Broadway Soap Stars

Lux Toilet Soap was launched in the United States in 1925 by its British parent company, Lever Brothers, which had been making soap since 1899. To capture the hearts and pocketbooks of American women, the company launched an advertising blitz that featured advertisements in a number of magazines including the New Yorker.

We look at two issues this week: March 17, 1928 cover by Peter Arno / March 24, 1928 cover unsigned, probably by Ilonka Karasz.

The earliest ads appealed to upscale women who saw the French as arbiters of taste and style. In the following Lux ad (from the Feb. 5, 1927 New Yorker), note that every paragraph and headline includes the words France or French:

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The big blitz came in 1928, when Lux pioneered the use of female celebrity endorsements on a mass scale. The campaign focused more on the roles played by Broadway and movie stars than on the product itself. The March 24, 1928 issue of the New Yorker featured these ads splashed across two center spreads.

The captions I have provided below the ads give brief information on each actress. Note that many of these actresses did stints with Broadway’s popular Ziegfeld Follies. Most also had long lives, including Mary Ellis, who lived in three centuries, sang with Caruso, and died at age 105.

Click Images to Enlarge

LEFT TO RIGHT, TOP TO BOTTOM: Marilyn Miller (1898-1936) was one of Flo Ziegfeld’s top talents and one of the most popular Broadway musical stars of the 1920s and 30s; Ada May (1896-1978), a theater actress most of her career, in 1927 played a lead role in Ziegfeld’s Rio Rita; Mary Eaton (1901-1948) was a leading stage actress, singer and dancer in the 1910s and 20s. She was featured in three editions of the Ziegfeld Follies; Helen Morgan (1900-1941) was considered the quintessential torch singer. A draped-over-the-piano look became her signature while performing at Billy Rose’s Backstage Club in 1925. She performed with Ziegfeld Follies in 1931; Helen Hayes (1900-1993) was called “the First Lady of American Theater.” Her awards included the EGOT– an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony; Adele Astaire (1896-1981) was part of popular act with her brother, Fred. After the 1931 Broadway revue The Band Wagon she retired to marry Lord Charles Cavendish and moved to Ireland’s Lismore Castle; Violet Heming (1895-1981) was a dependable Broadway star with many theatrical credits; Hungarian-born Mitzi Hajos (1889-1970) specialized in musical comedy but faded from acting in midlife; Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990) got her start as a model and “Ziegfeld Girl” before going on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. She made 85 films in 38 years before turning to TV; Madge Kennedy (1891-1987) appeared in dozens of films from Baby Mine (1917) to Marathon Man (1976). She had a recurring role on TV’s Leave it to Beaver as Aunt Martha; Nydia d’Arnell was a musical comedy actress. Almost no record of her after 1928. She died in 1970.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT, TOP TO BOTTOM: June Walker (1900-1966) was the first actress to portray Lorelei Lee in 1926’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Mostly stuck to the stage; Mary Lawlor, (1907-1977) was active on Broadway 1922-32; Judith Anderson (1897-1992), later awarded British title of Dame, was considered one of the world’s greatest classical stage actors; Mary Ellis (1897-2003) was star of the stage (including opera with Caruso) as well as radio, TV and film. Best known for musical theater, she performed into the 1990s and died at age 105; Wilda Bennett (1894-1967) was a Broadway musical comedy star in the 1920s whose career quickly faded. Appeared in 9 films between 1914 and 1941, mostly uncredited; Polly Walker (1904-1983) also faded quickly from the stage in the early 1930s, appearing in just 2 films; Mary Nash, (1884-1976) was a noted stage actress best known for two Shirley Temple films. Played Katharine Hepburn’s mother in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story; Norma Terris (1904-1989) had a long career as a performer and musical theater supporter. Last surviving adult actor from original 1927 production of Show Boat; Vivienne Segal’s (1897-1992) career was mostly in musical theater, including the 1924-25 Ziegfeld Follies. She appeared in a few films in the 1930s, as well as on TV in the 50s and 60s. Claudette Colbert (1903-1996) was a Hollywood leading lady for more than two decades. Won an Oscar for 1934’s It Happened One Night; Vivian Martin (1893-1987) appeared in 44 silent films in the teens and twenties before returning to the stage; Dorothy Peterson (1897-1979) made her screen debut in Mothers Cry (1930), a drama that required the 29-year-old to age three decades. She was typecast in careworn maternal roles for the rest of her career; Sylvia Field (1901-1998) enjoyed a long career on stage, screen, and TV. Best known for playing Martha Wilson on TV’s Dennis the Menace; Jeanette MacDonald (1903-1965), an influential soprano best remembered for 1930s musical films with Maurice Chevalier and Nelson Eddy.
ADELE AGAIN…In the March 31 issue of the New Yorker Lux followed up with this ad featuring Adele Astaire all by herself.

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Over the years dozens of famous actresses would appear in colorful ads singing the praises of Lux soap…

STAR POWER…Lux ads from 1954, 1956 and 1959 featuring, respectively, Audrey Hepburn, Debbie Reynolds and Sophia Loren. (Pinterest)

A final note. Lever Brothers began selling Lux soap in India in 1909, years before it was introduced in the U.S., and through the decades Bollywood actresses were prominently featured in their advertising…

NEW AGE…Bollywood Star Katrina Kaif in a 2010 Lux advertisement. (afaqs.com)

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Meanwhile, back on earth…

The March 17, 1928 “Talk of the Town” marveled at the rising structure between Madison and Park avenues that would become the New York Life Building. Designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Woolworth Building, its gilded roof, consisting of 25,000 gold-leaf tiles, remains an iconic Manhattan landmark.

From 1837–1889, the site was occupied by the Union Depot, a concert garden, and P.T Barnum’s Hippodrome. Until 1925, the site housed the first two Madison Square Gardens, a memory that lingered amidst the city’s rapidly changing skyline…

ETHEREAL…The New York Life Building shortly after its completion in 1928. (Museum of the City of New York)
LANDMARK…The gilded rooftop remains a landmark feature of the Manhattan skyline. (Flickr)

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Following the lead of a Roosevelt Hotel advertisement in a previous issue, Macy’s Department Store also called out the New Yorker’s popular nightlife columnist “Lipstick” (Lois Long) in this ad featured in the March 17 issue…

Our cartoon from the March 17 issue explored the hurried life of the idle rich, as depicted by Lois Long’s husband, Peter Arno…

Landmark in Name Only

In the March 24, 1928 issue another building caught the attention of the magazine–a six-story structure designed by theatrical scenic artist and architect Joseph Urban for William Randolph Hearst. The International Magazine Building was completed in 1928 to house the 12 magazines Hearst owned at the time.

An important monument in the architectural heritage of New York, the building was designated as a Landmark Site by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1988. The six-story International Magazine Building was originally built to serve as the base for a proposed skyscraper, but the construction of the tower was postponed due to the Great Depression. The new tower addition by Norman Foster was finally completed nearly eighty years later, in 2006. It is probably not what either Hearst or Urban had in mind in 1928:

START OF A BIG IDEA…The International Magazine Building circa 1960. (Hearst)
ALIEN INVASION…The 2006 Norman Foster tower rises from the hollowed-out shell of the International Magazine Building. (Benjamin Waldman / Wikipedia)

And finally, cartoonist Leonard Dove listens in on some tea time chatter…

Next Time: Conventional Follies of ’28…

 

 

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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