Arrests lead to theatrical performances and many encores on the streets of Southern California – Press Enterprise

It was an enchanting display of humanity on the streets of Pomona a century ago when a man in torn clothes entertained the bystanders with his beautiful voice.

Suddenly that good feeling seemed ruined that day in 1922 when a policeman arrested him for begging.

To the rescue came Smith Russell, manager of the Belvedere Theater, who stopped the police officer from locking him up. Instead, inspired by the homeless man’s impressive voice, Russell unceremoniously hired him to perform on the Belvedere variety stage.

And the story was made even warmer and more engaging because the transient – one James Gordon – revealed that he was on a honeymoon and that his new wife would accompany him at the piano, the Pomona Progress reported September 23, 1922.

Sure, it might seem a bit strange for him to be on his honeymoon, but no one felt compelled to question that. The Belvedere even promoted Gordon – dubbed “The Hobo Songster” – and his wife for their upcoming performances. Spectators, some drawn by the charming way in which he had been “discovered,” crowded the theater and reveled in the pair’s talents.

A real feel-good story.

This advertisement was printed in the September 29, 1922 Pomona Bulletin.

But wait—a few days later, an even more amazing coincidence happened. Gordon was singing on Pine and Broadway in downtown Long Beach when a police officer showed up and arrested him, just like in Pomona. Remarkably, Gordon was again rescued by the Liberty Theater manager. The police officer was persuaded to release him so he could perform on the theater’s variety show that week, the Long Beach Telegram reported Sept. 29.

And it was déjà vu again in January when – you guessed it – Gordon was arrested for singing on the streets of the Alhambra, only to be rescued by the Alhambra theater manager and for the next night’s vaudeville programme to get engaged.

Even 100 years later, it’s fairly easy to see that these were early publicity stunts that boosted business for Gordon’s upcoming (and already arranged) gigs in every city. It was amazing to find newspaper articles in as many as a dozen western cities where he was arrested for singing in the streets, only to be saved at the last moment by local theater managers.

My guess is that the theater manager slips a few tickets to a friendly policeman to fake the arrest in each city. And probably the newspaper was also involved in the charade. Neither Gordon nor his wife Arelyn Snelling — who married on a stage during a show in Sacramento more than 14 months before they came to Pomona — have likely never seen the inside of a prison cell.

Gordon – known as “Hobo Songster” or “Hobo Caruso” – was actually a very accomplished singer in West Coast vaudeville theaters, performing songs about “Hoboland” and other vagabond experiences.

And the stop in Pomona wasn’t even his first time in Southern California. Six years earlier, Gordon headlined a number of variety theaters in Los Angeles. On June 25, 1916, according to the San Bernardino News, “the Tramp Caruso” even performed in a free variety show at Urbita Park in San Bernardino.

The last mention I could find of Gordon and Snelling was in 1924 when they brought their musical skills to Florida. But there were no reports of them using the old “arrest and rescue” publicity stunt routine.


HE Jewell of Pomona was caught up in an early road riot in the township of Puente when a car flew erratically past him in June 1933. Determined to give this driver “a good yell,” he tracked him all the way into Ontario before making him stop.

Jewell spared no words or volume to give the driver an assessment of his poor driving skills, the June 22 Pomona Progress bulletin said.

Jewell had brought down Jedd Sawyer, the legendary Upland police chief.

After being berated by Jewell, Sawyer arrested him for “strong language”. Judge JF Hamilton later let Jewell get away with a warning.

empty pockets

You have to give the Redlands Board of Trustees, the early city council, a thumbs-up for a solid financial judgment 125 years ago this month.

The Redlands Facts of March 25, 1897, reported on the previous night’s trustee meeting and concluded with a declaration of inaction.

“Since there was no money in the treasury,” wrote Facts, “no bills were paid.”

Joe Blackstock writes about the history of the Inland Empire. He can be reached at or Twitter @JoeBlackstock. Check out some of our past columns at Inland Empire Stories on Facebook at


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