Christopher P. Lehman
July 16, 2016 posted by Christopher P. Lehman

Cartoon Exhibition In The Segregated South

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.

The Majestic and The Melba in Dallas

The Majestic and The Melba Theaters in Dallas

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.

This January 1939 notice of a first run double biil at the Majestic also promotes the Donald Duck cartoon (click to enlarge)

This January 1939 notice of a first run double biil at the Majestic mentions the Donald Duck cartoon (click to enlarge)

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.

21 Comments

  • What a jolly Screen Song! The trumpet-beaked bird tied in well with the trumpet-like Mills vocalizing; and the gag with the peg-leg sailor (and his “peg-valet”) is the sort of thing you’d only see in a Fleischer cartoon. If they ran this one at the Bijou today, I’d sing along (which I wouldn’t for something like “In the Good Old Summertime”).

    I’m a little puzzled by your last statement, though – I know you didn’t intend it, but it’s almost as if you are suggesting segregation should be thanked for saving the shorts industry. Silver lining, phooey! (More to the point, Interstate’s policy of homogenizing their shorts programs so as not to “overdo the negro theme” would seem to be a less-than-admirable attempt to lessen, not increase, the appeal to black audiences and the dollars they represented.)

    • I suppose that’s one for the historians to figure out.

    • I probably should have used the word “due” instead of “thanks.” You’re right that I am not suggesting that we actually thank segregation for boosting the cartoon short. I’ll definitely steer clear of that word unless I literally mean it. Thanks (I mean it) for letting me know.

  • I understand there were at least some segregated theaters that ran non-mainstream features with all African-American casts. Were there any attempts to actually target cartoons to a black audience, as opposed to mainstream shorts caricaturing them?

    • The production of all-black-cast films was a very low-budget part of the movie industry; so it’s unlikely the producers of these pictures could have considered the expense of animated cartoons. Still, some talents from the animation business worked on them, in particular Hal Seeger, an ex-Fleischer animator and later TV cartoon producer (“Milton The Monster”), who wrote a number of all-black-cast musical comedy features and shorts in the late 1940′s.

    • Maybe some of the later George Pal Puppetoons like “John Henry and the Inki Poo” and “Date With Duke”.

    • I think the African American audience would have been too small for studios to cater to them when investing in cartoon production; they were only 10% of the population. Animators tended to showcase African American performance due to personal tastes; Lou Fleischer and Bob Clampett genuinely liked African American jazz, for example. However, I find no record of them trying to win over African American audiences with jazz cartoons. Moreover, the industry barely paid attention to owners of African American movie houses; the MOTION PICTURE HERALD published feedback from no more than four “colored patronage” theaters throughout its existence.

    • Seems like such a harsh reality of a time in America’s history we just have to accept. But yeah, I wouldn’t put it past an industry that knew where to go numbers-wise.

  • One animated short comes to mind during the era of segregation in the cinemas was the Warner Bros animated classic (or infamous) Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs starring the voices of Lillain Randolph as Mammy (who also did the original voice of Mammy Two Shoes in the MGM Tom and Jerry shorts), Vivian Dandridge & Ruby Dandridge (the sister & mother of legendary actress Dorothy Dandridge) as So White and The Wicked Queen (or the “sweet voice & evil cackle” of the Wicked Queen since Danny Webb did the Wicked Queen’s raspy voice) , jazz vocalist & musician Leo Watson as the voice of Prince Chawmin and Mel Blanc as the Sebben Dwarfs and other various voices.

    The majority of the music was scored by Carl W. Stalling and the final Kiss sequence incidental music was provided by Eddie Beals and his Orchestra.

    Even though this cartoon is on the infamous “Censored Eleven” Warner Bros. Cartoons this was considered as Bob Clampett’s greatest animated masterpiece.

  • I’m wondering, now, whether the fact that African-American audiences couldn’t see first runs of many of the cartoons we considered so highly might be partly to do with the reason why some studios will no longer put money into restoration of those cartoons, especially those now “forbidden” titles featuring caricatures, because non-whites would not want to have those titles shoved in their faces again because the “wound” would still be so fresh amid members of their families who remember how insulting it was to be ushered out of a movie theater where a first run film is playing? So many of those cartoons of the 1930′s and 1940′s and even the 1950′s are of their time, and the studios want us to forget about the times in which the cartoons were created. Okay, in one sense, that’s fine, but the titles do exist. But I have to tell ya, I loved just listening to that Max Fleischer cartoon. I want it restored just so we can hear the soundtrack so much better. While caricatures abound in Fleischer cartoons, the talent in jazz that lent themselves, for whatever reason, to these titles gave such wonderful performances, while the other studios regarded possibly much more just caricatured the talent. I always felt that the Fleischers enjoyed the music they were able to add to the cartoons. There were examples like this at Warner Brothers and Walter Lantz Studios, but to me, the Fleischers led the way in how to utilize the styles of jazz for their surreal cartoons.

    • “Restoration” is a tricky word, it can mean anything from a simple reissue of library material, in whatever condition you find it, to the sort of careful (and expensive) work of tracking down the best copies of a title and making an effort to put its best face forward. Nowadays that work is mostly the provenance of specialists who are also fans, like the folks at Thunderbean, to whom the major frustration must be the tendency of some copyright holders to have no interest in letting outsiders license their stuff unless there’s good money to be made. To holders of a lot of old material, let’s say Universal, old black and white cartoons must seem particularly worthless, and they’re running a business, not a museum. (The rise of home video opened up a big market for old cartoons, but you see the same ones repackaged over and over.)

      As far as it goes, black cinema audiences in the era of segregation enjoyed the same programming whites did, though doubtless some bad feeling might greet the worst stereotypes. I am not sure what you mean when you talk about anyone being “ushered out” of a movie theater, unless you were a kid and your parents didn’t want you to subjected some piece of racist trash. Otherwise, as Chris noted, you wouldn’t have gotten past the door in many places.

  • I know people are using a kind of verbal short-hand when they say “skin-color segregation” or “skin-color sensitivity” but the roots of what is defined generally under the blanket moniker of racism is something far more primitive and biological than anything expressed by a so-called “racist” work of art, like many of the cartoons analyzed on this website.

    An anthropologist and a forensic scientist can tell if a skull belonged to a black, an asian, a hispanic, a white, a whoever without a scrap of skin to examine because there are many more physical differences between races than just pigmentation. Pigmentation is actually a weak defining characteristic because humans with caucasoid skulls for instance can have a wide variety of skin tones and still be classified as caucasoid. Until humans resolve to the truth that there are different breeds of homo-sapiens (all deserving equal rights in a free society), just as there are for example different breeds of canines who on a primitive, biological level will often instinctively not “get along”, we are never going to accept things like a blackface cartoon or a Chinese dry cleaning cartoon or a Yiddish salesman cartoon as first and foremost works of art which must be preserved.

    The only alternative is to regard certain genetic strains of homo-sapien as off limits in regard to criticism and parody, as if they were an untouchable holier-than-thou priest class of a backwards superstitious culture (cultures which history has proven time and again inevitably collapse upon themselves).

    • So, if every white person on the screen was a caricature of Lou Costello being a cowardly little manchild, that would not be racist?

    • Well look who showed up, our resident apologist for some of the less savory tendencies, the ones that haven’t aged so well, in the entertainment business in a world gone by. This time, he’s peddling something more toxic – probably has a well thumbed copy of Charles Murray’s “The Bell Curve” under his mattress – and I won’t waste time rebutting his wordy and thoroughly debunked social theory, which boils down to “Let’s just admit that white people are the Master Race and call it a day; we’ll all be so much happier, whaddya say?”.

      Here’s what I say: I don’t care what you think about cartoons or anything else from now on. Scram, Junior. Got me? You are bringing us all down.

    • Concerning my terminology, “skin-color segregation” is a fact. It existed legally, and its legality is well-documented. “Racism” and “racist” have multiple interpretations, and there is no uniform way to define either word. That’s why I don’t use the words. I often frustrate people by refusing to use the words, because people would rather immediately respond with “That’s not racism/racist!” It’s harder to deal with the fact of “skin-color segregation,” because it is undeniable. My article’s point is that animation’s history is tangled up in this fact.

    • Christopher, I suggest you not engage with this canker. He’s been around for a while and can’t talk about cartoons without putting in a plug or two for his buffoonish ideas about race/sex relations, the evil of labor movements, or how quality American entertainment as exemplified by the old-time minstrel show is threatened but must surely return someday. If this site were mine, I’d disappear him, Pinochet-style, but a gentler soul such as yourself might better just take a nice shower and put it all out of your mind. Yours, Peter.

    • Anyone else wonder why you-know-who uses an umlaut in his name, hmmmm? (SCHUUULLLTZ!!!)

    • Just because you get neo-Nazi comments doesn’t mean you have to publish them.

  • You have to realize too, in the case of the Fleischer cartoons, that Paramount was in the theatre and vaudeville business at that time as well. Many performers, either black or white, who appeared in the Screen Songs or other musical shorts, were also signed to tour Paramount’s theatre circuit.
    A cartoon or short would go to the theatres these acts would play as a form of advance publicity (“see the Mills Brothers on the screen this week, see them ‘live’ on our stage next week!”) In the smaller theatres not part of the vaudeville tour, the shorts would stand on their own.

  • I know this must seem naiive, but I just never realized that segregation in theaters meant that non-white audiences didn’t get to see first-run movies *anywhere* when they were current. I knew that that generation had theaters that were less nice, with less money spent on everything, or that they had to settle for the balcony, as you’ve told us. But to completely miss out on movies – and shorts – that they were hearing about and reading about… that just seems all the more barbaric. I guess historic details can catch me off guard like that sometimes, and re-sensitize me to things I didn’t know I’d been hardened to.

    • It’s not naive. I think we’re taught in schools that Jim Crow was about telling people where to sit in a facility. Rarely are we taught that some places were just totally off limits to some people. Many people opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because they did not want private businesses (like theaters) to lose their ability to turn people away because of color.

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