In the days before the internet you had to depend on things like the AP wire service for stories to go universal, but I have knowledge of one such story that is particularly relevant during this July 4 holiday because it happened on July 4, 1969 in a Wyoming town called Jackson that sits right outside the Grand Teton National Park.
When I first visited Jackson ( that’s the town’s name. Jackson Hole technically refers to the valley) in 1962 my great uncle took us to see “The Hanging of Clover the Killer” a reenactment of a stage coach robbery that ends with the hanging of Clover, a shoot out as his gang tried to rescue him and the triumph of good as the dead body of Clover was put on the back of a horse and paraded through town with the announcer saying, “Clover is dead but don’t worry he’ll be back tomorrow at 7pm for another show.”
These nightly reenactments were staged by a local theatre called the Pink Garter. In 1969 the owner of the theatre building contracted with a new group to do the summer shows. The theater was renamed the “Diamond Lil.” The old producer was not pleased. She returned to Jackson. She raised money and a tent in a parking lot and was back in business and still did the nightly shoot out as a way to attract people to her show. So during the summer of 1969 the competition between theaters became rather cutthroat. When you have the chief of police as your best drinking buddy you can get what you want or at least think you are entitled to and the Pink Garter certainly thought they were entitled.
In order to compete with the nightly shoot out and the crowds it attracted, the Diamond Lil contracted with the owner of a steam calliope to have it towed to a parking lot near the Diamond Lil It was played by the Diamond Lil’s music director, Jo Lane Laycock, after the nightly shoot out was over. The concert lasted only for about ten minutes, but it infuriated the Pink Garter people and eventually was banned from the town as too noisy.
It was decided by the people at the Diamond Lil that on July 4 the calliope would return to town and JoLane would play a concert. No one knew if she would be arrested on the spot, later or whether the ban would not be enforced. There was a little anticipation in the air as the calliope gained steam and Jo Lane sat down at the keyboard. Since it was the 4th of July she played several patriotic songs, among them was “God Bless America”.
Nothing happened then or later that night at the theater where the troupe was performing a musical called “Petticoats and Pettifoggers” about Esther Morris and how women won the vote in Wyoming. The next day the troupe was taken to South Pass City which is where Esther Morris had lived and performed before a crowd that included the Governor of the state of Wyoming. When we got back to Jackson it was discovered that someone had cut all the wires on the calliope making it inoperable and with over a hundred wires not easily repaired. To add insult to injury as Jo Lane was preparing to play that night two police officers served her with a warrant to appear in court to answer charges of disturbing the peace.
The headline on the AP wire story that went worldwide was “Woman arrested for playing God Bless America on the fourth of July.” Jo Lane had done a USO tour of Southeast Asia so she was getting calls from Japan and Korea saying that they had read about her arrest.
Jo Lane and her supporters showed up for the first court date but it was discovered she had been given the wrong time. Since she had intended to plead not guilty they continued the case. Meanwhile it became apparent that the whole thing had backfired for the town of Jackson. Four of the five people who signed the complaints were investors or spouses of investors in the Pink Garter Theatre. The police had actually gone from business to business soliciting people to sign the complaints. The calliope concert required no street closures unlike the Pink Garter’s shoot-out in the town’s main square. Even though the case was eventually dropped, Jo Lane Laycock will always be known as the “Woman who was arrested for playing ‘God Bless America’ on the Fourth of July”.