If you’ve ever heard “God Bless America” or “White Christmas” then you know the music of Irving Berlin. Considered by many critics to be the country’s greatest songwriter, many of his songs are American classics. It was very strange indeed then when one of our archivists discovered the sheet music to one of Berlin’s songs entered as evidence in an obscenity trial in Virginia.
On the evening of 3 April 1912, Newport News police arrested Olympic Theater owner E. T. Crall, song-and-dance troupe leader Palmer Hines, and his six dancing girls. That night’s act, judged too hot for the public good by police, combined Palmer singing the suggestively titled Berlin song “Everybody’s Doing It Now” with the girls dancing the Turkey Trot, the racy and very latest “animal” dance to sweep the nation.
The animal dances which emerged around 1909 and later, such as the Turkey Trot, Grizzly Bear, and Bunny Hug, were the dances of ragtime music, the popular music of its day. The Turkey Trot was the first animal dance to catch on nationwide and created quite a stir. All the dances imitated the movements of the animals for which they were named to some extent. What rubbed polite society the wrong way was that the Turkey Trot and all the other animal dances were danced face-to-face, with the female partner being held close (called hugging) around the waist. Never before had America’s men and women danced so close together and, according to many, so indecently.
Many ragtime songs popular during that time tied themselves to a particular dance. But Berlin cleverly kept his song “Everybody’s Doing It Now” nonspecific so the song was appropriate to any ragtime dance craze and became the most popular song of the animal dance era. “It” could be the Turkey Trot, Grizzly Bear, or Horse Trot. For guardians of public morality “it” could be something very specific indeed. Combining the Turkey Trot with Berlin’s song was like throwing gasoline on a fire as far as Newport News authorities were concerned.
It must not have been typical to have a standing-room-only crowd in the Newport News police court on a Thursday morning – few if any were there to see the city’s drunks, brawlers, and petty thieves have their day in court. When the case of The Commonwealth of Virginia vs. Palmer Hines, etc,. was finally called at 10:30 A.M., 4 April 1912, the presiding police justice, much to the dismay of the cramped onlookers, cleared the courtroom.
The group from the Olympic Theater were charged with performing, “…a wicked and scandalous, infamous and immoral, bawdy and obscene song and dance, or act, corrupting the morals of the public and youth, and too filthy, obscene and immoral to be in decency further described…” according to the summons.
According to the Newport News Daily Press coverage of the trial, troupe leader Palmer Hines testified that his girls were not doing the real Turkey Trot. “He said that the original ‘Turkey Trot,’ he believed, is immoral and should be debarred from all respectable places but repeated that the dance performed by the girls in the troupe is not the ‘Turkey Trot,’” the newspaper reported. City police officers were divided about the performance’s offensiveness. Detective S. G. Pearson testified that he believed the performance to be suggestive and would not take a female member of his family to the show. Captain J. E. Williams testified for the defense that he saw nothing offensive in the performance.
In the end the police court justice convicted theater owner Crall of operating an immoral show and fined him $7.75. Hines and his dancing girls were convicted of using obscene language and fined $5.25 each. The defendants appealed their convictions to the Newport News Corporation Court where a jury upheld the police justice’s original ruling. This case is part of the recently processed Newport News Commonwealth Causes.
-Dale Dulaney, Local Records Archival Assistant, Submitted by Greg Crawford, Local Records Coordinator
Here are a few extra things I found that I couldn’t fit into the post.
* The R.M.S. Titanic sank on 15 April 1912, a little more than a week after the trial. “Everybody’s Doing It Now” was played on the Titanic along with many other Irving Berlin songs like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” etc. White Star Line bands played high-and low-brow music within the same set and had to memorize hundreds of songs.
* You may notice that the sheet music entered into evidence is a professional copy. In the days before the profusion of radios, in order to get their songs maximum exposure, publishing companies would give out free “professional copy” sheet music to band leaders. This was necessary since, for the most part, people heard music live in 1912. Band leader Palmer Hines’s copy of the music was one of these professional copies.
* Hines claimed during the trial that the “original” Turkey Trot was obscene and that he only staged a watered-down version of it. I found many theater advertisements in newspapers from Richmond to Washington, D.C. in which Hines claimed that his dancers performed the “original Turkey Trot.”
The people who lived in this era were so sensitive to what they considered obscene. Today we laugh at those animal dances as we experience real obscenity in our commercials alone! Great look into the past! Excellent sources! Loved the video!
This was a great post!! Thank you for writing about a long forgotten dance and song!
Thanks Sarah! I had a lot of fun writing it.
Just stumbled upon this looking for the source of the quote about the dance being “wicked and scandalous.” I’m teaching a high school class called The History of the Teenager, and we’re about to cover animal dances. I am so glad I found this site! Can’t wait to read them the full arrest warrant after showing them a video of the dance itself. It’s these kinds of primary source documents that make history classes so much more vivid. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for taking the time to comment. It’s always exciting to hear how our readers are using our collections!
Interesting post. I discovered this post while trying to explain to my wife about why Downton Abbey used “Everybody’s Doing It” after watching the episode on DVD. I was glad Google found it.
Nice job except for one glaring error, and we should set the record straight – what does “America the Beautiful” have to do with Irving Berlin? Perhaps the author meant “God Bless America,” yes? Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America;” Katharine Lee Bates and Samuel A. Ward wrote “America the Beautiful.”
Thank you for the correction!