Saturday, July 8, 2017

Locally, we benefited from "Harvey Girls."



In most cases, I am just like many other western historians, with my blinders on, pretty much ignoring the idea that women had much to do with the history of the west. Not because I think they didn't.  I am positive they had a key role in the taming of the country that was severely under-reported and assigned less import than what actually occurred. It is just not documented.
A longtime resource, from my hometown in southwestern Colorado identifies the problem precisely, though he was talking about all folk, and legacy in general terms.
"They were working people and left much less documentation and monuments to their existence. Their business deals were done with a handshake and their accomplishments are more likely to be made of hard work and sweat, instead of bricks, stone and newspaper articles. History is much richer when we know the story of the people who built the fancy house on the hill along with the people who lived in it," notes my friend, Ellis Miller.
America's tales about taming the Wild West rarely include women. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more than 100,000 pioneering young women left home to work as waitresses in restaurants located on train platforms along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway.
Locally we benefited from that.
By sketchy accounts, the record describes a Harvey House in Cascade in the 1890s.
"Which I had never heard of, and doesn’t show up in any company documents. With the help of Peter Hansen, editor of Railroad History, and Colorado Midland trainiac Tom VanWormer, we’ve discovered either three or four 'new' Harvey locations in Colorado —which the company ran from 1890-1895, the years the then-troubled Santa Fe owned the Colorado Midland," says Stephen Fried, One Nation Under Fred, a blog about all things Harvey.
"So we can now report there were Harvey Houses and Harvey Girls in: Cascade, Idyllwild and Leadville, and the Cascade house at some point in the early 1890s moved to the Woodland Park depot. This brings the number of Harvey locations in Colorado to 10. Fred had one of his pre-Santa Fe eating houses in Hugo and then beginning in 1879, was in La Junta, Pueblo, Trinidad, Palmer Lake (briefly, a lunchroom from 1899-1902) and then in Colorado Springs. The last Colorado Harvey House, El Otero Hotel in La Junta, closed in 1948," Fried says.
The Harvey House restaurant chain began in Leavenworth, Kansas, after entrepreneur Fred Harvey, left his native England at the age of 15 and found work in New York’s growing restaurant industry. "As the Civil War was brewing, he began working with the railroads, achieving more senior positions as he moved west. Despite his seniority, Harvey never forgot his restaurant roots and, recognizing the poor quality of food for rail travelers, decided to do something about it," says the film documentary, "The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound," by 2013 - Assertion Films, Los Angeles, Calif.
"In 1870, Harvey started a company designed to serve travelers throughout the Southwestern U.S. good food at reasonable prices in clean, elegant restaurants. The women who worked for these restaurants — the Harvey Girls — later became icons, themselves, playing an important role in World War II and helping to transform society's view of women's work," the film describes.
"The Harvey House company left its mark by not only providing work opportunities for women, but by promoting cultural diversity in the workplace. Harvey hired Hispanic and Native American women to be waitresses alongside their Anglo peers," according to the film.
In 1946, MGM turned the Harvey Girls into legend when they released the motion picture musical "The Harvey Girls" starring Judy Garland. This fictional Hollywood movie was the only film, until recently, to touch on their place in history.
"Judy Garland got one of her biggest song hits by accepting a film she didn't really want to do and had started out as another star's project in the first place. "The Harvey Girls (1946)" came about through the kind of happy accidents that only could happen in Hollywood," says Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide, in 2005.
"The story started as a novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams based on the real-life restaurant chain that had helped civilize the West. With waitresses of certified good character, the Harvey houses provided a reliable source of family dining for travelers in the Southwest during the latter part of the 19th century."
Maltin says MGM originally bought rights to the novel in hopes that it would inspire a dramatic film for rising star Lana Turner. Then associate producer Roger Edens saw a tryout performance of Oklahoma! in New Haven. He knew a hit when he saw it and realized that the trailblazing musical probably wouldn't be available to the screen for years (it wasn't filmed until 1955). So he came up with the idea of turning The Harvey Girls into a western musical at MGM, with Judy Garland as a high-spirited waitress. Only Garland wasn't interested," reported Maltin.
"She had wanted to work with Fred Astaire for years and thought a project Arthur Freed was developing for him, "Yolanda and the Thief (1945)", would finally give her the chance. In addition, her husband, Vincente Minnelli was directing it, and the two were trying to work together whenever possible. Edens convinced her that the female lead in Yolanda and the Thief wouldn't be a big enough role for her, and promised that "The Harvey Girls" would be built around her talents.
"It took eight writers to turn The Harvey Girls into a movie, with Samson Raphaelson, who had written some of Ernst Lubitsch's best films, tying them all together. The result was a showcase for Garland's comic, dramatic and musical skills, while also offering juicy supporting roles to deadpan comedienne Virginia O'Brien, sultry Angela Lansbury and a young dancer named Cyd Charisse, who had her first speaking part in the picture."
Best of all was the score by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, which included a tribute to the railroad that helped win the West, "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe." The number was inspired by Garland's hit from "Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)", "The Trolley Song," and like it was almost an instant hit. Garland recorded it on her own, but the top-selling version featured lyricist Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers. It held the number one spot on the hit parade for eight weeks. As was the custom then, MGM released the song to recording companies before the film was even finished. In fact, Bing Crosby's version of it was playing on the radio as director George Sidney drove to MGM to film the number. "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" picked up the Oscar for Best Song, the first of four awards Mercer would receive in that category.
The classic movie depiction probably has little basis in reality, but at least it helped us remembered that the Harvey Girls existed. Their accomplishments though undocumented, I am sure,  were made of hard work and sweat — instead of bricks, stone and newspaper articles.

By Rob Carrigan, rob.carrigan@pikespeaknewspapers.com







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