An Arctic wind whistled through Ohio and thermometers dipped below 10 degrees on New Year’s Eve 1938, but it was hotter than blazes on Akron dance floors.
Hepcats and alligators toasted midnight in full swing, stomping, shaking and shimmying as live orchestras supplied a steady rhythm of sizzling music.
Partners danced with abandon to the insistent, high-energy call of brass, woodwinds and drums.
What a year it had been. Jitterbug dancing had taken Akron by storm, and young people had become obsessed with swing music.
“The important thing about dance music is that it makes you want to dance,” explained bandleader Benny Goodman, who had helped legitimize jazz to the masses with a 1938 concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. “The waltz may be a suggestion or invitation, but swing is a command.”
Hit songs of the year included Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump,” Slim & Slam’s “Flat Foot Floogie (With a Floy Floy)”, Glenn Miller’s “Doin’ the Jive,” Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” and “Duke Ellington’s “Braggin’ in Brass.”
In recent months, Akron theaters had welcomed a parade of orchestras led by Gene Krupa, Tommy Tucker, Bunny Berrigan, Clyde McCoy, Blue Barron, Johnny “Scat” Davis, Ozzie Nelson, Horace Heidt, George Olsen, Vincent Lopez, Glen Gray and Will Osborne.
Jitterbug contests were held at East Market Gardens, Loew’s Theater, Akron Armory, the Palace Theater, Goodyear Hall and the Colonial Theater.
At the Palace, bandleader Don Bestor used a giant thermometer prop called a Swing-O-Meter. Instead of temperatures, it had settings for torrid, red hot, sizzling and burning, and audiences determined winners with an applause meter.
Meanwhile, local bandleaders such as Ange Lombardi, Sammy Nichols, Chick Egger, Johnny Martone, Frankie Reynolds and Freddie Carlone packed local nightclubs, including the Merry-Go-Round, Wagon Wheel, Zepp Club, Blue Willow, Blue Star Inn and Oaks Club.
Swing music was everywhere.
Youths could buy jitterbug pants, jitterbug skirts, jitterbug jackets, jitterbug hats and jitterbug shoes. For boys, Floogees were the footwear of choice (“Let’s go — you rug cutters! Get in the groove with Floogees”). For girls, it was Swingeroos (with “jitterbug jabber written all over it”).
Swing kids became fluent in slang that was virtually incomprehensible to parents. Girls were brees, boys were gates, hepcats were people who were hep to the jazz scene and ickies were people who were not at all hep.
In a 1938 column published by the Beacon Journal, bandleader and self-professed hepcat Tommy Dorsey explained that there was a lot more to swing than rhythm.
“The main thing is riding out: giving the alligators that out-of-this-world chill with a real lowdown Dixieland,” he wrote. “What does it mean to ride out? Even a lot of cats are in the dark about this matter. It means when a gate picks up his licorice stick or gitbox and hits a couple of riffs and gutbucket.”
Well, who could argue with that?
There were detractors, of course. Edward A. Ward, past president of the American Osteopathic Association, warned that swing was a health hazard: “The hysteria for swing music and the hopping, grimacing dances that go with it will pay its adherents with thick ankles, broken, maladjusted feet and an exhausted nervous system unless they recognize the dangers.”
Ward also feared for the mental health of the dancers, noting: “True devotees of swing, as may be observed in any dance hall, roll their eyes, wet their lips, become almost frenzied with emotion and completely forget all but the barbaric rhythm of the music.”
Beacon Journal theater critic Edward E. Gloss wasn’t exactly a hepcat, but he begrudgingly admitted that there was something to the popular music: “Taking a swat at swing is like smacking a rubber ball — it comes back to sock you in the puss.
“Not long ago I was wondering the way and wherefore of these high-geared nursery rhyme rhythms. They seemed asinine. They still do.
“But they keep coming back — with more than they left!”
So despite the swirling snow and bitter cold, Akron hepcats turned out in force at dance halls and nightclubs on New Year’s Eve 1938. They stomped, shimmied and shook, swinging in the new year. It was wonderful to be young and alive.
Goodbye, 1938. Hello, 1939.
World War II would soon begin in Europe and the Great Depression would soon come to an end, although no one knew it on this New Year’s Eve.
Despite parental concerns, the kids turned out all right. Today we call those hepcats the Greatest Generation.
Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.