Black History Month 2019: Show Girls

Black History Month 2019: Musical Collections from the National Museum of African American History and Culture



As Black History Month rolls along here in the Transcription Center we have even more projects from the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) focusing on the Smithsonian’s Year of Music. Part of the music domain includes nightlife and nightclubs, which were often the centerpiece of musical life during the first half of the twentieth century.  Sisters Laura “Laurie” Cathrell and Sally J. Cathrell Jr. were both involved in New York’s nightlife scene, one as a showgirl and the other as a publisher of magazines featuring famous musicians and dancers of the time.


The Cathrell sisters were born in St. Louis, Missouri, to Walter B. Cathrell and Sally B. Cathrell, owners of The Cathrell Printing Company. Laurie’s career on stage began when she won a beauty contest in St. Louis. In 1929, she joined the “Shake Your Feet” company on a United States Tour. [1] When she returned to St. Louis, Laurie joined the dance troupe at Club Plantation. Modeled after the infamous “Cotton Club,” the audience at Club Plantation was largely white even while the entertainment was all African American. Famous musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and many others played at the club. [2] After her run there, she began performing at the real Cotton Club in Harlem, New York, at only twenty-one years of age.



Image: Lara Cathrell and the Ensemble of the Harlem Uproar House, 1937.Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2013.46.25.3



Laurie’s sister, Sally J. Cathrell Jr., was named after their mother. Unlike her sister, Sally followed in the footsteps of their parents, and made a career in publishing.  Sally took a different path as a show girl and created “The Show-Down” magazine, which was devoted to nightclub life and entertainment.  In volume 1, number 1, “The Showdown” magazine is described as "a monthly publication, which caters to theatricals exclusively." The magazine featured night club reviews, show reviews, and features on performers. The magazine mainly covered New York, Indianapolis, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, and St. Louis.



Image: The Show-Down vol. 1 no. 1, November 7, 1935. First issue of Sally Cathrell’s “The Show-Down” with image of Laurie Cathrell on the cover. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2013.46.25.73


The National Museum of African American History and Culture has a collection of photographs and magazines belonging to the Cathrell sisters. Included in the collection are photographs of various showgirls, including Laurie Cathrell; Harlem nightlife performers and musicians, including Gladys Bentley, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong; and seven copies of Sally Cathrell’s “The Show-Down” magazine that we look forward to transcribing this month.





[1] “Interpretive Dancers Visit Here,” The Evansville Argus, October 28, 1939 Accessed 1/7/2016.