Marco, left, and Fanchon, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Movie-going experiences today offer little bang for the buck, offering mostly commercials, advertisements and loud trailers before the films. In the 1920s and 1930s however, moviegoers enjoyed a smorgasbord of entertainment before they even saw the movie: cartoon, newsreel, serial and in larger houses, an elaborate musical presentation that sometimes was the draw itself. While they did not originate the concept of prologues before films, Fanchon Simon and Marco Wolff popularized and energized their form, becoming a household name in the process.
The team, known as Fanchon and Marco professionally, were native Angelenos, born on Sept. 14, 1892, (Fanchon) and April 21, 1894, (Marco) respectively. The children of Russian immigrants, Fanny and Marco helped support the family of seven from a young age. Marco delivered the Los Angeles Times, and Fanchon sold subscriptions to The Times door to door in order to afford to attend dramatic lessons. She quickly discovered she preferred dancing and singing, and switched to those lessons instead. Marco possessed excellent violin skills, and by 1902 they were performing together, Fanchon sitting on his shoulders while he played. Marco worked his way through high school performing the violin in a tearoom, while Fanchon served as an assistant dance instructor and worked as a dancer providing “atmosphere” for Oliver Morosco’s shows at the Burbank Theatre. Working in the theater and seeing the development of shows planted an idea that the team would later embroider into something more elaborate.
Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.
North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune, Oct. 29, 1920.
Upon graduation, they joined the Orpheum circuit as a dancing act, touring across the country. During April and May 1914, the duo performed at Hamburger’s Department Store Fourth Floor Cafe for their Tango Tea performing the “Dream of the Violin.” The couple danced together to the “Hesitation Waltz” as Marco played the violin. That fall, they performed at the Sydney, Australia, Tivoli, with Variety noting, “one of the best reviewer has seen is a pair who present the latest craze steps in an artistic fashion.”
In December 1914, the siblings toured to Hawaii and performing ballroom dancing at the Moana Hotel, and taught private and group classes in the tango, maxixe, one-step, and hesitation waltz. While there, they performed at a society dinner dance, performing both as a team and singly, Marco on the violin and Fanchon performing her clever songs. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin noted that their act was extended into January and remarked about their performance, “When they danced — well, everyone held his or her breath. It was inspiring to see such grace in the modern dances… .”
By 1917, the duo regularly performed at the Winter Garden on Broadway, one of the favorite acts, along with Irene Franklin and Charles “Chic” Sale. They also found time to perform in local cabarets. Their energetic performances and creativity enthralled customers and audiences wherever they played, especially after putting together a small ensemble, which sometimes accompanied them. The April 14, 1918, New Orleans Herald stated that they were “the first to introduce to New York the puzzling charm of jazz music as played by white musicians.” Marco and Fanchon just didn’t perform dances of the day, they performed up-to-date pop steps, and developed new dances which intrigued audiences. One review revealed, “Their act is a glorification of grace, a Terpsichorean symphony, exquisite and poetic in its execution.” People loved them, both for their talents and charming personalities.
The siblings skyrocketed to fame in San Francisco on the Orpheum circuit, ending up performing regularly at Tait’s. By July 1918, they led the club’s Pavo Real Room, arranging acts as well as dancing, and within a few months, headlined their own revue at the club. Now they were also choreographing and producing shows, ones that attracted large paying audiences.
Later that summer, Marco enlisted in the United States Navy, and was assigned to officers’ training school. For a few months, the act broke up. After the armistice, Fanchon and Marco resumed dancing in San Francisco, as well as arranging parties and casino shows full of pizzazz and flash at Tait’s. They marketed themselves well, growing their fan base and upgrading their shows by adding quality performers into the mix. Personality Kitty Gordon joined them in April, and ads began trumpeting that Fanchon designed wardrobe for the show. She began contributing a daily column called “Fanchon’s Fancies” for the San Francisco Call in May 1919, describing fashion. At the same time, Marco announced his candidacy for San Francisco’s supervisor’s race, but later withdrew. The Wolffs were now stars, in total charge of their presentations.
Advertising promoting the act continually began noting all the many tasks headlined by the siblings, with a November 1919 Variety ad for their revue, formerly called “Let’s Go,” noting words, music, costumes and staging by Fanchon and Marco. Fanchon handled the staging and costumes, while Marco focused on hires, budgets and plans. This ad noted their permanent address, 281 O’Farrell St. in San Francisco, and that Phil Harris conducted their band. Tickets cost $2 top for the show, soon to go on the road, which middle class audiences found hip and modern.
Fanchon and Marco in “SunKist,” New York Tribune, May 22, 1921.
Audiences, particularly men, adored their high energy, flashy shows, particularly for the shapely, attractive all-girl dance troupe, called the SunKist Beauties or Fanchonettes, which accompanied the act. While the revue combined jazz music and orchestra, dancing, singing and laughs, the girls seemed to be a major draw, as the Bismarck Tribune on May 27, 1920, called their troupe, “World’s most beautiful women garbed in radiant smiles — and not much more.” Fanchon explained to the Ogden Standard-Examiner in 1920 that she looked for slender, pretty, young girls with charming personalities, pep and skillful dancing, who agreed to a contract that required chaperones and dance classes. Stories described the show as one big family, sharing laughs and good times, turning to Fanchon for advice and her good sense of humor.
A May 1921 Variety review of a Buffalo, N.Y., performance claimed their show “makes many of the Broadway revues look like hothouse flowers.” Others described their “mélange of melody and mirth,” revealing how their colorful and peppy presentation stood out. “SunKist” played on Broadway for two months in the summer of 1921 before touring. The show sold out everywhere, from one-nighters in small towns to premier theaters in major cities throughout 1922 and 1923.
Fanchon and Marco stopped dancing in March 1923 when she married William Simon of the Palais Royal Cafe, but kept their shows alive by creating elaborate productions. The duo staged exotic dancing by dancing girls at the pharaoh’s palace for Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre “The Ten Commandments” prologue that summer. They arranged shows featuring up and coming performers or declining stars along with girl acts, all good lookers, for the Ackerman and Sam Harris chain, directing and producing presentations before motion pictures as well. Their mini-musical comedies sometimes outdrew the film, or boosted audience, with some reviews noting that films were secondary to their shows. They provided spectacular extravaganzas that provided a smorgasbord of entertainment, worth the price of admission themselves. People loved their shows so much, they returned time and again, unlike the films, which drew little repeat business. While they considered Sid Grauman the originator of stage prologues, Fanchon and Marco solidified the popularity of the genre, both in its look and presentation. Their high-quality, extravagant shows featured 60-100 people casts, a jazz band, elaborate, slinky costumes, and gorgeous backgrounds, throwing in regular dance steps, acrobatics, and unique acts.
“Fanchon and Marco Ideas,” Motion Picture News.
The brother and sister split their time and attentions between San Francisco (Marco) and Los Angeles (Fanchon), staging presentations for seven motion picture houses in the two cities, as well as two revues in local cafes. What had been a mere two-person act now functioned as a business. Fanchon developed “ideas” like “Yachting,” “Book,” “Polar,” “Peacock,” and “River,” around which to stage shows, providing stylish designs for costumes and sets, while Marco hired casts and organized the show. Marco hit on the unique conception of designing presentations totally opposite to that of a picture’s theme. If a movie was showing a South Seas Island story, they should focus on George M. Cohan. People seemed to love the unique variety, instead of something that contained the same characters or themes of the film.
In 1925, Sol Lesser of West Coast Theatres signed Fanchon and Marco to produce all prologues and presentations that would appear in all their Pacific Coast Theatres. As part of the deal, they established a ballet/dance school with the chain near the Fox Western Avenue Studio at Sunset Boulevard and St. Andrews Place, and earned $1,500 a week and a percentage of the box office. Exhibitors Trade Herald declared in a May 1925 article that Arthur M. Boules’ Tivoli Theatre in San Francisco first introduced Fanchon and Marco “ideas” stage shows before films. Under the deal, the siblings staged presentations at Los Angeles’ Criterion, Loew’s Stage, Beverly, and Blvd. Theatres. Their shows boosted box office grosses for Buster Keaton’s “Seven Chances” and Lon Chaney’s “The Unholy Three” per the story.
Under the pact, their shows alternated premieres between the Loew’s State and San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre, before touring to Sacramento, Stockton, Oakland, Fresno, San Jose, Bakersfield, Pasadena, Santa Ana and Broadway, touring from one house to another, 30 houses employing casts, per the Sept. 20, 1925, Variety.
They added Pacific Northwest Theatres to their list of presentations in 1926, following the same general outline, giving the most entertainment in the smallest amount of time, from 20-40 minutes. Each show was packed with footlight numbers, specialties, flash — stairs, living curtains, acrobatics, choreographed numbers. Their 1926 “Spanish” idea included an elaborate set with Spanish decorations and a small orchestra on stage, which left the stage to walk up and sit in a backdrop. These beautifully staged and produced shows entranced audiences everywhere. Their high stepping and kicking showgirl numbers functioned as the model for the later elaborate production numbers staged by Busby Berkeley in 1930s film musicals.
Fanchon and Marco’s shows skyrocketed in popularity as motion picture theaters focused on providing unique, quality entertainment to lure patrons away from the stage. In 1926, they signed a new deal with West Coast, becoming the largest producer of presentations in the world, providing shows for the entire West Coast. The team announced they would spend $1 million to purchase the Rosa Rehn Costume Co. and leased two whole floors and rehearsal rooms at the Knickerbocker Building. Kids from the Meglin School trained and performed with them. They would provide entertainment for 300 houses, their typical stand-alone productions. Fanchon and Marco operated as a factory, churning out product to tour between all the many theaters. The siblings grew rich.
Many up and coming performers joined their company, gaining wide acclaim before establishing their own acts. Such future stars as Myrna Loy, Janet Gaynor, Eleanor Whitney, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Phil Harris, Kate Smith, Martha Raye, George Raft, Betty Grable, etc., grabbed stardom playing with the organization. Others featured once big stars attempting to hang on for dear life.
Other distribution chains began chasing them to upgrade and design their prologues across the country. Several deals were announced, but no others came to fruition.
Fanchon and Marco described their successful shows to Motion Picture News in Spring 1928, reiterating that they differed from studio shows that featured atmospheric prologues. They staged “ideas” with up to 100 artists and dancers performing around elaborate sets. “Each idea is complete in itself and not related to the picture billed with it even in a remote way, We seek motifs for our presentations in something topical, modern and as popular as possible…Whenever possible, we employ the most famous of stage stars and build “ideas” about them, introducing exotic and massive scene settings and pretty girls in striking costumes. For example, a “Merry Widow” idea was created for the presentation of Mae Murray of Follies fame. Al Jolson was introduced with “Down South” idea. Many other famous stars, including Gilda Gray, and the Marx Brothers, have been given similar presentations.” Performers like Jackie Coogan and Sally Rand toured with their companies.
Their teams performed five times a day before films, giving audiences bang for their buck. As they expanded, they built the Fanchon and Marco Costume Co. and a massive scene studio at old Chaplin headquarters in Lincoln Heights. Like “American Idol,” they traveled the country searching out new entertainers. Their far-flung empire caused them to organize Ambassador Airways, Inc. in 1928 to help facilitate travel between their companies
Unfortunately, the introduction of sound saw attendance drop at theaters, the first chipping away at their huge production empire. Theaters looked to cut costs, with some dropping the shows altogether, or cutting back on the number of performances. Some turned to presenting sound films only.
Fox signed Fanchon and Marco to produce Movietone short subjects in fall 1928, to coincide with their corporation in staging and producing presentations on the Pacific Coast. These shorts would adapt their musical numbers for the screen, in effect be their version of Vitaphone shorts, highlighting hit songs, strange acts, and dancing.
Though the country was experiencing the effects of the Depression in 1929 and 1930, Fanchon and Marco lived the high life. Marco purchased a three-acre Holmby Hills estate adjacent to the Janss Estate on Delfern Drive for $60,000 in 1929 on which to build a mansion and amenities. Fanchon bought the former Buster Keaton house in 1930.
Later that year, the duo brought in Craig Hutchinson to capture Fanchon and Marco acts on film, shooting two-reel short subjects in Harris Color, featuring all original special choreography. Later that year, Winfield Sheehan of Fox signed them to handle all presentations for Fox Theatres Circuit, taking over the Fox Booking Office to arrange talent for 500 theaters, per the studio’s financial reorganization plan.
On July 5, 1930, Fanchon and Marco broke ground at the old Fox lot on a two story building to combine five rehearsal halls, wardrobe department, music library, booking agency, “gag” library, a miniature theater, storage space, all in 50,000 square feet. It would house the 2000 people employed by Fanchon and Marco.
To help promote their brand and bring in extra money, Fanchon and Marco arranged a national advertising campaign with fashion shops in August 1930. The Hollywood Filmograph described the slogan as, “Fanchon decrees the Fashion,” where she would design four styles of gowns and dresses to sell in 417 specialty shops, with their brand in over 366 cities called “Fanchon and Marco Mode Shops” in a short term publicity campaign. Hollywood was leading the fashion parade, and shops wanted to cash in on the act. All fashion would be released simultaneously around the country, with the stage productions to show Fanchon and casts designing and creating gowns, with the fashion reveal crowning the act, with the SunKist Beauties modeling the original creations. There would be four style shows each year, staged by the units. The campaign promised great stunts, with newspapers carrying syndicated columns and rotogravures, contests, and even radio shows.
As theaters closed, dropped vaudeville, or drastically cut back on entertainment from 1930-1932 during the height of the Depression, Fanchon and Marco added star names to their companies to maintain audience entrance. Silent stars such as Betty Compson, Gilda Gray, Mae Murray, Monte Blue, Sally O’Neil, Helen Morgan, Blanche Sweet, Trixie Friganza, Franklyn Farnum, Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, Charlie Murray, and Chester Conklin headlined units, helping keep their names and faces in front of audiences. The duo even hired former studio dance directors like Larry Ceballos and LeRoy Prinz to choreograph shows and keep them fresh. Theater circuits even pooled their resources in May 1932 in an effort to cut costs, hiring Fanchon and Marco and Louis K. Sidney of Loews to produce presentations across their chains. Even with these gimmicks, nothing seemed to slow the tide.
Fanchon and Marco could see ominous signs on the horizon and began searching out new ventures. Marco announced that he would possibly enter independent film production in 1932, producing prologues augmented with film shorts of original numbers they designed. The organization took over theaters in receivership to keep their casts in place, particularly around the St. Louis, Missouri and Los Angeles areas. They reduced staff, cut hours, and the like. Fanchon began producing radio shows at the 5600 Sunset Blvd. studio, and choreographing acts for the Hollywood Bowl.
In 1936, Marco formed Hollywood Pictures to produce two film musicals, “Waltz King” and “Dance Congress” at $400,000 each through financing he would arrange himself, with Lester Cowan as associate director. Unfortunately, he never raised enough money to film.
William LeBaron of Paramount hired Fanchon on June 9, 1936, as an advisor on musicals, whereby she would eventually become a producer. Her film, “Turn Off the Moon,” starring Charlie Ruggles, Eleanore Whitney, and Johnny Downs opened in May 1937, featuring two musical interludes and a grand finale talent show. Most reviews called it “light, fluffy entertainment.” She later produced “Thrill of a Lifetime” for the studio.
In 1938, Fanchon and Marco closed up shop as prologue producers. Marco remained a distribution executive, including for Hollywood’s Paramount Theatre, formerly the El Capitan, and served on several business organizations and boards. Fanchon continued working producing and supervising musical numbers for film. In the 1920s, she had choreographed numbers in “The Eagle” (1925), “Kiki” (1926), “The Midnight Sun” (1927), “Three Weekends” (1928), “Fox Movietone Follies of 1929” (1929), “Hearts in Dixie” (1929), and “Alibi” (1929). She supervised musical segments in “Marriage Approval” (1933), “Rainbow Over Broadway” (1933), “Paddy O’Day” (1935), “Night at the Music Hall” (1939), “Night at the Trocadero” (1939), “Stormy Weather” (1943), “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” “Pin Up Girl,” and “Plainsman and the Lady.” She moved over to Republic in the 1940s, choreographing and supervising musical sequences at the studio, where her daughter, Faye Marlow, starred in films.
In 1950, the duo attempted to revive downtown stage shows at the Paramount Theatre, with their brother Rube Wolf headlining the orchestra, but unfortunately television was killing off the need for specialized entertainment before films.
The premier creators and show people of dramatic road show entertainment disappeared from sight, as did their unique form of mass spectacle. What was flashy and stupendous in 1926 seemed merely adequate in the over-the-top frenzy of 1950s free national television variety shows. Though mostly forgotten today, Fanchon and Marco helped introduce flash and flair into presentations and musicals, the likes of which won’t be seen again.