Friday, September 11, 2009

Dancing Girls, Part Four

We're exploring the history of an intriguing building in downtown Los Angeles. This is Part Four of its story.

Sign at the alley behind 833 South Spring Street, Los Angeles

In 1930 Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart wrote a song for showman Flo Ziegfeld's revue called "Ten Cents a Dance" -
I work at the Palace Ballroom,
but, gee that Palace is cheap;
when I get back to my chilly hall room
I'm much too tired to sleep.
I'm one of those lady teachers,
a beautiful hostess, you know,
the kind the Palace features
for only a dime a throw.

Ten cents a dance
that's what they pay me,
gosh, how they weigh me down!
Ten cents a dance
pansies and rough guys
tough guys who tear my gown!
Seven to midnight I hear drums.
Loudly the saxophone blows.
Trumpets are tearing my eardrums.
Customers crush my toes.
Sometime I think
I've found my hero,
but it's a queer romance.
All that you need is a ticket
Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance.

Fighters and sailors and bowlegged tailors
can pay for their ticket and rent me!
Butchers and barbers and rats from the harbors
are sweethearts my good luck has send me.
Though I've a chorus of elderly beaux ,
stockings are porous with hole at the toes.
I'm here till closing time.
Dance and be merry, it's only a dime.

Sometime I think
I've found my hero,
but it's a queer romance.
All that you need is a ticket
Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance.
Sometime in 1938, the elegant dining room on the fourth floor of 833 South Spring Street became a taxi-dancehall called The Roseland Roof.

The reformers who had won Prohibition in 1921 had also succeeded in closing down bordellos and brothels in American cities. At the same time, the jazz age gave rise to dance fads like the Charleston and fox trot. Young people went to dance academies to learn the new steps. But some dance academies began noticing a certain clientele - male customers who seemed less interested in dancing than they were in maintaining close physical contact with their female instructors. Soon, "dance academies" for men opened. You could buy a ticket for a "lesson" - for the duration of one song, costing ten cents.

It was called taxi-dancing - like hiring a cab, a customer paid the dancer by the amount of time he spent with her.

The idea swept American cities, including Los Angeles, and it was so popular they even made a movie starring Joan Crawford as a taxi-dancer.

According to Paul Cressey, a Chicago sociologist who wrote a 1932 study about taxi-dancers, many of the women who worked as taxi-dancers saw the job as an opportunity. They had left small towns or homes where they had no future. In the rootless anonymity of big cities, they could temporarily "make a buck" and then move on, whether to another city, back home, or to a new relationship.

The trend was big in Los Angeles, particularly because Los Angeles had a large population of transient men who lacked for female companionship, matching the number of transient women. The City Directory for 1929 lists over twenty dance studios or academies, among them the Cinderella Roof, the Hollywood Rose Ballroom, Dreamland Dance Palace, the Four Oh One Ballroom, the Chateau Ballroom and the Lonesome Club Ballroom.

One club was the Rose Room Dance Academy, which was on the second floor of an older building at 755 South Spring Street, on the corner of 7th and Spring. It was run by William Lederer. His son Henry worked as cashier. There was a soda fountain on the first floor.

It's not clear why the Forty-One Club left the old City Club Building at 833 South Spring in 1938, but it could have had something to do with the decline of the neighborhood. Manager George Distel and his partners were targeting a glamorous show-business audience, and in 1938 opened another club by the same name in Hollywood.

Shortly afterwards, William Lederer opened a taxi-dance club called the Roseland Roof where the Forty-One Club had been. It was on the fourth floor, in the elegant dining room where, formerly, clubmen had listened to lectures by civic leaders on issues of the time. In fall of 1938, modest ads began running in the classified sections, under the header Dancing Instruction, advertising "dance instruction" at the Roseland Roof.

Photo, Los Angeles Public Library 1939

The vertical neon sign running up the side of the building read: "Roseland."

Newspapers of the time are full of stories about taxi-dancing. There were features on elegant dancehalls in midtown Manhattan, where orchestras played and the dancers wore evening gowns. Interviews with taxi-dancers were run where the girls proclaimed that dancing for money was more fun than working a factory or waitressing job, and glamorous as well. In other stories, plucky girl reporters went undercover as dancers to expose the real story.

But in Los Angeles, it wasn't all that glamorous. A 1936 master's thesis written by a USC scholar described how it worked. The halls were open from 7:30 to 1:00 a.m. Some halls charged for admission, but often had an early discount. Tickets were ten cents for a 90 second song. The dancer split the ticket with the house. Dancers made more money the more tickets they collected and some danced in a style known as "continental" or the "shimmie" to encourage customers.

Some houses sold soft drinks, and the patron was expected to buy drinks for dancers, who got a forty percent cut. The soda-bar area were furnished with booths where "ardent demonstrations of affection were indulged in."

A 1929 newspaper expose brought police regulation of the halls, and the LAPD had three officers - two male, one female - on dance-hall detail. Their charge, according to the thesis was "to build up the morale of the girls employed as dancers and protect them from exploitation." Dancers had to register with LAPD, with name, address and a photo on file. They had to be 21 or older, with no criminal record. In 1936, there were over three hundred dancers on the list. A typical week's earning for a dancer was about sixteen dollars.

The lonely men who visited the halls came for many reasons. For most of them, conventional ways of making friends were unavailable. Some were old, some unattractive, some were unable to meet women socially. Some were in town for a short time, seeking temporary companionship. Some were interested in dancing and recreation, while others sought physical activity of another kind. Some were too shy to woo a woman, and felt more comfortable in a relationship of commerce.

Women could exploit this need for money. Yet there was an inherent conflict. To entice a customer, a dancer had to pretend to like him, but to make the most money each night, she should have as many customers as possible, instead of favoring just one.

The immigrant population was predominantly male. These guys, as much as Americans, were drawn to modern fads, but could not find women who spoke their language to share it with. So they had to have some place to go. Some dance-halls were ethnically or racially segregated, and targeted for police shakedowns - particularly Filipino dance halls, where the men were stereotyped as hot-tempered customers, prone to fighting over women, and quick with knives and weapons. Filipino men were also considered great dancers, and a few dance-hall romances ended in marriage between customer and dancer.

In "Ask the Dust," by Los Angeles novelist John Fante, his hero Arturo Bandini visits a taxi-dance hall:
"At Sixth I turned the corner and walked down to Main. I wandered through the crowds of seedy, hungry derelicts without destination. At Second I stopped before a Filipino taxi-dancehall. The literature on the walls spoke eloquently of forty beautiful girls and the dreamy music of Lonny Killula and his melodic Hawaiians. I climbed one flight of echoing stairs to a booth and bought a ticket. Inside were forty women, lined against the opposite wall, sleek in tight evening dresses, most of them blondes. Nobody was dancing, not a soul. On the platform the five-piece orchestra banged out a tune with fury. A few customers like myself stood behind a short wicker fence, opposite the girls. They beckoned to us. I surveyed the group, found a blonde whose gown I liked, and bought a few dance tickets. Then I waved at the blonde. She fell into my arms like an old lover and we beat the oak for two dances."
In his study, sociologist Cressey sums up the alienating effect of the urban environment with its anonymity and loneliness on natural human feelings of affection, romance, and sexual attraction:
"The impersonal attitudes of the marketplace very soon supercede the romantic impulses which normally might develop. ....Romantic behavior along with other less desirable means of stimulation, becomes merely another acceptable method for the commercial exploitation of men...."

The Roseland Roof, in the old City Club building, was pretty much like any other dance hall of its time, but in 1943 it would make the headlines with a sensational crime story of murder, treachery, and a daring jailbreak.

Stay tuned for - Dancing Girls, Part Five


KathyR said...

This is awesome! Looking forward to the next installment.

Tristan Robin said...

fascinating - I have to read more about these establishments!

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

This reads like history plus a mystery, g.

Keep up the fine writing!

cactus petunia said...

You're a fabulous historian! Can't wait for the next installment!

Christine Fletcher said...

Wonderful post! You've done an amazing amount of research. One of my great-aunts was a taxi-dancer in New York in the '30s. I was so intrigued by her story, I began researching taxi dancers--and ended up setting my 2nd novel in a taxi dance hall in 1941 Chicago. One of my sources was an ex-dancer who wrote her PhD thesis on the industry.

Interestingly, I found that LA is one of the few cities where taxi dancing still survives.

I'm looking forward to reading more about the Roseland Roof!

Mary Beth said...

My Husband's Godfather was a Manong who arrived in 1926. He had many stories of dancing with beautiful women. Thank you for a glimpse into these girl's lives.

Anonymous said...

I was a "hostess" at Dreamland in 1992. Work there for 20 days to make christmas cash.