarchy rooted in rapacious corporate greed and a smidgen of Government sponsored aboriginal slaughter.
Around the middle June that area of Colorado was experiencing record flooding. Denver was under water, as was Colorado Springs. Water runs downhill, so logically being on the mountain top should be an ideal location in such an event. But Cripple Creek was nestled in a primeval dormant volcanic crater, a bowl that rapidly filled up. For a couple of weeks everyone in town had to boil water.
The flooding also kept a normally robust tourist trade away from the gold camp. Even the regular local traffic from the military bases and the Air Force Academy was scant.
The day after I arrived Rae Bourbon and Pat Lee pulled into the camp driving their beat-up old Cadillac towing a small ramshackle house-trailer housing 26 dogs.
Pat Lee was Rae's acne-scarred 18-year-old lover, a fellow transvestite performer at the Jewel Box. Six of the dogs were performers in Rae's act. The ones that were dyed pastel colors and trained to urinate on cue. The rest of the dogs were strays Rae picked up on his travels.
The performing dogs stayed in Rae and Pat's room. The remainder, in the trailer.
Dick Ellis stuck around for a few days. Tony Aleman and the menacing Curly arrived after a couple of days and took over the operation of the bar and restaurant.
Ellis left his surrogate, Al Harvey, in charge of the theatrical business and headed back to Missouri to wrangle with another summer-stock production he was producing in St, Louis.
Harvey, unlike the jovial chubby sidekick to "Toby" Dick Ellis he portrayed on "Possom Holler Opry", was a sullen, unpleasant character. And he didn't last out the summer. After butting heads with Tony Aleman over territorial rights, he high-tailed it back to the Midwest.
My first chore as Rae Bourbon's press liaison/publicist was to produce a caricature of Bourbon for general use. Then to design an invitation for opening night: "Grubstake Theatre, Cripple Creek, Colorado, proudly presents Rae Bourbon in the Pre-Broadway Production of "Daddy Was A Lady", Monday, June 28, at 8:30 p.m., R.S.V.P."
Bourbon showed up with only one copy of "Daddy was a Lady". So my next assignment -- in those days before the proliferation of the copy machine -- was to type 5 copies of the script.
The plot line was: Aging transvestite performer visits his ex-wife in order to establish a relationship with his grown son. In the process he murders a rival and gets away with it. Hilarity ensues.
Coincidentally, Bourbon had been married early in his life. A marriage that had produced a son.
The story of murderous cross-dressing marital rumpus sandwiched the second act, which was Bourbon's nightclub act.
After copying the script, the keys to Dean Gattis' car were handed over to me, to Dean's surprise and displeasure. I was told that I could use it whenever I needed it for my duties as Bourbon's publicist.
Tony Aleman sent me to a hostile Colorado Springs alcohol distributor to arrange regular deliveries of Budwieser to the bar. Then Rae instructed me to write a press release touting the opening of "Daddy was a Lady", his theatrical accomplishments (That included a performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show".) and that Mae West, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and other stellar luminaries would be showing up for opening night -- a litany I'd repeat at every newspaper, television and radio station in the surrounding area.
Cecilia and I would talk on the phone every evening. Our souls were entwined and our hearts beat as one. The separation seemed cruel and unnecessary. I knew Tony Aleman needed a waitress for the restaurant area so I asked him if Cecil could come out and fill the bill. He wanted to know if she was an attractive female and would she be opposed to wearing a skimpy costume. The fact was she had a terrific figure and I knew she'd do whatever she needed to do to get the two of us together. "Sure," I said. "She has a great rack." Tony said "Bring her out."
So Cecil hopped a train and I picked her up in Colorado Springs a couple of days later.
In the meantime Tony had hired an Aussie girl, who was backpacking across America, to wait tables. And business was so weak that, when Cecilia arrived, he didn't need her. So she ended up working the box office for the show.
Cripple Creek had a reputation as one most haunted ghost-towns of the Old West. With all of the vacant homes and businesses -- not to mention the scattering of abandoned mine shafts and broken-down prospector's cabins throughout the countryside -- there was room for spooks a-plenty.
Rehearsals were held in the third-floor ballroom area, an entire floor given over to one space. The director,Larry Fisher, was blocking moves during an early run-through. The cast was present -- Rae, Dean Gattis (the son), and Octavia Powell (Rae's wife) -- as well as those of us observing -- Cecil and me, Pat Lee and Princess Bodeen.
During the middle of the run-through the doorway from the hallway creaked open and in walked a grizzled old coot in overalls and a beat up cowboy hat with the brim flipped up like "Texas" John Slaughter. Stooped, yet determined, the scrawny old guy walked through the cast members and a stunned Larry Fisher. The dialogue came to a halt. All eyes were on the old coot, who walked across the length of the ballroom to a doorway on the opposite side, opened the door, stepped through the doorway and closed it behind him.
"Who the fuck was that?" exclaimed Larry Fisher.
Several of us went over to the doorway where the old guy had exited. But, when we opened the door, there was nothing. No stairs, no other room. Only a straight drop to the ground three stories down. And no sign of the codger. Not sprawled on the ground, not walking away. Nowhere.
"Lotsa ghosts in this town," said Rae Bourbon.
When there wasn't a rehearsal or a performance -- Pat Lee, such a girl himself, spent most of his afternoons and evenings with the women.
" I was two weeks late this month! But this morning I started bleeding like a stuck pig! Honey, I needed two tampons and a super pad. Good God, I can't stop the flow!" he shrieked.
He would come up to our room and gather all the girls around him dispensing makeup tips, doing their hair and painting their nails. Applying lipstick and mascara to Cecilia, Princess and Octavia Powell (A 60-year-old actress from Fort Worth who had the role of Rae's wife.) excitedly squealing, giddy and jabbering. Especially jabbering, weaving colorful stories about his life and adventures with Rae Bourbon.
"Rae LOVES colored boys. Especially young ones. He's been vacationing in Haiti for years. The old darling practices Voodoo. And, believe you me, you don't want to get on his bad side. He'll use it against you. You'll die an unpleasant death. I've seen it. It's not a pretty sight, my dear!"
"Let me tell you, sweet thing, if you hurt one of his dogs he'll dispatch you straight out. I watched him murder a truck driver who killed one of his dogs. He caught that poor guy under his truck making repairs. Rae kicked out the jack and squashed that boy's head like a pumpkin!"
"He loves his dogs. And, Miss Thing, they love him. I've seen rabid strays and wild wolves come up to him and lick his face. His dogs are everything to him!"
I was having breakfast at the bar. The night before, on his way back to Cripple Creek from Colorado Springs, Curly had careened off of route 24 into a substantial ravine. He had died in the wreckage.
"This was not an accident," smoldered Tony.
"He was run off the road, and I got a pretty good idea who did it"
Almost from the beginning there had been bad blood between Tony Aleman and Rae Bourbon. Curly was Tony's capo. He'd spew anti-fag invectives and threats from behind the bar. His hatred was thick, unvarnished and constant. And it expanded exponentially as the Summer waned and it became clear that "Daddy was a Lady" would continue playing to empty houses.
It had become a test of wills, this confrontation between the Aleman camp (Sicilian, Chicago-schooled) and Bourbon (Aging Hollywood queen with allegiance to Kansas City's John Trucillo mob). Animosity between disparate Mafia factions is a commonplace thing. Generally speaking, civilians remain unscathed -- unless caught in the crossfire.
Throughout the Summer the game had escalated and the ante had been raised almost daily. The death of Curly was the latest card in play.
Shortly after "Daddy was a Lady" had opened, playing to audiences of two or three, Tony pulled me aside and said he wanted to put a couple of working girls and gambling upstairs in order to increase revenue. Or maybe, just out of habit.
We were in the room behind the bar area, and he was fiddling with a large kitchen knife.
"I've put a call in to the Boys in from Hot Springs," he said. "They'll arrange everything. Put in the slots and a roulette wheel and get a couple of girls out here. I'll bring in Rose to keep the girls corralled. We'll manage it all from this end. They'll make boodle and we'll get a decent taste."
"It's time someone generated some green in this shithole!" he snarled, and added emphasis by chunking the knife across the room and embedding it into a door jam splintering wood and my nerves.
"Hot Springs is sending representatives to check out the operation this weekend."
The following Saturday three toughs in sharkskin suits and dark glasses sauntered through the swinging doors into the Grubstake and took seats at the bar. Tony poured drinks and the four of them hunched together as Aleman, in low tones, revealed his plan.
Tony was hardly into his scheme when Pat Lee minced into the barroom and squealed "Oh, my stars! Look at the BIG STRONG MEN! It makes a young girl's heart skip a beat!" He took the stool next to one of the yeggs, dramatically crossed his legs, grabbed ahold of the mug's arm and cooed "Oh mercy me. What BIG muscles you have!" Pat Lee's grip moved from the gangster's arm and up his inner thigh as he chirped, "I'll bet you're big ALL OVER!"
God knows why Pat Lee wasn't cold-cocked off the bar-stool and beaten into perfumed hamburger? Certainly immediate primal retribution was currency here at the top of the mountain, where yahoos in buckskins openly packed firearms and Indians fueled by firewater and historical issues roamed skittish with nothing left to lose. And the toughs had no aversion to violence.
But it didn't happen. Maybe it was because there was a substantial wide-eyed audience seated transfixed at the saloon's tables.
We all knew that the mobsters were scheduled here on this day and we didn't want to miss the entertainment. Cecilia and I were there. As was the director, Larry Fisher, Octavia Powell, Dean and Princess and the usual grizzled prospectors or two.
Not that there wasn't an explosion. But it was aimed at Tony Aleman.
The three thugs collared Tony, redressing their outrage for wasting their time in this backwater ghost town. Time that would be better spent extorting businessmen or pipe-bombing rival thugs back home. It wasn't so much that a flaming queen groped them as it was that there was clearly nothing here for them. No business. No loot to pillage.
The acrimonious three stormed out of the saloon warning Aleman to never contact Hot Springs again. And that, if he did, he would be dealt with harshly, with deadly malice. He'd end up in the Spring.
Pat Lee pranced off. And Tony's options -- in his field of criminal endeavor -- were rapidly diminishing.
Before Stonewall the queer lifestyle was more clandestine than today, especially in conservative and religiously fascist enclaves like Colorado Springs. No rainbow flags, no civically sanctioned Gay Pride parades.
"The next great civil rights movement will be for homo rights" Rae Bourbon told me. "J.F.K. had fairies in his inner circle," he smiled.
Rae was full of stories about old Hollywood. Who was a pansy, who drank too much. James Whale, Roman Navarro and Spring Byington. James and Roman, pansies. Spring, alcoholic. "I played a shepherd-girl in "The Ten Commandments". The silent version," he said.
His whole life he'd flitted from town to town in glittery pumps and lame' gowns, enraging pinch-faced, self-righteous civic leaders, distracting and inflaming them by telling jokes about cock sucking faggots, fey marriages and his alleged sex-change operation. His bitchy repartee was rigorous, funny and seductive. When he left town the perfumed scent of sedition hung in the air. Self-amused, Rae told me that he was a "real Johnny Assholeseed".
I was driving Rae to inspect a little club in Colorado Springs where he'd been invited to perform. We drove by a motel along the way and Rae said "That's quite a glory hole over there, dahling. A place where fairies and dykes can fuck and suck each other without fear of harassment or discovery by the Authorities."
"The door to each room is painted a different color. The color denotes what sort of monkey business is going on in the room. Red if you're a top. Green if you're a bottom. Yellow for young boys. Blue for Dykes. Black for rough trade. Purple for group activities."
We arrived at the club and pulled into the parking lot. We went into the darkened space. There was a small stage, a bar and seats for around a hundred patrons. The owner greeted Rae gregariously. He was a long-time fan. Rae looked old and stooped, as he always did when he was a man. He was like a specter, gray and indistinct. But when he was in drag he blossomed into an outrageous, spangled, effervescent, loud-mouthed dame.
The day of the performance Cecilia and I groomed for a night out and headed out for the venue. The show was uproarious and filthy. The joint was packed with Rae Bourbon fans. And I was afforded a certain celebrity status as Mr. Bourbon's press agent. A middle-aged gentleman with slicked back hair, a pencil-line mustache and too much cologne pressed a note into my hand and asked if I could deliver it to Rae. It read "Rae. Remember Trombone Trixie that night in New Orleans?"
After the show, Cecil and I headed out to the parking lot. There was a small knot of men in front of us loading into their car. A vehicle -- squealing out and spewing gravel -- roared past us. There was a "pop" and one of the young men getting into their car dropped to the ground.
Cecil said "Jesus. That guy's been shot!" I turned to the group and said "Hey! That guy's hurt. You need to get him to a hospital."
One of the men in the group said "He's only been shot a little bit," as they hoisted him into the back seat and hightailed it out of the parking lot.
THE SHOW GOES ON
Opening night was dismal. Only four or five in the audience. Which -- comparatively -- constituted a full-house compared to the rest of the run. No Hollywood personalities. Only a reporter from the Cripple Creek newspaper, a fat army sergeant and two or three stunned village residents.
Even though attendance at the play was miniscule, there was always a little traffic through the bar. Mainly locals, but also prospectors looking to get waxed after weeks in the back country panning for gold. Even though the big mining companies had ravaged the landscape and abandoned the place decades before, individual prospectors could still harvest ore and dust. Enough, in fact, to become wealthy. They'd come ambling over the rim leading their donkeys loaded down with picks, shovels and firearms in order to get drunk and resupply before heading back out in their search for gold. They were a grizzled lot in their overalls or buckskins. Unshaven and unbathed they looked nothing like the millionaires some of them were.
One of the regulars at the bar was a Indian named Jim Bluejacket. He'd roll into town every friday with his large dog, Babe. He was a big man with long black hair -- a very quiet and deferential guy. I'd have many conversations with him through the summer. He'd speak softly and he told me he preferred living in the mountain wilderness away from town. Civilization made him uncomfortable. He did a bit of prospecting in order to afford his trips into Cripple Creek. He'd sit at the bar and eat a steak and buy another one for Babe, who sat at his master's feet greedily devouring his weekly treat off a restaurant plate.
And every Saturday, like clockwork, Jim Bluejacket would get throughly greased on firewater. And, from the top of Bennett Street, down through the hollow and back up the other side of the rim he'd ride Babe like a steed. He'd hoop and howl and yip through the entire ride -- channeling the spirits of his warrior ancestors -- his long hair flying behind him like a battle flag. And Babe kicking up dust clouds, digging in and flying through the town's center was as happy and free as his master.
It was the Fourth of July Weekend and the final curtain had come down. The show had played to an audience of three. Now the place was dark, home only to the ghosts of the Gold Rush and dead Indians. The patrons and Grubstake staff were in bed or had gone home, but we were hungry.
Cecilia, Larry Fisher and I headed up Bennett Avenue to the Imperial Hotel for a little food and drink. The place was lit up and raucous. The bar area was bursting with intoxicated prospectors and owlhoots who'd been drinking all day. You could hear the laughter and boisterous celebration all the way back to the Grubstake hotel. The unruliness was punctuated by the occasional blast of an M-80 or a Cherry Bomb from inside the barroom, always followed by loud acclaim from the sotted, who were in full celebration. It was a cheerful night.
As we approached the barroom doorway a giggling grizzly drunk stumbled through the door with a lit Cherry Bomb in his hand, and he tossed the sputtering firework into the open window of a police car parked just outside the bar. The eyes of the cop sitting behind the wheel bugged impressively as the Cherry Bomb exploded in the seat next to him. It seemed the entire vehicle lifted off the pavement. And the cop wisely floored it and high-tailed away from the mayhem, smoke trailing from the open window of his squad car.
We went into the bar and found a table. The place was packed, and every table was overflowing with empty quart beer bottles. Only 3.2 beer was served here so it was necessary to consume ample volume in order to achieve the required delirium. Critical mass had been realized and lawlessness and disorder ruled the night.
We found a table and ordered beer. Our quarts arrived and we focused our energies on melding into the bedlam. An M-80 exploded in the corner of the bar and the crowd roared approval.
At the table next to us a pie-eyed old prospector, semi-conscious and very slaphappy -- having consumed copious quantities of beer -- sat at a table strewn with an impressive number of empty quart bottles. Momentarily lucid (or what passed for it the chaos) he spied a fellow tanked-up backwoodsman, a friend of his sitting at a table on the opposite side of us. His means of communication were limited. The din and yamp was much too raucous for any sort of verbal communication, not to mention how hammered he was. But he was an enterprising old sot and settled on a more tactile approach.
He grabbed the beer bottle he was swilling and, thumb tight over the lip, he shook it vigorously letting go in the general direction of his buddy. Unfortunately his aim was skewed by drink and most of the beer spewed our table. Particularly Cecilia.
She gasped and I said "Just let it go. We'll drink up and get out of here."
But some of the spray had reached its target. And the prospector's buckskinned buddy gregariously answered his friend's liquid fusillade with one of his own. Unfortunately his aim was worse than his friend's and he scored a direct hit on Cecil, drenching her as the two old mugwumps sniggered and guffawed in drunken delight.
Cecil was fuming, beer dripping from her hair and drenching her clothes. And I wasn't too happy myself.
I jumped up from our table with a full quart in my hand and emptied it over the head of one of the offenders. Then I hurled the empty bottle at the other. It smashed in a hundred pieces square in the middle of his forehead.
The place came to a dead silence. But only for a second.
Then it went up. Chairs hurled, tables overturned, bottles breaking, inhuman animal sounds screaming "FIGHT! FIGHT!", fists flying.
I grabbed Cecil and yelled at Larry "GET ON THE FUCKIN' FLOOR!" and, as hell rampaged above us, we crawled on our hands and knees through the door to the street outside. The three of us ran down Bennett Avenue toward the Grubstake like our lives depended on it, which they did. We were two blocks down Bennett when I turned and looked back. The entire bar emptied out on the street, the night air full of commotion and rage. "THERE THEY GO! KILL'EM!"
We ducked into the Grubstake and locked the doors behind us. Certain no door would hold back the rampaging mob we locked ourselves in a closet on the second floor, Larry Fisher clutching a large pair of scissors he'd grabbed along the way. We were quiet in the dark, three hearts pounding in fear. We knew with certainty that this night we would die. Unpleasantly.
But no one came. No lynch mob, no angry mountain men, Nothing.
After an hour or two we went off to our beds. Just another night in Cripple Creek.
A few days later I ran into the prospector I'd upended the beer bottle on. He peered at me quizzically. He knew he should know me, but from where? And then went on about his way.
Thanks to the ability of alcohol to numb the brain and fuddle memory, I was allowed to live to see another day.
We were paid thirty dollars a week plus room and board, but toward the middle of July there was no money to pay those of us working on the project. And, a week or so later, Aleman stopped providing food.
Cecil and I would scrambled around the kitchen and, before it was dumped in the garbage, ate whatever patrons of the Grubstake left on their plates. Until Tony chased us out of the kitchen afraid that we'd steal food from the larder. So we'd head over the the little grocery store down Bennett Street and steal food there. Tins of beans, cans of Vienna sausages.
There was a confrontation between Rae Bourbon and Tony Aleman in Aleman's room.
Tony pulled a gun on Rae, and Rae pulled one on Tony. What was discussed -- though I was not privy to it -- surely was neither cordial or harmonious.
Afterwards, Rae came to us and announced that our production of "Daddy was a Lady" was moving to New York City where it would be performed off-Broadway. He told us that Tom, a friend from Kansas City was going to finance the production. And that Tom would be driving to Cripple Creek to haul us to NYC.
That evening I called my parents and told them we were on our way to New York City. And that I'd let them know when we arrived.
Rae and Pat Lee moved into his trailer (with his dogs) for the couple of days before Tom showed up.
My last job as Rae Bourbon's publicist in Cripple Creek -- as directed by Aleman -- was to shovel the shit out of Bourbon's room. Literally. During the entire Cripple Creek run of "Daddy was a Lady" Bourbon had not let the six performing dogs out of his room (except for showtimes). His room was several inches deep in canine feces and urine. I wondered how two people could tolerate living in a pile of shit. But I did consider the source. And everything during that summer had been so bizarre and off-kilter that it really seemed like just more of the same.
So I went about my onerous task, after-which Cecilia and I -- and every member of the "Daddy was a Lady" production -- were put out on the street. Unceremoniously kicked out of the Grubstake.
We packed a couple of bags. Cecilia grabbed a broom we'd bought to keep our room tidy, and a pair of antlers we'd found in an abandoned prospector's cabin one afternoon when we were exploring the countryside between Cripple Creek and the town of Victor.
Over the summer we'd made friends with the proprietor of a soda-fountain/drugstore up Bennett Street. We'd frequently stop by for a coke and conversation with the owner. He was very inquisitive about what was going on at the Grubstake -- just a few storefronts down the street. Chaos and alternate universe reality were normal in Cripple Creek. But the addition of glittery transvestites and Mafia mischief to the mix was a new wrinkle.
And we had no qualms about filling him in.
So, when we found ourselves homeless until our ride to New York arrived, we went to the drugstore and asked the owner if he knew of anywhere we -- and a few others --could stay the night. He said we could stay in his attic. We corralled Princess and Dean, Octavia and Larry Fisher and told them we had shelter for the night.
Not surprisingly, sleeping was difficult that night.
Cecil suggested that we go down to the drugstore area so we could sit comfortably at one of the soda fountain tables and have a little conservation about our convoluted plight without disturbing others who were trying to sleep.
We made our way down stairs, past the second floor living quarters of the proprietor's family, and into the business area. We turned on a lamp, leaving the store's main lights off. And we sat in the dim, holding each others hands and talking about all the crazy shit that had happened over the last couple of months.
Suddenly the main lights of the space switched on. And, glowering at us from the doorway to the stairs, was the proprietor in his nightshirt. He was pissed and voracious.
"WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU TWO DOING DOWN HERE!?" he shrieked. "I KNOW YOU'RE STEALING STUFF!" he yelped as he skittered around checking his goods.
We were stunned by his agitated anger. We tried to explain that our mission was conversation, not thievery. But he was not moved.
"I SHOULD KICK ALL OF YOU OUT OF HERE! GET BACK UPSTAIRS RIGHT NOW! AND YOU AND THE REST OF YOU WILL BE OUT OF HERE BEFORE I OPEN IN THE MORNING!"
We climbed back up the stairs into the dark attic, found an empty spot on the floor, wrapped ourselves around each other and -- after awhile -- fell asleep until dawn.
Our caravan pulled out of Cripple Creek the next morning. Rae Bourbon, Pat Lee and the trailer-bound canines in the lead, Dean and Princess next, and Cecil and me, Larry Fisher and Octavia Powell in Tom's car lagging third.
As we motored toward Kansas City our excited conversation turned toward our burgeoning New York adventure.
But Tom had no idea what we were talking about. "I only signed on to drive you guys to Kansas City. And I'm sure as hell not financing a New York production. This is the first I've heard of this shit," he said.
Along the way, before we left Colorado, we stopped for gas. As we were filling up, a brand new fire-engine red Cadillac convertible land shark screeched up to the pumps. The driver and passenger were Native Americans, war painted and inebriated out of their minds.
Not much to do as the tank filled and, inasmuch as these were interesting road warriors, I struck up a conversation. They offered me a taste of a nearly empty fifth of Wild Turkey. Always best to accept the gifts and camaraderie of the indigenous, so I shared the offering.
They told me they were from Oklahoma and oil had been discovered on their reservation, which allowed them to enjoy mind-altering white man's poison without restriction. And they had no need to ride bareback on tribal ponies because they could afford Detroit's raging high-end horsepower. "We're rich In'juns!" the driver exclaimed. Followed by triumphant yoops and yelps, as if they'd just taken Custer's scalp.
I asked them where they were headed and they said "Where ever the road goes!"
They peeled out of the gas station, laying rubber and fishtailing into the sun, on the road to certain doom, their shrieks and war cries trailing behind them.
FEAR ON THE KANSAS PLAIN
Toward sundown the caravan of transvestites, canines and thespians approached the small town of Meridian, Kansas.
Rae Bourbon's car headed on out of town toward Kansas City. But Tom's Oldsmobile, sputtering and coughing, experienced engine failure. Dean's car was behind us when the breakdown occurred. Everyone except Tom crammed into Dean's ride and we headed up the highway to find a service station that could send a tow truck back for Tom.
Tom was towed into a gas station on the west side of Meridian. When he found out that repairs couldn't be made until the next day, he convinced the proprietor to have one of his grease monkeys drive him up the road to catch up with Rae Bourbon and let him know of the mechanical failure.
Night fell and hours passed with no word from Tom or the grease monkey.
Octavia Powell, always a chatterbox, became nervous. She started jabbering to the transfixed and progressively terrified gas station owner. Incessantly, all of the events of the summer came spilling out, down to the smallest harrowing detail; the high-drag voodoo queens, the sharkskin-suited Mafia thugs, the stories of Rae Bourbon's mortiferous recriminations and his taste for young boys, the midnight murder of Curly on a mountain road, the shooting in the parking lot, the crazed mountain men, drunken prospectors and wild Indians packing side-arms, and all of the other sidewinders, owlhoots and galoots in the anarchic gold camp above the tree-line. Not to mention the ghosts, the wild donkeys, and even the blind gate-keeper and his angora goats.
In this part of the country, especially in rural Kansas, the trial -- and ensuing media circus -- of Perry Smith and Dick Hickok for the slaughter of the Clutter family on a Kansas farm was a ripe as freshly spilt blood in the minds of the locals. But our story was way more convoluted than simple multiple murder, and it twisted through the brain and bugged out the eyes of the startled service station owner. Evil had come to Meridian, dressed in a woman's frock and hauling a trailer full of pooches and wolf pups. And he had sent his employee into Satan's bestial maw. By now his best grease monkey had surely been sodomized and flayed into kibble. Something had to be done!
He grabbed the phone, dialed the sheriff and recounted the horrifying details. Meridian's air-raid siren was sounded. Men were awakened from slumber, grabbed their shotguns and assembled a posse.
After a half hour the whole thing was called off when it was discovered that the employee was at home in bed. He had connected Tom with Bourbon -- who continued on his way to Kansas City -- then dropped him off at a truck stop a short distance from the gas station. The sheriff wrote the whole thing off to skittish nerves and the ravings of a looney female. Besides, Rae Bourbon, by that time was out of his jurisdiction. And if he was trouble, he was someone else's trouble.
A Meridian police cruiser returned Tom to the station.
Cecilia and I climbed into the back-seat of the Oldsmobile, still hoisted on the tow-hook, and fell asleep.
The next morning we were rousted out of the car by the grease monkey --who installed a new alternator -- and we hit the road once again.
We arrived in Kansas City around midday. Tom had been given instructions by Bourbon to meet him at the Jewel Box Lounge. We waited in the cars while Tom and Rae wrangled with the details about the New York City move.
While crossing the Kansas plain, Dean Gattis spied a huge patch of marijuana growing alongside the road. Hardly believing his eyes, he pulled his car over and snipped a bit of the weed. And while we were awaiting our travel agenda, he fetched a pack of Topps cigarette papers out of his shirt pocket and asked me if I'd like to share a joint with him.
I'd never smoked marijuana but I'd certainly been wooed by the romance of it through the writings of the Beat writers, and the accounts seeping out of the burgeoning Hippie movement out West.
"Sure" I said.
We fired up the grass, but it was green and bitter and difficult to keep lit.
"You getting anything from this?" asked Dean.
"Oh, Yeah!" I lied. Well...it wasn't exactly a lie. I was getting a headache from it.
Before World War II hemp was a cash crop grown on farms throughout the Midwest. But when pot was declared legally off-limits, it was allowed to go to seed and was plowed under in favor of soybeans and corn. But, like many weeds, marijuana is resilient and continued to self-propagate over the years. It still grows in back-pastures and, especially along the road. Without caretakers -- to sex the plants and create sticky hybrids disposed to mind-numbing potency -- it was labeled "ditchweed", a term still used to describe impotent weed.
After about an hour Rae and Tom came out of the club and said we needed to spend a couple of days in Kansas City while arrangements were being made for our accommodations in New York. Rae said he had friends who had a house in a suburb of Kansas City, and they were willing to provide us shelter until we could get the show on the road.
During the drive, Rae told us that we'd stay at a suburban house that was the home for several lesbians. He said that the alpha dyke was named Gene. Filling us in on what to expect, he said Gene had served in the military. After that, she was a cross-country truck driver hauling goods in an 18-wheeler coast-to-coast.
"Now," he smiled, "the girls pay the rent by driving Good Humor trucks.
Gene was a massive human being. Well over six-feet tall, well over 300 pounds. Her head was shaved to stubble, her costume of choice were bib overalls, combat boots and flannel shirts. And she packed an army-issued .45 holstered at her waist.
There were three or four other women who lived in the house. Fairly normal-looking females, no severe hair styles, casual but not bizarre outfits, average weight and stature and -- as far as I could tell -- unarmed.
The neighborhood was a well-worn, approaching desolate. A sprawl of post World War II bungalows and ranch-style homes. One house against the next, small brown yards and virtually no shrubbery or trees.
"We think the girls should stay here and the boys should go with Rae," snarled Gene.
I glanced over to Cecilia. She was shaking her head and muttered under her breath "No fuckin' way."
I conveyed to Rae that we didn't think it was a good idea that we split along gender lines. He was not pleased but agreed. He said he'd return in a couple of days, and we'd be on the way to New York.
That was the last time I saw Rae Bourbon.
We stayed at the house for three days, slept on the floor and were not allowed to use the phone or leave. Except once when a couple of Good Humor trucks, packed with two or three girls each, pulled up in front. Gene instructed one of the women of the house to pack us into a beat up Chevy she had parked in the driveway, and not to return for a couple of hours. Our driver seemed pissed-off at her chore but complied with the order as the Good Humor girls happily clamored into the house.
On the third day Gene came to us and said we had to leave.
"Uh...what about the show?" I asked.
"There is no show!" she barked. "Just get the fuck out of here!"
So Larry, Octavia, Princess, Dean, Cecilia and I climbed into Dean's car. I'd arranged to have Larry Fisher loan Cecil and me money for train-fare to Chicago. Dean dropped Larry, Cecilia and me off at Union Station. Larry hopped a Michigan-bound train. And Octavia, Princess and Dean took off for parts unknown.
Before we left the house, Gene allowed me to make one phone call. I'd called Jay Lynch in Chicago and asked him if Cecil and I could spend a couple of days with him before we headed back home.
"Sure," he said. "My roommate, Joel Zoss, and I are having a party this weekend."
"THEY TOLD US YOU WERE DEAD"
Jay Lynch and I had been friends for about five years. We were both fledgling cartoonists. He'd come and visit me in Canton and I'd spend an occasional weekend with him in Chicago, where he was a student at the Art Institute. Our plans were that I'd move to Chicago after school and publish some sort of underground magazine or newspaper with Jay.
We were getting our cartoons published in several marginal bohemian magazines like The Realist, Aardvark (the kicked off campus humor magazine of Roosevelt University), the Panic Button, Nexus, Charlatan and the Idiot.
But the most important venue for our callow talent was Help! magazine, edited by our hero and God-figure, Harvey Kurtzman.
Kurtzman, a man of divine artistic perspicacity (but minimal business acumen) had been publishing my cartoons since 1961. And Jay's shortly after that. Also the early work of Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb.
Sadly, Help! closed its doors and ceased publishing during that summer in 1965. I'd received the final issue while in Cripple Creek. It had a cover by Terry Gilliam, its assistant editor (The previous assistant editor was Gloria Steinem and, had the magazine survived, Robert Crumb was slated to be Kurtzman's next assistant editor. And Art Spiegelman was scheduled to be a contributing cartoonist.).
Cecila and I arrived in Chicago loaded down with a couple of suitcases each, a rack of stag antlers, a broom and an art project I'd been working on in Cripple Creek (a dark and moody canvas with all kinds of shit glued on to it, holes cut into it, ridges and craters created from polymer paste and a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti carved into the craggy surface). We loaded onto a CTA bus and headed toward Old Town, a near-north neighborhood doing it's best to morph into a bohemian enclave in this gray and uninviting working-class city.
Jay met us at a bus-stop near his place on Hudson Street. He was living in a squat, a condemned house whose previous tenant had been Del Close.
Del had recently returned to Chicago from California where he'd been living with Ken Kesey and the Hog Farmers, and performing with The Committee, a satirical improvisational comedy group in San Francisco. Del had just scored a job directing improv at Second City, had moved out of his digs on Hudson Street and offered the place to Jay. At zero dollars the rent was right, and Del had illegally hooked up the utilities.
The place was boarded up, so the only way in was a ladder in the back that accessed the roof of an enclosed porch. From there you could climb into a second-floor window that dropped you into a hallway. The floor of the hallway was painted black with a broken white line down the middle and the walls were papered with road maps.
Jay's roommate was Charles Stephens. Ahead of the curve, and for whatever reason, Charles was an identity thief. He had taken the name of Joel Zoss, a musician who, over the ensuing years, has built an international reputation and following.
"Joel"/Charles had a daughter who didn't live with him. She was child but later in life she became a singer and performed under the name Chaka Kahn.
"Joel" had organized the party for the weekend of July 25. It was important to him that it be percipient and hip. He decided to invite Bob Dylan. So he called Dylan's agent, Albert Grossman, in New York and inquired if Dylan would be interested in coming out to Chicago for some weekend fun. Albert Grossman was polite and said he appreciated the invitation but Bob Dylan had a previous commitment. He'd be playing at the Newport Folk Festival that weekend.
So, on July 25, Bob Dylan, all dolled up in London Mod, plugged in his electric guitar and -- backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band -- was booed off the stage at the Newport Folk Festival.
The party was ok. Plenty of beer, marijuana and art kids. In the middle of the din I wandered downstairs to the first floor. A young woman shared the house and occupied that area.
I ended up in the kitchen. There was a large claw-footed bathtub in the middle of the floor. Back in the day, there were often bathtubs in the kitchen. During the week a wooden top would cover the tub and it served as a kitchen table. On bath-day off came the top and the tenants could soak and scrub clean the week's grime.
This night there were two naked people in the tub. The girl who lived downstairs and a guy I'd met earlier upstairs.
They were both unperturbed to have me staring at them. In fact, they invited me to join them.
"Looks crowded," I said.
We had a bit of casual conversation, then I climbed back up the stairs and drank more beer.
The following Monday it occurred to me that I should call my parents and tell them we never made it to New York.
My Dad answered, "Hello."
"Hi. It's Skip. We never got to..."
"MY GOD!" he choked. "THEY TOLD US YOU WERE DEAD!"
After about a week of not hearing from us my parents -- and Cecilia's -- had contacted the Authorities.
The F.B.I., the Illinois Youth Commission, and the State Police in five states were looking for us. And an unscrupulous lawyer, a friend of Cecil's mother, told our parents "Skip was murdered and his body was dumped into an abandoned mineshaft in the Rockies. And Cecilia has been sold into White Slavery!"
For three or four days my parents believed that I'd been killed. As it all sifted out, that was fairly close to the truth.
The problem was, we knew too much. But the other problem was, there were too many of us. If it had just been me and Cecilia we probably would have simply disappeared. But there were six of us. Not a very comfortable number, much more of a conundrum for John Trucillo and his Mafia cohorts. Rae Bourbon and Pat Lee were in deep shit with their bosses. Of course we could be eliminated, but their were too many of us who were privy to the details of several murders (and who knows what other malfeasance?).
What to do?
So Gene was ordered to keep us under wraps until it could all be figured out. We had been kidnapped by Mafia lesbians who drove Good Humor trucks in a suburb of Kansas City -- even though we had no idea of the depth of our predicament.
But the heat was on. Law Enforcement agencies in five states and the Feds were on the trail.
So, ultimately, the decision was made to just let us go and hope for the best -- an option that actually worked out for them. When we turned out we were alive and unharmed the Authorities moved on to sorting out other mischief.
On July 21, 1971, an obituary in the New York Times read "Rae Bourbon, a Protege of Mae West, Dead at 78". Rae had died of a heart attack while serving time for murder in a Texas prison.
In 1968 Rae Bourbon's car towing his trailer had broken down in Big Springs, Texas. Bourbon left his dogs at a veterinarian's kennel. But when Rae returned to pick up his precious animals they'd been sold to a research facility because Bourbon hadn't been able to pay the bill. In December, 1968, the veterinarian who had charge of Rae's dogs was shot dead with a gun later traced to Bourbon. In February, 1970, Rae Bourbon was convicted for the murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Shortly after the Cripple Creek adventure in 1965, Tony Aleman returned to his restaurant business in Quincy, Illinois. After awhile he simply disappeared and hasn't been heard from since.