Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dancing Girls - Part Three

This faded neon sign on South Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles holds a story we're trying to uncover. The building was once the headquarters of a leading civic organization. But by October of 1932, it was a gambling den, and by June of 1935 it had been raided by the cops three times for violations of liquor laws.

Manager George Distel - a man with a long record of running shady nightclubs - revamped the club, using the name of a club he'd previously operated. A tall vertical neon sign on the front of the building displayed its name - The Forty One Club.

George was trying to go legit. He advertised local celebrities as "guests of honor" in the Los Angeles Times "News of the Cafes" column. In the spring of 1936, the Forty-One Club held a "Hawaiian Festival" to celebrate Distel's partner, noted restaurateur Tommy Jacobs. The club was decorated in a South Seas theme, leis and party favors were given to guests, and two orchestras played for the floor show, which featured what the L.A. Times called "a cast of forty artists with the feminine element predominating."
While all this nightclubbing was going on upstairs, another trend was taking place downstairs.

Downstairs, the building's tenants reflected the growth of Los Angeles' fashion industry. Gone were the civic associations like the Municipal League. By 1939, the second floor's tenant list reads like a union hall. There were the Cloak and Dress Designer's Union, the Journeyman Tailors Union, and the powerful Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. This last union represented men's clothing and textile workers.

Los Angeles garment workers, around 1928. Click to enlarge. USC Digital Archive

In 1942, the Cleaners and Dyers Union Local #268, the Laundry Workers' Union Local #357, and the Busheler's Local #297 had headquarters in the building, as well as a Joint Council of the CIO.

Clothing industry tenants lived side-by-side with the unions, including Morrie's Button & Novelty Company, the Daniel Ostro Company, which dealt in beads, and the Lady Marlene Brassiere Company. The ground floor, which had once been occupied by a business loan firm, was empty for several years.

The building, like downtown in general, reflected a class and status change. Gone were the top-hatted bankers and financiers - except for right around City Hall.

Most of downtown was now the place frequented by laborers, workers and immigrants. In addition to the Mexican-American community, there was a large Japanese immigrant community in Los Angeles. Japanese owned groceries and restaurants; they also dominated jobs like hotel doormen.

Japanese and Filipino men working in a restaurant circa 1936, Los Angeles Public Library photo

Many young immigrant men in Los Angeles were from the Philippines - single and young, they had come to make their fortunes. Men worked as domestic servants, houseboys and chauffeurs, janitors and cleaners, and waited until they had earned enough money to marry women from home. They tended to live together in group houses and apartments, supporting one another between jobs.

Hill Street had the first run movie houses, like the Paramount and the Warner. Broadway had the second-run houses - they were still magnificent palaces, like the Los Angeles and the United Artists Theatre. Spanish language movies played in some of the theatres. Often drunks and homeless kids spent their days and nights in continuous run movie houses, sleeping or staying out of the weather.

Tempest Storm onstage

Main Street was known for its burlesque houses and beer halls. Stars like Lily St. Cyr and Tempest Storm played the Burbank and the Follies. The shows were continuous, all day long. The show started with chorus girls, moved on to comedians doing slapstick routines, and closed with a strip show. Shows later in the evening might be a little more risque - or the house, tipped off that a raid was imminent, would signal dancers with lighting signals that cops were in the audience.

Main Street between First and Sixth was also a notorious gay cruising area, with young boys and men loitering to attract men from the suburbs. Often the boys were part of gangs, and would beat and rob the men they encountered.

Downtown, like today, there were many homeless people - called in those days bums, tramps, and hobos. Flop houses and missions fed the down and out and gave people places to sleep.

Photo, Los Angeles Public Library

It was the depression. People were trying to survive. People from rural cities, from the Dust Bowl blasted midwest, from shuttered factories back east all came to L.A. to make a new start. Some of them ended up in the flop houses. Some ended up in jail.

In John Fante's novel "Ask the Dust," he wrote about his hero Arturo Bandini's walks through the streets of downtown:
"Down on Spring Street, in a bar across the street from the second hand store. With my last nickel I went there for a cup of coffee. An old style place, sawdust on the floor, crudely drawn nudes smeared across the walls. It was a saloon where old men gathered, where the beer was cheap and smelled sour, where the past remained unaltered."
Bandini was young, lonely, alienated and looking for love. On those streets, I'm willing to bet he wasn't the only one.

833 South Spring Street became one of the places folks went to, seeking that elusive sense of romance and affection.

833 South Spring Street in 1939

In late 1938, a taxi-dance hall called the Roseland Roof began operating on the fourth floor.

I'll tell you all about it, in Dancing Girls, Part Four.

I want to thank two blogs where I found information about George Distel, the 833 Club and The 41 Club: The Gogos Notebook and Hollywood Gastronomical Haunts.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Great story-telling, g.

JCK said...

I really hope you write a book someday. You have such a love of Los Angeles. And these stories are so rich.

Loved the photo of Tempest Storm!

Beverly said...

Glennis, I have been up past my eyeballs with work and getting ready for our yard sale.

But, I have to take time to tell you have much I have enjoyed this series. You have informed me and entertained me well.

Gary's third pottery blog said...

Tempest Storm was something eh?

Queenly Things said...

I can't wait for the next installment.

Tristan Robin said...


it even gives me cap lock disease

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Anonymous said...

how many time i do not do what i want to do but do what i dont want to do

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the excellent posts