Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Dancing Girls - Part Seven

Glamor photo of a dancer

As I researched taxi-dancehalls, I read a lot of newspaper stories, from the 1920s until recently. There were stories denouncing the immorality and scandal of the halls. There were puff-pieces that made them sound glamorous. There were many first-person narratives, where either a male reporter posed as a customer, or a plucky female reporter posed as a dancer looking for work.

In almost every article, there's a sameness that runs through them all. Dancers and workers are profiled, and for every troubled girl we meet, we're also given an example of a hard working girl, sometimes married with kids, just trying to make ends meet. The customers are profiled too, from the lonely to the lech. Owners are interviewed, and invariably defend the service they provide the community. Cops and vice squad officers are quoted, assuring us that this isn't prostitution, even while voicing doubts about the wholesomeness of the enterprise.

The most recent article about taxi-dancing that mentions the Roseland Roof is by Evan Wright, writing for the Los Angeles Weekly in January of 1999. He describes the club:
"The sign outside the Fenton Building on Spring Street is original, a two-story neon ribbon hanging on the north corner. It flashes "DANCING" in white, then blinks to red letters that spell "GIRLS." The club itself is reached through an interminable ride on a freight elevator. Inside Dreamland, the stage where swing bands once played has been plastered over, as have the cathedral windows, in order to create flat, even walls, uniformly painted matte black."
It's not that different from a description of a Chicago dance hall written by a reporter who went undercover as a dancer in 1929:
"This dance hall is high up in an old building. You step into a dingy hall, then into a wobbly elevator and rise, jerkily, to the fifth floor. Then you get out and walk the rest of the way, up through dark halls and stairways....we [girls] wandered out and skirted the dance floor under the critical gaze of the...patrons most of whom had shed their coats and neckties prepared for a hard night's dancing."
Or one in a 1931 syndicated column by James Aswell about a club in Manhattan on Fourteenth Street:
"One flight up, put your dollar-ten through the cashier's wicket and a thin-chested bouncer will open the door to - well what is it? Romance? Iniquity? A broad, low-ceilinged room reminiscent of Woodmen of the World lodge rooms decorated for the Saturday night dance....Nine [musicians] syncopate lazily in a bower of faded paper flowers. The girls stand in pairs and little groups around the dance floor entrance, giggling, eyeing you with a half-hostile hope..."
Dancing was a way for young women to make money on their own. "Money rules, my friend," says a customer interviewed by Wright in 1999.

Supporting her family in the Depression was the motivation of Jeanne de Al Moreau, author of a first-person "Confessions of a Taxi Dancer" in 1931. In 1969, a Times reporter talks to a girl who helps her family through a financial crisis, even though she conceals what she's doing. Some dancers set temporary financial goals. Rhonda in 1981 dances to pay off her car. In 1990, a club owner says, "Some of the girls are new in town and trying to earn enough to go home." In 1931 a syndicated columnist James Aswell interviewed a sixteen year old dancer who swore she's only going to work four weeks more to pay off a family bill, "and no longer. I'm not really a dance hall girl," she says.

The girls were supposed to aggressively go after the money. "You ain't very ambitious, sister," says a bouncer to Winifred Mulcahey, a reporter for Chicago's Southtown Economist in 1929. "Whyn't you get up and stand in the line of girls? That's where you get the business. If you ain't careful you won't make carfare tonight."

Some girls like the power they have over customers, like the heroine of this story, drawn by comic artist James Kirby in 1954 - in a room with windows that look remarkably like the arched windows at the Roseland Roof. Or like Priscilla, who in 1999 says "If I don't like a guy I can clock him out, I don't have to talk to a guy if I don't want to. I used to cocktail at a shithole in Venice - you think a waitress can decide not to serve a table because she doesn't like the customer?"

Taxi-dancing, later called "hostess dancing" presents a strange set of problems for those who decided to go into the trade. Unlike stripping and burlesque work, they don't have to disrobe. Nudity is illegal in these clubs. But also unlike stripping and burlesque work, they have to engage in close physical contact with their customers - and sometimes emotional contact. It's the whole point of the transaction.

The boundaries are blurred. Where do you draw the line between an embrace on the dance floor and sexual contact? Where do you draw the line between companionship, feigned romance, and "falling in love"? In every interview I've read, dancers walked this tightrope with every customer.

Women deal with the degradation of being sexual objects, yet feel the pain of rejection if they aren't chosen, aren't given tips.

"The first week was hard," says Eileen, interviewed in 1969. "You have to adjust to it, mentally....This can be a problem, keeping yourself untangled."

"One of the main things," says Kay in 1969 "is to be emotionally stable so if someone insults you you don't shatter."

Many girls have drug habits, many have a history of childhood or domestic abuse. There is a sense of self-loathing at selling one's own affections, as one Chicago girl in 1930 testified, where she was forced to demonstrate she could dance "their way" for the manager before being hired. Even the plucky girl reporter who pretends to be a dancer can't bring herself to dance with a leering ugly customer, even though, as she says, it would have been "good copy."

Yet many girls feel sympathetic to their customers, like Teresa, in 1981,who says "You play psychiatrist here. I adapt myself to each new customer. It's very important to occupy their minds, so I've become a very good storyteller." Tanya, quote in a 1990 story, says she has many repeat customers because they know she's a good listener.

The fifth floor gable window at 833 South Spring Street

Interviewed in 1999, Ed Fenton says "The customer was lonely, that's the word. The club brought in lonely people. They came here to meet with girls and carry on a secret romance." When the reporter asked if he meant the men had affairs with the girls, Fenton looked annoyed at being misunderstood. "No. I didn't say that. The customer lived in a fantasy."

Maybe the customer did. But I don't think the girls do.

Paintings on a concrete wall, interior, fifth floor 833 South Spring Street

True confession time -

In my senior year of college, I needed a job, and saw an ad in the local newspaper for cocktail waitresses and "hostesses." I was still under 21, so I couldn't serve drinks, but hostesses could work at 18. I went to the club, interviewed, and was told to report the following night at 7 p.m.

It was probably not the right line of work for me to begin with. I worked backstage in the theatre, didn't really wear make-up, and I wasn't very good at flirting. But I needed a job, so I thought I could do it. I rode my bike down to the club, a short nylon mini-dress in my backpack, and changed in the girls' dressing room.

I sat at the bar and talked with men who bought me a drink called an "Orange Blossom" - orange juice and club soda. I danced a couple of dances, but I was not good at it, and it felt uncomfortable. In the four hours I spent there, I sat with perhaps three or four men. But a peculiar emotion took hold of me. I realized that if I liked the man I was talking to, I felt guilty at deceiving him into spending $6 on a plastic cup of orange juice. But if I didn't like him, the distaste I felt being in his company overwhelmed any sense of triumph at taking his money. At the end of the shift, I went into the manager's office and quit.

I am surprised today that he even bothered to ask why. But he did, and I told him about my objection to falsifying affection for money. He sighed, shrugged, and gave me a world-weary look. "Well, honey," he said, "you just don't know much about life."

I know now from my reading that it's not at all unusual for girls to quit after one night - even in the old days of the taxi-dancehall. And the reason I gave was probably well-known to him. But at the time I remember feeling righteously indignant as I changed back into my bluejeans and wheeled my bike out into the alley. How dare he speak to me that way! What did he know! After all, I was in college - I was educated.

But as I rode through the night-time streets of the Near North End Columbus back to campus, it gradually dawned on me that he was probably right - even though I rejected his view of "life" - I was the naive one. I had no idea what went on in that club, but I knew I'd done the right thing to quit.

After Evan Wright's article appeared in the L.A. Weekly, a former dancer wrote a letter to the editor. In it she says:

"When I actually became a taxi-dancer, the price I paid for each ride was much higher. Far beyond the tip and a pat on the ass at the pay counter, the emotional meter kept running long after the money exchanged sweaty hands."

This work, she wrote ".... makes human worth a commodity and gives approval a dollar value."

The newspaper articles quoted in this post are available online but some are access limited. Go to the links for available articles, or go to Access Newspaper Archive. Los Angeles Times Archive articles are availabe at a cost. If you'd like a pdf of an article listed below, email me. Articles quoted for this post:

Aswell, Jimmy, Syndicated columns 1930-1940, Access Newspaper Archive

Booe, Martin, 1990, "Taxi-Dancers - It's No Longer Ten Cents a Dance, But Lonely Men Can Still Hire Partners in Dim Downtown Clubs" - Los Angeles Times (July 15)

Joice, Jackie M, 2001, "Taxi Clubs" - Authorsden.com (December 6)

McCoy, Kathleen, 1981, "World of Taxi-Dancing - No more Dime a Dance Girls" - Los Angeles Times (June 7)

Moreau, Jeanne de Al, 1931, "Confessions of a Taxi Dancer" - Los Angeles Times (August 2)

Mulcahey, Winifred, 1929, "Girl Stunt Reporters Find Taxi Dancers Have Tough Job" - Southtown Economist, Chicago, Illinois (August 30)

Osper, Carrie, 1999, Letter to the Editor - Dirty Old Men - Los Angeles Weekly (February 18)

Townsend, Dorothy, 1969, "10 Cents a Dance? Not Any More - It's $9 an Hour!" - Los Angeles Times (November 24)

Wright, Evan, 1999, "Dance With a Stranger - Falling in love at 40 cents a minute" -Los Angeles Weekly (January 28)

We go inside the building, and see what it's like today, in Dancing Girls - Part Eight.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

"Well, honey," he said, "you just don't know much about life."

I can relate to that. It seems the older I get, the more I find that I don't know much about life.

Was your (brief) hostess job at this club, g?

Glennis said...

No - no, thunder. It was in Columbus Ohio. Funny thing, that. The owner was a guy from Kentucky, named Larry Flynt.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Columbus, Ohio!?

That's where I'm late for work right now, due to wasting too much time on the innert00bz.

Unknown said...

This was facinating. I must read all the articles. I didn't even know that this sort of thing existed until I read it here.

Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying your blog. Good history can make me like a place and I've been in LA for years and it's hard to find.
Did you go to OSU?

shrink on the couch said...

I disagree with your manager. You knew plenty about life.

I have worked with exotic dancers and the children of exotic dancers. It's a job with a lot of flexibility (show up when you need the money) and more pay than an uneducated woman can make just about anywhere else, short of bonified prostitution. (I can't actually think of a job that pays so well on a come-as-you-need-to basis).

And most hated it, felt tremendous anxiety and self-loaathing prior to going out on the floor, only did it for the money, and yes, a lot of drug abuse is involved. It's pretty sad. The juxtaposition between the glam image and the reality.

Christine Fletcher said...

This is what I find so fascinating about taxi dancing...the fact that some men were willing to pay, not for sex, but for the illusion of romance. And the toll it ends up taking on the dancer. You've captured all that perfectly in this post. Marvelous research and another wonderful article--thank you!

(And, wow -- Larry Flynt?)

Anonymous said...

i was a "dance hostess" in the late 90s at "dreamland" in downtown los angeles. that place was totally haunted!!!!! i've got a pocketful of interesting (and trashy) memories... and no regrets! :)