Chapter 3 The Theatre Business Page I of III
Growing up in show business was a great experience, even in a small western town like Tucson. Once when I was visiting with a broken-down Broadway actor who was a member of a small cast in a show presented for servicemen at Camp Roberts, California, in 1944, he said to me, "What the hell do you know about show business? You weren't in show business. You have to be in New York or Philadelphia to know about show business."
Well, he allowed me to buy him a few beers at the PX, and when I finished telling him about some of my experiences he admitted that I had, indeed, been exposed to "show business," even if it wasn't New York style.
My dad bought the Carrillo Gardens, thirteen acres of land in the southwestern part of Tucson in 1902. He and his partner, Nat Hawk, made a few improvements, including an "airdome" which was an outdoor theatre with a stage for performing shows and acts, and a projection booth for projecting a newfangled thing, moving pictures, on a screen some 75 feet away. There was no roof over the benches where the customers sat. A 6-foot wooden fence forced those who wanted to see the show to buy a ticket.
My dad brought the first motion picture projector to the state and was the first exhibitor. Since he could afford only one machine, the audience had to wait between reels while the projectionist changed reels. However, most of the movies in the very early days ran only ten or twelve minutes anyway.
The movie was an added attraction to the program, which featured a "tab" show, consisting of a series of tableaux skits, singers, dancers and occasionally an animal act. And sometimes a chorus line. The cast was never a large one, usually consisting of a group of ten or fifteen very versatile performers.
My mother, born in Paris, raised in New Orleans and San Francisco, was blessed with a lovely contralto voice. When she reached the age of 18 she began her singing career in the Los Angeles area, playing theatres in small Southern California towns. Her agent booked her into my dad's outdoor theatre in 1904 for a couple of weeks as a featured singer. She was "held over" for two more weeks.
In the summer of 1905 she was booked again into Tucson. That fall my dad took unto himself a bride, Millie Royers. She was 20 and he was 33. Her professional career thus came to an end. I was born the next year, and two other boys followed. Frank and Albert. [Frank and Roy in 1911 and 1913]
In addition to the airdome, my dad and his partner, who provided the necessary capital, constructed a pavilion which was like a king-size Quonset hut. Its dome rose about 40 feet above the hardwood floor. It had a small stage and a projection booth, and during the winter months served as a theatre for movies and stage shows. It was about 125 feet long and 50 feet wide and could seat about 500 on folding chairs and benches. It was also used during the cooler months as a roller-skating rink, dance hall and for important events like the time Teddy Roosevelt spoke to a Tucson audience when campaigning through the West.
They also built one of the first, if not the first, swimming pool in Arizona, added a beer garden to the existing barroom, planted a lot of trees, put in some driveways for the buggies (mostly horse-drawn), many walkways and strung colored lights all over the place.
I suspect that my dad was first attracted to the idea of buying the "Gardens" because he wanted to own his own ball park. He had played in it enough times and, being a local sports hero, he no doubt felt he could count on his "following" to become customers of his amusement park.
When carnival shows came to Tucson, usually for a week, they would be booked at the Grove, and as a youngster I met some strange characters. But it was all exciting.
At the age of eight, I and my brother, Frank, who was a year and a half younger, distributed programs in the evenings to the patrons. We also put out handbills on Saturdays and Sundays advertising the coming attractions. We would cover most of the town on foot, putting the handbills on each doorstep or porch.
The attractions at the Grove during the summer usually included the famed Bell Family from Mexico. This talented family of eight or ten versatile performers, with their colorful costumes, could always be depended upon to draw large crowds. Their annual visits to Tucson continued for nearly twenty years and included later performances at the Rialto theatre.
As a special feature in 1910 my dad brought the first flying machine, as they were then known, to Arizona. It was shipped over by rail, assembled at the Grove, and on a very auspicious occasion, which required that the fence in center field be removed, took off on Arizona's first air flight. It was February 20, 1910. It was one of the first things I can recall, that and Haley's Comet, which my dad pointed out to me one evening long ago.
The crowd, which paid to get in, was large and naturally excited. It was many years before another plane was seen in the skies over Tucson. My dad never made a fortune at the Grove, but he had fun along with his troubles, most of which were financial.
The ball park at the Grove was the testing ground for the first automatic dog racetrack in the world. A man by the name of Smith came to Tucson with the idea of building a dog track and a mechanical rabbit on a rail to make the dogs run. He took in a couple of local businessmen as partners. I should say he just "took" them.
Anyway, he got John Heidel, a local hotel man, and John Reilly, a mortician, to put up the money needed. They built the track around the ball park, and I well remember watching the Russian wolfhounds, not whippets, chase the rabbit around the track.
There was no pari-mutuel betting in Arizona in those days, so, for my dad, it was just an added attraction at the Grove. For the three promoters of the idea, it was an opportunity to prove it would work, and that the dogs could be lured to chase the rabbit. When it was being tested the dogs caught the rabbit on more than one occasion and tore it to pieces. We kids ended up by having a wolfhound as a pet, which is more than John Heidel or John Reilly ever got out of their investment.
Mr. Smith left Tucson soon after proving his idea would work and went to Ft. Smith, Arkansas, where I understand he built a dog track for the purpose of gambling and making money. Because of the type of agreement he had with his partners in Tucson, he had the right to develop and sell his interest in the patent for a very handsome figure without splitting it with his partners.
Stock companies would be booked to play a "season" of three to six weeks at the Grove and would present two or three changes of bills each week. These companies would have a leading man, a leading lady, an engine, a comic, of course a villain, and usually a line of six chorines. Some of Hollywood's star performers came from such traveling groups. Raymond Hatton and Winnie Lightner were two among many who worked for my dad in the old days at the Elysian Grove.
The only time the Grove could compete successfully with the Opera House, which was located in the downtown area, was in the summer when the heat made the indoor theatres unbearable. Unfortunately, the summertime is when Tucson gets most of its rain in the form of semi-tropical storms that strike during the late afternoon or early evening hours. Many a night the Grove was "dark" because it had been rained out, and, of course, that meant no box office income. My dad fought the battle for about twelve years, unsuccessfully most of the time, but he could skim by with the aid of the income from the beer garden and skating rink.
On December 31, 1912, Arizona became a "dry" state as a result of an election at which the church groups and other organizations such as the W.C.T.U. outvoted those who favored continued use of hard liquor. I well remember New Year's Day 1913 when my dad brought home quite a bit of money, most of it in gold pieces, that he had received as a result of selling out all his stock of booze to thirsty customers who were planning ahead for their future needs. He stacked the money in small groups of six or seven gold coins atop window frames and door frames, to be used later to buy beans for his family.
By the end of the 1914 season he and his partner realized they were fighting a hopeless battle and decided to accept an offer from a subdivider for part of the property, and from the city school system for a large lot where the Carrillo School was built.
The Elysian Grove passed from the scene as a part of Tucson's entertainment bill of fare. However, my dad's career in the theatre business did not come to an end. He found another partner with a few bucks, Ben Goldsmith, who was born in Germany, brought to Mexico as a young man and who had drifted north to Tucson. Ben had never been in the show business but, with his dough, he made an ideal partner. He was a sweet guy who had a lot of confidence in Manny Drachman, and together they made a good duo.
They built the Broadway Theatre at the southwest corner of Stone Avenue and Broadway. It had a corrugated tin roof, a cheap pine floor that sloped properly towards the screen, but no orchestra pit. The side walls were constructed so that the upper four or five feet could be raised on hinges at night to let the cool air flow through the building. Sixteen-inch oscillating fans were located on posts along the side of the auditorium to keep the air moving.
But the tin roof would get so darned hot during the day (there was no ceiling or insulation) that it took most of evening for the place to cool off. My dad had a happy thought and ran a water pipe with sprinklers along the ridge of the roof. He would turn the sprinklers on as the sun went down. The temperature inside the building dropped considerably. Furthermore, as the water dripped off the eaves, it would somewhat cool the air as it drifted through the theatre. It still wasn't very comfortable inside the Broadway Theatre during the midsummer nights, but if the attraction was good enough people bought tickets and that was the important thing.
The Broadway was successful and able to compete with the Opera House and the Arizona Airdome which was located on North Stone and Alameda. In 1917 Joe Scotti who had been operating the Opera House on a lease from the Grosetta family, decided Tucson was too competitive and pulled up stakes for Albuquerque. My dad and Ben then leased the Opera House, which had a stage that could play any of the traveling shows which came through Tucson on one-night stands. Many road companies, offering productions featured on Broadway the year before, played the Opera House.
My brother and I had been distributing handbills throughout Tucson for years for movies that were coming to the Grove or the Broadway. When the legitimate shows came to town we not only put out handbills but had to distribute window cards and sheet posters wherever we could find a fence and a willing owner who was paid with a couple of "comps" to the show.
On the nights of the shows we would hand out programs and usher also. We usually needed some extra ushers and we had kids lined up well in advance hoping they'd get to usher and see the shows, especially the girly shows.
It was surprising how many shows would come through Tucson in those days. Seldom would a month go by that two or three road shows didn't hit town. They were generally booked out of New York City by the Shubert Office with Jake Shubert's name on a short, curt note advising that such and such show would be booked into the Opera House on a certain date three or four months hence. The company usually got 75 percent of the box office receipts, with the balance going to the theatre owner and some kind of split on the advertising expenses.
An "advance man" would usually show up a few weeks before the date the show was booked to play. He would work with the local manager in contracting the newspapers where ads and stories would be placed, and, of course, passes were issued in return for publicity. As I got older and became more active around the theatre, I got acquainted with many of the advance men who were usually very interesting men, especially to a kid who had never been any place but Tucson, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
When the shows hit town there was real excitement around the theatre, what with trucks bringing the sets, curtains, props, and lights from the railway station to the stage door. Besides, there were the actors, show girls, sometimes a star or two, and, of course, the manager of the company. Sometimes he was also the owner, but in any event he was likely a colorful guy who would regale all who would listen with tales of faraway places and happenings. Arthur Hockwald of Hockwald's Minstrels was such a man. The entire cast, of course, was black, and how they could dance and sing! And the "end" men were always great comics. They were usually a temperamental bunch and required careful and clever handling, at which Mr. Hockwald was a past master.
This cast liked to be paid in cash and generally were borrowing ahead on their weekly salary. For this reason Hockwald always carried large amounts of cash. He had a bankroll that would have choked a mule and on the inside were generally three or four one-thousand-dollar bills. He usually carried $8,000 to $l0,000 with him, a lot of dough in those days.
His company paid an annual visit to Tucson for many years, and later when I became the manager of the old Rialto Theatre, I booked his shows and always looked forward to a visit from this group of great performers and its colorful owner.
It was the custom of this company to play a concert in front of the theatre just before the matinee performance, then parade through the streets, ending back at the theatre just in time for the first show. They played well and loud, telling everyone in town that Hockwald's Minstrels were back in town. They always drew large crowds.
In 1917 Douglas Fairbanks, who had also played for my dad at the Elysian Grove, and who was now a big movie star, came to Tucson with a motion picture company to film one of his typical action pictures. The movie was titled Heading South, and its production in Tucson created a lot of excitement.
When it was finished it was booked to play at the Opera House, and naturally was going to draw tremendous crowds. I remember well that day. I was sitting down near the front of the theatre with my friend, George Ivancovich, at the first evening performance on the opening night. The feature, Heading South was just starting when suddenly the film jammed in the projector and the picture on the screen stopped. A second or so later the picture was seen to burn from its center and only a white light shown on the screen.
Since moviegoers in those days were used to interruptions resulting from mechanical failures, no one thought much of it. But I had never seen a film burn like that one, so I said to George, "Let's get out of here." We quietly walked out, and by the time we were in the lobby my dad was there and asking people to leave the theatre. Ushers went down the aisles asking people to leave and the crowd did so in an orderly fashion.
When the machine jammed the intense heat from the carbon light house had caused the film to burn. Usually it snuffed itself out but not this time. The entire roll of film burst into flame, and all of the film in the projection booth caught fire.
My dad had just left the booth and was walking through the balcony towards the stairway when he saw the same thing the audience saw. He rushed back to the booth just in time to see the first reel of film go up, almost like an explosion. He pulled the projectionist out, slammed the door and ran downstairs to warn the audience and call the fire department.
After the crowd reached the sidewalk, it stood around to see what was happening. I walked back into the lobby where I could see my dad. About the time I got there he yelled to the organist, who had left the pit and climbed on the stage to look back towards the projection booth to see what was happening. Dad told him to get down off the stage because the fire might be spreading through the rafters above the auditorium. And that's exactly what happened. As the organist jumped off the stage some of the "drops," or curtains, fell in flames. My dad told me to get the hell out. Then I knew that disaster was taking place.
Luckily no one was injured in the fire that completely gutted the Opera House. It was a spectacular fire that attracted more people than had any of the many performances previously presented by the Opera House. I found my mother across the street in the crowd and remember standing beside her while tears ran down her cheeks.
Later that night my dad came into the house through our sleeping porch where my brother, Frank, and I slept. When I asked him if there was anything left he said, "Yes, here it is," and he tossed me the padlock off the stage door.
The next day "Brud" (as I always called Frank) and I went down to see what a burned-out theatre looked like. It was a mess. Only the walls were standing. The balcony had fallen in, the stage had completely burned, and sun shined on the debris that covered the seats, the organ and the stage floor.
My dad had just started "getting on his feet," but had no insurance and was just about busted. The Broadway Theatre was still operating, so while the Opera House was rebuilt, it provided enough income to keep the wolf from the doors of the Manny Drachman and Ben Goldsmith households.
The fire occurred on May 23, 1918. At that time our nation was in the midst of World War I, and, while there were restrictions of building materials, owners were allowed to rebuild if their structures were destroyed by fire. The Opera House was rebuilt by the owners, the Grosetta family, who had wisely insured the building. The theatre was completed in late September. My dad and his partner had begged and borrowed every nickel they could to furnish and equip the place.
They opened in early October and operated for just eight days when the health authorities ordered them to close down the Opera House and the Broadway. The epidemic of Spanish influenza that was sweeping the country had hit Tucson as well.
That just about knocked our family into the bread line, but not quite! It was tough for the next two months. I remember that my brother and I learned that when the soles of your shoes wore out, you don't necessarily get new shoes. Instead, you learn what kind of cardboard wears best when cut to fit inside your shoe to keep your foot off the ground. We got by and were never really hungry. My mother was a genius at making things that tasted good out of nothing.
Two things occurred during that period to brighten our lives. First, the war ended on November 11, 1918, and that made everything seem better, even if we still had to wear those awful gauze anti-flu masks when on the streets or out of the house.
Because of the flu, schools were on half sessions. Health officials decreed that there had to be a vacant seat between all pupils, thereby cutting the number in each class in half.
The other event occurred one morning while playing with a neighbor boy from across the street (we had moved into a rental house a couple of years before on South Stone and 14th Street). I crawled under his house and found a whole pile of ten and twenty dollar gold pieces. Boy, was I excited!
When we got some of the money into the bright daylight it was quite apparent that the money was counterfeit. The coins were excellent duplicates except they were too light. We started passing them out to kids in the neighborhood until my dad came home for lunch. He had me crawl under the house again and bring all the coins I could find to him. I ended up with a large paper bag full of $40,000 in phony money. I then went around the neighborhood to recover the ones we had given away.
That afternoon he and I went down to the U.S. Marshal's office in the federal building on Congress across from the Opera House and reported what had happened. He filled out a long form which I had to sign. I was about twelve at the time, and my name was in the papers the next day for the first time in my life.
An officer came back with us and inspected the house and the space under the house. He found that a hole had been cut in the kitchen floor, and apparently the money had been hidden there by some former occupants of the home. They conducted an investigation and learned that some previous residents of the place had been under suspicion regarding counterfeit operations. So ended my treasure find.
After about eight weeks of being shut down for the flu epidemic both the Opera House and the Broadway were allowed to reopen.