BRYAN COUNTY NEWS: Girls who can dance
“Wanted- Neat appearing girls who can waltz and two-step for forty-nine show, week of July 4, for cowboy’s reunion, Las Vegas.” El Paso Times, July 2, 1916
Carnival companies were quite common attractions at early fairs and reunions, where they provided “games of chance” and liquor. Often traveling with them was a dance troupe of young girls. These “Forty-Nine shows” emulated the days of ’49 when every California bar room was filled with gayly dressed girls who kept the men buying drinks and danced with them between times. At one location in 1916 the men were charged 25 cents to have two drinks and a dance with a girl. The girls kept 10 cents and the manager guaranteed them $3 per night.
In January 1917 Tahlequah rejected the idea of “fancy-dressed, short-skirted, painted-face, lean-calved wiggly whirlers” in favor of “pretty, home-grown girls” to stage a proper dance. The citizens of Wilburton were so outraged by the Long & Shin Forty-Nine Show that there were “open threats of violence” and the show closed two days early. A reporter who attended the show found it to be “sensual, vulgar, low, and depraved”. The city council passed an ordinance banning any future shows. Krebs, Marietta and other towns followed suit. Girls were ousted from Jennings for being on the streets in the early morning in “abbreviated apparel”. The sheriff of Purcell shut down a show at the request of the county attorney.
The Stonewall newspaper received numerous complaints after it printed an article “cheerfully recommending” the “California Dancing girls” to their neighboring towns. What readers didn’t notice was the small “Adv.” at the end of the recommendation. The glowing report had been written by the girls and placed in the paper as a paid ad.
In August 1917 a whole troupe of dancers was arrested in McAlester after one of the girls claimed that they were traveling in a stolen car. They were held until the manager produced a bill of sale for it. A show manager was arrested in Okemah for check forgery. In March of 1918, fifty concerned citizens of Blue confronted the manager of a show and let him know that if he put up his tent, they would cut it down. He promptly left. The next month fifteen ladies from Stonewall tarred and feathered two dancers and ordered them out of town on the train. The held the local police force at bay with guns until the deed was done.
Unfortunately, many dancers were under-age runaways and officers frequently arrested show managers for “white slavery” if they carried girls from one state to another. In 1919 the Texas legislature passed the “anti-forty-nine show” law prohibiting women dance troupes from “traveling from place to place”.
Violence sometimes erupted at a show. In 1920 a man in Muskogee attempted to ride his horse into a show tent. A confrontation between the guard and the marshal resulted in the death of the rowdy rider, and the wounding of a bystander, who later died.
In 1920 Bryan County officials declared that Forty-Nine shows would not be permitted to operate. Their action followed a protest by the ladies of Bokchito that the shows were a “nuisance and menace to the morality of the younger set”. One is left to wonder what happened to the naïve young girls who once answered an ad in the paper and now found themselves stranded far from home without a job.
Bryan County History is a weekly feature contributed by members of the Bryan County Genealogy Library and Archives in Calera. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group. Is there a historic event or topic you want to read about? Contact the library at P.O. Box 153, Calera, OK 74730.