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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 consider…