Wall Street woes were a Crash course for biz

<I>Variety</I> looks back at the 1929 market crash

If you thought the financial bubbles of 1987 and 2000 were a bummer for showbiz, they were nothing compared to the crash of 1929.

The paper’s arguably most famous headline — “Wall Street Lays an Egg” — was blazoned across the Oct. 30 issue that year. It was succinctly irreverent and colorful, a tone the 25-year-old paper was just beginning to practice.

The 2,000-word story that accompanied the headline was almost certainly put together over several days by a team of anonymous reporters who had apparently fanned out across the borough, down to Wall Street, into brokerages, onto street corners, into niteries, drug stores, luxury shops, emptied theaters, moviehouses and booking joints to convey the numbed shock that had beset the biz.

The piece is overwroughtand scattershot but fascinating as it offers a detailed cross-section of New Yorkers’ reactions to the unfolding fiscal fiasco. Few showbiz folks were quoted or mentioned by name but cumulative references to darkened legit houses, hushed board rooms, and a run on drugs and booze were eloquent.

“Many people of Broadway are known to have been wiped out.” The theater, one wag lamented, should be “enough of a gamble without its people venturing onto Wall Street.”

Even more dire, Variety pointed to “unverified but persistent rumors” of suicides, which it said were “suppressed from the papers for reasons of anti-panic policy.”

Among a number of vignettes, the paper zeroed in on an unnamed “vaudeville producer, elderly, who was found weeping like a child on the street having lost $75,000.”

In expectation of a merger between Warner and Paramount (how little some things change), employees and friends bought shares on margin: The drop in that stock was “paralyzing,” the paper said.

As for “dames” — Variety-speak at the time for fast women — the paper opined that “any number of girls will probably have to give up expensive apartments and revise their manner of living … even switching affections as indicated by phone calls to their ‘reserve list.’ ”

By the following week, Variety staffers had gathered more specifics of the devastation: Under the banner “Broadway Takes the Slap,” the follow-up coverage was even more heightened, the language at times poignant, at times border-line hysterical.

“Market cataclysm echoed in New York’s nite clubs, speaks & dives — Afterdark rounders limp, in dough & spirit.”

Among the scenes conjured:

  • At a classy nitery, women talked margin, collateral and ticker tape until the men grew “delirious,” asking a return to the chatter of normal times — gowns, shows, parties and Hollywood.

  • A suicide party was arranged by a producer at another club, though called off at the last minute when he learned his holdings weren’t completely gone.

  • One Jimmy Beatie, a popular and ubiquitous Broadway bookmaker, dropped dead at the Empire upon hearing the worst of the losses.

  • Eddie Cantor, George Jessel and Al Jolson apparently were among “the heavy plungers.”

In ensuing months, the paper would chronicle showbiz’s recovery, with the nascent film industry rebounding more quickly than the legit realm.

Still, Variety being about variety, there was plenty of other upbeat — or just offbeat — news on page 1 to lighten the readers’ load.

Seems that hostesses at Roseland — the ones who got paid by the dance — do better, per a Variety exclusive, if they’re “conversationalists” rather than just “sexy dumbos.”

Opined an undoubtedly male reporter of that storied midtown ballroom: “The conversationalists can wisecrack with the flippant, sympathize with the lonely and know how to salt the fresh boys and make them like it.”

As for the talkies, Variety reported that week that romancers like John Gilbert were “getting the bird rather than the heartbeat” from moviegoers because their onscreen kisses came across as ludicrously loud and unnatural.

Finally, Variety‘s Cairo correspondent “cabled” that a cinema had finally been wired in Alexandria, Egypt, Cleopatra’s hometown.

Quipped the paper, “Only Sodom and Gomorrah remain to be heard from.”

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