Most famous for the string of prohibition-era speakeasies over which she presided, in her day Texas Guinan was also a star in films, the musical stage, and vaudeville.
She was born Mary Louise Cecilia “Mamie” Guinan on her parents’ ranch in Waco, Texas in 1884. Her parents sprang for music lessons, but as a young girl, she was equally at home absorbing the skills of the ranch hands: roping, breaking horses, shooting from a mount. She acquired her nickname at age 14 when she performed at a “Frontier Days” celebration. She studied singing at Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music for two years on a scholarship, then went back to Waco for a time, trying her hand acting in dramatic companies and working the rodeos.
After an unsuccessful marriage to newspaper artist John J. Moynihan, she came to New York, where in 1906, she was cast in a play called The Snow Man. In 1908 she broke into vaudeville with an act called “The Gibson Girl”, where she applied her well-trained voice to the popular songs of the day while perched on a swing, high above the stage. She was a sort of protégé of Lillian Russell during these years, alternating vaudeville dates with roles in musicals such as Miss Bob White, The Hoyden, and The Gay Musician. While touring in the latter production, she accidentally shot herself. She made the most of the incipient press surrounding the event, declaring “Nothing – not even a bullet – can stop Texas Guinan!”
In 1917, she broke into Westerns, an inevitability given her peculiar talents. Over the next several years, film audiences could catch her in pictures with titles that managed to pack both admiration and condescension into a maximum of three words: The Wildcat, Getaway Kate, The Gun Woman, The Hellcat, The Dangerous Little Devil, and Little Miss Deputy. In the wake of Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris, which set the bar higher for realistic acting, Guinan’s melodramatic style gradually became obsolete.
Based on a performance she gave at a party at the Beaux Arts Hotel, she was hired to sing and be Mistress of Ceremonies at the El Fay Club, a New York speak. Her salty tongue and saucy attitude stood her in good stead in the drunken and riotous environment of prohibition era nightclubs. She typically sat on a tall stool in the middle of the floor, rattling a New Year’s Eve noisemaker, blowing on a police whistle, and greeting patrons with the salutation which made her famous: “Hello, Sucker!” Her other popular catchphrase would follow the performance of some singer or chorus girl as she took her bow, “Let’s give the little lady a great big hand!” Guinan was like a burlesque comic, making ribald cracks and encouraging the audience to mayhem, and closely identified with the spirit of the jazz age.
Of course, along with speakeasies came raids. Guinan worked at a succession of clubs, including her own “Texas Guinan Club”, each of which got busted and permanently padlocked. She was closely identified with this ritual that she headlined a Shubert revue Padlocks of 1927, which surprisingly, flopped. In 1929, she played a character based on herself in the early Vitaphone talkie Queen of the Nightclubs.
When prohibition ended she came back to vaudeville, playing the Palace in 1932. She attempted a tour of England and France, but was refused entry into both countries because of her reputation as a criminal. She played the event for all it was worth upon her return to the U.S., calling her new show Too Hot for Paris. She was touring the Western circuits in 1933 when she collapsed backstage after a show. She died hours later of amoebic dysentery. Guinan may have been too hot for Paris…but she ought to have boiled her water nonetheless.
To find out more about vaudeville, including stars like Texas Guinan, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous