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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: The Evening Star and Señor Wences

From Washington Lawyer, October 2013

By Jacob A. Stein


When I heard that The Washington Post was sold, I was reminded of the Evening Star in 1938 when I delivered the paper at the high price of three cents a copy. In addition to the Star, there were the Times–Herald, which had all the best funny papers; the Daily News, which was a rather small paper that was delivered in the afternoon; and the Post.

On Sunday (I remind you, in 1938), I looked forward to the Sunday Star’s political cartoonist Clifford K. Berryman. Each of the local papers had its own political cartoonist with a caricature of Franklin D. Roosevelt, his profile, his smile, and his tilted–up cigarette holder.

I thought I had some caricature–drawing talent so I bought the small bottle of Higgins India Ink and pen points at Bryan’s Stationery store at 14th and Irving Streets, near my junior high school.

Those were the days when Peggy Bacon (1895–1987) was one of the best caricaturists. Her drawings appeared in elegant magazines such as Vanity Fair. She said people’s faces are disguises. They are masks of the subjects who make the vain attempt to cover up the frailties we all have. She takes off the mask.

There was an exhibition in 1998 at the National Portrait Gallery devoted to caricature. The exhibition was put in a book, Celebrity Caricature in America, by Wendy Wick Reaves. Get it, some way or the other, and you will see the great American caricaturists. Every time I look through the book, I am tempted to get my pens and Higgins India Ink.

The Star’s Sunday paper was filled with the big department store ads. These were the Hecht Company at 7th and F, Garfinckel’s at 14th and F, and, in between those two, Woodward & Lothrop’s.

F Street was the main downtown shopping street, with a streetcar in the middle. In addition to the F Street department stores, Lansburgh’s and Kann’s were close by. There were three movie theaters on F Street—the Metropolitan, the Palace, and the Fox, later named the Capital, located on the southeast corner of F Street. The Fox was the grandeur of a castle, with big staircases and big beautiful hanging lights everywhere.

For 50 cents, I walked in to see a talking picture and then one hour of vaudeville with comedians, dancers, comedy sketch actors, and jugglers.

In one such show a man named Señor Wences walked on stage dressed formally, the boutonniere, the black tie, the posture. He was, as far as I am concerned, the greatest ventriloquist and juggler who ever stepped on a stage. He casually smoked a cigarette as he was throwing his voice to five different characters. As an encore, he juggled clubs, knives, and boxes.

In 1948 when TV arrived, Señor Wences was often on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday show. You can see Señor Wences perform on YouTube.

In the 1980s, my wife, Mary, and I decided to spend a few June days in New York City. As we walked the streets, we wondered whether Señor Wences was alive and well in New York City. I called and asked a friend of mine who knows everything, including the dissents of the U.S. Supreme Court, whether Señor Wences was still around. Within the hour, we had Señor Wences’ New York telephone number. I made the call and his wife said he was fishing in Spain.

I called again in the fall. Mrs. Wences answered the phone. She said Señor Wences is at home and why don’t we drop by. Thereafter, we became friends of Mr. and Mrs. Wences. He said he retired too quickly. He was only 97.

In their apartment, Señor Wences had the things he used on the stage. In one corner were his juggling props. I wanted to show him I could juggle three balls, and I tossed them in the air. I was very proud of myself. Señor Wences, in his Spanish dialect, said “So?” He said I had no coordination. It is either there or not there.

I saw on the wall a framed poem dedicated to Señor Wences:

Let’s give a hand to the Wences man,
he made it talk to me.
With a flourish here, and an eyebrow there,
oh, the things a hand could be.
When I was ten, you made me smile,
with your head in the box routine,
And the way you threw your voice around
was the best I’ve ever seen.

New York City commemorated the great man by naming a street called Señor Wences Way, at 54th and Broadway.

Now back to the newspapers. The Evening Star was located at 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. In the building were the journalists, the advertisers, the owners, the newsprint, and the whirring presses. Trucks lined up around 3:00 in the afternoon to get the papers to the newsboys.

A little history. The Post bought the Times–Herald and strangled it to death with nobody at the funeral. The Daily News disappeared. What was left were the Post and the Star. Time magazine bought the Star and made every effort to keep it alive, but it failed.

What will happen to the Post? There is a woman on M Street in Georgetown who claims to see right into the future. Drop by.

In the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the entire Evening Star is on microfilm. The people in the library are accommodating. I recommend spending an hour seeing the world go backward.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at [email protected].