Theater in the 1930s

Though vaudeville was dying out and films were becoming more popular, live theater prospered during the 1930’s. Still reeling from WWI, America needed escapism more than ever during the recovery period. Though films were cheaper to produce and cheaper to attend, people still flocked to see live theater.

Live theater got off to a slow start in the 1930’s, but George and Ira Gershwin and Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart turned out shows like Girl Crazy, Porgy and Bess, Strike Up The Band, and Jumbo to pull people into the seats. In addition to the type of entertainment offered by the new shows, there were many innovations in staging and settings taking place. One such innovator, Hassard Short introduced new ideas such as spotlights hung from the balconey instead of footlights on stages, turntables on the stage for quick scene changes, and sets controlled and moved by use of hydraulics. One stage raised a 50 piece orchestera from the basement of the theater for the finale.

Vaudeville stars Theater in the 1930’s saw many stars mid-career, like Ray Bolger and Burt Lahr who later starred in “Wizard of Oz”, but also started many new careers. Dezi Arnez, an unknown, debuted along with newcomers Eddie Bracken and Van Johnson in the production “Too Many Girls”. Ethel Merman, who was until then a stenographer, made her theater debut and stole the show performing “I Got Rhythm”. Her stenography background came in handy when she took shorthand notes for changes on the play “Anything Goes” and typed up the notes for the rest of the cast.

Flo Zeigfeld produced revues, similar to vaudeville performances, which featured stars like singer Ethel Waters, dancer Elenore Powell, comedic actors Bob Hope, Fanny Brice, and Eve Arden. Brice’s character Baby Snooks, one she developed for Zeigfeld’s Follies, became her signature radio character. His Follies became the formula used for variety shows on television.

Musicals were a staple of theater and film in the 1930’s. Oscar Hammerstein II, Cole Porter and others wrote scores that are still played and enjoyed today. Fred Astaire, an extraordinary dancer but a mediocre singer, had an uncanny flair for singing Cole Porter’s tunes as no one else. Mary Martin sang “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in the production Leave It To Me in her theater debut, and later stole the world’s hearts as Peter Pan.

Though movies were cheaper then, and continue to be, live theater was a chance for people to see their idols in the flesh. Nothing will replace the thrill of seeing a live performance.