October 9, 2012
NoMad’s Wilder Days: Booze (Part 2)
This is part 2 of the second installation of a three-part article Satan’s Circus: Broads, Booze and Bets. Read NoMad’s Wilder Days: Booze (Part 1).
Many of the Satan Circus bars offered more than booze.
French Madame’s on 31st Street just off Sixth Avenue was named after its owner, a bruiser of a woman who had a five o’clock shadow all day long. She sat on a high stool near the cash register, and if a young lady was making too much noise, or making a fool of herself, the French Madame would hit them on the head and fling them out into the street by their hair.
French Madame’s main room looked like a dinning room. Booze flowed freely and there were small cubicles on the second floor where women danced the can-can for anyone who cared to watch. For a buck, a young lady would dance naked. For additional fees, other services were provided in small private cubicles.
However, no bar in Satan’s Circus surpassed The Haymarket for drinking, debauchery and thieving. Located on Sixth Avenue at 30th Street, catty corner to where the Eventi Hotel stands today, The Haymarket originally opened right after the Civil War as an opera house and was named after a similar playhouse in London, England. The Haymarket could not compete with the more established playhouses, so it closed down in 1878. Soon after, it was renovated and re-opened as a dancehall, and the three story, yellow brick building became a magnet for prostitutes, thugs and pickpockets, who preyed on the clientele, mostly out-of-towners looking to experience its storied vices.
Woman at the Haymarket were admitted at no charge, but men were obliged to pay a 25 cent admission fee, which allowed them to buy cheap drinks, dance, and carouse with the young ladies. The Haymarket had a huge bar and all floors contained little private cubicles, where the men could get a cheap rendition of the can-can, a peep show, or a hurried sexual favor before the women moved on to their next customer. At the end of the night, the muggers and pickpockets sprang into action, fleecing the Haymarket’s drunken revelers as they lay barely conscious on the floors or leaned disoriented against the walls.
The Cremorne was located in the basement of a building on 32nd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. The owner of the Cremorne was the overbearing Don Whiskerandos, a huge man with a great beard and a walrus-type mustache. At the Cremorne, men’s drinks cost 15 cents, or two for a 25 cents, but ladies’ drinks cost 20 cents. The ladies were paid a small commission by Don Whiskerandos for each drink they got their johns to buy.
There were many reasons that Satan’s Circus was well-named and here is one of them. Next door to the Cremorne, was a mission run by a former alcoholic named Jerry McAuley, which he cunningly named The Cremorne. This ruse delivered many unexpecting men, intending on going to the Cremorne bar, into McAuley’s hands. He then diverted them with coffee, sandwiches and a sermon and deprived Wiskerandos of a sucker.
There were lots of other notorious bars too. Many of them “clip joints” where women would be used to lure men off the streets to buy food and drink. Buckingham Palace – City of Eros on Sixth Avenue at 27th Street was a seedy dance hall that had a restaurant, a shooting gallery, infamous booths like those described above, and a brothel too. It was famous for its masked balls. Tom Gould’s on 31st Street, which was basically a large saloon with rooms for rent upstairs: rented by the day and by the hour. Sailor’s Hall on 30th Street was mostly frequents by African Americans from the nearby black neighborhood (Sixth to Eighth Avenues, 26th to 32nd Streets). The Bohemia Dance Hall was a seedy dance hall located on Sixth Avenue at 29th Street. Koster and Bial’s Music Hall on Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street was a concert saloon where customers could watch the can-can being performed. Finally there are four infamous bars that we’ve been trying to track down: the Old Alhambra, the Bohemia, the Argle, and Egyptian Hall. If you have any information on them, please share it with us.
One can only imagine what the streets must have been like — filled with prostitutes, thugs, drunken visitors and dandies on the down-low — houses of prostitution, temperance preachers, bars of all types where most everything was available, and gambling houses running full tilt (the subject of the last part of this article). It’s a far cry from the NoMad of today, but it is fun to walk these streets today and imagine, as hard as it is, what it must have been like on a Saturday night in the 1880s and 90s.
By the turn of the 20th Century, Satan’s Circus was beginning to decline, but it would take Teddy Roosevelt to bring the partying to a halt. As Police Commissioner of New York City, Roosevelt went after crooked policemen who were on the take and closed down illegal operations. By the second decade of the new century, Satan’s Circus was a memory.