Wednesday, January 20, 2021

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


    A ‘tea room’ was a small restaurant or cafĂ© 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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