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"Razzle-Dazzle 'Em!" The Real Life Merry Murderesses Behind Broadway's Chicago

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

While many of us know every word to 'All That Jazz' and 'The Cell Block Tango', there are a few things you may not know about Broadway’s longest-running American musical.

For example, did you know that the 1975 blockbuster from John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse was based on a 1926 play of the same name?

And did you know that the play in question was written by reporter-turned-playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins, who based her satire of the criminal justice system on real-life cases she covered while working for the Chicago Tribune?

So let’s take a look into the thrilling real story behind the show!

As always, I am not a historian, just a dork with Google.

Chicago is set in the 1920s, and follows two merry murderesses, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly after they have been arrested for murdering the men in their lives. Despite being guilty, these two women with the help of lawyer, Billy Flynn, razzle dazzle the jury into releasing them while becoming overnight sensations.

First, let’s set the scene:

In the early 1920s, Chicago experienced a wave of murders committed by women where the victims were usually their lovers or husbands.

This was during a time where things were changing. Prohibition had begun, jazz music was popular, and most importantly, in this case, a woman’s place in society.

Also, this was a time when juries were made up of white men, and convicted murderers were usually sentenced to death by hanging.

During this time, an idea began to circulate; that a woman who was attractive and ‘feminine’ could get away with murder, especially if her behaviour could be blamed on the two things more dangerous than murder - Jazz and Booze.

These trials were sensationalized in the media, usually covered by “sob-sisters”, female reporters who focused on the overall attractiveness of these women and their plights, instead of the facts of the murder. However, it didn’t really matter who covered these trials, or the stance they took. These women were given celebrity status.

In early 1924, reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins was hired by the Chicago Tribune to cover Cook County’s Murderess Row and the subsequent trials, to provide a ‘woman’s perspective’. For eight months, she covered the Cook County and courthouse beat. The Tribune, compared to other newspapers at the time, were less sympathetic to these women, barely keeping Watkins out of the ‘sob-sister’ category. Watkins' accounts of the trials naturally leaned towards the side of sensationalism, as this was considered front page news at the time.

While working for the Tribune, the two most notable murder trials she covered were those of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. Despite believing that these women were guilty due to the amount of evidence against them, Watkins still referred to them as ‘jazz babies’, calling Beulah ‘the beauty of the cell block’ and Belva ‘the most stylish of Murderess Row’.

On March 11th, 1924, Belva Gaertner allegedly shot and killed her lover. Walter Law was found dead in the passenger seat of Gaertner’s car with a gun and a bottle of gin. Gaertner herself was found back in her apartment with blood-stained clothing. While she confessed to drinking with Law earlier that day, she claimed not to have remembered what had happened.

Awaiting trial, Gaertner gave the following quote to Watkins:

"No woman can love a man enough to kill him. They aren't worth it, because there are always plenty more… Gin and guns—either one is bad enough, but together they get you in a dickens of a mess, don't they?"

Gaertner’s defense was that Law could have simply killed himself, and was acquitted in June 1924.

On April 3rd of that same year, Beulah Annan shot and killed her lover Harry Kalstedt in her bedroom. For hours after the shooting, Annan played the ‘Hula Lou’ record for hours, drinking cocktails as she watched her lover die, then calling her husband.

Annan’s story changed multiple times between her arrest and her trial.

First, she confessed to the entire thing. Second, she claimed to have shot him in self defense when he tried to force himself on her. Third, she said to have shot him after he told her he was leaving her. Fourth, and finally, she claimed that she had told Kalstedt of her pregnancy, they fought about it, and both reached for the gun left on their bed.

Her husband Arthur, stood by her throughout her entire trial, actually bankrupting himself as he helped her find the best lawyers available.

Annan was acquitted on May 25th, 1924, and promptly announced that she was divorcing her husband.

These women (and many others like them) took advantage of a system that was broken and twisted it to their advantage. They knew that these juries consisted of only men, they knew the role women were expected to fill in society, they knew how jazz music and alcohol had been villainized - so they got all dressed up, played up to societal norms and expectations, and of course, blamed it all on being corrupted by jazz and booze.

Watkins’ columns covering these trials and the juicy secrets of Murderess Row were incredibly popular. After leaving the Tribune, she wrote a play called The Brave Little Women, which was then renamed Chicago and contained a fictionalized account of the murder trials of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner.

These real life merry murderesses became characters in her play, Beulah inspiring Roxie Hart, and Belva inspiring Velma Kelly. Amos Hart was based on Albert Annan, the real life doting husband, while defense lawyers William Scott Stewart and W.W. O’Brien were combined into the suave Billy Flynn. Of course, her rival reporters, the ‘sob sisters’ were represented by the character of Mary Sunshine, and naturally, Harry Kalstedt became murder victim Fred Casely.

Believe it or not, both the characters of The Hunyak and Go To Hell Kitty were also based on real life tenants of Murderess Row, Sabella Nitti and Kitty Malm.

Watkins’ play opened on Broadway in 1926, running for 172 performances, with Gaertner herself attending the premiere in Chicago a year later.

Chicago went on to have many adaptations, the most notable being as a silent film in 1927, and a feature film in 1942 which was renamed Roxie Hart.

In 1960, Broadway performer Gwen Verdon read the play and passed it along to her husband, director and choreographer Bob Fosse. Fosse then approached Watkins to purchase the rights to the play to create a musical adaptation, but was denied.

This wasn’t the first time Watkins had refused to sell the rights to her play after its initial success. A family member once said that Watkins believed that her articles which developed public attention and sympathy, lead to Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner being acquitted when she had always believed that they were guilty.

When Watkins passed away in 1969, the rights to Chicago were sold to Richard Fryer, Bob Fosse, and Gwen Verdon.

Bob Fosse worked with composing team John Kander and Fred Ebb to create the script and score for Chicago, presenting it in a vaudeville style to make a clear connection between show business and the court system. Gwen Verdon took on the role of Roxie Hart, with Chita Rivera starring opposite her as Velma Kelly.

Chicago opened on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre in 1975, where it ran until 1977 with 936 performances. It was later revived on Broadway in 1996, and has yet to close. This production is the Longest-Running Musical Revival, Longest-Running American Musical, and the Second Longest-Running show to run on Broadway.

The musical also was a major success on London’s West End, with the revival becoming the Longest-Running American Musical.

In 2002, Chicago went to Hollywood, becoming a movie musical with a cast lead by Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere. The movie adaptation won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2003.

Before I conclude this brief look into the story behind the ‘razzle dazzle’ of Chicago, I wanted to try something different.

These posts usually are firmly focused on the true events the show was based on, but I am making an exception today.

While preparing this piece, it was announced that Ann Reinking, a theatre legend, had passed away. I’ve wanted to be like her ever since I was a little girl.

Since part of her legacy is linked closely with Chicago, I thought I would share this small part of her illustrious career in this little piece. That being said, her time with Chicago was only a small part of all the incredible things she is credited with, I’m just trying to stay on topic as much as possible.

Ann’s Chicago journey began in 1977, when she joined the original Broadway cast replacing Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart.

In 1996 after retiring from performing, she was hired to choreograph New York City Center’s Encores production of Chicago in the style of Bob Fosse. When the creative team struggled to find a Roxie Hart to lead their show, Reinking stepped into the role she had played almost twenty years later. The Encores production went on to become the record-breaking 1997 revival, in which Ann Reinking not only played the role of Roxie, but provided the choreography. She went on to win the Tony Award for Best Choreography for her work on this production.

I am sending my deepest condolences to Ann’s family, friends, peers, and to everyone she inspired. May she rest in peace, and continue to live on through her legacy.

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