Eric Smoodin’s groundbreaking book Animating Culture analyzes cartoon exhibition through film bills. This month’s blog entry does the same but with a twist. It looks at how segregation shaped the cartoon-viewing experience in a southern city, and film bills from the Dallas Morning News in the 1930s and 1940s are the primary sources.Interstate Circuit–a chain of theaters in Texas–played an important role in American animation. Interstate’s venues promoted not only their feature films but also their short subjects, which theaters tended to treat as filler for a bill and not worthy of distinction. Starting in March 1934, the circuit mentioned cartoon shorts by name in newspapers like the Dallas Morning News, and it devised feature-length, all-cartoon bills for Saturday matinees. Cartoon distributors and theater managers noted the resulting uptick in attendance, and Interstate became influential in nurturing the stardom of cartoon characters. According to Joseph Barbera’s My Life in ‘Toons, Interstate’s shorts department manager Besa Short wrote to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to ask for sequels to Puss Gets the Boot, and the “Tom and Jerry” series was born.
Less well known is that skin-color segregation shaped Interstate’s promotion of cartoons. Many theaters across the country, especially in the South, refused to admit African Americans; and those that did exiled them to high balcony seats accessible by a separate entrance. Of Interstate’s half-dozen theaters in downtown Dallas alone, only one–the Majestic–admitted African Americans, and they sat in the “buzzard’s roost” there. The Majestic played jazzy cartoons with African American casts, presumably because African Americans would have appreciated MGM’s frog cartoons of the late 1930s, Leon Schlesinger’s Clean Pastures, and Terrytoons’ parody of “Uncle Tom” in Eliza on the Ice. Episodes referring to African American urban culture like the “Tom and Jerry” episode The Zoot Cat also appeared there.The Majestic generally exhibited cartoons from Walt Disney, Leon Schlesinger, and MGM; but down the street Interstate’s Palace Theater was the place to see the big cartoon stars of the day. The debuts of Bugs Bunny (A Wild Hare) and Tom and Jerry (Puss Gets the Boot) were here, and the Palace regularly presented first-run cartoons from Walter Lantz’s “Andy Panda,” Max Fleischer’s “Superman,” and Famous Studios’ “Little Lulu.” These films then appeared for additional runs at other downtown Interstate theaters like the Capitol, the Rialto, and the Melba, which offered all-cartoon Saturday matinees. The “whites only” policies at the Palace and the second-run houses gave African Americans only one venue to see a limited range of cartoons, and African Americans rarely, if ever, had the chance to see brand-new episodes of Bugs Bunny and Superman.
Also, Interstate launched its shorts department in 1934 because of skin-color sensitivity. Circuit head R.J. O’Donnell told the Dallas Morning News of March 17, 1934, that the idea came to him after a program at one of his theaters consisted exclusively of films with African American casts. “Recently I saw a short subject of the Mills Brothers with The Emperor Jones as a feature picture. This was overdoing the negro theme. … This is the sort of thing Mrs. Short’s department will try to correct,” he said. Short recalled the same event months later in the Motion Picture Herald of October 27, 1934, but she added that Emperor Jones and the Mills Brothers short were joined by “a dusky type cartoon.” Thus, from March 1934 onward, Interstate did not schedule all-African American programs. Moreover, the Majestic was the only place for the jazzy, “dusky” cartoons in downtown Dallas, and Bugs Bunny and Superman were for “whites only.”
This segregation lasted until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At the time the Majestic remained the only downtown movie option for African Americans, and in 1961 students launched a series of sit-ins at the Majestic, claiming that they could not hear or see films very well in the balcony. By then, however, television had democratized animation. African Americans could now see cartoons in their own homes without suffering the indignity of Jim Crow in theaters. Nevertheless, animated cartoons had grown from second-class filler to a force in the entertainment industry, thanks in no small part to the segregated promotional gimmicks pioneered by Interstate.