THE HARVEY GIRLS – OPPORTUNITY BOUND
A Documentary Film Reviewed
Katrina Parks’ documentary, THE HARVEY GIRLS – OPPORTUNITY BOUND, tells the story of entrepreneur restaurateur innovator Fred Harvey, and the story of the more than 100,000 Harvey Girls who braved the wilds of the American frontier starting in the 1880s and continuing for about a century. And she tells their tale – their many different tales – in the ideal way: in their own voices. Parks’ film features on-camera interviews with what must be a couple of dozen ladies who were Harvey Girls in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and the 1960s.
Many people are aware of the girls, and the Harvey Company through the delightful 1946 MGM musical THE HARVEY GIRLS, starring virtuous Judy Garland, wonderfully wicked Angela Lansbury, and uncivilized males like John Hodiak, Preston Foster and Ray Bolger. But the true story is even more entertaining.
Fred Harvey had come from England as a lad, and learned the restaurant trade working in New York establishments. He married, opened a restaurant, had two children – and then is a series of bitter tragedies lost his wife and children to disease, lost his business, and had to start his life again in his thirties. He began working for railroads, and became aware that food service at train stops ran the gamut from spotty to awful to toxic – the knowledge that a customer had to eat in minutes and be back on a train made the food providers indifferent to the eater’s welfare.
Harvey’s bold vision was to create a network of clean restaurants providing healthy and tasty food efficiently served at all the stops along the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Further, the food was to be served by attractive young women of high morals. The opportunity he provided for these young women was a remarkable one, starting at a time when options for women were startlingly limited. A woman who went to work could be a teacher if she had the education, a house servant, a waitress, or…that was pretty much it.
Harvey offered them the chance to be trained – a month to six weeks of serving food Harvey’s way, to travel – rarely were Harvey Girls assigned to their local restaurants, and to be protected. There were dormitories for the girls, with a den mother to look after them. And they earned a good living. Also, there was opportunity to marry: getting hitched to a customer was so common, some folks called the Fred Harvey Restaurants wedding factories. And notably, while here or there a negative incident is described, none of the women interviewed has anything bad to say about the Fred Harvey Company.
Harvey Girls relaxing with longnecks
The Harvey company was very selective in who they hired; one Harvey Girl recalls that on her day, nine girls were interviewed, and only she and one other got the job. The Harvey company stressed that their employees were ‘Harvey Girls’ and rarely used the term ‘waitress.’ In fact, a woman with previous experience as a waitress was unlikely to be hired: it was felt that they’d have too many bad habits to unlearn. And speaking of ‘habits’, the Harvey Girl uniforms were so modest and covering that, as one of the Harvey Girls describes it, they were dressed like nuns. But I would add, very cute nuns, and I can’t recall any nun’s habit that included a bow in the hair.
The stories of the individual Harvey Girls, and the eras each represents, are fascinating and revealing of the changes in America. With the coming of The Great Depression, being a Harvey Girl offered hope for young women who were often their family’s sole support. During the Second World War, the Harvey Girls became an integral part of the war effort. With members of all forces criss-crossing the nation, no one was prepared and situated better than the Harvey Company to serve literally millions of quality on-the-go meals.
Once-shuttered train-stops were re-opened, and whole hotels were taken over by the military. And as one Harvey Girl remembers, the servicemen were so generous with their tips that when her husband returned from the War, she’d saved enough for a down-payment on a house!
The inclusion of Hispanic and American Indian women in the work force gave them opportunities they wouldn’t have elsewhere, and as one expressed it, made them ambassadors to mainstream America.
Editor Thaddeus Homan has done an elegant job of interweaving a wealth of historic footage and illustrations with the interviews and other new footage lensed effectively by Lara Sievert. One of the unexpected and charming aspects revealed about the Fred Harvey company is a sort of whimsy. When they expanded their empire to include hotels, even though they were brand new, they were created with a backstory. At the beautifully restored La Posada Hotel in Winslow Arizona, where much of the new material is filmed, the story is that it was once the rancho of a wealthy Spanish family, now converted by their descendants to a hotel.
Director Katrina Parks at Union Station for her screening
THE HARVEY GIRLS – OPPORTUNITY BOUND runs its 57 minutes at a comfortable, steady pace, much like the Santa Fe Railroad. Just last weekend it was screened in Los Angeles, at the normally shuttered Fred Harvey Restaurant in downtown’s Union Station, and attracted an unexpectedly large audience – over 450! – who were very enthusiastic. Yesterday night it played in Dodge City, Kansas, and on Wednesday, August 2nd, it will be screened by the Santa Clarita Historical Society. If you would like to buy or rent this film, or arrange a screening, please go to this link: http://www.harveygirlsdocumentary.com/
If you have had any connection with the Harvey Girls or the Fred Harvey Company, that link will also take you to a place to share your memories.
WIN TWO TICKETS TO SEE ‘THE RED HOT RHYTHM RUSTLERS’!
On Thursday, June 19th, The Red Hot Rhythm Rustlers will take to the stage of the Repertory East Playhouse at 24266 Main Street in Newhall, CA 91321. This concert, like all the concerts in this series, are sponsored by Jim and Bobbi Jean Bell, the great folks who run the Outwest Western Boutique and Cultural Center – click the link at the top of this page to learn all about them.
Marvin O’Dell, who this year won the Will Rogers Award from the Academy of Western Artists for his song, ‘Don Edwards For President’, and the Wrangler Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, leads the Western Swing band that is the Rustlers, which also includes Audrey McLaughlin, Gale Borre Rogers, Dawn Borre Pett, and Tom Boyer. Their harmonies are excellent, their playing first rate, and they play a mix of classics, new material, and songs from the great B-westerns. Here’s a favorite of mine, the Rustlers performing Ride, Cowboy Ride at the Autry last year.
And that brings us to how to win a pair of free tickets to the show, again courtesy of OutWest! I was thinking there was a movie called RIDE, COWBOY, RIDE, and there is a short, featuring a young George Reeves before he started sidekicking for Hoppy (and before he became TV’s Man of Steel), but no feature. But there are two features with similar titles, RIDE ‘EM COWBOY (1942) and RIDE HIM COWBOY (1932). The first stars a famous comedy team, backed by Dick Foran and Johnny Mack Brown, and the second stars a man who, ironically, rides a horse named Duke. To win the tickets, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and include the names of the stars of both movies, your name, address and phone number, and be sure to put Red Hot Rhythm Rustlers in the subject line. The winner will be randomly selected from all correct entries.
‘ROUTE 66 – THE ROAD AND THE ROMANCE’ OPENS AT THE AUTRY
Opening today at The Autry, ROUTE 66 – THE ROAD AND THE ROMANCE tells the story of the trans-continental road that changed the way Americans travel. The push started in the 1880s with THE GOOD ROADS MOVEMENT, a campaign to replace the haphazard sprawl of roads and paths that tenuously connected our nation with something safe and efficient . For forty years, big and small businessmen, bicycle enthusiasts and many others saw its value. Among its biggest champions was the U.S. Postal Service: with the coming of RFD – rural free mail delivery becoming a legislated right of all Americans – some way to get the mail to them was pretty crucial.
In 1926, Route 66 began taking shape, linking Chicago to Los Angeles, dead-ending at the Santa Monica Pier, at the Pacific Ocean’s edge. The road was new, but the route wasn’t: it largely followed the path of the Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869, which in turn had followed stagecoach roads, which followed centuries-old Indian foot-paths.
The timing was crucial. The coming of the automobile, the internal combustion engine, and Henry Ford’s assembly-line to speed up production and lower the cost, gave Americans a freedom to travel that they had never known, or perhaps even dreamed of. Henry Ford famously said that if you’d asked Americans what they wanted, they wouldn’t have said automobiles – they’d have asked for faster horses. The change the mass-produced car brought is mind-boggling: in 1900, there were 4,000 cars on American roads. By 1930, there were twenty-seven million.
The large and comfortably spread-out exhibition touches on many aspects of the fabled route through the years. In art, both before and after it’s building, Route 66’s path is portrayed by artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Maynard Dixon, and Jackson Pollack – such early Pollack that you can tell what it’s supposed to be!
The various businesses that sprung up along the way are also noted – obviously gas stations, but also restaurants, gift shops, and other roadside attractions. No surprise, Fred Harvey is here too, expanding their reach beyond the railways to promote their Indian Tours.
Among the famous names associated with Route 66, one of the surprises for me was Will Rogers – shortly after his fatal plane crash, as many souvenirs and flyers demonstrate, 66 was re-named The Will Rogers Highway to attach a bit if stardust. Another Rogers associated with the route was Roy Rogers, who traveled it on his way to Hollywood. That was during the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, when Okies who’d lost everything loaded family in their jalopies and took to what John Steinbeck described in THE GRAPES OF WRATH as, “…the mother road, the road of flight.”
Much related to Steinbeck and GRAPES OF WRATH is on display. So are objects belonging to Woody Guthrie, who like Steinbeck documented the lives and suffering of those on the road in search of work and food and hope. You’ll see Woody’s guitar, hand-penned lyrics, and even sketches.
Woodie Guthrie's guitar
The image of Route 66 took on a very different vibe in the post-war years, a cool jazz vibe epitomized by the King Cole Trio’s version of Bobby Troup’s song, ‘Get Your Kicks on Route 66,’ which would be covered by the Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Mel Tormé, the Stones, Depeche Mode, and hundreds of others.
The single most astonishing artifact in the show relates to ‘beat’ author Jack Kerouac. His most famous novel, ON THE ROAD was written while driving cross-country with friends, much of the time on Route 66. I’d long heard that, impatient with endlessly having to change paper in his typewriter, he’d adapted it to type on a continuous roll of paper. Hearing it is one thing, but it’s something else to see the original manuscript of ON THE ROAD – all 120 feet of it – written on a single ‘page’ and unspooled so you can read a couple of yard from the middle!
Jack Kerouac's ON THE ROAD manuscript
Some of the negative aspects are the most fascinating – one cabinet displays ‘colored’ guidebooks and maps showing where African Americans travelers were welcomed to eat and to stay, and by unspoken implication, where they weren’t. Street signs warned that Negroes are only permitted within town limits until sunset. With seeing American Indians being a huge tourist attraction, there are some embarrassing items of that sort as well. I remember as a kid staying in a motel room shaped like a tepee, and thinking it was the coolest thing ever. I don’t know if a nearby Indian kid would have been equally thrilled to stay in a novelty version of a Brooklyn apartment, and I guess I never will.
If I have one disappointment, it’s that my personal connection with the idea of Route 66 goes back to the TV series of that name, which from 1960 to 1964 followed Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) and Buz Murdock (George Maharis) as they drove cross-country, trying a new job in every town they entered, trying to find a place for themselves. One small wall cabinet features a TV Guide, board game, a still and a toy Corvette. I’d like to have seen more. Then again, there is that big, beautiful real Corvette.
They road was decommissioned in 1985, and started deteriorating immediately – one novel display features chunks of asphalt from different decades, revealed by potholes. Happily, there has been a revival of interest in Route 66 due to, of all things, an animated movie. CARS, the Disney film centered on a deteriorating Route 66-like alternative universe peopled by cars, and voiced by Paul Newman and George Carlin in their last film roles, Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt and Larry The Cable Guy, has ignited interest in the can’t-drive-yet generation.
Whether you can drive or not, you’ll enjoy ROUTE 66 – THE ROAD AND THE ROMANCE. In connection with the exhibit, starting in July, several films will be screened, including John Ford’s adaptation of the Steinbeck novel, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, starring Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell, which won Best Director and Best Supporting Actress Oscars; BOUND FOR GLORY, Hal Ashby’s adaptation of Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, starring David Carradine, which won Best Cinematography and Music Oscars; and you guessed it, CARS. Lear more here: http://route66.theautry.org/
OTHER HAPPENINGS AT THE AUTRY
‘THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD’ SATURDAY JUNE 14th
As part of the ongoing monthly ‘What Is A Western?’ series, this 2007 film, at the beginning of our recent revival of Western film interest and production, is the series’ third Jesse James film in a row, following Henry King’s 1939 JESSE JAMES, starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda as Jess and Frank; and Walter Hill’s 1980 THE LONG RIDERS, starring James and Stacy Keach as Jesse and Frank. This one is written and directed by Andrew Dominik, and stars Brad Pitt and Sam Shepard as the brothers, and Casey Afleck as the dirty little coward, who shot Mr. Howard, and laid poor Jess in his grave, Lord, Lord; who laid poor Jesse in his grave. And if you consider that a spoiler, you’re reading the wrong blog.
The film, which screens at 1:30 in the Welles Fargo Theatre, will be introduced by series curator Jeffrey Richardson, Gamble Curator of Western History, Popular Culture, and Firearms.
COWBOY LUNCH @ THE AUTRY: THE SPAGHETTI WESTERN!
Robert Woods by one of his posters
On Wednesday, June 18th, as he does on the third Wednesday of every month, Western historian, filmmaker and raconteur Rob Word will be leading a lively discussion about Spaghetti Westerns, after a delicious lunch. Rob always manages to get famous and talented actors and other-side-of-the-camera talent for these events, and this time will be no different: Spaghetti Western stars Robert Wood and Brett Halsey will attend, and who knows who else! Stand by for more details next week! By the way, lunch is at 12:30, the event is free, but you buy your own grub – and in honor of the special occasion, the menu will include spaghetti and buffalo meatballs in a garlic tomato sauce!
Brett Halsey as Johnny Ringo
SHOWTIME PRESENTS – A SUMMER-LONG CELEBRATION OF FOOD, MOVIES & MUSIC
Kicking off last night with an outdoor screening of RUSHMORE, this is a series of free screenings at several Southern California locales. At the Autry they open their doors at 5:30, have a live musical performance at 7, and a movie at 8:30. More than a dozen food trucks are at each event. This is outdoors, so bring your own blanket. Movies being show at the Autry are JAWS on July 5, AMERICAN PSYCHO on July 19, BLAZING SADDLES (an actual western!) on August 2, PURPLE RAIN (not a western, as I recall) on August 16, and DJANGO UNCHAINED (definitely a western) on August 30. To learn more about these screenings, and others in the series at other venues, go here: http://eatseehear.com/event-schedule/#.U5T3IfldUxF
THAT’S A WRAP!
Next week I’ll have news of a new Western TV movie, possibly a series, from a very unexpected source, and the story of a new Western about to film at a Western street in Jolly Old England! Have a great week!
All Original Content Copyright June 2014 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved