Burlesque Arrests: Jack Ruby & Tony Midnite
by: Femme Vivre LaRouge
I present to you two very different figures from the history of burlesque: Jack Ruby and Tony Midnite. While Midnite made his mark as a performer, costumer, and LGBT activist, Ruby went down in history not for the clubs he owned, but for shooting Lee Harvey Oswald.
Born in Chicago in 1911, Jack Ruby relocated to Dallas in 1947, to take over management of the Singapore Club, which his sister owned. Ruby later changed the dancehall’s name to the Silver Spur Club and additionally purchased the Bob Wills Ranch House to operate as a western-style nightclub. Neither of these clubs survived, but his next venture, the Vegas, did. The Vegas club offered beer and wine, a limited food menu, a live band, and the occasional striptease act. After a failed attempt at operating a private club on Commerce, he changed its name to the Carousel Club and abandoned the membership system (which enabled club members to purchase liquor) for a public nightclub format with four stripteasers, an emcee, and a band on the payroll. While some employees got along just fine with Jack Ruby and even spoke fondly of him and his generosity, he was known to have violent outbursts of temper. He reportedly sapped one employee, beat a musician with brass knuckles, and pinned another to the wall then kicked him in the groin. He also supposedly gave a handyman a sound beating and threatened to toss a cigarette girl downstairs when confronted about wages. Somehow in the end, though, the charges were always dropped.
Ruby’s money management was sketchy at best and some performers claim he withheld payment from them; he used his car trunk for his banking, always paid cash, and took out several loans, but never from a financial institution. His operations were suspended multiple times by the Texas Liquor Control Board, for being an agent of moral turpitude, producing obscene shows, allowing a drunkard on the premises, alcoholic beverage consumption past club hours, and bounced checks. He was also arrested for permitting dancing after hours (twice), selling liquor after hours, disturbing the peace, allegedly carrying a concealed weapon, assault, and ignoring traffic summonses for a total of 20 tickets. Most of these charges, including an additional one by the Bureau of Narcotics, were dropped, or resulted in a small fine. His final arrest, however, in 1963, saw him sentenced to death for shooting Lee Harvey Oswald point blank in the stomach. However, Jack Ruby died of cancer while awaiting the appeal process. His motivations are much debated and his life was a turbulent one from the very beginning; the widely differing opinions of him by people who knew him keep the true Jack Ruby cloaked in mystery.
A native Texan, Tony Midnite was born in 1926 and began his performance career as a female impersonator in Galveston. Before long he took his show on the road, made it to Hollywood by age 20, and then joined Chicago’s Jewel Box Revue in 1948. Midnite’s passion for costuming eventually took him away from the stage and in 1952, he opened his own studio. He outfitted all of the best performers, both female impersonator and female, worldwide, in lavish costumes and gowns. In 1958 Midnite costumed the Jewel Box Revue for its Broadway performance and after that he stayed on in New York, doing costumes for theatre, television, and even the Metropolitan Opera. He later returned to Chicago to open his own show; although the Chicago police were open with their dislike of female impersonation, this never held him back. In the early 1950s, the police department attempted to quell his career, but undaunted, Midnite audaciously booked the Jewel Box to perform a two week run of 25 Men and a Girl at a lush show lounge. The show, consisting of 25 drag queens emceed by a drag king, was so popular that it continued at this venue for eight months. The Jewel Box Revue also pushed boundaries by employing a multiracial cast of performers in the early fifties. Although his career was a very successful one, it was nonetheless peppered with discrimination and, effectively, segregation, at times. Tony Midnite participated in protests and publishing about LGBT issues, earning him an induction into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1996.