Ragtime: Theater and Change in Turn-of-the-Century Spokane

By Holly George, Co-Managing Editor of the Utah Historical Quarterly and author of journal articles on gender, recreation, and the West published in Pacific Northwest Quarterly and Utah Historical Quarterly. Find her book “Show Town: Theater and Culture in the Pacific Northwest, 1890-1920” online at Amazon.com.

Above, Spokane vaudeville performers off-hours socializing on the sidewalks of the old Empress Theater, which stood on the south side of Riverside on the west 200 block in downtown Spokane. The Empress featured countless local and touring vaudeville acts, reflected in these circa late-1910s and early-1920s images, courtesy of the collection of Linda Rock. Today, the Empress Theater location is a ground level parking lot. The photo above with the arched doorway shows the Sprague Ave entrance to the theater.

In nineteenth-century America, the Victorian code of behavior—often taught, not always lived—called for thrift, piety, and tightly controlled bodies. Victorianism began to crumble in the 1890s, as many middle-class Americans longed for more excitement. Commercial entertainments like ice cream parlors, amusement parks, and dance halls created a space for men and women, boys and girls, to relax and socialize in public. By the 1910s, the shift to the twentieth-century pursuit of personal freedom and fulfillment was well underway.

The stage had done much to erode Victorian ideals, and the people of Spokane loved the stage.

Spokane already claimed a solid theatrical tradition by the early 1900s. In 1890, J. J. Browne and A. M. Cannon had built the posh Auditorium Theater as a showpiece for the wealth of their new little city. Spokane’s upper class loved to flaunt its style while watching stars like Sarah Bernhardt. Saltier venues such as the Coeur d’Alene Theater, owned by “Dutch Jake” Goetz and Harry Baer, meanwhile, catered to the legions of workingmen who kept the mines, lumber camps, and fields of the Inland Northwest running. As the century turned, the city could—and did—boast of more fine theaters, such as the Spokane; these venues not only hosted touring stars and productions but were also controlled by national chains and distant show-business kingpins.

Being on a theatrical circuit meant being part of a national (and even international) exchange of culture. With the trainloads of scenery and performers came dresses, dialogue, dance steps, and music from New York City, Paris, Buenos Aires, and the American South. Vaudeville—a fast-paced, mixed-format show featuring a lineup of performers—especially introduced Spokanites to new ideas.

Many vaudeville managers emphasized the family-friendly nature of their shows, but that wasn’t always the truth. The performers themselves often pulled at the edges of Victorian standards with innuendo, outlandish costumes, or even slapstick comedy. Outrageous and big-city, vaudeville performances troubled educators and politicians as much as they tickled audiences. In 1912 Spokane, for instance, speakers at a parent-teacher conference cautioned that “sensation mad” teens were being damaged by theater—and, in fact, students at that school went to shows on a very regular basis, according to the Spokesman-Review, February 10, 1912.

Of all the ideas introduced to Spokanites by vaudeville, ragtime couple dancing was among the most controversial. Animal or rag dances—with names like the Texas tommy, the turkey trot, the bunny hop, and the grizzly bear—involved rocking, lifting, shaking, and hugging set to ragtime music. Even more suspect, in the eyes of the white middle class, these dances had originated among African Americans and then traveled from San Francisco’s entertainment district to Broadway to venues throughout the United States and Europe.

Filled with vitality and excitement, ragtime dances spread like fire after 1910. By January 1912, enough Spokanites had taken up ragtime that local clergy denounced the bunny hug, turkey trot, and grizzly bear dances by name. One year later, the people of Spokane were still dancing, and Major W. J. Hindley proclaimed that things had reached a “serious pass.” As an alarmed resident put it, reformers could hardly persuade the people to stop ragging when they watched “all sorts of ‘rag’ and fancy dances on the vaudeville stage every day, and nothing is said about it. The couples go from the playhouse to the dance hall and try to repeat the steps they see given on the stage” (quoted from the Spokesman-Review, January 31, 1913).

Vernon and Irene Castle, pictured here, helped turn ragtime dances into “culturally acceptable” dances for early twentieth century white audiences and ballroom dancers. The Castle’s notoriety accelerated when they appeared in Irving Berlin’s 1914 musical, “Watch Your Step”, which made the Fox Trot famous. Public domain.

Finally, in January 1913, Spokane’s moralists moved to ban ragtime dancing. It was part of a larger effort by the city of Spokane to censor entertainments it found inappropriate by appointing one of the city commissioners as public censor and making agreements with the theaters. The ban made it illegal for anyone to rag dance at a public or quasi-public event, but really, it was too late. Spokane’s young people in particular had already learned the “freak dances” and continued to recreate them at gatherings of both high and low society. In December 1913, a set of teenagers duped adults into letting them hold an event at which they engaged in the forbidden steps. This prompted the police chief to state that ragging must end, even if children had to be arrested. By March 1914, things had come full circle, with Spokane youths headlining at the Pantages Theater with an exhibition of current dances.

But by 1914, the tone of the national dance craze had shifted, and it had everything to do with the perceived racial and social origins of the ragtime dances. As the trend evolved, “society” exhibition dancers distanced the style from its roots in black, Latin, or underworld cultures. Vernon and Irene Castle especially made the ragtime dances seem whiter and richer, more ballroom than ragtime.

The diary of Helen Campbell, a Spokane mining heiress, reflected this change – her diary is housed in the archives at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. In May 1913 (and despite the dance ban), Campbell wrote that she had “Tried the ‘Rag’ with Mr. C. My first and last.” That December, she noted her distaste when a friend “aired her views on dancing very thoroughly. Disgusting!” Yet a few months later, in February 1915, Campbell had done an about-face, as she happily watched the Castles perform ballroom dances in New York City. Prominent dancers, in other words, had made Mayor Hindley’s censorship irrelevant by making ragtime dances safe for people like Helen Campbell.

Find Holly George’s book, “Show Town: Theater and Culture in the Pacific Northwest” on Amazon.com.

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