Winston-Salem’s early nickname was “City of Industry,” so the city attracted people who sought opportunity in this bustling business environment. Homes, hotels, restaurants, clubs, and entertainment venues were built to accommodate this growing population.
Early entertainers worked hard to establish a reputation, traveling from town to town, performing in all types of settings, and moving on to the next booking. Having a first-rate entertainment venue elevated the city’s choices of entertainers. The Elks Auditorium was built in 1903 on the corner of Liberty and Fifth Street. The Auditorium hosted live musical, comedy, and dramatic acts in the beginning, then moving pictures in later years when it was rebuilt as the State Theatre.
Imagine sitting in your Winston-Salem high school homeroom and listening to the announcements for the day. “John Philip Sousa will deliver an address on Monday, titled ‘Music for Children.’ He will also direct his band as they present two concerts at the Auditorium.” If you were in school in January 1920, you could expect to see the renowned former Marine Band director, a composer of numerous marches, and director of Sousa’s Band. Sousa made several visits to Winston-Salem before his death in 1932. And, the Marine Band performed in Winston-Salem in 1940.
Other entertainment venues joined the Auditorium, including movie theaters (which also hosted live entertainers), Reynolds Auditorium, Memorial Coliseum, and Wait Chapel. Ernest Tubb, of the Grand Ole Opry, was called “the new sensation of the nation,” when he appeared at the State Theatre in 1945, along with The Texas Troubadours. Elvis Presley rocked the Carolina Theatre during his performance on stage in 1956. Other “rockers” who came to town were James Brown (about 1956) and Thomas Jones Woodward, aka Tom Jones. Tom, backed by his group, the Squires, was the show finale for Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars” at Memorial Coliseum about 1965.
Not all of the entertainment was PG-rated. For example, Helen Gould Beck, popularly known as Sally Rand, was a stage and silent film star turned dancer when sound films became popular. She introduced the fan dance at Chicago’s Paramount Club in the early 1930s. She manipulated fans in front and behind her body, seemingly nude but actually dressed, usually wearing long underwear. She also developed the bubble dance, was arrested many times for indecent exposure, but was ultimately cleared of these charges after performing before a judge at the Savoy. Sally appeared at the State Theatre with her revue company in 1936.
Less controversial, but very talented, entertainers added to the cultural offerings of the city. Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees performed at the Carolina Theatre and at a private gathering at the Twin City Club in 1933. Two weeks after Sally Rand’s 1936 visit, the Vienna Choir Boys entertained in Reynolds Auditorium, sponsored by the Civic Music Association. The eminent pianist, Arthur Rubenstein, performed in 1939, also in Reynolds Auditorium and sponsored by the Civic Music Association. Arthur returned in 1967 to play at Wait Chapel. Arthur Ferrante and Louis Teicher attended Julliard School of Music in New York. They performed as a piano duo during school and later joined the Julliard faculty. Ferrante and Teicher launched a concert career and popularized the “easy listening” musical genre, and appeared at Wait Chapel in 1964.
Some visiting musicians mixed comedy with their music. Eddie Cantor was a radio and screen comedian, and in 1938 his sponsor was R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Eddie came to Winston-Salem to tour his new sponsor’s facilities and made 13 appearances in town during his visit. He talked to two classes at R. J. Reynolds High School and appeared in the school auditorium. He entertained at Reynolds Factory #12, wise-cracking and singing in his signature style. Bob Cummings was a movie and television star who played both comedy and drama. When he came to Winston-Salem in 1947, he was mostly known as a movie star, since his well-known television series, “The Bob Cummings Show,” began in 1955.
Have you heard about the day Jayne Mansfield attended history class at Wake Forest College? Look for more Notable Visitors feature stories in 2018.
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