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The Great White Wayback Machine
by Laura Frankos

This marks the start of a regular column on musical theatre history, trivia, esoterica, anecdotes, and, as the King of Siam put it, etcetera, etcetera, and so forth. I've had a lifelong obsessive love for this art form and an academic background in history from UCLA, so I'm kind of combining the two here. I've written mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy, and if you think those genres don't necessarily go with musicals, I've put an alien in a chorus line with Gene Kelly and had virtual reality programmers using elements from musicals in their games. I spent several years creating musical trivia quizzes for a now-defunct website at the start of the decade. That experience led to The Broadway Musical Quiz Book, newly published by Applause Books. It's either a massive compilation of over 1200 questions about 700 musicals or one woman's excuse to listen to cast albums and call it "research."

In these columns, I'll examine various aspects of the rich heritage of the musical, and—I hope—try to entertain and inform. Given my background, I expect I'll find ways of working history into the material, but I'm certainly open to suggestions for future topics.


"Conga!": History Through Show Tunes

Who says musicals aren't educational? Not just the obvious, like learning about the creation of the Declaration of Independence from 1776. Even individual songs can be jam-packed with historical and cultural references, as in the impact of the assembly line in Ragtime's "Henry Ford," or the concept of social Darwinism in Titanic's "What a Remarkable Age This Is!." Betty Comden and Adolph Green helped evoke the thirties in their lyrics for "Conga!" in Wonderful Town (1953). During the song, Ruth Sherwood, a hopeful young writer, tries to interview a group of Brazilian cadets for a newspaper article. But the cadets don't respond to her questions about the issues and celebrities of 1935. They're only interested in learning how to dance the conga. Let's check out what Ruth wanted to discuss.


La Conga

Ruth: No, no! Conga's a Brazilian dance!
First Cadet: No, Cubano!
Second Cadet: Conga American dance! You show Conga!

Ruth's wrong and the cadets are right. The conga originated among African slaves in Cuba and the West Indies. By the 1920s, it was so popular in Cuba that dictator Machado banned it, since the massive conga lines sometimes led to violence. The next dictator, Batista, reinstated it—providing organizers obtained police permits.

In 1929, New York's La Conga Nightclub opened, starting the conga craze in the states. Desi Arnaz popularized the Brazilian conga in 1939, after the time of Wonderful Town.


Ruth: What do you think of the USA—NRA—TVA,
What do you think of our Mother's Day ...

The NRA and the TVA were part of Roosevelt's New Deal in 1933. The National Recovery Administration was intended to supervise relations between business and the government, setting production quotas, monitoring wages and prices, and creating a code of fair competition. But the NRA had little power to enforce its codes, and businesses found ways to get around changes. In many cases, consumers ended up paying higher prices. In 1935, the Supreme Court ruled in Schechter v. United States that the NRA was unconstitutional. So that certainly would have been on Ruth's mind.

The Tennessee Valley Authority was a sweeping program to improve the entire basin (seven states), including dams and government-run power plants, planned industries, and better infrastructure. The TVA was designed to better living standards in a rural and impoverished region that had been hit hard by the Depression.

The concept of Mother's Day dated back to Julia Ward Howe (who wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") in the 1870s, but it took the efforts of social worker Anna Jarvis to persuade Woodrow Wilson to recognize the second Sunday in May for moms, starting in 1914. In 1932, Brazilians began honoring their mothers on the same day, so that would have been old news to the cadets.


Charles Dawes
Charles Dawes
Ruth: What do you think of our native squaws,
Charles G. Dawes,
Warden Lawes—
What's your opinion of Santa Claus ...

Relations between the U.S. government and Native Americans underwent a change in the early thirties when FDR appointed John Collier as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Collier openly acknowledged the government's abysmal record of broken promises, and urged reforms. The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act permitted tribal self-government, and reversed the 1887 Dawes Act privatizing Indian lands.

The Charles G. Dawes mentioned by Ruth isn't the one in the Dawes Act, but was Coolidge's vice president. He created the Dawes Plan, the schedule of reparation payments Germany had to make to the Allies for World War I. With the Great Depression, Germany was having trouble making those payments, which the Allies needed to repay war loans to America.

Lewis Lawes was the warden of Sing Sing prison. From 1920-41, he rebuilt the facility, expanding and modernizing it. Previously, it had been horribly overcrowded and many cells lacked basic utilities. Lawes was an advocate of penal reform and prisoner rehabilitation. While he did use prisoners in the new construction, they were well-treated and paid.

"Santa Claus" in Brazil is known as "Papai Noel."


Ruth: Good neighbors—good neighbors,
Remember our policy—
Good neighbors—I'll help you
If you'll just help me—

For much of the early twentieth century, America had followed Theodore Roosevelt's corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which held that the U.S. could freely intervene (even with force) in Western Hemisphere countries to collect debts owed to foreigners. Herbert Hoover, who removed U.S. troops from Nicaragua in 1928, first used the term "good neighbor policy" in referring to better relations between the United States and Latin America. Franklin Roosevelt vowed to continue this policy in his inaugural address, sending secretary of state Cordell Hull on many trips to Latin America. Hull stated at the Pan-American Conference in Uruguay in 1933 that the U.S. would maintain a "policy of non-intervention."

So when Ruth calls the Brazilian cadets "good neighbors," she's really following government policy!


Harold TeenRuth: What's your opinion of Harold Teen,
Mitzi Green,
Dizzy Dean...

Harold Teen was a popular comic strip created by Carl Ed in 1919. In the first comic to feature adolescents, Harold and his pals hung out at the soda shop, spoke in slang, and followed teen fashions and fads. Harold's adventures were filmed twice, in 1928 and 1934. Think of him as Archie's ancestor.

Mitzi Green was a child film actress, best known as Becky Thatcher to Jackie Coogan's Tom Sawyer (1930). But Broadway buffs know she was one of those Babes in Arms (1937) and, though only 17, introduced "My Funny Valentine" to the world.

Dizzy Dean was the 1934 National League's Most Valuable Player in Major League Baseball, and is still the last National League pitcher to win thirty games in a season, helping the St. Louis Cardinals (the "Gas House Gang") to the championship. A folksy character, Dean was known for saying things like, "He slud into third." It is often told, but probably apocryphal, that newspapers reported, "X-rays of Dean's head reveal nothing," following an injury from a thrown ball.


Leonard Stokowski
Leonard Stokowski
Ruth: What do you think of our rhythm bands,
Monkey glands,
Hot-dog stands.
What do you think of Stokowski's hands...

Ruth is probably speaking of jazz and swing bands ("Swing! Get the rhythm!"), hugely popular in the thirties. Irving Berlin, in a cut song from Face the Music, referred to "the saxophoning men the rhythm bands employ."

In the twenties and thirties, Dr. Serge Voronoff developed a procedure grafting monkey testicle tissue into human males. This supposedly improved vision, memory, stamina, and yes, sexual function, and was viewed as the ultimate rejuvenation. He later experimented with monkey ovaries for women. Celebrities flocked to Voronoff, and "monkey glands" became part of the popular culture, including a cocktail. Berlin mentioned them in "Monkey Doodle Doo" in The Cocoanuts; and in the musical City of Angels, which is set in the late forties, Buddy Fidler says a guy must be using them since he looks so good.

The first hot dog stand on Coney Island was established by Charles Feltman in 1867. In 1916, one of the Feltman employees, Nathan Handwerker, left to establish his own stand, the now-famous Nathan's.

Leopold Stokowski, the first of the celebrity conductors, led the Philadelphia Orchestra using a free-hand style, but no baton. Stokowski appeared in films, most famously in Disney's Fantasia (1939), in which he conducted the music and shook hands with Mickey Mouse. Stokowski's hands are also mentioned in Lorenz Hart's "Zip" (Pal Joey, 1940). So is Mickey Mouse.


Ruth: What's your opinion of women's clothes, Major Bowes,
Steinbeck's prose.
How do you feel about Broadway Rose ...

The Brazilian cadets certainly liked women, but what they thought of thirties fashion, with its emphasis on femininity and curves, Ruth never learns.

Major Edward Bowes, once a theatre producer, gained his greatest fame from the radio show, "Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour," a talent show contest that aired from 1934-52. As on "American Idol," wanna-be stars performed on the broadcasts, and listeners phoned in votes for their favorites. Bowes interrupted talentless contestants with a gong, but marketed tours for the more gifted performers. Show tune mavens will know that Sondheim lists "Major Bowes" among the thirties references in "I'm Still Here" (Follies).

While today we view John Steinbeck as providing a voice for those who suffered in the Dust Bowl, at the time of Wonderful Town, he had just published his first successful book, "Tortilla Flat." Still, the Arthurian-influenced tale of young men in Monterey just after the first world war cemented his reputation, so Ruth's interest is justified.

"Broadway Rose" was the nickname given by "Voice of Broadway" columnist Louis Sobol to a notorious panhandler, Anna Dym, who hustled stars (starting with Jack Benny in 1929) throughout the theatre district. Using threats, vulgar language, street smarts, and sheer obstinacy, Dym made a tidy living squeezing cash from folks eager to make her leave—between ten to fifteen thousand dollars one year, and enough to buy a house in Brooklyn. Maurice Zolotow profiled "Rose" in a 1941 Saturday Evening Post article.


Ruth: What do you think of our rocks and rills,
Mother Sills' sea-sick Pills,
How do you feel about Helen Wills...

"Rocks and rills" is a phrase in "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," written by Samuel Francis Smith in 1832 to the tune of the British national anthem, "God Save the Queen." The verse reads: "I love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills."

Mother Sills' sea-sick pills, or, more accurately, "Mothersills seasick remedy," was an anti-nausea compound dating back to the early years of the century. The 1912 Journal of the American Medical Association cited it in an article about quack remedies, and analyzed its composition: chlorbutanol (an anesthetic), caffeine, milk sugar, fatty acids, and cinnamon. The chlorbutanol may have had some success against nausea, but the author concluded it was more likely a placebo effect. Still, the product stayed on the market for decades.

Helen Wills was one of the greatest tennis champions of all time, an eight-time Wimbledon winner, gold medalist at the Olympics, and multiple world champion. From 1927 to 1933, during 180 matches, she did not lose a single set. She also had an influence on fashion, abandoning long skirts for knee-length pleated skirts on the court.


Ruth: What do you think of our double malts,
Family vaults,
Epsom salts ...

These are fairly self-explanatory. Soda shops were hugely popular in the twenties and thirties (a Wonderful Town character is a soda jerk). Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) had been used for centuries as a laxative or added to hot water for a soothing soak. In the thirties, one could buy epsom salts with fruit derivatives added that supposedly tasted better.


Next column: Immigrants in Musicals






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