Last night I saw Pointless Theatre‘s fantastic production of Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher:
The play dramatizes the recurring appearances of Minnie the Moocher and her beau, Smokey Joe, in the songs of Cab Calloway. It exaggerates and parodies the fears upright and uptight society had that jazz music was leading their kids astray during the “roaring” twenties and thirties, turning old fears into uproariously camp entertainment.
Much of the play’s aesthetic is similar to Betty Boop cartoons of that era — especially the puppets and cutout props — one of which also featured Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” (the song itself starts around 4:20):
The drug references embedded in this cartoon now seem surprising — Smokey was “cokie” (cocaine) and took Minnie to Chinatown to “kick the gong around” (smoke opium) — but perhaps mainstream audiences of that day did not understand the slang references? How many recent songs mentioned “molly” before today’s parents realized why some listeners were so ecstatic?
In a 1921 article for the Ladies Home Journal entitled “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!,” John R. McMahon wrote:
Don’t permit vulgar jazz music; don’t let young men hold their partners tightly; no touching of cheeks which is public love making, no neck holds, no shimmy or toddle, no steps very long or very short, no dancing from the waist up but rather from the waist down; suggestive movements barred; don’t copy stage stuff; don’t hesitate to ask offenders to leave the room.”
Just three decades later, the U.S. State Department was subsidizing overseas good will tours of “America’s classical music.” As Noah Cross (John Huston) said in Chinatown, “‘Course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”
And Cab Calloway became a (well deserved) loved institution, even appearing in a 1990 Janet Jackson video:
Might we one day also come to laugh at today’s hysterics over hip hop and maybe even look at twerking with nostalgia?