Saturday, March 24, 2012

Orene Parker: Kentucky’s Impresario of Whiskey

By any reasonable definition, Orene Parker was an “impresario,” that is, someone who organizes entertainments for the public. He ran a highly successful vaudeville theater in Covington, Kentucky, for years and with the coming of motion pictures early introduced the new medium into his offerings. He is pictured here in a photo from Variety, the newspaper of the theatrical business. Orene has our interest because he also was an impresario of Kentucky whiskey.

Parker first appeared in the whiskey trade during the early 1870s as the co-owner of a distillery located in Gethsemane, Kentucky, with a man named Francis M. Head. Located on Pottinger Creek, the plant was of frame construction and included a still-house, three warehouses, and a cattle shed. In 1883, Parker sold his interests in this distillery and about 1885 joined the Boone Brothers, Charles and Nicholas, in acquiring a distillery located on the farm of R. B. Hayden, two miles southeast of Bardstown, Kentucky

About 1886, Parker also founded a wholesale liquor business in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. The offices were located at 25 Pike Street. In 1902, the Orene Parker Co. moved permanently to 12-14 Pike Street, shown here, The facility held both a bottling plant and a warehouse.

The Boone Brothers distillery provided the raw product for a series of brands issued by Parker’s liquor business. They included "1884 Rye", "Boone Co.", "Defiance", "Mayfield", "Old Griffin", and "Old Petoskey." The company’s flagship brand was “Old Maid Whiskey.” An amusing caricature of Parker featured him with the spinster lady. While he was labeled as a “distiller,” the cartoon correctly shows him blending spirits as a rectifier.

Like the showman he was, Parker strongly merchandised his Old Maid label, with advertisements and giveaways, as shown here. His gifts to saloons and other favored customers included several varieties of ornate shot glasses, of which two are shown here. The second one indicates a subsequent distinct change of direction in marketing Old Maid. No longer was the spinster the centerpiece of attention; Orene has substituted a monogram of his own initials capped by an eagle head. For his saloon signs, Parker replaced the overdressed maiden lady with a bare breasted fairy.

By 1903, Parker appears to have reentered the distillery trade. Internal Revenue records show him operating a distillery, RD#47 in the 5th District of Nelson County. Under the recently enacted Botttled-in-Bond Act he made a number of transactions, both storing and withdrawing whiskey from his federally supervised warehouses. In 1912, he was hailed into court for having sold whiskey to a customer in “dry” Laurel County, in violation of state law that forbid such sales. But Parker was canny enough to ship his spirits from a location in neighboring Cincinnati. Ohio had no similar law, however, and the judge found him not guilty.

While engaged in the whiskey trade, Parker was also a major figure in Covington show business. He owned the Colonial Theatre, a vaudeville house, on Madison Avenue between Fourth and Fifth Streets. Such theaters displayed live acts, lasting between five to ten minutes each. Because the shows cost on a nickel or dime to get into, they became the dominant form of mass entertainment in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many “respectable people,” however, refused to enter such premises. Parker oversaw a constant flow of new entertainers each week to make sure that the crowds came back regularly. He apparently ran a tight, and possibly stingy, ship. The story was told that when his manager, one L.B. Wilson, a former vaudeville actor, asked for a raise, Orene refused, and Wilson promptly quit the Colonial Theater and opened his own Covington shop selling cigars.

Parker was one of the first theater owners to recognize the possibilities of film as a popular medium. Early in the 1900s a few canny impresarios, such as Parker, began to intersperse short films among the live acts, seeing the potential for drawing in larger audiences, including people who would not enter a vaudeville house. Parker became an early member of the Motion Picture Exhibitors of America and in 1914 was elected National Treasurer of that organization. That occasioned his photograph in Variety.

But trouble was on the horizon. The same dry forces that brought Orene Parker into court were about to triumph with National Prohibition. He was forced to close down his liquor business and distillery in 1920. Moreover, about a year later his Colonial Theater burned to the ground. Ironically, the vacant lot later was purchased by L. B. Watson, Parker’s former manager. Watson built a new theater on the site, one dedicated entirely to the motion picture.

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