The Outlaw Dentist
PAINLESS PARKER, who has made more money at dentistry than anybody else in history, has pulled molars from the mouths of lions and tigers while crowds cheered and news cameras clicked. He has also held parades, hired tightrope walkers and human flies, and caused near-riots by emptying buckets of silver coins on busy streets. His flamboyant publicity stunts have attracted millions of patients to his chain of dental offices, which is the largest in the world. But they have scandalized sedate members of his profession.
In the last half century he has been prosecuted often and jailed occasionally. He has been the chief target of scores of laws to regulate and restrict dental advertising.
But, at 78, Canadian-born Parker remains a self-styled “outlaw of the toot h-fixing business,” who snorts with contempt at “ethical dentists.”
“They’ve done their best to hound me to death,” he says, “but how many ethical dentists have got what I’ve got?”
Painless Parker, who looks like the late Frank Morgan plus a Vandyke beard, has a luxurious town house* in San Francisco; a ranch which is one of the show places of California’s Santa Clara Valley; a yacht capable of crossing the Pacific; a stable of fine riding horses; a private swimming pool; a different automobile for each day in the week.
He has 19 offices in California, three in Oregon, four in the State of Washington, one in Nevada, and one in Canada, at Vancouver.
He has a staff of 800, of whom 250 are dentists. The other 550 include receptionists, nurses, technicians.
He has his own loan company—“pay for your plates as you wear them”and his own collection agency.
In addition he has interests in New England. State laws don’t allow him to have out-and-out branches there but he owns the offices, equipment and goodwill of a group of dentists who practice as his “associates.”
His gross annual revenue has been estimated at $5 millions. He refuses to confirm this figure, but admits that in some years his personal income has been so high that the U. S. tax department has appropriated nine tenths of it.
Parker is proud of his financial success. And he enjoys talking about his fantastic career. When he recalls a funny incident from the past he throws back his massive head and explodes in a wall-shaking laugh.
But there’s an underlying wistfulness in this noisy extrovert. “All my life,” he shrugs, “I’ve tried to be dignified. But, you know, I’m not dignified. You can’t turn a showman into an ethical dentist.”
He insists, nevertheless, that even his more florid antics have been part of an “educational campaign” to dispel ignorance and fear of dentistry and teach the need of dental care.
More conventional dentists have termed Painless Parker a fraud, a quack, a disgrace to the Continued on page 54
Continued from page 7
profession. In his own defense he says that millions who would have neglected their teeth have gone to dentists only because of him.
And Painless is actually his own best advertisement. At 78 he still has 26 natural teeth out of a possible 32. Only his own Parker method dentists have touched his mouth.
He maintains too, that by applying his favorite principles — “organize, systematize, capitalize and advertise” —he has been able to cut costs and pass the benefits on to the public.
“It takes a fair amount of courage to swim against the stream the way I have,” he confides. “How would you like to go around with a name like Painless Parker?”
Painless Parker is his legal name, the one with which he signs cheques, the one that appears on his passport, the one in which he holds property.
But he was named Edgar Randolph Parker by his parents. That was in the little village of Tynemouth Creek, on the New Brunswick shore of the Bay of Eundy, where his forebears built and sailed ships.
Expelled From Acadia
The Parkers were the leading family of the community, upright God-fearing Baptists. Their Christian souls were to be sorely tried by the irrepressible Edgar.
He grew into a stocky broadshouldered boy with strong muscles, bold handsome features, a voice like a foghorn and a talent for trouble.
Now, in spite of his age, he retains the handsome features, embellished by a neat white Vandyke, and he still has the foghorn voice. He’s a man of medium height with broad shoulders and long powerful arms. His eyes, under shaggy brows, are a bright greyblue and twinkle as he tells a story. His walk is a cross between the roll of a sailor and the strut of a soldier on parade. He usually wears dark suits, well-tailored, and a black felt hat. He has been mistaken for both a foreign diplomat and a character actor.
Edgar’s mother wanted him to be a preacher and he was packed off to Acadia University in Nova Scotia. In a brief period there he was in more scrapes than any other student on record and was finally expelled.
His father then approached a friend with a hardware store in Saint John and obtained for Edgar “what father called a position, what mother called a situation, and what I called a job.”
He reported for duty at 6 a.m. At 5.30 p.m. the same day he was carrying a heavy box of glass when his employer told him his weekly salary would l>e $1.50. He dropped the case on the employer’s toes, walked down to Saint John’s water front, and signed on a schooner as cook. (“Between Saint -lohn and Boston I threw away half a barrel of flour attempting to bake bread—1 didn’t know you put yeast in it . So they hired a new cook and made me an ordinary seaman.”)
He sailed around the Horn three times, then returned to Tynemouth Creek because his mother was ill. She persuaded him to enter the old Baptist Seminary at St. Martins, N.B. Edgar was kicked out of there, too. (“A fellow who has rounded the Horn three times
on a windjammer should never attend a Baptist seminary.”)
He was afraid to go home so he went to Moncton, N.B., where a wholesaler set him up as a traveling merchant, providing him with an ancient mare, a rickety cart, and a stock of household goods to be sold on commission. (“He said to me, ‘Stick your foot in the door and don’t take it out until you have an order.’ It was as a peddler that I learned about salesmanship, psychology, how to make money.”)
Ambitious for a Good Life
In a few months Parker owned his own outfit—a black stallion, silvermounted harness, a rubber-tired rig. He was then 17, life was exciting and full of promise, but his father was waiting to spring. (“He thought peddling was a blot on the Parker escutcheon. I can still feel the licking I got when he caught up with me in Saint John. He auctioned off my horse and rig and dragged me home.”)
After a week or so at Tynemouth Creek Edgar ran away to sea again. He rose to be second mate of a brigantine in the South American trade, but at Buenos Aires on the River Plate he came down with dengue fever. He was dropped off the vessel at the nearest hospital for British seamen, at Bridgetown, Barbados. He spent months there and developed an ambition. (“I saw doctors strolling around in white coats, not doing too much and it looked like a good life.”)
So when he was well he caught a ship to New Brunswick and asked his parents if he could study medicine. But wooden shipbuilding was on its last legs in New Brunswick, his father’s shipyard was faring no better than the rest of the industry, family funds were low and a medical course was expensive. Being a doctor seemed out of the question, so ECdgar settled for a dental course, which was cheaper and shorter.
His father and mother handed him $250 and their blessings.
He enrolled in the New York College of Dentistry. (“While the other boys were studying, I was out getting enough to eat, via door-to-door dentistry. I carried my tools with me. I’d put my foot in a door and give a spiel patterned after my peddler’s spiel. If I sold some dentistry I’d start with the cook’s teeth. If I didn’t kill the cook, and was lucky, I’d wind up working on the teeth of the lady of the house. At first I’d encounter problems I hadn’t come to yet in my dental course and I’d have to come back later when we reached that part of the book.”)
Before a year was out in New York he had opened an office at 17th and Broadway. In his summer holidays, in New Brunswick, he journeyed through the province with an express wagon and mare as an itinerant dentist. (“I averaged $28 a day, all of which the noble profession of tooth fixers didn’t like, but hunger was stronger than ethics.”)
From the New York College of Dentistry Parker went to the Philadelphia Dental College, from which he received his diploma when he was 20.
He planned to practice at St. Martins, the only centre of any size near Tynemouth Creek, and bought himself a fancy outfit for his triumphant homecoming. (“I was dressed up like a gambler, with a stovepipe hat, a
small mustache, pegtop pants, a peach of a vest with a horseshoe-andwhiphandle design, and a bunch of paste diamonds. I was the damnedestlooking dentist you ever saw. I didn’t tell my family I was arriving. As I strutted up the lane to my house, mother said to father, ‘George, that must be our boy Ed.’ When my father shook hands, he called me ‘doctor.’ I was pretty proud.”)
But the glory soon faded. The fledgling dentist had counted on securing a loan from his father to open a fairly pretentious establishment. It wasn’t forthcoming. Ail he could borrow was his mother’s sewing machine, which he rigged up as a lathe, and the living room portieres.
He rented a vacant chair in the shop of St. Martins’ one barber and hung the portieres around it for privacy. (“A sign painter in St. Martins needed a set of teeth and I made them for him in return for a sign. I nailed this up and waited for the line to form up at the right—but no line formed, no patients stormed the premises.”)
He thought maybe his escapades at the Baptist Seminary were responsible for the lack of patrons. So he decided to impress the town with his piety. (“I attended church twice each Sunday. I sat in one of the front pews and did all the chores from passing the collection plate to singing louder than anybody else in the choir. I carried the biggest Bible ever taken into the Baptist Church at St. Martins—the Parker family Bible which weighed 15 pounds.”)
Even this didn’t bring customers. In three months his earnings reached the grand sum of 75 cents.
Parker often wandered over to the drugstore of his friend George Mallory. One day he asked Mallory why he had no patients.
“Well,” said Mallory, who was quite a philosopher, “it’s because people are afraid of dentists. If they don’t have their teeth fixed, it’s through ignorance, fear, lack of money, or procrastination. If you want to effect a cure you’ve got to remove the cause.”
The words stuck in Parker’s mind, became his credo, launched him on his adventures.
He packed his instruments and hitched a ride to Hampton, 25 miles away. There he emerged as “Painless Parker—The Great Dentist.”
Cornet Covered the Screams
In a borrowed wagon lit by a borrowed lantern he tooted a borrowed dinner horn to draw an audience. Then, exercising the psychology he had acquired as a peddler and door-to-door dentist he launched into a lecture which was climaxed with the announcement that he could extract teeth “absolutely painlessly.”
A farmer stepped forward, had two teeth pulled while the crowd watched, and proclaimed afterward that “it didn’t hurt at all.” A couple of others had teeth hauled and were equally enthusiastic. (“I took in $8 that night and $30 the next day and I was through with being an ethical dentist. I started for Vancouver, working towns all through Canada.”)
Parker gambled on being able to make the label “painless” stick with the odds loaded in his favor. He used his gift for salesmanship to sell patients the idea that “it won’t hurt a bit.” He knew that most of the suffering done in
any dentists’ chair is mental rather than physical. And. loo. he was one of the early dentists to use a local anaesthetic. This was cocaine, which preceded novacaine, and froze the gums in a similar if less efficient manner. He and druggist George Mallory had experimented with cocaine at St. Martins after Parker read a scientific paper about the drug. (“We practiced on a dog named Toby to see if it would kill him. Toby didn’t bark or bite, and be showed no ill effects, so we guessed humans would survive too.”)
Cocaine didn’t always work but when it failed Parker had music to fall back on if he was pulling teeth in public. If the patient screamed the cornet player tooted like mad and the drummer almost beat the head off the drum.
When he set out from Hampton to make his fortune Parker was preceded by an advance man whose task was to paste up posters and otherwise publicize the approach of The Great Dentist. He was accompanied by a dental mechanic whose duties included playing the trumpet and banjo.
Parker was licensed to practice in New Brunswick but not in other provinces. He had frequent brushes with the law, sometimes had to hide to escape arrest, and saw the inside of several jails. He went broke, but never for long. (“There’s one thing about being broke, when you’re hungry your dome starts to work magnificently.”)
On his 21st birthday he was in Victoria, B.C., and he had an urge to settle down. He rented an office, persuaded a sign painter to paint him “a modest little sign just about two and a half feet long” in exchange for dentistry. He hadn’t even hung the sign when the first patient arrived.
Tooth Jerker in Sitka
(“He said, ‘Are you Dr. Parker?’ I said, ‘Most assuredly, sir,’ and went to work on him. When I got through he showed his badge of authority and said, ‘You are not registered to practice iti British Columbia. You will have to come with me.’ Now, there was my new sign, leaning against the wall. I’d been to sea enough to know that if I draped it around his ears with sufficient force he’d go out like a light. So that was what I did. Now, unfortunately, Victoria is on an island, so 1 was picked up and tossed in the cooler. But, fortunately, the judge and the police captain turned out to Ire distant relatives of mine and helped me get out. So then I went north. In 1892 and 1893 I was the chief tooth jerker in Sitka when it was the capital of Southern Alaska. And what a hole it was then.”)
Parker’s parents moved from New Brunswick to Brooklyn and he visited them there in 1896 and that’s where he met his wife. The manner in which they met is typical of the way things have happened to Painless Parker.
He had invested in a cornet with the idea that if he learned to play this he could avoid the expense of hiring a trumpeter when he wanted to attract patients. His bride-to-be, who lived across the street from his parents, was a serious pianist and the brass discord of the novice distracted her. (“Frances knocked on the door and said to my sister, ‘Who’s making that hideous noise?’ My sister said, ‘That’s my brother, Painless Parker.’ That was in May. In August I gave up the cornet and Frankie and I were married.”)
They honeymooned in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. In Moncton Parker replenished his exchequer with street-corner dentistry. But his license to practice in New Brunswick had expired and he had neglected to renew it. The registrar of
the New Brunswick Dental Society, then a Moncton man, had him arrested. (“When I got out, after paying a $2 license, I had a stand built in a vacant lot beside the home of the registrar. I hired a stranded troupe of minstrels and put on a show. Yessir,
I taught the registrar to sing in the key of high C.”)
He and his dark pretty 19-year-old bride wandered across the continent. At San Bernardino, California, Painless Parker bought an office. He decided to turn over a new leaf and lx* an ethical dentist.
He was waiting for patients when Mrs. Parker told him a baby was coming. She wanted the infant to be horn back home in Brooklyn, not among strangers on the West Coast. (“I couldn’t earn any money waiting for patients. I hired a wagon and a band and made a high pitch to get the dough to take us to Brooklyn. In six days I cleared $1,286 after all expenses.”)
Pitches Pulled in Patients
It was in Brooklyn at 124 Fiatbush Avenue, that he tried for the last time to be a quiet respectable ethical dentist. He practiced as E. R. Parker, rather than Painless Parker. He had a small office which he rented for $28.50 a month—and scraping the rent together was a hard job.
The rent collector, who had reason to be aware of Parker’s difficulties, was William Beebe, a sympathetic man who had spent years with a circus as elephant handler, trombone player and ticket taker.
“Look, Parker,” Beebe said one day, “you’re just a dope. If you used circus methods you’d be a millionaire.”
So Beebe became Parker’s manager. (“He wanted to transform me, and I j was willing to be transformed.”)
Beebe’s first order was that E. R. j Parker revert to his old monicker, Painless Parker. (“He said it was more j euphonious. Anyway there were other dentists named Parker.”)
Beebe had Painless Parker make i afternoon and evening outdoor appearances in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Coney Island. The Great Dentist, resplendent in stovepipe hat and frock coat, might have a banjo player and an accordion player with him, or a juggler or an acrobat or a magician.
Soon dozens, then hundreds, were streaming upstairs to the second Hoor of 124 Fiatbush Avenue to pack his little office. He had more than he could do himself, had to hire a receptionist and another dentist.
Beebe insisted that he continue his outdoor appearances. And Beebe dreamed up the signs. The first of these was a mere five feet wide and 40 feet tall. It announced: “I am
positively it in painless dentistry, yes sirree.” The signs grew bigger and better.
One which ran 10 by 110 feet, proclaimed: “Painless Parker, peculiarly pleasing to particular patients and philanthropically predisposed to popular prices.”
Parker’s office couldn’t hold the jam.
He rented half a dozen other offices, advertised for dentists, engaged all he could find. (“Locating good dental talent was tough. The boys were filled j up with ethics and weren’t proud of working for me, even though I paid them much more than they could have earned on their own. I used to see them sneak out at the end of the day with their hats pulled down over their eyes.”)
Beebe’s next inspiration was a tightrope walker. The rope was stretched from a window of Painless Parker’s expanding suite of offices to the top of
an electric pole across the street. Traveling toward the pole the performer bellowed happily: “I’ve been to Painless Parker—he doesn’t hurt at all!”
Retracing his steps, from the pole to the window, he cried gleefully: “I’m going to Painless Parker—he doesn’t hurt at all!”
A human fly who needed a handout once in a while and was always ready to crawl up and down the face of the building for it had the same linos. Moving toward Parker’s offices, he chanted: “I’m going to Painless Parker —he doesn’t hurt at all!” Moving zi way, he sang: “I’ve been to Painless Parker—he doesn’t hurt at aM !”
Gold Inlay for a Walrus
As money poured in Parker’s “high pitches” away from 124 Flatbush Avenue assumed more impressive proportions. He was able to take along a whole brass band, instead of just a couple of musicians, or a whole company of jugglers or acrobats.
And now he had thousands of patients, instead of hundreds. He leased the entire second floor of the building. He had 15 dentists, each of whom handled three chairs. He and Beebe figured that a dentist could do a lot more in a day if he had three patients in three different chairs than if lie just had one patient in one chair. It meant he could be busy all the time, instead of standing around while a filling hardened or a gum froze for an extraction.
They installed an overhead cashcarrying system to carry the “box office receipts” from the 45 chairs to the cashier.
By 1900 Painless Parker not only had his huge tooth-fixing emporium on Flatbush Avenue but five branch establishments scattered around the boroughs of Greater New York. He also had offices at Albany and Troy.
His turnover reached $5,000 a day. His name was zi household word; vaudeville comedians cracked jokes about him; and the blood pressure of other dentists jumped whenever he was mentioned.
The dental profession was sniping at him now at every turn. He had to have lawyers to protect him in court, lobbyists to counter the lobbyists of the profession zít the state capital. He felt he wjts fighting a delaying action, a losing battle, but he kept up the show.
When there was a circus anywhere around he would arrange to fill or pull the teeth of lions and tigers, or to put a gold inlay in the tusk of a walrus. He did this, of course, in the centre ring. It wzts publicity for the circus, publicity for Painless Parker, and circusgoers loved it.
It wtts in this period he discovered that if you had a bucketful of dimes and quarters you could have fun and gain attention. All you had to do was post yourself at an intersection where traffic wtts heavy, dip your hands into the bucket, and toss the coins in all directions. (“Yessir, those were the days. Bill Beebe and I could cook up more tricks than you could shake a stick at.”)
But in 1904 Bill Beebe died. Painless Parker caught typhoid a few weeks after the funeral. The disease left him weak and jittery and before the year was out lit1 had a nervous breakdown. He sailed to Europe to recuperate.
A ltd when he returned to New York his heart wasn’t in the struggle any
more. (“I was 35, I had half a million bucks. I decided I’d never do another tap.”)
He sold out and the Parkers—by now he and his wife had a son and two daughters—headed for Los Angeles early in 1905. (“I was going to relax for keeps.”)
But the salt winds of the Pacific restored The Great Dentist’s zest for excitement, competition, crowds. Showmanship was in his blood.
It was the story of his rise in New York all over again, in a West Coast setting and with minor variations. For his Los Angeles debut he hired the orchestra of the hotel where he was staying and held a concert on a vacant lot on a downtown street. In between musical selections he pulled teeth. Before darkness fell all Los Angeles was talking about him.
He rented an office, engaged a staff. Once more he had a tightrope walker, a human fly, giant signs. He was sentimental about circuses. He bought a small one — a 50-foot roundtop complete with a band, clowns, acrobats, bareback riders, moth-eaten wild animals and gilded wagons.
He would have a parade in the morning, a free tent show in the afternoon. In the parade he rode on top of the fanciest wagon, doffing his stovepipe hat to the spectators. At the tent show he lectured about dentistry and coaxed spectators into the ring to have teeth “painlessly” extracted.
He inserted quarter-page and halfpage advertisements in the newspapers; he scattered silver coins from a bucket; Los Angeles folks vowed that they’d never seen such a character.
There were patients by the thousands. He got a bigger office, added to his staff. His greatest difficulty was finding qualified dentists who were willing to work for him. (“They were, I might say, disdainful. They acted as if they were choir girls and I was the madam of a house of ill repute.”)
A number of those who agreed to join him had drunk themselves close to, if not into, the gutter. He sent them to a sanatorium to be dried out and steadied up, gave them new clothes, helped them with their debts. If they were married he also had heart-toheart talks with their wives. (“Nothing drives a man to the bottle quicker than a nagging woman.”)
It was at Los Angeles that Parker experimented with methods of rehabilitating alcoholics. He developed a system which worked in a high percentage of cases and which hassince put many a dentist back on his feet. Some men he salvaged from Skid Row are now earning $10,000 or $12,000 a year as his employees.
Retreat to the Pacific
Parker is a strong supporter of Alcoholics Anonymous and depends on it for assistance in his efforts as a reformer. He hasn’t had a drink himself for 40 years, although he once drank his share. Nor does he smoke any more. At 78 his hand is as steady as a young man’s. (“Even today, I can fix a tooth with the best of them.”)
Erom Los Angeles Parker and his private circus journeyed to San Francisco, Oakland, Long Beach, Pasadena, Sacramento, San Diego, San Jose, San Pedro, Stockton, Fresno, Bakersfield. At all these California centres he opened offices.
He ranged into Oregon, where he opened offices at Portland, Salem,
Eugene, and into Washington where he opened offices at Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma and Bellingham. He set up an office at Reno, Nevada, and at Vancouver.
He traveled east and re-established branches in New York. And he invaded New England. But the ethical dentists, attacking him with all their artillery, overpowered him in state legislatures.
Acts were passed to outlaw display advertising by dentists, chain dental parlors, public exhibitions by dentists. He was furiously condemned by Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of the American Medical Journal. He entered suit against Fishbein for $100,000
According to Parker, he won a moral victory over Fishbein, and Fishbein promised not to badger him any more if he withdrew his action.
But Parker was gradually forced back to the Pacific Coast where his activities are now concentrated. Yet even in the free and easy atmosphere of the Pacific coast he has felt the pressure of those who maintain that dentistry should be a solemn, dignified, discreet profession.
California put through a statute back in 1918 to compel dentists to practice under their right names. The objective was to stop Edgar Randolph Parker from practicing as Painless Parker and deprive him of his trademark.
Painless Was “The Paleface”
His answer to this was to go to court and have his name legally changed to Painless Parker. (“The first judge I went to wouldn’t change it. He said it was unethical. But, actually, you can have your name changed to whatever you want. So I went to a wiser judge. Now, for better or for worse, I’m Painless Parker.”)
But, in the main, the profession was able to curb Parker’s flamboyant publicity. Display advertising by dentists is now illegal in all provinces of Canada and in all states of the union except California, Washington and Oregon.
However, no laws have been devised to stop Painless Parker being a spectacular character. Perhaps the most fitting tribute to his showman’s achievements came when Hollywood cast Bob Hope as “Painless Potter” in “The Paleface,” a rollicking farce inspired by Parker’s life.
Parker can’t count any movie stars among his patients but they’re often among his guests at Valle Vista Ranch, his lavish place in the Santa Clara Valley. (“It’s by way of being an exhibition piece which 1 maintain, at some slight cost, to arouse envy on the part of my friends the ethical dentists.”)
Since Mrs. Parker died in 1945 Painless has been lonely and more frequently he returns to visit New Brunswick and the scenes of his youth. He travels by train and visits old friends like quiet Fred G. Spencer, of Saint John, who owns movie theatres throughout the Atlantic provinces.
Journeying to Saint John hist October he got off the train at McAdam two hours from his destination, for a cup of coffee in the station restaurant.
It was good coffee. He congratulated the chef.
“Last time I was here,” he boomed in a voice that shook everybody in the restaurant, “I had to pull the cook’s teeth to pay for my coffee. And it wasn’t nearly so good.” ir