Don Dickerman and His “Blue Horse Pills Cigarettes”
" Captain Don" Dickerman Circa 1928
More than forty years after first seeing a picture of a Blue Horse Pills Cigarette box in Chris Mullins’ book, Cigarette Pack Art , we have finally added this little treasure to our collection. I had always wondered about the origin of the brand and its’ artful design and it turns out to be quite a story. The brand was made by Simpson, Studwell & Swick Tobacco Co. (Factory # 404 NY) in 1928 for the famous Blue Horse Nightclub in New York’s Greenwich Village and the design was the work of the club’s owner, Mr. Don Dickerman or as he preferred to be called “Captain Don”.
Don Dickerman was obsessed with pirates. He took every opportunity to portray himself as one, with a high school pirate band. As an art student in the teens he dressed in pirate garb for Greenwich Village costume balls. Throughout his life he collected antique pirate maps, cutlasses, blunder-buses, and cannon. His Greenwich Village night club restaurant, The Pirates’ Den, where colorfully outfitted servers staged mock battles for guests, became nationally known and made him a minor celebrity. He often dressed as a pirate in private life, owned a Long Island house associated with pirate lore, formed a treasure-hunting club, and spent a small fortune collecting pirate relics. He was a staff artist on naturalist William Beebe’s West Indies expedition in 1925, and in 1940 had a small part in Errol Flynn’s pirate movie “The Sea Hawk.
A graduate of Andover Academy and Yale University, Don studied art in New York City and at one time shared a flat with Norman Rockwell with whom he maintained a life-long friendship. (Later in his career, Rockwell would have his old roommate pose in full pirate gear for a famous magazine cover illustration). After failing to make a living as a toy designer and children’s book illustrator, Dickerman opened a tea room in the Village primarily as a place to display his hand-painted toys. It became popular, expanded, and around 1917 he transformed it into a make-believe pirates’ lair called “The Pirate’s Den” where guests entered through a dark, moldy basement. Its fame began to grow, particularly after 1921 when Douglas Fairbanks recreated its atmospheric interior for his movie "The Nut". He also ran the “Blue Horse”, the “Heigh-Ho” (where Rudy Vallee got his start), “Daffydill” (financed by Vallee), and the “County Fair”.
On a Blue Horse menu of the 1920s, Don’s mother is listed as manager. Among the dishes featured at this jazz club restaurant were Golden Buck, Chicken a la King, Tomato Wiggle, and Tomato Caprice. Drinks (non-alcoholic) included Pink Goat’s Delight and Blue Horse’s Neck. Ice cream specials also bore whimsical names such as Green Goose Island and Mr. Bogg’s Castle. Dickerman, himself did all the artwork on the menus, posters and of course the cigarette box.
. The opening of the restaurant coincided with the beginning of Prohibition and the era of speakeasies. Although Dickerman felt that a nightclub should be measured by its’ food and entertainment and so declined to serve alcohol, he was often visited by mob enforcers who wanted to persuade him to buy and serve their bootleg booze. Captain Don was emphatic in his refusal to deal with the mob and reputedly knocked more than one gangster out cold. In his later years, he proudly displayed his right thumb which he claimed to have broken on the jaw of a mobster named “Hudson Dusters”.
Another tale about Captain Don which became legend was his capture of an 18 foot long Manta Ray or “Devilfish”. He and a companion were alone in a 14 foot rowboat when they encountered the giant Ray and over a period of two hours subdued the sea creature using a harpoon and baseball bat. The officially documented weight of the fish was 2,312 pounds.
At one time or another, Dickerman owned a total of 27 night clubs around the country including “Pirates Dens” in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. The later club was jointly owned by Bing Crosby and Bob Hope with whom Dickerman was friendly throughout the 1930s and 40s. Over his lifetime, Don would have a total of 13 wives before he passed away in 1981. Some of these unions lasted longer than others. There was one of his wives who he was married to for only two hours. He got married and then he just left her at Grand Central Station according to his grand-daughter Dottie who now lives in Maine. Captain Don was indeed an interesting character.