Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Yellow Cab — Then and Now

Not long ago I watched a rerun of a Red Skelton movie (1950) called “The Yellow Cab Man,” a film l had first seen as a freshman in high school.  The plot was slightly bizarre but much of Skelton humor had me smiling.  Even so, the thought occurred that in the age of Uber, Yellow and other cabs may becoming relics of technological progress.  Relics fortunately leave artifacts, however, and with Yellow Cab, they are numerous.

Yellow Cab was a taxicab company founded in Chicago in 1910 by John D. Hertz.  Its beginning years were fraught with violence as the organization was involved with Chicago mobsters and a bitter rivalry with Checker Cab during that period was characterized by firebombings, shootings and even deaths. Eventually Yellow Cab franchises had covered much of the Nation.  The companies advertised aggressively, often using items such as paperweights and pocket mirrors to remind customers of their services. 

Here are two paperweights from Yellow Cab.  The one top contains only a telephone number that appears to be a Baltimore exchange.  The second, below, carries no city identification but research indicates is from Detroit.  I have been unable to identify the make or model of these taxis.  For a while those vehicles were made in the Yellow Cab Manufacturing Company, founded by Hertz in 1920.  From 1921 it manufactured cabs and light trucks and by 1924 recorded more than $4 million in earnings.  The next year the company sold out to General Motors.

Competition for manufacturing cabs subsequently came from the Ford Motor Company.  It produced a vehicle identified as the “135-A Taxicab”  for two years beginning in 1928.  There was room for four passengers, three passengers in the rear seat and one on a folding jump seat. Each taxicab also was equipped with an internal wall section separating the passengers from the driver. The internal wall had a provision for a speak easy section for communications from passengers to the drivers.  

Detroit Yellow Cab consistently advertised its rates, claiming on the weight that they were 30% lower and on a pocket mirror that they: “Always have been and always will be…” the lowest in town.  A  celluloid mirror from Sioux City, Iowa, advertised a 50 % lower fee.  It also suggested: “Let us haul your baggage.”  That is puzzling:  If a customer was traveling and had luggage, would he or she not want it along for the cab ride?  Two addition pocket mirrors were issued by Yellow Cab Companies in Baltimore, Maryland, at left and Muskogee, Oklahoma on the right.

The Chicago Yellow Cab, was responsible for a clever fold-out advertisement.  The driver was seen initially sitting behind the wheel looking out at potential customers.  When opened, the driver has emerged and is holding the door for a patron.  Given the attire of the average cab driver I encounter today, this one looks like he just was discharged from the Prussian army.  The hat, the uniform, and above all the tall boots have a distinctive militaristic look.

The company also believed in signs.  These were available for use by local Yellow Cabs across the country.  Above is one made of 22 gauge steel, about two feet long.  Unusually, it shows a passenger, a well-dressed business man who is smoking a cigar and holding a briefcase.  While many ads from the Yellow Cab look orange to me, the tin sign right clearly is yellow.  Although I have not identified the city, it was one where a “heated car” might have considerable appeal.
The final Yellow Cab artifact is an ash tray.  It also features a yellow Yellow.  My  research indicates that it was issued by a taxi company in San Diego, California.  These artifacts make take on new meaning as the passenger business changes drastically as the result of cell phones. Yellow has split into multiple companies across the country but continues to face challenges. In 2015, the Yellow Cab of Chicago, the granddaddy of them all, filed for bankruptcy.  Last year San Francisco’s Yellow Cab did as well.  I suspect more failures will come.

Friday, February 10, 2017

My Hollywood Daze

As a youngster my family twice visited California to see relatives.  They had personal contacts that resulted in memorable trips to Hollywood.  On one we heard a live broadcast of “Blondie and Dagwood” and got to meet Penny Singleton, the Blondie of radio and movies.  Another time we had our own personal tour of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot that ended with my sitting in the office of a senior MGM vice president where he encouraged my interest in journalism.

Little wonder then that as a teen I was addicted to movie magazines and could recite the life and times of even obscure supporting actors and actresses.   Oh yes, as encouraged, I did become a journalist.  After a stint as a police reporter on the Springfield Ohio Sun, I advanced to general assignment reporter with a talent for doing feature stories.  In the latter mode I had my first journalistic encounter with a Hollywood star.

He was Basil Rathbone, whose movies still appear regularly on Turner Classic Movies.  Born in South Africa in 1892 he first achieved notice as a Shakespearean actor on the London stage.  In some 70 motion pictures he frequently played a suave villain, such as Sir Guy of Gisbourne who sought the death of Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) in the 1938 film of the same name.  He became most famous for the hero’s role of Sherlock Holmes in a series of films and on radio.

When I encountered him he was 78 years old.  His career was winding down, but he apparently needed money, and it brought him to -- of all unlikely places -- Springfield, where he read to the locals in his highbrow British accent from Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and other favorites.  We met in the bar of his hotel.  He did not offer to buy, but was polite and answered my jejune inquiries without flinching.  He died seven years later.

My feature writing followed me to the Milwaukee Sentinel where I became the designated interviewer of movie stars, of varying renown.  My favorite was an encounter with Pat O’Brien, who had been born and raised in Milwaukee.  He had more than 100 film credits, often playing Irish and Irish-American characters including priests, cops, reporters and soldiers.

At the end of his career O’Brien and his wife of many years, Eloise, toured in the play “On Golden Pond,” including a stop in Milwaukee.  I met him as he stepped off a train to a waiting entourage, spouting quips left and right.  Spotting me for an fellow Irishman, he asked:  “Sullivan, do you know the definition of an Episcopalian?”  No, I stammered.  “A lapsed Catholic who knows some Latin.”

Shaking loose of some of his well-wishers, O’Brien invited me to join him in his limousine for a ride to the hotel while we conducted the interview.   Somehow our trip took us on a “long cut” through his old neighborhood in St. Rose’s Parish and past a barbershop owned by an old friend. The actor reminisced all the way — making my story.

Another movie star that visited Milwaukee that year was Deborah Kerr,  famous for her role as Anna Leonowns in the film, The King and I.  Born in Scotland in 1921, she was a consummate actress nominated for the Academy Award six times and winning many acting awards.  She will forever go down in film history for her steamy kissing scene in the Pacific surf with Burt Lancaster in “From Here to Eternity.”
She was appearing in Milwaukee in an award-winning play called “Tea and Sympathy.”  It was about a very understanding older woman who takes a young man to her bed to prove to him that he is not gay.  Ms. Kerr (“Call me Deborah”) very graciously received me back stage for the interview wearing a loosely tied silk kimono.  I fell instantly in love.  My euphoria dissipated quickly, however, when she introduced me to her husband who was accompanying her on the tour.

My encounter with Gordon McCrae was less successful.  He arrived in Milwaukee for a stage appearance after successes in Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, playing the cowboy Curly in “Oklahoma,” and the seaman Billy Bigelow in “Carousel.”  I was prepared for a productive encounter.  Instead, I found him to be conceited and almost hostile , apparently not happy to be in chilly Wisconsin rather than in sunny California.  His responses to my questions were perfunctory and I came away with a lame story.

Brigid Bazlen arrived in Milwaukee at age 17 with an ocean of hoopla and a half dozen flacks, all bent on making her the next Elizabeth Taylor whom she remotely resembled.  She had just come from the playing the role of Salome, headhunter of John the Baptist in the biblical epic “King of Kings.” 

“Precociously attractive,” according to one reviewer (read nicely-formed breasts),  she was besieged by reporters, making my attempts for a one-on-one impossible.   An open bar at the site and multiple martinis were more than ample consolation.  My resulting story was quite colorful if less than fully coherent.   The critics were scathing about Bazlen’s next film performance and she retired from movies in her late 20s. Sadly, in 1988 at age 44, after suffering amputation of a leg, she died of cancer.