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Saturday, 19 May 2012

Whatever happened to "The Angel of Broadway"? by Carol M. Hultin

Rheba Crawford's 1st cousin, twice removed.

Rhebe Crawford was born Irene Rebecca Crawford on February 14th, 1898 in Milwaukee,WI. She was the daughter of Salvation Army Officers and as such, it was not surprising that she dedicated her life to God at an early age. Rhebe went to primary school in Sacramento, CA. and graduated from the North Ave. Presbytarian School in Atlanta, GA.  She attended Columbia University and also studied post graduate work under Prof. Wolff, a graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford, England.

During WWI Rhebe became a cub reporter in Atlanta, GA.  However, she felt God’s call and entered The Salvation Army Training College in New York City, NY. Her first appointment was to St. Petersburg, FL. Rhebe’s next appointment was to National Headquarters in New York City, as a writer and the Editor of "The Young Soldier", a children’s publication of The Salvation Army.

Rhebe was then sent in charge of The Salvation Army work in the Theatrical District in New York City. It was said "Producer George M. Cohan, who had heard her preach, asked The Salvation Army to station her nightly at 46th and Broadway".  Though still in her early 20's she became known as the young Salvation Army Captain whose street corner sermons had taken the Broadway cynics by storm.

Whether it was her winsome appearance or the message she spoke, Rheba soon began to attract large crowds and the news reporters dubbed her "The Angel of Broadway". Because of her beauty she received many movie and stage offers which she turned down for preaching. Zigfield was quoted as saying "I haven’t seen a better looker in any chorus this season". The famous news reporter Walter Winchell once said "she was an inspiring speaker and had the best looking legs this side of the Mississippi". Winchell's good friend, reporter and writer, Damon Rungon wrote a story about her, leading to the creation of one of Broadway’s most successful productions "Guy's and Doll's".

It was said "she was an actress in her own right, charismatic, memorizer of oratory with a flair for the dramatic". Nearly every restaurant in the area displayed her photo on the wall along with many famous actors. She became very good friends with the Barriymors, the Shuberts and George M. Cohan. Her Sunday evening Open-Airs held on the steps of The Gaiety Theatre, were said to attract over 1,000 listeners every week.

On October 28th 1922 she was arrested for "obstructing traffic", which inspired a riot when the police took her into custody. Rhebe was told she must discontinue her meeting. She replied "I have been holding meetings on this spot for the last two years and I refuse to stop". The officer who took her into custody was followed all the way to the station by a belligerent crowd.  The charges against Captain Crawford were afterward changed to "disorderly conduct". Bystanders admitted they could see no reasonable grounds for the charges. The charges were dropped and she was released. She won a decisive moral if not legal victory.
Rheba suffered a nervous breakdown afterward and went on furlough. She went to stay with her father, Colonel Andrew Crawford, who was the Divisional Commander of The Salvation Army in San Francisco, CA.  In January of 1923, she tendered her resignation from The Salvation Army. It was rumoured that Evangeline Booth was irritated by Rheba's popularity and that she was effectively forced to resign.  Rheba said "she did not blame The Army.  It is The Salvation Army standing policy to avoid dispute and to frown on personal publicity".

Rheba then decided to become an Evangelist and started conducting a series of evangelistic meetings at The First Congregational Church of San Francisco.  It was said she was becoming "a feminine Billy Sunday". She then went back to Jacksonville, FL.

By the spring of 1924 she was one of the most famous women in America.  Her only peer on "The Glory Road" was Aimee Semple McPherson of The Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, CA.
Rheba launched a 10 day crusade at Confederate Park Tabernacle which had been built for Billy Sunday.  It was said by many different reporters:  "She is young, full of life, vigorous in body, mind and heart".  She has a striking personality and a brilliant mind. She is a wonderful orator with fire and conviction".  "She is a human dynamo of Christian observance".  "She is just a person with a wonderful personality and is giving to the world that personality in a wonderful way".
Rheba Crawford, the Angel of Broadway

In Jacksonville it was said: "Rheba Crawford was here, there and everywhere".  She was at the Kiwanis Club with Lt. Commander Ellis Zacharias, the Navy Intelligence Officer who would go on to become the man to induce the Japanese surrender in WWII.  She headlined the April Follies midnight show at The Palace Theatre with Mayor John T. Alsop.

It was in Jacksonville, April 1924 she met and married J. Harold Sommers.  Her husband was a veteran, crippled in The First World War. He had however gone on to become a very prosperous businessman in St Petersburg, FL. In September of 1928 she separated from her husband, who then sued for divorce on the grounds of desertion. She said "she found she was unsuited to home existence and wanted to resume preaching". During the separation she went back to San Francisco to preach.

In Feb. of 1930 she surprised everyone with the announcement she was going to wed Raymond Splivalo, a wealthy San Francisco Broker, Clubman and Polo Player. His grandfather had established one of the earliest shipping lines from San Francisco to the Orient.

She had been divorced by her first husband on the grounds she paid more attention to her religious work than to her home. Splivalo had just been divorced by his first wife on the grounds he was too absorbed in Polo and other sports. Her father, Colonel Andrew Crawford, did not attend the marriage ceremony because he was in the hospital.  He was one of the 130 people poisoned by "bad chicken" while attending a banquet at The Young Peoples’ Conference of The Golden Gate Division of The Salvation Army. Rheba said of Ray, "He was one of the most gracious, charming men I have ever known and his love was one of the real, great gifts God has given me".

As Mrs. Splivalo she was actively engaged in welfare work.  It was said "She was tremendously well fitted for welfare work. She has kindness and understanding".  She once said "I always want to fight for the people who can't fight for themselves and speak for those who are inarticulate".

In January of 1931 Rheba Splivalo was appointed by Gov. Jones Rolph Jr. as Director of the California State Dept. of Welfare. Impatient with red tape and bureaucratic delays, Rheba harried The Legislature making friends and enemies. Rheba jumpstarted California's Relief Program and her accomplishments caught Sister Aimee Semple McPhearson's attention.

Rheba Crawford had followed Sister Aimee's career with admiration verging on wonder since 1917. During that year the young Salvation Army worker was driving through Florida when she saw Aimee driving stakes for her revival tent. Rheba was impressed with Amiee's determination so she stopped and emptied the money from her purse into Aimee's hands, said “God Bless You” and drove away.

Welfare work in Los Angeles and Sister Aimee's similar Salvation Army backgrounds brought the two women together.  Aimee needed help with her preaching schedule and the two women formed a working relationship. However, it was said the two Evangelists did not get along.
 
In 1933 Rheba was forced to resign her State Director post because the newspapers reported that a contract existed between her and Sister Aimee, saying Rhebe would receive $600 a month as Associate Preacher at Angelus Temple.  While Amiee was on the road in the States, Rheba would occupy the pulpit and manage the radio station.  When Aimee came home Rheba would disengage herself from Temple affairs.  While Aimee was abroad her daughter Roberta would manage the affairs of the Temple.

Roberta Semple and her grandmother Mimmie Kennedy watched Rheba with growing concern.  Rheba did a good job filling the Temple and getting money, but she gave fiery sermons from the Temple platform, including making attacks on the government for condoning gambling, prostitution and drug trafficking.  After numerous flare ups with Rheba, Aimee asked the board to fire Rheba. Aimee was reported to have said "Evangline Booth had dismissed Rheba from her Salvation Army position because she would not tolerate grandstanding from her subordinates and I am beginning to feel the same way".

Rheba was ousted from The Angelus Temple.  Aimee's daughter Roberta was also having trouble with her mother and decided to sue her. Rheba also launched a $1,000,000 slander suit, charging that Aimee had called her among other things a "Jezebel".

Rheba's marriage to Splivalo ended in 1937 with his death following a trip to Honolulu.  The trial for slander was one of the most famous trials in Los Angeles and lasted for several years. Finally the lawyers and the Judge reached an agreement, that because of the fame of the two Evangelist and the nature if their work, both parties would be better off to agree to dismiss. Rheba gave up the pulpit at the Angelus Temple and went on a speaking tour.

Ill fortune then began to pursue Rheba and on July 30, 1941 she appeared at the Los Angeles County Bureau of Assistance and declared herself a pauper.  The bureau agreed to grant her $19 a month. If this was unsatisfactory she could enter Rancho Los Amigos the county poor farm. Rheba accepted neither alternatives later explaining that she found "unexpected means of support". For the next few years she spent most of her time in various hospitals undergoing a series of operations.

Then in 1944 she said "I got back on my feet again, a  little like my former self before those terrible years of tragedy and illness".  She did war work and preached in San Diego for a time. Then returning to Los Angeles she was made Coordinator for the Los Angeles County Dept. of Senior Citizen Affairs.

 In 1944, she was summoned by her attorney to his Los Angeles office. He was stumped, a client of his was being held in an El Centro, CA. jail on a false accusation and no one seemed willing to help the unfortunate man.  Could she help the accused man the lawyer inquired?  The twice married Evangelist, social worker and one time "Angel of Broadway" said she would try. She then went to El Centro and their encountered Arthur Lawrence Lambertz, wealthy Imperial Valley Rancher and Agricultural Contractor.  He came to her aide.  Together they got the accused man out of jail.

Although it could hardly be called glamorous, that first meeting between them led to a romance, then to their marriage in Santa Barbara, CA.  It was Rheba's 3rd marriage. Rheba recalled at the time of their first meeting "He was hot, tired, dusty and mad.  He was changing a tire in the sweltering heat and flatly told her he had no use for reformers.  He said they were terrible people, but she changed his mind". Following her marriage to Lambertz she said "she just wanted to be his wife".

At the age of 69, on January 8th, 1966 she died in Los Angeles, CA. of complications following a meningitis attack.  Her husband Arthur Lawrence Lambertz died 2 months after Rheba's death, in his sleep.  He had suffered from heart problems.  The announcement of the death of the "Angel of Broadway" appeared in almost every newspaper in the United States and abroad.

Sources:

Crawford Family History
San Francisco County Biographies
The New York Times 1922
Oakland Tribune 1923-1927
The Sheboygan Press 1930
The San Mateo Times and Daily News 1931-1966
"Human dynamo" lifted evangelism to new heights. The Florida Times-Union April 12, 2000. Author: Bill Foley
Red Hot & Righteous - Diane H. Winston
Aimee Semple McPhearson - Matthew Avery Sutton
San Antonio Light April 18, 1948
Star News Pasadena, CA.  1966
The reading of many articles from newspapers all across the United States.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great job Carol and very interesting! What a lady!!!

Rich Campbell said...

Carol - Great article on our 1st cousin twice removed! You did a tremendous amount of research on Rheba, and found details that very few in the family knew about. This puts her life into perspective beyond the little that most of us knew about beyond the Guys and Dolls and preacher on the street corner in New York City. Thanks so much for putting this together.
Rich Campbell

Anonymous said...

Fascinating! Rheba would make a terrific subject for a full biography!