The Circus Comes to Town

If you lived in small town America in the 20th century, it was a big deal when the circus came to town with its entourage of clowns, acrobats and exotic animals from distant lands.

April 19, 1930 cover by Gardner Rea.

Even New Yorkers, it seems — who could be quite blasé about such things — got a thrill when the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus rolled into town for its annual spectacle at Madison Square Garden. The New Yorker marked the occasion with its April 12 cover by Theodore Haupt:

For the April 19 issue, E.B. White welcomed the circus on a cautionary note, airing concerns in his “Notes and Comment” column that this old-timey entertainment might be falling under the “base influences” of broadcast radio, Broadway, and Hollywood:

SEND IN THE…YOU KNOW…THOSE GUYS…Top, clowns in town for the 1931 Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden. Below, circus poster announcing the arrival of “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  (potterauctions.com)

José Schorr, who wrote a number of humorous columns in the New Yorker from 1926 to 1930 on the subject of “how to the pass the time” in various situations, offered this advice on attending the spectacle at Madison Square Garden…

I’D RATHER BE FLYING…1930 poster advertising “The Human Projectile”; 1931 photo of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden. (worthpoint.com/bidsquare.com)

…for example, Schorr advised circus-goers to pass the time by considering the inner lives of performers such as “The Human Projectile”…

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Funny Farm

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Joe Cook (1890-1950), but in the 1920s and 30s he was a household name and one of America’s most popular comedic performers. “Talk of the Town” looked in on his antics at his Lake Hopatcong farm, “Sleepless Hollow”…

BATTER UP…Comedian Joe Cook’s residence at Lake Hopatcong, NJ, was known for its celebrity-studded parties. At left, Babe Ruth takes a swing with a giant bat on Cook’s wacky three-hole golf course; at right, Cook relaxing on the steps of his farm. (lakehopatcongnews.com)

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Fun With Balloon Animals

One thing that distinguishes the 1930s from today is that era’s apparent lack of safety standards, or fear of liability. A case in point was Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which began a tradition in the late 1920s of releasing its giant balloons into the sky at the conclusion of the parade — a $50 reward was offered by Macy’s for their return. “The Talk of the Town” explained:

GOING, GOING, GONE…When Felix the Cat (left, in 1927) was released after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, it floated into a power line and caught fire; in 1931 the parade’s Big Blue Hippo (right) was apparently spotted floating over the ocean, never to be seen again. (Macy’s/hatchingcatnyc.com)

Perhaps the craziest anecdote attached to the parade’s annual balloon release belonged to Annette Gipson. While flying a biplane at 5,000 feet with her instructor, she spotted the parade’s 60-foot “Tom Cat” balloon rising high above Queens. Looking to have a bit of fun, the 22-year-old Gipson flew the plane directly into the cat. According to the book Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, “Upon impact, the balloon wrapped itself around the left wing. The plane went into a deep tailspin (nearly throwing Gipson from the cockpit) and sped toward the ground out of control.” Fearing the plane would catch fire when it hit the ground, the instructor killed the ignition, and somehow managed to pull the plane out of the spin and land it safely at Roosevelt Field.

KITTY LITTER…Annette Gipson, right, nearly killed herself and her flight instructor after she deliberately crashed her biplane into a Tom Cat balloon (left) that had been released following the 1932 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Of her near-death experience,Gipson told reporters, “It was a sensation that I never felt before—the whirling housetops, rushing up to meet me—and the thoughts of a whole lifetime flashed through my mind.” (ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

A footnote: Following Gipson’s brush with death, Macy’s announced it would not give prize money to those who tried to down the balloons with their airplanes. The incident also brought an end to the company’s tradition of releasing the balloons.

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Birth of the Soundtrack

Songs from popular theater productions were first made available to the masses in the mid-19th century via printed sheet music and later through early recordings. Part of this lineage is the movie soundtrack, which has its origins in the early days of sound pictures. According to the New Yorker’s “Popular Records” column, these new recordings would bring the talkies into your home, albeit without the picture…

FROM MAMMY TO MAMMA MIA…Left, a 1930 Brunswick 78 RPM recording of Al Jolson’s “To My Mammy”; at right, soundtrack from the 2008 film Mamma Mia! (popsike.com/amazon.com)

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Cosmo Calvin

Before Helen Gurley Brown came along in the 1960s and sexed it up, Cosmopolitan was known as a somewhat bland literary magazine, and it was certainly bland enough in 1930 to welcome the scribblings of America’s blandest president to its pages. E.B. White mused in his “Notes”…

NOTHING COMES BETWEEN ME AND MY CALVIN…At left, the May 1930 issue of Cosmopolitan; Kourtney Kardashian on the cover of the October 2016 issue. (Pinterest/Cosmopolitan)

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How Dry I Am

After a decade of living under Prohibition, John Ogden Whedon (1905-1991) put pen to paper and shared his sentiments in a poem for the New Yorker

…Whedon would go on to a successful career as a screenwriter, especially finding acclaim for his television writing on The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show, among others. He was also the grandfather of screenwriter and director Joseph “Joss” Whedon and screenwriters Jed Whedon and Zack Whedon.

Another poem in the April 19 issue was contributed by John Held Jr., who was perhaps better known to New Yorker readers for his “woodcut” cartoons…

…example of Held’s work from the April 12 issue, featured in an Old Gold advertisement…

…and that provides a segue into our ads for the April 19 issue, beginning with this spot for an early electric dishwasher…

Here’s what that bad boy looks like in color. (automaticwasher.org)

…I couldn’t find a review in the New Yorker for Emily Hahn’s new book, Seductio Ad Absurdum, but her publisher did take out an ad to get the attention of readers. Many years later the New Yorker would call the journalist and author “a forgotten American literary treasure”…

Emily Hahn circa 1930; first edition of Seductio Ad Absurdum. Author of 52 books, her writings played a significant role in opening up Asia to the West.(shanghaitours.canalblog.com/swansfinebooks.com)

…and here we have another sumptuous ad from illustrator Carl “Eric” Erickson, a far cry from the “Joe Camel” ads that would come along decades later…

…on to our cartoons, Reginald Marsh offered a blue collar perspective on city fashions…

Alice Harvey captured a moment of reflection by an overworked housewife…

…and I. Klein looked in on a couple of working stiffs in need of a dictionary…

…now over to the posh set, with Barbara Shermund

Leonard Dove found humor on the chorus line…

…and we end with this terrific cartoon by Peter Arno, and the perils of apartment life…

Next Time: Paramount on Parade…

 

 

 

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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