Joanne’s Little Black Vaudeville Scrapbook (2022)

Today, February 16, 2022, marks the 126th birthday of “Pepito, the Spanish Clown,” Jose Escobar Perez. Today is also the birthday of his grand-niece, Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas of Barcelona, Spain. Feliz Cumplaños, Marivi! Besos!

Marivi graciously loaned to me for digitization, Joanne’s Little Black Vaudeville Scrapbook, a time capsule documenting Pepito & Joanne’s stage career, 1928 to 1942. To celebrate Marivi’s birthday today, I am posting Joanne’s scrapbook, with extensive annotations.

Side Note to Marivi: I was able to restore one missing page and one missing photograph back into the scrapbook. Both items must have come loose somehow after Joanne’s passing in 2004, and ended up in a box of items I bought on eBay in 2006. Thank you, Marivi, for trusting me to scan the scrapbook and return it to you. You are a kind, generous and patient lady.


Many decades ago, Joanne Perez created the photo collages in her Little Black Vaudeville Scrapbook from assorted small candid photographs, and tiny “proof” photos from sessions with studio photographers. I can imagine her relaxing with Pepito in their hotel room after a show in Peoria or Cucamonga, expertly trimming some of the pictures, carefully brushing the reverse sides of with smelly rubber cement to glue them, and doodling with her white pencil on the black pages. Her work with those tiny scissors from her sewing kit gave the scrapbook an adorably quaint “paper doll” mood.

Besides being an incredibly personal item to Joanne, her Little Black Vaudeville Scrapbook is also a cultural artifact. It encapsulates the declining economy of the 1930s and its negative effect on the entire field of vaudeville entertainment. These behind-the-scenes snapshots are from the perspective of two top vaudevillians, formerly affluent, struggling with the limited employment opportunities of the 1930s, working hard to make ends meet.

Spoiler alert: Pepito and Joanne, “The Wise Cracker and His Tough Cookie,” ultimately not only survived, but thrived in their “second act,” their so-called “retirement years.”

Read on ….


1928: A FAMILY-FRIENDLY VAUDEVILLE CLOWN, DOLL, AND TRAINED ANIMAL ACT

Summer of 1928, On Tour in Australia
Thanks to their new William Morris agent, Pepito and Joanne were booked on a prestigious six-month tour on the Tivoli Vaudeville Circuit in Australia. They packed up their crates of backdrops, stage props, their miniature automobile, and their menagerie of trained animals, and sailed by ship to The Down Under. Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.

At this time, Pepito and Joanne’s 34-minute act was the “family friendly” portion of the evening’s bill of entertainment. Their specialty was “wow”-ing children and their parents with trained animal tricks, unicycles, juggling, vocal imitations of animals, Joanne’s contortionist feats as a rubber doll and a mechanical doll, and their eye-popping backdrops and unusual props.

Summer of 1928, On Tour in Australia
Pepito and Joanne toured Australia for six months on the Tivoli vaudeville circuit, accompanied by their two assistants, Clifford Combes and Duffy, and then returned to California by steamship. Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.

During the 1928-1931 time period, Pepito and Joanne also performed at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the New York Hippodrome Theater (demolished 1951) and The Palace Theater in New York City, plus all of the biggest theater-houses in the Orpheum vaudeville chain from coast-to-coast. Pepito was hailed as the first “clown of the vaudeville stage, not of a circus.”

Pepito and Joanne were almost at the apex of vaudeville from 1930 to 1931, with second billing to huge talents such as vocalist and recording star Ruth Etting, and famous Broadway husband-and-wife song and dance team of Eva Puck and Sammy White. In this time period, they were earning the dizzying sum of $1,000.00 a week, which, adjusting for inflation, is equal to almost a million dollars per year today.

Pepito the Spanish Clown Buying Lion Kittens at Goebel’s Lion Farm, Thousand Oaks, California, 1930
Not realizing that the stock market crash of 1929 would lead to a long-term economic depression, Pepito decided in 1930 to add some excitement to his act by buying a kitten. A lion kitten. Actually, two lion kittens, purchased from Goebel’s Lion Farm in Thousand Oaks, California. The kittens in the miniature circus cage trailer were pulled by Pepito’s tiny 1926 Monroe Pezel “midget automobile,” and the driver is Pepito in his lion costume. Pepito was a master at self-promotion. Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.
1931 – World-Famous Top-Selling Vocalist Ruth Etting, Bottle-Feeding One of Pepito and Joanne’s Lion Cubs, Backstage at The Palace Theater
in Times Square, New York. Pepito and Joanne were appearing on the same star-studded bill, along with famous tap dancer Bill Robinson and other top acts of the day. The Palace Theater was considered the career apex of vaudeville. Joanne said that once a performer “played the Palace,” they would never again need to audition for a booking. Unfortunately, the Great Depression was in its early stages, soon to change everything for Pepito and Joanne and vaudeville as a form of America entertainment. Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.

The Great Depression, caused by the U.S. stock market crash in 1929, spelled doom for vaudeville in the 1930s. Live vaudeville stage performances, often termed “Ballyhoos,” which preceded the featured motion picture, had been the typical programming of fine movie houses for years. But, as the economy worsened, theater owners began tightening their belts and reducing their budgets, bit by bit. The obvious place to start whittling the budget, was the Ballyhoo.

1932 – Costumes and Props from Pepito and Joanne New Act “The Parade of the Wooden Soldier.”
The “bull” is actually a dog in a bull costume, specially trained to perform a mock-bullfight with Pepito playing the toreador. Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.

First came the salary cuts for vaudeville performers, later followed by sporadic scheduling and sudden booking cancellations. Eventually, theater owners eliminated live performers altogether, switching to a more-affordable format of newsreels and two films. This was the beginning-of-the-end of the vaudeville era.

1932 – Costumes and Antics from “The Rag Doll Dance
Pepito the Spanish Clown would pretend to toss and roll Joanne around the stage, and she used her acrobatic skills to tie herself in knots to amuse the audience. Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.

Unfortunately, Pepito must have expected the economic downturn to be only temporary. He continued to spend money like an A-list celebrity. Expenses included new costumes; their audiences expected new comedy routines several times a year. The daily price was astronomical for fresh meat to feed their menagerie of performing lions. Extensive railroad shipping costs were incurred to move their numerous stage backdrops, props, and his tiny “theatrical automobile” from engagement to engagement.

America was experiencing increasing unemployment and food insecurity. Joanne was the “saver” and Pepito was the “spender.” Pepito continued to spend lavishly not only on their act, but on himself. In 1930 he bought a new top-of-the-line Packard phaeton-type touring car, so that they would no longer have to commute by railroad. And in 1931 he splurged on a Matthews 38 foot yacht, customized for his deep sea fishing hobby.


1934 CHICAGO WORLD’S FAIR, AMUSEMENT PARKS, AND THE 1936 VANCOUVER EXPOSITION

The harsh economic reality of the early 1930s, coupled with the rise of popularity of talking motion pictures, progressively led to the demise of vaudeville as an entertainment form. As belts everywhere tightened, Pepito and Joanne by necessity parted with most of their performing menagerie of animals, including their pet lions. They sold their beloved custom-built boat “The Phantom” to a Los Angeles area insurance agent. Eventually they had to sell the Packard too.

By 1933-1934, it was the deepest part of the Great Depression. Pepito and Joanne could no longer afford to pay their two assistants, Clifford Combes and Duffy. Living almost hand-to-mouth, they traveled as a pair, by train to Chicago, on the off-chance of being hired for the 1933-1934 Chicago World’s Fair, also called A Century of Progress International Exposition. Joanne wrote a letter to her mother from their Chicago hotel, saying that if they didn’t score a booking, she and Pepito had no idea what to try next. They were deeply grateful when they landed a coveted multi-week booking as sidewalk entertainers in the “Italian Village” area of the Fair.

1934 at the Chicago World’s Fair
Souvenir snapshots of Pepito and Joanne performing a song and dance with maracas. To deal with the midwestern heat, Pepito swapped out his usual clown costume for summer attire and a sombrero. Joanne tried out a new look. Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.

Joanne sewed herself an eye-popping tight skirt, held up with a sexy belt that revealed the curves of her hips, and a bolero-style top made of see-through mesh, ruffles, and strategically-placed sequins. Joanne danced and sang all day with Pepito, outdoors in the Italian Village section of the Fair.

1934 at the Chicago World’s Fair
The top center snapshot shows a wall of Sally Rand publicity photos in the Italian Village. The curly-haired young dancer is Joanne. Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.
1934 at the Chicago World’s Fair
Joanne probably was influenced to make herself some more-revealing costumes after seeing the financially successful and famous erotic dancer Sally Rand, who was also a performer at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair. Sally Rand, still famous today, was credited with “Saving the Chicago World’s Fair” by becoming its scandalous main attraction, with her famously provocative and sometimes nude “fan dance.” Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.

At night, Sally Rand took over the main stage of the nearby Streets of Paris exhibit and performed her fan dance, which drew record-breaking crowds from Chicago — and even out-of-state visitors. From time to time, Sally Rand would do her fan dance in the nude, which usually resulted in a publicity-generating arrest for public indecency. On nights that she didn’t wish to be arrested by the Chicago Police Department, Rand wore (according to Joanne) a flesh-toned body stocking, invisible under the bright spotlights, but just enough “clothing” to keep her out of jail.

Pepito, who like Joanne was looking for new inspiration, cleverly invented his own “travesty act” (comic impersonation) of Sally Rand. Both Rand and the Fair management loved it. Pepito’s job description was expanded to include entertaining the daytime crowds with “his version” of Sally Rand’s iconic fan dance. Pepito’s “parody dance” was performed with large feathered fans, clown makeup, hilarious tights covered in shaggy “leg hair” made of black yarn, his naked torso — and the finishing touch, a stogie cigar clenched between his teeth.

1934 at the Chicago World’s Fair
Pepito the Spanish Clown doing his “travesty” (comedic parody) of erotic fan dancer Sally Rand at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair. Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.

After the 1934 World’s Fair concluded, Pepito and Joanne and hundreds of other employees were laid off. Forced to look for other ways to make a buck, they accepted any bookings they could get, including a (so far unexplained) appearance at the Hollywood High School auditorium in 1935 for some sort of event that included someone else’s elephant and zebra.

1935- Joanne at Hollywood High School
Joanne poses with someone’s else’s elephant and zebra on the staircase landing outside the Hollywood High School auditorium. Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.

As the 1930s crept along, the U.S economy was slowly improving. Pepito and Joanne accepted a one-week outdoor entertainment gig at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, and a “Circus Follies” show at the 1936 Vancouver Exposition in Canada, interspersed with other small engagements, earning a pittance compared to their salary in their glory days.

1936 – Pepito and Joanne in their “Circus Follies” Show at the Vancouver Exposition
Their unidentified assistant might be acrobat Clifford Combes. Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.
1936 – Pepito and Joanne as the “Rubber Lady” and “Strong Man” in their “Circus Follies” Show at the Vancouver Exposition
One of the two unidentified assistants might be acrobat Clifford Combes. Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.

Despite the belt-tightening and downsizing, Pepito was unable to avoid bankruptcy in 1936. Pepito was forced by the bankruptcy court to liquidate all of his possessions. Cleverly, at the bankruptcy sale, Joanne used her savings to buy back all their props, costumes, and the miniature automobile that served as Pepito’s signature clown car. In an interesting turn of events, the act was now fully owned by Joanne, and Pepito was technically her employee.


STAGE REVUES & ROAD SHOWS

In 1936 and 1937, Pepito and Joanne dipped their toes into something new: lavish stage revues or “road shows.” Was this the result of Joanne taking the reins? Joanne had previous experience in the early 1930s as a freelance choreographer for stage extravaganzas at The Roxy Theater in New York City (demolished in 1960). Similar to vaudeville, large stage revues were done in theaters, but the performers were hired to as a pre-packaged “block” of acts by an independent producer. In this case, Pepito and Joanne were “the producers” and were also performers in their own road show, which they named “Circus Follies.” Top billing went to “Babe Egan and Her Hollywood Redheads,” a talented all-female band, way ahead of their time in changing gender expectations about big band musicians. Pepito wisely gave himself second billing.

Producing their own “Circus Follies” road show with dozens of employees was, of course, a huge financial undertaking, and also a logistical and management headache. Whether Pepito and Joanne turned a profit is unknown, but at least they were providing employing to a number of their friends.

1935 – Pepito and Joanne in the alley behind a theater in Vancouver, B.C, Canada.
1936 – Special marquee boards outside the theater, handprinted by Pepito to advertise their road show “Circus Follies.”
1937 – Pepito in full clown costume and makeup; Joanne in showgirl-style dress, outside a venue in Salt Lake City.
1938 – Joanne dancing at a nightclub in San Francisco, probably Club 365.
Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.

In perhaps her biggest pivot to date, for “Circus Follies” Joanne abandoned her Dancing Doll and Rubber Lady routines, savvily transforming herself into “Trini,” a tastefully acrobatic dancer. With her lovely short-skirted costumes, and impossible dance moves — including her signature vertical splits — Joanne’s fame as “Trini” began to precede her, leading to a new stage of their careers: nightclub bookings.


NIGHTCLUBS

The economy did slowly improve in the later 1930s, but vaudeville never did bounce back. By 1937-1938, Pepito and Joanne were performing at intimate nightclubs. This required them to retool their acts yet again, for a different performance space and a different target audience. This time around, they focused on new, adult-oriented routines centered around just the two of them together doing comedy musical numbers and dancing. They literally reduced their baggage, eliminating background scrims and large props, putting the focus more tightly on their talents. Pepito scaled back his clown greasepaint in favor of more-subtle stage makeup and humorous putty noses. “Trini” was the grande finale of their act.

Late-1930s Publicity Photographs of Pepito and Joanne
Note that Joanne is wearing an upturned putty nose to give her the look of a “snooty” vocalist. Pepito is wearing a pared-down version of his famous clown makeup, with a long-tailed tuxedo. Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.
Late-1930s Publicity Photograph of Joanne Perez
In costume as a perfectionist singer, but without the putty nose. Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.

In 1938, Pepito’s second career began; he was cast in several small character roles in motion pictures. (See Pepito’s Filmography). The couple began limiting their nightclub bookings to the California/Nevada area to stay closer to Hollywood, just in case Pepito’s agent telegraphed him with a new role.

Circa-1938, Joanne Perez as “Trini” the Acrobatic Dancer
Performing in the Midnight Revue at Bimbo’s 365 Club, In San Francisco, California. Detail of above scrapbook page, courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.

From 1938-1942 Pepito and Joanne primarily worked in nightclubs, in particular a stint at Bimbo’s 365 Club, a classy venue for dinner and a floor show in San Francisco, founded in 1931. It was at Bimbo’s 365 Club that Pepito and Joanne met and became close friends with Rita Cansino, a young Spanish dancer who later was discovered by a movie studio and renamed Rita Hayworth.

Circa 1939, Joanne Perez Dancing as “Trini”
Scrapbook page, courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.
Circa 1939, Joanne Perez Dancing as “Trini”
Detail of above scrapbook page, courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.
Circa 1939, Joanne Perez Dancing as “Trini”
Detail of above scrapbook page, courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.
Circa 1940 Newspaper advertisement for Pepito and Joanne at Papiano’s Cafe nightclub, Salt Lake City, Utah
Color xerox of a page in Pepito’s now-lost scrapbook. Image courtesy of Pocha Pena.
Circa 1940 – Joanne Perez’s Final Publicity Photograph, As “Trini” the Acrobatic Dancer
Photo courtesy of Melani Carty.
May 8, 1942 – Pepito Heads Bill at the Club Stevadora in Detroit.
The final page in the scrapbook. Could this have been Pepito and Joanne’s final engagement before retiring to their beach cottage? Scrapbook page courtesy of Marivi Escobar Santo Tomas.

After working in nightclub revues for a few years, the start of World War II in 1941 prompted Pepito and Joanne to take stock of their lives. In 1942 they officially retired from “the road,” and their Balboa Island vacation cottage became their year-round home. Pepito opened a successful charter fishing business, and Joanne began her (ultimately decades-spanning career) as a dance teacher out of a studio in their converted garage.

One day in the summer of 1942, Pepito’s actress friend from RKO Studios, and her Cuban bandleader husband, docked their boat in Pepito and Joanne’s slip, having been invited to drop by if they were ever in the area. And therein lies another story …


Now that you have seen all of the pages of Joanne’s Little Black Vaudeville Scrapbook, perhaps you can help solve the Mystery of Pepito’s Missing Scrapbook. It is heartbreaking that this huge scrapbook, the Rosetta Stone of every detail of their careers, is currently missing. I cling to my hopes that it is not lost forever, and that the present owner will find this website on a search engine. If you have any clues to its whereabouts, please contact Melani Carty, if only to reassure me that it is somewhere safe and dry.

The Mystery of Pepito’s Missing Scrapbook (2009)

Thursday, May 28, 2009 After the death of Joanne Perez, her entire estate was liquidated, and the proceeds benefitted Biola University in Southern California.  One of the items that was sold was Pepito’s scrapbook.  The current whereabouts of this fabulous scrapbook are unknown.  It is my hope that the current owner will contact me, and considerContinue reading “The Mystery of Pepito’s Missing Scrapbook (2009)”

3 thoughts on “Joanne’s Little Black Vaudeville Scrapbook (2022)

  1. I’m reading this biography astonished!
    Pepito & Joanne had told me a lot of their live and professional stories in their summers to Spain, but I didn’t know these in details ans chronology.
    A big applause to Melanie.
    Such a hard work of investigation!!
    Mariví Escobar Santo Tomás.

    Liked by 1 person

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