by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the awful circumstances of this COVID-19 pandemic involving so much loss of life, we are also seeing the dramatic and extraordinary financial effects, including closure of so many businesses that it can be head-spinning. Obviously, brick-and-mortar stores have been increasingly challenged by online retailing for years, but the current situation is exacerbating the matter much more rapidly.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact, the 3 June 1925 issue of The Broadway World, published by the Arthur Letts Employees’ Association, is a reminder of how entrenched the brick-and-mortar department store was in greater Los Angeles in bygone days. The Broadway Department Store opened its doors on 29 August 1895 in the Hallett and Pirtle Building at the southwest corner of Broadway and Fourth Street.
The original owner was J.A. Williams and Company, with the principals being the namesake “for many years of the best known commercial travelers of the Pacific coast” and B.F. Overman, a merchant who recently relocated from Indiana. While the firm selected a prime area of downtown for their business, the economy was not in particularly strong shape, though there was continuing growth in the city and region, and they apparently were badly over-leveraged financially.
Within just several months after opening the store, J.A. Williams and Company went belly up and another new arrival to the City of Angels stepped in to acquire the inventory of The Broadway Department Store. Arthur Letts was born in 1862 in Holdenby, a little hamlet near Northampton, England, and at 20 years of age, migrated to Toronto, where he worked in a dry goods store. He followed the line of employment when he settled in Seattle in the early Nineties.
Rapidly, Letts built up The Broadway, as it was soon known, into one of the most popular department stores in the city, especially as a major boom in the first years of the 20th century took place and was followed by others, including another huge period of growth just before Letts died in 1923. He set up one of his favored employees, John Bullock, in an enterprise called, of course, Bullock’s, and it remained associated with Letts until he passed away and Bullock purchased his store from the estate.
Letts, whose Holmby House (named loosely after his home village) in Los Feliz was a showpiece, acquired 400 acres of Rancho San Jose de Bueos Ayres and planned, with his son-in-law, the powerful developer Harold Janss, the communities of Westwood and Holmby Hills, though most of the work was not done until after Letts died. As a side note, his son, Arthur, Jr., who took on the Westwood development with Janss, built a massive mansion in 1927 that is best known as the Playboy Mansion.
It’s notable that the employee organization was named for the owner rather than the store and The Broadway World was launched in 1910 to cover all manner of news about the store and its workers. The feature article in this edition as about the use of The Broadway for the official observation by the City of Los Angeles’ Health Department of National Child Health Week.
It was noted that this was the first time a commercial business was utilized in this way, but it was felt that “the public eye could be trained on this important venture much more effectively if it was held in a centrally located building.” That structure was, in fact, built on the same site as the Hallett and Pirtle Building and was opened in two phases, the first in August 1914 and the second followed not long thereafter. The Broadway closed its flagship store in 1973 and the historic structure is now the state-owned and occupied Junipero Serra Building.
Another interesting major article was about the “May Festival Frolic,” held on the 9th of that month at the store and featuring a performance from a local dance school in the “little theatre” comprising the Men’s Grill on the eighth floor. 65 costumed children dressed as “fairies, brownies, gnomes and butterflies” and sang and danced, as did the Queen of the May, Harlequin, Columbine, Puritan maids and, curiously, “a slave girl.” Among the performers was Dollie Wright, a frequent performer on the KHJ radio show of “Uncle John” Doggett, though one of her colleagues, Dickey Brandon, could not attend because of filming at Universal Pictures.
A bit of history was featured with “The Old Capistrano Mission.” but only a very little bit as the short article concerned a Sunday pleasure trip taken by a couple of female employees to San Juan Capistrano, where they marveled at the gardens and the belfry among other aspects. The pair also visited Laguna, which was truly isolated in those days and was a haven for artists as well as those who loved the ocean environment.
The centerfold article was business-related and dealt with the store’s delivery and maintenance services, including photos of trucks and the maintenance department garage and warehouse. It was reported that, in 1924, the fleet delivered 930,000 packages, making 1 million stops in forty-two trucks that logged 642,000 miles.
Praising drivers as salesmen and integral to the carrying out of the business, the piece noted that their day began at 7:10 (if late, he was not allowed to clock in and lost a day of pay) with the picking up and putting on of his uniform. After an inspection, the driver got in line and went to the delivery department by a quarter to eight and then sorting packages for the route. Loading was done by 9 so the day’s deliveries could be made.
As for maintenance, it included shops for blacksmiths and welders, with a special fire walled room with an open flame. Notably, there was a fleet of electric trucks (this at a time when gasoline supplies were considered a concern for the future and yet here we are nearly a century later seeing more electric commercial vehicles in use again!) and there were five large generators to charge the batteries.
The storage room had a capacity for fifty-five trucks and each of the vehicles in the fleet was inspected weekly. A service truck “insures against loss of time of the delivery fleet through the occurrences of road troubles” and had a winch with a capacity of 5,000 pounds for towing and a tank for welding. Other tools and equipment services smaller trucks, including the Walker electric ones, and the article concluded that “none of the equipment . . . may be removed for use in the shop so it may be seen that it is always ready for service when calls are received.”
Among the many smaller sections of the magazine were letters from traveling employees and from those out on sick leave; impressions from other states by employees who hailed from them; service birthdays for employees with five or ten years with the store; a humor section; and an interesting discussion from the manager of The Garden Cafe about the eating habits of different sections of the country.
The manager, William Kenney made mention of the “Mammy Cook” and dishes made by this offensive stereotype in the South and “the Land of Hot Stuff” in the Southwest, though much of that section did not deal with what passed for Mexican food for most non-Latinos at the time. He ended by observing that more meat was consumed in the western part of the country than back east, but that “Californians living in a fruit growing state eat less fruit than some of their cousins in states that produce practically no fruit at all.”
In 1925, the widespread use of radio broadcasting was only about a few years old and one tidbit noted that “it is amazing the secure grip that Radio has on the people. Two short years ago, it was looked upon as a novelty—today it is a part of every complete home.” Concerts broadcast in “splendid quality” were highlighted and it was observed that “in this respect, Los Angeles is probably second only to New York.”
With the “patron system” well established in local radio, it was added that The Broadway had two monthly programs, one on KNX and the other on KHJ “and it seems every Broadwayite should want to ‘tune in.” Elsewhere, there was a report of a program at KHJ for “Greater Broadway Day,” with performances by the Zoellner String Quartet, the Harmony Four Male Quartette, a vocal duo, a pianist, and “a mystery violinist,” revealed to be Vera Barstow, who was well-known in her time and later moved to the area and taught privately in Pasadena and at what became Cal State Long Beach. Also mentioned were two upcoming June programs, including for Arthur Letts Day on the 17th.
There is also an “Around ‘The World'” section of bits of news from various store departments, including auditing, boys’ furnishing, employment, furniture, millinery, basement children’s wear, and more. Such news could involve those transferring in and out, those out sick or returning from convalescence, vacations, those moving to new homes, employees who found jobs with other firms, and much more.
On the inside rear cover is a “Who’s Who in The Broadway” with short sketches about a trio of employees. In this case, it was H.E. Rugg, the manager of the Delivery Service (not, alas, home furnishings;) the garage superintendent J.F. Berlin and Gladys Tennyson, the director of the Educational Department, which appears to have provided the kinds of learning opportunities some companies provided to employees as a benefit.
Finally, there is an interesting piece on Yvonne Yourrée, who worked in the toilet articles section, but had a sidelight as “the beautiful heroine of a most daring and unique professional equine act” which “consists of leaping from dizzy heights on horseback—to a body of water below.” In fact, Yourrée’s record was sixty feet and the act “has played most of the United States,” but it was added that she was also an aviator, still a rare hobby for women. The article ended by noting that Yourrée was leaving The Broadway in June to marry a wealthy San Francisco doctor—who knows whether her daredevil career ended, as well?
The magazine, which features a cover image of a June bride, drawn by Mazie Krebs of the Advertising Art department, is full of interesting and useful information about The Broadway, its corporate culture, and the approach that the store took to highlighting its employees. Undoubtedly much of the attitude of its late owner, Letts, carried through in the operations of the business and reflected in The Broadway World.