You can learn a lot about the 1930s from Wonderful Town. When aspiring reporter Ruth interviews a group of Brazilian cadets near the end of Act One, her topics were only two decades in the past for the show’s first audiences in 1953. Today, however, many of her references to Depression-era American culture have grown obscure. Here’s a quick guide to some of them.
“What do you think of the NRA? TVA?”
Nope, not the National Rifle Association. The National Recovery Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority were part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” to help the country recover from the Great Depression. The NRA was designed to promote recovery by establishing a code system of fair competition for industries; it was declared unconstitutional in 1935. The TVA was one of the largest New Deal projects, created to build dams, reservoirs and electrical stations. It brought affordable power and jobs to millions in an impoverished, rural region.
“What do you think of Charles G. Dawes? Warden Lawes?”
Dawes was Calvin Coolidge’s vice president from 1925 to 1929. He had shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1925 for his work on the Dawes Plan, designed to provide economic relief to Germany after the first World War. He was the American ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1929 to 1932, then served as chairman of the board of City National Bank from 1932 until his death in 1951.
As warden of Sing Sing from 1920 to 1941, the progressive reformer Lewis E. Lawes modernized the overcrowded and crumbling prison. He famously organized basketball and football games for his “boys,” with his wife and three daughters watching in the bleachers, seated with the inmates.
“Good neighbors, remember our policy”
Part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933, the Good Neighbor Policy was a pledge that the U.S. would treat Latin American nations with respect. With a goal of increasing trade with these nations, this new policy marked a departure from earlier administrations’ interventionism in Latin American foreign and domestic affairs.
“What’s your opinion of Harold Teen? Mitzi Green? Dizzie Dean?”
Harold Teen was the first teenage comic strip hero, known for his use of Jazz Age slang. The popular strip ran from 1919 to 1959, and was adapted twice for the silver screen.
Mitzi Green was a child star in early talkies, best known as Becky Thatcher opposite Jackie Coogan in Tom Sawyer in 1930. In 1937, she starred in the original Broadway cast of Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms, in which she introduced the now classic songs “My Funny Valentine” and “The Lady is a Tramp.”
Baseball great Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean, a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals (1930-37) and Chicago Cubs (1938-41), was the 1934 National League MVP. In 1953, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“What do you think of our monkey glands? Stokowski’s hands?”
The monkey gland was a Prohibition-era cocktail, created by Harry MacElhone for Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. Shake one up by mixing equal parts gin and orange juice, with dashes of grenadine and absinthe. (The name derives from Dr. Serge Voronoff’s 1920s European experiments in improving “male vitality” by grafting chimpanzee testicle tissue into human subjects.)
Known for his long association with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski famously conducted “freehand,” without a baton. The first celebrity conductor, he shared the screen with Mickey Mouse in the 1940 Disney film Fantasia. His third wife (from 1945 to 1955) was heiress Gloria Vanderbilt.
“What’s your opinion of Major Bowes? How do you feel about Broadway Rose?”
“Major” (Edward) Bowes launched his enormously popular radio talent show “The Original Amateur Hour” in 1934. The following year, a 19-year-old Frank Sinatra, performing with the Hoboken Four, got his first nationwide exposure on the show, as did future opera stars Beverly Sills and Robert Merrill. Bowes would halt bad performances by striking a gong mid-act.
“Broadway Rose” was the notorious panhandler Anna Dym, who worked the theater district from 1929 into the late 1930s. She was so obnoxious—especially to celebrities, her preferred targets—that people would give her money to leave them alone. It was estimated that she made more than $10,000 per year. By 1941, she was able to buy a three-story apartment building in Brooklyn.
“What do you think of our rocks and rills? Mothersill’s seasick pills? How do you feel about Helen Wills?”
Ruth is quoting the second verse of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”: “I love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills…”
Mothersill’s Seasick Remedy was an anti-nausea medication dating back to the early years of the century. Cited in a 1912 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association as a quack remedy, it remained on the market for decades.
Tennis star Helen Wills was the first female American athlete to become an international celebrity. An eight-time Wimbledon champion and winner of two Olympic gold medals in 1924, she won a total of 31 Grand Slam tournament titles. She was one of the first players to trade long skirts for knee-length pleated skirts on the court.
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