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Popular Entertainment in 1930s America

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  • 0:00 Depression-Era Entertainment
  • 1:14 Music and Dancing
  • 2:29 Movies
  • 3:41 Radio
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
In this lesson, you'll learn about some of the ways in which Americans entertained themselves during the Great Depression, including some of the music, movies, and radio programs that provided a temporary escape from reality.

Depression-Era Entertainment

In the present day, if we want to be entertained, we have almost 1,000 television channels, millions of websites, and countless other high-tech, low-tech, and no-tech options for passing the time. These entertainment mediums have become so common in our lives that even those of us who were raised in a pre-cable, pre-internet era are beginning to have a hard time remembering what it was like without these things. And if that's hard to imagine, consider that during the 1930s, not only did Americans have considerably fewer options for entertainment, but, because of the Great Depression, those options also had to be cheap or free.

Beginning in 1929, a series of events such as the stock market crash and bank failures, led to a serious economic depression around the world, which is generally referred to as the Great Depression. By 1933, nearly 15 million Americans were out of work, and states, facing serious funding cuts, had to shorten school days and eventually shortened the school year. Unemployed and unable to go to school, millions of Americans had a lot of free time and were desperately in need of something to take their minds off their economic circumstances.

Music and Dancing

Among the many forms of entertainment that Americans engaged in during the 1930s, there is probably none more easily identifiable than the jazz, swing, and big band music that was wildly popular throughout the decade. Although there was still prohibition, which made the manufacture and sale of alcohol illegal until 1933, Americans continued to patronize nightclubs and music halls regularly, often drinking non-alcoholic drinks or bootlegged liquor, just happy to listen to band leaders like Benny Goodman and singers like Ella Fitzgerald.

The upbeat and rhythmic music lent itself perfectly to dancing, which was another popular form of entertainment during that era. In addition to school and town hall dances, dance marathons had grown increasingly popular throughout the 1920s and '30s. In a dance marathon, whichever couple was able to dance the longest without stopping would win what was usually a cash prize. Because people were often desperate for money, dance marathons drew hundreds of participants hoping to win the prize and countless others looking for an evening of free entertainment. For a good example of the dance marathon craze, see Horace McCoy's 1935 novel, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, which is an accurate, though terribly sad depiction.

Movies

While music and dancing were good ways to distract Depression-era Americans for an evening, movies were equally popular, if not more so. With an average ticket price of 27 cents per person, movie theaters offered people the chance to escape from their lives for a few hours and to get lost in a wide variety of comedies, dramas, musicals, and action films. Not only was going to the movie theater a cheap form of entertainment, but many theaters were often heated or air-conditioned, which was a luxury that many Americans could not afford during the Depression.

Now considered by many to be the Golden Age of Hollywood, which lasted from the 1930s into the 1950s, the film industry released some of the most iconic films of all time. In the earlier part of the decade, horror stories like Dracula or Frankenstein terrified audiences, while latter years saw the release of epic romances like 1939's Gone with the Wind, and one of the most beloved films of all time, The Wizard of Oz.

Unlike nightclubs or dance marathons, movies were one of the most effective forms of escapism because they required very little active participation, and audiences could mentally check out in the dark, cool environment of the theater.

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