Anything Goes: A Novel

Anything Goes: A Novel

by Richard S. Wheeler


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Anything Goes: the enchanting story of a vaudeville troupe that makes its way to Western mining towns, from renowned master of the Western novel, Richard S. Wheeler.

The cowboys, gold miners, outlaws, gunmen, prostitutes, and marshals who populate the Wild West never see much big-city entertainment. Most towns are too wild and rowdy for entertainers to enter, let alone perform in. All that is about to change.

August Beausoleil and his colleague, Charles Pomerantz, have taken the Beausoleil Brothers Follies to the remote mining towns of Montana, far from the powerful impresarios who own the talent and control the theaters on the big vaudeville circuits. Their cast includes a collection of has-beens and second-tier performers: Mary Mabel Markey, the shopworn singer now a little out of breath; Wayne Windsor, "The Profile," who favors his audiences with just one side of his face while needling them with acerbic dialogue; Harry the Juggler, who went from tossing teacups to tossing scimitars; Mrs. McGivers and her capuchin monkey band; and the Wildroot Sisters, born to show business and managed by a stage mother who drives August mad.

Though the towns are starved for entertainment, the Follies struggles to fill seats as the show grinds from town to town. Just when the company is desperate for fresh talent, a mysterious young woman astonishes everyone with her exquisite voice.

The Wild West will never be the same. They've seen comics, gorgeous singers, and scimitar-tossing jugglers. Now if the troupers can only make it back East . . . alive!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765375810
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 12/08/2015
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

RICHARD S. WHEELER is the author of more than fifty novels of the American West. He holds six Spur Awards and the Owen Wister Award for lifetime contribution to the literature of the West. He makes his home in Livingston, Montana, near Yellowstone National Park.

Read an Excerpt

Anything Goes

By Richard S. Wheeler

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2015 Richard S. Wheeler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7581-0


THE SILENCE was deadly. The show might as well be playing to an audience of cigar store Indians. Half the seats were empty. August Beausoleil hoped that Helena would be one of those cities where people habitually arrived late. But he wasn't seeing any new arrivals pushing their way along the rows. The opera house seemed a giant cavern. Opera houses were like that. They seemed largest when they were empty, more intimate when they were jammed.

From his perch at the edge of the proscenium arch, he studied the vast gloom beyond the hissing footlights. Ming's Opera House, in Helena, in the young state of Montana, was a noble theater just up the flank of Last Chance Gulch, where millions in gold had been washed out of the earth just a few feverish years earlier.

And now, opening night, those who had braved the chill mountain winds were sitting on their hands. Who were they, out there? Did they understand English? Were they born without a funny bone? Why had a sour silence descended? A miasma of boredom or ill humor, or maybe disdain, had settled like fog over the crowd, what there was of it.

The show had opened with the Wildroot Sisters, Cookie, Marge, and LaVerne, strutting their stuff, singing ensemble; Sousa marches melded into a big hello, we're starting the show. And all it got was frostbit fingers tapping on calloused hands. Beausoleil could almost feel the dyspepsia leaking across the arch onto the wide stage.

The show was his. Or most of it. Charles Pomerantz, the advance man, owned the rest of it. He had done his usual good job, plastering Lewis and Clark County with gaudy red playbills and posters touting the event, booking hotels, hiring locals, stirring up the press, handing out free passes to crooked politicians, soothing the anxieties of clergymen with bobbing Adam's apples, and planting a few claques in the audience. Who weren't doing much claquing at the moment.

Beausoleil doubled as master of ceremonies, and that gave him a chance to stir the pot a bit, sometimes with a little jab, or a quip, or even a hearty appreciation of wherever they were.

He grabbed his cane and silk top hat and strutted into the limelight, Big City man in gray tuxedo, in the middle of arctic tundra.

"Ladies and gents," he said. "That was the Wildroot Sisters, the Sweethearts of Hoboken, New Jersey. Let's give them a big hand."

No one did.

"LaVerne, Cookie, and Marge," he said. "Singing just for you."

Dyspepsia was in the air. Time for some quick humor.

"Citizens of this fair city — where am I? Keokuk? Grand Rapids? Ah, Helena, the most beautiful and famous metropolis in North America — yes, there you are, welcoming the Beausoleil Brothers Follies."

Well, anyway, waiting for whatever came next. No one laughed.

"We've got a great show for you. Seven big acts. Please welcome the one, the only Harry the Juggler, who will do things never before seen by the human eye."

Harry trotted out, bowed, and was soon tossing six cups and saucers, breaking none. And when it was time to shut down, he pulled one after another out of the air and set the crockery down, unharmed. He bowed again, but the audience barely applauded.

"And now, the famed Marbury Trio, Delilah, Sam, and Bingo, from Memphis, in the great state of Tennessee, doing a rare and exotic dance, a lost art, for your edification."

It was, actually, a tap dance, and they did it brightly, the dolled-up threesome syncopating feet and legs and canes into rhythmic clatter that usually set a crowd to nodding and smiling. But the applause was scattered, at best. This crowd didn't know a snare drum from a bass drum.

"Next on our bill is the monologuist and sage, the one, the celebrated, the famous Wayne Windsor. Welcome Mr. Windsor as you would a long-lost brother fresh out of the state pen."

They didn't.

Wayne Windsor trotted out in a soft tweed coat, a string cravat, and a bowler, which he lifted and settled on his balding head. He would do his act in front of the silvery olio drop downstage.

Another bomb, Beausoleil thought, retreating into side-stage shadows. Windsor was also known as The Profile, because he thought he had a handsome visage from either side, with a good jut jaw and noble brow and long sculpted nose. He had contrived to take advantage of this asset, speaking first to the left side of the audience, giving those on the right a good look, and then when that portion of the audience had absorbed his famed profile, he shifted to the other side, treating the viewers on the left to his noble nose and jaw.

The act was a good one. The Great Monologuist always began with an invitation.

"Now tonight," he said, "I'm going to talk about robber barons, and I want anyone who is a genuine, accredited robber baron, or any other barons, to please step forward so we can have some fun at your expense."

That was good. Robber barons were in the news. Helena had a few. The Profile had a knack. Beausoleil thought it might crack the ice this sorry evening, but it didn't even dent the silence. The Profile fired off a few cracks about politicians, added a sentiment or two, and finally settled into one of his accounts of bad service on a Pullman coach, while the Helena audience sat in stony silence. It was getting unnerving.

Was something wrong? A mine disaster? An election loss? A bribery indictment? Nothing of the sort had shown up in the two-cent press before the show. The trouble was, the week hung in balance. A bad review, three bad reviews in the three daily rags, and the Beausoleil Brothers Follies would be in trouble. A touring show bled cash.

He eyed the shadowy audience sourly, and came to a decision. He talked quietly to two stagehands, who told him there were few tomatoes this time of year in Helena, but plenty of rotten apples, which would do almost as well.

"Do it," he said.

They vanished, and would soon be sitting out there in the arctic dark, surrounded by surly spectators and bystanders little comprehending the subversives in their midst.

"I knew it," said Mrs. McGivers. "I saw it coming. You should pay me extra. It grieves my soul."

"I didn't know you had one," he said.

Mrs. McGivers and her Monkey Band would follow, after The Profile had ceased to bore his customers. Like most vaudeville shows, this one had an animal act, and the Monkey Band was it. Mrs. McGivers, a stout contralto, would soon take the stage with her two obnoxious capuchin monkeys, Cain and Abel, in red-and-gold uniforms, and an accordionist named Joseph. Cain would pick up the miniature cymbals, one for each paw, while Abel would command two drumsticks and perch with a little drum in front of him, looking all too eager.

And then the music would begin, with Cain clanging and Abel banging, and Joseph and Mrs. McGivers setting the pace and melody, more or less. It was usually good for some laughs. And sometimes the beasts would add a flourish, as if they were caffeinated, which maybe they were. The result was anarchy.

August Beausoleil loathed the monkeys, who usually spent their spare time up in the flies, careening about and alarming the performers. The Profile had complained mightily when something had splatted on his pompadoured hair. Beausoleil sometimes ached to fire the act, but good animal acts were tough to find and hard to travel with, and Mrs. McGivers usually gave better than she got. It was better than any dog or pony act he'd seen.

But he had one surefire way to turn a show around, and this was it. When at last The Profile had ceased to bore and offend, the master of ceremonies announced the one, the only, the sensational Mrs. McGivers and her Monkey Band. Quick enough the olio drop sailed into the flies, revealing Mrs. McGivers, the monkeys seated beside her, one with cymbals, the other with drumsticks. And Joseph, the accordionist, at one side. The audience stared, lost in silence. Would nothing crack this dreary opening night?

Mrs. McGivers had come from the tropics somewhere, and the rumor was that she had killed a couple of husbands, but no one could prove it. She used a jungle theme for the act, and usually appeared with a red bandanna capturing her brown hair and a scooped white blouse encasing her massive chest, below which was a voluminous skirt of shimmery blue fabric that glittered in the limelight. She looked somewhat native, but wasn't. She wore sandals, which permitted her smelly feet to exude odors that offended performers and audiences alike.

Her repertoire ran to calypso from Trinidad and Tobago, mostly stuff never heard by northern ears, which usually annoyed the audience, which would have preferred Bible songs and spirituals as a way of countering the dangerous idea that man had descended from apes. There, indeed, were two small primates, wiry little rascals dressed in red-and-gold uniforms, making dangerous movements with drumsticks and cymbals in hand.

She turned to Beausoleil.

"You're a rat," she said.

Joseph, the accordionist, took that as his cue, and soon the instrument was croaking out an odd, rhythmic tune, and she began to warble in a nasal, sandpapery whine stuff about banana boats and things that no one had ever heard of.

Mrs. McGivers crooned, repeating chords, giving them spice as she and her monkeys whaled away. The capuchins gradually awakened to their task, led by the accordion, and soon Cain was whanging the cymbals and Abel was thundering the bass drum, with little attention to rhythm, which was actually intricate in Trinidadian music. The whole performance veered toward anarchy, which is what Mrs. McGivers intended, her goal being to send the audience into paroxysms of delight.

Only not this evening in Helena, in the midst of stern mountains and bitter winters.

Were these ladies and gentlemen born without humor?

Abel rose up on his stool and began a virtuoso performance on the bass drum, both arms flailing away, a thunderous eruption from the stage. And still those politicos out there stared across the footlights in silence.

Very well, then. Beausoleil quietly waved a hand from the edge of the arch, a hand unseen by the armored audience.

"Boo!" yelled a certain stagehand, now sitting front-left.

"Go away," yelled another stalwart of the show, this gent sitting front-right, four rows back.

The capuchins clanged and banged. Mrs. McGivers warbled. Joseph wheezed life out of the old accordion.

The two reporters, front on the aisle, took no notes.

"Boo," yelled a spectator. "Refund my money."

The gent, well known to Beausoleil, had a bag in hand, and now he plunged a paw into it and extracted a browning, mushy apple, and heaved this missile at Mrs. McGivers. It splatted nearby, which was all Cain needed. He abandoned his cymbals, leapt for the mushy apple, and fired it back. Any target would do. It splatted upon the bosom of a politician's alleged wife.

This was followed by a fusillade of rotten items, mostly tomatoes, but also ancient apples and peaches and moldering potatoes, drawn miraculously from sacks out in the theater, and these barrages were returned by Cain and Abel, who were born pitchers with arms that would be the envy of any local baseball team.

Mrs. McGivers was miraculously unscathed, the war having been waged by her two capuchins. Joseph, too, was unscathed, and continued to render calypso music, even imitating a steel guitar with his miraculous wheezebox.

It was a fine uproar. Suddenly, this dour audience was no longer sitting on its cold hands, but was clapping and howling and squealing. Especially when Abel fired a soggy missile that splatted upon the noble forehead of the attorney general. The Helena regulars enjoyed that far more than they should.

After a little more whooping, Beausoleil, in bib and tux, strode purposefully out onto the boards, dodged some foul fruit, and held up a hand.

"Helena has spoken, Mrs. McGivers," he said. He jerked a thumb in the direction of the wings.

She rose from her stool, awarded him with an uncomplimentary gesture barely seen on the other side of the footlights, and stalked off, followed by the capuchins, and Joseph, and finally some hands who removed the stools and instruments.

"Monkey business! Give them a round of applause," Beausoleil said, and immediately the audience broke into thunderous appreciation.

The two bored reporters were suddenly taking notes.

All was well.

The rest of opening night was well nigh perfect. Indeed, Mary Mabel Markey, the Queen of Contraltos, got a standing ovation and repeated demands for an encore, which she supplied so abundantly that Beausoleil almost got out the hook to drag her offstage. Mary Mabel was getting along, was fleshy, and used too much powder to hide her corrugated forehead. She was sinking fast, and Beausoleil had hired her mostly out of pity, since she could no longer find work in the great opera houses of the East and Midwest. But she was also becoming impossible.

There were more acts after the intermission and, finally, the patriotic closing in which all the acts combined with a great huzzah for the waving flag.

The rotten vegetables had rescued the show, once again. It annoyed August Beausoleil. It meant his acts weren't working. It meant financial peril. It hurt the reputation of the Beausoleil Brothers Follies. There were neither brothers nor follies in it, but that was show business. The audience had gone home happy.


AUGUST BEAUSOLEIL stared at the greenbacks and coins in the battered lockbox. The evening's take was a hundred forty-seven dollars and fifty cents. Forty-five were gallery seats, sold at fifty cents. The rest were dollar seats. There were also some free passes, given to local bigwigs and press and bloodsuckers.

That was not even his gross. He owed Ball's Drug Store, seller of advance reserved seats, two percent. And he owed Ming's Opera House seventy-five. And he owed the Union Hotel for the rooms. And he owed the printer who did the playbills, and his partner Charles Pomerantz, who ran up expenses as the advance man, his costs. There were other costs, too. Chemicals for the limelight, chemicals for the footlights. The publicity spending he had to do, drinks for guests.

Running a variety show through western towns was a tough proposition, and it required near-sellout bookings. He usually had seven acts, too many for small-town vaudeville, but he hoped that the size and depth of the show would start tongues wagging and purses opening. It was folly, but it was also a bet, and August Beausoleil didn't shy from a good bet.

Ming's had emptied, and the lights were mostly doused. But the evening was far from over. He had been in the business all his life, ever since he was a hungry boy edging his way through the theaters of Manhattan, making a nickel here, a dime there. His instincts told him that this night was going to bring trouble.

Indeed, a gent in handsome attire worked through the shadows to the arch, climbed to the stage, and found the proprietor of the Beausoleil Brothers show in the wing.

"Your show, is it?"

"Hope you enjoyed it, sir."

"We did until a rotten apple landed on my wife's dress, ruining it. She wishes to be reimbursed, and tells me the cost is fourteen."

"I see," said the proprietor. "And you have some evidence, do you, that the dress is beyond repair, can't be restored, and of course you have a bill of sale, and all that?"

"Now see here. The dress is ruined and one of those infernal monkeys did it. The show was so bad that it got all the spoiled fruit in Helena tossed at it."

"I agree, sir, that monkey act is really beneath our standards."

"Beneath your standards! You hired it on. Now you can pay the piper."

"Ah, but the monkeys were entertainment. There wasn't a smile all evening until the monkeys took offense. And after that, sir, the show was a great success."

"Well, fork over. I don't have all night. My wife waits in the hansom cab."

"Who did you say you are?"

"I didn't. I'm the attorney general, Carruthers, and that's all I need to say."

Beausoleil digested that. "Here, sir, are two tickets to tomorrow's performance, absolutely free. Give them to your friends."

"Two dollars."

"Well, then, four reserved front-center orchestra seats, something only a well-connected person can hope to acquire without paying a premium."

The gent stared. "It's late. I'm tired. My wife is angry. Otherwise I'd be digging into that cashbox."


Excerpted from Anything Goes by Richard S. Wheeler. Copyright © 2015 Richard S. Wheeler. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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