Mass Culture: Radio, Music, and the Movies

from Who Built America?

The new consumer culture was accompanied by the rise of a truly national popular culture. Popular entertainments like radio, recorded music, and motion pictures pulled previously isolated social groups into the mainstream. At the same time, however, they divided families by appealing differently to members of different generations. As they reached their wide audiences, these entertainment forms created new desires and aspirations, reinforcing the development of a consumer culture.

When broadcasting started in 1920, radio was a primarily male hobby. Men and boys wearing headsets assembled and listened to broadcasts made by local amateurs. Stations were supported by wealthy individuals, colleges, churches, newspapers, municipalities, and manufacturers of radio equipment. By 1926, more than four million radios made their way into American homes. Soon, loudspeakers replaced headphones, allowing entire families to listen together. Families and neighbors gathered in homes and shops to listen to drama, comedy, and crop and weather reports. For the first time, millions of Americans could hear the voice of the president, the roaring crowds at the World Series, and the very best professional musicians. Radio created a mass audience for sports and music far from the ballpark and the concert hall.

Businesspeople quickly realized that radio offered a wonderful new medium for peddling their wares. Within a few years, companies were sponsoring programs that incorporated commercials featuring "branded performers" like the lpana (toothpaste) Troubadours, the A&P Gypsies, and "Paul Oliver" and "Olive Palmer," who performed for the Palmolive Company. By 1928, national networks had been established on an explicitly commercial basis to sell expensive radio time. Filling that time were new forms of sponsored programming, like Pepsodent toothpaste's "Amos 'n' Andy," an enormously popular comedy show about African Americans (played by white actors), which premiered in 1928.

Radios were common even in rural areas, where they were powered by batteries or windmills. The news of commodity prices and weather reports that the radio brought was vital information. Soon the Department of Agriculture was providing radio stations with scripts for lessons on dairy production, livestock feeding, and cooking. The "National Farm and Home Hour," which debuted on NBC stations in 1928, provided fortyfive minutes of music, weather and crop forecasts, and information on soil improvement and home economics. just as important, the radio kept farm women company as they churned butter and made beds. As one Missouri farmer wrote to a radio station in 1923: "We hill-billies out in the sticks look upon radio as a blessing direct from God. We farmers are going broke anyway, but we would like to have our radios to sort of ease the pain."

Local and ethnic radio broadcasts flourished alongside the emerging national shows. In every city, scores of low-powered stations carried foreignlanguage programs. In neighborhoods like Boston's Italian-American North End, many more people listened to such broadcasts than to English language programming. Stars of foreign- language radio shows became important figures in the ethnic enclaves, making frequent personal appearances at neighborhood restaurants, dance halls, and cultural centers.

Ethnic audiences could also buy phonograph records made in foreign languages. By the mid­1920s, phonographs were affordable luxuries for working people. Like radios, they were sold at widely ranging prices, depending on the quality of their cabinets as well as their working parts. "Race records" marketed to black audiences, brought black music to far flung corners of the United States. In just six months, leading blues singer Bessie Smith's first recording, "Downhearted Blues," made in 192 3, sold 750,000 copies.

The movies, too, were adapted to the needs of ethnic communities. Eastern European Jews created a Yiddish film industry in the 1920s, with its own directors, movie stars, and theaters. The conflicting aspirations of European-born parents and their "American" children were a major theme of this emerging cinema. Another small, independent movie industry served blacks.

For most of the decade, movies were only part of a show that included live entertainment. In the packinghouse district of Chicago, a Polish play accompanied the film; in Little Sicily, Italian music could be heard at the movie house. In "The Stroll," Chicago's African-American entertainment district, blues artists played on the same bill as the movie. Nor was the film showing entirely silent: Live music -a piano in a small theater, an organ in a larger one, an orchestra in the big downtown movie palaces for the middle class -accompanied the screen images.

Before World War 1, moviegoers had been mainly urban, workingclass immigrants, but during and after the war, movie theaters sprang up even in remote towns. By the mid- 1920s, there were more than twenty thousand movie theaters in the United States. In Carrboro, North Carolina, a small mill town without electricity, the only entertainments had once been baseball, hunting and fishing, music, and conversation. Now, with a movie house equipped with a gasoline-powered generator, mill families could see the latest newsreels and Hollywood movies. Carrboro was becoming less isolated.

At the same time movies were arriving in small towns, film distributors began building large, ornate movie palaces in the cities. One Baltimore theater featured a 11 0-person orchestra, a mammoth organ, and fourteen pianos. Workers took the streetcar, and middle-class people drove downtown, to see new kinds of films at these theaters -at first, silent features running an hour or more; eventually, in the late 1920s, "talking pictures." By 1930, a total of 100 million movie tickets were being sold every week.

Businessmen embraced the new popular culture because it stimulated consumption. People wanted to own the cars and clothes they saw in movies and magazines. Young people, and adults, too, began modeling their clothing, speech, and behavior after stars of movies, vaudeville, radio, and professional sports.

Many of the new celebrities came from working-class, immigrant backgrounds. Rudolph Valentino, Hollywood's top male romantic lead, had been born in Castellaneta, Italy and had worked as a gardener and busboy when he first came to the United States. The great magician Harry Houdini was the son of a Jewish tailor. And baseball slugger Babe Ruth's parents, the children of German immigrants, lived in a poor neighborhood on the Baltimore waterfront. These celebrities were popular in part because they spurned the Protestant middle-class values of self-restraint, hard work, and "character," Valentino's erotic portrayal of exotic and passionate characters in movies like The Sheik challenged the Victorian ideal of restrained and decorous masculinity. Ruth was celebrated not only for his extraordinary athletic accomplishments (his career home-run record lasted thirty-five years) but for his oversized appetites for food, clothes, alcohol, and sex.

These icons of mass culture competed with the traditional values of families and local communities in providing the primary channels for children's access to the outside world. Generational conflict often resulted, especially in immigrant homes. Grace Gello, who grew up in an Italian family on New York's Lower East Side, remembered that she and her fiancé would occasionally take the afternoon off from work to go to the movies. "We didn't do this too much because we were afraid of my father. He would say, 'If I catch you, I'll break your neck."'

For immigrants and their children, and for farmers, miners, millworkers, and laborers, movies provided a window on the middle- and upper-class world, with which they had no direct contact. Kate Simon, a writer who grew up among immigrants in the Bronx, New York, recalled that from movies "we learned how tennis was played and golf, what a swimming pool was and what to wear if you ever got to drive a car . . . and of course we learned about Love, a very foreign country like maybe China or Connecticut."

In a sense, all of America was Americanizing. Mass culture was not only Americanizing immigrants, it was redefining the nation's values. Such changes proved threatening, particularly to traditional arbiters of public values -ministers, political leaders, police officials, social workers, and academics -who generally opposed change. Although the movie moguls profited from their role as the nation's new cultural brokers, they also worried that if they went too far, they would provoke censorship and attack, a serious concern, since so many of them were themselves immigrants. After a young actress was found dead in the aftermath of a drunken party hosted by "Fatty" Arbuckle, one of the nation's favorite film comedians, the producers realized they needed a frontman. For $150,000 a year, they hired Will Hays, President Harding's postmaster general and an elder of the Presbyterian Church, to set up a system of industry self-policiiig. A few years earlier, baseball owners had followed a similar strategy after gamblers fixed the 1919 World Series. They appointed as baseball commissioner the federal judge and former semipro ballplayer Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who ruled the sport with the same autocratic style that had made him a feared opponent of radicals in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) sedition trials.

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