Every single week I poured over the latest issue of Billboard magazine. The first thing I’d do on Monday or Tuesday morning, depending when it arrived, is flip to the “Hot 100” and then the rest of the charts. Billboard and I go back a long time, together. Because I was music director at the local radio station, it was an important part of keeping up to date.
For the uninitiated reader, Billboard is the leading trade magazine for the music and entertainment industry. The publication is relied upon internationally to determine rankings of songs and albums based on sales, radio airplay, and now Internet streaming. Most media fans may have heard of Billboard through syndicated radio countdown shows or the televised “Billboard Music Awards” program.
Last month, my friend Dianne acquired a stack of vintage issues of the magazine at a small town auction. They were dated from the 1930s through part of the 1940s, back when the magazine was called The Billboard. Dianne was formulating plans to sell the magazines on eBay and asked if I could look them over.
I was eager to see them because of my connection to broadcasting and because I used to host a weekend big band/swing radio program called “Swingtime 78” for about ten years. (The “78” in the name was from our frequency position on AM radios.) I knew the magazines would be a personal treat.
Along with a copy of one “annual” special issue, the magazines turned out to be a treasure trove of trivia about not only popular music, but live theatre, vaudeville, minstrels, fairs, carnivals, circuses, movies, and coin machines like jukeboxes. The Billboard listed song and band popularity in list-form, but did not yet have the more familiar charts that we know today.
A couple of weeks ago, Dianne gifted me with the March 25, 1939 issue of The Billboard. I was thrilled because her choice to me featured a cover portrait of band leader Charlie Barnet. This was special because, during the “Swingtime 78” run, I had used Charlie Barnet’s “Cherokee” as the show’s theme song.
I’m still studying many of the articles, but soon the magazine will find a home within a picture frame and hung on a wall. Meantime, here are a few interesting highlights from March of 1939. You can download the photos and read the text by enlarging the images.
Gambling slot machine-like devices, pinball machines, and jukeboxes were major entertainment money-makers at that time. The advertisement for Rock-Ola on the inside back cover is a real treasure for nostalgia freaks. Evidently, there must have been a big problem with cheats using slugs to buy free plays of music because the ad touts that the jukebox will not accept slugs.
The lion’s share of the magazine consists of entertainment industry related articles arranged on the pages in newspaper style format. The magazine is sparse in illustrations and rich in content. A quick glance at this spread reveals such famous names as Joe E. Lewis, Jack Dempsey, and “The Cotton Club”, among many others.
At center left on this image, a continuation of the Vaudeville gross takes states that Omaha’s “Orpheum Theater” enjoyed an above average week by featuring Jan Garber’s band and the movie “Duke of West Point”. There are also short summaries of other venues, elsewhere in the US. Among the other edifying stories is the “Burlesque Notes” column. The reader can get a quick view about the state of that industry at the time.
It’s almost inconceivable now, but there were two World’s Fairs taking place in the United States in 1939. The event in New York was located at Flushing Meadows. It was the very first world exposition with the theme of “the future”. The slogan was “The Dawn of a New Day”. A big part of the fair was “the World of Tomorrow”. Exhibits took on a very futuristic design. The architecture was greatly influenced by streamline styles and science fiction illustrations. The symbols of the New York fair were the “Trylon” and the “Perisphere”.
On the other coast was the Golden Gate Exposition located on the manmade “Treasure Island” attached to Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay. Among other things, this fair celebrated the completion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge a few years earlier. The Exposition enjoyed two runs, the first was through most of 1939 and the second ran through much of 1940. The theme was “Pageant of the Pacific” as it featured products from nations around the “Pacific Rim”.
There are a few pages of large, illustrated advertisements. The short articles about the coin-operated machine industry are also interesting to read.
This issue of The Billboard has given me some background information about popular culture and the growing entertainment industry as it existed just before the start of the Second World War.
The Blue Jay of Happiness likes the “philosophy” of the legendary Count Basie. “It’s the way you play that makes it. Play like you play. Play like you think, and then you got it, if you’re going to get it. And whatever you get, that’s you, so that’s your story.”