The Eyes Have It
By Marvin Mayer
How many of you, my readers, remember the 1956 hit song, Standing on the Corner, as recorded by The Four Lads? In case you don't recall the song or if you are so young you never even heard it, here are some of the key lyrics: "Mister, you can't go to jail for what you're thinking, or for that 'woo' look in your eye. You're only standing on the corner, watchin' all the girls, watchin' all the girls, watchin' all the girls, go by!" As if to underscore the boy/girl implications of the song, the "Lads" toss in a wolf whistle or two. It was a lively and entertaining song, selling millions of copies while it climbed to or near the top of the "pop" charts.
As popular as the song was in the mid-50's, it may have been banned in Tyler if introduced in 1919. The prim and proper citizens of Smith County's largest city passed ordinances against, among other things, "making goo-goo eyes!" Specifically, the ordinance, passed on December 31, 1918 stated:
"Sec. 6. That hereafter it shall be unlawful for any male person in the City of Tyler to stare at or make what is commonly called "Goo-Goo Eyes" at, or in any other manner look at, or make remarks to or concerning or cough, or whistle at, or do any other act to attract the attention of any woman or female person in, upon, or traveling along any of the sidewalks, streets, public ways, or any other public place in the City of Tyler, with intent or in a manner calculated to annoy or attempt to flirt with such woman or female person.
A law against looking at girls? Get real!
But Tyler wasn't the first Texas city to embrace such an ordinance. Apparently, Houston adopted a similar law nearly 13 years earlier.
In case you can't read the small print below the cartoon image of the blindfolded man, it reads, "Just because he made those goo-goo eyes, the Copper pinched a chap about his size;
In defense he said a cinder made him wink his winward winder, but the girl he winked at called it goo-goo eyes." The verse below the baby carriage is, "Just because they make those goo-goo eyes, Western women stare in mild surprise; Texas law may call it vile, but New Yorkers only smile-And they keep right on a-making goo-goo eyes."
A song, written by John Queen and Hughey Cannon was a Vaudeville hit and may have been the origin of the term, goo-goo eyes. This song, shown below, preceded Houston's ordinance by several years.
Political cartoonists and song writers aside, lawmakers had taken their task seriously. When drafting Tyler's ordinance, they gave it some "teeth." Anyone convicted of making goo-goo eyes faced potentially severe penalties. The final section of the ordinance is shown below:
"Sec. 7. That any person who violates any* of the terms of this shall be fined in any sum not more than $200."
At least for a while, the police and courts rigidly enforced the new ordinance
What exactly is meant by the term, goo-goo eyes? Returning to the fine print in the political cartoon above, one finds Judge Kirlicks in Houston laid down this description: "… the term 'goo-goo eyes' … meant any contortion, unusual movement or any fixed unusual attitude of the eyes, providing the said contortion, unusual movement, or unusual fixed attitude is made with the intent of attracting, alluring or conjuring the attention of any woman or female, as the ordinance recites. It will be noted that such eyes, if made at an infant in arms, provided it is of the gentler sex, is unlawful upon the streets of the city. A stare is a "goo-goo," if it is committed in intent; a wink accompanied by intent is a "goo-goo;" likewise the cocking of an eye, ogling, making wide eyes, all come within the broad sweep of the term 'goo-goo,' if accompanied by intent."
Timing is everything! Not only was it a big hit and a popular activity for guys to watch all the girls go by in the mid-1950s, but if the song had been introduced 40 years earlier, it may have landed the composer, the musicians, the Four Lads, and some of their male fans in jail! (Wink, wink!)
I want to thank and acknowledge Vicki Betts for allowing me to reproduce the images throughout this article, and utilize parts of her script from a talk she presented to the Smith County Historical Society in late 2013. Ms. Betts invested a great deal of time and effort researching the ordinances referenced herein and assembling her research to form the basis of her presentation, and I am most grateful to her for allowing me to use it to write this article.
*In subsequent articles, I'll discuss some of the other issues address in the ordinance.