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Lake Geneva memories: TV, mobs and Gypsies

December 24, 2012 | 12:30 PM
It is hard to believe that color television did not always exist. It is even harder to believe that not everyone owned a black and white television, but instead listened to the radio, and only to AM radio as FM radio did not yet exist. For those who did not have a color television set or even a black and white television set, few will forget when color television was first made available to the general public in Lake Geneva.

The time was the mid-1950s and the venue was Leonard's TV store on the east side of the 500 block of Broad Street, where Amy's Shipping Emporium is today. In the early evening a crowd began to gather in front of Leonard's plate glass window. At 8 p.m. the large, rectangular box behind the window was turned on and a colored television program, much like a cinemascope movie, magically appeared. A murmur rose from the crowd assembled in front of Leonard's window. They were watching a TV program in color for the first time. It was "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," the TV version of Mark Twain's popular novel. For many nights thereafter, a crowd gathered in front of the window of Leonard's TV store to watch other television programs in color.

The unsolved robbery

It was 1955 or 1956. An announcement came over the loudspeakers in the classrooms of Central School that the First National Bank in Lake Geneva had been robbed. Students, abruptly awakened from whatever day dreams they were having, listened attentively to the announcement. The bank had been robbed! No one had ever heard of the bank in Lake Geneva being robbed before. The classrooms were abuzz with excitement. As the day wore on, more details of the robbery wafted their way into the classrooms. How much money was stolen? The figure of $100,000 was bandied about. Weber Smith and George Allen, the president and vice president of the bank, are long gone. Perhaps only Muriel Malsch, who worked as a teller in the bank, knows how much was stolen.

During the ensuing days, rumors about the bank robbery spread throughout Lake Geneva. The bank robber supposedly had fled by automobile to the Lake Lawn air strip where he jumped into a Piper Cub airplane and flew away. One rumor actually identified the name of the alleged bank robber, a prominent resident of Lake Geneva. But no one was ever arrested for committing the robbery. The rumors eventually faded into the mists of time.

Gypsy parade

"The Gypsies are coming. The Gypsies are coming." Word of the arrival of the gypsies (known in Europe as "Romani" or "travelers") quickly spread throughout Lake Geneva on that sunny summer day in about 1954 or 1955. Residents of the city quickly lined the intersection of Broad and Main streets to await the arrival of the "Gypsies."

No one had ever seen a Gypsy before. Fear of the unknown permeated the assembled crowd. The small Lake Geneva police force had also turned out en masse, supplemented by many Walworth County Sheriff's deputies. The police and the deputies, armed with shotguns, blocked off the intersection. Soon the flashing red "gumball" of a sheriff's car appeared on Lake Street to the west of Flat Iron Park, leading a long caravan of cars, each pulling an Airstream trailer (a small mobile home).

As the long caravan passed through the intersection heading north on Broad Street, awestruck people in the assembled crowd strained to get a look at the Gypsies. The slow-moving caravan, followed by a Walworth County Sheriff's car, soon disappeared. Most of the crowd still did not know what a "Gypsy" looked like.

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A young on-looker in the crowd tugged at Lake Geneva Chief of Police Rowe "Hoppy" Hopkins' pants leg and asked him where the Gypsies had come from and where they were going.

"I don't know," the chief replied. "They came from somewhere in the south, maybe from Louisiana. And I don't know where they are going. Maybe all the way to the North Pole, for all I care. All I know is that we got word from the McHenry County Sheriff's department that they were coming and that we should wait for them at the Illinois state line and not let them out of their cars in Walworth County. Sheriff's deputies in Jefferson County will escort them as soon as they cross the Walworth County line at Whitewater. And sheriff's deputies in the next county will escort them after they leave Jefferson County. They ain't gonna be allowed out of their cars anywhere in the state of Wisconsin. They are just too dangerous to be allowed to get out of their cars."

The young on-looker somehow sensed that there was an injustice in the way that the Gypsies were being treated, but he did not know what the nature of that injustice was.

Mob parade

It was serendipitous that he saw them. He had been walking east on Main Street past Arnold's Rexall drugstore on that hot summer afternoon in the early 1950s. He was on his way to the post office to buy new stamps to add to his growing stamp collection. He spotted a long line of black Cadillacs driving slowly west on Main Street. They passed right in front of where he was standing. He counted them. There were five Cadillacs. From the open windows of each Cadillac protruded submachine guns. They were "Tommy" guns, which he had seen in the movies.

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Other people on the sidewalk, awestruck, stared at the Cadillacs, their mouths open in amazement. He realized that his mouth too was open. To his left he saw one of the city's police officers also standing there, staring at the line of black Cadillacs, but the officer did nothing. The boy had heard his grandparents say that they had seen these Cadillacs before and that they belonged to gangsters — members of the mob — from Chicago.

He had also heard his grandparents say that the tall, bald, emaciated man who tended bar in the basement of the Geneva Hotel was the brother of the famous gangster "Bugsy" Moran. The boy had never personally seen a gangster before or a real "Tommy" gun. As the line of Cadillacs faded into the distance as they drove west on Main Street, the boy wondered if he had been dreaming or had actually seen what he had just seen. When he got home, his uncle told him that the gangsters were probably on their way to Hermansen's Lake Como Hotel (where the French Country Inn is now located).

"But why didn't the policeman do anything about them?"

"There was nothing that he could do. He was afraid of them. Everybody is. But if we don't bother them, they won't bother us."

That night the boy again saw "Tommy" guns sticking out of the windows of black Cadillacs as he fell asleep.

To be continued in next week's Regional News.

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