Inquiries and questions about the early days of Stage and Theatre may be addressed to"
"The Wandering Canadian - RMR"
c/o A Touch of Light
300 Lenora Street Ste. #311
Seattle, WA 98121
Words of Wisdom
"The Wandering Canadian - RMR"
The Recollections of an Older Inmate with years of experience in the Arts and Theatre
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…It was the Spring of Hope, it was the Winter of Despair.” Etc, etc. wrote Dickens of those paradoxical times. But, admittedly, one would have to be more famous than Pollyanna herself, to talk about the “good old days” when, between Canada and the United States, approximately 15 to 20 million people were unemployed.”
“But even so, I don’t think that there is any harm – indeed, I believe there is some use – in recalling the fact that in those same years much of the dross of our lives was stripped away, truths were bitterly faced with much more candor than is normally in evidence, and we all, Canadians & Americans, came closer to knowing its aims and its REAL worth, than at any time since.”
“Wages were extremely low then, and a goodly percentage of employers made their employees do ‘piece-work,’ like the woman in the garment district who made $0.23 for each of the 200 trouser pockets she sewed and the like, or the Pennsylvania Pretzel Factory worker who earned $0.93 per week, at the cost of a dollar for streetcar fares.”
Times were very tough then. It was very difficult just to survive, never mind trying to get a little bit ahead. But hey, there was some humor too. I believe that it was ‘Yogi’ with one of his pearls of wisdom that said, “When one or more people are thrown out of work, unemployment results.”
“This was a time when doctors still made house calls and more than half of the time were paid in chickens or garden produce in season, and most of the other half became charity cases.”
“Literally millions of people in the service professions and occupations were indirectly but almost as acutely affected. It even got into all forms of public transportation. Back then you could travel from New York to Boston for a $1.50 bus ticket. It was the same up in Canada is well – you could travel from Calgary to Edmonton for $0.50, a distance of 198 miles. Back then all the bus seats had ashtrays built into the arm rests. Smoking was only permitted in the last six rows of seats, but that made as much sense as having a designated peeing area in a swimming pool.”
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“People got really inventive back then, mostly out of necessity. People that really needed to travel competed with public transportation by being willing to take on passengers and their private cars on a ‘Shared Expense and Driving Arrangement.’ One church group went from Los Angeles to New York to attend a religious conference being held there, for a total round trip price of $9, in an old school bus.”
“By this time many of the banks had failed, with the presidents of said banks doing the ‘watermelon splat’ twenty stories down into the street in front of their banks. Corporations paid their employees in Certificates of Obligation redeemable at a few select grocery outlets. The Chicago Tribune was one of those.”
“Speaking of newspapers, some in the Middle West, both in the US and Canada, went to the length of establishing a new subscription rate for the farmers of our two great nations. “One year subscription for ten bushels of wheat; two years for 18 bushels of wheat.” Up in Canada it was the same thing for the wheat-growing prairie provinces. Almost any produce would do though. Eggs especially, but butter was also highly prized and sought after because of the rationing during the Wars. R. H. Macy's handed out free streetcar tokens with purchase to get you to come back again.”
“I was too young then to remember clearly or to even understand or follow easily the manipulations of ‘High Finance’ (to me, high finance was having a nickel or five pennies in my pocket). But like millions of others I could understand Will Rogers’ explanation that “A holding company is a thing where you hand an accomplice the goods while the policeman searches you.”
“During these tough times, the worse off by far were the show people and anybody involved in the “Arts”. Writers, Musicians, Painters, Sculptors are almost as likely to need help in good times as in the bad, and cheques for $18 to $20 a month did not go very far. Professional show people were ALWAYS dependent on the availability of capital, of which not much was available to produce shows. In the U.S., stage companies had all but disappeared, because of the “Talkies.” Vaudeville, now a wistful memory, had some 40 to 50 thousand show people destitute, so it was the Federal Theatre Project, of all the good works of the WPA, that had the greatest opportunity, made the biggest splash, and of course made the most vivid memories of this time. I know because my mother was involved in this project, taking an arts program at the Banff School of Fine Arts.”
“One of the great charms of the Federal Theatre Project was that it really covered the country. WPA/ FTP shows were not just for the likes of the high-brow society folks of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. They were also for the folks of Tacoma, Washington; Reading, Pennsylvania; Timberline Lodge, Oregon; Gary, Indiana; Peoria, Illinois, or Red Bank, New Jersey, and a thousand small town theaters that had not seen live actors since the minstrel shows and vaudeville went out of vogue. As such, they were happily received with something close to ecstasy, so starved were they for entertainment in these remote mountain towns, prairie villages and other assorted backwoods settlements. They even developed their own “Federal Theatre Magazine,” which was eagerly sought after.”
“The whole program proved to be quite successful, but it was not without its critics. Many congressmen right from the start had been articulately unhappy about all of the “Arts” projects, and about the Federal Theatre Project more than any other, continually trying to chop off funds, so it was not without some problems. But, by and large, it helped a lot of people in some very tough times and provided literally millions with entertainment they otherwise would not have had.”
“Well Daniel, that's about the extent of my recall and rambling impressions of those times of early theater. You know, it's been kind of nice to dredge up memories long forgotten, so that you have a ready answer when some of your older friend smile and challenge you to “Remember when...”
“Best regards my friend, and may God bless your endeavors.”
Sincerely, The Wandering Canadian