The early 1940s was a turbulent time in American history. The country was engaged in World War II. Tensions were high and so were people’s fears.
This was particularly true in Los Angeles, where the changing social and political landscapes created racial tensions that ultimately led to what is called the Zoot Suit Riots.
This era has been expertly captured in the show “Zoot Suit Riot,” which was written and produced by Joseph Henson.
Henson created this version of “Zoot Suit Riot” for the California Theater of Performing Arts in San Bernardino, Calif. The show played there earlier this year and will make its first appearance in Reno Dec. 29 through Jan. 3 in the Eldorado Theatre at the Eldorado Resort Casino.
The show features a cast of seven performers plus a treat that hearkens back to the old days — a seven-piece band playing live music. It’s basically a musical history lesson presented through song, dance and narration to keep the story moving along.
“We thought it would be cool to show what some of that era’s music actually was as well as the dancing that went with it,” Henson said. “It wasn’t pure swing. It was actually a hybrid, a combination of swing and salsa that really captured the fascination of youths from that time. We also show how the zoot suit era has reflected beyond its time like the current music we know today from bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and the Brian Setzer Orchestra.”
Henson produced a series of stage shows this year for the California Theater for Performing Arts. Henson also is an accomplished producer away from live theater. He’s produced three feature films and 16 Showtime comedy specials, including “Jay Mohr: Funny for a Girl,” “Rita Rudner and 3 Potential Ex-Husbands” and “Snoop Dogg Presents: The Bad Girls of Comedy.”
“I like to keep busy,” Henson said. “I really enjoy writing and producing and telling stories.”
History of the zoot suit
As far as stories go, this was an unsightly one for the City of Angels, which was experiencing in the 1940s a population explosion unlike any it had ever seen.
Midwesterners were flocking to the area to escape the Dust Bowl in hopes of finding new opportunities in the West. Meanwhile, thousands of refugees from Mexico who had fled the Mexican Revolution also found residence in Los Angeles. Many of the immigrants joined the military of their newly adopted country. Then there was the already established military, which brought in thousands of sailors and soldiers to create a stronghold of military operations from Los Angeles to San Diego to protect California’s shores.
The influx of so many people of different ethnicities, cultures and beliefs quickly escalated into a series of racial attacks between the Mexican-American youths and the military members, many of who were on leave and looking for some fun in the big city.
Nightclubs were considered as an escape to the violence outside the club doors. Many styles of music were being played — bebop, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, mambo, big band and jazz.
In particular, swing and jazz defied segregation as youths of all races enjoyed the sights and sounds of the groovy music. With its sensual, expressive, joyful and improvisational sounds, jazz music became a great way to escape the pressures of everyday life.
“It’s fascinating to hear the music sung in Spanish to that era’s swing music,” Henson said. “It’s really very hip and cool to hear it.”
Unfortunately, cultural differences and misunderstandings got in the way of this musical renaissance. Many disenchanted youths, in particular Mexican youths, began wearing zoot suits as a way of expressing their feelings toward the establishment.
Zoot suits were recognized easily by their long-tailed coats with exaggerated broad shoulders, tailored baggy pants, and wide-brim hats. That look soon became associated — rightly or wrongly — with hooliganism, gang activity and various crimes.
“There was a lot of controversy going on at the time,” Henson said. “While Hispanic immigrants were allowed into the country and even fought for their new country, they weren’t looked at very fondly by a lot of people. They were being mistreated. For the youths, wearing these zoot suits was sort of their way of giving the middle finger to the establishment that they felt looked down on them simply because of their race and culture.”
In mid-1943, a handful of sailors on leave became embroiled in an argument that led to a violent fight with a handful of Mexican youths wearing zoot suits. Several soldiers were seriously injured. Their anger over what took place as well as the perceived disrespect of American patriotism by the zoot-suiters led to a revenge scenario.
During the course of 10 days in the summer of 1943, what first began as a handful of fights in a few areas of Los Angeles led to an all-out riot that extended to South Central Los Angeles, which primarily was and is an African-American community.
“The tensions got so bad it reached a point where sailors and the military would go and beat up literally anybody who was wearing a zoot suit,” Henson said. “They stormed the streets and would go into theaters, nightclubs, anywhere they might find anyone wearing a zoot suit. It eventually got so bad the city council and the military had to call a cease to all of that. It was a difficult and unfortunate time because people were being labeled and judged by their appearances alone. Obviously, not everyone wearing a zoot suit was a criminal or doing anything wrong.”
Henson’s “Zoot Suit Riot” show is more a celebration of the era’s music than it is a condemnation of the violence of that era. But as is often the case, the culture of an era is best defined through its artistic presentations, music and dance.
“We try to show people what it was like,” Henson said. “It was both a wonderful time and a sad time during that era. The show itself is very hip, I assure you. The music is great, the dancing is amazing and it’s really fun and interesting to listen to some of that ’40s swing and the dancing that went with it. And quite frankly, it’s pretty cool to actually see zoot suits being worn. It’s not something we see much anymore. It’s a musical history lesson that will leave people singing, happy and more informed. We’re proud of this show, and looking forward to bringing it to Reno.”