The Grammarphobia Blog

A gazeeka box and a green-fedora guy

Q: I’m reading Gypsy Rose Lee’s The G-String Murders. She uses the phrase “a green-fedora guy.” Do you have any idea what that means? And if you want to tackle “gazeeka box,” that would be interesting, too. She peppers this book with quite a bit of showbiz jargon.

A: In The G-String Murders, a 1941 mystery, there are two references to green fedoras.

In describing a guy named Moey, an “ex-racketeer” who runs the concession at the burlesque house where the novel is set, the author writes:

“He wore a white wash coat when he was working, dazzling checks when the show was over. Strictly a green-fedora guy, but he gave us a ten per cent discount on our cokes, so he was popular enough backstage.”

Later in the book, Moey reappears in his street clothes (a suit with “green and yellow threads running through the material”) and begins opening a package: “He pushed his green fedora back on his head and went to work with the scissors.”

None of our slang references (not even the aptly named Green’s Dictionary of Slang) give us a clue to what a “green-fedora guy” might be.

Our guess is that the reference is literal, and Gypsy Rose Lee meant that Moey always wore a green fedora (and perhaps that his taste was a bit over the top).

Green fedoras were more common in those days—now we see them chiefly on St. Patrick’s Day.

A 1934 song called “I’m Wearin’ My Green Fedora,” by Al Sherman, Al Lewis, and Joseph Meyer, was featured in several cartoons of the 1930s.

A line from refrain: “I’M WEARIN’ MY GREEN FEDORA, FEDORA, not Alice, not Annie, Not Daisy but FEDORA.” And the finale: “That’s why I’M WEARIN’ MY GREEN FEDORA, FEDORA, FEDORA, FEDORA is the girl I love!” (Thanks to the Levy Collection at the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University, for providing us with the sheet music.)

The song was a takeoff on the comic routines of Joe Penner, a popular stage, radio, and film actor of the ’30s whose trademark was a fedora perched on the back of his head.

And here’s an interesting aside. While the song appears to pun on the phrase “for Dora,” in fact the word “fedora” was originally a woman’s name. The term for the hat was inspired by a French play entitled Fédora, written by Victorien Sardou in 1882. Its heroine is a Russian princess named Fédora (the Russian feminine of Fedor), who wears a soft-brimmed hat with a crease in the crown.

When you finish The G-String Murders, you might want to check out Lady of Burlesque, a 1943 film made from it (Barbara Stanwyck is the Gypsy Rose Lee character).

You also asked about “gazeeka box,” a term that turns up many times in The G-String Murders. The gazeeka box in the novel is a coffin-like prop used in the burlesque house. (Naturally, a body is discovered in it!)

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang describes “gazeeka box” (origin unknown) as a burlesque term for “a stage prop used in comedy acts which takes the form of a large box from which beautiful girls emerge, supposedly endlessly.”

Random House’s first citation for the use of the term is from Gypsy Rose Lee’s 1941 novel. But the term is much older. It’s mentioned, for instance, in Archibald Haddon’s book Green Room Gossip (1922).

In at least one old burlesque sketch we found online, the showgirls who magically emerge from the gazeeka box are called “gazeekas.”

But gazeeka boxes, with their false backs, could also be used to make a showgirl magically disappear.

And they weren’t always coffin-like, as in Gypsy Rose Lee’s novel. They were generally upright, like phone booths.

And with that, we’ll make our exit.

[Note: This post was updated on March 5, 2015.]

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