The Dresser

With his snappy threads, fancy footwork and sordid past, Vance Thompson has cut a swath through St. Louis

At one point he tried boxing, first at a Boys' Club and later in the Navy. "Then I got whupped," he says, "and I thought I might try something else."

That something else was dancing. Stationed in Fall River, Mass., Thompson began taking lessons in his free time. He liked the dance-studio environment, with its genteel atmosphere: "You get to wear a suit and a tie. You dance with women, young and old -- it doesn't make any difference. And you get respectability because you are a teacher. I never did too well academically, so to become a dance instructor ... what a gift."

In 1960, Thompson was discharged from the Navy. At 21, he was a free wheel. So he got on a bus and headed west. He tried Indianapolis for a week or so, but it didn't suit him. He got back on the bus.

As a break from woodcarving, Thompson punches the speedbag and throws knives in his basement.
Jennifer Silverberg
As a break from woodcarving, Thompson punches the speedbag and throws knives in his basement.
Thompson at work in his studio: "As a kid, I could pick up a pocketknife and carve my own toys."
Jennifer Silverberg
Thompson at work in his studio: "As a kid, I could pick up a pocketknife and carve my own toys."

"It was one of those things," reflects Thompson. "'St. Louis, Mo. Hmmm, never been here before. Let's see what they got.' I took the Yellow Pages and looked under 'Dance Studios' and found a place called Ray Quinlan's. So I called, asked if they needed any instructors, and the lady said, 'We don't hire over the phone. We have to see what you look like and whether you can dance.' So I left my luggage at the bus station and took a cab to the dance studio, which was located on the corner of Grand and Lindell, up above Worth's." Thompson says that Dottie Audrain, the manager of the studio, hired him on the spot after seeing his moves.

"I told her I didn't have a lot of money or even a place to stay. She spoke with her husband, who also worked at the studio, and they actually took me home with them."

For a time, he was content to sleep on the Audrains' couch, work at the dance studio and explore St. Louis. But wanderlust soon set in. "About a year later, I took a trip to California to see what it was like," says Thompson. "I gave it six months, and I didn't like it. On my way back, I got into a little trouble. I was working at a small dance studio in Texas, and the gal that owned the studio didn't pay me. Her boyfriend owned a car lot, and so I took one of his junky cars as payment." Thompson was arrested and eventually sentenced to six years at the El Reno, Okla., federal penitentiary. After 28 months, he was paroled, and he returned to St. Louis.

Thompson resumed his dance-instructor job, as well as his friendship with Sam and Dottie Audrain. To make ends meet, he tried other jobs, including industrial painting -- factories, water towers, even riverboats. But the lure of the dance studio, so clean and classy and up-tempo, always beckoned. But so did the trouble.

Vance Thompson is a dresser. He's spiffed up in every season, but the white and cream-colored suits that are his trademark he wears only in warmer weather, say, between the first crocus bloom and the last blush of autumn. He can be seen in the courtyards of the more bohemian Soulard establishments decked out, with accompanying fedora, looking as if he just stepped off the set of Guys And Dolls. To the tradesmen and barflies who frequent these places, Thompson is a curiosity, not only for his pale, crisp attire but because he often stands there twiddling two shiny steel balls in the palm of one hand like Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny.

"I was trying to quit cigarettes and did everything to get my mind off the craving, and I saw them in a martial-arts store," he says, talking close, keeping steady eye contact. "The man said, 'Those are Chinese exercise balls. They're for manual dexterity.'" The balls make a faint clacking sound as they rotate in his palm. It's a bit disconcerting. In fact, to a stranger, Thompson's entire demeanor can be a bit disconcerting. He's got the veneer of a tough guy. Perhaps it's a remnant of those years in stir.

"It was a time when I felt as if I could steal money rather than earn it," he recalls in that confiding tone he often uses. In the late 1960s, he and a friend got involved in post-office burglaries. Forget the cash drawers, the blank money orders; they were after postage stamps. Explains Thompson, "You could put $100,000 worth of stamps into an attaché case. We'd sell them to the syndicate in Kansas City. Now, I never met any of those guys, but I went with my partner to unload the stamps -- and we'd get 30 to 40 percent of their value."

The modus operandi, says Thompson, was to hit post offices in small towns during the dead of night. "Back then, most post offices weren't alarmed, not like banks, and they had nothing but a big steel door at the back entrance," he notes. "Well, you could take a crowbar, pry the door open and walk right in. Most of the safes were 500-pounders, which means they had a single door with a brass handle and a dial, and you could actually tear that door off in 20 minutes flat with just muscle and guts, using a sledgehammer, a crowbar and a chisel."

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