Pistol-packin' mama

Willetta's rules: Park "head in," no motorcycles, no facial hair, drink Cook's Champagne.
Mark Graham

East Dallas' second-story men, smash-and-grab specialists, and plain old-fashioned burglars can breathe easier now. Willetta Stellmacher has hung up her little pearl-handled .25.

For 26 years, until her retirement earlier this year at age 83, Stellmacher reigned over The Square apartments with a gun, a rigid -- some would say outrageous -- set of renters' rules, and bottles of Cook's Champagne for happy hour in the lobby. She'd stuff the gun into her jogging suit when the disorder outside the East Dallas complex spilled over the iron fence and threatened Stellmacher's exacting sense of order inside. With her piece, her distrust of facial hair, and her love of a party, this former chorus girl from the glory days of vaudeville became an East Dallas neighborhood legend.

Stellmacher, who co-owned and managed the apartment house, boasts of helping arrest 36 burglars, plus a few drug dealers who were attracted to The Square's parking lot as a good place to exchange cash and contraband. It looked safer than any other place in the area. "That was their big mistake," she says.

Cops in the neighborhood confirm Stellmacher's commitment to hands-on crime fighting -- although not everyone was happy about her approach.

"She's aggressive, people would say domineering, but I know her to be a great lady," says officer Gil Padilla, who patrolled the area for a time and has known Stellmacher for 15 years. "She's a pretty little black-haired pit bull. She cared about the whole neighborhood. But get on her wrong side, and she'll kick your butt."

Padilla says Stellmacher's rule over the 108-unit tan brick apartment complex, plus four houses and four townhouses she and her partners purchased across the street, made a block or two of Moser Avenue a bit safer than the mean streets around it, particularly in the late '80s and early '90s, when crack dominated the neighborhood.

"Every morning I'd walk the entire block, pick up the hypodermic needles and the dirty diapers and the whiskey bottles and the beer cans so my tenants wouldn't know what a dirty neighborhood they were living in," she says.

Sometimes, she'd sweep up humans, too.

In 1988, Stellmacher and Padilla recall, she saw a man putting a cardboard box into the back of a car. She knew the scene to be suspicious, she says, because one of her rules was that tenants park "head in." This car was parked facing outward, ready to drive away, as burglars often park, she says.

Stellmacher called the police and was there to watch as a patrolman confronted the man, who quickly surrendered. "The officer turned to me and said, 'What now?'" Stellmacher says. She showed him the box, which turned out to contain $400,000 worth of cocaine. In other crime-fighting news, Stellmacher says she once caught a pair of burglars who piled up the TVs and VCRs on the sidewalk and called a cab, and she nabbed another who walked straight into her with an armload of goods.

She received a letter of commendation from the Dallas County district attorney for her efforts -- and once, about 15 years ago, a weapons arrest and charge. "This cop was a yankee. He's abrasive and she's abrasive, so it was like oil and water," says Padilla, adding that Stellmacher was within her right to carry the gun as long as she was on her property. "I don't know what his problem was, but Willetta went to trial." She was acquitted, and sued the city and lost.

In retirement, Stellmacher has begun renovating her gracious old house at the top of Swiss Avenue, which she got in her last divorce in 1987. She says the ghosts of at least two former owners, whom she has seen tripping up and down the grand staircase, haunt the place. The house's large, formal rooms are packed with doll collections, Hummel figurines, and massive pieces of Oriental furniture Willetta picked up during her three marriages. "At the estate sales, nobody would want the Oriental stuff," she says.

In the distant background, "An American in Paris" is playing on the stereo.

Born in Lewisville and raised in East Dallas, Stellmacher went on the road as a young girl working in dance shows at theaters and nightclubs across the Midwest and East Coast. Her road stories are filled with club names such as The Dells, Baghdad, and El Tivoli. Eventually, she settled into an eight-year gig in Chicago, where she danced in the chorus at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. The life introduced her to the stars of the day -- Rudy Vallee, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra -- as well as some interesting lesser lights, such as Fred Lowery, the blind whistler from the Big Band Era whose big hit was "Indian Love Call." (He's heard today as the whistler in the opening sequence of The Andy Griffith Show.) A lot of Stellmacher's memories are enshrined in their autographed photos, which line several hallways, memento-clogged closets, and rooms. There's a picture, too, of the young Willetta with some relatives of Al Capone fishing for blue marlin in Bimini, and some bathing-suited modeling shots. One, starring her legs at 23, catches her smiling over an ice cream cone and the caption, "Lose three pounds a week eating ice cream."

"Well," she says now. "That was before truth in advertising."

The photo that came to be Stellmacher's signature -- at least once she returned to Dallas -- shows her in the middle of a ballroom on New Year's Eve 1940. She is wearing a glamorous ballgown the shape of an inverted champagne glass, a top hat, and a sash for Cook's Champagne.

For years, every Friday evening at The Square, Stellmacher would bring in a few bottles of Cook's for happy hour. "Cook's found out I was the 1940 champagne girl, and they gave us free cases," she says. "We used so much, after a while it wasn't free anymore."

But not everyone was welcome at the party. The combative Stellmacher wrote into her lease rules such as: "no beards, long hair or motorcycles allowed on the property" (along with the more traditional "no pets"). Even hirsute visitors were hassled, recalls Beth Vinsant, who worked as assistant manager for the last five years.

"It was a matter of pride for her that she ran a certain kind of place," Vinsant says. "It could be a little extreme what she did, but she made it a nicer place."

Stellmacher says fair-housing inspectors investigated her several times, but her rules would stand up because they weren't against the law. "We didn't discriminate by race or religion or anything like that," she says, adding that a number of gays and Hispanics were tenants.

Betsy Darling, a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's regional office in Fort Worth, says facial-hair rules could be found to be discriminatory, "if they are tied to discrimination on the basis of race or another of the listed criteria such as religion." Darling says some apartment owners have avoided challenges to strange and arbitrary rules because authorities lack such proof, or nobody complains.

Adam Franklin, a waiter and former tenant, says people put up with the rules, because for the money, "Willetta's apartments were some of the cleaner places around."

In her view, "motorcycles and long hair equate to rent not paid...I helped my mother rent apartments in 1944, so I know a little about people and apartments."

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