Chapter 5 Hollywood Folks Page II of II
After I finished high school, I went on to the University of Arizona in the fall of 1924. I had a new job as assistant manager of the Rialto under Ben Goldsmith. I took tickets five nights a week, took care of much of the bookwork and was exposed to all the intricacies of running the largest movie house in a town of some 25,000 people.
I had been the sports editor of the Cactus Chronicle, the Tucson High School paper, and knew a little about writing press stories about the coming attraction. I also learned how to write advertisements for the theatres and did that for many years.
There were all kinds of characters who always gravitated to the old theatres in those days, and I met many whom I found to be very interesting, amusing and helpful in teaching me the ropes of the business. One old gal, "Ma" Heller, the wife of a brick layer, used to come around and visit with my dad and Ben, and me. She had run a theatrical boardinghouse in Philadelphia for many years and knew dozens of the old vaudeville performers, press agents and managers.
She told us she had known Rick Rickards of Rickards and Nace when he was a press agent in Philadelphia. He had contracted T.B. and had to come west to Phoenix. She said that they used to hear from him occasionally and learned that his health was failing. Finally they got a wire from someone who claimed to be a friend of Rickards advising them that he had died. The telegram asked that $200 be wired to the friend to cover Rick's funeral expenses.
The hat was passed around among the theatrical people in Philly, the $200 was raised and wired back to Phoenix, where Rick, in very good health but broke, was waiting for the money. I knew Rick well in later years, and he often laughed about how he "jobbed" his old friends in Philly.
Old "Ma" Heller was a tough old bird and used colorful language to express herself. One afternoon when she and Ben were sitting in the lobby of the Opera House, a priest came into the office to ask us to contribute $10 to the Orphans' Fund. I referred him to Ben, who, after listening to his story, told me to give him $10.
The priest then asked "Ma" Heller for some money and was rebuffed with the comment, "If more of you men buttoned your pants in back like you do your collar, there wouldn't be so damned many orphans running around in the world." End of conversation!
It was quite common for some hot-shot promoter to come through town every year or so and con the Elks or the newly organized American Legion to put on a minstrel show, which of course would be directed and produced by the traveling showman. The members of the organization would perform in the cast. Sometimes the showman would have a gal friend and a couple of other traveling companions who would "star" in the show.
The Tucson Elks Club sponsored such a show to be presented for two nights at the Rialto, which was made available on a rental basis. We would provide the usual staff, stage hands, etc. The profits went first to the producer-promoter and second to the Elks charity fund. The Elks hustled tickets and finally made a small chunk for their efforts.
I remember one story told by "end man" Terry McGovern, a local man-about-town and a member of the Elks. He said a nickel and a dime who had not seen each other for several years got together. The nickel asked the dime where he had been and he replied that he had been all over the world since seeing the nickel last. When the nickel was asked where he had been he said, "No place. I got in John Ivancovich's pocket three years ago and haven't seen the light of day until yesterday, when he had to pay for a newspaper." John Ivancovich was one of Tucson's wealthiest men and had a well known reputation for being the tightest guy in town.
The crowd roared. Such was the kind of fun and games people played to amuse themselves in the Old Pueblo in those days. And a lot of it centered around the local theatres.
On Thanksgiving Day of 1925, we were told by our family doctor that my dad would not live more than thirty days. A pall set over our home as we dearly loved him. We never told him that his doctor said his heart was in such bad condition that there was no way for him to survive more than a few weeks.
I decided to drop out of college and become the breadwinner. My dad, while he did not realize how ill he was, knew that he was quite ill and agreed that it was a good idea for me to assume the management of the Rialto theatre and help Ben Goldsmith with the Opera House. The Broadway had long before been dismantled and converted into a garage. So, on Monday, November 30, 1925, I started my business life and have been at it ever since.
Fortunately for us, our father continued to live, although in poor health, for another eight years, passing away in December of 1933. However, I continued to run the theatres under his supervision for several years. My brother, Frank, quit school in 1926 and took over the Opera House.
In the fall of 1925 (coincidentally at the time I took over the Rialto's management) the Orpheum Circuit vaudeville company established in Chicago the Western Vaudeville Managers' Association, which was actually a "junior circuit" to the Orpheum. It booked acts into theatres throughout the West, including such towns as Des Moines, Topeka, Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Albuquerque, El Paso, Tucson, Phoenix, and then into the Hillstreet Theatre in Los Angeles, up the Coast and back to Chicago. It was truly a series of one- and two-night stands, where acts, either on the way up the ladder or on the way down, brought a touch of Broadway to the "sticks," as the acts referred to the towns they played.
The shows always consisted of five acts, and always included an acrobatic group, a couple of comics, often an animal act and then the star performers who always appeared "next to closing," a position of status.
The show always hit Tucson on Wednesday. I had to go to the railroad station early in the morning and greet the performers when they got off the train from El Paso. I never had any trouble picking out the vaudevillians, no matter how many people alighted from the train. They, generally, were dressed in crummy looking clothes, the women usually wore too much makeup and they always carried beat up luggage with a lot of stickers attached.
I'd lead them across the street to the Rialto where the orchestra was waiting to rehearse their music. The stage hands would hang whatever "drops" the acts carried with them, set up their props, helped the acrobatic or wire acts attach their equipment to the stage floor, etc. The projectionist had to get light cues from each act to help them create the proper atmosphere for the performers with colored spot lights.
And there was usually a battle in the basement over who was to get which dressing room. None of them were worth fighting over, but one had a star on the door and each act wanted that one. It didn't take long for me to figure out that a star should be painted on each door.
Generally, the acts were small time people who were just trying to make a living. Once in a while someone special came along to add zest and style to the shows. Ted Weems came through in an act one time before he made it big with his music.
The acts were paid in cash after their second evening performance. The total salary for the five acts was $225, with a $25 fee being sent to the W.V.M.A. office in Chicago for booking the show. In addition to their salary envelopes, we always returned to each act the 8 X 10 inch photos of the performers sent us in advance for use in publicizing the show.
One of the shows included the "famous" escape artist, Raffles, known in real life as Howard Golden. His billing said he was famous, and that was good enough for me. His piece-de-resistance was an escape from a steel burial vault. To promote his act, we borrowed a steel vault from a local mortician and placed it in the lobby, with a poster describing what was going to happen the following Wednesday on the Rialto stage.
He was a tall, prematurely white-haired gentleman who was a very entertaining single. After being properly locked into the steel vault, to the satisfaction of a couple of guys out of the audience, he would effect his escape, and suddenly come walking down the center aisle from the back of the theatre, proclaiming to all within the sound of his voice that the Great Raffles had done it again!
He came through each year on the circuit and we became good friends. He continued in the show business long after his act had lost its appeal. He had a couple of "sex" shows which he toured back and forth across the country. I would occasionally have a visit from him long after I was out of the theatre business, and this continued up until about 1960, when he saw me for the last time.
He would always drive a new Cadillac and always have a new wife. I guess I met at least six of his wives. When I said to him one time, "Howard, every time you come through Tucson, you have a new car and a new wife. How do you do it?"
His answer was priceless, "I hope you've noticed my cars are always new and my wives are younger and prettier. What's wrong with that, as long as you keep trading up?" And he always did.
Finally, one day he called me from Phoenix and said he needed to see me. I was sure he needed some dough but that was okay. He had never asked me for help before, and I knew that if he asked for something, it was because he really needed it. Sure enough, he said he had fallen on hard times, was not well and was trying to get to the theatrical hospital, in Georgia, where he thought he would have an operation.
He borrowed $100 and said he'd pay me back if he lived through the operation. If I never heard from him, I could be sure he had passed away, he told me. We had a nice visit. He looked like hell and I knew that he wasn't long for this world. That was the last I ever heard from my friend Raffles.
Another act that I well remember was Ginger Rogers. After winning the National Charleston Contest in Chicago in early 1926, she was booked to play the W.V.M.A. circuit. They put an act together supporting her with a young couple of dancers, a pair of redheads.
From the very outset, the heads of the circuit knew that she was something special. They added her as a sixth act, for which the theatres had to pay extra, and gave her top billing. She had come out of Fort Worth and, amid much fanfare, had danced her way to the Charleston Championship.
The publicity blurbs said she was sixteen years old, but she looked to be a year or two younger. Her mother was right by her side every bit of the way, and stayed by her side until Ginger was nearly fifty. It was one of the most famous mother-hen stories in all show business. She was a cute little thing and could dance up a storm. When they arrived for the rehearsal at the Rialto, Mrs. Rogers went down to the dressing rooms and, of course, grabbed the one with the star painted on the door.
While she and Ginger were rehearsing with the orchestra, one of the other acts went down, moved the Rogers' stuff out of the star's dressing room and put their luggage and equipment in it. After finishing with their rehearsal, the Rogers went downstairs and discovered what had happened to their clothes and things. Mrs. Rogers made another switch, and before long a ruckus was taking place backstage.
That's when I became personally acquainted with Mrs. Rogers. "Mister Manager," as she called me, got an earful about how rude she was being treated by some of the other acts. She said it had been going on for a couple of weeks, and she was going to call the Chicago office and drop off the circuit. I finally got things settled to her satisfaction.
This gave me an opportunity to visit with Ginger, which was a real pleasure. She wore her hair in the then popular "King Tut" bob, with it fitting closely to her face. When she danced, she tossed it about like an electric fan. She told me she was weary of all the traveling, sleeping on trains, lousy hotels, bad meals and, often, poor music for her act.
I suggested that after the second show that night that we go out to the Blue Moon, Tucson's favorite dance place in those days. She said she'd have to speak to her mother to see if she would let her go. I quickly told her that her mother was invited also, as I knew that she wouldn't let Ginger out of her sight. So I had a date with Ginger, and Mrs. Rogers.
The funny thing about the Blue Moon that time was the orchestra included a banjo player by the name of Lew Ayres, with whom I had gotten acquainted. He was playing in the band the night that Ginger was there, neither knowing, of course, that a few years later they would be married.
During World War II, while I was active in handling special events for the War Bond Committee, I was asked to meet Ginger Rogers, who was coming to Tucson to appear at several war bond promotional affairs, and accompany her for the day. It was an assignment I really enjoyed.
While she didn't remember me, she did recall playing Tucson when she was "breaking in" in show business at the beginning of her career. I told her about the coincidence of Lew Ayres playing at the Blue Moon in Tucson the night we were there. She had already divorced him, but said that they were good friends and she would tell him about our conversation.
I've run into her once or twice in night clubs in New York City, and, although she doesn't remember my name, or even where I'm from, she is always friendly.
Lew Ayres was a guy I got to know fairly well while he was in Tucson. He was a nice, gentlemanly young man just about my age. He was planning to go to the University of Arizona, and I was "rushing" him for the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, in which I was still active, although out of school.
After he left Tucson, we kept in touch for a very short time, and once in L.A. I saw him while he was playing with Hank Halstead's band, one of the more popular dance orchestras on the Coast at the time.
In addition to the weekly vaudeville shows, we would also play traveling musical and dramatic shows. Mae Robson, a well-known star came through every year with her show and played to large crowds who had come to know her over the years.
A producer by the name of George E. Wintz brought the George White Scandals, the famous Broadway show of that period, through for two or three years. He would buy the sets and drops, the costumes, the scripts for the acts, the rights to the music and take out on the road a duplicate of the previous year's Broadway hit show.
His principal attraction was a bevy of beauties in his chorus lines of 25 to 30 girls. Their coming to town always stirred the blood of Tucson's young men, mine included! I'll never forget the experience of having to take a telegram back to George Wintz. I was told he was down in the basement in the dressing room area. When I went down, I discovered that the central area off which the dressing rooms were entered had been converted into the dressing room for the chorus girls. It was about a half hour before curtain time, and I arrived at a crucial moment. I found him all right, amid about twenty-five chorines in various stages of undress -- most of them naked.
I made a hasty retreat, embarrassed as hell. It was the first I had seen a gal in that state. The girls could see I was flustered and a couple of them taunted me with, "Look at the boy manager blush" and "Girls, cover up quick! You're making him blush!"
George Wintz was a wily operator. He knew that most of the show girls wanted to get to Hollywood to try to break into the movies. So, many would sign up to travel with a show and when it reached the Coast, they would jump the company, leaving the producer up the creek with the problem of replacing them. His solution was to make every one of his chorus girls buy a fur coat when she signed on with his show, and then he would deduct so much each week so that by the time the company had completed its coast-to-coast tour, the coat would be paid for. The girl could pick it up upon her return to New York City. And what girl didn't want a fur coat!
About that time we booked a big musical show, Gay Paree which starred Chic Sales, who at the time was one of America's top comedians. He had just written his famous little book about how to build outhouses, known by many ever since as "Chic Sales."
This show also featured girls, girls, girls. The posters they sent out for us to post had a naked gal with only a swirl of serpentine paper covering her. The local Baptist minister made an issue of the posters and threatened to go to court to protect Tucsonans from having their morals corrupted. He made quite a storm in the local papers, much to our delight.
My dad was still active and knew how to capitalize on such a turn of events. We kept the pot boiling in the local press. No court action was taken, but the resulting publicity sold out the house and gave Chic Sales some special material for his Tucson presentation.
Included in the cast of the Gay Paree show was a young lady billed as Hildegarde, about whom considerable was heard later.
Also in the list of star performers who played the Rialto was the famous Polish diplomat and pianist Paderewski, who was as temperamental as anyone could be. Traveling with him were his wife and two little dogs, one of which had the "pip" or something . Twice during his performance he walked off the stage to check on his sick dog and was properly criticized the next day in the local press for his unprofessional conduct. Apparently the Poles had never heard "that the show must go on."
Pavlova, and her troupe of Russian ballet dancers, also visited Tucson and brought a taste of culture to the local scene. She was Russia's premiere danseuse of that decade and very popular throughout the world.
Harry Lauder, the well-known Scottish singer and comedian, also visited Tucson -- several times on his "farewell" tours each year. He was a humorous man and because of his phonograph records, which sold like hot cakes, he was a big draw. Once, during the time the Opera House was burned out, my dad rented the auditorium in the Safford School to present Harry Lauder. It was the largest auditorium in the city at the time besides the theatres. Since Lauder did not require much stage space, the school auditorium worked fine.
The Hungarian National Chorus was another attraction that played the Rialto during its heyday. This was a fantastic musical organization that at times sounded more like a giant organ rather than human voices.
Perhaps the best vocal group that has ever played Tucson, even to this day, was the Sistine Choir. There were nearly a hundred men and boys in this chorus which drew tremendous crowds for every performance. I'll never forget the pink cheeked youngsters who sang the tenor parts with voices that sounded almost like little girls. The rumor was that some of the choir were eunuchs, which enabled them to retain the high pitched voices. In any event, they were great and provided the Old Pueblo with unforgettable entertainment.
All these events made the theatre a fun place to work. There was never a dull moment, although at times business was pretty dull. The hours were long. I never spent a night at home for years and years unless I was sick, and I think that I missed one night in something like fifteen years for that reason.
Every night after closing the box office, always at 10 o'clock, I'd check out the cashier, sack up the money and carry it down to the Opera House where we had a large safe. The Rialto had a dinky safe that was used only for keeping small amounts of cash. Many, many nights I would walk down Congress Street from the Rialto to the Opera House, with a sack full of money, up to $1,000 to $1,500 in silver and bills, wrapped in newspapers like a bundle of meat or bread. Never once was I accosted, nor did I worry about such a thing. The streets were as safe as your backyard.
In those days, everyone carried silver dollars and half dollars. It was not uncommon to have half of the daily receipts in silver dollars and other silver coins. We even got quite a few gold pieces also. In the West everyone preferred silver.
Right after I went to work full-time running the theatres, I became acquainted with a well-known press agent who traveled as an advance man for Metro Goldwyn Mayer road show films. I had first met him several years before when he came through Tucson a head of the film hit, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which made a star of Rudolph Valentino. Howard McBride was a very intelligent man and had had a pretty good education for the kind of job he had. He had studied the art of publicity and advertising. He gave me a lot of tips and encouraged me to continue my education in English and advertising. I bought a text book on advertising and read it avidly.
A couple of years later, the University of Arizona established its first advertising course under the professorship of Dr. "Foggy" Woods, who got that name for a good reason: he knew as much about advertising at the time, as did the madam who ran Stevens Room in Tucson. I signed up for the course. He announced that the textbook (the one I had read) would be available at the university book store in a couple of weeks.
When the class convened for the second time, I took the book with me and he told me that he had never seen it before and that, if I had read it, I knew more than he did about advertising, and he would just as soon not have me in the class. I went a few times, but realized that, while he was called "Foggy" for a good reason, he definitely was not a liar. His knowledge regarding advertising was zilch!
However, the journalism course was another matter. The University of Arizona offered its first class in journalism about 1926 or 1927 and I enrolled as a special student. I have forgotten who the professor was, but he was good, and I learned a great deal about writing news releases and publicity stories. I guess in my lifetime, I've written several thousand stories and articles for newspapers.
Theatre people and newspaper people always seemed to have an empathy for each other. I knew every writer on both Tucson papers intimately, and we had many good times together. They were always welcome as guests to any of our shows, except the road shows where we had to account for every ticket.
Howard McBride had a distinct influence on my life, making me realize that even in the theatre business it was an advantage to have some education on certain subjects. He later retired from the road and owned a couple of theatres in Spokane, where he died a few years ago.