Researching the first 100 years of showbiz history through the pages of Variety has been engrossing.
Variety‘s take on an issue was often wise, wittily expressed and wonderfully colorful. At other times the paper’s reportage was waffling or long-winded. Sometimes it was all of those things — on the same page — with issues crammed full of stories in painfully small type. Leafing through the old tomes was also full of unexpected pleasures. That’s because, like surfing on the Internet today, the paper was chock-a-block with endless diversions. Each search through a particular issue conjured up long-forgotten faces, facts, oddities or insights about the biz.
Unlike today’s editor-driven paper, where news logic dictates the layout and positioning of stories on each page, there was little overarching design to the earlier papers. It was simply assumed that readers had more time to peruse the paper than they do today.
The paper itself, however, was not put together in a leisurely manner: Reporters submitted stories on deadline, they got a once-over, and then they were pasted up out on Long Island, where the paper was printed back then.
Thus, stories that turned out to be of great import were sometimes relegated to the back pages, consigned to tiny boxes or completely ignored. (The converse was true, too: Writers were sometimes allowed to wax on about events or people that, at least from a modern-day perspective, seem far less important.)
Take the news in 1926 that the first radio network was being cobbled together. Such an historic development would today merit the entire front page of the paper, with accompanying photos, charts, sidebars and editors’ columns devoted to the subject. Back then, during that week of Nov. 10, 1926, the radio story did lead the paper, but there were a dozen other pieces of varying import on page one vying for attention.
Said the main story:
“Radio’s present-day progress is so momentous that each new advancement merits stressing, but the biggest step so far will occur Jan. 1 when the merged WJZ-WEAF national hookup of stations will assume genuine showmanly proportions.”
The story went on to talk about the growing importance of “names” like Eddie Cantor or Al Jolson and how their fortunes, and that of the “network,” would change once their reach became extensive.
The article provided the first glimpse of broadcasting’s future. Indeed, the structure of that radio tie-up would become the prototype for TV networks 25 years later.
But there were also plenty of other items to grab readers’ attention that week. Tidbits sprinkled across the front page included news on New Orleans’ 176-year-old Absinthe House (where pirate Jean Lafitte drank) being padlocked by a judge; N.Y. mayor Jimmy Walker becoming an Elk; and revue beauty Kathryn Ray suffering injuries at the hands of fellow star Georgie Price.
Three other front-page stories dealt, in various ways, with one of the most enduring debates in showbiz: the battle over what people ought and ought not to be allowed to see or hear as entertainment.
The indecency question has been a mainstay of the paper for 100 years, with the attitude of editors generally being more bemused than censorious.
In one item, the police censor in San Francisco, one Peter Peshon, “dropped around to the Wilkes to get a load of ‘Creoles,’ ” a new play by Richard Bennett.
“It just naturally slaps me in the face. Sure, I enjoyed the show personally, but I’m a cop,” Peshon was quoted as saying before shutting it down.
Another piece talked about the rejection by “country folk” of so-called “dirt plays.” Said Variety: “Stock managers claim that the risque stuff won’t go because family groups won’t bring in the youngsters to see them and church and civic authorities raise a hullabaloo.”
And in a curious piece about the church’s ongoing agitation against entertainment performances on Sundays, an enterprising congregation in Minneapolis ran an ad for its Sunday “performance” touting a sermon called “Dangerous Girls.”
The theater folks in that town, concerned that the pulpit pitch could draw business away from their houses, were not amused by the gesture.
But Variety was.