At the edge of stardom’s glow
History/Show BizA colorful character

At the edge of stardom’s glow

Lou Bolton was one of the great hustlers in Pittsburgh show business.

Throughout his career, Lou Bolton worked contacts in the Jewish community of Pittsburgh to organize gigs, such as “Every Sunday Nite at 8” at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House in June 1937. (Image courtesy of the Rauh Jewish Archives)
Throughout his career, Lou Bolton worked contacts in the Jewish community of Pittsburgh to organize gigs, such as “Every Sunday Nite at 8” at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House in June 1937. (Image courtesy of the Rauh Jewish Archives)

The Show Boat was a floating nightclub, moored near the Sixth Street Bridge. In early May 1930, federal agents paid a visit. Undercover, of course. Inside, they found a speakeasy and casino. There were hundreds of patrons, most wearing evening dress.

The agents returned a few weeks later, this time with search warrants. “Don’t be alarmed. It’s just a Federal raid,” they said, according to the Pittsburgh Press. “Leave your liquor where it is and get out. If you try to take the booze along, we’re going to search you.”

As part of the fallout, a court “padlocked” the Show Boat for a year. There was a way out, though. The owners could sell the ship if the new owner posted a $1,000 bond. Lou Bolton saw an opportunity.

Bolton was in show business. He ran a theatrical school for kids. It was the “Our Gang” era, and Bolton’s school was spritzed with the faint promise of stardom for those lucky few that had the goods. He bounced around a lot, following opportunity to New York or Chicago, even Europe. He returned to Pittsburgh in 1929, as he later testified under oath.

Bolton gave the Show Boat a coat of green and white paint, redecorated the interior, and reopened in late August 1930, in partnership with Joe Hiller. “Dine and Dance where the billowy Allegheny flows,” they wrote in a Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph advertisement.

Opening night was a hit. Pittsburgh Press entertainment columnist Si Steinhauser attended the first show. He counted 1,000 people on board and another 200 on the dock.

By spring 1931, Bolton’s name disappeared from Show Boat ads. He was spending time on different ventures. That summer, he staged a “miniature musical” at the Alvin Theater called “Main Street to Broadway,” written specifically for a cast of 200 local children.

Bolton also opened a new dance studio for children in the Aldine Building on Liberty Avenue, where the August Wilson Center currently stands. He already had a school in Johnstown, opened the previous year in partnership with Harriet Kelly. She had been volunteering as his receptionist for years in return for free classes for her children, who had an amateur act called “The Five Kellys.” She ran the office, and he taught the kids.

Bolton got sick of the trips to Johnstown and turned the instruction over to Harriet’s son Gene Kelly. By 1931, the school was the Kelly family’s primary source of income.

Congregation Beth Shalom hired Bolton in early 1932 to produce its springtime Kirmiss dance festival. Bolton split town again, his name appearing in Hollywood newspapers.

Gene Kelly took over the Kirmiss, successfully. It led to a six-year stint in the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill, a short but deep relationship that ended only because Kelly left for Broadway in 1938 and then for Hollywood, where he was briefly its brightest star.

Bolton returned to Pittsburgh again in the fall of 1933. He reopened his studio in the Aldine Building, touting his time in Hollywood as proof of his star-making potential.

In early May 1934, Bolton published an odd letter in the Pittsburgh Press. Sounding simultaneously altruistic and self-serving, he called on Pittsburgh to create a free dance school where local children could develop “self-confidence, poise, courage, and other attributes so essential in the character and make-up of successful citizens of a community.” He volunteered his services to anyone who would lead the initiative.

A few months later, in May 1934, Bolton was called to testify before the New York State Supreme Court. It was a plagiarism case brought by a jazz singer named Helen Kane against Fleischer Studios and Paramount Publix Corp. Kane claimed the studios had stolen her look, voice, and act to create Betty Boop. Specifically: her “boop-oop-a-doop.”

Bolton was a witness for the defense. He had managed a child performer in Chicago in the 1920s named Lil’ Esther. She also sang scat. Bolton testified that Kane had attended a Lil’ Esther show months before recording her famous “I Wanna Be Loved By You.”

As part of his testimony, Bolton was asked to describe Lil’ Esther’s style of scat singing.
“Give us as nearly as you can how they sounded?” the Judge asked.

“I could do it better if I had rhythm with it,” Bolton said.

“Give the sounds,” one of the defense attorneys said.

“Boo-did-do-doo,” Bolton said.

“Were there other sounds besides the one that you have just mentioned?”

“Yes, quite a few.”

“Will you give us as many as you can remember?”



“There are quite a few—‘Lodd-de-do.’”

“Any others that you recall?”

“Sounds like a time she would make a sound like sort of a moaning sound, finished off with ‘de-do.’”

“Any others?”

“That’s all.”

The relationship with Lil’ Esther soured in the late 1920s, seemingly over Bolton’s management practices. That might be why he returned to Pittsburgh in 1929. There was a pattern: He always came back here to regroup after rough patches in larger markets.

Post-Gazette Columnist Charles Danver once shared an anecdote about Bolton that neatly captures the producer’s style. At the depths of the Great Depression, in 1934, Bolton “had a good time Christmas walking around the Triangle and distributing 350 pennies he accumulated during the year, handing them out to every panhandler and beggar he met.”

Here was a man at the far margins of fame, giving a shiny gift, of no particular worth or consequence, to every sorry soul he met — possibly out of kindness, possibly for the story. PJC

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at or 412-454-6406.

read more: