Sylvester’s Eve was for old-time fun

Echoes of our past
William Wangemann • for The Review

Sylvester’s Eve has come and gone. If that phrase is familiar to you, you are probably old enough to be on Social Security.

Just what is Sylvester’s Eve? Sylvester’s Eve is the feast day of St. Sylvester which occurs on Dec. 31, and also just happens to be New Year’s Eve. St. Sylvester was one of the first Popes in the Catholic Church.

Born in the late third century and dying in 333, he was the first Pope to be recognized by the Roman Empire. The feast day of St. Sylvester is a European Holiday.

Celebrated for centuries with feasting, drinking and dancing, the holiday was brought to America by central European immigrants. The term Sylvester’s Eve, now mostly forgotten, was used for many years to refer to December 31, or as we now refer to it, New Year’s Eve.

The name for Sylvester’s Eve may have changed but the celebrating has not, only the way in which we celebrate the going out of the old year, and the coming in of the New Year has changed.

In the years past Christmas Eve may have been a holiday for children, but New Year’s Eve was a holiday for adults. It was a night for New Year’s Eve parties, paper hats, noise makers and, during prohibition, bath tub gin and moonshine, but most of all it was a night for dancing. Every dance hall, in the city and county, and there were many, put on a huge New Year’s Eve dance. One of the best known and largest was the New Year’s Eve dance at the Eagles Hall, later known as the Playdium.

And then there was the Dreamland Ball Room at N.40th and Superior Ave., the Calumet Hall located in the 1600 block of Calumet Drive and Standard Hall in the 1200 block of Indiana Ave. to mention a few, New Year’s Eve dances at the Eagles hall drew as many as 700 patrons.

As the clock drew near midnight paper hats, noise makers, and streamers supplied by the dance hall were distributed to the merrymakers. As the clock ticked down the last few seconds the crowd, led by the band leader would begin a countdown, as the clock struck twelve, the crowd would explode in a roar of noise making and cheers, to welcome in the New Year.

In years past dancing was far more popular amongst adults than it is now, it was not uncommon for two or three dances to be held around the city every week. During the summer months almost every night of the week a dance could be found somewhere in Sheboygan. Some dance halls, in those pre-air conditioning days, such as the Calumet Hall had outdoor dance floors that were very popular.

Lit by strings of Chinese lanterns, couples danced on warm summer evenings as soft music drifted across the dance floor. The music was played by one of the many local bands that flourished during that time, admission was generally less than a dollar, if you brought a lady, she was admitted for a dime.

Just about every dance hall had a mirrored ball hanging high on the ceiling in the center of the hall. A light was project on the ball as it slowly turned, sending brilliant little beams of light darting across walls and floors in the darkened ballroom.

Most of the large ballrooms are now gone, some such as the Calumet Hall were torn down, others burned down, Dreamland Ballroom burned to the ground in the mid 50’s, the Playdium burned Feb. 2nd, 1977 and was never rebuilt, a few still exist. But the era of dancing and dance halls are regrettably gone…most likely forever.

As the New Year’s celebrations fade away and we venture into the New Year to say that the upcoming presidential election of 2016 is going to make an interesting event in our history is a gross understatement. With that in mind I would like to present to you an election story you may not be aware of.

Of all the famous people to visit Sheboygan, and there were many, such as presidential candidates of both parties, movie stars and even Leo the famous MGM Lion. None was more unusual than Andy Gump.

Who was Andy Gump you ask? Let me give you a hint, he ran for Congress in 1922 and then for president in every election starting 1922 up until the 1950’s. Andy Gump was in fact an enormously popular cartoon character that was created in 1917 by cartoonist Sidney Smith and first appeared in the Chicago Tribune on February 12, 1917.

Andy Gump was a cartoon about an average man. He had a wife named Min who he leaned on. Whenever he encountered trouble, he would shout “Oh Min!”

It was one of the first publications of its kind that the ordinary family could relate to, and like most of us Andy was no super hero and not too good looking. It was said that Andy had no chin and that his neck seemed to stick out of his upper lip, but people loved him.

By the mid-twenties the cartoon was carried by hundreds of newspapers nationwide and his creator was making the then staggering sum of over $100,000 a year. It was at the height of his popularity in the spring of 1924 that the world famous Andy Gump visited Sheboygan, or at least his creator Sidney Smith did.

Andy’s visit was covered by a magazine known as “See America First” which was distributed across the country and published by “The Bureau of American Travel Inc.” The Managing Editor was A.L. Sommers, the home officer of the magazine, was Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The magazine was published bimonthly and sold for 25 cents. The publication in quality was the equal to any magazine then on the market.

Several editions of the magazine are on file at the Mead Public Library in the Sheboygan collection where they may be read. The publication which was printed on fine coated paper carried an abundance of well reproduced photos of the Sheboygan area as well as the rest of the county. Unfortunately the publication lasted but a few years then went out of business.

It was in the spring of 1924 that Mr. Smith, Andy’s creator, came to Sheboygan to tour our city. The local service clubs such as the Rotary Club, the Kiwanis and the Lions club to mention a few invited Sidney Smith to special banquettes in his honor and to introduce Andy to local dignitaries. A.L. Sommers the managing Editor of “See American First” then devoted 14 pages in the next edition of the magazine to Andy’s visit.

Andy Gump (Sidney Smith) was then taken on a grand tour around Sheboygan during which the virtues of our town were explained to him. It was pointed out that in 1923 Sheboygan was virtually the furniture capitol of the world, with over 10,000,000 chairs and other pieces furniture being manufactured in our various woodworking factories around the city. In fact over $50,000,000 worth of goods were manufactured in Sheboygan County in 1923, a time of prosperity, just before the devastating years of the crushing depression beginning with the stock market crash of 1929. To say that Andy was impressed is an understatement.

I wish to take this opportunity to offer my sincere thanks to all of you that have supported and read this column in the past year, Joy and I wish you all a healthy, happy and productive 2016.

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