Junk-store find brings to life tragic sex-kitten's visit to famed Vancouver nightclub and awestruck city
Many people like to browse secondhand stores or glorified "antique" shops in search of affordable collectibles or memorabilia, sometimes in the hope of discovering something with (current or possible future) monetary value and other times merely trying to uncover some trinket whose chief worth lies in its nostalgia or kitsch appeal.
And sometimes you find something that fits both those descriptions.
During a recent meander through an estate-sale outfit’s jam-packed East Side premises (we’re talking art, furniture, books and magazines, clothing, old cameras, etcetera), near Nanaimo and Hastings streets, I saw what looked like an art frame sticking out from a pile of old Bruce Lee photos and posters on the floor in the back of the shop.
When I slid it out, the first thing that jumped out at me were the words "The Cave" below a photo of a woman flanked by two men. Right away, it was obvious that it was a souvenir of a night at the famous Vancouver supper club/theatre that saw its glory days in the 1950s and ’60s.
The Cave, which opened in 1937 with its famed and cheesy hanging stalactites, hosted the biggest names in showbiz, many of them at the apex of their careers (big breath): the Supremes, Louis Armstrong, Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Johnny Cash, Bo Diddley, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Bette Midler, Wayne Newton, the Righteous Brothers, Sonny and Cher, Nelson Eddy, Fats Domino, the Doors, Lena Horne, Milton Berle, Mel Tormé, Eric Burdon and the Animals... You get the picture (I saw Elvin Bishop perform "Calling All Cows" there shortly before the nightclub's demolition in 1981).
It looked like someone’s framed memento of a memorable night out, perhaps featuring a well-known entertainer (someone had gone to the trouble to frame it, after all).
Then the handwritten inscription ("To Joe—You’re a doll—Jayne", first name only), and the second name’s relatively uncommon spelling (with a "y")—along with the photo of a good-looking and unusually well-endowed blond—put themselves together in my brain and I realized I was holding a souvenir photo/card signed by the legendary actor-singer–sex kitten Jayne Mansfield.
Attached to the back was an envelope containing what everyone who looks for just such rare discoveries dreams of finding: provenance. Inside was a personal affidavit signed and dated by the guy who bought the autographed card and photo from the original owner and who sold it to a collectibles dealer who went out of business and got rid of his inventory—to the shop owner who was now looking over my shoulder at what I was holding.
"This is Jayne Mansfield!" I blurted out like an idiot (there was no price tag on the frame—yet). "Oh, yeah....?" he said.
But I am a regular customer, and he’s a good guy. He let me have it for little more than what two hungry people would pay for a couple of pulled-pork pancake breakfasts across the street at the Red Wagon diner.
And here it is (photo above).
Some easy Internet research, and the attached info, showed that Mansfield brought her nightclub act to Vancouver and the Cave in October 1966. She was in town with her new boyfriend-agent for a week and, seemingly, generated headlines every day of her stay and turned our town on its ass. That she was on the downward curve of a chequered career arc that seemed so promising at its start seemed to make no difference to the celebrity-starved residents and media of our town.
Mansfield cavorted with sailors in Victoria, travelled to the Musqueam reserve to receive an honourary name and a "princess" title, and naively slurped Erwin Doebeli's molten cheese fondue like soup from an oversized spoon at the upscale William Tell restaurant. (She also, reportedly, was so drunk during one of her Cave performances that she forgot the lyrics to her songs.)
Eight months later, this blond-bombshell movie-studio construct and former heir-apparent to Marilyn Monroe lay dead at the side of a road in Louisiana after a terrible early morning car-truck crash that killed two others but spared her three children in the back seat, including three-and-a-half-year-old Mariska Hargitay (who plays New York Det. Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit).
I haven’t been able to figure out yet the identity of "Victor Houston", who signed, in pencil, what would have been the unframed front of the club’s souvenir card just below "To my good Buddy, a good Guy". It appears that he then signed Mansfield’s name under his (I say "appears" because it doesn’t really resemble examples of her signature that I looked up).
The "Joe" in the first inscription was the manager of the Cave at the time, according to the note. He had the good sense to have Mansfield sign, in huge, flowing script, the back of the card, which was flattened out and framed, presumably by the dealer who went out of business.
A lucky find anywhere, but as a piece of memorabilia marking both a much-loved icon of our city’s entertainment history and a celebrated visit of a renowned and notorious entertainer with a tragic history, it is extraordinary.
Too bad I have absolutely no idea what I am going to do with it (and, truth be known, I’m not really even a fan of the actor), but I live for this stuff.
It will find a good home somewhere.