Big Bands—Big Business

My father was in charge of the fountain room and dance hall box office of Half-A-Hill, my parents’ restaurant and nightclub near Springfield, Missouri, from 1920 to 1939. He also bought all the supplies needed for this business. During the Depression years, to chase away the blues, briefly, and when people could afford it, they could have a complete fried chicken dinner and stay for Saturday night dancing at Half-A-Hill for less than four dollars per person. We had a house band that played every weekend for a few years before a new band took over. Sometimes my father booked a novelty band like Chief Wah-Wee-Otten’s whose musicians were garbed like warriors; the leader wore a full-length chief’s war bonnet. I met him after a daytime rehearsal. I remember how friendly he was to me and how he even gave me a souvenir ring with a chief’s picture on it.

This was the era of Big Bands like Paul Whiteman, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. My father was normally a cautious man, but he must have had a streak of the gambler in him. Periodically he contacted a major booking agency in Chicago and invested in a one-night appearance of a nationally famous big band at the Shrine Mosque Auditorium in Springfield. The auditorium had a much bigger dance floor than ours at Half-A- Hill, and many more seats for on-lookers and dancers taking a break.

To assure a big crowd and advance ticket sales, my father had colorful cardboard posters printed to tack onto telephone poles in a number of the small towns surrounding Springfield—like Willard, Stafford and Aurora. Occasionally I accompanied him. I still remember the summertime smells of creosote-soaked pine and sometimes the resin fragrance of sap oozing from the poles.

At last, the night of a big band arrived. Before each band began its theme song as the velvet stage curtains parted, my folks did a brisk, profitable business in the entrance lobby, selling soft drinks and snacks. Unfortunately, some customers sneaked in with liquor hidden underneath their jackets or were already inebriated. Once I had a disastrous fall on the slippery marble tile floor where someone had been sick. My mother had to do the best she could to clean me up afterward, fussing at me throughout the disgusting task, “This is the last time I’m going to let you talk me into coming with us and staying out so late. This is no place for a child. Those drunks. …” She wrinkled her nose. “You don’t have anything else to wear and you’ll just have to stay in this dress until we go home.” And so on … and so on …

But it wasn’t the last time I went to a big band dance. I reasoned with my mother, “But everybody in class expects me to tell them all about Cab Calloway and did he sing ‘Minnie, the Moocher’?” My unique experience would be great for “show and tell.” Mother was a sucker for anything educational, so I would get to see Duke Ellington after all. By then, my autograph book had some valuable entries.

When I was much older, I learned far more about the big bands than my hazy memories of Daddy’s ventures at the Shrine Mosque. Even though Paul Whiteman had come on stage drunk after intermission, I learned that he had commissioned George Gershwin to write a composition that eventually became a classic—“Rhapsody in Blue”—and that Whiteman had introduced it in 1924 at the Aeolian Hall, New York City. Duke (Edward Kennedy) Ellington and Cab (Caleb) Calloway shared alternative bookings during their touring days. I still wonder at my father’s entrepreneurship in bringing such history-making musicians to a middle-size town, far away from cities like St. Louis and Kansas City during the hard times of the Thirties.

What hardships the African-American bands had to endure when they toured in the segregated South. Missouri had once been a slave state, but became a border state during the Civil War. But Springfield was still segregated during the 1930s and its black residents weren’t permitted in the Shrine Mosque to hear one of their own people’s star performers. Eventually the “Duke” became one of the greatest composers of twentieth-century American music.

When World War II began in Europe, the United States instituted a program of national defense and introduced the draft. As the male population of our country went into military service, it grew harder for my father to exercise his entrepreneurship successfully. I think his last booking was a “Battle of the Bands.” One was an all-girl orchestra; the other was a band nobody had ever heard of. After my father had added up all his expenses, the night was a total loss.

Worse still, my father next tried a venture at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds—a mock bullfight that attracted a fair number of people. A children’s book named “Ferdinand,” about a little bull that didn’t want to fight, had been published several years before my father’s proposed event. Unfortunately, the bullfight that was supposed to take place didn’t happen. The bull sat down. No amount of cape waving or sword thrusts could get him onto his hooves. The audience howled, but most of them still wanted their money back. My father suffered humiliation as well as another financial disaster. That ended his career as an entrepreneur. The era of big bands ended in the 1940s, too.