By Robert Heide
There are many parallels today in 2021 to the years following the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919, which is estimated to have killed forty million people worldwide. As of this month the number of deaths worldwide from COVID-19 is reported close to 4 million people. It took many years to compile the statistics of La Grippe, as the 1918 flu was sometimes called, and the fatality numbers of the COVID flu of 2020/2021 are, of course, still coming in but we know it’s not over yet. Another parallel, in my mind, is the four miserable years of World War I (1914-1918) and the four horrendous years of the non-presidential Trump presidency—both followed by death dealing viruses worldwide. In New York in June 2021 shootings are up 64% from last year at this time and New Yorkers are not looking forward to what is expected to be a dangerous, violent, and gun-totin’ summer.
The 1920s roared in after the devastation of the teen years, and America was ready for a big comeback. The 18th amendment, Prohibition, and the 19th, women’s suffrage, were passed in 1920 and both had far reaching results. As far as the ban on drinking, the opposite happened almost instantly. Speakeasies opened up in cities and towns and all hell broke loose when gangsters like Al Capone and like minded businessmen-crooks began supplying illegal hooch to satisfy customers who couldn’t get enough of the hard stuff. It was drink, drank, drunk and getting plastered all the way became the unofficial theme of the decade. The ‘speaks’ functioned behind closed doors where singers and hot jazz bands featuring the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were all the rage. J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous director of the FBI, had his hands full trying to keep a lid on it all but to little avail. Out in the country people made their own beer in barrels. My father, Ludwig made his in the cellar where one night one of his home made brews-in-a-barrel blew up. Prohibition, called the Volstead Act, lasted from 1920 to 1933 when the new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, took office and abolished the ban, and everyone was singing the popular song of the day, let’s have a glass of cheer again, happy days are here again!
The 19th amendment gave women the right to vote which they continue to do today in vast numbers. In addition, back then, they adopted short bobbed hairdos, above-the-knee skirts and they also threw morals out the window, drinking and dancing the Charleston all night and into the morning light. Writers of what is now called The Lost Generation, like F. Scott Fitzgerald with This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby and Sinclair Lewis with Main Street and Elmer Gantry, contributed to the vast changes going on in this period. Note: A plaque at the entrance to 69 Charles Street, a brownstone which is now owned by George Capsis, the publisher and editor-in-chief of WestView News, attests that Sinclair Lewis wrote and lived in Greenwich Village there. Men donned Raccoon coats, drove fancy speedsters and applied so much Vaseline to their heads they looked like domes. The ‘flaming youth’ in this Charleston era brought in many orchestras performing everywhere in fancy clubs; radio began transcontinental live broadcasts and floor and table model radios joined the household along with 78 RPM records and the Victrola. Songs like Hotsy Totsy, The Black Bottom (named after a dance craze), Crazy Words, Crazy Time, Runnin’ Wild, You’re Driving Me Crazy, and Crazy Rhythm were on the airwaves. I’d Rather Charleston sung and recorded by Fred and Adele Astaire with George Gershwin on the piano was a highlight for me. The lyrics from one of my favorite songs (this one written by Victor Young in 1933) popularized in more recent times by Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra A Hundred Years From Today, includes these lyrics:
Don’t save your kisses
Just pass them around.
Who’s gonna know that you passed them around
A hundred years from today?
Why crave a penthouse fit for a queen?
You’re nearer heaven on Mother Earth’s green.
If you had millions what would they all mean
A hundred years from today?
So laugh and sing, make love the thing
Be happy while you may
There’s always one beneath that sun
Who’s bound to make you feel that way
The moon is shining and that’s a good sign
Cling to me closer and say please be mine
But just remember darling you won’t see it shine
100 years from today.
One hundred years ago or so the Ku Klux Klan’s racist activities drew comparisons to the French Revolution’s Inquisition, and 300 black people in the prosperous Greenwood section of Tulsa were summarily killed and their businesses and homes burned to the ground. At the same time Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories and insights swept around the world, Wonder Bread, Wise Potato Chips, Betty Crocker’s Gold Medal Flour and Chanel #5 were offered for the first time and among many others Sears Roebuck and White Castle’s opened up chain stores across the country. Fantasy movie palaces in every city and town and every neighborhood opened to accommodate the 35 million Americans going to the movies at least once a week to see their favorite heroines including at the top of the list of the ‘silent era’ the great Swedish ‘sphynx’ Greta Garbo, (her first American film was The Torrent), the vamps Pola Negri, Mae Marsh and Vilma Banky, the number one flapper—Joan Crawford—in Our Dancing Daughters, the ‘sister stars’—Norma and Constance Talmadge and Dorothy and Lillian (Orphans in the Storm) Gish, Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, the red-headed ‘It’ girl Clara Bow, socialite Hope Hampton, Gilda Gray (I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate), Lupe Velez, Norma Shearer, Mary (‘America’s sweetheart’) Pickford, Janet Gaynor, Dolores del Rio, Loretta Young, Anna May Wong, Fay Wray, Zazu Pitts and zany comedienne Pearl White, among many others. The male stars included heartthrobs Rudolph Valentino (The Sheik, Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse, etc.) Ramon (Ben Hur) Novarro, John Barrymore, Gary Cooper, Douglas (The Thief of Baghdad) Fairbanks, William ‘Billy’ Haines, Mickey Rooney, Mickey Mouse—talking in the first sound cartoon in 1928 Steamboat Willie. As an aside these notables were also born in 1928 including Andy Warhol, Shirley Temple, and playwright Edward Albee. Charlie The Tramp Chaplin, Al My Mammy Jolson, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, W. C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, cowboy stars Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson, and the great dog stars Rin Tin Tin, and Strongheart.
What will happen in the 2020’s as we march into the future? Who can say. But there is no doubt that we must be vigilant, persevere and fight on. I will conclude with a salute to Independence Day on July 4th by quoting the lyrics from a special, fun, patriotic song in a spectacular stage number from the 1954 musical starring Shirley Booth By the Beautiful Sea which takes place in Brooklyn’s Coney Island and which has music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Herbert and Dorothy Fields. Following are the lyrics from one of the songs, Hooray for George the Third.
Hooray for George the Third
If it wasn’t for George the Third
Would there be a 4th of July?
No, there’d never be a 4th of July
Then where would you be tonight—tonight?
Where would you be tonight?
Without a Paul Revere?
Without a Liberty Bell?
Without a Bunker Hill, Without a Washington Crossing the Delaware?
Although it seems absurd
If it weren’t for George the Third
Would there be a 4th of July, Oh no!
George started the whole damn show!!
Starstruck—The Wonderful World of Movie Memorabilia written by Robert Heide and John Gilman published by Doubleday was consulted for this article. His most recent publication, Robert Heide 25 Plays is available on Amazon.