The last time the DNC was in Philly was 1948. Here's what it was like
Inquirer File Photo
Clipping from the July 13, 1948 Inquirer. The clip shows delegates and visitors gathered at the 1948 Democratic National Convention.
The Democratic National Convention's return to Philadelphia calls for a look back to the last visit.
By Sherman Hewitt / Staff Writer, shewitt@philly.com
Monday, July 25, 2016

It took 68 years, but it’s finally back: The Democratic National Convention returns to Philadelphia to decide the party’s 2016 presidential nominee.

The city has beefed up security, cleaned the sidewalks, and renovated the convention’s main venue like it did in 1948, but the Philly of today is surely different from the Philly of ‘48.

Outside the politics of the time, how different was Philadelphia the last time thousands of delegates and visitors descended upon the city?

Convention Venue

The DNC in 1948 took place in Philadelphia Convention Hall, which was at 3400 Civic Center Blvd. from 1931 to 2005, when the hall was demolished. Anyone going to that address today would find the University of Pennsylvania Health System's Perelman Center For Advanced Medicine, which opened in 2008.

 
 
Inquirer File Photo
A full page from the July 12, 1948 Inquirer. The page outlines the state seating chart for the convention.

For the 1948 convention, the city raised $250,000, which equates to about $2.5 million in 2016 dollars. With that cash in hand, and help from other sources, the city provided the amenities listed below. All information was found in Inquirer articles published prior to the convention, and this list does not represent everything afforded to the event.

Facts from the Convention
50 large fans were commissioned to cool the AC-less Convention Hall. They were used to mitigate the heat from large lights required for television and newsreel coverage.
$67,000 was spent to improve acoustics so that speakers could be heard clearly in any part of the auditorium. Ceiling and walls, an area of 30,000 square feet in total, were sprayed with asbestos.
200 “specially selected detectives and patrolmen” joined Philadelphia’s 4,500 officers. Of the extra 200, 50 were detectives from other major cities with knowledge of their own “underworld” characters who might try to disrupt the convention.
120 telegraph circuits, with a capacity of more than 5000 words a minute, were set up.
250 television experts from the era's major networks were sent to help manage the effort. At the time, Philadelphia homes only had about 25,000 television sets. About 0.4 percent of all homes in the U.S. had a TV in '48.
Baseball

The last time Democrats gathered in Philly for a convention, two baseball teams vied for the city’s attention: the Phillies and the Philadelphia Athletics (now the Oakland Athletics).

The Phillies have been around for a while, established in 1883. According to the Phillies website, the team is the “oldest, continuous, one-name, one-city franchise in all of professional sports.”

Founded in 1901, the A’s haven’t had the same claims to fame. The franchise has had three homes: Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Oakland. The longest stay so far has been in Philadelphia for 54 years, followed by Oakland for 48, and Kansas City for 13.

 
Inquirer File Photo
Phillies pitcher Dutch Leonard (right) tags Braves' Jim Russell in a picture published in the April 21, 1948 edition of the Inquirer. The Phillies beat the Braves 3-1. In 1948, Leonard had a WAR of 5.9, the highest in the team that year.

If you were to look at the teams’ stats at the time, it’d be hard to tell how the Phillies came out on top in the end.

The Athletics were the “dominant franchise in the city. The Phillies had always been the minor league of the two Philadelphia baseball teams. Nobody cared about the Phillies,” said Frank Fitzpatrick, an Inquirer sports columnist.

 

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That dominance would see a slide in the years after. From 1949 to 1954 — the Athletics’ last year in Philly — the team would have four losing seasons out of six. The team, finally sold, found its next home in Kansas City. The Phillies would go on to play in (and lose) the World Series to the New York Yankees in 1950.

 

 

“Just at that moment when teams were starting to move around, the A’s were down, but the Phillies started to go up," Fitzpatrick said. "When they decided that Philadelphia wasn’t big enough to have two teams, it was the Phillies – the traditional loser – that ended up surviving.”

Compared to today’s Phillies though, the ‘48 team looks pretty similar in some regards. Both teams performed either around or below MLB averages.

 

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“I think that — and knowledgeable fans realize it — we’re at a point where we’re going to have to suffer at least a couple more years before they get to a point where they’re even considered to be a contender,” Fitzpatrick said.

Basketball

The Oakland-based Golden State Warriors lost the playoff finals in 2016. When the Democratic National Convention last came to Philly in 1948, a similar loss occurred, but the Warriors played for a different city: Philadelphia.

Established in 1946, the Philadelphia Warriors played in the Birthplace of America until 1962, when Franklin Mieuli, a radio and television producer, bought majority ownership of the team. He moved the team to the West Coast, where they’ve been ever since.

Wikimedia Commons
Philadelphia Warriors Joe Fulks (No. 10) watches as Paul Arizin (No. 11) dribbles by him. During the 1947-48 season, Fulks led the league with the most points scored per game (22.1). Arizin joined the Warriors in 1950.

Once the Warriors left, it wasn’t long before Philly got a basketball team again. Philadelphia investors in 1963 bought the Syracuse Nationals (established in 1949) and moved that team to Philly. A contest was held to decide the team’s new name: the 76ers, named after the year 1776.

Philly’s basketball scene has had better years, with 1948 being one of them. That year, the Warriors were the Eastern Division champions, the first time in the team’s history. According to a March 21, 1948 Inquirer article, the Warriors took home $2,400 in prize money split between team manager Eddie Gottlieb and the 14 players. That’s about $24,000 in 2016 dollars, a time when whole-team awards can reach millions.

 

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Today's 76ers, however, haven't had a similar situation. While the 1948 Warriors finished first in their division, the 76ers finished in last place.

"The 76ers have a much bigger presence than the Warriors ever were, but they’re far down on the city’s radar at the moment because they’ve been so bad for such a long time now,” Fitzpatrick said.

The Warriors finished the 1947-48 season with a 27-21 record. The 76ers, much less successful, finished the 2015-16 season with a 10-72 record.

 

 
Football

In their entire 83-year history, the Philadelphia Eagles have a 19-21 playoff record, with three championships. The 1948 Eagles, at a high point in the team’s history, achieved the very first playoff victory for Philly. This win topped off a year of major events in the city.

Led by quarterback Tommy Thompson and future Hall of Famers running back Steve Van Buren and receiver Pete Pihos, the team defeated the Chicago Cardinals 7-0 during a Philly blizzard. The Eagles' record would ultimately end 10-2-1.

“Neither snow nor slush nor floodlighted gloom nor the vaunted defense of the Chicago Cardinals could stay the Philadelphia Eagles from the swift completion of their self-appointed quest of championship,” said a December 20, 1948 Inquirer article recapping the event.

Inquirer File Photo
A clipping from the December 20, 1948 edition of the Inquirer. The clipping shows Eagles running back Steve Van Buren scoring the game-winning touchdown against the Chicago Cardinals.

The 1949 season would see another NFL title win by the Eagles. This would be the first and so far only time the Eagles would win back-to-back championships.

Today's Eagles, however, may not have as bright prospects. Frank Fitzpatrick, an Inquirer sports columnist, calls the team's offensive qualities "questionable."

“It’s been a grind these past couple of years. We haven’t had a lot of sports success in Philadelphia," he said. "We’ve got a city with such passionate, crazy fans and teams that don’t warrant that kind of passion most of the time. It’s kinda odd."

The modern Eagles ended the last season with a 7-9-0 record, finishing second in the division and missing a playoff appearance.

 

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Movie Theaters

Mastbaum. Fox. Earle. Stanley. These names today may not be familiar, but in the Philadelphia of 1948, these theaters signified a night of big-screen entertainment for regular city folks and political delegates visiting for the Democratic National Convention.

Howard B. Haas, a local moviehouse historian, described these theaters as “glamorous movie palaces,” where locals in their best attire would nightly go to watch films.

“Outside, each looked like a Greek temple with ornate columns. Each had a marquee advertising the movie that was being shown,” he said. “Inside there were lobbies with marble and with crystal chandeliers. Each theater had a huge auditorium that sat between two and three thousand seats — except for the Mastbaum, which sat almost 5,000 and was the eighth largest movie palace in the U.S.”

 
Photo courtesy Friends of the Boyd, Inc.
1952 photo showing both the Boyd and Aldine theaters on 19th Street and Chestnut.

At the time of the convention, delegates and locals could catch what would be some of the year’s largest grossing movies, like Easter Parade and The Emperor Waltz. Even an Alfred Hitchcock film, The Paradine Case, played at the Boyd theater.

Inquirer File Photo
A clipping from the July 12, 1948 edition of the Inquirer. The clipping shows movies showing at theaters around Philadelphia.

At the same time, theaters courted the city’s visitors with air-conditioned auditoriums, something not yet universally available in Philly’s venues. Even Convention Hall, where the DNC occurred, didn’t have air-conditioning, according to a 1988 New York Times article.

Today, all these theaters and more have either been demolished or closed. The ‘50s brought about a time when more homes in the U.S. had personal televisions, reducing attendance at theaters.

Former locations of Philly's top theaters

 
Music

One thing that 1948’s DNC delegates found in Philly was a lively music scene, either specially made for them or already part of the city.

The convention itself featured a 65-piece band led by Howard Lanin, a “king of society jazz” according to Jack McCarthy, project director at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Lanin, based in Philadelphia, led society bands during the time and played for millionaires all around the country.

Inquirer File Photo
Howard Lanin, pictured in an Inquirer obituary published April 28, 1991.

Lanin was appointed director of music for the convention, according to a July 12, 1948 Inquirer article. Musicians in the band were recruited from all over the country, including Philadelphia’s own Selma Guerra, one of the “world’s leading saxophonists.” At the time, her presence and that of other women in the band was considered “an innovation.”

Music played during the convention included state songs and favorite tunes of the event’s speakers. According to Lanin, President Harry S. Truman’s pick was “Tales from Vienna Woods.”

Outside Convention Hall, Philadelphia had an active music scene, especially when considering jazz. Philly artists such as Lanin and Jan Savitt, a Philadelphia Orchestra violinist who pivoted toward leading big bands, were very popular in the late 1940s, while future jazz greats, such as John Coltrane, Benny Golson, the Heath Brothers, and Jimmy Smith, found their sound.

“You had all these great, great jazz musicians that were coming up and coming of age in Philadelphia in the late 40s,” McCarthy said.

Popular jazz venues were located throughout the city. A string of clubs along Cecil B. Moore Avenue in North Philadelphia gave the area the nickname “Golden Strip.” It was a place where McCarthy says jazz was “streaming out of all the doors and windows.” The Earle theater, which is now the CVS Pharmacy on 11th Street and Market, was the “grand dame of Philadelphia theaters” according to McCarthy.

Though Philly has a "really rich musical tradition," today's jazz scene doesn't quite reflect its heyday in the late ‘40s to early ‘60s.

“Philadelphia is still producing really important jazz musicians,” said McCarthy, naming bassist Christian McBride and guitarist Kevin Eubanks as examples. Though Philadelphia jazz clubs, such as SOUTH on North Broad Street, still exist, “[The jazz scene] is vibrant, but not as vibrant as it was in its heyday,” said McCarthy.

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