Camera Rolls: 314:11-12
Sound Rolls: 314:06-07
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Sam Yorty , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on January 30, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
OK, ready? OK, tell me what was it like during the Depression.
Well, during the Depression, it was a very difficult time, because there was so much unemployment, so much poverty, and they didn't have all the relief things they have now. And, of course, I was caught right at the time, because I was trying to go school, and I had to quit school and work a while. And I remember an old friend of mine with a big bag of beans, that was all he could get for relief, he's go on the street and try to get a job, you know. You had corners where they could get all lined up and wait for someone to come by and give them a day's work. I remember he used to go down there and try to get a day's work. He showed me a bag of beans one time, he got, that was his relief.
Was there any kind of safety net for people in those years?
Well, there weren't any safety nets in those days. I don't think anybody ever heard of them.
OK. Can you tell me—why do you think that Upton Sinclair was popular at, at that time?
Well, because he said he was going to, Upton Sinclair was popular then because he said he was going to end poverty in California, and that sounded pretty good to most people, particularly those who were impoverished. But, of course, he admitted he was a socialist. But he didn't run as a Socialist, he ran as a Democrat. And he really took over the Democratic Party, and, and caused a lot of confusion.
You were a Democrat at that time. What did you think about him? Were you upset with him? Did you—what did you think?
Well, well, at that time, I didn't know what to think, because
I'd always been a Democrat, particularly a Woodrow Wilson Democrat, and Upton Sinclair didn't stack up with that kind of people. So I didn't know what to do. I, I couldn't go out and support him, even though he was a Democrat.
OK. You went to some EPIC meetings. What were they like?
EPIC meetings were big mass meetings in those days.
** I think they used to charge ten cents to get in. And he took in quite a bit of money at ten cents each, because people didn't have any money, and ten cents was ten cents then. So, they, people were, you know, on the street trying to get in. It was amazing the, the crowds that he drew.
And wasn't it kind of unusual at that time that he charged admission to a political rally?
Well, in those days, I don't think they'd ever charged admission to get into political rallies. They were trying to get people there. But they were glad to come for, Sinclair's followers were glad to come pay to, pay to, pay to get in and see him.
Why did, but why did they pay with, did they pay because they felt they were part, you know, that, that, he had no money coming in from any place else, and this was the reason, you know, that they needed everyone to contribute? Was it that kind of feeling?
With, were you concerned at all about the future of the Democratic Party at that time? I guess there were two things going on. One is that he, I, I think that Upton Sinclair brought a lot more Democratic voters in, and helped the, you know, there were more Democrats at that time. Were you concerned at all about what the Democratic Party was going to be like later because of Sinclair? Or that, did he revitalize it or did you feel he made it too much to the left?
Well, we were all concerned about what he was doing to the Democratic Party, because nobody knew exactly what was going to happen. The state had been a primarily Republican state, and so he did bring a lot of people out to vote, to vote for him, and I don't know how many of them remained Democratic, but in those days he made a big difference.
I'm sorry. Can you tell me a little bit of that again by saying who "he" is? If you say "he," and sometimes it references—
Upton Sinclair caused, caused a lot of confusion in the Democratic Party, because he admitted he was a socialist, and most of the Democrats were not socialist. And so they didn't know what he was going to do to the party and what was going to happen in the future.
** And they were afraid if he got elected he might be the last Democrat to get elected.
What did you think about Merriam as a candidate?
Well, I, I knew Merriam because I served under him up at the legislature.
No, we're talking about before you served, in 1934, when Merriam was running for governor. Do you remember him at all as a candidate?
Well, I don't remember Merriam as a candidate very well, but he was a candidate of big interest. In those days, the Hearst papers, and Los Angeles Times, the Oakland Tribune, could get together and decide who they wanted to win in California, and they all stuck together, and they could really control the state. So they were all for Merriam. And most of us were not.
Do you remember Sinclair one time said if he was elected, half of the unemployed in the United States would flock to California? Do you remember that statement?
Well, I don't think Upton Sinclair, Sinclair ever made the statement that half the people in the United States would come to California, but that was propaganda put out against him. And it really carried over, because I think it was really true. End poverty in California, all the impoverished people would want to come here.
Did you vote for Sinclair?
Well, frankly, I don't remember whether I did or not. I don't know if I voted for him or not.
Do you think that if, were you aware at that time that Roosevelt, that he had, that Sinclair had gone to Hyde Park to try to get Roosevelt's support, and that Roosevelt didn't really give him his support? Were you aware of that happening at the time?
Well, I wasn't aware that Sinclair ever went to Roosevelt trying to get his support. But, of course, Roosevelt would not support Sinclair, because Roosevelt was really a Democrat, and he wouldn't support a socialist.
If Roosevelt had come out for Sinclair, would that, do you think you would have voted for him?
Would that have affected your decision?
I think if Roosevelt had campaigned for Sinclair—
It would've affect—
[production discussion][cut] [slate marker visible on screen] [change to camera roll 314:12]
OK, let's go. We're [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] talked before, I was asking you that if, if, if Roosevelt or kind of any of the Democratic establishment had really come out for Sinclair, would have affected the way you would have thought of him as a candidate?
Well, I think if, if Franklin Roosevelt had really campaigned for Sinclair, he could've been elected, because Roosevelt was so popular, and to be on a ticket with Roosevelt and have his backing was a [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] to be elected.
Personally, do you feel it would've affected your vote? Would, would you—
Well, it might have, because I was a great admirer of Franklin Roosevelt after he got up and said, "We have nothing but fear of fear itself." I remember I was on my way to my job as a motion picture projectionist, which is one of the things I learned to do during the Depression. And I remember how that inspired me, and I, I'm sure it inspired a lot of people.
OK, and, and just, just to finish up the answer, this is something we talked about a little bit in the pre-interview. You had, Roosevelt had said that vote for, you know, come out in, in favor of the EPIC plan, do you think you would have voted for, would have that made you want to vote for Sinclair?
Well, if Roosevelt had come out for Sinclair, it would have made a lot of us want to vote for him. Whether we would have or not, I don't remember now, but it certainly would have been influential.
You told me before that the, that the platform was called "Upee and Downey," and that was kind of a new thing to you.
Well, it, the platform was not "Upee and Downey," that's what we called it, because Sheridan Downey had been an Assistant District Attorney in Denver before he moved out here, and he ran for Lieutenant Governor with Sinclair. [NOTE: Sheridan Downey was actually the District Attorney of Albany County, Wyoming.] And they came, it became known as "Upee and Downey." And of course Downey was later elected to the United States Senate.
What did it mean to be a Democrat in 1934? What, what, what, what was the, what did the party represent to you?
Well, the party represented the, the sort of underdog, you know, the people who were striving to get ahead, and labor was the big part of the Democratic Party, still is, and labor was much weaker in those days than it later became. So to be a Democrat was just to be on the side of the people.
Tell me a little bit about the Townsend movement. What, what was it about? Why did you get attracted to it?
Well, Dr. Townsend was a, a medical doctor in Long Beach, California, and he saw that technology was improving our production abilities so much that we were really overproducing and causing prices to go down, and that we needed consumption. So he said, "Let the old people retire from the working force and become consumers, and give them," I think, "$200 a month at the age of 60 or 65." I've forgotten which one now. But he said, "They'll consume, and let the other people produce." And it made a lot of sense, and it just took the country by storm. The whole United States was up practically on its side, and it was so strong that Roosevelt had to do something about it. And I think that's how Roosevelt got the idea of Social, Social Security, was to give people something to look forward to in old age.
OK, great. Why do you think Townsend pushed, you said Frank Townsend pushed Roosevelt, can you explain that a little bit more?
Well, he, he was so powerful politically.
Who, who is, who is he?
Well, I'm talking about—
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] Try again, OK.
Dr. Townsend was so popular politically, and what he stood for made so much sense to people, that I think Roosevelt wanted to reelected, of course, he always did, had to do something about that problem of the old people. And Dr. Townsend had a good answer.
We just had a camera problem, so can we just do this again, about Roosevelt, why, why Townsend pushed Roosevelt to enact Social Security on more time? Sorry. OK, we're ready.
Well, Franklin Roosevelt was very popular in those days, 1933 and '34. And Dr. Townsend was very popular, too, and became politically very powerful, because so many people believed in what he was doing and what he was saying. So I think Roosevelt realized he had to do something of, for the old people who had no safety, they had, right, no social security of any kind. So I think he developed Social Security as a compromise to prevent the Townsend plan from just taking over.
You were a young person then. Why did the Townsend plan matter to you? Or, why did Social Security matter to you? You wouldn't be affected by it; it was something that was affecting older people.
Well, I wasn't thinking personally. Of course, I was having a hard time like everybody else was, but I think the Depression, we knew that something needed to be done to get people out of the Depression, out of those bad circumstances. And anything that held out hope was useful, but particularly to get the old people consuming and not have them producing. That was a good idea.
The, some people said the Townsend Plan wouldn't work. Did you feel it would work?
Well, I, I think it has worked, in the, in the sense that old people are not now just dependent on working or losing their job when they need security. And the Social Security is not as great as the Townsend Plan would've been, but the, it's been a very good plan.
OK. Did you ever [coughs], do you remember the atmosphere in any Townsend meetings that you went to, what it was like?
Well, I went to a lot of his meetings, and I went to his conventions after he wasn't so popular. And he had a big following, and he was a very honest man, and spoke very forcefully, and not a great orator, but with a great, great will power. And he influenced a lot of people, and they were all for him.
You feel like, so you feel like that Townsend kind of challenged, one of the challengers to Roosevelt?
Challenged him to do more.
Well, I think Dr. Townsend certainly challenged Roosevelt to do more for the poor, poor old people. And he did more, and I think he did partly because he had to do something, because Townsend had made people aware of the fact that they could be consumers without being producers.
OK, great. Can we cut for a moment?
What were movies like in those days?
Well, there were good movies and bad movies. But MGM was a big producer then, and, for, theaters couldn't make a contract, and, to run MGM movies. They couldn't, couldn't, couldn't run the really good movies, because they're mostly MGM.
But, were they, were they real, were movies real popular, were they, did people go to the movies and kind of escape? Did they go to be entertained?
Well, they went to the movies for the same reason they do now: to be entertained and to escape for a while. And so, and of course in those days they didn't have any sound, you know. They had to flash on the screen what they were saying. And the, some of the great actors in the silent film couldn't make it in, in the talk films.
Let's stop for a second. Yeah, that was a little bit earlier. By that time, there was sound. OK.
Well, no, I read the first—
You probably, when you were working as a projector—
Why were you interested in politics? What did that mean to you?
Well, because, I was interested in politics because I had always been interested in politics. I remember when I was a little kid we lived next door to a lawyer, and I wanted an ice cream cone one time, and told mother if she'd give me a nickel for the ice cream cone, when I'd grow up and be a lawyer and get her, get her one. But that, when I was in the junior high, it was one year, experimental, in Lincoln, Nebraska. The teacher asked us to write an essay, what we want to be, and I wrote about wanting to be a politician. I remember my teacher, Mrs. Rum, struck that out and put "statesman" in there.
OK, great. I think we're done. Anything else you'd want to say on the subjects we've been talking about?
No, not on the subjects.
OK, great. Cut.
[end of interview]