For many decades, the one man who embodied the popular conception of a Bowery resident was a character known as Chuck Connors. Connors was a garrulous, cheerful fixture of Chinatown, who had grown up in the Five Points and later served as a messenger for Chinese merchants. Frequently found in Chinatown’s notorious dives, Connors soon gained a reputation as a Chinatown guide for slumming uptown tourists. He was featured as a Bowery character by a couple of New York newspaper reporters, which served to spread his fame throughout the city. A former boxer, Connors was also championed by dive-owner Scotty Lavelle and Richard Fox, publisher of the National Police Gazette.
In addition to regaling people with his heavy dialect anecdotes, Connors was a talented dancer who–along with his favorite female partners–was frequently invited to balls in order to add color to the event. He pioneered some comical (but adroit) dance moves, and became a favorite of the Tammany politicos who often sponsored these entertainments. Publisher Fox even published a book of Chuck’s anecdotes Bowery Life, illustrated by Chuck in some of his mugging poses.
Actor Chris Simmons has made of video of his uncanny recreation of Chuck Connors dialect:
In the beginning, there was only one Chuck. This is literally true, since many sources credit Chuck Connors as being the first person presumed to be nicknamed “Chuck” for Charles. Except his name was not Charles. It wasn’t even Connors. He was born about 1861 as Patrick O’Connor. He once suggested his nickname came from his affinity for “chuck” (steak, or food in general?). [Thanks to Chris S. for correction–ed.]
As a young man, Chuck Connors was one of the intrepid juveniles that performed at the Grand Duke’s Opera House on Baxter Street. He and another boy named Tommie Winn(g) performed an acrobatic act as “The Winn(g) Brothers.”
Chuck’s heyday as a minor celebrity lasted from the early 1890s to 1905. In that year, Chuck’s first wife, Nellie Noonan, passed away with tuberculosis. Chuck himself was slowing down, aged by drink and ring pummelings. As Herbert Asbury relates in Chapter XIV, Section 3 of The Gangs of New York, 1905 was also the year when Connors was challenged as the unofficial mascot of Chinatown by a young Italian bootblack who styled himself “Young Chuck Connors.” Asbury named the upstart as Frank Salvatore, but the source for this story, a January 11, 1905 New York Post article titled “King Chuck Abdicates,” doesn’t name the usurper. Asbury probably makes more of this story than it warranted, for there is no evidence that the rival Chuck persisted in stealing the original Chuck’s act.
Still, this anecdote foreshadows the strange turn Chuck Connors’ legacy took even after his death in 1913.
Skip ahead a dozen years to the mid-1920s. Young stage starlet Mae West arrives at a New York Hotel, and shimmers through the lobby. An old off-duty policeman sees her and freezes in stunned amazement (which may not have been an uncommon reaction). Mae sees him and asks what’s wrong. The man explains that Mae is the spitting image of the girl he loved in younger days, but their romance was ill-fated. Mae listened with interest to the story, set against the backdrop of the Bowery district, and thought it would be a good premise for a stage production.
To research the story further, she was introduced to a former radio singer who was now acting in his own vaudeville routine, Chuck Connors, Jr. Billed as the son of the original Chuck Connors, Chuck Jr. regaled Mae West with stories from the Bowery of the gay nineties, along with artifacts from the career of the first Chuck. With Chuck Jr.’s help, they developed the production that hit the stage as Diamond Lil in 1928. The plot included the role of Chuck Connors. It was a runaway hit, but Mae’s scandalous character, seductive presence, and double entendre lines elicited demands for censorship.
Though Mae West successfully transitioned to (pre-Hays code) Hollywood, she struggled to get Diamond Lil adapted to film. Paramount finally agreed to film it in 1932, but insisted on a title change, and that no references were made to the play. It was released as She Done Him Wrong in January, 1933, starring Mae West, Cary Grant, Noah Beery, and Tammany Young (as Chuck Connors.)
Paramount’s rival, 20th Century Fox, countered with the film The Bowery, released later in 1933. It starred George Raft, Jackie Mason, and Wallace Beery (Noah’s brother!) as Chuck Connors. In this case, Beery as Chuck Connors was the lead character. The plot revolved around a (fictional) bitter rivalry between Chuck Connors and Steve Brodie, the Brooklyn Bridge daredevil jumper (Raft). The film included episodes unflattering to Connors’ character, including the notion that he had prevented firefighters from saving a burning building full of Chinatown residents.
The studio rivalry became manifest when Chuck Connors Jr., who supported Paramount’s She Done Him Wrong, brought a libel suit against 20th Century Fox for disparaging the career of his father. The suit was brought to court, where the Fox lawyers revealed that Chuck Jr. was not the son of Chuck Connors at all, but was really his nephew, George Anthony Miller. The libel suit was tossed thanks to Jr.’s lack of candor.
The kerfuffle over the ghost of Chuck Connors did not stop there. The 1939 New York World’s Fair presented, as one of its exhibits, a Potemkin gilded-age New York Bowery street, with entertainment produced by George Jessel. Its main feature was “Chuck Connor’s Saloon.” The real Chuck Connors, it should be noted, spent most of his waking hours in saloons, but never ran one.
Chuck Connors’ restless identity was finally vanquished by the amazing career of actor and athlete Kevin Joseph Aloysius Connors, known to all TV and movie fans of the latter 20th century as Chuck Connors. From The Rifleman to The Big Country to Soylent Green, Connors had a string of hit roles that remain etched in collective memory. Today, he remains the reigning Chuck Connors of popular culture, while the original Chuck is all but forgotten.