1927: Nickel-Hoppers and Taxi Dancers

When was the last time you watched a silent film? Try this entertaining, 1926 short film, The Nickel-Hopper starring adorable Mabel Normand. It’s about a young girl who earns her living as a “taxi dancer”. During the Jazz Age, dance halls were preferable over ballrooms and were popular for men because it didn’t matter your height or your looks, you could rent a taxi dancer for ten cents if she had an open slot on her dance card. The girls usually kept half the amount, hence the name “nickel-hoppers”.

The research continues exploring the year 1927 in America, and this silent film provided a wealth of insight into the culture. The character Paddy is twirled about on the dance floor by a dozen men during the course of the evening. There’s always someone who wants to take her home. It’s a simple plot–poor girl tries to catch a man who will deliver her from poverty and rag-doll job and into respectability. Oliver Hardy plays the enthusiastic drummer at the dance hall, and a very young Boris Karloff plays the predator who wants to take her home. She outwits him and charms, Jessop, the handsome, rich bachelor.

Barbara Stanwyck is a nickel-hopper in the film, Ten Cents a Dance.

Most taxi dancers were girls looking to make money. I’m thinking about my character Sally, my young Barbara Stanwyck inspiration, who will manipulate her aunt into renting an empty room in Jerome, Arizona so Sally can turn it into a dance hall. Of course, that means music. Irving Berlin, Ira and George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Gene Austin–I love their songs.

 

I will certainly place the current hits of the time into the second novel, Inside the Gold Plated Pistol.  These songs are a part of American pop-culture, and accentuate the historical climate perfectly.

Here is another Berlin classic, “How Deep is the Ocean”. Released in 1932, it shows the popular genre of the ballad. Billie Holliday’s version is my favorite. Anyone else appreciate the romantic, sweet music of the 1920s?

Silly love songs. Where did they go?

 

33 thoughts on “1927: Nickel-Hoppers and Taxi Dancers

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  1. Cindy, you’re amazing. You deserve some kind of award in recognition of your creativity and the way in which you bring back an older era in entertainment. This is SERIOUSLY good stuff.

    Ah, Billie Holliday. What a wonder she was I. Her sure-fire interpretation of song lyrics… They say Frank Sinatra was the master of song interpretation. He gave credit to Lady Day for his ability in that area; he used to frequent the clubs she performed in.

    Irving Berlin – Tin Pan Alley – America’s golden era of song writing.

    Missy Stanwyck! ‘Ten cents a dance. That’s all they payme… come on, big boy! Ten cents a dance.’

    You covered it all. Great content on your blog, Cindy.

    1. Wow, Kate. I surely appreciate your kind words. 🙂 It was a short post and I could have written volumes. Especially the music. So much to re-discover. I’m grateful you enjoy the 20s, too. Thank you!

  2. I remember hearing about taxi dancers, but then I was too young to wonder about how widespread the practice was and how they were perceived. Do you have any information or comments on that?

    1. It began in San Francisco in 1913 but was nationally popular in the 20s and 30s. It spread over to France, Germany, Poland and Britain, too. There was a sociology study and a book written about the phenomena by Paul Goalby Cressey in 1932. He said there were 9 types of men who went and a whole vernacular used ( a “fish” was a girl dancer between 15-28 who was a sucker, an easy mark to seduce). It’s fascinating. The book is called ‘The Taxi Dance Hall’. Thanks for asking 🙂

  3. I was familiar with the song “Ten Cents a Dance” because Michelle Pfeiffer performs it in The Fabulous Baker Boys. I hadn’t realized that it had inspired a film, or that Ruth Etting’s recording of the song has been added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry list of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” American sound recordings.
    The music from the 20’s is wonderful and I’m thankful there is so much of it to discover.

    1. HI Paul! How have you been? What astonishes me about music from the 20s is how it affected every subsequent decade. No matter what the decade, the legend of the decade has played and sung these songs. I forgot about MIchelle’s performance of “Ten Cents a Dance” in FBB. Yes! She did a wonderful job, didn’t she?

  4. Do you remember when you were a little girl, the very ancient albums of your grandparents, or great grandparents? In stacks in the attic, and they weren’t just plain vinyl platters, but were vividly colored: red, pumpkin, yellow, blue… This sounds wonderful! I can’t wait to read it!

    1. Awww, thanks. Yes, I remember 72s and I even remember seing a victrola — what a fascinating mysterious contraption. I watched the silent film The Nickel hopper and was so charmed by it. Thanks Vickie for stopping by.

  5. I knew of the phenomena of Taxi dancers and 10cents a dance, I did not know of the movie you just covered. Fascinating stuff, I’m going to watch it right now. Did the music you feature here accompany the film in any of it’s performances?

    1. No, not in the short film. But they are top hits from 1927 (except for “How Deep is the Ocean” which was early 30s. I just wanted to recollect the hits of the time. There’s so many that were awesome. Thanks, Richard!

  6. HI Cindy!

    Reminds me of the movie-musical “Sweet Charity” with Shirley MacClane. (Hey, Big Spender….). That was in the 60s. I’m sure that the taxi dancers, under a different moniker and iteration) have stayed alive and well through the decades. Keeping the customers at bay might be harder these days, or the “taxi girls” might be more savvy. Let’s hope so!

    1. Hi Barbara, thanks for your comments 🙂 It’s fascinating for me to see what happened in the 20s and how it affected subsequent generations. There’s a lot of tribute in the 60s to the Jazz Age. That culture of hiring a dancer to be your partner–completely foreign now. It did get pretty rough out there with aggressive males taking advantage–I haven’t been to a dance club in a long while, so I don’t know what it’s like today. A woman always has to be on her guard, and there are also she-wolves that can be as dirty-handed as a man, so I don’t know what to think. Feels like anything goes. Hhmmmm. 1937 Cole Porter. Maybe it’s just history repeating itself. 😉

  7. I liked the details in the opening scene, the hand prints on the back of the one girls dress, and the swollen toes joke. There was a little political joke about silent Calvin Coolidge as well. The Conclusion was quite amusing. Thanks for sharing.

    1. 🙂 I am glad you were charmed as was I. I loved her expressions. The body language was classic and authentic. It revealed to me how that time a girl needed a man to “save” her and marrying well was a high priority in a girl’s life.

  8. I was looking for something to watch tonight over dinner–and this will fit beautifully! Can’t wait to see it. But Cindy, how wonderfully interesting to find out about taxi dancers and nickel hoppers. I had no idea. It’ll be a terrific addition to your story.
    And as far as the music is concerned, you’ve nailed one of my favorite eras. I was definitely born at the wrong time, and did my best to make up for it. I toured with big band swing orchestras for years in my late teens and twenties. Singing these songs were my bread and butter. I adore them and will never let them go out of style in my house.
    Thanks for sharing this wealth of wonder and amusement!

    1. How awesome you toured with big band orchestras and you are a singer, too, to add to your repertoire of talents! I have heard growing up various phrases “save the last dance for me” “is your dance card full” but never heard of Nickle hoppers or Taxi dancers before. Was aware of Stanwyck but didn’t know she starred in a film called Ten Cents a Dance. I don’t know what’s more fun–the random research that takes you on a journey of discovery, connecting the dots of memory, or the actual creative writing process. I only wish I were a woman of means who could spend all day exploring this lovely avocation. Oh, but wait! I love my job as a teacher. Wait! I love adventure and traveling and photography. Wait! Iove watching movies. My problem–24 hours in a day is not enough 😉

  9. What great finds, Cindy! I started watching these as soon as you posted it. So much into them that I’ve been watching all the films you found. OMG, what fun!! Thank you!

    1. Wow! Thanks so much for sharing that. I’m glad you had the time to do so and am glad you enjoyed them. Once you unlock a door to an era, it’s amazing the treasures you find in the room 🙂

    1. Hi! I have very little experience, too. What I have seen, and then the transition to talkies are the roots to cinema. I see the history unfold and then all the films from the 40s-to present, I get a better appreciation to the linear progression. Every decade builds on the previous one. Right? For me as a writer trying to recreate the 20s in a story–what better way than to listen to the music and watch the movies?

    1. Yes, I have no experience with them other than perusing my classic/silent films bloggers, and I find they are very entertaining and as you say, windows into the culture. In your grandmother’s diary, did she talk about going to the movies? I can’t remember how long she kept up her personal account. I would be interested knowing when and what she saw! Her reaction would be priceless.

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