Twenty years before she died, my mother wrote her memoirs, a detailed account of her colorful career as a Fanchon & Marco dancer during the golden age of vaudeville in the 1920s. Her stage name was Reva Howitt, but her dance partner always called her Lollipop, a name that, to me, captured the essence of the dancer she once was. For despite the outer cloak of domesticity she assumed after marriage, my mother retained the glamour of the stage, the magnetism she radiated across the footlights as a San Francisco Beauty, one of Fanchon & Marco’s eight premiere showgirls who were the first female tap dance lineup on the West Coast. As a child I took great pride in telling my friends that my mother had been a ballerina—every little girl’s fantasy.
When my mother wrote her memoirs in the late 1970s, she was in the midst of a second career as a writer. She specialized in the history of California women and had seen many of her articles on that subject in print. She had always been interested in California history, fascinated by its pioneers, well aware that her own great uncle, Herman Davidson—singer with a traveling opera company in the late 19th century and later the first cantor/rabbi at Temple Israel in Stockton, California—was himself a historic figure. It was Herman Davidson, long gone but vivid in my mother’s memory, who set the stage for her second career.
In 1966, when my parents and I were in San Francisco, we stopped to visit Uncle Herman’s son, Sam Davidson, who lived in a pre-earthquake home in the Haight Ashbury district. When my mother asked a few questions regarding his father, Sam disappeared into his bedroom and returned with Uncle Herman’s scrapbook, a collection of newspaper clippings, concert programs, and photos pertaining to his early operatic career. "Take this—it might tell you something," Sam said, as he gave my mother the scrapbook to keep. As soon as he placed it in her hands, my mother was transfixed, caught in a psychic wallop that made her feel destiny had endowed her with the world’s greatest treasure. She often spoke of that moment, whose future impact she could not fully comprehend, but whose effects would resonate ever more strongly as time passed.
Some months later, through a mutual acquaintance, word of the scrapbook reached the editor of Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly, who contacted my mother and suggested she write a piece on Herman Davidson for the Quarterly. Though hesitant at first to regard herself as a "writer," my mother researched and wrote the article, which became the first of many she subsequently contributed to this and other journals up until the 1990s.
After my father’s death in 1977, my mother looked back on her life and grew nostalgic for the theatrical days she once knew. Curious to see whether any part of the glamorous young dancer remained in the woman now past 70, she retrieved the diaries she kept during her career. As she read the detailed accounts of her nationwide tours, her appearance at New York’s famed Palace Theatre, and her association with the now legendary Fanchon & Marco, she realized that she herself was part of theatre history, rich source material for her latter-day field of interest. Inspired by the vivid accounts of the young dancer, she began writing the chronicle of her remarkable girlhood journey from a small-town ballet class to the stage of the Palace Theatre, the country’s top vaudeville house in the Roaring Twenties. The resultant work emerged as a compelling personal narrative that combined the vintage journal commentary of the young dancer with the insightful latter-day reminiscences of the septuagenarian and the comprehensive overview of the writer/historian.
Shortly after my mother’s death in 1997, I unearthed the memoir she had written twenty years earlier. As I read it, I thought of the many details she left out: anecdotes she had told me, incidents related in letters from her former dancing partners, relevant events that occurred in the years after the memoir was written--all of which begged to be included. Accordingly, in the present work, I have inserted some of these additional details into my mother’s original manuscript, along with my own comments where apropos.
I realized also that my mother’s story had a broader historical context. Her detailed record of her own career simultaneously outlines the careers of her employers, Fanchon and Marco. Very little has been written about Fanchon and Marco, whom Variety called "the world’s most famous brother and sister producing team." They are virtually forgotten today. There is no complete published record of the hundreds of innovative motion-picture prologues called "Ideas" they presented in live stage shows throughout the country. My mother’s memoir does much to fill this gap. Thanks to her diaries and recollections, she provides a record of her daily life with Fanchon & Marco Company from 1925 to 1934, first as a performer, then as a secretary in their booking office, and finally as Co-Director of their Theatrical School in Los Angeles.
My mother’s diaries reflect the growth and proliferation of Fanchon & Marco Company from local San Francisco beginnings through gradual expansion into Southern California, the Pacific Northwest, and eventually to a national circuit. By 1929, according to Variety Fanchon & Marco had established "the standard by which stage shows are judged." Their unique contribution to show business emerged with the advent of their "Ideas"—live stage shows that preceded the film feature at movie houses.
First presented in 1923, the "Ideas" were lavish variety shows with a unifying theme connecting the various acts. The show’s orchestra leader usually doubled as an emcee, and often contributed a tap dance, comedy routine, or solo instrumental performance to the bill of fare. The "Idea" was interpreted by dancers (appearing in lineups, solos, or teams), singers, comedians, musicians, acrobats, and individuals with novelty acts. Often a celebrity or current newsmaker was added as a feature attraction. Unlike standard vaudeville shows (which featured a series of unrelated acts by performers gathered from various sources to do their specialties in a mixed revue of songs, dances, skits, comedy, etc.), the Ideas were unified productions, performed by a troupe and shaped by a central theme (hence the name "Idea").
An "Idea" theme could be based on a popular Broadway musical (The Sally Idea was one of these); or it could revolve around a holiday (The Christmas Idea), a color (Idea in Blue), a food (The Salad Idea), a cartoon (Mickey Mouse Idea), a fairy tale or nursery rhyme (The Jazz Cinderella Idea, The Hot Mother Goose Idea), an animal or insect (The Cat’s Meow Idea, The Busy Bee Idea). Name it and it was an "Idea." Performers worked with whatever prop or apparatus Fanchon & Marco envisioned to put the particular numbers across: stilts, swings, bicycles, ropes, hoops, roller skates, brooms, stairs, ladders, ponies, drums, boxes, totem poles, guns, swords, bathtubs and aquariums.
Fanchon & Marco Wolff were born in Los Angeles, he in April 1894, she in September 1892. Both were musicians. Fanchon studied piano, along with dancing; Marco’s instrument was the violin. An older brother, Rube (later an orchestra leader with the Fanchon & Marco Company), played the trumpet. As children, all three performed as a trio in schools and amateur shows.
During their teens, Fanchon and Marco entered show business as a team doing songs and exhibition ballroom dancing. In their early years they toured the Western, Interstate, and Keith-Orpheum circuits and also traveled to Australia, not a common destination for performers in those days. They moved into production in 1919 with the first of several revues, one of which, a satire on the movies called Sunkist, appeared in New York in 1921. Back on the West Coast, Fanchon and Marco established headquarters in San Francisco, where they continued to stage acts and perform in theatres and supper clubs. My mother’s fellow dancer, Billee Doyle Green, remembers seeing them in San Francisco at the St. Francis Hotel:
"When I was in high school (about 15 years old), a friend and I had a date with twins to go dancing at the St. Francis to see Fanchon and Marco. I wore my first formal (something Mom had whipped up for dancing school—real corny). We went about 8:00 so we could catch both shows—had a pitcher of punch and nursed it until midnight. When Fanchon & Marco did their dance, they made a grand finale exit with Fanchon sitting on Marco’s shoulders while he fiddled away on the violin. Back then, that was socko."
With their background as performers and their individual talents, the brother and sister were well suited for theatrical production. Fanchon had a flair for staging, costuming, and song writing as well as dancing, while Marco had a good head for business and management. In 1922 they brought their Sunkist show with band leader Will King to the Strand Theatre, where Billee was often in the audience.
Billee danced in the team’s very first Idea. Called "Love Tales," it opened on October 13,1923 at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre. From then on a new Idea appeared every week. By the time my mother joined the company in January 1925, Fanchon & Marco had already presented upwards of 50 Ideas, and as their circuit expanded, they continued to produce increasingly more.
Until the fall of 1926, the Ideas remained in Northern California, alternating between the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, the T.&D. and Grand-Lake Theatres in Oakland, and the Senator Theatre in Sacramento. Then Southern California was added to the circuit with performances in Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, and the many other cities in those environs. By the end of 1926, the Pacific Northwest had also become F&M territory, which then brought the units to Oregon, Washington, and Vancouver.
In 1928, Fanchon & Marco were contracted to produce shows for the West Coast Theatre chain (later Fox West Coast Theatres), which extended to Salt Lake City. The circuit expanded rapidly until, in 1929, it became nationwide, encompassing RKO, Publix, Fox-Poli, and Keith-Orpheum theatres. My mother’s troupe, appearing in the hit show, "Gobs of Joy Idea," was the first to tour on the new national circuit.
The impact of the Company is clear when Variety (January 29, 1930) dedicates a whole issue to Fanchon & Marco and declares: "A brother and sister act has taken its place along side of the biggest producing organizations in the country" and goes on to say that "Fanchon & Marco have increased their productions…to 52 a year and their budget from $750 to $250,000 a week." Variety also forecasts that the Fanchon & Marco Ideas would be in at least 100 houses by the end of 1930 and that Fanchon & Marco would be producing two units a week instead of one.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression was to extinguish such grandiose visions. As theatres began closing and work opportunities for show people dwindled, the market for Fanchon & Marco stage presentations also faded. In addition, the unions, with their walkouts and demands for more backstage personnel, made it tough and expensive to continue producing lavish shows. By 1932, the Ideas were replaced with tab versions of Broadway musicals and general variety shows, with fewer of these in production as time passed. Fanchon and Marco managed to keep their hand in show business in one form or another into the 1950s, but their career never again reached its former heights.
The team was not lacking in other "ideas," however. In Los Angeles, where they had settled some years back, they opened a theatrical school in 1933 and hired my mother as Co-Director of the school and Directress of the Dance Department. They also established other branches of the school elsewhere in the country.
During the 1930s, some of the students from the Fanchon & Marco school appeared in the team’s Juvenile Revues at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Los Angeles (my mother was involved in the production of many of these.), where Fanchon & Marco also presented shows with a Roxy-style lineup of girls called The Fanchonettes (forerunners of the famous Rockettes). Among those who attended their school or enjoyed early careers with F&M were Donald O’Connor, Bing Crosby, Cyd Charisse, Dorothy Lamour, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Jeanette MacDonald, Mary Martin, Gene Nelson, Doris Day, Ann Miller, Betty Grable, Shirley Temple, Busby Berkeley, and Judy Garland. The F&M roster also included established stars of the period such as Al Jolson, Wallace Beery, Bill Robinson, Mae West, Will Rogers, Maurice Chevalier, and Joan Crawford. In 1950, Fanchon & Marco returned to the Paramount to re-open that theatre with a revived F&M stage production starring Herb Jeffries, former singer with Duke Ellington, and their brother, orchestra leader Rube Wolf (sic).
Throughout the latter ‘thirties and into the 1940s, Fanchon staged dance numbers for movie musicals. She worked at Paramount, Republic, and 20th Century-Fox. At Fox she was Musical Co-Ordinator for a number of films, including the 1943 landmark Stormy Weather, with its all-black cast. She also produced shows for Shipstad & Johnson’s Ice Follies and supervised dance numbers for Symphonies Under the Stars at the Hollywood Bowl. Marco, meanwhile, continued his entrepreneurial activities. During World War II, he administered the Hollywood Victory Committee and produced several Academy Awards Shows. It was Marco who introduced the idea of having movie stars hand out the Oscars. Still a highly successful theatre exhibitor (at one time he and Fanchon owned both the Roxy Theatre in New York and the Paramount Theatre in downtown Los Angeles), Marco bought three theatre chains, eventually becoming the owner of one of the largest independent motion picture theatre chains in the country. In addition to his other activities, he was a Christian Science practitioner.
Fanchon was married to William Simon, a restaurateur who managed Tait’s in San Francisco (where he and Fanchon met), and who then opened a string of open-all-night eating places ("Sort of like coffee shops," Billee said) and drive-in restaurants in Los Angeles. Later he established two well-known restaurants in downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood. (We used to eat at one of them—Lyman’s, on Vine Street, for many years.) Fanchon and her husband adopted a son and daughter (she later appeared in movies as Faye Marlowe), while Marco had two boys and a girl. His daughter, Gloria, danced in many of the early Juvenile Revues and his younger son, Marco Wolff Jr., was a concert pianist.
My mother lost contact with Fanchon and Marco after her marriage, but her friend, Laurell Gaines, who continued her dance career long after my mother retired, kept in touch with them. She took my mother to visit Marco in his Hollywood office in 1975. He died just two years later, in October 1977. Fanchon had already passed away in February 1965.
Now that my mother is also gone, her story can be added to that of Fanchon & Marco as a record of early 20th century theatre history. As Reva Howitt once again steps from the wings to recount her colorful career, she revives the excitement and razzle dazzle of the weekly shows, rehearsals, costumes, travels, and publicity stunts of a featured performer in vaudeville’s heyday. Her recollections, together with those of her fellow dancers and my own commentary, complete the portrait of the girl who was Lollipop and later became my mother.