New Year's Eve show in 1932 sent off 'Mr. Depression' in style

Johnson City Press • Dec 31, 2017 at 11:33 PM

On New Year’s Eve in 1932, downtown Johnson City played host to a special celebration.

One of the worst years of the Great Depression, that year the gross national product fell a record 13.4 percent and unemployment rose to 23.6 percent. From the Depression’s start in 1929, more than 13 million Americans had lost their jobs.

Especially hard hit was Southern Appalachia, as lumber, textile and coal industries shrank and laid people off.

So, on New Year’s Eve, Johnson City’s Majestic Theatre on East Main Street, in the heart of the downtown, put on a show to rid the area’s residents of the depression the Great Depression brought.

Musicians, singers and dancers performed for a packed house at the vaudeville show “New Year’s Follies.”

Newspaper coverage of the show in the Johnson City Chronicle said it was attended by hundreds of Johnson Citians, as well as “scores of visitors from neighboring cities and towns.”

The Chronicle writer singled out a group called the Variety Five, made up of famed fiddler Charlie Bowman, his two daughters Pauline and Jennie, Frank Williams and guitarist Spark Plug Hughes. According to the publication, the Bowmans, who lived in Johnson City, were in town for Christmas and agreed to play the show.

The Variety Five could have held the stage indefinitely, paper wrote, but the group was limited in encores to only one per number because of the length of the show.

Charles Ryburn of Erwin put on a tap and acrobatic dance the writer said put him through “twists, bends, nip-ups and splits that one ordinarily associates only with the finest feminine acrobatic dancers or a freakish contortionist.”

A comedy act, the Hi-Brown Hotchas from Harlem, put on a show that by today’s standards would be horribly offensive, but in late 1932, the duo’s blackface makeup and comedy gags had the crowd roaring.

But at the end of the evening, as the difficult year drew to a close, the grand finale was the passing of “Old Man Depression, Mr. 1932,” who was replaced by “the snappy, peppy, dainty, ‘Miss Prosperity, Miss 1933,’” as midnight sounded.

For the hundreds of people at the stage show, the personification and ceremonial passing of one of the worst year’s they’d seen was a relief.

Though the Depression would last at least seven more years, to be replaced by a world war, in 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated, and he brought with him new ideas to get Appalachian people to work.

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