The “Zoot Suit Riot” from the 1997 Cherry Poppin’ Daddies hit refers to the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 — when white American servicemen stationed in Los Angeles declared war on local Mexican American (and some Black and other minority) youth. The riots got their name from the outfits popularized by Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington and favored by stylish young Angelenos of color: long jackets, pleated baggy pants, a fedora or porkpie hat, and long watch chain.

The U.S. entry into World War II in 1941 led to a strict rationing of materials, and the soldiers — fueled by racist media reports depicting Latinos as hooligans — declared the suits unpatriotic and wasteful. From June 3 to June 8, the attacks involved thousands of sailors and civilians marching down streets, clubbing and stripping zoot suiters, who in turn fought back.

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The riots even made The Hollywood Reporter‘s front page. “The ‘war’ spread yesterday to Long Beach, where a crowd of sailors staged a ‘commando raid’ in the downtown theatrical section,” THR reported. “A bunch of gobs” — slang for sailors — “spotted a zoot-suiter in the [movie] house and chased him on the stage, where, in full view of the audience, they proceeded to strip off his peg-topped pants.”

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The Theatre Defense Bureau called an emergency meeting. But the riots subsided after the Navy and Marine Corps declared L.A. off-limits to all soldiers, though their official position was that their men had acted in self-defense.

This story first appeared in the June 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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