Vaudeville and the Music Hall

Vaudeville and the Music Hall

At the opening of the twentieth century the decisive influence of the ragtime pianists fell on white audiences tiring of the minstrel show and willing to pay to hear black performers. At the same time the American band was being heard everywhere, promoted by John Philip Sousa, the most successful musician of his time, and testifying among other things to pugnacious nationalism. Both phenomena would modulate into dance bands playing vigorous dance music.

Burgeoning displays of sheet music in neighborhood stores, often music calling itself rag, attracted a diverse public, much of which never heard the concerts of the creators of ragtime. Modest as well as prosperous homes had a keyboard, either a piano or the less expensive reed organ: the industry built 107,000 harmoniums a year in 1900, and 177,000 pianos.

By 1909, the figure was 364,000 pianos. Piano music was available beyond the proportion of the population that could play: by 1925, more than half the pianos produced were automatics, using player rolls for current hits (see Cyril Ehrlich, The Piano: a History). Such instruments, giving out more and better sound than the evolving phonograph had yet mastered, tuned the audience more closely than ever before to the latest fad in music.

A boom in social dancing began during the second decade of the twentieth century, along with the first recognition of music called jazz. Nat Shapiro quotes Variety as estimating that in the mid-1920s there were 60,000 dance bands playing on the dance floors of jazz age America. Beginning in 1920, radio broadcasting brought recorded and live music into homes, posing an economic challenge to pianos and combining with the Depression in 1929 to decimate record and phonograph sales.

The music that America absorbed through these media came mostly from New York, from Tin Pan Alley publishing houses and from the flourishing Broadway stage, reproduced also in vaudeville houses across the country. When in the middle of the 1920s recording engineers developed microphones to replace recording horns, a new softer “crooning” performance became possible and stylish on records and over the radio.

Al Jolson’s songs on screen in 1927 opened another medium. When the Depression crippled the New York musical theater, Hollywood studios became the patrons of much of professional songwriting, for the movies that were the country’s largest entertainment indulgence during the 1930s. The record industry struggled back late in the decade, dominated by the big swing bands and their vocalists. As the war overtook the United States, a significant economic struggle surfaced in musical entertainment. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers ( ASCAP) had been formed in 1914 to collect performance royalties for the owners of song copyrights.

By 1939 it held monopoly power over popular music performance, and a contract dispute with radio broadcasters led to the formation of Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) as a rival guild. Following a ten-month interval in 1941 during which no ASCAP music could be played on the radio, causing a boom in classical, folk, and public domain music generally, ASCAP entered into a new broadcast contract, but BMI continued and grew. BMI, growing out of the dispute where its rival stood for established interests, came to represent popular music from outside the New York-Hollywood establishment, and local markets compared with the network emphasis of ASCAP. An institution had appeared to reflect the regional, rural, and minority interests in the music world that would gain great audience support after the war.

Next Page: The First Stars: Charles Lindbergh and The Challenge of the Air

Charles Lindbergh: The Challenge of the Air

Charles Lindbergh: The Challenge of the Air

In June, 1927, Charles Lindbergh received 3,500,000 letters, 14,000 parcels, and 100,000 telegrams. The New York World got two bushels of Lindbergh poetry. While he was having dinner in New York, a woman broke through his guards to peer into his mouth and determine for herself whether he preferred green beans or green peas.

The Hoboes of America proclaimed a thirty-day mourning period when Will Rogers died. Fifty thousand people followed the funeral procession of Sacco and Vanzetti through Boston. Well-fed Americans are starved for the pomp and ritual of older nations. We even have to improvise a pathetic little twenty-minute ritual for the inauguration of our president, the most important official in the world.

Our academic rituals are dull and uninspiring, and parades (such as Mardi Gras or the Mummers) have to suffice us as a people. Those who want more form have to get it from ritualistic churches or lodges. There are no prescribed ceremonies for our Independence Day, July 4, or the birthday of the Father of our Country, Feb. 22. Robert’s Rules of Order give us about national rituals we have.

Flight was the adventure of the interwar years as developing technology briefly made aviation a competitive sport, in search of new speed and endurance records. None captured the popular imagination of the media so much as Charles Lindbergh’s nonstop solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927.

Competing for a prize of £25,000 which had claimed six lives in the previous year, 24-year-old Lindbergh took off in a Ryan monoplane he called “The Spirit of St Louis” from Roosevelt Field, Long Island on the morning of 20 May. Thirty-three and a half hours later he landed at Le Bourget, Paris.

Lindbergh’ s flight seemed to have an esthetic purity about it. Unlike his rivals, he flew alone. Although he had financial backing, his plane was built on a shoestring budget. It had no navigational system, and Lindbergh memorized his route. His exploits fed the hunger to discover new objects of attention, new sensations, new people. Christened “Lucky Lindy” and “The Flying Fool” by an already enthusiastic press before he took off, Lindbergh’s story’ sold a record number of newspapers.

As foreigners keep telling us, America has lacked many things. Yet no one can say that our people have been deficient in great memories. Without the symbols, heraldry, inherited titles, and traditions which Europeans exalt and revere, Americans have concentrated their affection on a few men. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “If the companions of our childhood should turn out to be heroes, and their condition regal, it would not surprise us.” He found public idols pivotal in American life, running out threads of relation through everything, fluid and solid, material and elemental. Because it answers an urgent need, hero worship is an integral part of American life.

We identify ourselves with greatness by means of a signature in an album, a lock of hair, a photograph, or a baseball that has scored a home run; we haunt stage doors and locker rooms; we pursue our favorites with candid cameras and sound recorders.

Next Page: The New York World’s Fair

The New York World’s Fair

The New York World's Fair

The pleasures of vacation touring were depicted with even more fulsome praise of the joys of the open road. Every section of the country invited the growing army of motorists to visit it. Chambers of commerce, resort proprietors, and oil companies united in publicizing the attractions of seashore and mountain.

New England was a summer vacation land, and Florida a popular winter resort. The national parks and forests, especially those of the West, drew hordes of visitors. In 1910 they had a few hundred thousand; the total in 1935 was thirty-four million. Almost all of them came by automobile. There was an overwhelming response to the slogan See America First as the new generation took to the road.

Streamlining spawned visions of the future, nowhere more so than at the Big Fair – the New York World’s Fair which opened in April 1939. International expositions had occured regularly since 1851 – the Eiffel Tower had been built for the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1899 – but “the People’s Fair” proclaimed itself “the rnightiest exposition ever conceived and built by man.”

Its director, Grover Whalen, declared that “By giving a clear and orderly interpretation of our own age, the fair will project the average man into the World of Tomorrow.” Its major exhibits were the work of America’s leading industrial designers – brilliant displays of their ideas of the rationally planned and re-ordered world of the near future.

Behind its façade of education and entertainment, the Fair was a gigantic advertisement for American industrial civilization and what was coming to be called the American Way of Life. Life magazine called it “A magnificent monument by and to American business”. But most of its 45 million visitors treated it as a amusement park.

There was an irony in the Fair’s vision of the future. A pavilion dedicated to “Goodwill and Peace” was planned but never built. The Fairs planners hoped that it would make a “forcible contribution to the cause of peace,” but this was little in evidence. Albania and Czechoslovakia flew their national flags at half mast to mark the invasion of their countries by Italy and Germany, and no-one collected the prize for an essay competition: a vacation in “gay, colorful Poland”.

In the late 1930’s the trailer made its appearance as still another boon for those with migratory instincts. The westerner whose forebears had crossed the prairies in a journey of several months trekked back over the old route, in a fraction of the time, with this twentieth-century equivalent of the covered wagon coupled to his car. The number of these vehicles increased rapidly; enthusiasts saw for them a future comparable to that of the automobile itself. In the bright dawn of trailer camping, about 1936, it was wildly stated that there would be a million of them on the road within a year and that a decade would see half the population on wheels. Such fantasies proved illusory; perhaps one hundred thousand passenger trailers, rather than a million, was the total later estimated by Trailer Travel.

Some seven hundred manufacturers had rushed into the field. Small machine-shops, bicycle manufacturers, out-of-work carpenters, hoped they had discovered the bootstrap to pull them out of the depression. But the boom faded away as annual production sought levels corresponding to the real demand. For, apart from the expense, new obstacles to further expansion sprang up in strict traffic regulations and bans on trailer parking. Municipalities did not take kindly to the home-on-wheels which could escape taxes and defy housing rules. Nevertheless in a more limited field the trailer provided a new means of touring which had wide appeal, becoming throughout the country a familiar symbol of the life of the highway. Trailer camps were established at the grounds of New York’s World Fair, at Florida winter resorts, in the national parks of the Far West.

In exhibits by General Motors and American Telegraph & Telephone, the Fair presented communications as central to its vision of the future, but the Fair’s managers decided not to broadcast any news of the war in Europe. In the Iate 1930s Allied govemments expected aerial warfare to cause massive devastation. Americans could only imagine the horrors of Total War, conjured up for them most vividly on Halloween 1938, in the panic caused by Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.

Next Page: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Disneyland

Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Disneyland

Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Disneyland

In the story of Mickey Mouse reality is denied and overcome in still another variation of the castration theme. Mickey’s solution is different and most original.

Mickey Mouse symbolizes the small, invincible, invulnerable, utterly victorious and triumphant, old and omnipotent child. He follows blindly, persistently, and trustingly the pleasure principle. Like Ferdinand, he enjoys no love affairs, and his body would be ill-adapted to such activities. With a man’s voice, he would embarrass us; with the eunuch’s voice, he is exceedingly funny and lovable. His smallness enables him to do the forbidden things we wished to do as children but were not allowed to.

We still want to do them, and Mickey Mouse gives us a chance to do them vicariously by identification, without guilt, and at reduced rates. Where we stopped in fear, where we knew the dreadful consequences, Mickey Mouse continues. Mickey succeeds neither by Ferdinand’s passivity nor by Superman’s dream of glory, but because of his small body’s magical omnipotence.

The Mickey Mouse films are the unfolding of a mechanized fairy tale. Like a happy child, Mickey is not intimidated by knowledge and experience. Reality has no power over him. His superiority guarantees him more than oldfashioned invulnerability and immortality. In an offhand way he also conquers the most powerful enemy mankind has today: the machine. With the help of magical tricks he forces the machine into submission to his almighty will. He humanizes all machines and makes them live; and he mechanizes all living beings, just as he himself seems to be a mechanized toy. His wish turns into absolute law.

The ancient Greeks and Romans did not know how to deal with the danger implied in the machine. They avoided the dilemma by inhibiting their technical skill. The ancients possessed enough scientific knowledge to have invented almost all modern machines, but they were too narcissistic to tolerate the replacement of body functions by dead machines. God created man, but not machines; therefore the man of antiquity had his eyes on man, not on machines. He despised them as unlike God, as unholy.

The Hellenic man preferred to be served by the living extension of his body in the form of slaves. He refused to use his vast technical knowledge to create a mechanical extension of his body. To improve and extend the range of his hearing, he did not invent the telephone but used the ears of his slaves. He used the machine in the theater in the form of the deus ex machina, and later, slowly and sparingly, he used machines in the technique of war.

Mickey Mouse shows us how to reduce the machine to the role of a servant instead of a god. He symbolizes a playful inversion of the machine age. As the child endows his animal friends with human features, so Mickey Mouse humanizes the machine and thus conquers it. In more romantic times, love conquered all. In the machine age, Mickey Mouse — the mechanized symbol of the little and victorious phallus — enjoys victory over everything. He continues where his pint-sized ancestors like Rumplestiltskin and Tom Thumb became outmoded. Mickey is the key to the gate of wisdom. He is the true deus ex machina of antiquity transposed into our times. Mickey Mouse fights the cruel machine and wins hands down. There is only victory, no more tragedy — and no more reality, either.

Next Page: Coca Cola: The Real Thing

Coca-Cola: The Real Thing

Coca-Cola: The Real Thing

Coca-Cola is an all-American product and its Classic Coca-Cola beverage recipe has withstood the tests of time, even shaking off efforts to make an improved “New Coke” formula. The American public wasn’t having any of it. “Classic is better” and “Keep the original” were cries that could be heard from across the country, as well as around the world.

In the vortex of the 20th century’s constant change it has been a source of reassurance to find a new points of stability, a few commodities not subject to the whims of fashion and planned obsolescence. The red and white Coca-Cola logo is instantly recognizable, a guarantee of standardization and an emblem of the American Way of Life, as potent as the Stars and Stripes itself.

Coca-Cola was Coca-Cola was definitely an American original and the most widely distributed mass-produced item in America when World War II began and the war provided an opportunity to spread the product into Europe and Asia. Its standardization of experience is both what we admire about its production, and what we occasionally dread about its effects.

When European conservatives inveighed against the incursions of crass American values into their ancient cultures, the Coca-Cola logo epitomized all that they resented, and for the young the very act of drinking Coke became a minor form of rebellion against stifling tradition.

Coke’s advertising tells us this carbonated syrup “Is It,” although we have not been told what “It” is. The formula is a long-held, well-guarded secret, and so it should be, because the foaming dark brown liquid is an elixir: Coke “Adds Life”. These famous artists from every era have created timeless Coke images of refreshment we know and love. Old Coca Cola prints from the National Geographic magazine featured timeless Coca Cola ads on their back covers 7 months of the year since the 1930’s. Things, whatever things are, “Go Better” with it.

They always did: a 1905 ad declared it to be “a delightful palatable healthful beverage. It relieves fatigue and is indispensable for business and professional men, students, wheelmen and athletes.”

Such claims might be disputed, but not for the drink’s supreme claim, the perfect ad-line for the perfect product, that Coca-Cola is “the Real Thing”. This is a triumph of the American corporation and advertising industry. If Coke is the Real Thing, what can we possibly call artificial or fake?

Next Page: The Royal Family and the Media