The Arabian Theatre Murders

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The head usher, James Cooper, found the body next to one of the real palm trees in the lobby of The Arabian Theatre.

He wasn’t the kind of person who panicked easily, especially after serving with the Army during World War I, and seeing his share of combat; which helped earn him the rank of Sergeant-Major before mustering out. He only had minutes before the movie ended and thousands of waiting customers would pour into the lobby for the next showing.

The Arabian Theatre, built-in 1927, rivaled The luxurious Uptown Theatre in Chicago. Both were picture palaces that Chicagoans could escape to, away from the hard realities of the 1930s.

For a quarter, movie-goers could sit in the courtyard of a Moorish or Spanish palace. Before the movie even came on they could look up at the sky and marvel at the twinkling stars (recessed lights) and flowing clouds on the spacious ceiling. 

The Arabian Theatre covered 52,000 square feet and seated 6,000 patrons. The decor was something out of 1001 Arabian Nights, with a lobby that featured pillars that ascended seven stories to an elaborate dome ceiling.

Over 150 people worked there, including a 38 musician in-house orchestra. Most of the rest of the employees were ushers who were essential cogs in managing some 20,000 people who were moved in and out of The Arabian Theatre in just one day.

As you can imagine, that required great organizational skills. The Arabian’s owner hired  Cooper, who had the skills to keep everyone moving in two directions in the space of one half hour. That’s all the time there was between shows.

Usher uniforms of the day were sharp-looking and reflected a theatre’s theme. In the Arabian’s case that meant wearing a fez with their colonial-style outfits, complete with a yellow sash hanging from a wide belt on their navy blue trousers. Their white jackets had gold epaulettes and stitching down each sleeve.

Cooper called two ushers over and had them carry the bleeding body over to a storeroom. He called out for another usher to get some wet rags and helped him clean the trail of blood off the expensive marble floor.

No sooner did he stand up and straighten his jacket before the front doors were thrown up to a long eager line outside. Cooper watched the traffic flow while standing outside of the storeroom where the body was.

He waited until the movie started before going to his office and calling the police. There was no use in starting a riot by letting the theatre-goers know a man had been murdered. When they arrived the head detective was less than pleased with Cooper’s decision.

“In other words, you cleaned up the crime scene right?” the angry detective asked while looking down at the dead man.

“I did it to prevent…” he repeated.

“Shut up! I don’t want to hear that excuse again damn it! I’m going to need your cooperation to solve this case so don’t hold anything back that you know about the deceased.

“Certainly, I’ll get his employment file right away,” Cooper said and started to head for his office.

“Hold on pal! Not so quick. I want to ask you a few more questions.”

While they huddled outside the storeroom talking, an ambulance arrived and the driver and his assistant took the body away, after a beat cop quit taking photos of the victim.

“How many people work here?” the detective queried.

“About 150. I’d have to check my files to be sure.”

“That’s fine for now. Any trouble-makers? Maybe a fight between employees?”

“Listen…I only manager the ushers. They’re all I can account for, and as far as I know there’s no bad blood between any of my guys. You’ll have to talk with the manager, or the owner, about the rest of the staff.

When the detective left, after getting the dead man’s personnel file, Cooper sat down and sighed. His desk was cluttered with files, notes, and messages nearly burying the mahogany humidor for his good Cuban cigars. His one vice. He opened it, took one out, and lit it with a finely carved silver table lighter the manager gave him last year for Christmas.

The only thing he knew for sure was the victim was stabbed in the heart. He’d have to start with that as he conducted a personal investigation into the murder. Despite being a tough disciplinarian, Cooper was also known for being fair to all of his employees. He expected everyone would cooperate with his search. 

The sensational headlines the next day did little to discourage movie-goers who turned out in even greater numbers than usual for a Wednesday, which always featured lowered rates for women to attract customers.

During the last show of the day, one of the women who worked at the ticket windows came running out of the Ladies Room screaming her lungs out! Cooper who was counting receipts in his office, heard her through the closed-door.

He jumped up and ran outside seeking the source of the scream. An usher and a bartender from the lounge were trying to calm down a woman when he got there.

“What?” he shouted over her wails. “What’s wrong?” he pleaded.

“Dead woman in one of the stalls,” she sobbed.

He didn’t wait to hear more, and ran to the women’s restroom. Bursting through the door he immediately saw a body sprawled out in one of the stalls. A pool of blood was forming near the head.

Cooper got up close and saw her throat had been cut, from ear-to-ear. She wasn’t wearing a uniform, and he guessed she was an attendee. The shit was really going to hit the fan now he thought, as he carefully stepped back and then out of the room. He posted an usher outside the room and called the police.

“It’s a damn good thing you didn’t touch a thing this time…right Cooper?” the detective was prattling as he stood there in a daze.

“This is bad,” the detective kept repeating, as the photographer and medical personnel entered the room. Two regular beat cops stood guard outside of the lady’s room as the detective tried to get Cooper’s attention.

“You got a killer working here somewhere,” he assured him.

“You don’t know that,” he pushed back.

The newspapers went wild after the second murder. One headline writer suggested the killer might be a Phantom of the Opera copycat, reminding readers of the 1925 film featuring Lon Chaney as the phantom.

Two weeks went by before the killer struck again. A stagehand was found hanging from a prop in the backstage storage area. His stomach was slit sideways, exposing his intestines which hung from the terrible slash.

The public’s reaction to the murders was mixed. Some people (especially the owners of the Uptown Theatre) demanded the Arabian be closed until the killer was exposed. Others showed up every day like nothing happened. Ticket-sales remained steady despite the headlines.

The Arabian’s manager, American born Herman Mueller, and Cooper spent hours every day talking with employees, seeking clues, and cooperating with the police and the mayor’s office, which got involved after the second murder. Mueller and Cooper both had several things in common. One being their hated of Hitler, and what he was doing to Germany.

Hans Ziegler, the owner of the Arabian, spent his time between Germany, where he had another palatial movie theatre, and Chicago. He was a mystery man who was born somewhere in Europe (most likely Austria), and was reputed to have business ties worldwide. He was also an ardent supporter of Adolf Hitler, who assumed the Presidency of Germany after the death of President Hindenburg in 1934.

Wealth, and growing political power through Hitler allowed Ziegler to indulge in one of his favorite hobbies; killing innocent people for no good reason other than to experience the thrill. He was also a master-of-disguise. Few people really knew what he looked like.

Ziegler honed his hunting skills in his movie theatres across the world. Moving from one property to the next, he easily eluded the police. His current hunt at The Arabian was entertaining enough to stay around for a fourth victim before moving on.

He decided to make this kill more challenging. His head usher’s combat experience from World War I, would be a step up from his usual helpless victims. The thought intrigued him. Cooper wasn’t a real big man. He stood five-feet, nine-inches tall, and weighed about 145 pounds. According to his resume he was 38-year years old.

Ziegler was ten years younger and larger; at six-feet, 190 pounds. He felt confident he could overwhelm the smaller and older man. After eight years of killing people off like flies he finally got the urge to up his game.

But that didn’t mean he was going to play fair.

One night Ziegler decided to make his move. He sat through the last movie and when the audience headed out to the exits he went back inside the theatre, passing inquiring ushers with an excuse of looking for his wife, and went down the hall off the lounge where Cooper’s office was.

He expected Cooper would be alone and counting the night’s receipt’s and money as was his custom at this time. He was partly right.

Ziegler knocked on the door and when it started to open he thrust his body against it, driving the person on the other side into the wall! 

Cooper, from behind his desk, saw Ziegler push past Mueller, waving a knife and growling like an animal! He picked up the heavy wooden humidor on his desk and hurled it at Ziegler, hitting him on the side of his head.

Mueller, who had recovered, threw a wicked right cross and connected with Ziegler’s chin. He dropped like a rock. 

It took five days before Ziegler’s identity was finally revealed and the story made the national headlines. Cooper and Mueller were hailed as heroes, but were soon out of a job when The Arabian was shut down.

“Maybe we ought to try something different in life,” Mueller said as they drank coffee at a local diner and looked for jobs in the newspaper classifieds.

“What do you think about being private eyes?” Cooper asked while dunking his donut in his steaming cup of black coffee.

“What do you know about the job?” Mueller asked.

“Not a damn thing,” Cooper grinned. 

“Oh…well count me in!” Mueller said.

As It Stands, Cooper and Mueller may emerge again in a future case.

Author: Dave Stancliff

Retired newspaper editor/publisher, veteran, freelance writer, blogger. Married 43 years. Independent thinker with a sense of humor. Give my stories a try, you might like them!

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