Posts Tagged ‘Bottle Koenig’s’

“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun”.

Even those with the most basic knowledge of, or interest in, Shakespeare, will be familiar with these words from Romeo and Juliet. Of course, they are uttered by Romeo in the famous balcony scene in Act 2.

However, the scene before us is no Royal Shakespeare Company production in Stratford-upon-Avon but a gambling palace turned melodeon or music hall called the Bella Union, located at Washington and Kearney Streets in late nineteenth century San Francisco. 

And our “star-cross’d” lovers are not Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, or even Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, but a baseball bat wielding wild man and a 20 stone woman of whom it could not have been said for at least 30 years that she was “not yet fourteen”.  The incongruity does not end there – because of her bulk she cannot be trusted not to demolish the balcony the moment that she steps on to it, so she is placed centre stage whilst Romeo growls his immortal words from the balcony instead.

Romeo is played by Oofty Goofty, whom we have met already in this series (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/great-san-franciscan-characters-12-oofty-goofty)   And his “all-seeing sun” was portrayed by Big Bertha, a wealthy woman with a dubious past.  Their performances are the talk of the town, although Oofty’s violent displays leave Bertha “covered with bruises from head to toe” every night, leading to her vowing never to play the part again.

Big Bertha, who is described by Herbert Asbury in his splendid The Barbary Coast as a “sprightly lass of 280 pounds”, had first appeared in the city in the mid 1880s claiming to be a wealthy Jewish widow in search of a man to help protect her fortune.  In order to test any suitor’s value and good faith, she required him to hand over to her a sum of money that she would then double and risk on an unnamed investment. 

This worked so successfully that she “collected several thousand dollars from a score of lovelorn males, not a penny of which was ever seen again by its rightful owner”. Although she was eventually arrested for a succession of such scams, none of her victims had the courage to charge her for fear of public humiliation. She was released on nominal bail and the case against her dropped.

She now decided to turn her attentions to a stage career, approaching Ned Foster and Jach Hallinan, managers of the Bella Union and Cremorne melodeons respectively. Recognising her potential they hired her immediately under joint management and put her on display in an empty storefront on Market Street. Dubbed the “Queen of the Confidence Women”, for ten cents she would, at regular intervals, rise from her reinforced chair and recount the list of dreadful crimes that she had committed in San Francisco and other cities, “embellishing her account with many vivid details”. 

She would then regale the assembled throng with horribly off key renditions of the only two songs she ever knew: A Flower from my Angel Mother’s Grave” and The Cabin Where the Old Folks Died. This proved so popular that, after a brief engagement at Bottle Koenig’s, where her erstwhile Romeo had also performed briefly, her act transferred to the Bella Union stage and converted into what became an equally celebrated song and dance revue in which she sang “sentimental ballads in a squeaky voice”.    

Aside from the Romeo and Juliet farce, Bertha was involved in one other crazy theatrical moment. She was cast in Byron’s Malzeppa as the eponymous hero strapped to a horse or, in her case, donkey as punishment for having an affair with a young countess. Her entrance always drew ecstatic applause, but one evening it all went horribly wrong.

Wilting under the nightly strain of carrying Bertha, the donkey lost its footing and crashed into the orchestra pit, taking the massively proportioned Bertha with it.  The musicians’ reaction has not been preserved for posterity but it is not unreasonable to speculate that their language was not equally as colourful as that bellowing from the lips of the hero / heroine’s. Neither can I report whether the hapless donkey sustained any lasting injury.

But it did herald the end of Bertha’s bizarre acting career, who confined herself to singing and, on occasions, dancing. This proved more successful, culminating in her wrestling ownership and management of the Bella Union in 1895. However, restrictions placed on the sale of liquor three years previously eventually forced her to sell up and leave.  And that is the last we hear of her.

“So please you, let me now be left alone”.  

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Of all the eccentric characters that have graced San Francisco’s history, Oofty Goofty must rank amongst the most bizarre.  His real name (Leonard Borchardt appears to be the most likely contender), background (he may have been a deserter from the US Cavalry), and place and date of  both his birth and death are all bones of contention, yet his strange antics intrigued and entertained residents of the City during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Herbert Asbury‘s 1933 book The Barbary Coast, An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, upon which most of the limited knowledge we have of of Oofty is based, explained that he acquired his name during his first sideshow appearance before the San Francisco public as a wild man on Market Street:

“From crown to heel he was covered with road tar, into which were stuck great quantities of horsehair, lending him a savage and ferocious appearance.  He was then installed in a heavy cage, and when a sufficiently large number of people had paid their dimes to gaze upon the wild man recently captured in the jungles of Borneo and brought to San Francisco at enormous expense, large chunks of raw meat were poked between the bars by an attendant.  This provender the wild man gobbled ravenously, occasionally growling, shaking the bars, and yelping these fearsome words: “Oofty goofty! Oofty goofty!””

This frightening spectacle lasted no more than a week before he became ill, unable to perspire through his thick covering of tar and hair.  Doctors at the Receving Hospital tried in vain for several days to remove his costume, and only when he was “liberally doused with a tar solvent” and “laid out upon the roof of the hospital” did it finally come off.

His wild man career abruptly cut short, Oofty turned to the theatre, initially securing a spot at Bottle Koenig’s, a Barbary Coast beer hall.  After just one song and dance, however, he was flung into the street, a humiliating and painful experience had it not been for the fact that it showed him the direction in which his career, or “work” as he termed it, should now turn.

Despite being kicked ferociously and landing heavily upon a stone sidewalk, he discovered that he felt no physical pain. For the next 15 years he exploited this new found talent by touring the city and allowing himself, at a price dependent upon the degree of brutality inflicted, to be kicked and battered by others.  Let Asbury again describe his modus operandi:

“Upon payment of ten cents a man might kick Oofty Goofty as hard as he pleased, and for a quarter……..with a walking stick.  For fifty cents Oofty Goofty would become the willing, and even prideful, recipient of a blow with a baseball bat, which he always carried with him…..It was his custom to approach groups of men, in the streets and in bar-rooms, and diffidently inquire:  “Hit me with a bat for four bits, gents.  Only four bits to hit me with this bat, gents”.

It was only when heavyweight boxer John L. Sullivan struck Oofty with a billiard cue, fracturing three vertebrae, that he finally called it a day. He will no doubt have enjoyed Sullivan’s later World Championship defeat at the hands of San Francisco’s own James J. Corbett.  The blow from Sullivan caused Oofty to walk with a limp for the rest of his life, and he was no longer immune to pain, flinching at the slightest touch.

There are many other colourful stories surrounding Oofty, for example:

  • acting as a human skittle in Woodward’s Garden where customers could win a cigar if they hit him with a baseball;
  • performing alongside Big Bertha (another candidate for inclusion in this series) in a Shakespearean parody entitled “Borneo and Juliet”;
  • attempting to push a shiny red wheelbarrow to New York for a bet (a challenge that failed after just 40 miles when he was knocked over in the dark and landed head first in a creek); and
  • being shipped upside down in a box to Sacramento as a joke gift for a young lady and being left in the unopened package over the weekend.

Despite his physical debility he moved to Texas where he continued to play the fool for his living, drinking beer with a bar spoon and engaging in quail eating contests.

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