While smaller combos also performed, it was the “Big Bands” that were most popular – thus named because, well, they were bands, and they were big; usually about a dozen members. Unlike the more experimental, smaller combos, the Big Bands used straightforward, danceable arrangements of songs, usually favoring a couple violins for the melody, and were often helmed by a big “name” instrumentalist or singer.
As with vaudeville, the big-time Big Bands liked playing in Scranton, as it made a fine home base to venture out for gigs elsewhere in Pennsylvania, but still have a central spot to sleep (or, to gamble, drink, and carouse on the red-light district). But local performers also had ample chances to break into the business – when a visiting “name” band had a gig, they often contracted a local band to fill in for a half hour or so midway through the evening to give themselves a break. Or, if one of the Big Band members got sick, a local instrumentalist was drafted to fill in for a night.
One such local group in Scranton actually did very well for themselves, and launched the careers of several Big Band era greats. The Scranton Sirens Orchestra was formed just after World War I, by Billy Lustig, who’d been drafted out of law school into the army at the beginning of the war. Billy was also a decent violinist, having organized a small student band on campus; after the war, he was fairly certain he didn’t want to go into law, and decided to try his hand in music instead. The Scranton Sirens’ first incarnation included Billy on violin, a banjo player named Patsy Raymond, and a one-armed Irish tenor named Jack Gallagher. Using the Dixieland band song “Tiger Rag” as their signature tune, the Scranton Sirens built up a small local following over the course of the following year.
Their luck started to turn in 1919 when the band heard of a talented young saxophonist and clarinet player from Shenandoah and called him in for an audition. This saxophonist turned out to be Jimmy Dorsey, who was quickly hired; soon thereafter, the band’s trombonist, Russ Morgan, dropped out, and Jimmy mentioned that his younger brother Tommy played the trombone…Tommy was also brought in to an audition and after playing a near-perfect solo rendition of the ballad “When You And I Were Young, Maggie”, was instantly hired. One fringe benefit to the Dorseys joining the band was that they had a doting mother who often cooked up pots of Irish stew for the entire band after a gig. At this stage, the Scranton Sirens band now had nine members, including Billy on violin, the Dorsey brothers, trumpeter Fred “Fuzzy” Farrar, Irving “Izzy” Riskin on piano, and Sid Trucker, joining Jimmy on sax.
The band’s big break came in 1923, when they got an offer to play at the Crystal Gardens club in New York. They quickly got other offers to appear throughout the northeast, and were approached by the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit to appear at their clubs as well; at this time, possibly to make themselves more vaudeville friendly, the band also featured two little girls, a pair of sisters, as “dance soloists” who would perform during their gigs. Billy was already something of a showman himself – he sometimes amused children in the audiences with an unconventional bowing method; he would hold the bow to his violin between his knees, grasping one end of the violin in each hand, and sawing the violin back and forth across the bow. Apparently he was able to successfully play “Yankee Doodle” in this way.
The growing notoriety lead to a shakeup in the band in 1924. During the summer of 1923 they had a regular Sunday night gig at the Beaux Arts club in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where they were spotted by another band leader, Jean Goldkette, who approached the Dorseys about joining his band. Goldkette also lured Buskin, Trucker, and Farrar away from the band as well. Unbeaten, Billy found a new brass section, and added a bassist and guitarist; he also persuaded Russ Morgan to return. As the core of the band members were now mostly from Philadelphia as opposed to Scranton, the band had ready gigs in the Philadelphia area. However, dissention lead to another shakeup the following year, when the band members were split about whether to travel to a series of gigs in New Orleans. Lustig let go those that didn’t want to make the trip and got yet another round of replacements. But two of those who left didn’t do too badly – they were Mike Trafficant and Eddie Lang, who went on to play with the Paul Whiteman orchestra and ended up meeting a young singer named Bing Crosby.
Billy also happily took anyone back anyway; Tommy Dorsey rejoined the band in 1927, just in time for the band to play a series of performances in New York, following Duke Ellington’s orchestra, and in Chicago at a restaurant owned by Al Capone. Tommy Dorsey soon left again, snatched away by Paul Whiteman right before a New York gig. The Sirens trumpet player at the time, Wingy Manone, recommended a trombonist from St. Louis who was largely unknown then – a self-taught kid named Jack Teagarden. Billy hired him for the New York gig, and the band played at the Roseland Ballroom in New York for eight weeks. At the close of the gig, Teagarden was hired away by yet another band.
Billy had other side projects going, and after Teagarden’s departure, he decided to fold up the Scranton Sirens entirely and concentrate on other projects. He went on to play in other smaller bands, playing a regular gig at the Maxim Club in New York City and then going into radio with Russ Morgan, as part of the band for the Philip Morris radio show. In 1929, he lead an in-house band for an Albany radio station and continued to work in music until his death in the 1960’s.
Here, two Prohibition Agents dump out confiscated alcohol in Boston.
This was the result of a raid on a bootlegger in 1922.
A number of anti-Prohibition cartoons are below...
And here's one celebratory cartoon marking the end of Prohibition:
Here’s what happened.
The Volstead Act, the enforcement arm of the 18th Amendment, went into effect on January 16, 1920. Timing may have been a big part of the problem – while support for Prohibition had been strong throughout the teens, when the country was trying to rally behind its troops overseas fighting in World War I, by the time the act was finally enforced, America had helped win the war, the troops were back home, and everyone wanted to let down their hair and party a little. Having the government throw a national wet-blanket on this national welcome-home party was grotesquely bad timing.
But Prohibition still had active and vocal supporters, in the government and in the private sector, and they tried. A force of Prohibition agents was set up to enforce the Volstead Act, much publicity was made of dumping out some existing stores of alcohol, and temperance supporters faced forward hopefully. It became quickly apparent it wasn’t going to be as easy to enforce as temperance supporters thought, though.
Firstly, the number of men enforcing the law was pitifully small and underpaid. The federal government's force of prohibition agents only numbered about two thousand men. If every single one of those agents had been stationed on the borders and coasts to prevent smuggling alcohol into the country, there would still be only one agent for every twelve miles of border. Each agent also only got a salary of only $35-50 a week, which made many of them particularly ripe for bribing.
It was also extremely easy to export alcohol from Canada in particular; all a smuggler had to do was pay a small tax, fill out an application for an export permit, and then bring the alcohol back across the border. Canada made a brisk business due to the rather porous nature of our border, and bootleggers also made a tidy profit – a case of liquor costing only about $30 in Canada could be resold, bottle by bottle, for nearly three times that amount.
Canada wasn’t the only country where booze was coming from – to the south, boats from Cuba sent it in as well. The Volstead Act covered territory extending three miles from the United States Coast, and bootleggers got around that simply by having captains of ships with their cargo anchor three and a half miles off shore, and they would take smaller boats out to meet them, pick up the alcohol, and head back into shore.But smuggling from over the border wasn't the only problem; there already was a lot of alcohol left over when Prohibition went into effect. A great show was made of dumping it out in some communities, but a lot of the existing stores were moved onto the black market instead, with some fast-and-loose paperwork covering their disappearance.
It was also a lot easier to manufacture alcohol within the country than the government thought. The Volstead Act permitted the manufacture of alcohol for medicinal purposes and industrial use; it was extremely easy for individuals to distill the non-drinkable chemicals out of industrial alcohol and resell it for recreational use. Or, one could befriend a doctor with a lenient approach to the law (doctors were reportedly very, very popular during Prohibition). The Volstead Act also permitted the manufacture of non-alcoholic beer, which is made just like regular beer, but then has the alcohol removed; here, it was extremely easy for a manufacturer to "forget" to take the alcohol out of a batch or two now and then and "set it aside for disposal", only to have it "stolen". (Whoopsie!)
Also, it was possible to buy a small portable still, enough to produce a gallon of alcohol, for only about seven dollars, and brew your own stuff at home. Some recent immigrants also came from a tradition of brewing alcohol at home anyway, as well as some groups already in the United States (Italian immigrants often made their own wine anyway, as well as moonshiners in Appliachia). All the Volstead Act did for them was just increase the number of potential customers. In the latter days of Prohibition, some breweries who’d been forced to close in 1920 secretly re-opened, or rented themselves out to bootleggers.
Still others found creative ways around the code -- one very popular product in the 1920's was something called the "Grape Brick," which was a block of dried, compressed crushed grapes; a small packet of yeast came along with it. Along with both of these items was a flyer warning the user not to add the yeast to the grapes or else fermentation would result. (But if you did that, this flyer went on, then you certainly shouldn't then let the mixture age in a cask for x number of months...oh, but if you still did that, then you certainly shouldn't filter the mixture and store it at x degrees farenheit....oh, but gosh darn you, if you still did that, well then you certainly shouldn't...)
There were dangers to homebrewed and doctored alcohol, of course. Exploding stills were a danger, and several homebrewers died or were injured in the resulting fires. Distilling the undrinkable chemicals out of industrial-use alcohol was a tricky and precise process, and someone who didn’t quite have it under control could end up serving and drinking a potentially lethal cocktail. (Interestingly, though, some people tried to sue the government for putting lethal chemicals in their alcohol!) Some bootleggers also tried to “stretch” their supply of alcohol a little, by watering it down and re-bottling it; some tried adding different flavorings and colorings to disguise their tampering. Not all were successful.The state governments were supposed to chip in to support the Federal effort, but by 1927, their financial support was less than 12% of what they each spent on their own fish and game laws budgets, and some states just flat-out contributed nothing at all and let the Federal enforcement do all the work.
There was a lot of debate over the law itself -- clearly it wasn't working the way it was intended. But no one seemed sure about what to do about it, because the issue itself was also so divisive. Some proposed changing the law itself; some proposed amending the law to permit the sale of wine or beer, but skeptics said that a public now used to drinking illicit gin and Scotch probably wouldn't go for that. Two interesting proposals came in 1928; Governor Al Smith of New York, Herbert Hoover's presidential challenger, proposed setting a Federal standard for "the scientific definition of the alcoholic content of an intoxicating beverage" and applying the prohibition laws only to things that fell above that standard; he also proposed letting each state set its own standards higher if they so chose. He also, interestingly, was in favor of letting each state manufacture alcohol for sale for private use only within its own borders (...isn't that actually the way it is today, come to think of it?...). Hoover won the day instead, though, and his Smith's ideas faded.But Hoover had his own Prohibition issue on the platform -- he promised an exhaustive study of the law and its enforcement to see where things were going wrong. Eleven men were appointed to the committee, and did not complete their research until 1931; all felt that something was clearly wrong with the way Prohibition was being enforced. Each man made an individual report, and each had a different opinion as to "what now"; the majority of them felt that the amendment should either be repealed outright, or altered. However -- even though a majority of the committee believed Prohibition wasn't working as it was -- the committee as a whole recommended that it should be left alone, meekly saying that maybe they could modify it in the future if it still wasn't working. The whole mess caused one wit in the NEW YORK WORLD to sum things up in a poem:
"Prohibition is an awful flop,
We like it.
It can't stop what it's meant to stop,
We like it.
It's left a trail of graft and slime,
It's filled our land with vice and crime,
It don't prohibit worth a dime --
Nevertheless, we're for it."
Prohibition finally ended in 1933; Congress officially announced the repeal during that March, with the law going into effect in December. By all accounts it had been a failure – except for the Mafia. Their involvement in bootlegging was a huge source of cash, but it was also a huge mobilizing and organizing force. Before 1920, the different Mafia families had had little contact with each other, but the sheer numbers of people involved in bootlegging, smuggling, distribution, and brewing alcohol forced them all into closer contact and collaboration. Many Mafia families had to expand quickly just to drum up the necessary manpower, and had to learn how to cooperate with neighboring families. By the end of the 1920’s, the various mafia families across the country had grown tremendously – and were also starting to realize the benefits of cooperation. In short, Prohibition lead to the “organized” part of “organized crime.”
What I have here is based on a vice report conducted in 1915, discussing the state of prostitution in Lancaster, Pennsylvania at that time. Other information about prostitution in Pennsylvania has unfortunately been notoriously difficult to track down; I did find one book that covered prostitution in Colorado, with half of the final chapter devoted to its downturn in 1930, and I found a lot of economic, human rights, and women's studies papers about prostitution today; but when it comes to prostitution in Scranton in the early 1930's in specific, there just ain't much.
However – there are some scholars who would argue that this difficulty is not because prostitution wasn’t going on; on the contrary, they say it may be because it was so common as to escape notice. This Lancaster vice report exists because town fathers in Lancaster got a lot of pressure to clean things up – Scranton, however, may simply have been comfortable enough to turn a blind eye to things.
We do know that houses of prostitution existed in Scranton during the late 20’s and early 30’s – nearly about a hundred houses were active during this era. So this information, while not quite the right time or the right city, is at least in a similar city and within recent memory of the show’s period. In other words: take this all with a grain of salt.
There were degrees of prostitution; at the higher end were the brothels, and the streetwalkers were at the bottom of the totem pole. At the brothels, the women gathered with the patrons in the parlor, and when a gentleman found a favorite, the couple would slip away to one of the bedrooms on the premises. Usually there were about four or five women per house, and would meet patrons in the parlor in various states of undress – robes, peignoirs, kimonos, satin and silk. Some houses specialized in providing an upper-class experience, furnishing the parlor and the rooms with the most up-to-date décor and instilling good manners and refinement amongst the women. Some brothels specialized even more and discreetly implied that a patron with unusual tastes, shall we say stood a chance of being accommodated; they didn’t spell out what they would do, but one madame in Lancaster did confess to offering younger teenaged girls, as well as “two couples in one bed and circus business like that.”
Even though the women were “well-bred,” they were often still pretty open about what was happening at the house, with individual women soliciting throughout the city. Other “marketing” came via recommendations from hotel clerks or messengers; visitors to the city would discreetly ask about local “sporting houses”, as brothels were sometimes known, and would be directed to one or the other house. Some madams made deals with the clerks at various hotels to give their own brothels an exclusive recommendation.
The better-class houses also brought doctors in once a year to give everyone a physical, and also provided abortions when necessary. The less-well-off houses didn’t always provide medical care for the workers, and were a little seedier in terms of décor and in terms of the appearance, and sometimes the hygiene, of the girls. Rather than attracting clients discreetly through word of mouth and meeting them in a parlor behind closed doors, the cheaper houses attracted customers by sending their girls to loll in the doorway and on the sidewalk, dressed in kimonos, and chat up passersby.
Then there were the girls who weren’t connected to a brothel. Some prostitutes were streetwalkers, soliticing men in railroad stations, theaters, or bars and dance halls. If they met a john, sometimes they would be able to take him to a hotel or a “bed house,” establishments which were also owned by madams who took a share of the price. Others settled for cheap rooms in hotels found close to the local bars. In the 1920’s, when automobile ownership was skyrocketing, still other prostitutes did away with the expense of hotels altogether, conducting their business right in their clients’ own cars.
Customers came from all walks of life, from captains of industry to traveling salesmen. Railroad workers were especially frequent customers as they often had down time in Scranton while on a job, and with only a certain amount of down time they wanted to whoop it up a bit. College students – perhaps unsurprisingly – were also frequent clients. In Lancaster, some madams reported bringing in extra girls during special events, “corn-fed girls” from the surrounding rural communities.
The girls who worked in the brothels paid a portion of their pay taken to cover their room and board, and medical expenses. In the teens, brothels also sometimes sold alcohol for an extra profit (however, one brothel actually billed itself as a “Temperance” establishment, in an effort to attract a higher-class clientele). In the brothels, sometimes a woman received ten “visitors” per night. It’s difficult to say how many the streetwalkers saw.
In Scranton in the 30’s, madams continued to escape the law by paying off the authorities or buying “protection” from the Mafia, and thus escaped noticed. Things were similar in our 1915 vice report; some investigators found officers hanging around in the parlors, chatting with the girls and sometimes eating meals with them. Some even stayed around long enough to avail themselves of the girls’ services once their shifts ended. Often police and authorities turned a blind eye because the madams tried to keep order in the houses, and because big-name businessmen frequented them. Other houses were kept protected by public officials, keeping them open because they knew they would lose entire voting constituencies if they cracked down.
The vice report referenced above lead to a big crackdown on prostitution in Lancaster in 1916, and many of the Lancaster brothels were closed. But other communities, including Scranton, still had a lively red-light district, and the increase in car ownership may have simply lead to folks from Lancaster joining the “out of towners” who stopped in. Other big customers in the Scranton brothels included Big Band musicians – often musicians liked getting gigs in Scranton, because they could use Scranton as a home base for a regional series of concerts; they’d get a hotel room in Scranton for ten days and book a series of other performances in surrounding towns. That way they’d be able to come back to Scranton each night, where the red light district was waiting, and enjoy female companionship each night.
The very first vaudeville performers played in the Washington Hall, a location with a less-than-savory reputation, I n1874. The Hall was bought out soon after by one Lou Chapin, who promised entertainment “of a refined nature” and “void of vulgarity”. It was a flop.
Vaudevillian Tony Pastor tried again in 1879, bringing a series of acts including violinist Frank Bennett, comedian John Morris, marksman Ira Paine, and a comedy team with “Irish characterizations.” Pastor also sang throughout. He returned in 1881, bringing an acrobat, a singing duo, and another comedy duo. Another troupe, the Rooneys, made an appearance in 1879, but much of the act involved broad stereotypes poking fun at Irishmen; many Irish immigrants in the Scranton audience were less than impressed. The Rooneys brought their youngest daughter, Kate, along when they returned in 1881 and found their reception a bit warmer.
Circus acts and prizefighters-turned-performers were a vogue for a while; General and Mrs. Tom Thumb appeared in 1882 as part of an international tour, and later that year fighter John Sullivan appeared with The Gladiators, a show that ended with Sullivan in a boxing match with another actor. Horse acts, acrobatics, magicians, and other visual-spectacle acts were popular, as were the Sages, a hypnotist team that would solicit volunteers from the audience to be put under hypnotic trances. Often the Sages would end their act by putting a member of their company into a deep sleep, and then leave them in a shop window for a day to drum up extra publicity.
Despite these performers, Scranton had no full-time vaudeville house until 1902, when former actor Henry Dixie bought the old Thirteenth Street Armory. He had spotty success, and his “Dixie” theater changed hands three times over the next year before folding. Meanwhile, the Lyceum, a straight theater, experimented with offering vaudeville in the summers; even though one early performer at the Lyceum included W.C. Fields (then known only as a juggler in a troupe presenting a show called The Ham Tree), the Lyceum dropped its vaudeville. Finally, a Mr. S.Z. Poli opened a full-time vaudeville house in 1907. Poli was an independent theater operator from New Haven, Connecticut, who ran a small chain of vaudeville houses throughout the Northeast. Eventually his chain joined the producing team of B. F. Keith and Edward Albee, a powerful team who had a near-monopoly on vaudeville talent.
Vaudevillians in the Keith/Albee circuit went wherever they were booked, and Keith and Albee handled all the booking; performers could end up playing in Maine one week and then Ohio the next, or sometimes both in the same week. But Scranton was close enough to New York that performers felt at least close to home. Scranton also was used as a “testing ground” for newer acts – if they went over well, they were put out onto the main circuit. Some performers also availed themselves of the red-light district, and often had dinner at Zenke’s, a restaurant/bar one block from the Poli theater and close by two other theaters. One theater even rigged up a special buzzer backstage connected to the bar at Zenke’s, and at the start of the last act before intermission, a stage hand would press the buzzer, after which the bartenders at Zenke’s would start pouring out beers – that way, when intermission started, there were pints of beer all poured and ready to be snatched up by theatergoers with only fifteen minutes to spare before Act 2.
During its heyday, Scranton saw such names as Buster Keaton, Ed Wynn, Will Rogers (who later spoke fondly of Zenke’s), Eddie Leonard, Harry Houdini, Fred Allen, Eddie Foy, and Jack Benny, who made his Scranton debut in December of 1920. Fanny Brice played for a sold-out week in 1914, but a few weeks later, Fred Astaire -- then a child star with a brother-sister dancing act with his sister Adele -- fared less well (although, one reviewer did say that with practice, they could improve). Other lesser-known, unusual acts included acrobatic team “Hassan-Ben-Ali’s Arabs”; Harry Breen, the “singing talkologist”; “Odiva,” a swimmer who dove for pearls in an onstage tank; a horse named Chesterfield; and “Gennaro and his Gondolier Band”.
Through the 1920’s, vaudevillians were slowly starting to retire or make the switch to Broadway or radio, but one Scrantonian local ensured at least one vaudeville show each year, for a special audience. Jim Reap, a popular butcher, was unmarried and childless, and may have also been an orphan himself. Once a year he would buy out the Poli, hire a few acts, and present a free show to every child in Scranton; children simply had to stop by his butcher shop to claim a ticket. Comedian Pat White rounded up all children the day of the show by leading a parade through town, and Reap would stock the theater with free hot dogs and ice cream for all the children. After the show, Reap would also thoughtfully round up all the forgotten coats and shoes and hats and place a notice in the papers announcing that a corner of his store was a “lost and found” in case any child was missing something.
Milton Berle appeared in Scranton in the 1920’s, early in his career, and received favorable reviews; W. C. Fields also made a well-publicized return to vaudeville in 1922 with a Ziegfield-produced show, In The Subway, which opened its limited tour of vaudeville theaters in Scranton that November. George Burns and Gracie Allen also appeared in 1925, and Jack Benny and Will Rogers made return appearances. In 1926, the widow of Rudolph Valentino went on a speaking tour of vaudeville theaters. Pat Rooney, part of the Rooney team who’d fared so poorly in Scranton in 1879, went on to become a regular on the vaudeville circuit, and was appearing in Scranton as late as 1927; in fact, he interrupted a performance on May 20th to announce that Charles Lindbergh was at that moment beginning his US-to-Paris flight, and to lead the audience in a prayer for his safety.
Unfortunately, vaudeville was on its way out by then; for every appearance from W. C. Fields or Burns and Allen, Scranton also got things like a lecture on swimming by Gertrude Ederle, fresh from her swim of the English Channel. The Poli actually switched to an all-movie format in late 1927. Another venue, the Capital, continued to offer vaudeville acts mixed in between movies, keeping this format for another 25 years; with younger stars such as Tony Martin and Jackie Cooper appearing alongside Hollywood stars such as Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela Lugosi, or Jackie Coogan, who’d made his show business debut alongside Charlie Chaplin in The Kid. But when a fire closed the Capital in 1951, it reopened as a movie house, ending vaudeville in Scranton.
It’s true – over the course of the 20’s, vaudeville was on the way out; even though some houses went on afterward, scholars consider 1932 to be the year vaudeville ended. There were actually several reasons why…
Radio and record players were one reason. A number of singers, comedians, and other vaudevillians recorded themselves in the teens and 20’s, and if a fan bought the record, they could listen to it over and over and over again whenever they wanted rather than waiting for the act to show up. It was easier for the performer, as well – one recording session and they were done, rather than traveling out on the road again and again. Vaudevillians liked radio for the same reasons; but radio’s live format let them continue to come up with new material and still stay close to home. Americans were already buying 25 million records a year at the beginning of the 20’s, and radio boomed as a medium during the 20’s.
Broadway was starting to cannibalize vaudeville acts for its own stages. Several big acts, such as the Marx Brothers, had been invited to expand sketches into full-length plays for Broadway, and shows like Ziegfield’s Follies copied the vaudeville revue format on Broadway itself. Some vaudeville stars, like Ed Wynn, even got offers to develop an entire revue show, starring all their sketches. For many performers, it was a much more lucrative and “classy” alternative to continuing on the vaudeville circuit. Performing on Broadway was also easier for the performer – rather than vaudeville’s two-shows-a-day schedule, and its constant travel, Broadway offered only one show a day and being able to stay put in New York. Some acts occasionally continued to tour, but most made the jump to staying put in New York.
Amid both the performers and the audiences, some were finding that vaudeville was a little too squeaky-clean. At its onset in the late 1800’s, particularly for vaudeville theaters owned by the Keith-Albee producing team – which meant most theaters east of the Mississippi – vaudeville had been billed as wholesome, family-friendly entertainment, an alternative to the seedier saloon shows. Theaters on the Keith-Albee circuit charged fines and sometimes cancelled an act if performers showed a little too much skin or used objectionable language. (A tangent – theaters often communicated their displeasure with misbehaving performers in memos that came in blue envelopes; some say that this is the source of “blue” being a slang term for off-color or adult language.) This kind of family-friendly approach just didn’t suit many in the 1920’s any more – after living through a World War, the country was ready to let its hair down and party a little. Some performers also were feeling stifled by vaudeville’s squeaky-clean image and had better luck on the legitimate stage – Mae West, for one, just plain didn’t work as a vaudeville comedienne, but her racy talk worked just fine on the straight theater circuit. Other vaudevillians, such as Jimmy Durante and Helen Morgan, actually bought and co-owned night clubs in the 20’s, appearing there as hosts and performers.
Movies often first saw light as part of vaudeville bills, but over the 20’s the movies took over. Like with radio or records, it was easier on the performers – one filming session and they had a performance on record that could be shown again and again. Showing movies was also easier – and cheaper – for the vaudeville houses, who only had to keep the movie reels in a box rather than contracting and hiring act after act after act. Already by 1921, a quarter of the theaters that had both films and vaudeville had switched to all-film formats. An even bigger blow to vaudeville came in 1926 when the first “talkie” film was produced – The Jazz Singer, starring vaudeville regular Al Jolson. The bigger theaters continued to pair vaudeville acts with movies throughout the late 20’s, featuring the flashier production numbers instead of smaller acts; such “presentation houses” often presented a film accompanied by a big band performance and six big-name acts such as Burns and Allen or Cab Calloway. But with the big names in New York, regional theaters simply couldn’t compete – unless they switched to an all-movie format.
Ironically, one of vaudeville’s biggest producers may have had a hand in its demise. Edward Albee, half of the Keith-Albee production team, made a series of business moves that drove performers away from his theaters towards the end. First, in 1925, Albee hoped to recoup some of the losses from audiences who were seeing movies instead; to compete, he switched from presenting two shows a day in his theaters to as many as five shows a day, a grueling performance schedule that either exhausted performers or put them off entirely. Albee also responded to any competition – radio, Broadway, or film – by writing clauses into performers’ contracts that if they agreed to join his vaudeville circuit, they absolutely would not appear in radio, in film, or on Broadway. The bigger names eventually found Albee’s restrictions unreasonable. In 1928, even Albee’s own assistant jumped ship for movies – Albee had given his assistant, one J. J. Murdock, several shares of company stock as a bonus, and his assistant turned around and sold it to Joseph P. Kennedy (JFK’s father, interestingly enough), who already had a sizeable amount of stock in the Keith-Albee company. Murdock’s piece gave Kennedy controlling interest in the company, and he forced the company to expand into movie and radio production and gradually de-emphasizing its vaudeville. Albee kept what control of the stage side of the company that he could, but one day when he tried to make a suggestion to Kennedy during a company meeting, Kennedy put him off, saying, “Don’t you know, Ed? You’re washed up.” Albee, stung, soon retired from the company entirely, and shortly thereafter the company merged with another movie distributor to form RKO pictures.
The Depression itself may have been the final nail in the coffin. Salaries for the big names were especially high by this point, and audiences dropped off sharply as a public with little money sought cheaper, or free, entertainment.
Arguably, some elements of vaudeville continued in other formats; some acts went blue and joined burlesque shows, others joined the Broadway revues or musical theater, still others went into radio or film. Some point to the early days of television as a brief revival of the vaudeville “revue” format, and others regard the sketch comedy of shows like Saturday Night Live as the beginning of a contemporary revival. But by 1932, one of the biggest RKO houses – the Palace in New York – announced it was switching to an all-movie format, and vaudeville was effectively over.
Some parts of Pennsylvania were already suffering from an economic downturn before “Black Tuesday.” Farmers, never a well-off segment of the population, struggled during the 1920’s as former international markets dried up after the first World War. The U.S. government placed high tariffs on European goods; if European nations couldn’t sell their goods, they couldn’t buy American produced, and if they couldn’t buy American produce, American farmers lost out.
Coal miners also suffered. Two strikes in the early 1920’s – one in 1923 and one in 1925 – scared some customers into thinking that coal just wasn’t reliable; sure, it worked well, but would they always actually be able to get it, or would the company be on strike again? Many switched to using oil or natural gas instead, and the demand for coal decreased. Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, textile mills were also closing, as many textile factories were finding it cheaper to set up shop in the South.
Then came the stock market crash. Most businesses responded at first by cutting short employees’ hours; as the crisis continued, then they laid workers off. Many of the poor, already in shaky financial circumstances, were forced to default on mortgages, rents, or taxes on their homes, and ended up getting evicted. In Philadelphia alone, in 1932, 19000 homes were sold at sheriff’s auctions. In the middle or upper classes, things were also tight; people who did have some savings lost them, as 130 banks had failed by 1931. Doctors and lawyers couldn’t collect fees from financially strapped clients. Teachers’ salaries were reduced, and some school boards who had married couples working within their system would fire the wives, keeping the husbands on the payroll, thinking the salary would at least stay in the family.
By 1933, 40% of the state was unemployed, and 71,000 Philadelphians were reported to be suffering from malnutrition. The state’s “poor boards” were flooded with cases; one town’s relief board reported that one superintendent and one assistant had a case load of 800 families. Restrictive poor laws also prevented grown children living at home from collecting relief if a parent was also collecting.
But some in coal country were actually surviving, albeit through a black market. It had long been a custom among miners to do a little coal-gathering on the side, for themselves – either picking through the “culm”, or waste rock produced in mining, to pick out the often sizeable lumps of not-quite-perfect coal, or by drilling their own small mines nearby the main mine site. Mine owners permitted the culm picking, and grudgingly accepted the secret mines as the amount of coal miners took for themselves was usually negligible. But through the 20’s, improved mining equipment reduced the amount of leftover coal that made it into the culm dumps, and especially during the 1925 strike, more and more miners opened up their own secret holes on company property. Some miners were let go after the strikes, but maintained these secret private mines, taking a little extra to sell to neighbors for the extra cash. Participants in this coal black market jokingly called it “bootleg coal,” in reference to the other black market in alcohol at large in the country.
Then the Depression hit, and the number of coal bootleggers doubled – in some places, it tripled. There’s even evidence that some town relief boards encouraged the practice, telling families who appeared before them asking for fuel that there was one easy way they could get some for free…As for the mine owners, when they complained to law enforcement or to the relief boards about the bootlegging, the authorities pointed out that they were perfectly free to hire these miners back. But if they didn’t, then it was their loss. In the cases when a mine owner got someone arrested for bootlegging, the relief boards countered that if the miner could prove that the coal was being dug for their own use, they should be released. They were, however, very lenient when it came to what constituted such “proof” – usually just the miner’s say-so. Relief boards also reminded that if they cracked down on the bootleg miners, the relief boards would have to increase the mine owners’ tax burden in order to pay for the resultant upswing in relief.
Coal bootleggers stepped up their own production, and in many cases made enough from selling to family and friends and neighbors to put a down payment on a truck, which then allowed them to try to sell their coal in other towns. Usually it was sold for a dollar or two cheaper than legitimately-mined coal, and thus they made quick sales and started getting regular orders. By 1933, nearly 100,000 men, women, and children in coal towns such as Centralia, Shamokin, and Williamstown were being entirely supported by bootleg coal; about five million tons of coal had been mined and shipped to neighboring towns, and to cities as far away as Newark and Philadelphia, and bootleg miners had earned between $30 and $35 million. Louis Adamic, a journalist for the paper The Nation, also pointed out that all that money was staying in those communities, which in many cases was keeping shops open, keeping other professionals in business, and keeping the coal region afloat.
By 1933, coal bootlegging was a big enough industry that some of the miners were even starting to organize into their own union. But other independent miners were beginning to cooperate with the mine owners again, agreeing to pay them a royalty to allow them to mine on their property. Rumors also spread among some mine owners that the government was trying to come up with a way to somehow incorporate the bootleg miners into some kind of New Deal program. But very few people, even among the bootleg miners, felt this would be a permanent solution; even the miners felt that this was just a for-now business, something to help keep themselves and their communities afloat during the Depression. The fact that it was as successful as it was just spoke volumes about the miners’ fortitude and determination.
“A Miner’s Prayer”
In the late 1920’s or early 1930’s, a Pittsburgh woman sang this song for a folklore collector:
I keep listening for the whistles in the morning,
But the miners are still; no noise is in the air.
And the children wake up crying in the morning,
For the cupboards are so empty and so bare.
And their little feet are oh! So cold they stumble
And we have to pin the rags upon their backs,
And our home is broken down and very humble,
While the wintry wind comes pouring through each crack.
Oh, it’s hard to hear the hungry children crying
While I have two hands that want to do their share,
Oh, you rich men in the city, won’t you have a little pity,
And just listen to a miner’s prayer?
1933: The Dawn of the New Deal
1933 was the beginning of FDR’s “New Deal,” and many of the related programs began that same year.
Things kicked off in March with the Emergency Banking Act, in which all banks underwent a four-day bank holiday to give accountants a chance to come up with a plan to stabilize the banking system. Each bank was also assessed for stability. At the end of the four days, most banks reopened, with all banks under supervision of the U.S. Treasure department and subject to federal loans where necessary. Nearly four thousand small banks found to be too unstable were merged into larger banks, with Depositors eligible to receive 85 cents on the dollar for their deposits. In order to avoid any other such bank crashes, the government also created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) that June, insuring deposits in any bank up to $5,000. People who had been hoarding money in mattresses gradually took a deep breath and deposited money into the nation’s banks again, slowly bringing stability back to the economy.
Other programs which began in 1933 included:
- The Federal Emergency Relief Administration: A $500 million grant to the states for emergency food and shelter.
- The Civil Works Administration: this was a short-term project during the winter of 1933-1934, creating 4 million construction and public works jobs.
- The Public Works Administration: a longer-term agency contracting construction workers for public improvement projects throughout the country. Nearly every county in America had at least one PWA project; such projects included swimming pools, bridges, band shells, hospitals, schools, bridges, highways, and dams. Only three counties in the nation did not participate in the PWA.
- The Federal Surplus Relief Corp: purchased surplus food crops and animals for distribution to the states.
- Civil Conservation Corps: created jobs on conservation projects such as reforestation, soil reclamation, wildlife refuges, firebreaks, and improvement to national parks. Members were nicknamed “Roosevelt’s Tree Army.”
- The Agricultural Adjustment Act: provided subsidies to farmers producing corn, cotton, dairy products, hogs, rice, tobacco, and wheat for reducing their output, thus reducing the supply of such crops and increasing the price. Farmers benefited, but at the public’s expense. Also, at the beginning of the program, surplus food and crops were destroyed rather than being distributed as part of any sort of welfare program. A public backlash lead to the AAA being declared unconstitutional in 1936.
- The Tennessee Valley Authority targeted parts of the rural south for especial assistance; the program involved dam-building projects along the Tennessee river to provide electricity to areas of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky, and small areas in Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. The TVA also created educational programs to help farmers in the area modernize their farming methods, replanted forests in the area, and cleaned the river to improve fishing conditions.
Other programs, such as the Works Progress Administration, were implemented in later years.
Mood Indigo, Duke Ellington
Putting On The Ritz, Fred Astaire
But Not For Me
Can This Be Love?
Dancing On The Ceiling
I Got Rhythm
Love For Sale
Bidin’ My Time
All Quiet On The Western Front
The Blue Angel
The Big Trail
They Learned About Women
The Hays Code was introduced this year, but compliance was optional. Mandatory compliance with the code didn’t come until 1934.
99 Out Of A Hundred Want To Be Loved, Rudy Vallee
Minnie The Moocher, Cab Calloway
Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams, Bing Crosby
Where The Blue Of The Night Meets The Gold Of The Day, Bing Crosby
When The Moon Comes Over The Mountain, Kate Smith
All Of Me
Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea
Dancing In The Dark
Dream A Little Dream Of Me
Lady Of Spain
I Found A Million-Dollar Baby (In A Five and Ten Cent Store)
Of Thee I Sing
The Star-Spangled Banner officially became our National Anthem in 1931, after 20 years of Congressional Debate.
The Public Enemy
The Front Page
It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing
April In Paris
I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan
Night And Day
You’re Getting to Be A Habit With Me
Freaks (Incidentally, Freaks starred two former vaudevillians -- the Hilton Sisters, who happened to be Siamese twins)
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang
Tarzan the Ape Man
A Farewell to Arms
No Man Of Her Own
It’s Only A Paper Moon
Have You Ever Seen A Dream Walking?
The Gold Diggers Song (“We’re In The Money”)
Dinner At Eight
Gold Diggers of 1933
Flying Down To Rio
Hallelujiah, I’m A Bum
The Moderation League of New York overturned its liquor prohibition laws, joining a growing movement for the repeal of Prohibition and motivating Washington to send federal agents into the state to enforce the national ban on alcohol.
· March 2 - Time Magazine hits newsstands for the first time.
· March 9 - Vladimir Lenin suffers a stroke, his third, which renders him bedridden and unable to speak; consequently he retires his position as Chairman of the Soviet government.
· May 27 - Ku Klux Klan defies law requiring publication of its members. Oklahoma Governor places the state under martial law in an attempt to quell KKK uprising.
· August 2 - Warren G. Harding, 29th President of the United States, (1921 - 1923) dies in office of food poisoning and is succeeded by Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929).
· September 4 - In Lakehurst, New Jersey, the first American airship, the USS Shenandoah, takes to the sky for the first time.
Due to cost-saving assembly-line production, the price of a basic Model T Ford dropped to $290. Ford produced its 10-millionth automobile.
Calvin Coolidge was re-elected president.
2½-million radios were in American households. Only 500 receivers existed in 1920.
· January 21 - Vladimir Lenin dies and Joseph Stalin begins to purge his rivals to clear way for his leadership.
· January 25 – The first Winter Olympics held in Chamonix, France .
· February 8 - Death penalty: The first state execution using gas in the United States takes place in Nevada.
· February 12 - Rhapsody in Blue, by George Gershwin, first performed in New York City at Aeolian Hall.
· February 22 - Calvin Coolidge becomes the first President of the United States to deliver a radio broadcast from the White House.
· May 21 - University of Chicago students Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, Jr. murder 14-year-old Bobby Franks in a thrill killing.
· June 2 - U.S. President Calvin Coolidge signs the Indian Citizenship Act into law, granting citizenship to all Native Americans born within the territorial limits of the United States.
· June 8 - George Mallory and Andrew Irvine are last seen "going strong for the top" of Mount Everest by teammate Noel Odell at 12:50 PM. The two mountaineers were never seen alive again.
· November 19 - In Los Angeles, California, famous silent film director Thomas Ince ("The Father of the Western") dies, reportedly of a heart attack, in his bed (rumors soon surface that he was shot dead by publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst).
· November 27 - In New York City the first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is held.
· January 27–February 1 - The 1925 serum run to Nome, or the "Great Race of Mercy", relays diphtheria antitoxin by dog sled across the U.S. territory of Alaska to combat an epidemic.
· February 21 - The New Yorker magazine publishes its first issue.
· March 4 - Calvin Coolidge becomes the first President of the United States to have his inauguration broadcasted on radio.
· April 10 - F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby
· July 21 - In Dayton, Tennessee, high school biology teacher John T. Scopes is found guilty of teaching evolution in class and fined $100.
· November 28 - Country-variety show Grand Ole Opry makes its radio debut on station WSM (it would later become the longest-running live music show).
· December 26 - The Sphinx was finally dug out in 1925, to the great pleasure of its numerous visitors.
· Thompson submachine gun sells for $175 in the 1925 Sears, Roebuck and Company mail order catalog.
· March 16 - Robert Goddard launches the first liquid-fueled rocket, at Auburn, Massachusetts
· May 12 Roald Amundsen flies over the North Pole.
· May 18 - Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson disappears while visiting a Venice, California beach.
· September 18 - Great Miami Hurricane: A strong hurricane devastates Miami, Florida, leaving over 100 dead and caused several hundred million dollars in damage; equal to nearly $100 billion dollars today. The hurricane also put an end to a period of heavy speculation and real estate brokering in the area
· September 20 - Twelve cars full of gangsters open fire at the Hawthorne Inn, headquarters of Al Capone in Chicago. Only one of Capone's men is wounded
· September 26 - Gene Tunney defeats Jack Dempsey and becomes heavyweight champion of the world.
· October 31 - Magician Harry Houdini dies of gangrene and peritonitis that developed after his appendix ruptured.
· November 11 - U.S. Route 66 was established.
· November 15 - The NBC radio network opens with 24 stations (it was formed by Westinghouse, General Electric and RCA).
The Mt. Rushmore Monument was dedicated.
Babe Ruth slammed 60 homers during the Yankees' regular season and two more in their World Series play against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The first full-length "talkie", The Jazz Singer, starred Al Jolson.
· January 7 - First transatlantic telephone call is made: New York City to London.
· February 23 - The U.S. Federal Radio Commission (later renamed the Federal Communications Commission) begins to regulate the use of radio frequencies.
· March 11
o In New York City, the Roxy Theater is opened by Samuel Roxy Rothafel.
o First armoured car robbery, committed by the Flatheads gang.
· April 22 - May 5 - The Great Mississippi Flood affects 700,000 people in the greatest national disaster in US history to date.
· May 11 - The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the "Academy" in "Academy Awards," is founded.
· May 18 - Bombings result in 45 deaths, mostly children, in the Bath School disaster in Bath Township, Michigan.
· May 20-21 first solo non-stop Trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris by Charles Lindbergh.
· May 23 - The first demonstration of television before a live audience. Nearly 600 members of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and the Institute of Radio Engineers view the demonstration at the Bell Telephone Building in New York.
· August 23 - Sacco and Vanzetti are executed.
· September 18 - The Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System (later known as CBS) is formed and goes on air with 47 radio stations.
· October 6 - The Jazz Singer opens and becomes a huge success, marking the end of the silent film era.
· October 28 - Pan American Airways first flight took off from Key West to Havana.
· November 12
§ Leon Trotsky is expelled from the Soviet Communist Party, leaving Joseph Stalin with undisputed control of the Soviet Union.
§ The Holland Tunnel opens to traffic as the first Hudson River vehicular tunnel linking New Jersey to New York City.
· November 14 - The explosion of three Equitable Gas storage tanks in the North Side of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania kills 26 people and causes damages estimated between contemporary totals of $4 million and $5 million.
· December 27 - Kern and Hammerstein's Show Boat, based on Edna Ferber's novel, opens on Broadway and goes on to become the first great classic of the American musical theatre.
· Voluntary Committee of Lawyers founded to bring about repeal of prohibition of alcohol in United States.
· March 21 - Charles Lindbergh is presented the Medal of Honor for his first trans-Atlantic flight.
· June 17 - Aviator Amelia Earhart starts her attempt to become the first woman to successfully pilot an aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean (she succeeded the next day).
· June 29 - New York Governor Alfred E. Smith becomes the first Catholic nominated by a major political party for U.S. President, at the Democratic National Convention in Houston, Texas.
· September 1 - Richard Byrd leaves New York for Arctic.
· September 3 - Alexander Fleming discovers Penicillin.
· September 16 - The 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane kills at least 2,500 people in Florida.
· November 6 U.S. presidential election, 1928: Republican Herbert Hoover wins by a wide margin over Democrat Alfred E. Smith.
· November 18 - Mickey Mouse appears in Steamboat Willie, the first sound cartoon.
Al Capone was sentenced to a year in prison for carrying a concealed weapon.
The first Academy Awards were held. Wings was named best picture, Emil Jannings best actor and Janet Gaynor best actress.
· January 2 - Canada and the United States agree on a plan to preserve Niagara Falls.
· January 17 - Popeye, a comic strip character created by Elzie Crisler Segar, makes his debut.
· February 14 - St. Valentine's Day Massacre: Seven gangsters, rivals of Al Capone, are murdered in Chicago.
· February 18 - First Academy Awards are announced.
· March 4 - Herbert Hoover is inaugurated as the 31st President of the United States, succeeding Calvin Coolidge.
· March 16 - A part-talkie film version of Show Boat, based on Edna Ferber's novel rather than the musical, premieres in Palm Beach. The film stars Laura La Plante and Joseph Schildkraut. It is critically panned and not successful at the box office.
· May - Wickersham Commission begins investigation of alcohol prohibition in U.S.
· May 13 - National Crime Syndicate founded in Atlantic City.
· May 17 - Al Capone and bodyguard were arrested for concealing deadly weapons.
· August 19 - The radio comedy show Amos and Andy makes its debut starring Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll.
· October 24 - The start of the Black Thursday stock market crash on the New York Stock Exchange
· October 29 - Black Tuesday stock market crash on the New York Stock Exchange
· December 3 - Great Depression: US President Herbert Hoover announces to U.S. Congress that the worst effects of the recent stock market crash are behind the nation and the American people have regained faith in the economy.
An introduction to the Scranton area mafia
Scranton was no stranger to Mafia activity in the early 1900’s. Many Italian immigrants had moved into the area, finding work in the mines; as with Italian immigrants elsewhere in the country, these miners often were targets of “Black Hand” extortion attempts. The target would receive an anonymous note demanding money, and threatening violence if they did not comply. Such notes were signed with an image of a Black Hand, hence the name.
Some “home-grown” Black Hand groups sprang up in Scranton on their own, but others were founded by gangsters on the run from New York City. Tomasso Petto, one early Scranton Mafioso, fled a murder charge in New York in 1902 and began engaging in “Black Hand” extortion against miners. While Petto escaped New York law enforcement for the murder charge, he seems to have been caught by other Mafioso; he was found dead in 1905. Santo Caressi, another mob boss and extortionist, may have been responsible. Several other small crime bands were at work in Scranton at this time, jockeying for control of the region.
Then in 1908, one such boss emerged as the boss of Scranton – Santo Volpe, born in Sicily in 1880. Volpe got his foot in the door in 1906 when he married the sister of Stefano LaTorre, head of his own small band; by 1908, Volpe had taken over the family. Throughout his reign, Volpe had a job as president of a Scranton coal company as a cover, but his criminal empire included most of eastern PA’s coal region, including such cities as Wilkes-Barre and Hazelton, and extended into parts of New York State, such as Syracuse and the Catskills. Volpe’s coal company was an effective cover, as the family’s early money came from racketeering in area mines and control over union activity.
Volpe had control of the family throughout the Prohibition years, and like many other Mafioso, was involved in bootlegging, smuggling boatloads of whiskey in from Canada across Lake Erie. The Volpe family also maintained several stills in the area, and also sent “hijackers” to steal shipments of whiskey from other smugglers to distribute themselves. In the late 1920’s, two of Volpe’s ablest underbosses were John Sciandra and Joe “The Barber” Barbara, each also skilled at bootlegging in their own right. In addition, Barbara served as an occasional hit man for Volpe, as well as for other crime families elsewhere in New York State.
In the early 1930’s, Volpe’s family suffered a series of shakeups. The first came in August of 1932 when the body of one John Bazzano was found strangled, stabbed, and stuffed into a sack in the middle of a street in Brooklyn. Bazzano was the crime boss of Pittsburgh, and may have also been responsible for murdering three Pittsburgh area criminals, named Arthur, James and John Volpe, who had tried to overthrow his leadership. The Volpe brothers may have attempted an overthrow of Bazzano's power. While there’s no concrete proof that Santo Volpe was any relation, there’s some evidence he was their cousin. Even if he wasn’t, having control of Pittsburgh certainly would have been sizeable expansion of Volpe’s territory, and Volpe came under heavy suspicion for being involved with the murder.
Barbara also had problems of his own. He had already been arrested in Brooklyn in 1931 for carrying a submachine gun and driving a car that wasn’t actually his; he was released for lack of evidence. He also posted bail for one Tony Morrale, who was arrested in Wyoming, PA for suspected murder (the victim was a bootlegger who'd gasped Morrale's name out as his last words).But in 1932, Barbara was again arrested and extradited from Scranton back to Brooklyn, as a suspect in two unsolved gangland murders. (Accounts say that the only surviving witness was still in the hospital, and after Barbara was extradited to Brooklyn, he paid that witness a visit -- and wouldn't you know it, shortly after Barbara's visit, that witness recanted his statement...)Later that year, one Albert Wichner was found dead in his own car in Scranton. Wichner had been a "hijacker" for the Volpe family -- actually, in today's parlance, he could probably be called a "carjacker"; he would steal competitor's liquor trucks, full of bootlegged or black-market alcohol, and bring them in to the Volpe family for their own distribution.A witness, who police believed had driven the car just prior to the murder, first accused Barbara of the crime; shortly after, he too recanted, saying he couldn't really remember all that well. Police kept at the case, eventually bringing charges against Volpe himself in 1933; that case too fell apart.With the all the fuss from the murder of Albert Winchell, as well as the continued investigation into the murder of John Bazzano, Volpe voluntarily stepped down from power in 1933, turning control of the family to John Sciandra. Sciandra had been active in bootlegging for the family and had also worked in Volpe’s mines. Many believed that Volpe had died, but he was in fact alive; he just stayed out of the public eye, serving as an advisor to the family until his death in the 1950’s.
As for Joe Barbara, he too had chosen to lie low after the Wichner incident, retreating to Endicott, New York, where he took advantage of the repeal of Prohibition to set up a small bottling plant and get a New York State license for beer distribution. He also got a franchise and distribution contract with Canada Dry. But he still kept an eye on things in Pennsylvania throughout Sciandra’s reign in the late 1930’s, keeping in close contact with Angelo Polizzi, another consigliere in the Volpe family. Sciandra was found murdered in 1940, and whether Barbara actually did murder Sciandra or not, he stepped in as the boss of Scranton in 1940. Sciandra actually had little support from Volpe’s family at this point, nor did he have the support of “The Commission,” a sort of underworld U.N. which kept peace among the country’s various crime lords; so Barbara’s assumption of control went uncontested and Sciandra’s murder went largely unexamined. Barbara kept uncontested control of Volpe’s family for nearly 20 years afterward, eventually becoming a prominent enough figure that he was able to coordinate a nationwide meeting of all Cosa Nostra bosses in 1957. He died of natural causes in 1959.
I have found some tantalizing information about vaudeville in Scranton in particular: Scranton seems to have been part of "the Mishler circuit", a small chain of theaters founded by one Isaac Mishler of Lancaster, PA. Mishler moved to Altoona at the age of 20, in 1882; in 1894 he opened a vaudeville theater there. The following year he opened another theater in Johnston, PA, and in 1903 opened theaters in Greensburg, PA and Trenton, NJ. Ultimately he controlled 24 theaters in eastern PA along the main line of the Pennyslvania Railroad, from Lancaster through to Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. Altoona was his home of operations; this actually is the source of vaudeville jokes about faring well or poorly in Altoona.
One problem: after reading John Beck's copy of "If You Can Play Scranton," I STILL have not found out much about the elusive Mr. Mishner. The book, which is devoted to the performing arts in Scranton, did not mention him at all. However, it does mention that one theater passed through a few hands early in the stages of vaudeville before folding, and it was one Mr. Poli who finally opened a permanent vaudeville theater some years later. I'm just going to assume that Mr. Mishler was one of those unfortunates who failed in this early attempt, and since we're talking about stuff that happened in the 1880's, it's moot anyway.