Battle of the Balcony: The Mother of All Celebrity Brawls

Charges dropped: from left, Allen Smiley, attorney Jerry Geisler, Patricia Dane Dorsey and Tommy Dorsey

The mother of all celebrity brawls occurred on the balcony of bandleader Tommy Dorsey’s apartment at 1220 Sunset Plaza Drive* off the Strip in the wee hours of Aug. 5, 1944. The primary combatants in what came to be known as “the Battle of the Balcony” were Dorsey and Jon Hall, an action star who had recently played the lead in a Kit Carson biopic. Dorsey had been drinking for the better part of eight hours–he and his wife, the actress Patricia Dane, had spent the evening nightclubbing on the Strip celebrating her 26th birthday and were ending the night at their place with a nightcap party, which was just winding down when the fight broke out.

Jon Hall
Dorsey, who was known as the “Sentimental Gentleman of Swing,” was also a violent drunk. He had taken offense when he’d seen Hall give Mrs. Dorsey what was likely a chaste, brotherly hug at the front door. Dorsey called Hall out to the balcony of his second-floor apartment and promptly smashed him in the nose with a bottle. In the fight that ensued, Dorsey got the upper hand and wrestled Hall up onto the balcony railing, threatening to push him over the side. It was when Hall, who had his hands around Dorsey’s neck, shouted, “If I go, I’m taking you with me,” that the other partygoers, who were getting into their cars in the driveway below, heard the commotion and rushed back upstairs.

In the meantime, however, Mrs. Dorsey had rushed next door and returned with the Dorsey’s neighbor, Allen Smiley, a gangster who just happened to be mob boss, Bugsy Siegel’s, righthand man. Precisely what happened in the seconds after Smiley entered the fray and before the others rushed back upstairs from the driveway has never–and will never–be revealed. What is known is this: Someone slashed Jon Hall multiple times about the face and neck, slicing one of his nostrils clean through with an instrument of some sort that Hall’s doctor will later say was as sharp as a surgeon’s knife.

When his rescuers arrived from downstairs, Jon Hall stumbled out of the apartment, got into his car and drove himself to a hospital. He required over 50 stitches to his face, neck and upper body. To protect the surgical stitching of his sliced nostril, he was seen about town wearing a nose guard which inspired the one worn by Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie “Chinatown.”

Despite the fact that there were as many as a dozen witnesses to the Battle of the Balcony, as soon as the sun rose that next day, they all developed a strange case of collective amnesia about the particulars–especially about who wielded the weapon or even what the weapon might have been. The Dorseys speculated that Hall might have been cut with shards from broken flower pots. There was a suggestion that it may have been the petite Mrs. Dorsey herself who inflicted the wounds. One witness, Jane Churchill, told a reporter that she had been approached by associates of Allen Smiley and Bugsy Siegel, who, she said, recommended that she keep silent about the fight. Several weeks after her statement was reported in the Times, Churchill’s knee was broken. She claimed that it happened during an automobile accident.

Despite the fact that Jon Hall refused to press charges, the District Attorney charged Tommy and Pat Dorsey, and Allen Smiley with felonious assault. This was a significant inconvenience to Smiley. He and Bugsy happened to be out on bail after being busted for bookmaking at the Sunset Tower Apartments in May. A conviction on the assault charge would be problematic, to say the least.

It was that factor, of course, that explains why no one involved in the Battle of the Balcony could remember who wielded the weapon that sliced Jon Hall’s face to ribbons, or even what that weapon might have been.

*The Sunset Plaza Apartments where the fight took place were demolished in the 1980s. This map shows the location where they stood.