Striking a Chord: Babe Egan and Her Hollywood Redheads, 1925

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the world of professional music in 1920s Los Angeles, much less elsewhere in America, it was pretty rare to find an all-female band, but a prominent one in the City of the Angels was Babe Egan and Her Hollywood Redheads.

More than twenty-five years ago, when the museum hosted irs first 1920s jazz festival, a copy photo of Egan and an expanded ensemble was used for an article written up to promote the event, so we knew a little about the leader and her band.

The Homestead recently acquired, however, a fantastic pair of original 1925 photos–one showing an octet version of the group playing on a trailer hauled by a tractor in a parade and the other showing the front of Chotiner’s Ravenna Theater on Vermont Avenue, west of downtown Los Angeles with the group’s name on the marquee.

The parade photo has musicians playing an upright piano, an upright bass, a simple drum kit, a trumpet, a trombone, and two saxophones with one woman, perhaps the leader, barely seen over the piano and no instrument can be discerned.

The tractor, rented from the William L. Hughson Company, with a company employee at the wheel, pulls the long trailer with side fencing down the road, which has twin streetcar tracks in it.  On the side of the trailer is a banner that has the name “Babe Egan and her Red Heads,” perhaps an earlier version of the Hollywood Redheads guise, and then “Chotiner’s Ravenna Theatre” underneath.

A packed crowd of observers line the street and I was struck by the fact that, among the vast majority of whites thronging the sidewalk area, a couple of middle-school age boys and a man were in front between the trumpeter and the tractor driver.  What did they and the whites around them think, if anything, as they stood together watching the parade?

This 1925 photo from the Homestead collection shows “all-girl” band Babe Egan and her [Hollywood] Red Heads aboard a trailer pulled by a tractor during a Los Angeles parade.  The banner noted the band was the house act for Max Chotiner’s Ravenna Theatre.

The other photo shows the Ravenna Theater, which stood at 233 North Vermont Avenue, south of Beverly Boulevard.  The Spanish Colonial Revival theater was newly opened when the 1925 image was taken.

Designed by Richard D. King, who worked on other Los Angeles theaters including the Chotiner circuit’s Fox Parisian, further south on Vermont at 8th, it sat just under 800 persons and an online rendering of the auditorium shows it to have been a pretty impressive structure.  It wasn’t as grand as the big “movie palaces” on Broadway, but seemed more in line with the nicer suburban theaters of the area, such as Walter P. Temple’s Temple Theatre, which opened in Alhambra at the end of 1921.

The marquee focuses on three main attractions.  The first was a film called “Baree Son of Kazan” based on a novel by James Oliver Curwood, whose name is on the marquee.  The movie, now lost, was based on the adventures of a part wolf, part dog wild pup and its survival when separated from its parents and found by a child–it was part of the well-worn “boy and his dog” trope found in films for decades.

Another act was “The Angel City Quartette,” of which nothing could be located.  Then on the front and side of the marquee are “Ravenna Redhead Band” and “Babe Egan’s Ravenna Redheads.”  Clearly, theater owner Max Chotiner booked Egan and her group under his “Ravenna” banner, though the parade banner spelled things out a bit differently.  It was presumably later, after her run at the theatre ended, that Egan adopted the “Hollywood Redheads” moniker.

Mary Florence Egan was born the youngest of seven children in Seattle in 1897 or 1900 (a birth record from the state indicates the latter, other sources point to the former) to Jack Egan, a newspaper reporter, and Alice Dolan, both Irish by background.  Known as Mary or Florence in various sources, Egan came to Los Angeles with her widowed mother and a brother.

In the 1920 census, the Egans resided in the Westlake district and young “Mary F. Egan” was listed as a soloist violinist under occupation.  Jeannie Gayle Pool, who has researched Egan and her band, stated that the group was popular from 1924 to 1933 and traveled on the vaudeville theater circuit in the U.S., Canada and Europe.  Shipping records indicate that Egan did travel to Europe in 1930.  Pool listed fourteen women who were members of the Hollywood Redheads during its near decade run and indicated that musicians she spoke to recalled Egan as “a terrific musician” and an inspiration to them to pursue the profession.

Opened and photographed in 1925, Chotiner’s Ravenne Theatre was a Spanish Colonial Revival movie house seating about 800 and located on Vermont Avenue just south of Beverly Boulevard.  Note “Babe Egan’s Ravenna Redheads” on the left side of the marquee, while “Ravenna Redhead Band” at the lower right of the front undoubtedly refers to Egan’s ensemble.  This image is also in the museum collection.

Interestingly, a Florence Egan, born in Washington and aged 43, was counted in the 1940 census as a dressmaker in New York City.  If this is her, it indicated she could not make it during the Great Depression as a musician and turned to a more common female vocation for the time.  In later years, though, Egan was back in the Los Angeles area and resided in San Gabriel before moving into a sanitarium in Montrose called Rockhaven, the fate of which is now in hot dispute as the site is slated for redevelopment.

Just in November, a presentation about Egan was given to the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley in the Glendale/Montrose area, where I did a presentation a few months before that.  In any case, Egan died in 1966 and was buried at Resurrection Cemetery in South San Gabriel.

Ravenna Theater owner Max Chotiner (1887-1969) was a native of Austria, who migrated to the United States in 1899 and lived in Pittsburgh.  He joined his father’s cigar manufacturing business and remained with it until just before 1920, when he migrated to Los Angeles and operated a shoe store with his brother.  He then got into the theater and real estate businesses and married actress and movie theater owner Alice Calhoun (1900-1966) in 1926, just after the photos were taken. The Marcal on Hollywood Boulevard was owned with Mark Hansen, who possessed several theaters.

The couple owned a home on Benedict Canyon Road in Beverly Hills and their neighbor in the 1930 census was famed film comedian Harold Lloyd (though the Chotiners lived in an impressive $55,000 house, Lloyd’s was listed as valued at $2.5 million!).  But, Calhoun’s career did not survive the move into sound films and her marriage to Chotiner came to an end in 1938 amid claims he left her at home and went out on the town.  In 1940, Chotiner, recorded in the census as a divorcee, was listed as a real estate investments manager with an office at the Fox Parisian building on 8th Street.

In 1948, he and Calhoun were reconciled and remained together until her death.  They were buried together in a highly elaborate monument at Forest Lawn Cemetery.  Calhoun, for whom a wing was endowed by her husband at the City of Hope after her death from cancer, also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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