Fanchon Simon was my mother. Her brother Marco Wolff headed Fanchon and Marco Inc. (F&M) which was a family business. Their brother, Rube Wolf (he dropped one “F” so the letters of his name would be larger on the theater marquee), was the orchestra leader and MC at the Paramount Theater in downtown Los Angeles through the mid 30’s. Their youngest brother Roy Wolff managed a part of the F&M business as well as the South Side Theater chain.
My earliest recollections are from about 1934 (I was born in late 1929). Mother and Marco ran the F&M enterprises. They were responsible for creative, artistic and business decisions. Prior to that from the mid 20’s on, they had produced live prologues for major movies at theaters in Los Angeles, and full stage shows which toured all over the US. With the onset of the Depression, many theaters closed and the lavish traveling shows became a thing of the past.
Producing shows for the Paramount Theater Los Angeles, was a major undertaking. The former chorus performers who were known as the California Sunshine Girls became the Fanchonettes. The Fanchonettes consisted of 48 young women on stage at one time, all performing in perfect unison, dancing, walking on large balls, riding unicycles, roller-skating,
“webbing” (performing acrobatics from a velvet rope a la Cirque du Soleil), and generally performing unbelievable feats. It was not easy to be a Fanchonette. Where could you find so many talented young women willing to work so hard?
Each show had new choreography, music, costumes, curtains, sets, specialty acts, and headline stars. Shows would play 3-4 weeks depending somewhat on the strength of the movie that was playing. A single ticket got you a news reel, cartoon, short subject, feature film, and a live stage show. Each act including the lavish production numbers were called Fanchon and Marco Ideas, and most were photographically documented.
While these shows were being produced, F&M were also operating a talent school for young people. Once a year, F&M produced a “Kiddie” show at the Paramount Theater, featuring their students and the “Meglin Kiddies” from Ethyl Meglin’s talent school. F&M were also involved with the production of the shows at the Roxie Theater in New York. These shows were produced by Gae Foster.
F&M operated a chain of theaters in Los Angeles, called the South Side Theaters. The “flagship” was the old Manchester Theater, which had once been home to the F&M ideas during the traveling show period.
F&M through a partnership with the Harry Arthur Family, were involved with the operation of all the major 1st run theater palaces in St. Lois including the Fox, the St. Louis, the Grand, and the Missouri Theaters on Grand Avenue, and the Ambassador downtown.
In the early 30’s F&M moved into the F&M Studios on Sunset Blvd. near Andrews Place in Hollywood. The studios not only housed the corporate offices, but included the talent school and the talent agency, together with a huge shop for construction of the sets. It had a 3 story open loft where the curtains and scenic drops were painted by the artists on catwalks, and a massive costume shop where all the costumes were cut, stitched, and detailed. I remember 3 women who spent all of each working day, applying sequins to otherwise finished costumes. This was a major enterprise. Everything had to be trucked from the studio to the theater where it all came together – musical arrangements for the orchestra, dress and final rehearsals for the performers, lighting plots and cues. At stage right, behind the proscenium, was the main control board, complete with giant rheostats, large and small switches and levers, and myriads of buttons. There were lights overhead on both sides of the stage, on the front of the mezzanine, foot lights, house lights, gels, fixed spots and traveling spots from the projection booth, and special ultra violet lights to activate black light effects.
The term “a regular Fanchon and Marco production” had entered American slang, meaning something that was lavish, sumptuous, and over the top.
Shows at the Paramount continued until the late 30’s when such impressive productions became uneconomical. That ended the period of Fanchon and Marco Productions, but the rest of their enterprises continued.
F&M produced 2 radio shows, “Al Pierce and his Gang” and the Joe “you wanna buy a duck” Penner show.
In 1943, F&M acquired the old El Capitan Theater across the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theater. William Pereira, the famous architect designed it with a main curtain of gold lame which rose in graceful scallops. It became the Paramount Hollywood which opened with the showing of Cecil B. De Milles’ “Reap the Wild Wind”.
F&M built one last theater, the Baldwin in Los Angeles near Jefferson and La Brea. It was hoped that this area would be a major center for post war tract homes, but that didn’t happen and the Baldwin (never successful) closed. The South Side Theaters were eventually sold as well.
There was one more, little known, F&M undertaking which was a giant fiasco. F&M purchased “The Great American Circus”. The circus train wouldn’t run, the tent malfunctioned, and the animals got sick, and whatever could go wrong, went wrong. Fanchon and Marco never would talk much about it afterwards.
After the shows were discontinued at the Paramount downtown, Marco confined his activities to operating the theaters, and later in life to serving in his church. Fanchon on the other hand, was driven to continue to produce shows.
In 1937 she went to Paramount Studios where she produced 2 films, “Turn off the Moon” with Elinore Whitney and “Thrill of a Lifetime” with Dorothy Lamour, a very young Betty Grable and Larry “Buster” Crabbe. The Fanchonnettes were in both movies. I believe that Fanchon was the first woman film producer.
In 1939, I remember going to the World’s Fair in San Francisco. Mother, who was known to most as “Miss Fanchon” was hired to stage and direct Shipstad and Johnson’s Ice Follies. Each new edition of the show was produced in San Francisco, while the prior year’s show finished it’s run. The new show would then open at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles where Fanchon worked on the finishing touches during pre-show dress rehearsals.
The Ice Follies was big and spectacular, with Fanchon overseeing all aspects of production. She created themes for each act, and supervised music, lighting, costumes, and complicated chorus numbers for the 40 “Ice Follietes” skaters. Fanchon was involved with at least 4 editions of the Ice Follies. The owners of the show, Eddie Shipstad and Oscar Johnson performed a comedy act. Co- owner, Roy Shipstad, did a starring seating solo, as did his wife Bess Eirhart, and today people still remember the comedy act “Frick and Frack”.
In the early 40’s Fanchon went to work for 20th Century Fox. Fox was noted for their musicals at the time. They had 3 big female stars, Sonia Henie (the Ice Skater), Alice Faye, and Betty Grable. They had decided that the best way to produce the big musicals was to produce them in 2 parts. The dramatic/comedic scenes were produced in the normal manner, but the musical numbers were separately produced by Fanchon.
Fox had a talented staff of creative executives, the Newman’s for music, and Hermes Pan for dance direction and choreography. Fanchon brought in former F&M staff people to work with and augment the Fox staff. Her title at Fox was something like “Musical Sequence Coordinator” but she actually fully produced the musical segments of these films.
In 1943, Abe Lastfogel, then the President of the William Morris Agency, and head of the USO, asked Fanchon to come to New York to develop a format for small USO shows that could tour overseas at the smaller bases and areas that the big shows could not reach. Fanchon’s solution was 3 girls who could sing, dance, play a musical instrument and perform a specialty act, plus one older male performer (the young men were all in the service) who acted as the comedian, MC, and also performed a specialty act. They did not require sets or props, just a small portable wood stage and a stagehand/sound manager to set up. These small stage shows worked very well.
In 1947, Fanchon produced her last film for Republic, which was a small musical written by Richard and Mary Sale called “Campus Honeymoon”. It dealt with ex-GI’s who were married and wanted to go to college on the GI Bill.
Miss Fanchon and Marco Wolff were extraordinary persons. They were deeply religious, and did not drink, smoke, or swear. Even the stagehands watched their language when “Miss Fanchon” was around. They were adventurous, self taught, and hard working. They had a strong commitment to their brothers and parents. They were true pioneers of Show Business.