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Saturday, January 23, 2021

In My Footsteps Podcast: Episode 7 - This Week In History



Wednesday, January 20, 2021

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Hangar Tea Room

 

    A ‘tea room’ was a small restaurant or café serving tea, other light refreshments, and some food. They still exist today in far fewer numbers with their heyday being the pre-World War II era. They were quiet places, small and discrete, with refreshments and good company. That being said, one particular tea room used that image to create a double life as a nightclub and Prohibition speakeasy. This is the story of The Hangar Tea Room in Falmouth.

    The history of The Hangar began during the Roaring Twenties. It was a time of great prosperity, freedom and excess, though also a time during Prohibition when alcohol sales were illegal. This tea room was initially known as the Grey Gull and from the start it had a different flavor with the Falmouth Heights establishment offering music and dancing in addition to the normal fare of a tea room.

Falmouth Heights in the 1930's (Boston Public Library)

    At its opening in 1923, under the management of Walter Knox and Paul Lehmann, the Grey Gull was a viable nightlife option at a time when such options were few and far between. Still the allure of dancing, tango lessons, and a unique gift shop were not enough and the tea room was sold in 1924 to Mary Fellows. She kept supplying music and dancing as well as good food to try to build on the foundation of the previous ownership.

    Fellows ran the seasonal establishment on Grand Avenue from 1924-1928 before deciding to move on. She retained ownership of the property but decided to lease the building in May 1929 to Robert Butler who changed the Grey Gull to The Hangar. Butler went all-in even using a life-sized airplane fuselage as a sign in the front of the building. It was during this summer under Butler that The Hangar was subject of repeated complaints by neighbors due to late night rowdiness. Fellows sold The Hangar early in 1930 and the complaints under Butler were hoped to be over.

    In February 1930 William Wagner took over The Hangar along with his father Joseph. William had been a part of the tea room’s orchestra the previous year. The new owners did all they could to create an entirely new experience at the establishment. The building was repainted in an orange and black scheme, a 90-seat addition was built, and the kitchen was totally renovated. It remained a lunch and afternoon tea business.

    Soon after the Wagners took over there were hearings in the town about the questionable conduct that occurred at The Hangar under the reign of Robert Butler. People complained about late hours, congested traffic, lewd behavior, and possible intoxication during the Prohibition era. William Wagner insisted those questionable acts would not occur under his watch which satisfied skeptical residents. William insisted his Hangar would be strictly high class.

    The renovated and high class Hangar officially opened June 26, 1930 to polite fanfare in Falmouth Heights. The inaugural summer was seen as a success. When it ended the father and son left the Cape for Watertown. Joseph Wagner sold his stake in The Hangar to William who became sole owner from there on out. The 1931 season began to see changes at the high class tearoom.

    The building was again enlarged and renovated. Opening night consisted of music from Perley Breed and his orchestra formerly of the Megansett Tea Room. During the second season it should be noted that The Hangar was consistently referred to as a nightclub in newspapers rather than a tearoom as in its first season. Despite having regular nighttime parties, banquets, and a 'Miss Pajama' contest, there were no complaints locally about The Hangar.

    That changed the following year when Lloyd Conn, saxophonist for an orchestral group called the Pied Pipers, took William Wagner to civil court complaining of failing to be paid for their musical services. Wagner was ordered to pay $125($2,500 in 2021) in a settlement in January 1933. He also responded by replacing the Pied Pipers with the Terrace Gables orchestra. That was only the start of Wagner's troubles.

    During the first two seasons of ownership Wagner closed The Hangar after the summer. In 1933 he did not and it cost him dearly. Similar rowdiness that had plagued the business under Robert Butler returned prompting suspicion from locals and law enforcement. Wagner was warned but the warning was not heeded. It came to a head on November 3, 1933 when The Hangar was raided.

    Falmouth Police Chief Roy Conant was driving by the establishment and noticed more than a dozen cars parked outside. After obtaining a search warrant he and another officer knocked and were let in after a delay. They found close to twenty people in a back room fitted with a bar and an oil heater. Also found was a gallon of whiskey, a gallon of moonshine, and a quart of gin among other liquors. William Wagner was promptly arrested. Though he would only receive a $50 fine and six months probation The Hangar would never be the same.

    In 1934 William reopened the establishment as Wagner's at the Hangar with his wife Dorothy as co-owner. She even applied for, and received, a legal seasonal liquor license after the end of Prohibition. The couple said they would be specializing in sandwiches. That August their liquor license was temporarily suspended for serving after midnight. When it was up for renewal it was protested by the locals.

    William Wagner changed the property again in 1935. It was now the Harbor Lobster Pound, a late night restaurant. However the liquor license was refused after the bad reputation the business was incurred. Unable to change the minds of local selectmen with a bevy of signatures on a petition Wagner decided to try his hand at politics to get the change he desired.

    Before running for selectman Wagner tried a third time to get a liquor license for his property. Failing yet again the Bass River Savings Bank bought the former Hangar for $1,000 at auction in March 1936 thus ending Wagner's tenure as the establishment's owner. He entered the race for selectman in 1937 losing handily to Frederick Lawrence. Wagner's string of bad luck continued when his wife Dorothy divorced him in 1939. He ran for the office eleven times with the last being in 1953, coming as close as 23 votes, but ultimately falling short each time.

    By the time of Wagner's last run for office there was hardly even a mention of his time as a tearoom and nightclub owner. It seemed as though The Hangar's history had been reduced to a well-known secret much like its days as a Prohibition speakeasy in Falmouth Heights.

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Monday, January 11, 2021

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Storyville

     Cape Cod and Jazz, the two go together like peanut butter and jelly. The beautiful peninsula and the popular music genre have been connected throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The Columns in West Dennis was well known for its jazz during its 1970’s heyday. However there was a spot which rivaled it as far as sheer talent which appeared there. For a few brief years during the middle of the 20th century one place shined brighter than all others when it came to Cape Cod jazz and that was Storyville in Harwich.

    Storyville may have opened its doors along Pleasant Lake in Harwich in 1957 but its legacy goes back much further to the waning years of the 19th century. In 1897 the original Storyville was opened in New Orleans, Louisiana. As jazz was in its infancy a district of the city was created by Alderman Story to house the new music. Years later accomplished musician George Wein would open his own Storyville in Boston. Wein, who would gain fame for creating the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival, made it his mission to bring the most talented jazz artists to play at his Boston locale. With his success at Storyville-Boston secure Wein planned his next step.

    In 1956 Wein spent the summer in Wellfleet playing music at local nightspots with his close friend Paul Nossiter. It was during this time that he fell in love with Cape Cod and decided that it needed a permanent spot to showcase jazz. He found a perfect spot in a former Cape restaurant. The Robin Hood Inn gained fame during the 1920’s as a Prohibition-era spot being built atop the filled in remains of the Cape’s first cranberry bog owned by Cyrus Cahoon and designed by his cousin Alvan.

    Wein would purchase the former restaurant-turned-inn the following year. Although he added a wing to the home to bring its capacity from 300 up to 600 people he kept much of its medieval interior charm. Storyville-Harwich would set the tone for its all too brief existence on its very first night. It was on July 4, 1957 that the Cape’s hottest jazz club would debut with none other than Louis Armstrong playing two long sets to a raucous crowd. The opening season would see other legends of the day such as Dave Brubek and Erroll Garnor stopping in to ply their trade for week-long engagements. The first season at Storyville would be a huge success, a harbinger of things to come.

Storyville Menu (Worthpoint.com)


    Initially the establishment would serve only drinks to its patrons. However with the rousing success of the opening season Wein decided to serve food as well, hiring a chef and maître d’. Opening night saw throngs of people waiting three hours for their dinners as Wein and Nossiter were not restaurateurs. Though they had the ‘hippest menu’ complete with steaks, ribs, chicken, lobster and more, the foray into serving food lasted only a month as they served high quality food for reasonable prices, losing money on the venture.

    Despite that failure the musical acts continued to be what drew the people. Stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Pee Wee Russell, Benny Goodman, Sarah Vaughan, and others would make the trip over the Cape Cod Canal to the woods of rural Harwich to entertain the masses during the ten-week summer season. However the supernova that was Storyville could not be sustained.

The Circus Room of the Bradford Hotel where Storyville-Boston was located in 1959. (Boston Public Library)


    In 1959 the star power was still there with mainstays like Armstrong, Vaughan, Garner, and others returning. However it was a double-edged sword. In order to bring in such acts they needed to be paid, yet there was only so much that Wein and Nossiter could charge people to get into Storyville. This meant that the club was not making much, if anything, in terms of profit. It was around this time that George Wein began being stretched too thin with his commitments to the Newport Jazz Festival, Newport Folk Festival, as well as other projects. He simply could not devote as much time and energy to his Harwich spot.

    In 1960 the star power of the musical acts would wane. As the big names of jazz began to get nationwide exposure Storyville was not able to afford to bring them in to play anymore. Customers had been accustomed to the big names and when they became fewer the business went as well. Wein sold his Boston Storyville location after the 1960 season. It ran for another season under new management before closing for good in 1961. This left Wein to run his Harwich location for one more year.

    Despite the impending end of the establishment the 1961 season still managed to attract megastars like Duke Ellington, Erroll Garner, and Louis Armstrong. However the death knell for Storyville came when the wildly popular Kingston Trio failed to sell enough tickets for a July show and canceled. The rising cost for acts and ticket prices was a combination too powerful for Wein and Nossiter to overcome. Storyville was shuttered after the 1961 season. The building itself would have another chapter, being renamed The Red Garter. The name would be changed again to Your Father’s Moustache due to a copyright problem. It was badly burned in a fire later in the 1960’s.

George Wein in 2009 (Infrogmation/Wikipedia)


    The building was torn down. Your Father's Moustache reopened in Dennis Port in the same building as Improper Bostonian. In the 1970's the site of the former jazz club became home to a housing development roughly in the area of Prince Charles Drive. George Wein continued to be a force in jazz, running the Newport Jazz Festival into 2020. He is still going strong at age 95. As for his contribution to the jazz scene on Cape Cod the only thing left behind is Storyville's legacy of great music.

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