Entertainment during the Depression
by Thomas C. Fleming, Mar 31, 1999
During the Depression, attendance was heavy at the vaudeville theaters. For 35 cents, you could see the stage acts and the movie both. I liked vaudeville better than movies because I felt I was relating to the performers. If they did something particularly good, the applause was so great in there. You got caught in the spirit of that. And they'd come out to talk to people after.
Hollywood created the impression that all females were very beautiful, and all men were very handsome, and always very well off. It never showed a story about how they earned a living. It was a fairyland. But that's what the audience wanted. The European producers were turning out more realistic features about what life really is. We're starting to catch up to them now, I think.
I went to the T&D Theater in Oakland more than any other, and occasionally I'd go over to San Francisco to see a show at the Warfield or the Paramount, or the Fox when it opened.
Fox West Coast built and opened the Fox Theater on Market Street, which, when completed, seated about 5000 patrons, where movies and elaborate stage shows were staged by Fanchon and Marco of the West Coast Theater chain. The Fox hired Henry Le Bel, one of the premier organ players in the nation, to work the keys of the mighty Wurlitzer. Le Bel was very fair, and he did not socialize with blacks when away from his job at the movie house.
The movie palaces used black entertainers, but otherwise hired no blacks on the West Coast. The theaters ran continuously from the time they opened at 9:00 in the morning. They always had the motion picture first. The stage acts appeared about three times a day, and lasted about an hour and a half. The first acts would come on about 1:30 in the afternoon, then another show about 4:00, and the last one about 10:30 p.m.
It was varied entertainment. The least known came on first. They might have a comedian, or a guy doing a trick act with animals, or a dancing team. There would be about five acts. The star came on last, because they had to build up. It went on every day, and particularly on holidays. Vaudeville started in England; they called them variety shows over there. But we probably went further than the British.
The TOBA Circuit, the Theatre Owners and Bookers Association, was in the South, the East Coast and the Midwest. It was a chain of vaudeville theaters which had black entertainers, and played to black audiences. The farthest west it went was Oklahoma City. It used an occasional white. TOBA was a major as far as blacks were concerned. Occasionally, one of them would get away from TOBA and get on the Orpheum Circuit, which was nationwide. It was the largest and most prestigious of the vaudeville chains.
The Orpheum used black and white both. If your talent deserved it, if the operators thought you would draw a good-sized audience, they used you. There was an Orpheum Theater in every big city on the West Coast -- Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego. There were always several acts that traveled together. New York was where they were booked; everything was sent out of there, and made a circuit around the country. They didn't put two big names in the same act.
I'd look in the papers every week to see who was coming to the Orpheum in San Francisco and Oakland. We had a steady dish of some of the biggest names in the entertainment business. Ethel Waters, the foremost black recording artist in the United States, was a regular, as well as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Ada Ward and many more. Plus there were some big black musicals, with chorus girls, male and female vocalists, comedians and big bands. It was the only way that we in the Bay Area could see most of them.
When Duke Ellington and other big bands came along in the '20s and early 30s, they started appearing in the theater also, aside from playing for dances and nightclubs. After Ellington made his appearance at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco, other black jazz bands came, including Jimmy Lunceford, who, in my opinion, was second only to Ellington as the best of all the bands. Count Basie also came, with what we called his "Jump Band," always with a tremendous beat and the blues-shouting Jimmy Rushing.
But it was KRE, a radio station located in Berkeley, where devotees of jazz could turn on the radio for 24 hours a day and hear all of the best jazz musicians -- Ellington, Basie, Lunceford, the Mills Brothers, Cab Calloway, and Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy, with Fay Terrell singing. Most bands had a great vocalist who was featured at every performance, like Ethel Waters and Billy Eckstine.
Cab Calloway, the baton-waving singer and bandleader who wrote the 1931 hit "Minnie the Moocher." Forgetting the lyrics one night, he began scatting the words, and yelled out "hi-di-ho." From then on, he was known as the "hi-di-ho" man.
Copyright © 1999 by Thomas Fleming and Max Millard.
This column is edited by Max Millard, who has conducted over 100 hours of interviews with Fleming, and blends Fleming's spoken words with his writings. Born in 1907, Fleming is the founding editor of the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's oldest weekly black newspaper. Fleming's 100-page book, Black Life in the Sacramento Valley 1850-1934, is available for $7 plus $2 postage. Send request to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Max Millard, 1312 Jackson St #21, San Francisco CA 94109.
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