A Vancouver time travelogue brought to you by Past Tense.
The name Texas Guinan may not ring too many bells today, but when she brought her stage show to Vancouver in 1933, she was one of the top entertainers on the continent for her work as a comedian, singer, burlesque and vaudeville performer, movie star, emcee, and speakeasy operator. (Star Trek fans might recognize the name: Whoopi Goldberg’s character on The Next Generation was named after her).
Texas Guinan moved to New York in 1906 to break into showbiz. She began as a chorus girl, then a singing “Gibson Girl,” and was soon scoring roles in musical comedies and touring the vaudeville circuits. Her film debut came in 1917. She was the first Hollywood cowgirl, dubbed “Queen of the West” by the studios, and typically played badass characters, as reflected in the names of many of her films: The Gun Girl, Two-Gun Girl, The Gun Woman, The Hell Cat, The She Wolf, Malamute Meg, The Girl of Hell’s Agony, The Wild Cat, and The Dangerous Little Devil.
Guinan’s notoriety really took off in the 1920s, when she ran nightclubs in prohibition-era New York, notably the 300 Club, a favourite haunt of the rich and famous. Guinan was brash, sassy, and saucy, and developed her own comedic burlesque style. She was known for bantering with the audience and her signature catch-phrases, “Hello, suckers!” and “Give the little girl a big hand” when introducing female performers. She faced constant harassment from what she called “Uncle Sammy’s Dripping Dry Boys,” but managed to spend very little time in jail because the police were unable to disprove her claim that patrons brought their own alcohol.
As the jazz age was winding down, Texas Guinan took her vaudeville/burlesque show back on the road. She came to Vancouver for a week-long gig at the Beacon Theatre. When she stepped off the boat, Guinan was welcomed by a swarm of admirers, reporters, and Alderman Cowan on behalf of City Council. She asked a reporter if there had been a break in the rain since the last time she came to Vancouver in 1912.
Thousands of people lined up on opening night (pictured) to see the “Queen of the Night Clubs,” as she was then known. The show was a smash: the roar of the audience was deafening and performers were called back several time for encores. Students from the UBC Pep Club approached Guinan after the show to ask if she would make an appearance on campus, but university officials declared that “fan dances and Texas Guinan alike are barred from UBC.”
On the second night at the Beacon, Guinan was only able to perform in two of the four shows scheduled that day before falling ill, but insisted the show go on without her. Newspaper ads ominously changed from “Texas Guinan & Co.” to “Texas Guinan’s Co.” Texas Guinan died at Vancouver General Hospital from ulcerative colitis at age 49. The next day, the US repealed prohibition.
Source: Photo by Stuart Thomson, City of Vancouver Archives #99-4563