Pert, pretty, talented Captain Rheba Crawford was sent to reopen the New York Times Square Corps in 1921. The daughter of Colonel and Mrs. Andrew Crawford, later Western Territory Chief Secretary, she had grown up in the glamour, growth and excitement that marked the Army of those days. The organization’s popularity had been greatly enhanced by the ministry of the Doughnut Girls in France, immortalized in popular songs and at least one movie.
At the very peak of this popularity, 22-year-old dynamic Rheba arrived on the scene and captured the heart of Broadway. She had a magnetic personality and a flair for oratory that held young and old alike. Her slight
lisp only seemed to add to her attractiveness. During Salvation Army camp meetings at Old Orchard, Maine, throngs at the pier listened in rapt attention as she preached. When she learned that no meetings had been
scheduled for children, she initiated a Sunday school, and scores were spellbound by her dramatic Bible stories.
The gifts that made her an instant success at Old Orchard worked the same magic at Times Square. Her open-air meetings, conducted from the side steps of the Gaiety Theater on 46th St., were crowd-stoppers.
Five to six thousand gathered nightly to hear her gospel messages. On one occasion, she was arrested for obstructing traffic, and a furious crowd stormed the police station seeking her release. Walter Winchell, the famous columnist who had been influenced by her ministry, intervened and the case was dismissed.
This involvement with the law only increased her popularity. Her autographed photo was hung in shops throughout the Times Square area. The crowds attending her outdoor and indoor meetings included people from show business, the characters immortalized by Damon Runyon in his “Guys and Dolls” stories: girls from the Tenderloin area, dancers from Tex Guinan’s night club, New York’s underworld, casual tourists, the “down-and-outs,” and the “up-and-outs.”
When an open-air crowd became unruly, a Catholic priest appealed to the crowd: “I’m inclined to believe that wayward members of my own flock who listen to her may return to our church better members than before.”
Certainly many who came out of curiosity remained to pray, and there were dozens of converts. Damon Runyon based one of his short stories about Times Square characters on Rheba, thinly disguising her as Captain Sarah Brown of the “Save a Soul Mission.” In the 1950s this story formed the basis for the musical, “Guys and Dolls.” The gambler, Sky Masterson, did get converted, as many did under the exciting ministry of the real-life captain, but Rheba never indulged in the antics portrayed in the musical.
After her marriage, Rheba Crawford Spilvalo continued with a successful evangelistic ministry and later served as director of the California State Department of Social Welfare.
She did use the “extraordinary” means advocated by William Booth, preaching the saving grace of Jesus Christ to a desperately needy area of New York, with singular and dramatic success. She well earned Winchell’s description, “The Angel of Broadway.”
(Adapted from a War Cry vignette by Commissioner Edward Carey (R).