Even in the depths of Depression, life was not all gloom and misery. People found ways to enjoy themselves. Some-times that enjoyment was something grand and epic. Often, it was as simple as a box in the living room.
Meet Me at the Fair
A sea of colored lights greeted people coming to Chicago’s lakefront in 1933. The hundred-year- old city was celebrating with the Century of Progress— a gigantic world’s fair.
Light from the distant star Arcturus was captured and converted into energy. This became electricity, which started up the fair.
The fair’s 16 million visitors saw exhibits celebrating science and industry. They viewed everything from a recreated Mayan temple to the dentures George Washington wore. Baseball celebrated the fair by holding an all-star game in the White Sox’s Comiskey Park. The popular game became an annual event.
Italy honored the fair. Dictator Benito Mussolini sent an air armada across the Atlantic Ocean. Chicago residents cheered as the planes landed near the fair. There would be no cheers a few years later. During World War II, many of these same airplanes would be attacking American soldiers.
Sports and Games
Americans continued their love of athletics. Baseball remained the national pastime. Fans followed the sixteen major league teams, although attendance at many ballparks dropped. The St. Louis Browns in 1935 drew only eighty-nine thousand fans all season—less than what most teams draw for a good weekend series today. Thousands of other fans saw Negro League games, with talented African-American players who were barred from the majors only because of their race.
Other sports also drew fan support. College football remained popular, and interest in the young National Football League grew. Boxing matches drew thousands of spectators. Americans cheered during the 1936 Olympic Games as Jesse Owens won four gold medals. Germany’s racist dictator, Adolf Hitler, left Berlin’s stadium instead of congratulating the African American.
The Depression era featured many outstanding athletes—Jesse Owens, boxer Joe Louis, and baseball stars Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx, Dizzy Dean, and Satchel Paige. But one of the most amazing athletes of the 1930s was a woman. Mildred “Babe” Didrikson played in many different sports and starred in all of them. She won gold medals in the javelin and hurdles, and a silver medal in the high jump during the 1932 Olympics. While touring with an all-male baseball team, she set a women’s record by throwing a baseball 296 feet. She won fifty amateur and professional golf tournaments, including fifteen in a row. She even tried boxing.
At-home activities also gained popularity. Jigsaw puzzles enjoyed a boom. Before the Depression, only the wealthy played bridge. Afterward, people throughout the nation enjoyed the card game. But a new game captured America’s imagination. Monopoly players vied to build hotels on ritzy Boardwalk and Park Place. People with barely a dime to their names could dream of amassing fortunes.
Over the Rainbow
Americans saved their pennies to go to the movies—from the film palaces of New York and Chicago to the tiny Idle Hour Theater in Glenwood, Missouri. Filmgoers bought more than 60 million movie tickets per week in the early 1930s.
These films rarely depicted daily Depression life. Instead, patrons bought tickets to journeys away from their worries. They went almost anywhere. Some followed King Kong up New York City’s Empire State Building. Others danced to sophisticated musical numbers with elegantly dressed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Young and old retreated to the wild west with John Wayne in Stagecoach. Millions laughed at the zany comedies of the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields. Filmgoers by the thousands followed Dorothy over the rainbow to visit the Wizard of Oz or raced with the seven dwarfs to save Snow White.
The most elaborate movie of all ended the 1930s. Atlanta author Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind, an epic tale of the Civil War era. Movie fans waited breathlessly for the film version of the novel. Dashing Clark Gable was the obvious choice for handsome Rhett Butler. Producer David Selznick surprised many when he chose English-born Vivien Leigh to play the strong-willed Scarlett O’Hara. Movie fans adored the film. Gone with the Wind won ten Oscars, including a Best Actress award for Vivien Leigh.
Radio’s Golden Age
For the most popular entertainment, people stayed home. At night, families listened to the radio in their living rooms. Radio brought news, music, comedy, and sports from around the country. Best of all was the price. Once a family bought the radio set, the entertainment was free.
People could hear music of all types. There was jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman and his vibrant swing music. Southern listeners enjoyed Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry country music show. Silly novelty tunes like “Mairzy Doats and Doazy Doats” and “Three Little Fishies” gave millions a well-needed chuckle.
Radio produced stars that Americans considered close friends. One of them was Jack Benny. He was a vain, foolish cheapskate surrounded by a gang of eccentric friends. When a robber pointed a gun at Jack and demanded, “Your money or your life,” the comedian paused, then said, “I’m thinking it over.”1 Listeners identified with the weaknesses of Jack and his pals. They loved them.
Listeners were thrilled by the adventures of the Lone Ranger, masked hero of the Old West. Women in particular enjoyed soap operas; tear-inducing tales of liars, cheaters, gossips, marital problems, and characters with amnesia. Children used their secret decoder rings to help Little Orphan Annie escape from a variety of villains.
Radio shows exercised listeners’ imaginations. One favorite program featured Fibber McGee and Molly. Each week McGee opened his closet door, and an avalanche of junk fell out. “You heard the junk fall out of Fibber McGee’s closet, but everyone used their imaginations to determine which junk fell,” one listener said.2
On October 30, 1938, thousands of Americans panicked. “Everybody was terribly frightened. Some of the women almost went crazy,” one witness recalled.3
What caused this terror? Orson Welles produced a radio program based on the science fiction novel War of the Worlds. Those who tuned in from the beginning realized it was only a radio play. But millions of people who joined the show in progress heard a frightening account of alien monsters invading New York. Even though columnist Dorothy Thompson assured readers, “Nothing about the broadcast was in the least credible,” the Columbia Broadcasting System and Welles issued apologies afterward.4 Fears of a Martian attack proved unfounded. They would be replaced by more realistic terror of foreign enemies.