Elmer Keeton and His Bay Area Negro Chorus: Creating an Artistic Identity in Depression-Era San Francisco

Article excerpt

On June 25, 1939, a vibrant show, the Swing Mikado, opened at the Golden Gate International Exposition on San Francisco's Treasure Island. Featuring an all-black cast, the production was a "brashly irreverent" adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado (Hobart 1939b) with the locale changed from Japan to an unidentified "coral island" in the South Seas. The Swing Mikado preserved Sullivan's music intact--albeit with minor changes in lyrics to omit racist references and adapt to the changed geographical setting. Added to the score, however, were a half dozen swing arrangements and "specialty dances" that were greeted with immense ovation and that accounted for the sellout, standing-room-only crowds.

The Swing Mikado--which had originated in Chicago a year earlier--represented one of the most successful endeavors of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), one of four arts programs collectively called "Federal One" that were sponsored by the Works Progress Adminsitration (WPA), the federal government's massive employment effort of the Depression era. San Francisco's version of the show featured fifteen soloists, a "singing chorus" of about fifty, and a "dancing chorus" of about twenty. John Hobart, in the San Francisco Chronicle, characterized the singing group as "really magnificent.... After the anemic voices that usually make up the ensemble in G. and S. revivals," he wrote, "it is wondrous to hear this huge crowd of singers, with full-bodied voices, pitching into the music" (Hobart 1939b). This "singing chorus" was well-known to locals: under the inspired direction of Elmer Keeton, it had become one of the most prominent ensembles in northern California's Federal Music Project (FMP)--another Federal One unit. (The FTP and the FMP often collaborated on musical theater productions. The other two components of Federal One were the Federal Art Project and the Federal Writers' Project.) Keeton's Bay Area Negro Chorus had been attracting large crowds and exceptional reviews for the previous three years.

Critics predicted that the Swing Mikado was in for a long run. Two weeks after its opening, however, Congress shut down the FTP, bending to conservative opposition to the WPA in general and to rumors of Communist influence within the Theatre Project in particular. "4100 Lopped Off Rolls; 'Mikado' Show Closed," lamented the Chronicle in a page 1 story the day after the closing ("4100 Lopped" 1939). The Music Project, which felt invested in the production because of Keeton's chorus, tried to convince WPA authorities to take it over from the defunct FTP, but to no avail (Ness 1939; "Music Project" 1939). A month later the Swing Mikado reopened under private sponsorship in the city and then went on tour. Thereafter, the chorus continued to perform concerts under Keeton's leadership, and was even featured in several nationwide broadcasts.

The story of Elmer Keeton and his "Negro chorus"--pieced together here from programs, reviews, WPA documents, and recordings--is one of musical artistry and success, but also of racial exclusion and marginalization. Keeton himself walked a tenuous line between tolerating the segregation of the WPA and promoting the extraordinary musical heritage of U.S. blacks. His nonconfrontational approach cultivated positive interactions with the white population, whose responses to his programs were for the most part appreciative, but also, at times, patronizing. With the exception of a small minority of white singers directly threatened by the group's success, Keeton and his chorus attracted well-deserved praise from the city's arts critics.

Keeton's quiet attitude toward racial issues stands in stark contrast to that of younger arrivals to San Francisco, among them one of the solo singers in his musical productions. Joseph James, featured in two theatrical presentations with the chorus, spearheaded a contentious legal battle that led to the integration of local labor unions. …