The “People’s Mayor” or “political chameleon”? From his flamboyant, convention hall swearing in during a “howling snowstorm” in January 1936 to his indictment less than three years later, Philadelphia’s mayor wielded power with flair. As historian John Rossi put it: “Hardly a week passed that didn’t witness some dramatic gesture” on the part of Philadelphia’s Mayor S. Davis Wilson.
He battled in the courtroom and in the Press with the city’s privately owned utilities, claiming the people were being robbed. “I’m going to wipe out the whole system” he boasted in a hallway argument with a young Richardson Dilworth, lawyer for the PRT (Philadelphia Rapid Transit) before promising to punch him in the nose.
(“Like hell you are,” Dilworth replied, as he shed his coat. “I’d like to see you try.”)
Wilson grabbed headlines every which way: luring the Democratic Party to bring their Presidential convention to Philadelphia, convincing organizers of the Army-Navy football game that Philadelphia should be their city of choice and the Philadelphia Orchestra to produce pop concerts. He urged the Mummers to reschedule their New Year’s Day parade to a more spectator-friendly time of year. And just for the sake of yet one more headline, Wilson offered the position of superintendent of Philadelphia police to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Wilson seemed everywhere—and was, with his name “stenciled on all kinds of city property” from “traffic lights to trashcans,” earning him another nickname: “Ashcan Wilson.”
As his first year in office came to a close, Mayor Wilson attended the revue “New Faces” at the Forrest Theatre. Actors portrayed the former and current first ladies, Mrs. Hoover and Mrs. Roosevelt, haranguing Girl Scouts “on the delicate subject of babies.” Wilson walked out.
“It’s a damnable outrage, to poke fun at the President’s wife!” exclaimed the Mayor. “Take that skit out – or I’ll stop the whole show,” he demanded. It didn’t seem to matter that “New Faces” had run for months in New York without complaint, or that the First Ladies actually appreciated the humor.
“Either the skit goes,” demanded Wilson, “or the show does.”
The skit went.
Theater critic Linton Martin worried what Wilson’s “attitude and its enforcement could and would do” to Philadelphia’s stage. Several productions of recent years would have been shorn of their smartest and most smarting shafts of satire…”
Martin and Philadelphia’s audiences didn’t have to speculate for long.
Wilson again acted as the city’s official censor on the eve of the opening of “Mullato” at the Locust Street Theatre. Langston Hughes’s play held the record for the longest running Broadway production by an African-American (before Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin In The Sun”). At the New York opening in 1935, critic Brooks Atkinson called “Mulatto” a “sobering sensation.” Anticipating its arrival in Philadelphia, The Inquirer described the play as “a melodrama of miscegenation in the South” telling the story of “a wealthy Southern planter who philanders with his housekeeper” and sends “his four Mulatto children…North to be educated. The Yankee environment instills in them the spirit of equality, so that when they return to the plantation they antagonize their family and neighbors.” Advertisements promised a “darling drama of sex life in the South.”
“It will probably cure no ills and provoke no race riots,” wrote Percy Hammond, somewhat prophetically. And not once did “Mulatto’s” 373 performances in New York or its three month-run in Chicago stir the hint of a riot. But that’s what Mayor Wilson claimed to fear in Philadelphia.
“The show won’t go on,” declared the mayor, claiming “Mulatto” was “an outrageous affront to decency.”
“As long as I am mayor,” Wilson remarked to The New York Herald Tribune, “I will not permit such shows in Philadelphia.” He sought confirmation from his “special censor group” which previewed an edited version of the play. “Mulatto” producer Jack Linder assured the censors and the Press that “many changes have been made” and “the objectionable features have been removed.” One critic wondered whether enough “soap and water has been applied to make it safe for Philadelphia consumption.”
The mayor’s censors came in with a tie: 3-3. One publicly criticized Wilson’s last-minute ban as “stupid and unfair” and was relieved of her duties. Wilson stuck to his original decision and posted police at the entrances of the darkened theater.
“Mulatto” found audiences elsewhere, as close as the Garden Pier Theatre in Atlantic City the following August. And two years later, after Wilson’s death of a stroke, the play’s producers attempted again to bring “Mulatto” to the Philadelphia stage, this time at the Walnut Street Theatre. But Wilson’s successor invoked the earlier decision and debate continued. As the courts considered the ban, the Reverend Marshall L. Shepard, compared “the play’s possible importance to that of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’” He couldn’t understand “why the play should provoke rioting. It only depicts the truth.”
Wilson’s censorship stood. And from what we can tell, Langston Hughes’ “Mulatto” has yet to have its Philadelphia premiere.
[Sources Include: “Race Problems in the South the Theme of ‘Mulatto,’ a ‘New Drama’ by Langston Hughes. By Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times, October 25, 1935; “The New York Theatre,” by Percy Hammond, The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 3, 1935; “The Call Boys Chat: New Faces,” by Linton Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 15, 1936; “Wilson and Lawyer Near Fight Over P.R.T.” The New York Times, February 4, 1936; “Mayor Plays Gallant, Bans Girl Scout Skit,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 10, 1936; “The Playbill,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 7, 1937; “Mayor Won’t Yield; Show Fails To Open,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 9, 1937; “Philadelphia Halts The Play ‘Mulatto,’” The New York Times, February 9, 1937; “Mrs. Favorite to Lose Job on Theatre Censor Board,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 10, 1937; “Censors Tie On ‘Mulatto,’” The New York Times, February 11, 1937; “The Call Boy’s Chat: Revues In This Land of the Free-for-All,” by Linton Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 15, 1936; “The Call Boy’s Chat: Taking the Dare Out of Dubious Drama;” by Linton Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 14, 1937; “Indict Mayor of Philadelphia in Vice Inquiry,” Chicago Daily Tribune; September 10, 1938; John P. Rossi, “Philadelphia’s Forgotten Mayor: S. Davis Wilson, Pennsylvania History, Vol. 51, No. 2 (April,1984); Joseph McLaren, Langston Hughes, Folk Dramatist in the Protest Tradition, 1921-1943 (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997).]