Question: Why and in what ways was the entertainment industry of the 1930s depression-proof?
Sarah Klein, '08-'09

T H A T ' S E N T E R T A I N M E N T !

The rest of the country was in shambles--beginning with Black Friday (October 29th, 1939), the American and global economy would collapse into a dark period for the duration of a decade. Why and in what ways, then, did the entertainment industry of America manage to survive and thrive amidst the halt of global trade and national productivity that occured during the Great Depression?

WHY Areas within entertainment during the 1930s stayed afloat due to:

  • the American psyche of the Great Depression
  • governmental support for the development of art

WHAT Major areas which experienced tremendous success during the Great Depression include:

  • radio
  • music
  • film/theater



Gone were the carefree days of the 1920s. Americans of the 1930s dealt with very real problems thanks to the stock ma
rket crash of Black Friday, such as loss of employment, homes, and lifestyles. Americans longed for escape from their hardship, and reassurance in the morals that had been absent in the boom age of the 1920s (7). American affection for materialism honed during the successful 1920s caused many Americans to feel personally worthless when the Great Depression hit the country (6); depression of the economy was coupled with depression in people's minds, and the traditionally optimistic American outlook faced a reality check. This mindset in America made entertainment during the Great Depression an essential distraction.


Although the entertainment industry thrived during the Great Depression, individual artists during the Depression faced just as much competition as ever, and many found themselves out of jobs like many others during at this time. In 1935, the U.S. federal government drew a connection between this and the strong interest within America on entertainment to create the Federal Project Number One. This body fell under Federal Project Number One (2), an emergency relief effort (4) that fell under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Work Project Administration as part of his Second New Deal initiatives. Federal Project Number One included the Federal Writer's Project (FWP), Historical Record's Survey (HRS), Federal Theatre Project (FTP), Federal Music Project (FMP), and Federal Art Project (FAP) (1). All strove to provide outlets and jobs for artists as well as entertainment mediums for citizens.

For instance, the FTP received about $27 million in federal money to fund its efforts in creating regional touring performing companies throughout America affiliated with the FTP (3). This companies a wide variety of plays and productions, including Broadway, foreign (i.e. Yiddish, Italian, French, and German), vaudeville, comedy, dance, African American, and puppet/marionette shows. These shows were free, providing free entertainment for scores of Americans, many who resided in areas which had previously possesed limited arts resources (3). The combination of free entertainment and jobs for previously unemployed actors allowed for improvement in the overall Depression scene of America. Similarly, the FMP supported both classical and popular music artists, such as Woodie Guthrie (4). The FMP also created performing groups and even did research in different styles of music (2).

With governmental support for the arts and entertainment came strong foundations for entertainment institutions, making the industry's success more likely than others.



Americans adamantly stayed tuned to their radios during the Great Depression, and the radio industry boomed; 80% of the country owned a radio set. Aside from playing popular songs of the period, the radio also featured numerous other programs. Comedians, like Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Fibber McGee & Molly found a place to successfully project their sets to the country (1). Even the president took advantage of the blossoming venue that was the radio: Franklin D. Roosevelt projected his "Fireside Chats" to the American public, giving it support and faith in the government in a time of most dire need (1). Additionally, news programs received high listener rates, and often broadcasted on the hardships and tensions of European countries (i.e. World War I buildup). Radio news programs were taken so seriously in America that when one program told of Martians invading Earth, numerous citizens panicked as they did not register the disclaimer at the end of the program that stated the report was fictional.


Brother Can You Spare A Dime - Bing Crosby

For the first time in American history, music acted as a unifier between Americans (4), thanks to technology and the fusion of musical styles. Radio and the distribution of records allowed for the mass production of music. Additionally, governmental support for the music industry (the Federal Music Project, see section entitled "Governmental Support for the Development of Art"). Popular musicians of the time included Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (4). The jazz music of the 1920s blended with the rhythm and blues music created by African American artists (4), and the seeds that would lead to the growth of big band music and swing were sown (4). Interestingly, many believe that the music of the Great Depression shared similar characteristics with slave work songs, especially in tunes that possesed heavy blues influences (4). Others believe that the sound of the 1930s was one of a "fox and roots mix with flashy brass" (4). Music did not shy away from the hardships of the Great Depression; several songs, such as "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" reached the top of the charts with lyrics making strong references to the bleak economy and lifestyle of America (4). Music from musicals were also popular, such as those from the show Porgy and Bess, score written by George Gershwin.

Summertime (from porgy and bess) - Bessie Smith


somewhere over the rainbow - judy garland

Of a
ll the mediums of the entertainment industry, the ones involving theater and film were those which most recognized the incredible connections they had with the American public in the 1930s. A heightened awareness of this amongst creators of films and theatrical productio ns caused dramatic works of the 1930s to portray to Americans what they most wanted during the hardships of the times: escape (5). Gone was the glamor portrayed in works of the 1920s; rather, films and productions that portrayed morality, innocence, and the triumph of goodness ruled the entertai nment scene (5). This catering to the public's wants caused film and theater to especially boom; the Great Depression is often called Hollywood's Golden Age (1).

During this time period, one half of America went to see movies on a weekly basis (7). Gangster films and movies portraying the marriages of poor girls to rich meexternal image fred-astaire.jpgn were popular (7). Actors and actresses such as Clark Gable, Bette Davis, and the Marx Brothers received legendary statuses during the 1930s. John Steinbeck's famous novel Grapes of Wrath, which told of difficult times of the Depression in the West, became a highly viewed film (1). Disney also created its first animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, in 1937 (1).

Theater and film conjoined in the '30s, and movie musicals skyrocketed in popularity, as the cheery endings and smiley musical numbers they possesed especially promoted the American attitude of escapism. Americans flocked to theaters to see the curly-haired child star Shirley Temple tap dance and sing in her famous films (1). Fred Astaire's dance skills were widely admired, and Americans strove to see him peform in movies as well (1). Judy Garland rose to fame for her performous in the well-known movie The Wizard of Oz; her famous song in the film, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", is now considered a classic (1)--also note the highly evident theme of escapism in this song, making the song especially relavent and popular during the Great Depression. Other popular musical movies included Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street, and Footlight Parade.

The combination of desperate times and remedial entertainment caused the entertainment industry to soar during the Great Depression.


1.) "American History - 1930-1939." Lone Star College-Kingwood Library Home Page. 22 May 2009 <>.

2.)"Federal Project Number One -." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 22 May 2009 <>.

3.)"Federal Theatre Project Collection: About the WPA Federal Theatre Project." American Memory from the Library of Congress - Home Page. 22 May 2009 <>.

4.) "Great Depression as a Generational Fulcrum." Trinity University | Welcome. 22 May 2009 <>.

5.)"Hollywood in the Depression." American Studies @ The University of Virginia. 22 May 2009 <>.

6.) "Psychological Impact of the Great Depression." Novelguide: Free Study Guides, Free Book Summaries, Free Book Notes, & More. 22 May 2009 <>.

7.) Sheboygan Falls School District. 22 May 2009 <>.