Last Hooch At The Hollyhocks – A Lesson In How To Use 1920s Music In Theatre Successfully


In Australia, stories of historical moment are treated in a bipolar way. I use the term ‘bipolar’ as it is used by former BBC Australia correspondent, Nick Bryant, in his insightful book on contemporary Australia, ‘The Rise and Fall of Australia‘.

In telling history in Australia, whether the work is on radio, stage, film or TV, and whether the work is fictional or a non-fiction account, great store is placed on historical accuracy.

Then, for the music soundtrack, everything gets screwed up by bringing in the three chord playing, wispy voiced, folk-rock-indie-r’n’b-electro ‘original singer/songwriter’ mate.

Cringe!

I had the great pleasure of meeting San Francisco based writer and director, Lance Belville, in Sydney recently. Lance introduced himself to me during a Greg Poppleton and the Bakelite Broadcasters show at The Rocks Village Bizarre.

lance

LANCE BELVILLE & LYNN LOHR

Lance sent me a soundtrack from his play, ‘Last Hooch at the Hollyhocks’, performed in the theatre he and his partner, Lynn Lohr, ran in St Paul, Minnesota.

And take note, using original 1920s-30s music in a production set in 1933 works.

The cast soundtrack contains 8 now obscure pop songs from the Prohibition Era.

Last Hooch At The Hollyhocks is set on the last day of Prohibition, the end of a party era for the denizens of the Hollyhocks speakeasy. These 8 carefully selected songs from the era tell the story and evoke the era without being bogged in nostalgia or alienating the audience because ‘they’re not used to 1920s music’.

Instead, the songs sparkle afresh, all backed by a spot-on piano player who reminds me somewhat of, Little Jack Little, and sung without a hint of contemporary aesthetic by both solo male and female singers and by the chorus.

And that’s excitingly refreshing to my ears. It wouldn’t be done in Australia where musical anachronism is the new beige. As a film and TV actor and as a 1920s – 1930s singer and band leader I’ve been frustrated by this many times. “What a 1920s theme TV show with cast performed 1920s music? No, it won’t sell. I’ll just make the sets and the costuming authentic, but I’ll get me old mate in to quickly run up a few of his original doof-doof, woe-woe, yeah-yeahs on Garageband.”

Lance and Lynn prove that using authentically performed 1920s-30s music in a play set in Prohibition is actually perfectly natural.

Indeed, it sounds right to 2015 ears, too. In contrast, all the original doof-doof and twang-twang music written for Australian productions set in the 1920s and 1930s in the past two years have quickly dated and soured.

In fact, the supremely obscure “What’ll We Do On A Saturday Night (When The Town is Dry)?” has such witty lyrics so perfectly song by the ‘Last Night At The Hollyhocks’ cast, that I laughed out loud the first time I heard, “Imagine a fellow with a cute little queen trying to make me naughty on a plate of ice-cream!”

And I prefer the cast version of ‘Masculine Women Feminine Men’ to the mid-1920s version I am familiar with recorded by the Savoy Orpheans in London.

LAST NIGHT AT THE HOLLYHOCKS

dillinger
The Hollyhock is now a private residence.

 

The author, Lance Belville, writes,

LAST HOOCH AT THE HOLLYHOCKS takes place in an obscure corner of Saint Paul, Minnesota, the last night of prohibition. The Holly hocks was the best and biggest speakeasy between Chicago and the American West Coast. Saint Paul was a special place as it was the location that the mafiosos from all over the country could come for Rest and Recreation.

The open municipal policy was that the police would not touch you, no matter what your crimes were, provided that you behaved yourself and pulled off no killings or robberies in Saint Paul or the surrounding areas and paid a weekly “fee” which we think was $200 for the head of the gang and $100 apiece for each of the gang goons who might be along. However, the “visitors” could go across the Mississippi River bridge and kill and rob in Minneapolis, that was OK. As you might imagine Saint Paul and Minneapolis hated each other then and still do –sorta.

DILLINGER, the great American gangster gunman, had a permanent apartment in Saint Paul which he used periodically over several years. .PRETTY BOY FLOYD, BONNIE AND CLYDE and “MACHINEGUN KELLY” all came for R and R regularly. The FBI went crazy trying to bring heat to Saint Paul, but the local police always tipped the relaxing “visitors.” So they never got anybody in Saint Paul, although they came close to catching Dillinger once. Our theatre, The History Theatre ( 599-seat house which is still going strong there) did a number of shows about this “interesting:” time, as you might well imagine.

The Hollyhocks had a band and floor shows and gambling upstairs, besides the illegal hooch of course. Top whores worked it, but only the tops. But everybody knew that once prohibition ended it was the end of the speakeasies–which it was–because the big hotels and traditional bars downtown would come back on line with a vengeance and legally–which they did.

So the show kids decide to throw discretion to the winds this last night with a job and do the history of Prohibition in Saint Paul using the music to help illustrate points.

When they have finished the show and leave the stage, the back wall goes up and we have a row of their dressing rooms backstage. Each show kid, alone now in their dressing room as they will be in life tomorrow morning, sings part of “I REMEMBER YOU FROM SOMEWHERE.” There have been show love affairs which now will end as they all go back to day-to-day reality in other parts of the country.”

dillingermap

GREAT NORTH AMERICAN HISTORY THEATRE

From the theatre’s website,

“Since its founding in 1978 by Lynn Lohr and Lance Belville, the company has staged more than 100 world premieres, working with nationally recognized playwrights including Jeffrey Hatcher, Eric Simonson, Kevin Kling, Craig Wright, Frank McCourt, Doris Baizley, Melanie Marnich, Kim Hines, John Olive, and Kira Obolensky. From a harrowing slave journey to St. Paul in Adrift on the Mississippi to an urban musical celebration of the Twin Cities in Snapshots: Life in the City, from the rock ‘n’ roll biography Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story to the dark, complex A Piece of the Rope about Minnesota’s first public execution, History Theatre has moved audiences to rediscover, relive, and respect every piece of their history.

The Great North American History Theatre was formed in September 1978 as the St. Paul History Theatre. It was organized under the auspices of the Community Programs in the Arts & Sciences (COMPAS.) From the start, productions were supported by federal and local grants, including funds from the Minnesota Humanities Commission. The theater specialized in dramatizing the history of St. Paul and its neighborhoods, although many plays document other events and topics in Minnesota history.

Among the productions of the first few years were stories about St. Paul’s prohibition gangster era, Swedish and Italian immigrants in turn-of-the-century St. Paul, a 1922 railroad strike on the city’s north side, railroad magnate James J. Hill, relations between whites and Indians at Fort Snelling in 1824, St. Paul madam Nina Clifford, Minnesota football great Bronko Nagurski, and a Victorian Christmas on Summit Avenue. Most the scripts for the Theatre’s original productions were researched and written by Lance S. Belville. At times, he conducted oral history interviews to use as background for his stories. Belville served as playwright-in-residence and co-artisitic director along with his wife and theater founder, Lynn Lohr. In 1993 Lohr left the theatre and Belville continued as artistic director until 1995 when he also left the theatre.”

dillingershimmy
Doing the ‘Shimmy’ in a St Paul speakeasy

 

ARTISTIC DIRECTORS
As artistic directors of the History Theatre, Lance and Lynn, produced the following seasons. Lance also wrote many plays apart from ‘Last Hooch At The Hollihocks’. See the extensive list below.
Lance is now busy as a writer, director, Portuguese translator and esl teacher, using theatre as a language learning tool, based with Lynn Lohr in San Francisco.

1993-1994 Season – Lance S. Belville, Artistic Director
Assassins by Stephen Sondheim
Everlasting Arms (World Premiere) by Gregory Alan Williams
Caves Cabaret
Some Things That Can Go Wrong at 35,000 Feet by John Orlock
Hauptmann by John Logan
Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel
Plain Hearts by Lance S. Belville

1992-1993 Season – Lynn Lohr and Lance S. Belville, Artistic Directors
Olle from Laughtersville by Lance S. Belville
A Country Christmas Carol by Ed Graczyk
The Meeting by Jeff Stetson
The Life and Times of Deacon A. L. Wiley by Gregory Alan Williams
Scott and Zelda: The Beautiful Fools (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
The Great Gatsby by John Carlile
Days of Rondo (World Premiere) by Gregory Alan Williams

1991-1992 Season – Lynn Lohr and Lance S. Belville, Artistic Directors
Scum City (World Premiere) by David Hawley
Through the Wheat (World Premiere) adapted by Thomas Olson
A Country Christmas Carol by Ed Graczyk
The Meeting by Jeff Stetson
The Life and Times of Deacon A.L. Wiley (World Premiere) by Gregory Alan Williams
Minnesota On Stage by Lance S. Belville
Irish Stew by Frank McCourt
Olle From Laughtersville (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
Small Town Triumphs and Cowboy Colors (World Premiere) by Bart Sutter and Paul Zarzyski

1990-1991 Season – Lynn Lohr, Artistic Director
Last Hooch at the Hollyhocks (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
Exile from Main Street: A Portrait of Sinclair Lewis (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
A Servants’ Christmas by John Fenn
Tree of Memory II (World Premiere) by Craig Wright, Tony Bouza, Susan Vass, David Hawley and Lance S. Belville
The Meeting by Jeff Stetson
The Life and Times of Deacon A.L. Wiley by Gregory Alan Williams
Minnesota On Stage by Lance S. Belville
Selkirk Avenue by Bruce McMannus
Mesabi Red II
A Couple of Blaguards by Frank and Malachy McCourt
Gaze at the Stars II
Minnesota Arts Experience (Max Program)
Cowgirls by Lance S. Belville

1989-1990 Season – Lynn Lohr, Artistic Director
Cowgirls (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
A Time on Earth by Vilhelm Moberg
The Immigrant by Mark Harelik
December Mornings (World Premiere) adapted from Truman Capote
A Servants’ Christmas by John Fenn
Nina! The Musical (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
Mesabi Red (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville with music and lyrics by Charlie Maguire and Jim Miller
Homegrown Heroes (World Premiere) by Lynn Nankival, Ta-Coumba Aiken, Grant Rickey, Lance S. Belville
Catching On by Lance S. Belville
Gaze at the Stars (World Premiere)

1988-1989 Season – Lynn Lohr, Artistic Director
Logan Township No. 13 (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
Entertaining Strangers by David Edgar
A Servants’ Christmas by John Fenn
You Can’t Get to Heaven Through the U.S.A. by Lance S. Belville
Tree of Memory (World Premiere) by David Hawley, George Sand, Lance S. Belville, Garreth Heibert, Nancy Bagshaw-Reasoner
Catching On by Lance S. Belville
Music and lyrics by Richard Long and Lance S. Belville
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme (World Premiere) by Frank McGuinness
Queen Clara: Rivers of Blood, Field of Glory (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
Cowgirls (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville

1987-1988 Season – Lynn Lohr, Artistic Director
Plain Hearts by Lance S. Belville, Music by Eric Peltoniemi
Mid-Winter Light (World Premiere) by Jon Lewis Anderson
Gold in the Streets by Marie Jones
Somewhere Over the Balcony by Marie Jones
St. Paul Suite (World Premiere) by Tom Poole
Catching On (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville. Music and lyrics by Richard Long and Lance S. Belville

1986-1987 Season – Lynn Lohr, Artistic Director
Down to Earth by Lance S. Belville
Grand Northern Repertory Logan Township No. 13 (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
A Servants’ Christmas by John Fenn
Some Things That Can Go Wrong at 35,000 Feet (World Premiere) by John Orlock
Dogs in the Hot Moon (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville

1985-1986 Season – Lynn Lohr, Artistic Director
Great Northern Repertory Shanty Boys (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
A Servants’ Christmas by John Fenn
Quiet, Wyatt! (World Premiere) by Leslie Brody
Speed (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
Down to Earth by Lance S. Belville

1984-1985 Season – Lynn Lohr, Artistic Director
Plain Hearts by Lance S. Belville
A Servants’ Christmas by John Fenn
Minnesota on Stage by Lance S. Belville
Kingdom Come by Amlin Gray
Tubal and the Yankee (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
Exile from Main Street: A Portrait of Sinclair Lewis (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville

1983-1984 Season – Lynn Lohr, Artistic Director
Homesick (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
Mr. L. N. Scott’s All New Grand Holiday Bill of Fare (World Premiere) by John Orlock
Minnesota On Stage (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
The Man who Bought Minneapolis (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
Down to Earth (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville, music and lyrics by Eric Peltoniemi
Plain Hearts (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville, music and lyrics by Eric Peltoniemi

1982-1983 Season – Lynn Lohr, Artistic Director
Scott and Zelda: The Beautiful Fools (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
A Servants’ Christmas by John Fenn
Minnesota On Stage (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
The Lady Knight (World Premiere) by John Fenn
Plain Hearts (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville, music and lyrics by Eric Peltoniemi

1981-1982 Season – Lynn Lohr, Artistic Director
Nina! Madam to a Saintly City (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
A Servants’ Christmas (World Premiere) by John Fenn
Children of Tyrone (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
You Can’t Get to Heaven Through the U.S.A. (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
For Amber Waves of Grain, but Undistilled (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
Johnny’s My Darling and a Union Volunteer (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville, music and lyrics by Kim D. Sherman and Scott Killian

1980-1981 Season – Lynn Lohr, Artistic Director
Bronko (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
Deadly Decades by Lance S. Belville
A Servants’ Christmas (World Premiere) by John Fenn
Children of Tyrone (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
You Can’t Get to Heaven Through the U.S.A. by Lance S. Belville

1979-1980 Season – Lynn Lohr, Artistic Director
The Man who Bought Minneapolis (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
Nina! Madam to a Saintly City (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
Four Hearts and the Lords of the North (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville

1978-1979 Season – Lynn Lohr, Artistic Director
Deadly Decades (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
You Can’t Get to Heaven Through the U.S.A. (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
We Win or Bust (World Premiere) by Lance S. Belville
For Those Who Favor Fire (World Premiere)
Bridge Over the Ocean (World Premiere)

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