Dan Wald with a poster of “Dance Hall Racket” – Photo by Evie Hemphill
Q&A with Dan Wald and Susan Kleinschmidt
Between the 1930s and 1960s, St. Louis was a city where the theater and burlesque tradition flourished. One of the main theater owners and producers responsible for that was Harry Wald, whose mid-20th century burlesque films were recently acquired by the Washington University’s Film & Media Archive.
Originally from New York, Wald got an early start in the entertainment business, joining the traveling carnival circuit right out of high school and eventually settling in St. Louis where he managed and owned numerous theaters. Many performers who went on to be famous, or act in movies, got their start in burlesque and made a stop at Harry Wald’s Grand Theater, originally located downtown at Market and 6th Street.
In an effort to learn more about the cultural history of the films comprising the Harry Wald Collection, Film & Media Archive library assistant Alison Carrick interviewed Wald’s son, St. Louis resident Dan Wald, who donated the collection, as well as one of Harry Wald’s daughters, Susan Kleinschmidt.
Note: This article first appeared in Washington University Libraries’ Off The Shelf. What follows is the more extensive conversation taken directly from the transcripts of the interviews.
Tell us the story of the films and why you decided to give the collection to the Film & Media Archive at Washington University?
Dan Wald: The story of the films is that they had been around since the ‘40s, ‘50s, some of them are older than that, and in the past they were stored at our theaters, backstage when they weren’t being used anymore and some of them were actually stored at film labs, but they closed up, so we wound up having all of them here in St. Louis. What they consist of are full length features, some shorts and there are also some negative prints. So there’s a combination of films in there. I think they range from ‘30s all the way to the late ‘50s, maybe early ‘60s. I became very concerned as far as the condition of the films and whether they were going to deteriorate to the point where they wouldn’t be able to be used anymore. With that in mind I had decided to contact WU and a little later, I decided to give them to Washington University so they could be preserved.
How did Harry Wald get into the theater business? How did he start out?
Dan Wald: The way that my father, Harry, got involved in the film business was, as a youth when he was in high school—he grew up in the Bronx—he started working for the burlesque theater in the concessions department. After high school, he decided to go on the road. So, he wound up travelling around the country running concessions for this [theater] group. He was in Cincinnati, and that’s where he met my mother who was a chorus girl in the theater there. The way he wound up in St. Louis was that he was assigned to the Grand Theater which was in St. Louis at the time, and he wound up buying that theater and became involved in the burlesque ownership of theaters and then later on in making the films, distributing the films, which are the ones I’ve given to Washington University.
Film cans from the Harry Wald Collection – Photo by Alison Carrick.
What was one of your father’s early jobs in the theaters and on the road?
Dan Wald: One of the jobs that my father had running the concessions was a candy butcher. And what a candy butcher did was during the show, there would be an intermission and during that intermission, somebody would come out—usually my father or one of those other guys—with a box of taffy. And they would come out and say, “In one of these boxes, there is a watch or silk stockings” and the people would buy the boxes for a dollar and they’d go through the taffy, take the little prize out. So he started out doing that. As I was doing some research so did Danny Thomas. His first job was in Cleveland as a candy butcher with the same company.
Susan Kleinschmidt: He would say, in each and every box a prize. Sometimes they would have a guy planted in the audience, who would open his box and say, “I found a gold watch.” Of course, it wasn’t really gold.
Could you talk a little bit about St. Louis during the 1940s through the 1960s, and what the burlesque theater scene was like at that time?
Dan Wald: My understanding is that when he came to St. Louis in the ‘40s, the burlesque theater at the Grand Theater that he was running concessions for was part of a circuit. So in those days the burlesque theaters [troupes] would go from town to town, and St. Louis was one of the cities. In the ‘20s and ‘30s live burlesque was very vital, but as it went into the ‘40s and ‘50s, it was less and less of an appeal and they started to go to movies. So a lot of the movies that I’ve given to Washington University, in essence what they would do is set up a camera, like tenth row center, and they would ask the performers, “Do you want to make an extra $25.00?” and they would have them do the show. So a lot of these films, there’s no storyline or anything. At that point, the live burlesque kind of died and they figured out, well we can make more money if we have a hundred of these pictures and send them out to theaters around the country. So my dad and his friends, some of them were called the Forty Thieves, they went out and started making these movies and distributing them, and went that route, and that helped kill off the live [burlesque]. The Forty Thieves, from what I understand, were a group of guys—that once they came up with the Hayes [Production] Code for Hollywood—these guys figured out, well, we don’t have to be under the Hayes Code, we’re kind of an alternative filmmaking group. So, they would make these films and send them to guys, that like my father, who had these theaters, burlesque theaters, or just independent guys, and they really didn’t care if Hollywood said this is too risqué, because that’s what they wanted, that’s what got the people in the theaters. So they made these movies or they would in the case of guy like Dwayne Espberg brought the rights to a movie called Freaks(dir. Tod Browning) which was famous in the ‘70s as kind of a midnight show, and he would—they would change the title and they did all sorts of stuff. But what they were really good at was getting press, and they would get press, negative or positive, and that would bring people into the theaters, so that’s what they really wanted, ‘cause once you got them in the theater and saw what there was, there really wasn’t anything to see. There wasn’t that much nudity, if any, but it was the titillation that got them to the theater and made them spend their money.
Poster for a Harry Wald production.
Was your dad involved in the Lenny Bruce film Dance Hall Racket? Or was he just a distributor on that one.
Dan Wald: In the case of Dance Hall Racket, that was a film that was made, I guess, in the early ‘50s, and the history I know of it—I’m not sure if my dad was directly involved with it. At some point he did distribute it, so he bought the rights from someone, or they would sell territories. Harry Wald controlled all the Midwest. Dan Sonny had all the western states. And some other guy I forget had the east, and they would go back and forth. But he did know Lenny Bruce. He knew his mother [Lenny Bruce’s mother] very well. They all—the thing about the burlesque people is they all knew each other and so in my dad’s case, a lot of them would show up and need money and he would make them a loan. They always paid it back, he never worried about it, so it was kind of like an extended family. One of the things we have in our collection are letters back and forth from my father to one of the entertainers whose name was Justa Dream, and he made a movie with her, but at one point she had left a trunk in the theater and he shipped it back to her and in the letter I see, he’s giving her advice to stay with her husband because he’s a nice chap.
My father was involved, as many of these guys were in different levels of making the films. In some cases, they would get distribution rights for the films, in some cases they would just take the front title off and change the title of the movie and redistribute it that way. He made the Tijuana After Midnite [sic] pretty early, and I wasn’t around then, but I’m sure knowing how he was, he made the movie on the cheap and they would just, he would then make prints you know—a couple of hundred prints, a hundred prints—you know and they would just send it around for the next couple of years. For my father it was, you know, he loved the production of it, but it was a business. This was their product, and you either had to make it, or buy it from somebody else.
Did you meet any of the performers, or have any memories of them from that time?
Susan Kleinschmidt: Before I started school, my mother and I would go down to the theater in the evening. There was a restaurant next door and the show people would gather there. I got to meet a lot of these people and go backstage. At that age, I was fascinated with the makeup and costumes. I loved watching them put on their costumes. I met Rose La Rose. In the early days, the comic Phil Silver, Red Skelton, Red Buttons, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Jimmy Durante, Sammy Davis and his uncles. My father was a friend of Kurt Wallenda [famous acrobat]. It was a festive atmosphere, like a big family. One time, I tried to go out on stage and sing. Mickey Rooney wanted to take me to California and make me a child star. My father was for it, but my mother wouldn’t let me go. My father remained friends with the performers. He saw Red Buttons every time he came to town, and Red was an honorary pall bearer at his funeral.
Dan Wald: My only recollections of it personally are, there’s a poster over here for a woman named Virginia Ding Dong Bell—they always had great names, stage names—and I remember when I was about eight years old, she took me and a cousin to skate at Steinberg [skating rink].
Susan Kleinschmidt: At the theater in Louisville, one of the girls had an act with a boa constrictor. One of the snakes got loose at the theater. For months, no one could find it, until one day it fell from one of the rafters of the theater and dropped down into a seat next to someone in the audience.
Was there any connection between the burlesque theaters and the clubs in Gaslight Square?
Dan Wald: Later on he did have a bar at Gaslight Square and they probably had, I don’t know if they had any striptease there, but I know that, Gypsy Rose Lee, for example came and did a show at one of the bars, so this would be in the mid-60s, but by then a lot of that, the burlesque part, had kind of run its course.
What did your father see as some of the causes of that shift from live performance to film?
Dan Wald: In the ‘20s and ‘30s live burlesque was very vital, and what happened, apparently what happened is in New York it was banned. So in New York City, they banned, in the late ‘30s, live burlesque. So in those days, the big one was Minsky’s. So they still had burlesque, but it became a little less of a force in the entertainment field. So you still had burlesque, and the burlesque was still going from city to city but as it went into the ‘40s and ‘50s, it was less and less of an appeal and they started to go to movies.
Susan Kleinschmidt: The end of burlesque meant he had to retire. In his office at the World Theater he would play gin rummy upstairs. My father always wanted to be in show business. He had dreams of being a producer. When he would go to Las Vegas, he knew all the pit bosses. All of them had been in vaudeville. He would have loved to have been an actor.
What did your father love about the entertainment business and burlesque? What did it mean to him?
Dan Wald: He started in it at an early age, and it really was a family. I mean he was involved in theater concessions but he was also involved in traveling—you know, the circus. They would work these carnivals and get the people to come in the tents and see the girls, but I think what he liked the most about it was being part of the show and to feel part of the whole, larger entertainment world. I think that’s something my father really liked a lot. He was in essence a frustrated actor. One of the guys he knew from his youth was George Jessel, who no one remembers now, but in his time was a very big actor, in the ‘30s. So he became friends with him later, and he was friends with Danny Thomas and Red Buttons’ best man. He always wanted to do more acting, but he never really got the opportunity. In his own life, he would try and get involved. If he saw some guys filming something on the side of the street downtown, which had nothing to do with what he did, he’d stop and get interviewed. He loved it.