Click below to listen to "My Expo Rose," the Great Lakes Exposition's theme song, written by Dudley Blossom Sr. in 1937 and performed in 2006 by the Cleveland Institute of Music's Andrea Bargabos (soprano) and Mark George (piano).
It was going to be a fun summer, maybe Cleveland's best ever. Roelif Loveland, The Plain Dealer's star feature writer, must have known that as he left the newsroom one day in mid-June 1936 to pry some good quotes out of Almon Shaffer.
Downtown glowed from its scrubbing, painting and lighting on the city's recent cleanup day. Cleveland expected 4 million visitors, and it wanted to look sharp, wanted to shake off the Depression, labor strife and gangster corruption that had given it such nasty publicity lately.
Down on the lakefront — that dark, bleak garbage dump over the cliff — more than 2,700 workers were raising a new city. Huge art-deco triumphs, gleaming white, stretched from the Stadium to East Ninth Street. Beyond them, a midway peppered with carnival rides led to East 17th Street and a mishmash of medieval-gothic buildings huddled by the lake.
Soon, tourists would stream off their trains, out of the 6-year-old Terminal Tower, across Public Square and through the gates of the Great Lakes Exposition — Cleveland's almost-world's-fair, its comeback bash.
It was going to be fun for everyone but Shaffer. When Loveland confronted the expo's associate director, the poor man was sweating. Shaffer gazed at Loveland with "disillusioned eyes," the reporter wrote, "almost exhausted from rassling with the devil."
"They have forced it on us," Shaffer despaired. "The pressure has been so great no man could stand it."
Though Cleveland's expo was modeled after Chicago's recent Century of Progress fair, Shaffer had insisted he would allow no fan dancers — no women teasing fairgoers as the infamous Sally Rand had in Chicago, dancing behind two giant feathered fans, then lifting them at the end to reveal her unclothed self.
Cleveland's newsmen — the tough ones, the urbane ones, even the starchy ones — had scoffed in print. Everyone knew you couldn't throw an expo without fan dancers. Ever since Egyptian belly dancers had excited the crowds at Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition, suggestively dancing women had been key to every big fair's success. Philadelphia's patriotic 1926 sesquicentennial had failed because it was too chaste.
"I have tried to sell them on amazing scientific exhibits, on beautiful buildings and vistas, on jolly amusements like the angler's paradise, on things of historical importance. And the discouraging refrain is, 'We want sex.' "
The expo had agreed to let a West Side nightclub owner open a French Casino in the Streets of the World, the mini-League-of-Nations village. Now, the Casino had contacted Sally Rand's manager and booked Toto Leverne, another of his clients, who would dance in a "glass dress" that would "vanish when light of a particular color and intensity was played upon it," Loveland explained in the next day's PD.
"You've no idea how popular sex is with a lot of people," lamented Shaffer.
When Loveland met Toto through the Casino's eager press agent, he doubted her French accent but pronounced her "a neatly constructed young woman." A helpful photo in the PD the next day showed Toto, with pencil-sharp eyebrows and perfectly darkened lips, gazing languidly over her bare shoulder.
"Expo resists but sex wins in the end," declared the PD headline.
The Great Lakes Exposition would lift Cleveland out of its Depression-era depression, all right. But it wouldn't be thanks to the Chamber of Commerce's favorite exhibits, the solemn scientific and industrial displays such as the "Romance of Iron and Steel."
No, the job of rejuvenating Cleveland's spirit fell to the ruffled-skirt-hiking dancers, the blister-lunged barkers, the circus freaks, the snake charmer, the gorgeous expo guides in sailor's caps, the muscled college boys pushing rickshaws, the beer-stein-balancing innkeeper and the motorcycle-chasing lions.
Firecrackers exploded. Red, white and blue parachutes floated down. Speedboats shot by. Goodyear blimps hovered. Whistles blew and fire alarms rang.
The president, in the White House, pushed a button, and the gates on Cleveland's St. Clair Avenue swung open. Marguerite Bacon, 22, a descendant of Moses Cleaveland, snipped a ribbon. Pigeons, carrying invitations, flew into the sky. Fifteen thousand people, paying 50 cents each, surged through the turnstiles in the first half-hour, 61,000 by day's end.
The press proclaimed Lincoln Dickey, the man who'd first imagined the expo and made it happen, a local hero. Dickey, "Linc" for short, was a handsome guy, with a ruddy face, a big, sly smile and deep crow's-feet around his friendly eyes. He was a lifelong showman — he got his start at age 9, helping his dad run a park in Indiana — yet he had a business savvy that men with money trusted. He managed Public Hall for most of the '20s, attracting so many conventions that Atlantic City lured him away to recapture the business it had lost to Cleveland. New York City's convention bureau hired him next.
But he came back to Cleveland in fall 1935 to pitch an idea he'd been bouncing around town and in his head for years: Throwing a huge fair in Cleveland in 1936 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its incorporation as a city. Frank J. Ryan, vice president of the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., liked Dickey's idea and his artist's rendering of how the fair could look. They decided Dickey should fly to Maine to ask a friend vacationing there, Dudley Blossom Sr., to raise the money.
Blossom, a prominent businessman and philanthropist, looked the part: serious and stately, with intense, deep-set eyes and a prominent, stern brow. Heir to a real estate and oil fortune, he'd been a director of several local companies and served as Cleveland's welfare director. He was most famous in town for raising funds by getting top local businessmen to donate huge sums. He'd raised $2.5 million to match John Severance's donation to build Severance Hall. As chairman of the Community Fund, the social-service campaign that helped needy Clevelanders during the Depression, he cajoled his rich friends to sell their ponies and foxhounds to give to the fund. "Quit supporting animals and support human beings," he'd say.
Blossom agreed to become chairman of the expo, undoubtedly attracted to its potential to help revive the city's economy and civic pride. The '30s had been cruel to Cleveland. Unemployed men erected vast tent villages in the city's dirtiest corners, gangsters who'd built empires during Prohibition still lorded over the city after its repeal, newly aggressive unions sometimes resorted to violence and intimidation, and gambling houses and whorehouses operated openly thanks to overwhelmed and bribed cops.
"Cleveland has been advertised nationally for its business reverses, its labor difficulties, its wave of criminal tendencies, for too long," read a written proposal. The pitch was convincing: Local businessmen, reassured by Dickey's confident financial projections for the expo, quickly underwrote the event with more than $1 million.
Many Clevelanders doubted the expo could come together in time. It all had to be built in three months. But between March and June 1936, an army of 2,700 workers transformed Cleveland's ugly lakefront, site of the city dump and hobos' shacks, into a carefree playland. Time headlined its July article about the expo "Fun On A Dump."
Men in suits and fedoras and women in dresses, heels and jauntily tilted hats crowded the expo's Midway. They played Skee-Ball, shot at a shooting range and fed peanuts to monkeys in Monkeyland. They rode a Ferris wheel, the Loop-O-Plane, the Tumble Bug and a contraption alternately known as the Ride-O-Ride and the Ridee-O.
"Cupid Thrives on Expo Perils," the Cleveland Press announced. "Many rides are designed so that two people riding together are sort of forced into each other's arms," the Midway's manager explained.
"See a girl on a motorcycle chased by a savage lion!" shouted the barker outside the Lion Motordrome. Inside, a man and a woman took turns riding a motorcycle at a 45-degree angle along a circular wall while a lion stalked around the pen below them, hoping they'd fall.
Two dozen midgets put on a tent circus with 24 horses, 14 dogs, six goats and three elephants named Tony, Clara and Pit. Inez Del Rio, billed as the "smallest girl in the world" at 17 years old and 21 inches tall, fell off a stage on the expo's first weekend and ended up in the hospital, in fair condition. Over by the lake, the Four Lorenzos, trapeze artists said to fear nothing but cold and wind, defied heights of 110 feet.
The biggest crowds hit Cliff Wilson's Snake Show, starring Elmer, a 30-foot Borneo reticulated python, allegedly 198 years old, who dined on eggs and hamburger. "Mirrors and reptiles are the most interesting things in the world, and this proves it," Wilson bragged after 11,000 people paid 10 cents each to see his show one day in early July.
John Dillinger Sr., dressed in his dead, bank-raiding son's suit, debuted as a storyteller at the Front Page cops-and-crooks exhibit, warning audiences that crime didn't pay. He was so boring he got fired a few days into the expo. "I hate to let him go," sighed the proprietor, Mrs. J.R. Castle — but fairgoers were bigger fans of Front Page's mock executions, complete with guillotine, a hanging department, and an electric chair in which, the PD reported, an actor "writhes in three different movements" up to 24 times a day.
Beyond the Midway stood the Streets of the World, a horizontal Tower of Babel. Cleveland, the proud city of immigrants, recreated its many ethnic nationalities' Old World in cheap plaster, from a replica of Krakow, Poland's cathedral to a fake Matterhorn. Admission to the Streets cost a quarter.
Sexy dancers and exotically foreign peep shows mingled with African and Norwegian tea rooms, a Syrian deli and Spanish and Chinese restaurants. Italian Village street singers serenaded audiences to guitar, accordion and clarinet.
Toto wasn't really French. Her real name was Trudye Mae Davidson; she was 21, from Chicago, and she'd dropped out of Northwestern University two years earlier to become a dancer. Red-headed and lively, she summoned both sultry pouts and exuberant smiles for newspapers' cameras. She had not expected to end up in a casino with a canvas top that leaked all over her during storms while she was dancing naked with a stuffed swan.
"I feel wicked as hell," Toto told a reporter for Time, and she sure looked wicked in the magazine's photo: vampy, expressionless, cradling the swan. "I've never appeared this nude before, and my family don't know what to think."
After all, the expo management was hardly innocent of promotion through sex appeal. They'd hired a corps of young women as the expo's official guides and unofficial models, selecting candidates "with figures to please the eye and faces which would give old men back their memories," as Roelif Loveland wrote approvingly.
Dubbed "yeomanettes," in keeping with the nautical Great Lakes theme, the women dressed in sailor's suits in cool weather and tight T-shirts, shorts, sailor's caps and heels when it got warm. Cleveland's newspapers couldn't go more than a few days without running a new photo of a yeomanette and raving about her beauty. Yeomanettes posed with a giant firecracker before the Fourth of July and with sooty hot-air balloon pilots before a balloon race.
Meanwhile, Toto starred in six shows every night. Her glass dress lived up to its billing. An unpublished photo in the Cleveland Press archives shows her — petite and sensuous, clearly naked under the see-through gown — giving a private dance performance to three grinning, cigarette-smoking men.
Gardner Wilson, the French Casino's wily press agent, created Toto's sudden infamy. He charmed the papers into writing about her and the casino again and again.
First, the casino announced it was hiring gigolos — in the old-timey sense of paid male dance partners, though the threat they'd become the other kind of gigolo was clear enough. Cleveland's dance hall inspector announced gigolos were banned, so Wilson announced the casino would instead hire "dance instructors," who could dine with lonely women and escort them around the expo, but would be fired if they fell in love with a customer.
Wilson did his best to provoke a raid on the casino, figuring it'd be good for business. "The awning leaked, and we had to put the girls in G-strings," Wilson told the PD one day after a storm blew across the expo. Not only had the dancers saved their costumes from the rainwater, their performance was "marvelous," Wilson declared: "Hardly any clothes at all."
But the city wouldn't take the bait. The only censorious moment came when Mayor Harold Burton and other sensitive fairgoers were taken aback at the photos of nude women on the casino's facade. Burton politely asked Lincoln Dickey to do something, so Almon Shaffer called the casino's owner.
"Couldn't you get an artist to paint a little lace on the figures?" Shaffer asked as a Press reporter happened by his office. "I was sort of shocked myself the first time I saw it. Maybe you could sort of drape part of it? Well you'll have to do something. The mayor doesn't like it."
Next, Wilson staged some great photo opportunities. Several casino dancers threatened to strike because management wouldn't let them wear bras; they posed for pictures, holding their underwear. Two casino girls splashed around in the Public Square fountain. A bunch went dashing across the expo grounds on roller skates.
Finally, Toto, allegedly distraught, threw herself into Lake Erie — right at the middle of the Midway. An expo guard fished her out. She "emerged from the water with her hair straight," the PD reported — she usually wore her hair in a curly post-flapper bob — "and half her clothing gone."
Toto blamed her stricken state on a New Jersey woman who'd sent her a scolding letter and some religious tracts after reading about Toto's swan dance in Time. "FLEE from the wrath to come," one tract read.
"My dance is a thing of beauty, a thing for the higher-minded people, the intelligentsia," Toto said as her lower lip quivered and she twisted a handkerchief in her hands. "I can't abandon my nude number; I just can't" — she couldn't disappoint "all those people positively idolizing me."
A month later, Toto and a Press reporter toured the expo. They went on a blimp flight ($3) and a speedboat ride (50 cents), but spent most of the time at the more serious exhibits in the Hall of Progress and the Automotive Building, the two giant, 540-foot-long art-deco buildings by the Stadium.
Toto admired a yellow Chevrolet coupe and inspected the East Ohio Gas Co.'s all-gas kitchen. "Of course I don't expect anyone to believe it, but I'm really a pretty good cook," she said. But she was clearly more a lover of nightlife than housewife. Passing by the Ohio Bell Telephone exhibit, where fairgoers got to make free long-distance calls while others listened in, Toto declined: "The people I know aren't up yet."
Toto fled the expo five days later. Wilson spun a great yarn about why. "I'm going to be married soon," he quoted her as saying, "and I don't want all of Cleveland and Ohio to have looked at my body before my husband does." But Press society columnist Winsor French told a less romantic tale: Toto was fired for turning temperamental and not always showing up for her act.
The crowds kept growing. Ferries from Detroit and Buffalo dropped passengers off at the lakefront entrance. Each day brought a new spectacle, some planned, some unplanned.
The temperature hit 94 degrees on the fair's official Ice Day and 15 people were overcome by heat. Virginia Cipra, 23, of Cleveland, won a bathing beauty contest and received a crown of ice from the Ohio Association of Ice Dealers.
The "tallest boy in the world" from the Midway's Strange As It Seems show, 8-feet-4 Aurelio Tomaini, and "the legless girl," his co-worker Bernice Weeks, decided to marry. But at 20, Weeks was a minor and couldn't get an Ohio marriage license without her parents' consent — so they ran off to her hometown in New York for the wedding.
The midget circus' elephants took a bath in the lake. One elephant won a tug-of-war against 200 children.
National Guard planes tried to shoot down a "sausage observation balloon" for show, firing blanks. But the bombs inside the balloon didn't go off; the fuse wouldn't light until after the planes were gone. Finally, the balloon belched flames and black smoke and fell into Lake Erie with a giant hiss.
More than 1.8 million people visited the expo by mid-August, halfway through the fair's season. Cleveland had the whole country's attention.
Duke Ellington, in town to play the Palace Theatre, debuted a new composition, "Exposition Swing," on local radio. Rudy Vallee performed at the expo for a live broadcast, women swooned and kissed him, and Roelif Loveland wrote that he still sounded like he had seven years earlier, when he'd had his first hits.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to town, and Clevelanders showered him with confetti on his way to the expo, where he lunched with local politicians and businessmen on the showboat S.S. Moses Cleaveland and told them the expo was a sign the country was recovering from the Great Depression.
Ten days later, Jesse Owens returned to Cleveland from his Hilter-defying, four-gold-medal triumph at the Olympics in Berlin. Owens toured the expo by car, and Lincoln Dickey gave him a medal for "distinguished service" at Public Hall.
Though Owens got a hero's reception at the expo, the average black Clevelander likely felt less welcome. Crowd photos from the expo show all-white faces. The Florida exhibit evoked nostalgia for the slavery era; it featured Jefferson Davis' chair from when he was president of the Confederacy. "In a real orange grove, negroes sing and dance as in typical plantation life," the expo guidebook promised.
In July, the black newspaper The Call and Post announced that six black Clevelanders were suing the managers of the French Casino, the S.S. Moses Cleaveland and Mammy's Cabin, a Southern-cooking restaurant with mostly black employees, for denying them service because of their race. (Mammy's Cabin denied ever discriminating, and there's no record of the court cases.) It's unclear how the disputes were resolved; the local NAACP complained to Mayor Burton, who promised to take the complaints to Dickey.
The expo lost money. It only got close to its attendance goal of four million — 3,979,229 was the final figure — by puffing up the numbers with a million free turnstile-turns by workers and vendors. Rush-job construction costs had been high. Its $1 million deficit equaled its debts to its underwriters.
But if the expo's goal was to lift Cleveland's economy and spirits out of the Depression, it succeeded. Newspaper editorials raved about it. Originally, the expo was only going to last one summer, but just before it closed on Columbus Day, Dickey and Blossom — wanting to keep a good thing going and make back the construction costs — announced they'd put it on again in 1937.
Meanwhile, embarrassed by Toto Leverne and her peep-show peers, the management declared the 1937 expo would be free of naked women and sex.
"I pledge you clean entertainment," Billy Rose told the expo's trustees and underwriters at the Union Club in March 1937. The women in his Aquacade would be beautiful, he promised, but the show would be classy.
The expo had chosen an unlikely hero to clean up the fair. Billy Rose was a nasty, ruthless man. His exploitative contracts, his refusal to pay bills he owed and his bullying ways of getting songwriting credits he didn't deserve led his biographer, Earl Conrad, to call him "the Robber Baron of the Arts" and "a master of the technique of animal survival." Soon he and one of his Aquacade swimmers would scandalize Cleveland as thoroughly as Toto had.
But Clevelanders got excited about him anyway, because, at 36, he was already known as one of the country's top showmen. His musical "Jumbo," starring Jimmy Durante, had been a hit in New York, and his dinner theater "Casa Manana," at an expo in Fort Worth, featured the world's largest revolving stage.
Rose announced he'd produce a giant swimming and singing show, the Aquacade, at the expo. He thrilled Cleveland by signing two major stars.
His leading man, Johnny Weissmuller, was a much-beloved hero. He'd won five gold medals at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, saved 11 people whose boat capsized in Lake Michigan in 1927, and then starred in three "Tarzan" movies. The female lead was Eleanor Holm, the 1932 Olympic backstroke gold medalist, whom a prudish coach had thrown off the 1936 Olympic team for drinking too much champagne on the boat to Germany. The American public, after Prohibition, was tired of moralizing teetotalers and outraged for Holm. The scandal made the 23-year-old a star, and the press dubbed her the "Champagne Girl."
The Aquacade was the talk of the expo when it opened in late May. Rose put on two shows per night, attracting crowds of up to 5,000. The grandstands faced Lake Erie, while the stage floated in the water. As an orchestra played, a line of female swimmers — dubbed "aquabelles" — dove into the lake, each a quarter-second before the next. Women and men sang, danced, and swam in formation.
Holm appeared, to great fanfare, took off a cape to reveal a silver swimsuit, and dove in. She and Weissmuller performed a swimming waltz.
The critics loved it. PD writer W. Ward Marsh declared it "the biggest thing on fresh water and seemingly second only to the Queen Mary among the great floating things."
Across the expo grounds, the Midway was scrubbed clean of sex.
"There will be no nudity at this year's fair," Almon Shaffer had promised reporters. "For months I've been guarding the Midway's purity." He'd turned away many concession operators' requests to bring in striptease acts, he said — spelling out the letters s-t-r-i-p-t-e-a-s-e, the Press's Jack Warfel wrote, while "looking apprehensively at nearby lady stenographers."
The French Casino was gone, replaced by a second Rose production, the Pioneer Palace, which staged a vaudeville revival.
Shaffer had done more than censor. He'd created a better-looking, more exciting, "A-No. 1 Midway," vouched the usually incredulous Roelif Loveland. It included a Ripley's Believe It Or Not Odditorium, "the ace freak show in the world," Loveland reported, featuring "the woman who can swallow 22-inch light tubes" and "Johnny Eck, the boy without legs." The Lion Motordrome had added more lions.
Wary locals had called Shaffer asking if he had really banned peep shows. "I tell them all that it's safe to bring the kiddies and grandparents," he said.
Herman Pirchner, who turns 99 this August, ran two restaurants at the 1937 expo: the Alpine Village, a big white-columned building off the Midway, and Herman Pirchner's Showboat in the lake nearby. He frequently hosted Johnny Weissmuller, Eleanor Holm, and Billy Rose in his private club, El Dorado, above his restaurant opposite the Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square.
Weissmuller "was a member of my club, so I saw him every day," Pirchner recalls now. "He was real outgoing, and a quite intelligent man." A photo on Pirchner's wall at Wellington Place, a retirement community in North Olmsted, shows Weissmuller, in a crisp white shirt, sitting at a crowded table next to Pirchner, smiling widely in a gray suit.
Eleanor Holm — who'd been friends with Weissmuller since the 1928 Olympics, when she was 14 and he was 24 — "wouldn't leave Weissmuller out of sight," Pirchner recalls. Holm's brash Champagne Girl personality grated on Pirchner. "She was too talkative for my taste."
Like almost everyone back then, Pirchner disliked Billy Rose as deeply as he admired Weissmuller. "He was a snob," he says of Rose. "He was a tight-fisted guy. But he was a clever guy. Not a good guy, a clever guy."
Still, Rose charmed one person at the expo: Eleanor Holm.
On July 20, Cleveland's papers screamed their gossip in banner headlines: Holm was divorcing her husband, bandleader Arthur Jarrett, and sporting a huge new diamond ring. Word was Billy Rose had given it to her, though they both denied it at first.
"It is all as simple as this," Holm told the reporters who banged on her door at the Lake Shore Hotel on Lakewood's Gold Coast after her husband, in Dallas conducting his band, announced the news. "I have my career and my husband has his." She was divorcing him because she never saw him. "Of course I am not interested in Billy Rose — he's married."
Rose's wife was Fanny Brice, the Ziegfeld Follies star. "I have been happily married for eight years," Rose told reporters. "I have no intention of seeking a divorce. ... I certainly never gave Eleanor Holm a diamond — not at any time."
Attendance at the Aquacade shot up.
Pirchner smiles mischievously when asked why he hired Bacon. "She was colorful," he says. "She entertained."
Bacon did her dance, her body painted so that reporters couldn't tell if she was really nude or not. The Knights of Columbus cancelled Catholic Day at the fair in protest, but the Elks, a black fraternal organization holding its convention in town, still showed up for Elk Day.
Between Bacon's debut, a bathing beauty contest and the hosting of the Miss Ohio pageant, one reporter dubbed August "Curves Month" at the expo. But when Dickey and Shaffer stopped by the Alpine Village in a peace gesture, they told a reporter that business at the restaurant hadn't picked up. Nudity doesn't pay, they declared.
The expo closed on Sept. 27, 1937. The city ordered most of it torn down. It didn't want any white elephants sitting on its lakefront. By summer 1938 most of it was gone. Construction debris formed a giant pile, a new dump, at the foot of East Ninth Street. That summer, the Torso Murderer left two new victims' bodies there.
The city kept the Aquacade stage for a while; a light opera was performed there in 1938. The massive Hall of Progress and Automotive Building were kept for the 1939 World Poultry Congress, then torn down. For 50 years, the Horticultural Gardens behind the stadium were the last surviving piece of the expo; they were removed in the late 1990s to make way for Cleveland Browns Stadium.
The expo never broke even. It repaid its underwriters only a small portion of their investments. But the executive committee and the newspapers insisted the expo had been worth it because it had stimulated the town's economy and its optimism.
Occasional talk of staging another Great Lakes Exposition never came to anything. Cleveland's self-esteem, buoyed for a while by the expo, took many more hits afterward. But the expo showed Cleveland, for the first time, how beautiful and valuable its lakefront could be. So in a way, the expo deserves some credit for inspiring North Coast Harbor's development in the 1990s and the city's lakefront plan in the 2000s.
Dudley Blossom died of a heart attack at 59, a year after the expo closed, and the town's most famous citizens eulogized him. (His son Dudley Jr.'s wife, Emily Blossom, helped create Blossom Music Center.) Lincoln Dickey teamed up with Billy Rose to take the Aquacade, Weissmuller and Holm to the New York World's Fair in 1939 and 1940. Dickey died in fall 1940, also of a heart attack, at 56.
Roelif Loveland spent 30 more years with The Plain Dealer, covering the invasion of Normandy and the Indians' 1948 championship season. He retired in 1965 and died in 1978 at age 78.
Herman Pirchner ran his Alpine Village restaurant in Playhouse Square until 1961. His room is filled with mementoes of his restaurants and the expo. "It was a great thing for Cleveland," he says. There's a picture of his showboat and a drawing of him at age 30, in the same feathered Alpine hat that sits on his windowsill.
Toto Leverne was never seen in town again.