Bonfire of the Vanities

When Earl Carroll’s Vanities hit the Broadway revue scene in 1923, it faced strong competition from George White’s Scandals and the long-running Ziegfeld Follies. Carroll’s answer: More of everything.

Sept. 5, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

That included more nudity than the other revues. Critics, including the New Yorker’s Robert Benchley, found the nudity gratuitous, a titillating distraction from what was otherwise a mess of a show. It also landed Carroll in court from time to time on charges of public indecency. All of this, of course, was just more publicity to drive audiences to his theatre at 753 Seventh Avenue, which he built in 1922 and then partially tore down just nine years later to replace it with an even grander venue. This is where Benchley found himself on the evening of August 27 — at the grand opening of the Earl Carroll Theatre and the 1931 edition of the Vanities. Benchley found nothing grand about it:

AUTOGRAPHS, ANYONE?…Accompanied by his Vanities showgirls, Earl Carroll leaves the Essex Market Police Court on July 20,1930, after appearing to answer charges of public indecency. Police raided a Vanities matinee on July 9, arresting eleven including famed burlesque dancer Faith Bacon, who performed in nothing but fans made of ostrich feathers. No doubt police were tipped off by critics who called the 1930 edition the “nudest” cast in American theatre history. From the looks on their faces, it seems even the police enjoyed the spectacle. (Worthpoint)
IS THERE A PROBLEM, OFFICER?…Faith Bacon in a less-revealing pose with the ostrich-feather fans that brought the police ‘a calling. (fanpix.net)

Carroll’s ambitions were always big, whether it was the size or lavishness of his stage shows or the Art Deco theatre (designed by George W. Keister) he erected in 1931 in answer to Flo Ziegfeld’s 1927 Joseph Urban-designed theatre on Sixth Avenue. With 3,000 seats, Carroll’s theatre was nearly twice the size of Ziegfeld’s.

THEY DON’T COME FOR THE SCRIPTWRITING…Earl Carroll made it clear what audiences could expect in his 1931 Art Deco-style theatre, which featured black velvet-covered walls relieved with gold and silver-colored highlights. Its 3,000 seats made it one of the largest theatres in the world. Clockwise, from top left, portrait of Carroll (a gift from the 1930 Vanities showgirls) flanked by busts of Vanities girls Doris Andrese and Beryl Wallace in the theatre lobby; sign above theatre entrance; a two-page spread from the theatre’s “Beauty Souvenir” booklet; cover of the booklet, featuring singer Lillian Roth. (New York Historical Society).
DECO DRAMA…Clockwise, from top left, Earl Carroll circa 1925; ceiling detail inside the Earl Carroll Theatre; mezzanine lounge; the stage. (New York Historical Society).

The show itself left Benchley baffled, a mishmash of lights, colors, and effects including a drooling dinosaur that dropped a naked woman on stage for a dance number…

LAUNCH SITE….The Vanities stage helped launch the careers of many entertainers. Clockwise, from top left, undated photo of a Vanities production — some shows would feature more than 100 women on stage at one time; singer Lillian Roth was a star attraction; Vanities alumni included William Demarest (Uncle Charlie!), Jack Benny and Vincente Minnelli. (assumption.edu/flickr.com/classicmoviehub.com/amazon.com/sensesofcinema.com)

This wasn’t last word from the New Yorker on the new theatre; the Sept. 12 issue featured these observations by Creighton Peet:

In the end, Carroll’s ambitions were too big for the deepening Depression, and just six months after his theatre’s opening he would lose it to creditors. The property would be snapped up by rival Florenz Ziegfeld and renamed the Casino, but the Ziegfeld connection would be short-lived; Ziegfeld would die a few months later in July 1932. Later that year another rival, George White, would take over the venue to stage his Music Hall Varieties, which ended in 1933 with middling results. The theatre would go through several more tenants — including Billy Rose — until 1940 when the discount “dime store” Woolworth’s would move in, demolishing the lobby and walling off the remaining ceiling and walls. Woolworth’s would close the location in the late 1980s — the store, and the last remnants of the Earl Carroll Theatre, would be demolished in 1990.

CLOSING NUMBER…At left, a sneak peek behind the false walls of Woolworth’s in 1988 shows a detail of the theatre’s proscenium, ceiling and sidewall. At right, top to bottom, the second Earl Carroll Theatre at 7th Avenue & 50th Street; the Woolworth’s store that replaced it, circa 1980; the site today. (Large image from the book Lost Broadway Theatres, via drivingfordeco.com/Google Maps)

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From Our Advertisers

Fall is upon us, and so the social season begins, according to the Hotel St. Regis…

…and what better way to prepare for the season than to acquire a new mink coat…

…maybe politics and world affairs were more your bag, in which case you probably wanted to get a subscription to the Herald Tribune and read the latest from commentator Walter Lippmann

…the makers of Marlboro cigarettes, an upstart brand that initially targeted women, continued with their prize contests, but now they began courting men as well…

…on the other hand, the more established brand Chesterfield had the resources to run a color back-cover ad with endorsements from the brother-sister dance team Fred and Adele Astaire

…Fleishmann’s continued to run their full-page ads touting the wonders of daily yeast consumption (“Eat three cakes a day”). The ads were there because Raoul Fleishmann used his wealth from the family baking business to keep the New Yorker afloat during its fledgling years…

…Farrar and Rinehart announced the arrival of Otto Soglow’s first book, Pretty Pictures

…here is the cover of the book…

…and we move on to the cartoons with the character that would make Soglow rich and famous…The Little King

…although Fleischmann likely saved the New Yorker with large infusions of cash, its cartoonists, including Gardner Rea, still took an occasional poke at the company’s health claims…

…anticipating his “Small Fry” cartoons, William Steig finds two of them examining the wonders of human physiology…

Rea Irvin looked in on some stuffy Western Union censors…

…newcomer Robert Day illustrated the challenges of a doorman (Day would be a longtime contributor)…

Garrett Price found humor abuzz between the bold and the meek…

Alan Dunn tracked down a clueless hunter…

…and we end with Leonard Dove, who takes flight and anticipates our next installment…

Next Time: A Big Bird…

 

Unnatural History

In my last post we visited the Central Park Zoo, circa 1931, and found a collection of animals displayed as curiosities in barren enclosures that in no way resembled natural habitats.

Aug. 29, 1931 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

It’s hard to say if those creatures were better or worse off than their cousins at the American Museum of Natural History, a short walk across the park to the northwest. Unlike the zoo, the tigers and rhinos at the museum were displayed in naturalistic, almost dreamlike settings. But then again they were dead; indeed, all that remained of them were their skins, skillfully fitted over skeletons of wood and clay.

SIMULACRUM…Clockwise, from top left, American Museum of Natural History staff mounting rhinoceros and Indian elephant, circa 1930; preparing African buffalo group diorama; staff cleaning elephant skin in preparation for mounting on a frame consisting of a skull and some wood. This would be covered with clay before the skin is fitted. (vintag.es)

E.B. White stopped by the famed museum to take a look at its new Asiatic Hall, and filed this report for “The Talk of the Town.”

The animals pictured below came from a couple of British big game hunters, gathered during expeditions in the 1910s and 1920s…

PLEASE HOLD STILL…American Museum of Natural History staff prepare the tiger group diorama in 1931. The display was in the new Asiatic Hall referred to by E.B. White. (vintage.es)
SURVIVORS OF A SORT…Nearly 90 years later, the tiger group is still on display at the American Museum of Natural History, now in the Hall of Biodiversity. (AMNH)
STILL THE SAME…This Asiatic leopard diorama, which so impressed E.B. White, also survives to this day, in the Hall of Asian Mammals at AMNH. (atlasobscura)
NEVER-ENDING BATTLE…The Sambar stag diorama, dating to 1911, is also mentioned by White in his article. (atlasobscura)

I am delighted that the AMNH (which I visited in December as an avid fan of diorama art) preserves these exhibits, which not only display animals — many now endangered — but also the artistry of painters, sculptors and taxidermists from a century ago. Sadly, many museums are scrapping these cultural treasures and replacing them with gaudy, interactive displays and video screens. An article in Newsweek (“Museum Dioramas Are as Endangered as the Animals They Contain,” Aug. 2, 2015) notes that around 2008 “the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., closed two diorama halls and reopened them with video screens, interactive features and stand-alone specimens where the dioramas had been.” In other words, the specimens were removed from naturalistic scenes and displayed as stand-alone curiosities, rather like those poor animals in the Central Park Zoo of yesteryear.

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Everyday Icons

Gilbert Seldes profiled industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss (1904 – 1972), who along with contemporaries Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes was among celebrity designers of the midcentury. Like Bel Geddes, Dreyfuss was a well-known Broadway set designer who would go on to become an industrial designer in the era of streamlining. But unlike Loewy and Bel Geddes, Dreyfuss went well beyond mere styling, taking a practical, scientific approach to problems that would not only make products better looking, but also safer and more comfortable to use. An excerpt:

GOT MY START IN SHOW BIZ…Henry Dreyfuss in 1946, and his 1930-31 design of the RKO Theatre in Davenport, Iowa (now the Adler Theatre). (Wikipedia/qctimes.com)
ICONS OF EVERYDAY LIFE…Some of Dreyfuss’s designs included, top row: the Western Electric Model 500 telephone (center), which replaced the clunkier Model 300 (left) in 1950; the Hoover model 150 vacuum cleaner, from 1936; middle row: Dreyfuss designs for the New York Central Railroad’s streamlined Mercury train (1936); and the NYC Hudson locomotive for the Twentieth Century Limited (1938); bottom row: Dreyfuss designed things as varied as tractors for John Deere (1960); the Honeywell T87 circular wall thermostat (1953–present); and the Polaroid SX-70 Land camera (1972).

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Body-Building Barnum

Another well-known figure of the 1930s was Bernarr Macfadden (1868 – 1955), an early proponent of physical culture who would prefigure such notables as Charles Atlas, Jack LaLanne, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But none of them were quite like McFadden, who also created a pulp publishing empire (among his magazines: Liberty, True Detective, True Story, True Romances, Photoplay and the notorious tabloid newspaper The New York Evening Graphic).

READ ALL ABOUT IT…Macfadden’s Evening Graphic was all about scandal, and especially sex and murder.

Macfadden also established numerous “healthatoriums” across the East and Midwest, including (in 1931) his latest venture, the Physical Culture Hotel near Dansville, New York. E.B. White explained, in his “Notes and Comment”…

MCFADDEN SHOWS OFF HIS BOD in 1910 (left) at age 42, and at age 55 in 1923. (Wikipedia)
BEFORE AND AFTER…Mcfadden acquired the 1882 Jackson Sanatorium near Dansville, NY in 1931 and renamed it the Physical Culture Hotel. Circa 1930s images at top contrast with the condition of the property today — it fell into disrepair after MacFadden’s death in 1955, and closed for good in 1971. Known to locals as the “Castle on the Hill” in its heyday, it can still be glimpsed by motorists traveling on I-390. (bernarrmacfadden.com/abandonedplaces.livejournal.com)

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For the Birds

When I came across “Farewell to Birds,” on page 17, I thought for a moment it was one of James Thurber’s animal parodies (there was even a Thurber cartoon at the bottom of the page), but then I noticed our writer was Will Cuppy, (1884-1949) who wrote in the Thurber vein (Cuppy was ten years Thurber’s senior) and like Thurber, was a bit of a curmudgeon. From 1931 until his death Cuppy wrote satirical pieces for the New Yorker that were later collected into books (also like Thurber). Here is an excerpt from “Farewell to Birds.”

THE SIMPLE LIFE…Satirist Will Cuppy (center, in 1932) and two of his early books. How to be a Hermit (1929) was a humorous look at his life residing in a Jones Island seaside shack from 1921 to 1929 (he was escaping city noise and hayfever); How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes was a 1931 compilation of Cuppy’s articles, including the one above.

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Puttin’ on the Ritz

Lois Long, newly divorced from cartoonist Peter Arno, concluded her fashion column (“On and Off the Avenue”) by telling readers about her “swell new hairdo”…

HAVE A SEAT, LOIS…The perm room at Charles of the Ritz, 1932.

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Your Majesty

Speaking of new looks, Central Park West was boasting the addition of a new “skyscraper apartment building” called the Majestic. “The Sky Line” reported:

APTLY NAMED…The Majestic at Central Park West. (Pinterest)

Another building making its mark was the Parc Vendôme on West 57th, offering more than 600 apartments with annual rents ranging from $1,100 to $6,600. Condos in the same building today range from $495,000 to $5,495,000.

BREAD BOX INCLUDED…The Parc Vendôme on West 57th. (street easy.com)

From Our Advertisers

Henry Mandel, one of New York City’s most ambitious developers in the 1920s and early 30s, touted the Parc Vendôme in this advertisement…

…I wonder if Lois Long (see above) got one of these “dos” at the Ritz…I love the snob appeal of this ad — “The New Paris Way of Doing Your Hair”…

…which seemed to work…here is a random sample of Hollywood stars in 1931, all wearing the look…

DOING THE WAVE…From left, Tilly Losch, Constance Bennett, and Barbara Stanwyck.

…other ads appealing to the Continental lifestyle…a very understated yet elegant ad for Guerlain lipstick, and Nellie Harrington-Levine gave us a disinterested deb sporting “the wave,” a cigarette and a velvet dress…

…and Pond’s continued its parade of rich society women to sell its cold cream…here we are presented with “Mrs. Morgan Belmont,” aka Margaret Frances Andrews (1894 – 1945), a Newport socialite and prize-winning show dog breeder…

Andrews didn’t limit herself to cold cream, here appearing in a 1927 ad for Simmons mattresses…

Margaret Frances Andrews was a noted dog breeder, seen above at the Newport Dog Show around 1915; below, Andrews had a small role in the 1920 Mary Pickford film Way Down East. Andrews, at left, was credited as “Mrs. Morgan Belmont.”

…and we move on to this sad little ad from the back pages, featuring something called “Peeko,” which apparently mimicked the flavors of Rye, Gin and Rum…it must have tasted awful…

…our cartoons feature Perry Barlow, and I can’t quite tell if this guy is drinking a soda or some bootleg gin, which was often sold at select gas stations…

…a two-page sequence from Gardner Rea

Otto Soglow went fishing…

…and commiserated with a couple of unemployed guys whose plight is ignored by the celebrity-obsessed media…

Alan Dunn hit the lecture circuit…

Kemp Starrett sketched some wink-wink, nudge-nudge at the men’s store…

…and we close with James Thurber, and the trials of our elders…

Next Time: Bonfire of the Vanities…