Monday, September 1, 2014

It’s Labor Day—The Working Class Holiday Choice on the Rebound

Patriotic Labor was a theme of early celebrations

 Note:  Versions of this post have appeared on other Labor Days, but the lesson never gets old.

It officially Labor Day in the United States, a Federal Holiday celebrated on the first Monday of September since 1894.  For most people it is just the last hurrah of summer, an occasion for one last cookout and the gate way to fall and football season.  In most cities and towns the labor movement is not even perfunctorily acknowledge.  The press uses the occasion to annually either write the obituary of unions or to denounce them as powerful and greedy bullies, depending on the political inclination of the outlet.
While most of us working schlumps are grateful for the day off (if we get one), I for one, wish I could officially celebrate Labor Day with virtually the whole rest of the world on May 1.  International Labor Day was proclaimed by the Second International in honor of the memory of Chicago’s Haymarket Martyrs at the suggestion of none other than American Federation of Labor (AFL) chief Samuel Gompers himself and quickly spread around the world.  American unions celebrated it too.
But within just a few years Gompers was at the heart of a deal that substituted the September observance for May Day, a few crumbs from the Boss’s table, and a pat on the head by the Civic Federation in exchange for a promise to oppose labor radicalism and the growth of industrial style unionism in rapidly expanding basic heavy industry and the extractive industries—mining, forestry, agriculture, etc.
It is true that a September Labor Day observance pre-dated the 1886 Haymarket Affair.  In 1882 the New York Central Labor Union, made up of skilled craft unions belonging to a prototype of the AFL and lodges of the rival Knights of Labor cooperated in a call for a giant parade followed by picnics, games and amusements, and educational talks.  It was designed to showcase the pride and power of the labor movement and also to press for the chief demand of labor reformers—the Eight Hour Day—the same cause that would be marked by an attempted nationwide General Strike on May 1, 1886, an event that led up the attack by police on a worker’s rally in Chicago’s Haymarket on May 4 and the bomb blast blamed on the mostly German and anarchist leaders of the local labor movement.
New York City officials, eager to appease workers after a number of local strikes were suppressed with violence, gave their official approval to the parade.  On September 5, 1882 an estimated 30,000 workers marched in military order behind elaborate banners representing local unions of all of the trades, job shops, and Knights of Labor lodges.  It was an impressive display, but despite later claims by the AFL that observance of Labor Day spread quickly, only a few other cities, mostly in New York, began holding September celebrations. 
In the meantime huge May Day parades and rallies spread across the country.  But the late 1880s and early 1890s  were the beginning of a nearly 40 year period of virtual open class warfare with worker’s strikes being violently suppressed by local, state, and federal authorities and armies of private goons and strikebreakers.  And workers often fought back with equal violence.  Episodes like the Homestead Steel Strike with its running gun battles between Pinkertons and workers, the nationwide Pullman Strike of 1882, and virtually continuous battles in the coal fields and hard rock mines nationwide, made many fear for revolution or civil war.
Democratic President Grover Cleveland, who ordered out the Army to crush the Pullman Strike, wanted a symbolic peace offering to Labor without actually granting the movement any of its demands. 
Republican king pin Ohio Senator Marc Hanna, soon to anoint William McKinley the next President, was even more ambitious—he proposed a pact of cooperation between capital and “responsible labor.”  He offered Gompers, the Cigar Roller’s Union chief who headed the AFL, a seat in his new Civic Federation alongside the robber barons and captains of industry.  Hanna did not make the same offer to Grand Master Workman Terrance V. Powderly of the Knights of Labor, who personally opposed strikes and advocated arbitration of disputes, because the members of Knights lodges included unskilled workers clamoring for recognition in heavy industry.  Gompers AFL would be allowed to pursue organizing skilled workers strictly by trade but not organize the great mass of unskilled, largely immigrant workers.  Gompers would also be called on to use his unions to oppose labor radicalism, and even to break strikes led by unions outside the grand agreement.
With Gompers in his pocket, Hanna engineered enough Republican support in Congress to get Cleveland’s official Labor Day proposal passed.  Cleveland signed it in to law just six days after Eugene V. Debs’s industrial union of railroad workers was smashed in the end of the Pullman Strike. 
Within a few years all states either aligned their existing Labor celebrations with the Federal holiday or enacted state proclamations echoing the U.S. call. 
Meanwhile authorities everywhere tried to suppress May Day observances, which continued to be supported by militant unionists and radicals of every sort—social democrats, anarchists, and left wing Marxists.  The Knights of Labor withered away, but aggressive industrial unions, especially in the mining industry, continued to fight both the bosses and the AFL’s attempt to divide the aristocracy of labor from the mass rank and file.  In little more than a decade the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) would be formed to intensify that battle.

A small town Labor Day Parade in 1930 with an American Legion color guard.  When the Legion was formed right after World War I it had often been used as muscle to break strike and harass militant unionism like the IWW, especially in the west.

During the Depression and the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Democrats became the party of labor.   Labor Day became the official kick-off of Democratic election campaigns. Labor Day parades and rallies often seemed more of platform to launch candidacies than a labor union celebration.
Even that has faded as the percentage of Americans in unions continued to shrink year after year after a high tide in the early ‘60’s.  By the Clinton era, Democrats continued to get support from labor, but seemed to try to disassociate themselves from it, shunning identification as the party for of labor in favor of being seen as the champion of the Middle Class.
As half-assed a holiday as Labor Day is, I hope we all will take a moment to thank the American Labor movement for largely creating that Middle Class.
Labor Day 2014....Mark Hurwitt is an Illustrator, Cartoonist, Designer, Writer and Teacher residing in Brooklyn New York. His website is

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Detroit Does it First—News Over the Air

An early broadcast with the home made equipment of Michael DeLisle Lyons.  Note the use of a horn to pick up music from a phonograph--the microphone as we know it had yet to be invented when station 8MK went on the air in 1920.

On August 31, 1920 Station 8MK in Detroit, Michigan broadcast the first news report Americans ever heard on that newfangled doohickey, radio.  The station had just gone on the air for the first time less than two weeks earlier, on August 20.  The Detroit News owned the infant operation but seemed either a little ashamed of it or unsure if they had just thrown good money into a mere fad.
In fact the station was issued an amateur license by the United States Department of Commerce Bureau of Navigation, the agency then responsible for radio regulation, instead of the experimental license issued to other early commercial broadcasters. 
The Scripps family owned newspaper hired Michael DeLisle Lyons, a teenage whiz kid and tinkerer to build a transmitter in the Detroit News building and even asked him to register the license in his name rather the company’s.  As an amateur station it broad cast on the fringe of the available spectrum designated then as 200 meters, the equivalent of 1500 AM. 
Later that year young Lyons and his brother Frank built that nation’s first radios for police prowl cars for the city of Toledo, Ohio.  When in their first use of operation radio communications led to the quick arrest of a prowler and the story went national spurring other departments to adopt the bulky, balky new technology.
The infant station’s news broadcasts were read by newspaper staffers and adapted from the content of the paper.  At first the company would not allow broadcast of any news that had not already hit the streets in print for fear of “giving away the product.”
Few homes could hear them anyway.  The audience consisted mostly of radio hobbyists including other amateur broadcasts who were becoming known as HAMs and those who built their own crystal sets.  Home receivers with amplification and which did not require headphones was about five years in the future with the introduction of the vacuum tube.
Despite its limitations, the Scripps family was encouraged by a small but enthusiastic response.  They applied for a commercial license and on October 13, 1921, the station was assigned the call letters WBL broadcasting at 833 AM, with weather reports and other government reports broadcast at 619 AM.
For unknown reason on March 3, 1922 the stations call letters were changed to WWJ.  In the following year the Department of Commerce re-organized its assignments of frequencies and dropped the requirement of a separate frequency for weather and government reports.  WWJ was moved to frequency was changed three times during the late 20’s before settling at 920 AM in 1929.  A war time shuffling of frequencies in 1941 moved the station to 950 AM at which it continues to broadcast to this day.
The station has maintained a regular schedule of news broadcast through all of its incarnations of call letters, frequency or ownership to this day.  Since the mid-70’s the station, now a CBS Radio network affiliate, has broadcast as a 24 hour a day news and talk station.  It remains a Detroit institution and is frequently the highest rated radio station in its market.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Joan Blondell—Big Baby Blues, Wise Cracks, and a Smile

She was the brassy blonde who had been there, done that and lived to tell about it.  A wise cracking working girl with the biggest blue eyes ever, an electric smile, and a plump figure that turned heads and got attention.  She could scheme and connive with good humor.  Underneath the veneer of urban cynicism, though, you just knew she was capable of undying loyalty to lovers and friends alike.  That was the persona Joan Blondell brought to Warner Bros. in 1930 and which sustained a career that spanned 40 years.
Rose Joan Blondell was born on August 30, 1906 in Brooklyn to a pair of vaudevillians, Ed Blondell, a comedian and Kathryn “Katie” Cain, an Irish-American hoofer.  Baby Joan was first thrust on stage a just four months old as the daughter of Peggy Astaire in The Greatest Love.  She would be given lines and bits of business in the family act by age four
The family toured relentless and Joan did not know a real home until her teenage years.  By then in addition to becoming familiar with hotel rooms in cities across the country, she and her family spent a year in Hawaii and toured Australia for six years.
The family finally settled in Dallas, Texas where she managed to finish school.  Under the name Rosebud Blondell, she won the 1926 Miss Dallas Pageant and placed fourth in the fifth outing of the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey later that year. 
The next year, 1927, Blondell tried her hand at North Texas State College in Denton where her mother was working as an actress.  Education didn’t take.  Show Biz did.  She worked as a model and a circus show girl before heading for the Big Apple and a bite of fame.
Blondell joined a stock company and worked regularly in small parts, including stints on Broadway.  Her big break came in 1930 when she was paired with a charismatic young hoofer named James Cagney in the play Penny Arcade.  It only ran four weeks but the show and its young stars wowed Al Jolson, Broadway’s biggest star and the man who had helped save Warner Bros. with his breakthrough talkie, The Jazz Singer. 
Jolson bought rights to the play and then turned around to sell it to Warners with the proviso that Cagney and Blondell had to re-create their parts.  Jack Warner agreed but wanted to change her name to Inez Holmes.  Blondell flatly refused, endangering he big chance in the movies.  Rather than risk losing the property and perhaps Cagney as well, Warner relented.  But it would be far from the last time that Blondell clashed with the notoriously dictatorial studio boss.
Released as Sinners Holliday the movie was Cagney’s film debut.  The second film Blondell had made for Warners, Office Wife had already been released.  In that one she had a supporting role as the sister of the female lead and stole the show handing out world weary advice while getting into or out of revealing underwear.
Sinners Holliday established the screen personas of both Cagney and Blondell.  Cagney shot to immediate stardom.  Blondell was along for the ride.  She would co-star with the actor six times, more than any other actress in his career.  The films included Public Enemy, Footlight Parade, and Blond Crazy.  Cagney later said the only woman he ever loved other than his wife was Joan Blondell.
If Cagney shot to top stardom, Blondell never quite reached that level despite her great popularity with audiences.  Men adored her and women felt like she could be their best friend.  But the studio already had one blond bombshell, Jean Harlow.  Another up-and-comer young actress with a street-wise persona, Barbara Stanwyck played working class girls in edgy and darker material.   Blondell’s close friend Betty Davis was a fast rising star and would soon be dominating serious and prestige parts.  Ruby Keeler, Jolson’s wife, was the musical star.  And young Olivia de Havilland would soon sew up all of innocent sweetheart parts.  The studio even had extra sassy comic blonds like Glenda Ferrell.
So the studio wasted Blondell’s time in shorts and mostly relegated her to the sassy best friend in over 50 films.  She, her sex appeal, body, and sass were perfect for the pre-Production Code naughtiness for which Warners was famous.  She was cast a genre of fallen women pictures—Illicit with Stanwyck in the lead, Big Business Girl with Loretta Young, Night Nurse again with Stanwyck, The Greeks Had a Word for Them in a rare first billed lead, and Thee on a Match with Ann Dvorak and pal Bette Davis.
The studio also put her in their down-on-their-luck Depression stories like Union Station with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as an improbable hobo and Central Park in which two down-and-outers forced to live in the title park fall in lover, are separated, and exploited in a scheme to rob a charity ball.
Blondell was making as many as six pictures a year plus shorts when she married cinematographer George Barnes in Phoenix, Arizona on January 4, 1933. 

The Forgotten Man number from Gold Diggers of 1933.

Musicals were another staple of Warners in the early 30’s.  The fact that Blondell was not a singer and only a so-so dancer did not prevent the studio from casting her as a chorine and pal of the leads.  Most famously she co-starred in Gold Diggers of 1933 in which she performed—mostly in a semi-spoken wail/moan Busby Berkley’s epic Forgotten Man number.  That one song may have been Blondell’s finest dramatic performances.  It was on the set of this movie that Blondell met boyish singer Dick Powell who would become her second husband.
Warners would pair her with another wise cracking blonde, Glenda Ferrell, in six films most notably Gold Diggers of 1937.  The characters were different in each film, and most were straight comedies.  By the mid Thirties the Production Code office had killed the fallen woman genre and limited the amount of time the well-endowed Blondell could spend in lingerie or taking baths.  And the public tired of musicals.  Warners turned to gritty gangster flicks, high flown women’s dramas, prestige historical bio-pics, and swashbucklers.  Davis had the women’s film sewed up, she was unsuited for most costume dramas, and de Havilland’s bosom heaved for Errol Flynn.  But Blondell was perfect for gangster films.  She re-teamed with Cagney in He Was Her Man and with Edward G. Robinson in Bullets or ballots.
Through the later thirties Warners used Blondell almost exclusively in comedies.  Scripts got lamer, budgets cheaper, co-stars second rung.  She was in danger of slipping into B movie unit films like her erstwhile partner Glenda Ferrell had with the Torchy Blaine girl reporter series.
When her contract with Warners expired in 1939, Blondell cheerfully left her long time home to become a free-lance actress.  Husband Dick Powell left the studio about the same time.  Parts were harder to come by and Blondell was nearing 40.  She teamed with her husband in a preachy comedy I Want a Divorce in 1940.
But now she was lucky to make one or two films a year.  The high points during the War years were Topper Returns, Lady for a Night at Republic Pictures with John Wayne, and Cry Havoc, a gritty war drama about Army nurses at Bataan   for MGM in 1943.

As Aunt Sissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Blondell would not appear on the big screen for nearly two years.  And when she did, she was a revelation.  As Aunt Sissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn she was the scandalous relative of the poor but respectable Nolan family who collects men who may or may not be husbands.  Blondell considered it her finest film work.
Blondell and Powell had divorced in 1944.  In ’47 she married for the third, last, and most disastrous time to charming but profligate theatrical impresario Mike Todd.  She described her relationship with him as the great passionate love of her life.  But Todd was a spendthrift, heavy gambler and a cad by nature.  It did not take long for him to spend his way through Blondell’s money leaving her essentially broke.  The couple divorced in 1950 with Blondell alleging physical abuse including being dangled out of a hotel window by her ankle.  A few years later Todd swept Elizabeth Taylor off of her feet then died in a plane crash.
In 1951 Blondell reached the pinnacle of her post-war career in The Blue Veil starring Jane Wyman as a self-sacrificing nurse to young children.  Wyman was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress and Blondell was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
She appeared sporadically on the big screen after that, mostly in comedies most notably The Opposite Sex, a musical re-make of Clair Booth Luce’s The Women  with a cast headed by Dick Powell’s next wife, June Allison and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? starring Tony Randal in which she played a pal/companion to Jayne Mansfield.
After that Blondell worked mainly on Television where she appeared as a guest star in programs like Playhouse 90, Lux Playhouse,  Adventures in Paradise, The Untouchables, Dick Powell Theater, Death Valley Days, The Virginian, Wagon Train, The Twilight Zone, Burke’s Law, Bonanza, Dr. Kildare, The Lucy Show, My Three Sons, Slattery’s People, The Man From Uncle, Family Affair, Guns of Will Sonnet, Petticoat Junction, That Girl, The Name of the Game, McCloud, Love American Style, The Rookies, Medical Center, New Dick Van Dyke Show, The Snoop Sisters,  Police Story, and Fantasy Island.
She also was in more than a dozen made for TV movies and had reoccurring or regular series roles in.  The Real McCoys, Here Comes the Brides, and Banyon. 
Among Blondell’s later appearances on the big screen were a memorable turn in The Cincinnati Kid in 1965 as an experienced dealer in a high stakes poker game, Support Your Local Gunfighter in ‘71, Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood in ’76, Grease  in’78, and the re-make of The Champ. She was featured in small parts in two more films released after her death.
Center Door Fancy was an autobiographical novel written by Blondell that was published by Delacorte Press in 1972.
Joan Blondell was diagnosed with leukemia and died in a Santa Monica hospital on Christmas Day 1979 at the age of 73.  She was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Those of us who love this stuff, delight in stumbling on her old Warner Bros. films on, no matter how slight the plot, on Turner Classic Movies and basking in that sensational smile.