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Sol Bloom at age 50
Gilded Serpent presents...
Sol Bloom

By Kharmine

When his name comes up it’s usually in a dismissive manner, something like –

Sol Bloom the American promoter, who hyped traditional Oriental dancing by coining the term “belly dancing” to titillate the audience at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and make big bucks for himself.

Perhaps because “The Autobiography of Sol Bloom” has long been out-of-print and detailed Internet entries can be elusive, little is commonly known about Bloom, although he was a veteran U.S. congressman when he died in 1949.

It doesn’t help Bloom’s legacy that he may forever be confused with the promoter who saved the financially teetering World’s Fair when he hyped a Middle Eastern dancer as the notorious “Little Egypt” in the 1953 Hollywood movie of the same name. Actually, Bloom resembled the fictional fast-buck promoter “Wayne Cravat” about as much as the red-haired bombshell Rhonda Fleming resembled “Izora,” Hollywood’s idea of a seductive Egyptian dancer of the 1890s.

Solomon Bloom was born March 9, 1870 in Pekin, Illinois, the youngest of six children in a poor Polish-Jewish family that moved to San Francisco three years later. His public school required books that his family couldn’t afford so formal education lasted one day. His parents, Gershon and Sarah Bloom, gave young Sol a rudimentary schooling. In the days before child labor laws and the minimum wage, even little Sol took on as much work as he could to help his family.

By the age of 7, he worked in a brush factory six days a week and helped his father sell household items door-to-door.

1893 photo of Salina, one of the Algerian dancers
(from "Portrait Types of the Midway Plaisance," pub. 1893)

He got his first theater job with the help of an older boy. The friend was David Belasco, who went on to write the stage plays “Madam Butterfly” and “The Girl of the Golden West” that the composer Puccini later turned into operas. While keeping his day job at the brush factory, Bloom worked evenings in a variety of theater positions. He claimed to have an unusually good memory for details and was able to keep the factory’s inventory in his head. He also discovered a talent for advertising and for organizing theater operations to run more efficiently.At age 15, Bloom was the box office manager of the new Alcazar Theater owned by Mike de Young, member of a socially prominent family and publisher of the Chronicle newspaper. They became friends.

By the age of 19, Bloom could afford to take time off for the first time and see the world. It was 1889, and the Paris International Exposition beckoned.There were displays of foreign culture aplenty at the event, but it didn’t take an experienced showman to realize that most people weren’t as impressed by the sight of European peasants making cheese as they were by the more exotic entertainment imported from France’s colonies, particularly the 50-odd Algerian and Tunisian performers showcased as the “Algerian Village.”

There were acrobats such as Bloom had never seen before. People who swallowed glass and live scorpions, incredible jugglers, sword dancers and women who undulated their stomachs amazingly. This last art, he was told, was what the French called the danse du ventre (“dance of the stomach”).

This was spectacle such as he knew would be a smash hit back home. Before Bloom left Paris, he had a two-year contract to represent the Algerian Village in the Western Hemisphere. He paid about $1,000 for the privilege. By the time his ship docked in New York City, Bloom learned that Chicago had been awarded the rights to stage the 1893 World’s Fair and Exposition, an international event comparable to a city winning the right to host the Olympics today. It was an even greater coup for the city considering it was to also celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus arriving in the New World – hence the moniker “World’s Columbian Exposition.”

Bloom hurried to Chicago to make a pitch for the Algerian Village, only to learn that preparations were barely underway. He returned to San Francisco to resume his work, which now included the promotion of boxing matches. In 1892, he returned to Chicago to check on progress and saw that “things were very poorly organized.” Buildings to house the art galleries, halls of technology and palaces of culture were going up, but plans for a mile-long “Midway Plaisance” with amusements and displays of ethnic culture to attract the working-class customer were still only plans. Bloom was advised to keep his application on hold.

He later discovered that the Midway had been placed under the direction of the head of the Department of Ethnology at Harvard University, a distinguished scholar who was determined to create an edifying series of displays that illustrated humanity’s progress. It was to start with an African village and finish, of course, with examples of modern Western culture.

Thrilling rides and cheap eateries aside, the Midway was to be so educational and dignified that even Buffalo Bill Cody’s famous Wild West Show was rejected. (Colonel Cody set up shop next door to the exposition grounds and made a mint.) Bloom recalled the concept as being “… about as intelligent a decision as it would be today to make Albert Einstein the manager of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.” He trekked back to San Francisco and complained to Mike de Young, who was a member of the World’s Columbian Commission, the national organizing committee. Telegrams flew back and forth, and a week later de Young called Bloom back to his office.

click to see enlargement

1893 photo of the exterior of the Algerian Theater

Other members of the WCC were also alarmed about the overall slow progress of the Midway. The United States was then in the middle of a four-year economic depression. Everyone remembered that the last time the country sponsored a world’s fair, in Philadelphia in 1876, it lost money. An enormous amount of financing and the prestige of Chicago, if not the entire United States, were at risk if the exposition failed to open by May 1, 1893 – as directed by an act of Congress. De Young was authorized to name a manager for the Midway’s amusement concessions.

“You’ve been elected,” he told Bloom.

Bloom balked. He made good money where he was. He had no desire to move to Chicago and take over partial management of a mile-long circus. He agreed to sleep on it and come back the next day with a salary demand that De Young assured him would either be accepted or rejected. Bloom wrote that his mind was made up, but for the fun of it he asked for a salary higher than what the president of the United States made.

“A thousand dollars a week!” he told de Young.

De Young didn’t flinch. Bloom packed his bags. He was all of 21 years of age.

Bloom arrived in Chicago to discover that Professor F. W. Putnam, the man in overall charge of the Midway, was back in Cambridge, Mass. Bloom lost no time taking the Midway’s problems upstairs and was quickly appointed to full charge of this section. Bloom had construction underway by the spring of 1892 and plunged into the business of publicity and recruitment of entertainment (which included more dancers from Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and what was then called Palestine). He moved his elderly parents and two sisters to live with him in Chicago.

He also mailed off a contract for the fair’s engagement to the Algerian troupe in Paris and told it that it could come in April 1893, shortly before the fair was to open. Bloom claimed a misunderstanding resulted in a cablegram exactly a year early that informed him that the Algerian Villagers were about to dock in New York City. He told the fair’s construction foreman that temporary housing had to be ready in a week and took off to meet the ship. Donna Carlton, author of “Looking for Little Egypt,” points out that this “mistake” may have been “…a deliberate ploy by Bloom, since his two-year exclusive contract had run out and he makes no mention of having extended it…”

In any case, Bloom was on the New York docks (Enter Bloom shuddering, he remembered thinking) when the Algerians and Tunisians landed – and excitedly scattered in all directions while he yelled and cursed at them in frustration.

Unbeknownst to Bloom, the troupe had a hired Algerian guide, “a giant Kablye,” who had lived in London and was able to chide Bloom sternly in an accent “normally heard in an English drawing room.” Bloom apologized to “Archie,” gave him a cigar and invited him to be his translator, assistant and bodyguard.

Back on the Chicago fairgrounds, Bloom got jobs for the performers – most of the men in construction and two English-speaking women in his office. One of the men, “Papa” Ganon, was charged with building the 1,000-seat Algerian Theatre, the finest entertainment venue on the Midway. It was finished in the summer of 1892, and the troupe was able to present preview shows before the exposition was formally dedicated the following October.

"The Streets of Cairo, or The Poor Little Country Maid," sheet music published shortly after the Exposition,
copyrighted by James Thornton who claims to be author/composer.

The Press Club of Chicago invited Bloom to present a preview of the Algerian Theater at its offices, and he jumped at the chance. Bloom recalled that he hummed a tune for the pianist to accompany the dancers, then picked it out himself on the piano. The tune became known as “The Streets of Cairo” and it was later claimed by others, although the credit usually goes to Bloom. He himself said that he might be remembered “… if not as the originator, then at least as the inspirer …” of the tune.

While work on the Midway slowed during the winter of 1892, Bloom got involved in the gaudy world of Chicago politics. The Democratic candidate he helped elect, Carter Harrison, became mayor of Chicago in time to triumphantly open the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition on May 1. It might not have seemed like the best timing. The depression had erupted into the Panic of 1893, millions of Americans were unemployed, railroads had collapsed, banks failed, and nobody trusted paper money.

The Exposition ran for six months and made millions. In a country with a then-population of 65 million people, it was believed that about 1 out of 4 people managed a visit. Almost every notable of the period put in an appearance. The hamburger, Cracker Jack, carbonated soft drinks, a moving sidewalk and the Ferris Wheel were among the innovations introduced here.

Views of the beautiful “White City” (the prevalent architectural style was neo-Classical, coated in white plaster) on the shores of Lake Michigan were endlessly reproduced. L. Frank Baum supposedly modeled his “Emerald City” after it in his “Wizard of Oz” books. It must have killed the more high-minded Exposition organizers that most of the attendance and profits came from the Midway Plaisance. Noisy, exotic and wildly fun, the Midway featured the first Ferris Wheel, an ostrich farm, the recreation of “A Street in Cairo” and other places of ethnic culture, and acts such as the “Houdini Brothers,” young Harry and a sibling who performed magic tricks. (Every American carnival and amusement park today has its “Midway.”)

At some point early on, the public also discovered what danse du ventre meant in English and “dance of the stomach” quickly jumped to “belly dance.” Bloom doesn’t speculate how it happened, but it would have been an easy start wherever there was a French speaker to translate or a French-English dictionary. In an age when the word “leg” was not commonly used in polite society, it was highly unlikely that “belly dance” would have been publicly tolerated in advertising  – certainly not if the Exposition’s management had anything to say about it. However, there are some hints as to how the wildfire of underground celebrity might have been lit. Years later, Bloom wrote about his witness of the birth of burlesque theater on the West Coast and mentioned a conversation with an old buddy from his San Francisco days.

“Do you remember the time that the police raided the ‘Belly’ Union and took away of all the girls in a paddy wagon?” the friend asked him. Bloom assured him that he remembered every scandalous detail.

The friend continued with a chuckle, “Life’s a wonderful thing, Sol. They pinched those girls for doing the same thing my granddaughter did for charity at the Mark Hopkins last Christmas season – they were doing the can-can!”

The “Belly” Union was a play on the name of one of San Francisco’s earliest and most notorious entertainment halls – the Bella Union. It was in almost continuous operation from the Gold Rush of the 1840s until the 1906 earthquake. (And, yes, the HBO cable television series “Deadwood,” set in the real town in 1870s Dakota Territory, has a saloon called the Bella Union.)

According to Herbert Asbury’s “The Barbary Coast, An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld,” the Bella Union was a “melodean” or “concert salon.” It offered girly shows to male-only audiences. From this, it’s evident that Bloom was already familiar with an underground play on words that linked “belly” with racy entertainment before he came to Chicago. Circus historian Joe McKennon in his “Pictorial History of the American Carnival” also mentions Bloom as the secretary of a May 31, 1893 meeting of Midway concession operators, called to seek ways to boost a rather sluggish beginning of business, among other concerns.

As a result of this meeting, McKennon reported, a Chicago minister was persuaded to publicly condemn “that dance” being performed on the Midway. Publicity followed, and attendance skyrocketed.

Bloom’s rollicking memoirs prove that he was more than capable of coming up with a stunt to publicize “belly dancing” at the Midway. This was a man who delighted in the art of what he called “legitimate chiseling” and the colorful statement that had reporters scribbling with glee. But this time Bloom was careful not to take credit.  

"It is regrettable -- of, if anyone should choose to disagree, it is at least a fact -- that more people remember the reputation of the danse du ventre than the dance itself. This is very understandable. When the public learned that the literal translation was "belly dance" they delightedly concluded that it must be salacious and immoral. The crowds poured in. I had a gold mine."

1. 1893 sketch of one of the Algerian dancers, probably an Ouled Nail woman. (From "Illustrated American, Special Number, The World's Fair or Columbian Exposition" circa 1893)

Perhaps his language seems ambiguous in this case because, for Bloom, it wasn’t all about the money. Decades later as an elder statesman, Bloom’s memories of his performers were still warm, and his defense of “that dance” is ahead of his time.

What artists they were! Particularly the ballet troupe with their great specialty, the danse du venture. People still talk about it … As a matter of strict fact, the danse du ventre, while sensuous and exciting, was a masterpiece of rhythm and beauty; it was choreographed perfection and it was so recognized by even the most untutored spectators. Whatever they had hoped to see they were enchanted by the entertainment actually placed before them.

Almost at once this dance was imitated in amusement parks all over the country. As it became debased and vulgarized it began to acquire the reputation that survives today – that of a crude, suggestive dance known as “The Hootchy-Kootchy.”

Bloom was very emphatic that he never hired “a character named Little Egypt” to perform on the Midway, although he acknowledged that one or more of the dancers may have performed elsewhere under that name. A San Francisco saloon in 1897, for instance, called itself the Midway Plaisance. It featured “cooch dancers,” among them, a “Little Egypt.”

(For more details about the 1893 Midway entertainment, the various Middle Eastern and Turkish dancers, and which concessions actually caused the most scandal, I recommend Donna Carlton’s superb “Looking for Little Egypt.”)

Aside from the time when Bloom warned the Algerians to stop drinking with the Native Americans in the Wild West Show (the Indians wound up too impaired to attack stagecoaches on schedule), there appeared to have been few problems with the show. And, apparently, the performers were more than employees to him.

"…Though I had already put in a year and a half helping to get it ready, nothing in it ever staled for me. … I never even got tired of my own Algerian Village. When October came and only a few weeks remained I spent nearly all my time with the people of whom I had grown so fond and whose performances I so greatly admired."

Bloom does not mention his farewell to these same folks at the end of the Exposition. A tragic event deeply overshadowed what should have been a very happy ending.

Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison was shot to death by a disgruntled office seeker. The Exposition’s elaborate closing ceremonies were cancelled. Instead of a triumphal Jubilee March there was a funeral procession of 600 carriages. There was a last fireworks show over Lake Michigan, and everyone went home.

While Chicago was debating the fate of the emptied White City, squatters moved in and fires started to burn down the structures. Arsonists finished the rest in a spectacular fire on July 5, 1894. (The University of Chicago took the place of the White City, and the park-like Midway runs through it today.)

Sol Bloom and his family remained in Chicago. He invested his fortune in “foodstuffs” – and lost it in 1894 when a railroad strike in the middle of July sidelined the refrigerated cars full of perishables.

The undaunted Sol ordered two expensive custom suits and set out to look for a new job. He soon convinced the biggest sheet music publisher in the United States to hire him to establish its Chicago branch.

And, yes, it’s not the end of the story of the enterprising Mr. Bloom. He became a successful independent music publisher, married one of his songwriters, had a daughter, moved to New York City and got into real estate development (one of his projects was the Apollo Theater). He was a captain in the New York Naval Reserve during World War I.

At the age of 50, he ran for political office in 1923 and won the Congressional seat representing the 19th (later 20th) District – Manhattan, actually. Even when he switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party, he continued to hold onto his seat for 14 straight terms. He was a United States Commissioner of the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

click to see enlargement
1893 sketch of a performance inisde the Algerian Theater

Bloom was chairman of the powerful Foreign Affairs Committee from 1939 until he died. Although he was involved in other important legislation, his biggest moral and political challenge came when the U.S. government, reinforced by President Franklin Roosevelt, refused to accept any large influx of European Jewish immigrants who were in danger of being sent to Nazi concentration camps. Bloom, an Orthodox Jew who tried to raise the immigration quota before the war, looked at the widespread American hostility to the idea and did not fight it.

Later, he supported the creation of the state of Israel, and was one of the writers of the charter for the founding of the United Nations.

On March 7, 1949, Bloom suffered a massive heart attack and died at the age of 79. He is buried in Westchester County, New York. His papers were given to the New York Public Library.

In Bloom’s memoirs he writes, I know what happens to people who protest too much; they reinforce the legend they are trying to destroy. So I am resigned to probable immortality as the man who gave Little Egypt to the world. If I am lucky, perhaps one or two of my real activities will be recalled along with this fiction.

Information for this article was compiled from:

  • “The Autobiography of Sol Bloom,” by Sol Bloom, G.P Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1948 (also available at Questia Online Library: )
  • “The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld,” by Herbert Asbury, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1933
  • “The Devil in the White City,” by Erik Larson, Vintage Books, New York, 2004
  • “Illustrated American Special Number: The World’s Fair or Columbian Exposition, Chicago May to November 1893,” complied by Maurice M. Mintun, American News Company, 1893
  • “Looking for Little Egypt,” by Donna Carlton, IDD Books, Bloomington, Ind., 1994
  • “Pictorial History of the American Carnival, vol. I-II” by Joe McKennon, Carnival Publishers of Sarasota, Fla., 1972

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