at age 50
When his name comes up
it’s usually in a dismissive manner, something like –
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.
“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.
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.
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.
the age of 7, he worked in a brush factory six days a week and
helped his father sell household items door-to-door.
photo of Salina, one of the Algerian dancers
(from "Portrait Types of the Midway Plaisance,"
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.”
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”).
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
been elected,” he told Bloom.
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.
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
dollars a week!” he told de Young.
Young didn’t flinch. Bloom packed his bags. He was all of 21
years of age.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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
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.”)
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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
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
supported the creation of the state of Israel, and was one of
the writers of the charter for the founding of the United Nations.
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.
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
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: http://www.questia.com/library/book/the-autobiography-of-sol-bloom-by-sol-bloom.jsp
- “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,
American Special Number: The World’s Fair or Columbian Exposition,
Chicago May to November 1893,” complied by Maurice M. Mintun,
American News Company, 1893
for Little Egypt,” by Donna Carlton, IDD Books, Bloomington,
History of the American Carnival, vol. I-II” by Joe McKennon,
Carnival Publishers of Sarasota, Fla., 1972
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
That "Snake Charmer" Song
a wonderful article on that kitchy didy your
friends sing to you, when they hear you're a belly dancer. Includes
2 sound files, lyrics, an animated graphic and antique cover of
the original sheet music
Expo: Magic of the White
City The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 DVD Review by Shira
Alas, there is a dark side to what could have been a
superb documentary – the way it handles nearly every subject
related to women, including the Middle Eastern dance performers.
Fresh Old Sounds by
Charmaine Ortega Getz
Seeking fresh sounds in belly dance music? Consider a
trip back to the 1950s up to the groovy ‘70s when a new
style of music was bringing the East to the West.