It’s Either You Follow a Trend… or Start One
This is the third bit of majorettes history. If you have not read the previous post about how baton twirling was born and incorporated by drum majors do so here and the first bit about the birth of female drum major can be found here.
Assume that it is September 27, 1930, and you are in Port Arthur, Texas.
We’re about to witness the first parade of the Red Hussar Drum and Bugle Corps. It’s an all-girl band that Elizabeth Smith organized at Thomas Jefferson High in Port Arthur.
The band of twenty-one members had been organizing and practicing since 1929, and were being led by drum majors Hazel Dunham and Ethel Thompson. They really created a sensation by twirling their batons and high stepping.
The drum majorette had a unique strut, which involved picking her feet up at least 12 inches off the ground, and it shortly after became known as “High Stepping”. They hence were nicknamed “High Steppers”. Some people refer to it as “lifting their knees”: others as “prancing”, while others as “stomping”. The latter one would be closer to mockery or an insult. As usual, a well-done strut is graceful and elegant. Many posed majorettes photos show the girls at the height of a high-stepping strut.
In 1933, Marjorie Domingue became the Red Hussar’s drum major. Two decades later, her daughter, Edith, would become the band’s drum major, and they weren’t the only mother-daughter drum majors.
Some things would change in the twenty years between Marjorie’s and Edith’s turns at being drum major. Pictures of them as majorettes showed a big difference in uniform styles. Both uniforms included skirts. Marjorie’s skirt came to below her knees, common in the earlier years, but Edith’s was much shorter and well above her knees, which was a more common length at that time.
Marjorie’s uniform also included a cape, a frequent part of band uniforms, but not always worn by twirlers. Comic book super heros such as Superman and Batman had the characters wear capes, and female drum majors, majorettes, twirlers, or whatever else they’re ever called, could seem almost like super heros to younger girls.
There have always been plenty of different uniform styles for female drum majors and twirlers. During the 1930s, you’d have seen them wearing slacks, below-the-knee skirts, above-the-knee skirts, shorts, short shorts, and even something like the early-1970s “hotpants”. It all looked perfectly normal for them to be wearing, but some styles didn’t make some people very happy.
What was important was that they were developing their twirling skills, and twirling competitions can be traced back to Chicago in 1935.
During the 1930s, there were several movies with musical numbers staged by Busby Berkeley. In “Gold Diggers of 1937”, actress Joan Blondell was in the musical finale as a drum majorette leading over seventy ladies on parade. That included drummers and flag girls. They were dressed in military-style uniforms with short 1930s-style tap pants. The number was nominated for an Academy Award. It was sure to be well noticed by the public, and how far did it help influence the style of real-life drum majorettes?
In 1937 and 1938, Liberty Magazine started having the occasional issue with a majorette on the front cover.
Dictionaries that give dates for the origins of words will tell you that the term “Drum Majorette” dates back, at least in print, to the October 10, 1938 issue of Life Magazine. That issue has an article about the twentieth American Legion convention in Los Angeles.
To begin with, ladies were a part of that convention welcoming and entertaining the delegates, and stole the show. Then came the big convention parade at the Los Angeles Coliseum. One hundred drum majorettes took their first big American parade by storm.
The article describes the perfect majorette as a pert, shapely, smiling extrovert who loves big, noisy crowds, and knows how to make the crowds love her. The male parade leaders just couldn’t compete with them.
The majorettes were from all over the USA, with about 25% from California. That included ladies from Fred Simcock’s Long Beach school. At least some of what they did was influenced by Broadway and Hollywood dancers.
In 1938, Maxine Turner, a 17-year-old high school student, had volunteered to lead the Stanford University band as a majorette. This was with the full support of her mother who even made her uniform. A few days before they were to march into the stadium at a football game, the band was told not to have Maxine marching with them.
Some of the female students at Stanford thought that Maxine’s performance was just too risqué and not acceptable. Someone thought that the critics were just being “Victorian”.
The all-male band refused to march at the game without Maxine. That resulted in Maxine being allowed to participate. As she marched into the stadium with the band, supporters of both teams were chanting: “Maxine! Maxine! Maxine!”. The other team’s band didn’t have a drum majorette of their own. Stanford lost the game, but Maxine was a big winner.
Score a point for the majorettes.
That same fall, the University of Maryland was to have its first co-ed majorettes. Those in charge decided it, and asked for girls to try out. From seven candidates, they chose Dorothy Arnold and Shirley Conner.
You’re there in the Baltimore Stadium as the band arrives led by the majorettes. Their uniforms are beautiful, but they included shorts so short they startled the spectators. Parents and school alumni complained about those shorts, and the girls might be banned from marching until something could be found more suitable to be worn than those shorts.
By the next fall, they were getting their majorettes back, and that included advice on the uniforms. Majorettes were not about to go away.