In its 1936 issue, Social Process in Hawaii published “The Taxi-Dance Hall in Honolulu,” a heavily redacted version of a 48-page paper (RASRL Box A-3, Folder 97) written by two undergraduates for an introductory sociology course. Writers Victoria Lord and Alice W. Lee tackled the topic with energy and enthusiasm: on-site visits to seven of Honolulu’s taxi dancehalls, interviews with dancers, and even a spin around the dance floor with a couple of patrons. The excerpts shared here are from the original paper.
A taxi-dance hall…is a place where men come to dance with girls provided by the management, for those services they pay 10¢ per dance—which seldom lasts more than a minute and a half. The price paid by the patron is usually split in half—five cents going to the proprietor who pays for the hall, the orchestra, and other incidental expenses, and the other half going to the girl.
Taxi dancehalls trace their existence back to California’s Barbary Coast during the gold rush period. But it wasn’t until the late 1920s that Honolulu opened its first dancehalls, eliciting outcries about the evils of these establishments. The public feared that the for-hire dancers were but one step removed from becoming prostitutes if they weren’t already plying that trade. Yet the halls persisted and regulations were put in place. By the 1930s, the writers reported that two policemen were assigned to each hall to monitor operations; no woman under 18 could be employed; alcohol on the premises was strictly prohibited (although beer joints were always in close proximity); dancing had to cease at one a.m. on weeknights and midnight on Saturdays. If dancers did not live near the halls, they were to be excused early in order to catch the last streetcar or bus, as much for the women’s safety as a way to monitor that they would not be working the streets. No woman who had a history of prostitution could be employed.
By the time of the writers’ study, the police department had complete control of the halls: all personnel had to be registered with the police department; a dancer needed to be granted a release from one hall to seek employment at another; the police chief had the power to grant licenses to operate halls, to suspend licenses, and “to make rules and regulations to meet existing needs…. [And it] is expected that an ordinance will soon be passed forcing halls to pay an excise tax.” Although the writers made no mention of it, the level of graft such oversight encouraged must have been significant.
On entering the hall, the patron purchases a series of tickets…. He chooses a partner, and at the beginning of a dance, gives her a ticket. After a few twirls, the music hesitates, changes tempo, and starts off in a new piece. This indicates that another dance is in the process, and also that it is time for the man to produce another ticket. Often a man will withhold the ticket until the end of the dance, and then refuses to give it up until the girl dances another time. … She can’t leave him until he gives her the tickets, for tickets mean money to her and she is decidedly at a disadvantage.
“Checkers” would sit at a raised desk in the corner of dance halls in order to monitor how many times each woman danced. At the end of the evening the checker determined the dancer’s take for the evening.
Seven Honolulu Taxi Dancehalls, 1935
In 1935, Casa Loma was the newest of Honolulu’s dance halls and the one about which the writers had the most to say. Its ballroom on Bethel Street was large with heavily painted floors, and its walls were lined with benches where the women sat and waited to dance or chatted with patrons. In one corner, there was an “ice-box” containing sodas and lei and corsages that admiring patrons could purchase for the women.
On a raised platform, decorated with a gay, orange moon, tinsel, silhouettes, and palm trees, the orchestra, numbering about seven holds sway, blazing forth old and tried melodies, in a blatant discordant, and yet compelling fashion.
Although Casa Loma catered almost exclusively to the servicemen, it was
…popular with slumming parties, groups of people out to see the sights of the “underworld,” and often students, who like to feel they are doing something they shouldn’t…. [Casa Loma] prides itself in being a “high-class joint,” and excludes such people as Filipinos, on the grounds that they are not properly dressed.
Casa Loma’s “Mitzi” saw that the dancers didn’t get into “squabbles,” sending them home if they got “fresh.” She also provided entertainment:
She is adept at doing a combination of the hula (not a Hawaiian version) and shimmy. During an intermission she goes to the middle of the floor, in her costume and soon every one is gathered in a ring around her feet. In this way, she can make quite a bit—as she put on her dance, the spectators clap in time to the music, yell at her to “whoop it up Mitzi,” and even throw coins on the floor around her feet—a few dollars per night.
At the time of this study, Casa Loma was owned and operated by Alger Ostermeyer, a retired chief petty naval officer. By 1937 Casa Loma had been sold to J. T. Young (Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 2 July 1937, p.16) who owned the Casino dancehall in 1935.
J.T. Young’s Casino was located on the corner of Beretania and Nu‘uanu streets and had “a more varied trade” than Casa Loma’s.
Here one buys his tickets in a cubby-hole in the wall on the level of the street. A clock is in plain sight on the wall, there is a balcony from which one may view the sights of an alley, or hide to take a sip from a flask, the lights are a little dimmer, the floor feels a little more as if it had sand on it, there are no garlands of crepe paper festooned from the chandeliers to the wall, but otherwise in general aspect—the “Casino” and the “Casa Loma” are very much alike.
The Casino, like some other dancehalls, offered dance lessons as a way of bringing in more patrons.
Catering to a Filipino clientele, Danceland was located on the corner of Dillingham Boulevard and King Street.
Dance halls that cater to Filipinos waste no money on overhead. The Filipinos have a need for feminine companionship, and accept it under any conditions. They are offered partners, room to dance and exceedingly “hot” music. These halls are smaller, darker, more crowded, and to a considerable degree, more odorous.
Harry “Biggy” Hamasaki (misnamed Harry Yamanaka in the study), “a professional gambler and musician extraordinary,” owned Danceland. According to newspaper accounts, Danceland (formerly known as Rizal Dance Hall) had some trouble with the authorities. In 1933 it was the site of a rumble between two gangs, one that frequented Danceland and another gang who patronized the Liberty (Honolulu Advertiser, 8 Dec 1933, p. 9). In 1936, Hamasaki and his wife were cited for employing a girl younger than 18 (Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 29 Dec 1936, p 2). In 1937, Hamasaki won a first round in court, allowing him to continue operating until a permanent injunction came before the court. Hamasaki was fighting a licensing requirement that he felt was unconstitutional since it did not set up any standard of qualification to operate a dancehall (Honolulu Star-Bulletin,14 Jul 19 37, p.5).
But no dancehall had a better orchestra than Danceland’s. “’Biggy’s Orchestra’ is in great demand at private dances, for they can furnish really good jazz music. Clubs, schools, and societies all hire “Biggy’s.”
…there are several numbered circles painted on the floor. When the music stops, a wheel is turned. The couple standing in the circle with the number at which the wheel stops, receives a prize. Prize waltzes, free dances, and dance contests help to break any monotony.
A 1930 article “Danceland Band Tonight at 8:30” (Honolulu Advertiser, 8 June 1930, p. 9) announced that Biggie’s (spellings of his nickname varied) orchestra would be broadcasting that night on radio station KGU. June 8 was a Sunday, a day when dancehalls were closed.
Owned by Johnny Garcia, also known as “Johnny Grace” and “Griggs,” Liberty was located across the street from Danceland and “the most picturesque” of the halls. If Casa Loma was top of the line, Liberty was at the bottom.
Located over a swamp—this one can easily discover for himself from the peculiar odor—it has a series of hazardous steps—rickety, unpainted, gaping, and literally besprinkled with sputum and tobacco juice, leading to the hall. … Filipinos…are smoking, idly scratching their heads, or picking their noses. Four painted Filipino and Porto Rican [sic] girls, each one with dangling earrings, constitute the dancers. In the background, four older women slouch—the mothers of the girls who accompany their daughters every night to their employment. Of the old school, they believe in chaperones and are wary and watchful.
The hall was a rough, unpainted, one-story, wooden structure. Even down the street, one could hear “bizarre music—American jazz with a Filipino accent.”
Even though the orchestra—on a platform decorated with faded [red, white, and blue] streamers and a picture of F.D.R.—is banging away noisily, few pay much attention—neither dancing, nor smiling, nor speaking. The gloomy, sullen expressions of the men, numbering about thirty don’t change even when the proprietor bellows “free dance.” There is a rush toward the girls at this cry and the twenty-six [men] who have no partners dance with each other.
Dancehalls were rented out for different purposes. For example, in 1933, Chang Kau, a boxing promoter, installed a portable boxing ring he had invented in the Liberty. Fighters trained there during the day (Honolulu Advertiser,16 July 1933, p.11).
According to the writers, Reno was the oldest of Honolulu’s dance halls. C. Q. Yee Hop, an enterprising Chinese immigrant, was the original owner of the Reno and one of the first to see the need for a dancehall in Honolulu.
A narrow passageway leads from the street…covered by a red and yellow striped canvas. With its lei sellers squatting in the passageway, and its crowds of all nations—Portuguese, “haoles,” Japanese, Hawaiians, Porto Ricans [sic], Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, it has a sort of carnival air…. Hanging from the ceiling is a large ball made of metal and brass which catches the light and sparkles. The orchestra is made up of very seedy individuals who leave their posts every once in a while to wander around the hall, or drink a bottle of pop, leaving the rest of the band to struggle along. The windows are always lined with people, peering in from the alley that flanks one side of the building.
Venice and Roseland
About these two dance halls, the writers had little to say except that “both were dirty and crowded … catering to all nationalities.” However, Roseland was featured in a 1935 Honolulu Advertiser that announced its purchase by Pedro Estomago, manager of several “top-notch fighters.” By day, Roseland would serve as training gym and by night, a dancehall where Estomago “plans to continue the policies that have been built up this business during the past several years and will appreciate the continued patronage of Roseland fans” (13 Oct 1935, p. 16).
Dance Hall Patrons
Paul G. Cressey’s Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life (U of Chicago Press, 1932) was a groundbreaking study that provided the model and guide for the writers’ study. Arriving at the University of Chicago in 1925, Cressey received a graduate assistantship working with the Juvenile Protective Association and spent the next four years researching Chicago’s taxi dancehalls (Inventing Film Studies, eds. Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson, Duke University Press, 2008, p. 64). Cressey explores the dancehalls through the eyes of dancers, owners, and patrons, devoting an entire chapter to young unmarried Filipino men who made up at least 20 percent of Chicago’s dancehall patrons. From 1920 to 1931, the Filipino population in the US grew from 5,603 to 56,000 (Cressey, pp. 145-46). Until 1934 Filipinos were considered American nationals and no legal restrictions prevented their immigration.
“Unlike most other immigrants to Chicago, and unlike many Filipino immigrants to Hawaii or the West Coast, the Chicago migrants planned to be students…to acquire the American diploma they believed would boost their place on the [Philippine] Islands’ ladder of success” (“Unintentional Immigrants: Chicago’s Filipino Foreign Students Become Settlers, 1900-1941,” Barbara M. Posadas & Roland L.Guyotte, Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 9, no. 2, Spring, 1990, p. 26). Prior to 1945, Chicago was the American educational mecca, offering opportunities from junior colleges to graduate programs (p. 32). Some Filipinos persisted in their studies, juggling work and study schedules, but others simply gave up, not wanting to return to the Philippines as failures for not achieving goals their families had sent them off to achieve (p. 27). And so they found service work as waiters, butlers, gardeners, drivers, or barbers. Many found work with the US Post Office and as Pullman porters for the railroads (p. 28).
A large share of patrons at Honolulu’s dancehalls were Filipino men as well.
Among the various races, Filipinos have the greatest number of men, something like twelve men to one woman…. Filipinos came to work on the plantations and when their contract had expired they migrate [sic] to the city to find work as barbers, sho-shiners [sic], hotel and hospital workers, yard boys and house boys, and waiters.
The gender imbalance among Filipinos was acute. According to the 1930 US Census, Filipino men in Hawai‘i totaled 52,566 as compared to only 10,486 Filipino women.
Not only does the need for feminine companionship attract the Filipino, but it is his natural love for the loud and flashy. Something about the atmosphere of the dance hall—its loud, jazzy music, crowds, and excitement make him want to dress up in the most colorful clothes and strut before his country-men, envied because he has a girl.
Haole soldiers and sailors made up another large group of patrons. Although the male to female ratio for servicemen in 1935 was not as dramatic as it became during the war, these men were still left without enough female companionship.
Very few soldiers and sailors can get a “date” with “nice” girls here. There is only about one-half of a girl for each man. So, here for a short time, these young fellows lower their standard and go to the taxi-dance halls for their amusement. They are forced by conditions here, and by Honolulu’s snobbery, to take their fun where they can find it.
Young local men—Hawaiians, “Orientals,” and Portuguese—patronized the dance halls, too.
They haven’t steady jobs…or any money. Others go because they live in the neighborhood and it is only natural for them to be drawn in. Another group is that of young fellows who haven’t been able to secure an education. The college and high school girls of their own classes and nationalities will have nothing to do with them because of their ignorance…. So they remain single, and go to dance halls.
The writers took note of patrons from other ethnic groups. Korean men seldom attended the halls. Chinese and Japanese, mostly “manual workers and living in the slums,” frequented Reno, Danceland, and Roseland. Puerto Ricans were much older. “They appear to be stolid men—not wild, callow boys, and always wear sensible suits.”
The writers found it remarkable that “with such large crowds of people congregated into such a small place as a dance hall—made up of different nationalities, with fiery tempers that they haven’t been taught to curb, each with different ideals, and purposes in life, that there would be more brawls than there are.” Certainly, the constant presence of the police had much to do with keeping the peace.
The writers felt that all clientele were “social misfits” but were especially disdainful of UH students who frequented the dance halls. One fellow, “an introvert”
has formed no friendships with any of his girl classmates…[and] doesn’t take part in athletics or any other form of school activity…. He flatly refuses to attend University dances, because he feels no one will want to dance with him, and that the girls are all “stuck-up.”
Perhaps for good reason this fellow skipped school dances: at the dancehall he had his pick of dancers with whom he could “indulge in fancy steps… and show off, as he dips and glides.”
A recent UH graduate, a “dark” Portuguese son of a successful merchant, made a point of selecting the blondest taxi dancers available.
… he has formed a very close friendship with a dancer—evidently of Jewish extract and more evidently a peroxide blonde. Every night finds him dancing there, buying ticket after ticket for her. And not long ago, he appeared at a University dance held in the gymnasium, with his blonde girl friend beside him.
For an entrance fee of fifty cents, some dancehalls were open to couples. With their dates, writers Lord and Lee made “a special investigating excursion to ‘Casa Loma’” where they noticed a sailor standing in a corner. This is what one of the writers, likely Lord, said about her experience:
On one of my covert glances at him he happened to catch my eye. He seemed so shy that I smiled at him in what I imagined to be a reassuring manner. He blushed profusely and hung his head. Imagine my embarrassment and surprise then, when at the end of a dance a few minutes later, I saw him coming towards our party. He had evidently made up his mind to something, and approached my escort in a determined fashion to ask if he could dance with me. I was positively overcome with curiosity, as I nudged my escort to signify my approval.
This young sailor from Illinois told her that she was the first white “girl” he talked to in two years because
no decent haole wahines in the island would have anything to do with enlisted men, and that half of the men, rather than run around with girls of Oriental or native ancestry, or those whose idea on the subject of morals are shady, preferred to do without any personal feminine companionship.
The writer confessed that because she’d danced with one serviceman, she couldn’t very well refuse “to take a whirl with a very short and coatless soldier” who, though “almost cocky,” was a beautiful dancer. This serviceman told her that
[h]e was used to the city environment and felt no race prejudice at all.… He felt that he was just where he belonged, had no idea that taxi-dance halls are looked down upon by many as dens of vice.
...like a taxi driver and his cab, the taxi dancer is for public hire
When a lull occurs, and customers are scarce, the girls pair off, and rather than let the music go to waste, dance together, displaying an amazing series of intricate steps, slides, dips, twirls, and back-bends. Because they have to be able to follow anyone, they display rare ability and grace. They are marvelous dancers!
Lord and Lee’s table of the taxi dancers notes their ethnicities, pure and mixed, nationalities, and age distribution. Of the 274 women listed in the table, Hawaiian and part-Hawaiian women numbered 68 dancers or about 25 per cent.
Dancers were of every height, weight, and color of hair and eyes, although “white girls” and “the best dancers” were in greatest demand. But one thing all dancers had in common was a permanent wave, plenty of mascara and eye shadow, rouge and lipstick and their clothing: dinner or cocktail dresses “of clinging form-revealing lines, and of medium length, worn with sandals—for comfort and durability.”
Taxi dancing was a young woman’s profession. According to Lord and Lee, 82 per cent of taxi dancers were 18 to 23 years old.
Taxi -dancers are all much alike in appearances. The average age is twenty-two years, with eighteen as the lower limit and thirty-eight as the upper…. The older dancers are of the Caucasian races [sic], and the reason is an obvious one. They come from the mainland where dance halls have been operating for years and they are old hands at the game, whereas in Honolulu, dance halls are a comparatively new development. There hasn’t been time for our native-born to grow old in the business.
But eventually taxi dancing took its toll on the women.
One can just about tell how long a girl has been in the business by her facial expression. The newest are young-looking under their cosmetic masks, innocent and appealing, though often touched by sorrow and hardship. Later on, the girls [sic] face sets into hard lines, she becomes almost expressionless, and loses her individuality. She loses her buoyancy, and begins to slump in her posture, for she has enough experiences with men to age any woman.”
Most dancers only worked four years and as they aged, the amount of money they earned decreased.
… by the end of that time she is either married to some earnest fellow who happened to like her for herself and has settled down, raising a family, or she is soliciting a few dollars. Taxi-dancers made it perfectly plain to us that to last for any length of time in a dance hall, it is necessary for a girl to retain her virtue and be content with a little lower income.
From their interviews, the writers learned that the dancers lived all over town, “from upper Kaimuki to lower Iwilei to Alewa Heights.” In the Punchbowl area, they lived in neat houses with little yards. Others lived in the “poor districts in Kakaako and Kalihi, in houses far back from the paved roads, with dirt rather than grass, houses built up on stilts with chicken coops underneath, houses with no paint, no window curtains—poor and shabby.” Some roomed together in tenements on Buckle Lane and in “Hell’s Half Acre,” others lived in houses of prostitution or in downtown Honolulu hotels, such as the California, Graystone, Senator, or Leonard, or a rooming house, such as the Royal. The Haole women who had “been in the game” for years lived in Waikīkī.
So why did they become taxi dancers? Their family life was less than ideal: “parental controversies, or divorces, or desertions of the breadwinner … or abuse of the children or indulgence in vices (drinking, gambling).” Sometimes a woman was forced to find a job that paid better than what she was earning at the cannery or as a housemaid or waitress. One dancer was earning money to go back to school. Several attended a business college during the day. Others worked as maids in private homes. Some dancers had “married into the service” or had become pregnant by a soldier or sailor who deserted them, leaving them to support the child on her own. Many women helped support their parents and siblings or even their own families when husbands did not have steady jobs.
Since the cannery is two blocks from my home, I used to work there and hurry home to cook lunch and return to work. My neighbor who lives in the next two partitions of our building worked at nights in the dance hall. She saw how hard it was for me to care for my children and work in the cannery besides. So she told me about taxi-dancing. She taught me how to dance and dressed me up with makeup and a cheap evening gown. I learned how to dance rhythmically. I earned more in one night than in three days working in the cannery. Besides that, I can stay home all day and take care of my children.
In Honolulu taxi dancers could make as much as $6 per night, and if she put in five nights of dancing, she’d could earn up to $30 per week. According to the 1939 US Department of Labor’s “Labor in the Territory of Hawaii” Hawaii’s minimum wage was $1.50 per day (p. 69).
All in all, the writers concluded that taxi dancehalls offered a range of benefits. For the dancers, it provided employment that paid well and kept them from the “easiest way to make a living,” prostitution. For men, it kept them “out of houses of prostitution by substituting clean fun with feminine companions …[and kept them from] indulging in gambling and other low forms of amusement.” For Haole servicemen, it offered an alternative to “marrying for companionship, girls of dark blood with whom they couldn’t be happy—by offering them feminine companionship—enough to satisfy their natural desires—at a price, but with no strings attached….”
In 1935, when Lord and Lee did this study, the world was still in the grip of the Great Depression. With jobs rigidly gendered, men suffered greater levels of layoffs than women. Women’s work, which was primarily in service industries, remained in demand. For example, from 1930 to 1940 the number of employed women rose 24 percent, from 10.5 million to 13 million in the US.
Lord and Lee’s study leaves little doubt that taxi dancing was an essential service. Their study also offers a broader understanding of women’s work in urban Honolulu during the mid-1930s. Taxi dancing, although not illegal was nonetheless not quite respectable, yet it met a variety of women’s needs: better pay, shorter work hours, and less onerous duties than that of factory or domestic work as well as the ability to live independently or provide for one’s children or supplement family income. For some and at least for a time, being a taxi dancer offered not only a sense of agency but added a bit of glamour in their lives.
The fascination and the pleasurable feeling planted in the girl, by the music and decorations; the flattery delivered by the men in their praises and compliments to the girl—all create an independent and self-willed spirit in the taxi-dancer… [and] the realization that she is somebody….