An event took place in Tucson in the early thirties that attracted national attention: June Robles, daughter of Fernando Robles, a life-long friend of mine, was kidnapped and held for ransom. This was soon after the Lindberg case, and the whole country became interested in the Robles case.
Newsmen from all the wire services, as well as the big city newspapers, converged on Tucson. The newsreels sent their cameramen to Tucson. I knew a couple of them before they got here and became acquainted with the others very soon after they learned that I knew Fernando and his brother, Carlos, the county attorney. I tried to keep them informed of what I knew, which actually wasn't much.
The FBI entered the case and had several men here during the period the search for June Robles was on. Fernando was instructed by the kidnappers to drive out Broadway to Wilmot, over to Speedway, and back to town on certain nights. There was practically no development in the area at that time. He was supposed to get a message while on these nightly drives, but he never heard anything from the kidnappers. It was alleged that it was an "inside" job by an unhappy distant relative from Mexico who was trying to get even with the grandfather of June for some past mistreatment.
The matter dragged along for two or three weeks. I spent quite a bit of time with Fernando consoling him and trying to find out anything new in the case. On a Sunday evening, while having dinner with my father and mother, I received a long distance call from the Fox studio in L.A. advising me that June had been returned and asking me to please try to get their newsreel cameramen into the Robles house to take shots of her, etc. I promised I'd do my best, and asked them to advise their man to come to the Robles house and ask for me.
I rushed down to the Fernando Robles place and was admitted. I saw June for the first time-she was covered with insect bites and prickly heat; she had marks on her legs made by some kind of shackles; and she was dehydrated from being locked in a large box underground in the desert for something like fifteen days. Needless to say, her family was very grateful to have her home. The newsmen got their pictures and were happy for what help I gave them.
A couple of days later I received a call from Bryan Foy, a member of the famous Foy family of theatre people and a producer of films. He wanted to know if I could arrange for him to meet with June Robles' father if he came to Tucson. I assured him I could do so and would be happy to see him.
Brynie came down and tried to get Fernando to agree to allow him to book her for ten weeks at $1,000 a week to appear in theatres around the country. Fernando was interested. A contract was drawn and, while we were explaining the contract to him, Sid Grauman, famed Hollywood theaterman, called and asked that they wait until he could present his offer for June.
Fernando decided to wait. Eventually he did nothing, because the family decided they didn't want June to appear on the theatre stages. I think they made a wise decision. Although the FBI and local police never made any arrests, the case was considered closed.
While Brynie was in Tucson he asked me to drive him to Tombstone so he could see the place again. His father had starred in the old Birdcage Theatre when Tombstone was in its heyday, and Brynie had a soft spot in his heart for the little town. He seriously considered buying the whole town, which was for sale at the time for $75,000. That sounds incredible, but it actually could have been bought, lock, stock and barrel in one full swoop.
Brynie Foy was the eldest of his generation of Foys, children of the famous Eddie Foy, who billed his act as Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys. The whole family performed on Broadway and at vaudeville houses in the larger cities. In the 1970s Eddie Foy, Jr., with his wonderful Irish puss and his clever dance routines, was still seen occasionally in movies and on television.
Brynie was a producer at Warner Brothers for years, spanning both the silent picture and talking picture era, having produced the first "all talking" movie, The Lights of Old New York. Brynie was a very talented and extremely kind man. I kept in touch with him for many years and enjoyed several nights on the town with him in Hollywood. He always had a long list of people who would make "good company" for visiting firemen.
Not long after I assumed the management of the Fox Theatre I decided that I did not want to spend the rest of my life in Tucson. The summers are long and hot as hell; I didn't like the heat then, and still don't. I began looking for an opportunity to acquire, on almost any basis, a theatre in Southern California, which has great year-round weather and where I knew most of the people in the theatre business. I spoke with my friend, Milt Arthur, of the Arthur Brothers, who operated several theatres in California and later in the St. Louis area. Milt said he would keep his eye open for a theatre in which we might invest together and which I would operate.
One day he called me and said that the Belmont Theatre in Belmont Shores, just south of Long Beach, was available. My half of the money needed was $15,000, which I felt I could raise somehow. I went to L.A., met Milt, and we drove down to look over the Belmont Theatres. It looked like a good deal, but the owners wanted a little time to think the matter over. I returned to Tucson and, with the help of my mother's signature on the note, arranged to borrow the money from a local bank.
While I was waiting to hear from Milt Arthur, something happened that caused me to change my mind about leaving Tucson. Late one July morning Fred Blanc came to my office and asked me to go with him. He had something he wanted to show me, he said. We drove to his home and went inside to his bedroom door which was closed. He said don't open the door, but put your hand on the knob. I did and it was very cool. He said, "Open the door now." When I did, cool air flowed over me. It came from a home-made evaporative cooler with a 16 inch fan propelling the movement of the air. Fred had built the cooler himself, using a crate he had obtained from the Fisher Music Company and in which had been packed an upright Victorola record player. He showed me how he had built it, and it was a simple thing to make.
Before the day was over I had built two of them and installed them in our bedroom and in the living room. Boy, what a difference they made! We could sleep at night, and, if you can get a good night's rest, you can stand the hot days. I was fortunate that I worked in a comfortably cooled office and theatre. On the basis of that incident I decided to remain in Tucson. The deal with Milt was dragging a little anyway, and I advised him that I had changed my mind and would not go in with him on the purchase of the Belmont Theatre.
Not too long afterwards another "happening" occurred that caused me to think again about leaving Tucson and move to California. I got acquainted with a young man named Nicholas Nayfack, who was brought to Tucson because of his health by his uncle and aunt, Nicholas and Pansy Schenck. Nick Schenck was president of Metro Goldwyn Mayer. They remained in Tucson only long enough to see him settled in an apartment.
Nicholas was an attorney who had practiced in New York but who planned to move to Hollywood if his health responded properly to Tucson's climate. He was in town for about nine months and spent most of his time with me, day and night. We became fast friends.
He left Tucson to accept a job as an assistant producer at Twentieth Century-Fox, which was being run by another of his uncles, Joe Schenck. Whenever I visited L.A. I would stay with Nick at his apartment. He told me how much he would like to have me move to Hollywood so we could get together more often. On one of my trips he told me he had a talk with Joe Schenck about my going to work for the studio in the publicity department, which appealed to me since my friend, Harry Brand, was the head of that department. He arranged an appointment for me to meet Mr. Schenck.
Mr. Schenck was very nice, told me he appreciated my kindnesses to nephew Nick while he was in Tucson, and offered me a job at $125 a week, which was about 50 percent above what I was earning as manager of the Fox Theatre. As we talked I thought about all the men I knew who had good jobs at the studios and who had told me that someday they wanted to move to Arizona to get out of Hollywood Syndrome.
I told Mr. Schenck, "Sir, I appreciate your offer. It's a nice compliment, but I think I will be better off remaining in Tucson. Many people I know here in Hollywood tell me they someday want to retire to Tucson. Why should I leave Tucson, come here and work for twenty years so that I could go back to Tucson and do what I'm doing now?"
He laughed and said I was a smart young man. He told me, "Roy, keep on doing what you know how to do, running theatres. I agree that you will probably be happier in the long run." That ended the interview and any desire I had to move to Hollywood.
I have wondered many times what my life would have been like had I gone to work at the studio. I guess it is only natural for a man to look back and ask himself questions about important decisions he made at various stages of his life. However, I don't have too many regrets. Tucson has been a good place to live, especially so long as I can afford to spend several months in my home in La Jolla, California, to avoid the hot summers.
My friendship continued with Nick Nayfack for many years. During the thirties he was a producer at MGM and was married to a young starlet, Linn Carver, whose real name was Virginia Sampson. They had a large home in Mandeville Canyon, and my wife and I spent a great deal of time with them. In fact, for two years my wife, Grace, and two children spent the whole summer with them. As I look back, I must say that they were indeed good friends to put up with a family as house-guests for three months! And to be invited back a second summer is beyond belief.
In 1941 the Nayfacks, our mutual friends the Nat Dyches, and my wife, Grace, and I took a two-week trip in two cars to Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. We three men drove ahead in Nick's Cadillac each day, play golf some place and then meet the girls at some previously agreed upon hotel in the evening. They were traveling in a new station wagon, borrowed by Nick from Clark Gable. It was a wonderful vacation, and the last one for all of us for a long while, because the war started that December.
The Nayfacks were separated when Nick went into the service. Their marriage ended soon thereafter. Hollywood was never the same for me after that. The Nayfacks often had parties, and we got to know scads of Hollywood people. We had a world of fun, but like all good things, there must be an end. Unfortunately Ginnie, as we knew her, contracted cancer at an early age and died when she was only 39, in New York City, where I saw her several times. Nick died in 1960 choking on a piece of meat. He had remarried and left a son named after him.
During the period that Nick Nayfack was a producer at the MGM Studio I was in Hollywood for about a week one time. At that time The Ziegfield Girl was being produced at the studio, and every afternoon about five, Nick, one or two others employed at the studio, and I would stroll down to the stage where some fifty lovely girls were being directed in a big musical production number by Busby Berkeley.
It was truly a smorgasbord of beautiful girls that we watched daily during their rehearsals and sometimes during actual shooting of the scene. Lana Turner was just becoming a star, and I remember Bus Berkeley saying that she not only had a better figure than any of the other girls, but also could more gracefully walk up and down the flight of tremendously high stairs.
The winding staircase seemed to reach to the very top of the soundstage, at least fifty feet above the floor of the stage. Girls were placed at intervals of a few stairs from the top to the bottom of the stairway, and at a given signal they were all to start strolling down the stairs to the strains of music. Each girl had a different type of glamorous costume and a large hat. One girl near the top had a group of large papier maché balls hanging from her costume.
Bus Berkeley was directing the scene and moving the girls around to suit his fancy. He yelled, "Will the girl with the balls please step down two steps." The place broke into hysterics with everyone joining Berkeley in having a good laugh on himself.
Harry Brand, director of publicity for the Twentieth Century-Fox Studios, was one of Hollywood's most able men. He did much more than run the publicity department. He was involved in many top-level decisions regarding policies, politics, and union relations. He was a very valuable aide de camp for Joe Schenck and later Darryl Zanuck.
He visited Tucson on occasion with his wife, Sybil and their son, Georgie. We remained good friends over many years. Sybil is without doubt one of God's finest creations; she has done so much for people over the years that it would be impossible for even her to list them. The Sybil Brand Institute is named for her as a token of the high esteem in which she is held. Harry has retired, but Sybil was still working in the 1970s.
While I was at the Fox Theatre the company sent a man by the name of Burton Jones to Tucson to manage the Lyric Theatre, a second-run house on West Congress. He was just my age, and we became fast friends. This was in 1935, and for over forty years we kept in touch. He resides in San Diego where he owns a couple of theatres. He remained in show business and has prospered by shrewd decisions, good operations and wise investments.
He was a committed bachelor, at least until he reached 50. He always dressed beautifully, drove a big car and lived well, even when he was earning a small salary running the Lyric. When he first arrived in Tucson he did nothing but work, getting the Lyric turned around from an unsuccessful operation. Once he got his business attended to, he was in the market for some female companionship.
My cousin Oliver and I recognized him as an ideal fellow to meet "Agnes." We built her up to him over a period of weeks, but told him she was not always available since she was married to a railroad man. Finally, after properly baiting the trap, I told him I had seen Agnes, and she would be expecting him that night after he closed the theatre box office.
Burt had his shoes shined, put on his best outfit, bought a bottle of whiskey to give Agnes and joined me to go to Agnes' house. We each took our cars and I asked him to park in back of my car as she didn't want the neighbors to see a car in front of the house when her husband was out of town. We parked around the corner, just off East 8th Street, near Tucson Boulevard.
The neighborhood was very dark, and we quietly walked up the street and the walkway to Agnes' doorstep. Although the screen door was closed, the front door was ajar about a foot. I softly asked for Agnes. Then a little louder, a couple of times. Suddenly, the door was pulled open and a man came out shouting, "I'll Agnes you, you son of a bitch! You're the guy that has been seeing my wife!" With that, he fired a gun a couple of times, I fell as though shot, and yelled, "Run for your life, Burt. Her husband's home."
But Burt didn't run, I'll have to say that for him. I was lying on the lawn as Burt tried to explain that he didn't even know Agnes. I was shaking with laughter. Burt said I was a prominent man and that I should be helped since it appeared I was dying.
The irate husband said, "I don't care who he is. I don't want the son of a bitch dying on my lawn. Get him out of here or I'll shoot a hole through you big enough to drop a dog in!"
About that time, the lights in the house came on, and the cars which were parked around the house and on the street turned on their lights as the "witnesses" made their presence known.
Of course, the whole thing was a frame-up. There was no Agnes. The house was the home of Hi Corbett, who had a crowd of friends inside to see another sucker fall for the "Agnes Party" trick. The "husband" with the booming voice, the foul mouth and the blank-shooting revolver, was none other than Frank Eyman, then a police captain of the Tucson Police Department. He later became warden of the Arizona State Penitentiary at Florence.
Burt Jones was a game sport and gave the bottle of booze to Hi to serve to the more than twenty people who enjoyed "Burt's date with Agnes" -- even if Burt didn't.
The "Agnes Party" was a standard gimmick used every year in Tucson, especially in the fall with the beginning of the college school year and the arrival of many likely "Agnes" prospects. Before I got married, and when my family was out of town, we used our house as Agnes' home. We pulled the gag on several fellows and, on occasion, would make a major production of it by having an ambulance pick up the wounded, having a psuedo-reporter from one of the newspapers enter the picture and, of course, the police, who were always glad to be in on such fun. With all this attention, the victim would think of only one thing -- leaving town immediately!
One time we set up a man who was traveling across the country with an act called "Wolf, the War Dog." He and his partner were in town for about a week, and we had time to get well enough acquainted, so I felt he was the kind of man who would enjoy meeting Agnes.
We set the thing up for our house, had about fifteen friends there inside the darkened place, and arranged for deep-voiced "Shotgun" Snyder to be the husband and do the shooting.
When he and I reached the front porch, I softly called, "Agnes. Agnes." After a few seconds Snyder opened the door and shouted the usual threats and started shooting. Before I could say or do anything, my friend threw me down on the porch floor, slipped out a revolver, stuck it through a pane of glass in the front window, and started firing inside the house.
I tried to grab his arm and was pleading with him to stop shooting, that it was all a gag, that my brother was inside the living room, and that he should let me explain.
He ignored my pleas and said, "I'll go around in back and clean this place out!" I finally convinced him it was all a big joke.
The lights came on, and I introduced the "victim" to my friends, who didn't have as much fun as they normally did at an Agnes Party.
The next day I figured out what had happened. Ben Goldsmith, my dad's partner, had tipped the victim off, and he had gotten some blank shells to use in his revolver when he turned tables on us and "fought back."
We had the window pane replaced and never told our parents about what happened. It was a while before we had another "Agnes Party."
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.