By Robert Heide
In 1925 the City of Paris, France, presented a world’s fair entitled “Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes.” Fortunately over time, the title was shortened to “Art Deco” and as such its design concepts became the most important and influential around the world for half of the roaring 1920s and all of the 1930s. Later the style was called just plain ‘Deco’ and it’s seen everywhere across America and around the world in architecture in banks, civic buildings, the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, to small shops, drugstores, corner ice-cream parlors, diners and in every day objects and new gadgets for the kitchen, modern designs in clothing, transportation (autos, trains, planes, ships), modern household furniture and radios and new and brighter lighting all around. In Hollywood, movies were created featuring glamorous Deco backgrounds for decidedly sexy fashions and trends in lifestyle and music. It was definitely a new age. And with all of this, films appeared like Our Dancing Daughters (1928) starring a young Joan Crawford as a mad-cap flapper doing ‘The Charleston,’ boozing, drinking and throwing all caution to the wind. In real life in the 1920s Crawford herself was having what she called ‘a mad affair’ with the notorious gangster Legs Diamond.
Hot jazzy ‘Deco’ music was all the rage throughout this period of the late years of Prohibition to the post stock market crash and into the Great Depression of the 1930s. Songwriters like George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Yip Harburg, Harold Arlen, and the team of Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart led the way in a time when their were breadlines and out of work men and women walking through the streets in search of jobs. Sound movies like Gold Diggers of 1933 starring Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers directed in high Art Deco fashion by the incredible Busby Berkeley, like the musical number Remember My Forgotten Man depicted the travails of those who were deeply in despair. At the helm of all the mayhem on screen Franklin Roosevelt arrives on the scene at the end with his New Deal promising (and delivering) a better future. The rousing, optimistic FDR theme song that helped him win the election in 1932 was Happy Days are Here Again, a song I’ve used on my telephone answering machine for the last ten years.
Hollywood movies and the theater on Broadway always helped provide distraction from troubles and, of course, the popular music of the day, the big bands on the radio, in published sheet music for at-home piano playing and family sing-a-longs and on 78 RPM records was a very big part of providing relief. The song lyrics, often focused on love and despair, were sung by great singers of the day like Ruth Etting, Alice Faye, Bing Crosby and Russ Colombo. Faye and Crosby are two that really hit the big time in the movies as well.
Just recently I found a cardboard box in my closet I had not seen in years. In it were many of my favorite CD’s that I had collected back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s when nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ was at an all-time high. One song I came across that really caught my attention was entitled Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man and to my astonishment it was sung by a man! It seems that back then the tunesmiths on Tin Pan Alley had complete control over their songs and wouldn’t allow the changing of any of the lyrics. Nevertheless the songs were extremely popular and everybody wanted to jump on the bandwagon and record them. Part of a series called Art Deco—The Man I Love (which includes other CDs like ‘The Crooners’ and ‘Sophisticated Ladies’) this particular Legacy/Columbia Records collection from 1993 focuses on recordings of men singing songs normally sung by female singers. I said to myself, “these are men singing love songs to men!” Other tunes include Masculine Women, Feminine Men, The Right Kind of Man, sung by Jim Andrews, He’s My Kind of Man with a vocal by Bill Coty, He’s So Unusual, a Helen Kane hit here sung by the all male Rolickers, The Man I Love, written by George and Ira Gershwin with a vocal by George Beaver, I Got Rhythm…I got my man…who could ask for anything more? also by the Gershwin’s and sung by Smith Ballew who sings as well What Wouldn’t I do for that Man? and He’s My Secret Passion. A famous song from the 1933 Jean Harlow and Clark Gable movie of the same name in which she sings the title song is Hold Your Man (music by Nacio Herb Brown and lyrics by Arthur Freed) with a vocal on this collection by Will Osborne. Two of my favorites include a novelty song from Guy Lombardo entitled Pu-leeze! Mr. Hemingway and Bing Crosby crooning Gay Love from the 1929 movie The Delightful Rogue. The collection has another memorable gender-bending song He’s a Good Man to Have Around with a vocal by Billy Murray whose popular recordings from earlier decades include the obviously very masculine songs, You’re a Grand Old Flag, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Yankee Doodle Boy and In My Merry Oldsmobile.
In 1932 Noel Coward introduced a song entitled Mad About the Boy in a London revue. It was originally written for Gertrude Lawrence and has been performed by myriad female vocalists including Frances (‘Is there any other way than gay, gay, gay!?’) Faye and Marianne Faithfull but Coward himself recorded the song with a different set of lyrics making it crystal clear that it’s a homosexual man singing about his unrequited love for a male matinee idol—naming Ramon Novarro, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Gary Cooper. He sings:
I met him at a party just a couple of years ago
He was rather over hearty and ridiculous
But as I’d seen him on the screen
He cast a certain spell.
And like a silly fool I found I’m
Mad about the boy
I know it’s stupid to be mad about the boy.
I’m so ashamed of it.
But must admit I’ve had sleepless nights about the boy
On the silver screen
He melts my foolish heart in every single scene
It’s pretty funny but I’m mad about the boy
He has a gay appeal that makes me feel
Quite insane and young again
And all because I’m mad about the boy
Which brings me to Dick Barr’s annual ‘all-male’ New Year’s Eve party in Greenwich Village back in 1965. Dick was my friend Edward Albee’s producer but I had come with John Gilman who, with a glass of champagne in hand, had settled down on a couch between Noel Coward and John Gielgud, when at the door appeared Andy Warhol and his entourage, whom I had invited, but Andy mistakenly brought his beautiful superstar ‘girl-of-the-year’ Edie Sedgwick. Barr emphatically told them they had to leave as this was a party only for men.