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.
After the war Tucson had a spurt of growth and a new business block built at the far end of East Congress street included a new theatre, the Rialto, which was leased to Rickards and Nace, a theatre company from Phoenix.
In those days, as now, the houses with the good movies did the business and the others suffered. There was terrific competition to "buy" the best film product from the various distribution companies. Rickards and Nace, with the added buying power of the Phoenix area, made it tough, but, since they had to send a manager to operate for them, my dad and Ben, through long established friendships with the newspapers, managed to out-promote their competition and held their own.
However, competition for the films made the prices rise, and there was little money made by either operation. We had the product of the Paramount, First National and Fox studios tied up, They had the Metro and F.B.O. (later RKO) under yearly contracts. After a couple of years of battling each other, Rickards and Nace made a deal with my dad and Ben to turn the operation over to them -- they had had enough of Tucson.
We closed the Rialto during the summer months but the rest of the year it was operated as a movie and vaudeville house.
From the time I was a freshman in high school I worked every week night at the Opera House, as an usher, with my friend Irving Phillips. I was learning how to check out the box office in the evenings, how to make up the schedule for the subjects on the day's program, how to pay the bills, make up bank deposits, how to book the short subjects, how to make up the payroll, etc. By the time I was fifteen I was running the Opera House in the summertime, in addition to taking tickets and relieving the cashier during her dinner hour.
My dad recognized several years before that the salvation for the show business in the summertime in Tucson was dependent on his ability to develop some kind of a cooling system. He worked with a plumber, and they copied a system someone else had used to cool the air by blowing fresh air through a large metal chamber containing a couple of dozen sprinklers, like those used for watering lawns.
The thing worked like a top and enabled the Opera House to be advertised as the "Coolest Place in Town," and it truly was! People would come in night after night, seeing the same movie, but at least staying cool. The Opera House was the first cornmercial building in Tucson to have air conditioning, and it paid off. When the Rialto was built it had an air conditioning system, but it never did work as successfully as the home-made one my dad and his plumber devised.
In the late twenties sound pictures were being talked about, and some were being made in New York City and in Hollywood. They were mostly experimental productions. None of the theatres had sound equipment so, even if sound pictures were made, where were they going to be shown? But the facts were plain: there were going to be talking pictures in the near future and everyone in the movie business had to take a look at their "hole card" to figure out what this new medium would do for them -- or to them. The theatre owners were really on the spot. The installation of sound equipment was a very costly thing, about $25,000 to $40,000 for each house, and that was a hell of a lot of money in those days.
If the theatre owner did not install sound equipment, he was afraid his competitor would, and then his competition would get all the new sound pictures, and of course, the audiences.
We kept in touch with our friends in the Los Angeles area to see what they were doing. Luckily, we had a few contacts with the studios and could also talk to them about the production end of the business. No one was sure that the public would accept the "talkies," and all the smart guys were hedging their bets by making only parts of the films in sound to test the reaction at the box offices in the large cities which had installed sound equipment in anticipation of what was to come.
The pictures were advertised as "20% talkie," then the percentages increased gradually, and finally all the studios went nuts trying to produce all-talking pictures. The first one was made by Warner Brothers and was directed and produced by Bryan Foy. It was called, The Lights of New York, and I still remember parts of it. It was a hit at the box office, although far from being an artistic sensation. But who cared? All the people wanted was to see a talkie.
The first sound equipment used large records on which the sound was recorded. Very soon, though, the sound was recorded on a sound track on the side of the film, next to the picture. This eventually became the accepted method, but all the early theatres had to install equipment that could play either type of sound picture.
In Tucson, coming up with the kind of money needed to install sound equipment in both the Rialto and Opera House took some doing on the part of those involved in running the two theatres. We had established good credit records at the banks, and they financed this large and important investment.
Our first talkie, and the first ever to play Tucson, was In Old Arizona, which starred Warner Baxter. This was a natural for us since it was one of the big hits of that year. (I believe 1927). Tucson responded like every other city, and the talkies were here to stay. This meant the end of the eight piece orchestra I had employed at the Rialto to play the mood music during the silent film days. It also meant an end to the use of the Robert Morton Organ which for so many years had provided the proper musical atmosphere during the movies at the Opera House. The organ had cost $18,000, but had paid for itself several times.
With the silent movies, we would always receive a cue sheet which would suggest the type of music and even the names of the tunes which should be played. Our orchestra leader, George Marthens, would dig out the sheet music from our rather large library and would have to arrange the scores to conform to the various scenes and moods of the film that was currently playing the Rialto. The organist at the Opera House had to do the same thing. It was a tough thing to tell these old employees, the musicians, that they were no longer needed, except for the vaudeville shows, which, soon after the advent of the talkies, also became a thing of the past.
Later some of the larger theatres in the bigger cities continued to present stage shows such as the Paul Ash Show in the Chicago area and the Fanchon-Marco shows at the Fox West Coast theatres up and down the West Coast. These stage shows augmented the movie bill of fare in the houses which generally did not show the big hit films.
With the coming of sound, the movie theatre industry took on a new dimension. The large production and distributing companies saw the great opportunities that lay ahead of them in owning theatres. They could then control the business from beginning to end, from production to the box office. Fox owned some theatres in the eastern cities. RKO had the nucleus of a theatre chain with their vaudeville houses and hoped to extend their circuit with the addition of movie houses. Paramount, with its Publix theatres, was also very active in acquiring theatres.
On September 29, 1929, all of the theatres in Tucson were sold overnight. My dad, Ben Goldsmith, and their partners, Rickards and Nace, sold the Rialto and the Opera House to Paramount-Publix. The Diamos brothers, who owned the Lyric theatres in Tucson and also the new Fox theatre which was under construction, sold out the same day. At the same time they sold their interests in the theatres in Douglas, Bisbee and Nogales.
Both Fox West Coast and Paramount-Publix had been negotiating with my dad's group and the Diamoses. Neither company wanted to own all the houses because they feared the federal government might step in if either one held a monopoly in a town. So, overnight my brother and I were working for Paramount-Publix, and my dad and Ben Goldsmith each ended up with $62,500 for their interests. They each retired, and were considered to be very well off since they had accumulated some money during the last few years they owned the theatres.
My brother and I were good showmen, knew how to promote the attractions we played and had made quite a bit of money for our bosses. We had been paid pretty good salaries for those times. When I quite school and went to work at the Rialto, I started at the figure of $30 a week. Within a year I had received several raises and was making $50 a week. When I got married in 1927 I was earning $65 a week. I had about $2,000 in the bank and used that to make a down payment on a house, install a coal furnace and buy some furniture.
Working for Publix Theatres was not like working for ourselves. I found out that there were many things that could be done better than the way we had been doing them. But, I also found out that our free-wheeling ways produced profits that exceeded those realized under the chain method of operation.
I always worked like hell anyway and the fact that I now had a boss didn't bother me much. I got along fine with whomever they sent down to supervise our operations. But it wasn't like the old days. This resulted not so much from the fact we no longer owned the theatres as much as from the fact that the business had changed so dramatically with the coming of the sound movies. The stage was seldom, if ever, used. There were practically no traveling shows as we used to know them.
Publix wanted to try the revue type of stage show to augment the movies and booked the Wilbur Cushman Revue into the Rialto for three days a week, while the balance of the week the company would appear at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix.
This outfit was owned by Wilbur Cushman and his wife, who were old-timers. They had been performers, singers, dancers, musicians and now were directors and producers of the weekly shows that featured several star performers and a chorus line of eight lovelies. The Cushmans were a smart and very nice couple. They insisted that their people dress well, behave themselves off the stage as well as on, and leave no bad impressions in the community. They were with us for nearly four months in the winter and spring of 1932, and, during this period of recession, increased attendance for us.
I got very well acquainted with the Cushmans, as well as with some of the cast, and they were fun people. It was good to again be around real show people who liked to have fun as well as make money (which was about the only thing the Publix personnel were interested in).
Times were rough in Tucson, and Publix decided that I should run both the Opera House and the Rialto. My brother, Frank, left to go to work for the Tucson Daily Citizen as an advertising account man. We closed the Rialto every summer, but this year, 1933, it was closed earlier than usual. I then spent full time at the Opera House.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president on March 4, 1933, one of his first acts was to close every bank in the U.S. in order to prevent their wholesale bankruptcy. Since the theatre business is a cash business, the bank closures really hit us where it hurt most, at the box office. We printed up some I.O.U's on small slips and had people who didn't have cash sign them for the price of the tickets, hoping that someday they would come around and pay up. Most of them did, much to our surprise. Everyone was in the same boat so we helped each other.
One night when we were playing some big production, I got a phone call from Joe Abbott, who worked at the Consolidated National Bank (later to become a branch of the Valley National Bank). He had a bunch of people at his house for dinner, and they all wanted to come to the movie. Joe said he could bring a wolfskin to pay for the tickets, and I told him we'd accept it. When he showed up with it, I had a photographer take a picture, for which I wrote the caption, telling how the wolf had come to the door of the Joe Abbott home, had been dragged in, killed, skinned and served for dinner, with the skin used to pay for the tickets to the Opera House. The story went out on the wire, and I had clippings sent me from many places throughout the country. It apparently appealed to newspaper editors who needed a bit of humor to offset the overabundance of bad news that was so prevalent then.
In February of 1933, William Jenkins, one of the top executives of the Publix company, came to Tucson to tell me that drastic cuts would be made in everyone's salary, including mine. I was then making $67.50 a week but would be cut to $50.00 starting in four weeks. I told him I would leave as soon as I could find another job. He asked a question that was already going through my mind, "Where in the hell are you going to find another job?"
He also announced that the contract with the projectionist union, calling for two men per shift, was being canceled in two weeks. They could either accept the reduction of projectionists from four to two men for the Opera House or they could walk out. When I told the union agent the news, he hit the ceiling and threatened to strike immediately, picket the theatre and cause all union people to boycott it as well. That's all we needed.
They did walk out and they did picket the place. But they also did much more. They stinkbombed the theatre one night about 3 a. m. despite the fact we had a guard on duty twenty-four hours a day.
I had to rush downtown, open all the doors, try to perfume the place and clean it up so that we could operate the next day. It was a hell of a mess! A local druggist sold me a product called "water glass," which sealed over the chemicals used in the stink bomb. We operated that next day although the place smelled pretty bad. The newspaper made a big deal out of the stink bombing, creating some sympathy for us.
The union men knew that the cancellation of the contract was not of my doing, but I still got a few threatening phone calls and anonymous letters which I ignored. About two weeks later they stinkbombed us again, and this time they did it up in a rainbow of the foulest smelling stuff I ever encountered. The place smelled so bad we had to shut down for a couple of days. The whole downtown area stunk. In fact, the stores on both sides of Congress Street, between Stone Avenue and Scott Street, had to use perfume in their air conditioning system to offset the terrible smell that permeated the entire area.
I had my belly full and was trying to figure out how the devil I could escape this trap. About that time I had gotten acquainted with a man by the name of Percy Kent, an executive with the Fox West Coast chain in L. A., who had been sent to Tucson to "dry out." He was a periodic alcoholic but a wonderfully kind man with whom I spent a lot of time. And how he could drink beer! One night just before he left Tucson after a sixty-day stay, we went into Dooley's place to play pool and drink beer. He ordered a case of beer to be kept on ice while we drank it, a bottle at a time. We finished the case of beer in about three hours, my share being eight bottles. He drank the other sixteen!
Anyway, he thought I should be working for Fox West Coast Theatres instead of Publix. He arranged for me to meet Charlie Skouras, then president of FWC, and, on June 1, 1933, I became manager of the Fox theatre in Tucson, where I remained for six and a half years.
It wasn't quite as simple as it sounds. When Sidney Kent, considered for many years as the top executive among those who ran the large film corporations, left Paramount to assume the presidency of Twentieth Century Fox, many of the Paramount high echelon followed him. An agreement was reached that there would be no hiring of Paramount people by Fox, and, although I was a small potato, the matter was under discussion for about ten days while I cooled my heels in Los Angeles.
A friend of mine by the name of Dan Dereig went over with me. It was his first trip to California, and he was impressed by Hollywood's sights and sounds. During that ten days we did up the town in all the colors of the rainbow. Through my friendship with performers who had been in Tucson with the Wilbur Cushman Revue the year before, we had no lonesome evenings. Some of the dancers were working at the old Paramount Theatre in the stage show; through them we met all the other gals in the chorus.
We would meet the girls between shows in a little restaurant across the alley from the stage door, drink beer and have a lot of laughs. Ben Blue was the star of the show at the Paramount during those two weeks and he was a joy to be around.
Through these show people, we learned where all the best bootlegging joints were in the town. Booze was being legalized at just about that time but in California, for some reason, it was delayed a few months. The police were just about at the point of ignoring the law, but no new legalized bars had yet opened.
There was one joint on North Hill Street that was up at the top of a long flight of stairs. To get in you had to press a button which rang a bell. The door at the bottom of the street would then open by a buzzer control. You'd stick your head in under a bright light and a guy would look down at you through a peephole and decide if you could come in with your party.
I think you had to say something like "Joe sent me," but, at any rate, getting in was not easy. We took three of the chorines with us, and when we got in we found that it was beautifully furnished, served excellent food and had a dance combo. It also had a couple of entertainers to make the time pass by while you guzzled booze.
After a couple of drinks, our girl friends thought they could outperform the paid acts and arranged with the orchestra to play a couple of numbers for them to sing and dance to. This pleased the management no end. So the next night when we showed up under the bright light at the bottom of the stairway, we were greeted with open arms. We were there several nights and had a whale of a time.
Another night we went to a nightclub on West Third Avenue, across from Westlake Park. It was also a second-floor place and very nice. Other girls from the Cushman Revue worked there. The place had a large dance floor and a fifteen piece band under the direction of a young man whose last name was Fisher.
After the first evening show, a large party of people, perhaps twenty or more, arrived, and it was obvious they were not going to have their first drink of the evening in this place. They were a boisterous bunch and took the place over, much to everyone's annoyance. During one of the dances, one of the noisy drunks had words with the orchestra leader and a bit of a fuss took place. The bouncers were on the scene in time to prevent any serious problems.
However, as soon as the floor cleared, this same drunk walked towards the bandstand from his table, shouting obscenities to the band leader. He must have weighed about 220 and was at least six feet tall, The leader was stocky and weighed about 170. When the drunk reached the front of the band area, the leader laid one on his chops that decked him. He was out like Lottie's eye. Cold.
With that, someone from his party ran out on the floor and threw a dinner plate at the leader which luckily missed him and crashed against one of the music racks. The rest of the party of drunks rushed towards the bandstand and were met by a combination of musicians and bouncers.
The battle was on! Others tried to either break it up or get involved on one side or the other. Dan Dereig suggested that we go out and join the battle to subdue the noisy bunch. I pulled him back into the booth where we were seated and told him we were sitting this one out. He wanted to leave, but I told him we'd probably run into the police on their way in, as I was certain they had been called.
Within five minutes about fifteen cops swarmed in the place. We were the only ones in the joint who had stayed out of the fracas. When the cops came around to ask questions, we told them we were just spectators, so they let us be. It was quite a special floor show we saw that evening.
Two of the friends we saw while on that trip to Los Angeles, who had been with the Cushman Revue in Tucson, were Hermes Pan and his sister. He was soon to be famous as the choreographer who arranged the routines for the Astaire Rogers musicals, as well as many others.
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.