Harder Than It Looks: The Quest for the Bell

“Now remember, don’t say “Hi y’all’,” Bernice, the head hostess told me.  “This is a classy place.  We always say ‘good evening'”.  It was my first week on the job at the Old San Francisco and Bernie, the grand dame of the steakhouse was training me on front-of-house etiquette.  In her seventies, she had worked for the establishment for decades, from waitress to manager to running the host stand in her semi-retirement.  She wore a long black gown, lots of costume jewelry and a fabulous auburn wig over her snow white hair.  She had begun her career at the original San Antonio location and had been at the Austin OSF from the day it opened.  She often joked that when she died, they would have her stuffed and mounted in the lobby, her “good evening” smile in place forever.

“Good evening, folks. Welcome,” she said with flair to a party of four as they came in.  She filled out a seating card for them and handed it to me.  “Miss Dawn will seat you now,” she gestured and I gathered up four tasseled menus and a faux-leather covered wine list and lead them into the main dining room, swishing along in my own gown, a floor length red number with a bustle and a black feather boa.  It was still early evening and the dinner rush had not yet begun.  Many weekend nights saw a 2 hour wait for a table and people would pack the lobby and hall way, nibbling the cheese trays laid out for them and sipping complimentary wine.  I seated the party, pulling out chairs and placing menus meticulously as I’d been instructed. Before the customers had even sat down, water glasses were being filled and a fourteen pound block of Wisconsin Swiss cheese–one of the many things the OSF was known for–had appeared on their table, along with hot loaves of sourdough and onion bread. I handed the seating card off to their waiter who stood at the ready, tray in hand, a starched white napkin over his arm. Onstage, two piano players in 1890’s garb played a Scot Joplin rag in tandem and candles twinkled from every table as I made my way across the room.  A classy place indeed.

Stage right corner of the "red room" dining room

Suddenly the lights over the stage came on and I stopped in my tracks.  “Ladies and Gentlemen!” one of the pianists sang out. “The Old San Francisco now proudly proudly presents Miss Gwen, the lovely Girl On The Red Velvet Swing!”  The small early evening crowd cheered heartily, myself included as Gwen, an angel-faced blond with a smile as big as Texas took the stage. With a few running steps she pulled herself gracefully up onto the swing as the dual pianos rolled out a rollicking version of Deep In The Heart Of Texas. Gwen was barely past eighteen but she had been on the swing literally since before she was born.  Her mother, now the general manager had been a swinger twenty years earlier when the Austin location was first opened.  Right now, Gwen was my idol.  She sailed through the air in ever-widening arcs, toes pointed, legs posed just so, closer and closer to the cowbell that hung from the ceiling, making it all look effortless.  I knew from my recent first practice sessions that it was anything but.

At the moment of truth, as Gwen’s high heels neared the bell at the ceiling, the pianos began to roll.  The audience held still and silent until–CLANG!!! as she kicked the bell and everyone burst into cheers.  Gwen herself gave an exuberant rebel yell and kicked it several more times.  This was what the manager had meant when he’d told me they would let me swing in front of an audience when I could kick the bell.  The kicking of the bell would seem to be the main point of the show since its clanging always drew applause.  But a seasoned swinger could do a whole lot more than that, and just now Gwen proceeded to show her stuff.  She pivoted her legs out toward the audience then spun around, twisting the the ropes around each other.  As she reached the top of the arc over the pianos she reached out with her right hand, and smacked the second bell, a dangerous feat as it required the swinger to let go of the ropes with one had and lean way over at just the right moment.  She then swooped across to the first bell and gave it a hearty smacking, all the while twisting and turning back and forth across the stage, inches away from the heavy wooden mantle that framed the back wall.  For swingers in training, smashing into that mantle was a rather unavoidable rite of passage.

I was holding my breath at this point as I knew what was coming next: The Flip. The pinnacle of all Swing tricks, it always elicited a gasp from the crowd along with a smattering of “did you see that?!”  It happened so fast that if you were looking down, at your dinner say, for those two and a half seconds, you’d miss it. I kept my eyes glued to Gwen as she swooped toward the ceiling, maneuvering so she was traveling backwards.  She seemed to pause in mid-air at the top of the arc, twenty feet off the stage, then tucked her legs under the swing and simultaneously threw her weight over her right shoulder.  She somersaulted 360 degrees around, her long blond hair streaming momentarily toward the floor before the swing slammed down straight, the ropes untangling and Gwen perfectly balanced and sitting pretty. The pianos glided into an elegant rendition of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” and Gwen eased up on her velocity, doing some graceful twirls and blowing kisses to the crowd as the swing slowed down.  Finally she let her legs dangle straight down, the seat resting against her lower back.  She balanced all her weight on her hands on the ropes, and in one fluid movement she flipped backward off the swing, landing squarely on the narrow stage in her high heels as the crowd applauded.  She curtsied graciously then gestured to the piano players and applauded them as well.  The entire routine took about seven minutes, was physically exhausting and was repeated several times an hour throughout the evening.  Lately I could think of nothing except the day that I would be able to rule that swing the way Gwen did.  Considering I hadn’t been able to kick the bell yet, it was a long way away.

I took the long way back to the host stand, crossing into the bar.  Like every other area of the steakhouse, it contained plenty of vintage memorabilia and kitsch to look at, including a large glass case containing photos and articles about the historical origin of its main attraction. The original Girl On The Red Velvet Swing was Evelyn Nesbit who came to fame as a chorus girl turned model in New York

Evelyn Nesbit circa 1902

City at the turn of the 20th century.  Evelyn was just 16 when she became involved with the renowned architect–and sugar daddy–Stanford White, whom she coyly dubbed “Stanny Claus”.  They spent many a passionate evening ensconced in the tower of White’s crown jewel–the original Madison Square Garden at Madison Avenue and 23rd Street.  The great architect is said to have designed about half of Manhattan and he built himself numerous love nests along the way. One of these, on West 24th Street, is said to have contained the dimly lit room that held the illustrious red velvet swing, which the young Evelyn often rode naked. During one of these rides, she swung so high that her foot pierced a paper parasol hanging from the ceiling.  From then on, spiking the parasol became the goal of the swing and Stanny was happy to supply an endless line of delicate paper confections for Evelyn–and his many other young paramours–to massacre with their high kicking feet.  The original owner of the steakhouse had been wise to change the parasol to a cowbell.  It’s clanging made a far bigger impression, and drew everyone’s attention, no matter how good your steak was.

Unfortunately, the story of Evelyn and her Stanny Claus ended in tragic spectacle, with Evelyn’s husband Harry Thaw shooting White point blank in the face on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden in front of a thousand witnesses in the middle of a musical revue.  At the moment of the shooting, the chorus was performing a song, aptly titled I Could Love A Million Girls. The murder was dubbed “The Crime Of The Century” and the sensational press coverage of the event and the ensuing trail scandalized early 20th century readers, sparing no detail of Evelyn and White’s personal relationship, not the least of which was the notorious swing.  (An interesting side note: in 1994 this author attended the New York City acting conservatory The American Academy of Dramatic Arts.  Located at 120 Madison Avenue, it is just blocks from the location of the old Madison Square Garden (demolished in 1925).  The building that houses the Academy was designed by Stanford White himself and was originally built as The Colony Club, the first NYC social club for young women….)

After the last tables had cleared  and most of the staff had gone home for the night, I changed into my sweats and high heeled Mary Jane shoes and headed to the stage for swing practice. Compared to Gwen’s charming and nimble performance, I was a wheezing, grunting novice.  Whatever you knew about swinging on playground swings went out the window when you mounted the big Red Velvet.  In order to get some momentum going, you had to swing in a diagonal pattern, otherwise you’d be there all night.  Diagonally meant toward the mirrored wall, and it was drilled into my head by Sherri, the assistant manager/swing trainer to always look over your left shoulder to make sure you didn’t smash into the mirror or the mantle framing it– both of which I did numerous times before getting the hang of it.  When you were about halfway to the bell you had to straighten out,using your legs as a rudder.  Then the real work began.  In order to get the height needed to reach the bell, the swinger must whip their legs skyward and pull their torso up parallel to the ropes at the same time.  It’s an ab-ripping move of puke-inducing proportions, and when you’re new to it, it makes you grunt like a boxer.  I began to wonder if half the reason the pianos played during the show was to cover the unladylike sounds of the straining swing girl.

The author circa 2002

“Pull!!!” Sherri would holler at me from the floor far below.  I swung, and I pulled until I was dizzy and wheezing.  I came in early to practice and stayed after hours to practice.  I got tips and advice from current swingers, past swingers and even many of the waiters–men and women– who had all taken a crack at Red Velvet at one point, and still the bell remained a few maddening inches beyond the reach of my Mary Jane’s.  In the meantime, I performed the Can-Can with several other girls a few times a night and sang my small repertoire of  jazz standards with the pianists in between swing shows.  If nothing else, I was slowly getting more comfortable being on the OSF stage.

After nearly a month of practice, I still hadn’t been able to kick the damned bell.  “It’s a lot harder than it looks,” Julie, the Saturday night swinger told me.  No kidding.  Julie was a marathon runner and triathlete, a tiny mite of a girl with a head of wild blond curls.  She was not an actress and was all business on the swing, but she clearly loved the job, not least of all because of the great workout it provided.  “It’s really a psychological thing,” she told me during a lull one evening.  “You have to visualize your foot touching the bell.  You have to see it clearly in your mind’s eye and tell yourself it’s easy.”

That was something I hadn’t thought of.  I had the next two days off and spent them visualizing myself into a bell-kicking frenzy, feeling my foot touching its cold metal side over and over.  Before my next shift I showed up extra early and marched up to the swing with a gleam in my eye.  I pulled, I grunted, I flipped my legs and feet toward the ceiling panels with reckless abandon.  I saw it, I felt it, and then suddenly……CLANG!!!

Note: for further information on Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White and the Crime of the Century, this author highly recommends Paula Uruburu’s excellent book “American Eve” published by Riverhead Books, 2008.

So You Think You Can Swing?

Part One of the series “Memoirs of A Girl On The Red Velvet Swing

On stage at the OSF photo by Trey Hoel

When I moved to Austin from Chicago in 1999 I had three objectives in mind: escaping the brutal northern winters, breaking into the Austin music and film scene, and finding a job waiting tables somewhere that wouldn’t suck the life out of me. For an aspiring actress and singer, waiting tables is generally part of the game.  I had done time waitressing in Chicago, and New York City before that and knew exactly the kind of place I wanted to work in–somewhere pricey, and busy enough to attract a moneyed clientele in search of a good time.  In other words, somewhere I could make good tips on a relatively short shift.

It was late July when I began my job search, during a record drought.  Temperatures passed 105 every day.   I drove around looking for restaurants to apply at in my old beater truck with no A/C and kept a towel on the seat next to me to wipe the endless streaming sweat from my face.  Driving up the interstate one sweltering afternoon I saw a huge red sign with fancy lettering: The Old San Francisco Steakhouse and pulled off the highway to investigate.  The building itself was also huge,  red, and fancy, made to look like something from a by-gone age, a nineteenth century saloon–or a whore house, I thought.  My curiosity piqued, I gave my face a swipe with the towel and headed for the double doors at the entrance.

A gilt-lettered sign informed me that the place only served dinner and wouldn’t be open for several hours, but I tried the doors anyway.  The first one was locked, but the second one opened and I went inside.  The blast of air conditioning was welcome relief as I stood there, my eyes adjusting to the dark interior.  Soft light filtered down through ornate stained glass windows above the door, revealing a lobby grandly furnished with Victorian style chairs and settees, red flocked velvet wallpaper and antique statuary.  There was no one at the host stand and I stood there for a minute looking up at a larger than life painting of a beguiling woman in a billowing red gown and matching wide-brimmed picture hat, a feather boa hung jauntily about her ivory shoulders.  She almost seemed to be winking at me.
Continue reading “So You Think You Can Swing?”

Coming Soon: Memoirs of a Girl on the Red Velvet Swing

Dawn Erin as The Swing Girl

Dawn Erin performed nightly for four years as the famed Girl On The Red Velvet Swing at The Old San Francisco Steakhouse, an 1890s-themed fine dining institution that served generations of Texans.

Sadly, the Steakhouses were closed several years ago and only memories remain .

Coming soon, a serialized account of life on the Swing that goes beyond the fishnets and feather boas, told by the girl who witnessed it all!