Chapter 3 The Theatre Business Page III of III
Just before I left the Publix theatres, we played a show at the Rialto which was most unusual at that time. It was called a "sex" show and was the product of a Texas producer and promoter, Stewart Cash. Their advance man had arrived a week early and had warmed up the town like it had never been before.
The cast included about ten beauty winners: Miss Baltimore, Miss Alabama, Miss Kansas City, Miss Dallas, etc. The star was a Dr. Diefenbach, "famous sexologist and lecturer on the human body," according to the press blurbs. He would identify characteristics of the human body, using the girls as models, which supposedly revealed the type of person each woman was. He would do the same for men, using drawings instead of real live fellows. At least that was what was promised in the advertising and publicity.
The show arrived a day before the first of the four-day engagement. Although the girls were beauties, some looked as though they had been around the track once or twice. They had quite a few props and equipment which were set up under the direction of Stewart Cash and his wife, who was a member of the line of beauties.
That evening, Harry Nace, (then running the Publix theatres in Arizona), came down from Phoenix and we had a lengthy visit with Cash and some of his people, including Dr. Diefenbach, who turned out to be a very interesting man. We had a late supper at about midnight as we often did, and then broke up for the evening. About 2 a. m. my phone rang, and Harry Nace informed me that Stewart Cash had dropped dead on his way to the hotel. He had had a heart attack.
His wife bravely decided that the "show must go on," and it did. It was agreed that the services would be held up until after the engagement had been completed. She said that she didn't want him buried in Tucson, since she wanted him to be near her home in Dallas. However, she did agree to have him temporarily buried in Tucson while the show completed its tour of about three more weeks to California.
She mourned him for about twenty-four hours, and then was on the make for a couple of men she had met. In fact, one of them told me that on the way back from the cemetery, she was all over him in the middle of the day. And Stewart Cash is still buried in Tucson, or at least he was in the mid-seventies when I checked to satisfy my curiosity.
The whole company was a motley crowd, but that Dr. Diefenback knew how to deal out a line as he pointed to the various attributes each girl displayed on the platform -- with very little on. The crowds were beyond belief for what was not really much of a show. That word "sex" had its appeal then, as it always has.
There was a special morning matinee for "women" only, and they packed the place. Books were sold at a dollar a copy in the lobby during the engagement and Tucson suckers contributed over $4,000 for these books, which were the 1930's equivalent to present pornography publications.
My days at the Fox were not nearly as interesting as were those I spent at the Opera House and the Rialto. I always had three or four football players from the U of A on my staff of ushers. Several of them went on to better things after getting an education. One became a Superior Court judge in Phoenix; others are practicing law. Sid Woods, who was a quarterback for Tex Oliver's Wildcats, became a member of the board of regents of the three universities in Arizona. Leon Gray, a well known Air Force colonel, now retired, was also one of "my boys."
While I was running the Fox, a road show company, organized in Hollywood and featuring some movie starlettes, came to Tucson to complete their rehearsals and "try out" the show on Tucson audiences. They were with us for about three or four days, breaking in their acts and rehearsing before presenting two performances to paying audiences. The show was on its way to New York City and Broadway. I can't recall the name of the show, but I do remember that Betty Grable and Jackie Coogan were two of the young stars.
They had been "nesting" together for some time we learned from others in the show. Later, they were married for a spell. Betty was the cutest thing you ever saw but also tough. She cussed like a drunken sailor, especially when she was having trouble trying to teach Jackie some steps in a routine they were to do together.
The show was pretty good and lasted a few months on Broadway. It was fun having the group of producers and members of the cast, plus musical and dance directors around the theatre for nearly a week. They rehearsed at night after the regular performance ended at about midnight. I didn't get much sleep that week, but we surely had fun!
Another show to come to the Fox for rehearsals and "breaking in" as well as to play a two-day engagement was Ted Lewis and his band. He always carried several acts and was preparing to play the Ambassador Hotel's Coconut Grove for an opening on New Year's Eve.
Milt Pickman was his advance man and arrived on the scene a week ahead of the dates they were to play the Fox. He and I didn't agree on the prices we were going to charge for tickets, so he said he would have to call the "office" and discuss the matter with them. That evening he put in a call and was explaining that I didn't want to raise the price over $.60 a ticket. Our regular price at the time was $.40.
Finally, Milt said, "Here, I'll put the manager on the phone," and handed it to me. I immediately started explaining why I felt $.60 was all the traffic would bear. The arrangement was that the road company would receive a percentage of the box office take, so they were interested in grossing as much as possible.
I was having a tough argument with the guy on the other end of the line, who finally said to me, "Have you ever seen Ted Lewis?" I assured him I had and that he was one of my very favorite performers. He continued, "The guy is better than ever. He'll jam them in. His show is fantastic and he is a great artist!"
I interrupted him to ask, "Who am I talking to?" When he said, "You are talking to Ted Lewis," I couldn't help but laugh. However, we kept the price at $.60.
When he arrived a couple of days later, we became good friends immediately. He was a wonderful man to be around always pleasant and figuring out ways to have fun. He rehearsed every night after the regular show was over. His band was great to listen to, and he was a show by himself, as thousands of his fans would testify. I seldom got to bed before daylight, but the next night we'd be ready to go again.
In the early part of the evening while the movie was on, he, a few of his people and I would cruise the town, stopping for a drink at different joints. We had dinner a couple of times with Nick Hall at the Santa Rita Hotel in the old Rendezvous Room. Ted usually ended up by performing with the band in singing his well known "Me and My Shadow," always finishing with that eternal question of his, "Is everybody happy?" (One of his lesser-known talents was his ability to squirt water between his teeth in a fine spray and be very accurate at about ten feet. One night he had some people at the table next to us going wild trying to figure out where the water was coming from. They finally moved to get away from "a leak in the ceiling.")
Ted Lewis and his outfit were first class and presented a great show to the large crowds which turned out to see him. He continued for many years to entertain all over the world, and it's a poorer place now that he is gone.
During the recession, movie theatres had to resort to all kinds of gimmicks and promotions to attract crowds. One of the most popular and successful at the box office was "Bank Night," at which $100 was given away every Tuesday night.
People had to register in a giant book in the lobby. There was a number opposite each name. The numbers were placed in a giant cage which was taken onto the stage after the first show on Tuesday night. I, as the manager, would conduct a drawing of one number by a member of the audience. We then would look in the book for the name of the party and announce it. If the party was present, he would win $100 cash; if the party whose name was drawn did not respond, the amount would be carried over until the next week and added to the pot.
This was truly "something for nothing," if you paid your way into the theatre. This "Bank Night" idea swept the country, and for a while we had to pay a royalty to someone who claimed to have invented and patented the game. Eventually, he was washed out because actually it was a lottery and was illegal almost everywhere, including Arizona. But, what with the Depression, we were allowed to operate for several years. "Bank Night" made the theatres a lot of money while it lasted. The pot would build up for several weeks getting into the four figure range. Excitement would build in accordance with the size of the pot.
Finally, a local man, Byron Kemp, picked up an idea from some guy in El Paso and began to insure people against having their names being drawn for the pot and not being in the Fox theatre to claim the prize. He set up his insurance booth at Jimmie Rand's cigar store which was on Congress Street just east of Stone Avenue, less than a half block from our box office.
The insurance gimmick caught on after a few weeks, and we were afraid that it would keep people out of the theatre. Kemp was doing quite well, but was willing to listen to a proposal we made, that he add $100 a week to the pot to increase the interest, and we would allow him to sell the insurance right in our lobby.
He saw the wisdom of the idea, and we joined forces instead of competing with each other. Finally, like all good things, it was put to an end by the legal beagles who thought they had better enforce the laws of the state. But "Bank Night" was a great attraction for two or three years and created a lot of excitement.
Another gimmick we used quite regularly was a car giveaway. We gave a new car away nearly every month at the Fox to someone who bought a ticket to see a show, cooperating with local merchants who actually paid for the car in exchange for advertising we ran on the screen about their business. While at the Fox I bought Chevrolet Coaches from Frank O'Reilly for a price of $425 each!
We never had anyone try to "rig" the drawing for any of the cars as was done in other cities at similar events. However, we did have some smarties try to frame the drawing at "Bank Night" when the pot was up to about $3,000.
One night when I asked for someone to come up from the audience to draw the ticket from the large screen cage, a man I knew came dashing up to be the one to draw the number. He handed it to me, and I handed it to the girl who looked up the number in the giant book that was on the stage. She then announced the name over the microphone.
The man named was sitting in the front of the theatre, next to the seat vacated by the man who had come onto the stage to draw the number. That alone looked very odd, especially to me, since I knew both of the fellows and was well aware that they were close friends and worked together at the Southern Pacific Railroad. We went through the usual procedure and announced that the winner would receive his check the next day at ten o'clock at the office of the Fox.
As soon as the curtain went down and the movie started, I called our attorney, Tim Cusick, and he came right down to the theatre. He advised us to keep the matter quiet and have someone from the police department act as a witness while we searched through the tickets in the cage to find the real ticket.
It was quite apparent that the drawer of the ticket had palmed one they had printed to correspond with the number on the one opposite his friend's name in the book. If we found the same number in the cage, we would have definite proof that the drawing had been framed by these two birds.
We immediately got all the ushers together, and in the basement we started sifting through the thousands of tickets, looking for that certain one. I offered ten bucks to the one who found it. After about an hour of searching, one of the boys found the right ticket. With the police officer as a witness, we had proof positive that the supposed winner had not won anything at all.
We then had enlarged photos made of the phony ticket and the right one; it was easy to notice the difference. This material was prepared that night so we could be ready to greet our friend the next morning,
Later that evening some of us went to the Minerva Cafe, a favorite spot in those days for a late snack. While sitting there, the two culprits walked in together with some of their friends, all questionable characters on the Tucson scene at the time. They were celebrating, but we never let on we knew.
Next morning our attorney and two police officers came up a few minutes before ten and waited in the office adjoining mine for the "winner" to come in to claim his check. He arrived on time, and, after exchanging the usual pleasantries, he asked for his check. I told him that there was going to be no payoff because his ticket had not actually been drawn the night before. He, of course, stated the prize was properly his and that if I didn't pay him he would bring suit, for not only the amount in the pot, but also for damages, etc.
I then opened the door to the other office, the police and our attorney walked in. I explained what had taken place the previous night in finding the genuine ticket in the cage. I showed him the photo enlargements of the two tickets which left no doubt regarding the matter. I said that if he wanted to take the matter to court, he certainly was free to do so. He realized that he had no chance of pursuing the thing further and quietly left the office, although he said he would see an attorney.
CONTINUE with My Cousin Oliver