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I was born in Steubenville, Ohio in 1924. My father was with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus when he met my mother in 1922. He left the circus early in 1924 and we moved to Toledo, Ohio, where he and my mother started a vaudeville and burlesque supply house. They sold costuming, specialty dancing shoes and general paraphernalia to the show people. Their store was downtown, across the alley from the great Palace Theatre.
Many times, the performers would come to the shop and purchase various items for their acts. I still have autographed black-and-white photos of many who would go on to Hollywood and become famous movie stars.
In 1929, my parents, being in the entertainment business, were totally wrapped up in what became known as the "roaring twenties." Sometimes, my father would take me with him when he delivered items to the performers backstage. I was just starting school and he had to be careful of strict truancy officers that roamed all the live-act theatres looking for kids of the show people that were not in school. Backstage at the burlesque theatre, I would see all these scantily clad women strutting around with jewels in their belly buttons and wondered why my mother didn't have one (you're supposed to laugh here!).
It was during this time that my parents always had to take me with them when they were partying with the show people and going to the speak-easies. With no baby sitters, they would check me in with the hatcheck girl and I would join other kids there that were on a rug under all the coats and hats. There were toys for us. The smoke was so thick you could cut it with a knife and the noise of the band, tinkling glasses and all the squealing and laughter was deafening. America, according to my young recollections, was booming!
The few cars I remember were mostly black, and most clothing, especially winter coats, was dark. We lived in a couple of rooms at a private residence and I remember the single light bulb hanging in the combination living room/bedroom. Mother cooked on a hot plate and washed dishes in the bathroom, which we shared. We had no refrigerator, only a window box to use in the winter. We never had a thought in our mind that maybe we weren't rich. Mom and Dad always had a job and everybody laughed all the time. Then, the market crashed and all the good times for most people melted away.
When the banks failed, it turned into chaos in the streets. One evening, when we went downtown to check on the bank, there were hundreds of people out front yelling and crying and fighting and beating on the locked doors and windows. They had built fires in the street to keep warm, and there were people milling around all over the downtown. Anybody that thinks that what we are going through now is a depression, doesn't have a clue of what a real depression is.
But for us, showbiz continued to flourish during the hard times and we always were going to parties and laughing it up. We lost maybe $400 in the failed bank, but we moved on, went to Florida and soon Dad was working again. I remember, for years after the banks began to come back, Mother would receive a check every once in a while. They were small by today's standards, I think $4, but well-received in 1933. I learned a lot from living in those times. Maybe that's what we need again, if just to show young folks how good they have it.
Story collected for the Ohio Department of Aging Great Depression Stories Project 2009.
(Picture from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)