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Nevada’s original pinup girl

In 1939, Wolf Pack majorette Elsie Crabtree had the most famous ‘pair of knees’ in the country

By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal
Article from the front page of the Daily Appeal, Nov. 23, 1939.
Nevada Appeal file

Before glamorous Hollywood pinup girls such as Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner in the 1940s there was an exuberant, energetic, bouncy Nevada Wolf Pack majorette with the most famous knees in America.

Elsie Crabtree, the “blonde with more oomph than a sousaphone,” was a fresh-faced freshman who became a teen-aged Betty Boop with a baton almost overnight in the fall of 1939.

“She is blonde and beautiful, eyes as blue as Lake Tahoe,” the Nevada student newspaper, The Sagebrush, wrote in November 1939. “She is 17, teeth like pearls from over the sea, knees that are twin dimpled darlings, white as the snow atop Kumiva Peak.”

The Hollywood pinup girls would later motivate and keep the troops focused in World War II. But for a few months in the fall of 1939, the curvy, courageous Crabtree with the bounce in her step motivated the Wolf Pack football team and excited sports fans from Maine to Hawaii who couldn’t wait to see her next picture in their daily newspapers.

“Elsie is the spirit of Nevada,” Sagebrush editor Clarence Heckethorn wrote in November 1939. “She makes the (football) team come out from under a lopsided score with a grin.”

Crabtree, whose leggy photos featuring her starlet smile and flowing blonde curls appeared in hundreds of newspapers in November and December 1939, just might have been one of this nation’s first pinup princesses.

“I didn’t know I was that famous,” Crabtree said in late November 1939.

“Back in 1939 she had the most publicized pair of knees in the country,” the Shreveport (La.) Journal wrote in 1950.

The modest Crabtree was no stranger to publicity and public performances even before she arrived in Reno in the fall of 1939. Living with her aunt and uncle in Wilmington, Calif., while attending and graduating from Banning High, her name appeared frequently in the Wilmington (Calif.) Daily Press Journal.

She was among the guests at a 1938 Halloween party, she performed as a drum majorette at Banning Park in July 1938 and a month earlier she attended a barbecue dinner at a friend’s home. In June 1939, just days before going to live in Reno with her mother, she was the maid of honor, wearing a dotted red and white dress and carrying red gladiolas in the wedding of her friend Martha McKeever. In March 1939 she performed at the Wilmington Masonic Temple and in May 1938 she performed in front of the Business and Professional Women’s Club in Wilmington wearing a bright red and white uniform.

In January 1938 she appeared in a national newsreel (shown before movies in theaters) as a Banning High majorette. “Wilmington theater-goers were plenty surprised by the appearance of two local misses (Crabtree and Dorothy Schneider) in a newsreel film,” the Wilmington paper reported.

Elsie Mae Crabtree, never shy and reserved, simply loved performing. She performed in a July 4, 1939 American Legion parade in Reno just a week or so after moving to Reno to live with her mother.

A few months later she was as famous nationwide as Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind and Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz, whose iconic movies premiered that summer and fall. But, of course, her skirt was a whole lot shorter than that of Dorothy and Scarlett O’Hara.

“The Wolf Pack lost at San Jose State,” the Nevada State Journal reported in early October 1939, “but Elsie got all the applause. The Californians called her colossal.”

Most of Northern Nevada first became aware of Colossal Crabtree’s dimpled darlings on Oct. 21, 1939 during the Wolf Pack’s homecoming parade. That evening she was pictured on the front page of the Nevada Evening Gazette, leading the Wolf Pack band with an unforgettable strut and smile down Virginia Street. The photo of Crabtree, wearing a short skirt cut about eight inches above her knees, baton boldly in right hand, smiling proudly, was enough to make a young man, well, learn to play the tuba.

“The Nevada football team lost to BYU 7-0 during homecoming,” the Gazette wrote on Dec. 30, 1939, looking back on the sports year. “But the highlight of the university celebration was the first appearance of Elsie Crabtree, brief-skirted and strutting drum majorette.”

At that time Crabtree was mainly just Nevada’s guilty pleasure. It was difficult to garner attention, after all, strutting for a Wolf Pack football team that had not enjoyed a winning season since 1925 no matter how short your skirt.

But that all began to change when Crabtree and her baton, smile, curls, shapely legs and knees made an appearance at the Nevada Day parade in Carson City, celebrating the state’s 75th anniversary of statehood in 1939.

In the audience that day was University of Nevada Dean of Women Margaret Mack. Miss Mack, according to reports, had never been to a Wolf Pack football game that season and had never see Elsie’s talents.

Elsie Mae Crabtree, short skirt and all it revealed, high-stepped down the street, doing cartwheels and splits and wowed the standing room only crowd on each side of the street. Think Marilyn Monroe standing over a New York subway grate as a train passes by underneath 15 years later. Make no mistake, Elsie Crabtree was an enticing combination of Lana Turner’s allure and Shirley Temple’s pluck.

“Miss Mack was horrified,” reported a national wire story that appeared in most newspapers across the country on Nov. 3, 1939.

Everyone but Dean Mack seemed to be mesmerized watching Crabtree “prancing with her knees wearing white silk panties under her short blue skirt,” the Gazette reported.

“Elsie looks swell,” Reno police chief Andrew Welliver said.

A little too swell, according to Mack.

“The Dean stated that not only were the majorettes’ skirts too short, their white satin panties were too conspicuous,” the Evening Gazette reported.

Mary Margaret Murphy, Virginia Pozzi, Ivaloo Johnson and Marie Hursh were also Pack majorettes behind Elsie Crabtree that day in Carson City. But no newspaper was printing their photos or commenting on their knees.

“She (Mack) rung down the curtain on Elsie’s knees and the Wolf Pack’s greatest asset,” the Sagebrush wrote. “Dean Mack first glimpsed Elsie prancing up the street in breath-taking white silk scanties, short skirt and with her flashing knees the cynosure of all eyes.”

Nobody took their tired Depression-era eyes off Elsie Crabtree. But two days after witnessing the glory of Elsie’s assets, Dean Mack put her foot down.

Mack’s decree, apparently, was designed to keep the Elsie ogling to a minimum. The Wolf Pack drum majorettes, Mack said, were now required to wear underpants of blue (not white) down to two inches above the knee, a blue skirt covering the knee with no more splits and fancy strutting and had to keep their feet always on the ground. The story, written by Nick Bourne of the United Press, detailed the killjoy Mack’s new rules taken from right out of the 19th century.

Bourne’s national wire stories on Crabtree were always accompanied, it seemed, by photos of the Nevada majorette in all her leggy glory. And the nation’s newspapers couldn’t get enough of them.

The New York Daily News, South Bend Tribune, Indianapolis News, Los Angeles Times, Arizona Republic, Miami Herald, Minneapolis Star, Akron Beacon Journal, St. Louis Star and Times, Pittsburgh Press and Wisconsin State Journal represented just a handful of the well-read newspapers that obsessed over every Elsie story and photo.

United Press’ stories and photos (the Reno newspapers barely covered the Elsie phenomenon) created the perfect storm of publicity. Crabtree’s skirts weren’t any shorter than most majorette costumes in the late 1930s. But the conservative Mack’s ruling made it a national story.

The Santa Ana (Calif.) Register ran a huge photo of Elsie and her legs on its front page, directly under a headline to another story that read “Hitler Blasts Jews, Capitalists.”

One national photo of Elsie portrayed her sitting on the ground revealing her legs out of short shorts. Right in front of her on the ground was Wolf Pack football player Joe McDonald holding a football looking like Elsie had just tackled him.

“Or did you even notice Joe up there next to Elsie’s knees?” said the caption under the widely-used photo in the Akron Beacon Journal.

In another photo Elsie wore a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, shoulder-length hair and short skirt. Yet another photo had Elsie in a striking pose with her bare left leg lifted to her chest, holding a baton and smiling surrounded by smiling Pack football players.

All of the stories and especially the photos seemed to make a villain out of Nevada’s Dean Mack. Bourne’s UP stories portrayed Mack as “no football fan” and as “middle-aged and does not attend football games.”

The Ventura (Calif.) Star-Free Press even went so far as to say, “The nasty Dean of Women told Elsie Crabtree she could no longer lead the University of Nevada band in outfits like this,” next to an enticing photo of Elsie and her legs.

Margaret Mack had become the second Wicked Witch of the West after the first one premiered in the Wizard of Oz movie three months before. And the house that landed on her was all of the publicity that the United Press stories and photos generated.

Margaret Mack might have been a prude but she was also one of the first great educators in the state of Nevada. Raised near Dayton, Mack had been the Nevada Dean of Women since 1918. She was a former principal in Dayton and also taught at Reno High before getting hired as a professor of biology at Nevada in 1913. She received her master’s degree from Columbia University in New York.

“I’ve taught almost everything and everyone there is to teach in the state,” Mack told the Reno Gazette upon her retirement in 1942.

Six years before she tangled with Elsie, Mack witnessed a Wolf Pack football rally in 1933 where the male and female students wore pajamas. The next day Mack ruled that the men could wear pajamas but the women were now required to wear street dresses and were prohibited from wearing pajamas at rallies.

Mack, who was 68 years old in 1939, was born and raised in a vastly different era than Elsie, who grew up in Southern California in the 1920s and 30s. Born in 1871, Mack was raised in a very conservative era, especially for women. Women in the late 1800s were afraid to exhibit their ankles under stockings and boots and long dresses let lone bare their knees and thighs while doing cartwheels and splits in public streets.

The Sacramento Bee ran a photo of Mack at a Dean’s conference in Berkeley, Calif., in 1922 along with five other women deans. All six were pictured wearing huge hats, dressed from head to toe, carrying big purses and staring grimly at the camera. Mack basically dressed the same way in 1939 and until her death in 1945.

“I am not ashamed of my knees,” Crabtree told Bourne after Mack ordered majorette’s skirts to lengthen. “Thousands of people turn out (for football games) to see the show. So I show my knees and do cartwheels.

“I’m through. I quit. Can you picture Eleanor Holm (1932 Olympic gold medalist) swimming in flannels? The same goes for me. I won’t march unless I can wear my regular costume. If they want somebody with a long skirt to lead the band I’ll get my grandma.”

The story hit newspapers a day before the Wolf Pack was to play at Chico State. Elsie, to the dismay of the football team, did not go to Chico.

“The Wolf Pack went across the California border without band, without Elsie, without hope,” a UP story said.

“If the Dean must lower the curtain over Elsie’s knees, it’s curtains also for the Pack,” wrote Heckethorn of the Sagebrush.

“The band couldn’t toot, the students wouldn’t root so the Wolf Pack of the University of Nevada went off to battle unsponsored, unsung and unhappy,” wrote Bourne.

The Wolf Pack football team, most every story reported, needed Elsie’s knees.

“(Mack) does not understand that Elsie’s knees, prancing in unrestricted glory, swayed attention from the Wolf Pack’s too often miserable play,” a wire story said.

Louis Peraldo, the president of the Wolf Pack band, told United Press, “Without Elsie we (the band) would be playing flatter than a squashed oyster. Ask any musician. You have to have inspiration.”

There was nothing in 1939 like a sassy 17-year-old girl with bare knees and legs to inspire a student body. At a pep rally before the football team left for Chico, Nevada students staged a protest on behalf of Elsie. The football players promised to make stickers and placards to display all around Reno that said, “We want to see Elsie’s knees.”

“Knevada Kneeds Knifty Knees but Dean of Women Says ‘Kno!” blared a Pittsburgh Press headline.

Jim Coleman, in The Province newspaper in Vancouver, British Columbia wrote a column under the headline, “L‘Affaire Crabtree.”

“She is a tasty enchilada, her dimpled knees and twinkling toes have sparked the boys of Ole Nevada, to defeat their conference foes. Though this may sound like arrogant whimsy, the Wolves, perhaps, could sweep the land, if Mrs. Crabtree’s daughter Elsie was replaced by Sally Rand.”

Sally Rand was a burlesque dancer, who became famous for her feathers and fan dance during the Chicago World’s Fair six years earlier in 1933. Comparing a majorette to a burlesque dancer seemed to be making Mack’s point.

“Without Elsie’s knees flashing in the sunlight and standing out like ripe peaches in the snow, Old Nevada is a helpless, dejected crew,” a UP story said.

Another UP story reported on Nov. 4, 1939 that a representative of the Samuel Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood was on his way to Reno to “look up Miss Elsie Crabtree’s knees.” The studio, the report said, “became interested after reading a description of Elsie’s knees and general attractiveness.”

The Wolf Pack football team, even without Elsie’s knees as inspiration, went to Chico and won 3-0 on a field goal by Pat Eaton.

“If we would have had Elsie there we would have won by 30,” Eaton said after the game.

A committee of students then met with Dean Mack the Monday after the Chico game. By the next day Mack reversed her ruling. Newspapers across the country treated the story almost with the same excitement they exhibited when World War I ended.

“Elsie’s Knees Will Be Seen Again, Yeah!” screamed a headline in the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal.

The South Bend Tribune ran an alluring photo of Elsie under the headline, “Knees Win!”

Professor Theodore Post, the head of the Nevada music department, made the announcement outside in front of a crowd of students and Elsie. “The drum majorettes can now wear their skirts just a little above the knee,” Post said.

“What about Elsie?” the crowd asked.

“Elsie can wear her skirt a little shorter than the other majorettes because she is the chief drum majorette,” Post said.

There was joy in Packville once again. With that announcement, a UP story reported, “Elsie, in tight white sweater and red skirt, did a cartwheel on the lawn of the education building and excited students raced to the football field where a rousing ‘Fight, Wolf Pack, fight,’ greeted the news that “now we can see Elsie’s knees.”

A crowd of 5,000, the largest home crowd in Wolf Pack history at the time, squeezed into Mackay Stadium on Nov. 11, 1939 to see Elsie and the Pack take on Greeley (Colo.) State.

“The crowd came to see the glory of Elsie’s knees shimmering in their dimpled beauty with a pinwheel in every prance,” the United Press story reported. “Elsie pranced as she never pranced before with her head in the clouds and her feet on the ground.”

The Wolf Pack won 15-6 but “Elsie was simply scrumptious, so much so she stole the show from (Pack coach) Jimmy Aiken’s team,” Bourne wrote. “Elsie cavorted, kicked up her sneakers and whirled her baton to the delight of the team and the dismay of the Dean of Women.”

Elsie Crabtree was no longer just the Wolf Pack’s lead drum majorette. She was now a national celebrity, quite likely the most famous majorette in college football history. Immediately after the Greeley game she was rushed to the Reno police station where she was made an honorary member of the Reno Police Force and given a special badge. She then changed her Wolf Pack uniform into one of the Reno American Legion Posts Drum and Bugle Corps and led an Armistice Day demonstration.

Five days after the Greeley game a wire story reported that Lloyd’s of London had insured Elsie’s knees for $50,000. Lloyd’s, which already gained notoriety for insuring various body parts of actress Marlene Dietrich, would insure Betty Grable’s legs for $1 million four years later.

Elsie Crabtree’s life turned into a whirlwind over the final six weeks of 1939. The first stop of the Elsie’s Knees Tour was the prestigious Hollywood Christmas parade in late November that also included appearances by Jack Benny, Dorothy Lamour and Gene Autry in front of a quarter million people.

“Elsie can cartwheel along Hollywood Boulevard in as short a skirt as she cares to wear, the invitation said,” wrote the New York Daily News next to a photo of Elsie in shorts with her left knee pointed to the sky.

Crabtree, though, ran into a buzz saw in Southern California. It turns out there were plenty of alluring knees in Southern California with egos to match.

When Elsie’s plane from Reno landed in Los Angeles, she posed on the steps of the plane leading down to the runway in full uniform, wearing “a maroon and silver satin tight-fitting blouse, brief skirt with white boots and white satin shorts,” Nick Bourne reported, “with her bare left leg raised high, baton in hand, with a big smile.”

When Crabtree arrived to lead the parade the next evening, however, the other majorettes refused to talk to her. They then refused to march behind her. Leading the opposition was Gwen Smith of nearby San Pedro, Calif., who had won the 1937 California state majorette contest in Long Beach. She also won a contest in 1937 in New York and had worked with the famous USC Trojans band. The other majorettes that evening in Hollywood wanted to march behind Stith and not Crabtree. A compromise was reached. Stith led the jealous female majorettes in the parade while Crabtree led a male band.

“Elsie’s Knees Ire Hollywood Parade Girls,” said an Oakland Tribune headline the next day.

“Elsie’s knees received only sneers from 50 bare-kneed girls who claimed their knees were prettier than hers,” a national story reported.

“Elsie’s Knees Get Knocking in Hollywood,” a New York Times headline read.

Before Crabtree left Hollywood she told the press she was off to Butte, Montana “where a girl and her knees will be treated respectfully.”

Crabtree performed in Butte at halftime of a football game between the Reno town team called The Eleven Old Men (made up of former Pack players) and a team from Montana. When she arrived at the Butte airport she posed for photos with Miss Butte Agnes Jean Edwards. The two pretty young women both lifted up their skirts a few inches and smiled as photographers snapped photos.

“Elsie snuggled between a couple of burly linemen on the Reno bench and watched her team lose 21-0,” the Butte newspaper reported.

Elsie and The Eleven Old Men then headed to Salt Lake and Ely for games before returning home to Reno.

“My mother was a little alarmed at my traveling with a football team but I pointed out I had 16 chaperones,” Elsie said.

Elsie’s next trip was to Bartlett, Texas, where she would perform at the Doll Bowl parade in the middle of December. Before leaving for Texas, however, Crabtree again made national news.

The Associated Press announced its Female Athlete of the Year on Dec. 12, 1939. The winner was tennis player Alice Marble, who had just won Wimbledon. But the shocking news was that Elsie and her knees finished tied for eighth. Crabtree even finished ahead of famous swimmer Esther Williams in the voting.

That very same day news broke out of Reno that Elsie had left the University of Nevada. All of her traveling in the last month caused her to lose valuable classroom time and, well, got in the way of her appearances. Crabtree, heading to Bartlett, Texas, “waved good-bye to the Reno folks with a rhinestone-studded baton, perched her dimpled knees on the back of the airliner chair in front of her and watched the propeller’s whirl,” wrote Bourne.

In anticipation of Crabtree’s arrival in Texas, the Austin American wrote, “Twas the night before Elsie came and all through Bartlett every creature was stirring and beaming with delight. Veteran businessmen and young men alike were blushing in anticipation of their first look at those famous knees.”

Crabtree was supposed to take part in a Dimpled Knee Contest while in Bartlett, an idea concocted by the Bartlett mayor. But the women of Bartlett protested the scandalous contest two weeks before Elsie arrived and got it cancelled.

“Down came the heat of the housewives, 600 strong, knitting needles clicking furiously, into the mayor’s office,” the Austin paper reported. “A dimpled knee competition in Bartlett had been advertised but no local contenders showed up. Elsie’s knees were the only double attraction. There were no Bartlett pairs.”

Elsie’s knees, though, were more than enough entertainment in Bartlett. “I really didn’t have to see Elsie in action to understand why the Nevada student body protested when the dean put a ban on that cute little blue skirt,” wrote Wilbur Evans of the Austin American, yet another American male sportswriter brought to his knees by Elsie‘s charms. “But when Miss Crabtree came on the field I made a note to write Dean Margaret Mack to commend her for changing her mind.”

The end of 1939 found Crabtree back in Southern California where she would lead the Santa Ana Frolic Parade. After the parade at midnight Elsie appeared in a vaudeville show with her knees and baton.

There were no jealous majorettes in Santa Ana like there were in Hollywood a month earlier. Crabtree was interviewed on radio and was presented a bouquet of roses from the Santa Ana Junior Chamber of Commerce president. “Elsie’s knees filled stockings like Santa Claus never did,” wrote the Santa Ana Register on Dec. 28, 1939.

There was a rumor while Elsie was in Southern California the final week of 1939 that she would march in the Rose Bowl parade. That rumor ended when Elsie was sent a note from the Rose Bowl committee that their event “was a floral festival and such things as knees are incidental,” the San Bernardino paper reported.

Elsie’s knees were changing sports in the United States. The Philadelphia Inquirer did a story in early January 1940 on the phenomenon of female sexuality now in the sports world.

“In a way these drum majorettes and figure skaters and cheerleaders are bringing to outdoor sports something of the atmosphere of the girlie show,” said Dr. Edward E. Haravy. “But it is a wholesome good thing they bring us. We have been ready for this fresh, healthy enjoyment ever since we emerged from the early 1920s. The drum majorette, the scantily-clad girl skating star and the feminine cheerleader who is long on eye appeal though a bit short on shorts is filling an emotional need.”

Crabtree led a parade in downtown Reno during the movie premiere of “Virginia City” in March 1940. Thousands of Northern Nevadans greeted a train from Hollywood that carried Humphrey Bogart, Lillian Bond, Leo Carillo, Bruce Cabot, Errol Flynn, Jane Wyman and other Warner Brothers studio stars. The Reno Evening Gazette reported, “Crabtree, the vivacious coed, amazed the crowds with her rhythmic marching and intricate baton twirling.”

Crabtree enrolled at the University of Nevada once again in August 1940. She appeared at Moana Stadium that same month before a women’s softball game and two months later she appeared at halftime of an Eleven Old Men football game at Moana. Wolf Pack football star Marion Motley served as one of the officials. She also appeared with Motley at a Reno Young Democrats party in November 1940.

In December 1940 United Press did another story on Crabtree with a different angle. “Elsie’s new interest is in engineering” the headline said. The photo that accompanied the story showed Elsie, the only female enrolled in engineering at Nevada, peering through a surveyor’s telescope while wearing a conservative dress that fell far below her knees.

“I think it is perfectly sensible for a girl to study civil engineering and what’s more I intend to work at it,” she said.

Crabtree would spend about two years as a University of Nevada student. In March 1941 she enrolled at Compton Junior College and later that September she got married in Reno to Willard Hand, an ammunitions depot employee who was stationed in San Francisco.

In April 1945 Elsie enrolled in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) after working for two years as an employee of the Nevada state highway department. Before that she was a draughtsman for Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach, Calif., and also worked in 1942 in the blueprint department of the Harbor Boat Company in Southern California.

So, yes, Elsie was more than just a young girl with daring young legs and knees. She was smart, bold, motivated, driven, determined, enterprising and ambitious. And if all those things also required one to show a little knee, well, so be it.

In 1966 she was the guest of honor at a reunion of The Eleven Old Men in Reno. The knees that captured America’s imagination in 1939 were now 44 years old. Elsie in 1966, reported the Nevada State Journal, was a widowed mother of three, living in Tucson (since the late 1940s) and an employee of the Tucson water department.

That fall of 1939, though, when her knees became as famous as Jane Russell’s low-cut blouse in the movie “Outlaw” a few years later, wasn’t soon forgotten.

A 1981 cartoon called Sport Day, published by Columbia Features, ran in hundreds of newspapers on Nov. 3, 1981, 42 years to the day that Dean Margaret Mack of Nevada told Elsie to lengthen her skirt. The cartoon pictured four provocative cheerleaders and baton twirlers in very short skirts.

“A ruling today (Nov. 3) by the Dean of Women at the University of Nevada,” the cartoon’s caption read, “didn’t have long-lasting or far-reaching effects.”

Elsie Crabtree wouldn’t allow it.