The Midnight Frolic

What do you do after an evening at the theater when the night is young and the city still thrums with excitement? In 1929 Manhattan, those willing to shell out a $5 cover charge (equivalent to nearly $120 today) and another $3 for front row seats could take in a show on the rooftop of the New Amsterdam Theatre — Florenz Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic.

Jan. 12, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

The New Yorker’s Lois Long was on hand for opening night of the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, where the rich and famous gathered to enjoy after hours performances by Paul Whitman’s orchestra, singer and comedian Eddie Cantor (performing in blackface), and the boozy torch singer Helen Morgan. In her nightlife column, “Tables for Two,” Long observed:

Among the celebrities Long spotted at the Midnight Frolic’s opening night was actress and dancer Peggy Hopkins Joyce, famed for collecting men along with diamonds and furs:

FAMOUSLY FAMOUS…Largely unknown today, during the Roaring Twenties actress and dancer Peggy Hopkins Joyce was one of the decade’s most famous celebrities, her noteriety mostly deriving from her flamboyant lifestyle that included six marriages, dozens of engagements and affairs with celebrities ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Walter Chrysler, who reportedly gave her $2 million in jewelry including a 134-karat diamond necklace. (http://jenniferfabulous.blogspot.com)
WHAT THEY DID FOR FUN…Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas wearing her balloon costume on the stage of the New Amsterdam’s rooftop theatre during the original run of the Midnight Frolic. Male patrons were encouraged to use their cigars and cigarettes to pop the balloons. Photo circa 1915. (Pinterest)

According to a Museum of the City of New York blog (posted by Nimisha Bhat), Flo Ziegfeld was tired of seeing his audiences leave after performances of his Ziegfeld Follies at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street (and spend money elsewhere), so in 1915 he staged a new revue — the Danse de Follies! (later to be called Midnight Frolic) on the New Amsterdam’s underused 680-seat roof-top level that included tables, box seats, and a balcony. Ziegfeld added a glass walkway that would allow chorus girls to dance above the audience, affording some customers a more risqué perspective on the dancers.

Bhat writes that the club “stayed open year-round for seven years and while World War I couldn’t stop the Midnight Frolic, Prohibition was ultimately what led Ziegfeld to end the show in 1922.” In 1921 Ziegfeld told The New York Times: “The best class of people from all over the world have been in the habit of coming up on the roof … and when they are subjected to the humiliation of having policemen stand by their tables and watch what they are drinking, then I do not care to keep open any longer.” The show Lois Long attended in January 1929 was a revival of the Midnight Frolic, and although Prohibition was still the law, by 1929 it was widely flaunted if not completely ignored by many New Yorkers. Long also noted changes to the rooftop, including a new decor by famed theatrical designer Joseph Urban:

Clockwise, from top left, Hazel Forbes poses in her costume for Ziegfeld’s 1929 Midnight Frolic; Dolores (also known as Rose Dolores) plays the part of “The White Peacock” in the Tropical Birds number for the Midnight Frolic of 1919. Considered to be first celebrity clothes model, Dolores is often credited as the inventor of the “blank hauteur” look of modern fashion models; Jean Ackerman & Evelyn Groves from the 1929 show; program for the 1929 Midnight Frolic. (White Studios/Pinterest/Playbill)
READY TO FROLIC…Stage ensemble from the 1917 Midnight Frolic included, at center left, actor/humorist Will Rogers. (Museum of the City of New York)
EXTROVERTS…Margaret Morris, Kay Laurell, and Florence Cripps on the infamous glass walkway in the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic of 1916. (talesofamadcapheiress.blogspot.com)
THEY WERE HAMMERED…Insisting that theater-goers would have sore hands after applauding so much, Flo Ziegfeld provided little wooden hammers at Frolic tables, so audiences could bang out their appreciation. (Museum of the City of New York)

There is a filmed performance of Eddie Cantor allegedly made that night at the Ziegfeld Theatre Roof Garden, but it was actually filmed on a soundstage at the Paramount Astoria studio in Queens. You can tell it is staged because during Cantor’s performance he recognizes some of the celebrities who were at the opening (the camera shifts to them as they take bows), but when he calls out Peggy Joyce the camera stays on Cantor. Apparently she didn’t find it necessary to participate in this charade. Nevertheless, this video gives you some idea of what was presented at the Midnight Frolic. And one wonders why Cantor performed in blackface, since it’s just his standard song and gags schtick:

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Mea Culpa

Also in the Jan. 12 issue was this small ad in the back pages — an apology from Texas Guinan, actress, producer, and entrepreneur well-known to New York nightlife (and to the vice squad):

QUEEN OF THE NIGHTCLUBS…or so they called Texas Guinan, pictured here from a 1929 film by the same name. (texasguinan.blogspot.com)

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Nevertheless, Prohibition Continued to Suck…

The Jan. 12 “Talk of the Town” addressed the sheer folly of Prohibition enforcement:

DON’T JUDGE A BOTTLE BY ITS COVER…An assortment of confiscated, adulterated spirits from the Prohibition era. (prohibition.themobmuseum.org)

SUPPLY AND DEMAND…In 1925 there were an estimated 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone. Near the end of the ban on alcohol in 1933 Life photographer Margaret Bourke-White captured some of the city’s elite speakeasies. (Life)

The “Talk” item also addressed the new police commissioner’s approach to enforcement of the unpopular law:

And as it happened, Grover Whalen was also the subject of the Jan. 12 “Profile,” which included this illustration by Peter Arno:

 

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How’s the Old Ticker?

The “Talk of the Town” also marveled at the technology behind the famed news ticker in Times Square, inaugurated on election night the previous November:

JUNE 6, 1944…Crowd watching D-Day headlines on the New York Times building. (Library of Congress)

The news ticker, known as the “zipper” (which inspired the news crawl at the bottom of today’s cable news channels), made Times Square the place to be when big events were announced. According to Wired magazine, the zipper, invented by Frank C. Reilly, “was the technological marvel of its day, extending 380 feet around the Times Tower and, with a band 5-feet tall, the moving letters were visible from a distance of several city blocks.” Wired cites a 2005 New York Times column to describe how it worked:

“Inside the control room, three cables poured energy into transformers. The hookup to all the bulbs totaled 88,000 soldered connections. Messages from a ticker came to a desk beside a cabinet like the case that contained type used by old-time compositors. The cabinet contained thin slabs called letter elements. An operator composed the message letter-by-letter in a frame. The frame, when filled with the letters and spaces that spelled out a news item, was inserted in a magazine at one end of a track. A chain conveyor moved the track, and each letter in the frame brushed a number of contacts. Each contact set a light flashing on Broadway.” Reilly calculated that there were 261,925,664 flashes an hour from the zipper’s 14,800 bulbs.

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From Our Advertisers

A couple of clothing store ads which demonstrated a more modern look in graphic design…

…and two terrific illustrations (out of four in a two-page spread) by Reginald Marsh that decorated the “Profile” section of the magazine, featuring scenes from the Webster Hall nightclub in the East Village…

…and our cartoon, courtesy of Roch King:

Next Time: The Bootleg Spirit…

Out of the Mouth of Babes

Like many publications, there are defining moments in the New Yorker’s history that make the magazine what it is today.

December 8, 1928 cover by Peter Arno.

In a post more than two years ago I wrote about Ellin Mackay’s pivotal essay, “Why We Go To Cabarets: A Post-Debutante Explains.” The debutante daughter of a multi-millionaire (who threatened to disinherit her due to her romance with Irving Berlin), Mackay explained that modern women were abandoning social matchmaking in favor of the more egalitarian night club scene. Mackay’s essay provided a huge boost to the struggling New Yorker, which had dipped to less than 3,000 subscribers in August 1925. A more recent post, “A Bird’s Eye View,” noted how a short story by Thyra Samter Winslow opened the door to serious fiction in the magazine.

The Dec. 8, 1928 issue was significant for a cartoon by Carl Rose that appeared on the bottom of page 27:

It remains one of the New Yorker’s most famous cartoons, and for good reason. In his book About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, Ben Yagoda writes that the cartoon (drawn by Rose, with spinach line provided by E.B. White) “was picking up on something in the culture: it was a moment when the air reverberated with the sound of speech.” Yagoda notes that although “the cartoons led the way,” the magazine has always been filled with the sound of voices in “The Talk of the Town.” Naturalistic rendering of speech could also be found under the heading of such features as “Overheard,” which ran from 1927-1929 and included such contributors as the young writer John O’Hara.

Another New Yorker contributor whose work resounded with the sound of speech, Robert Benchley, received some kind words from the magazine on his latest book, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or David Copperfield:

DON’T BE SERIOUS…Robert Benchley and his book, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or David Copperfield, illustrated by his New Yorker colleague Gluyas Williams. The cover depicted Benchley performing his famous sketch, The Treasurer’s Report. (Goodreads/bio.com)

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Appearing at the Civic Repertory Theatre (founded by actress Eva Le Gallienne in 1926) was Alla Nazimova and Eva herself in Anton Chekov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard. Al Frueh offered this sketch for the theatre review section.

Josephine Hutchinson as Anya, Alla Nazimova as Ranevskaya, and Paul Leyssac as Gayev in Anton Chekov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard, at the Civic Repertory Theatre in 1928. (eBay)
TOUR DE FORCE…Eva Le Gallienne in 1928, photo by Edward Steichen. (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

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From Our Advertisers

Advertisements from the Dec. 8 issue offered this study in contrasts…a “modern” take on the holidays by Wanamaker’s, featuring the unfortunately titled “Psycho-Gifts for Christmas”…

…versus the staid offerings of Brooks Brothers on the following page…

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On to the Dec. 15 issue, we find the New Yorker enjoying the debut of the Ziegfeld Follies latest revue…

December 15, 1928 — issue number 200 — cover by Julian de Miskey.

…the show “Whoopee” at the New Amsterdam, featuring Eddie Cantor:

HIT MAKER…Sheet music for the hit “Love Me Or Leave Me” from the Ziegfeld Follies show Whoopee. At right, a still from the 1930 film Whoopee!, with Eleanor Hunt and Eddie Cantor. (carensclassiccinema/thejumpingfrog.com)

And lest you think audiences were flocking to only see Eddie Cantor…

LAVISH, LAVISH!…At left, Ziegfeld Follies performer Jean Ackerman in Whoopee! At right, Ziegfeld performer Ruth Ettig’s rendition of “Love Me or Leave Me” in Whoopee made it a major hit as well as her signature song. (mote-historie.tumblr.com/Alfred Cheney Johnston)

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On to less glamorous pursuits, the New Yorker also paid a visit to the new “Fish Wing” at the Museum of Natural History, as recounted in “Talk of the Town.” A brief excerpt:

SWIMMING WITH THE FISHES…A visitor admires the mako shark exhibit at the Hall of Fishes in the American Museum of Natural History, 1948 (AMNH)

From Our Advertisers…

…comes this house ad from the New Yorker itself, promoting its first-ever Album:

Chris Wheeler has gathered all of the albums at this site.

And finally, our cartoon, courtesy Peter Arno:

Next Time: Happy 1929!

 

Diamond Mae

Although the Roaring Twenties saw the relaxing of many moral strictures — particularly in major cities like New York — Mae West’s frank portrayals of sex on an off-Broadway stage could still create a stir in the newspapers and among arbiters of American probity.

Nov. 19, 1928 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

Before she appeared in films (mostly in the 1930s) Mae West was well known to New Yorkers both in vaudeville and on Broadway. Her wider fame came in 1927, when many Americans read about her arrest on obscenity charges linked to a scandalous play simply titled Sex. A story of a Montreal prostitute, Sex opened at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre on April 1926 to modest audiences and mostly scathing reviews. The New York Times, for examplecalled it a “crude and inept play, cheaply produced and poorly acted.” Perhaps because of the negative reviews, which mostly focused on the play’s morality, curious audiences flocked to see it. Ironically (at least, I imagine, to the critics), Sex was the only play on Broadway in 1926 to stay open through the summer and into the following year.

NOW THAT I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION…Mae West in a publicity photo from 1926. At right, promotional poster for Sex, which touted the play as the “Biggest Sensation Since The Armistice.” (maewest.blogspot.com/boweryboyshistory.com)

The fun ended when New York City police raided West’s production company in February 1927 and charged her with obscenity. In another ironic and hypocritical twist (many in the police department and in the city’s court system had enjoyed the play themselves, along with approximately 325,000 others during the play’s 10-month run), authorities fined West $500 and sentenced her to 10 days in a workhouse on Welfare Island. Always the entrepreneur, West used the sentence to her advantage, and even arrived at the prison in a limousine. It was during her short stint in prison that she began work on her smash hit Diamond Lil.

Thyra Samter Winslow, a writer who often exposed the hypocrisy and prejudice in American life in her short fiction, profiled West for the Nov. 10, 1928 issue:

Note Winslow’s surprise to find West to be much smaller than she imagined (indeed, West barely stood five feet tall). Because West preferred a curvy, buxom figure to the thin flapper look, many like Winslow assumed her to be a much larger woman. No doubt her lavish costumes also suggested greater proportions:

West explained to Winslow that she was simply giving the people what they wanted, whether it was outlandish costumes or some “dirt” in their entertainments. Behind this facade, however, was a private, hard-working woman who wrote much of her own material and had the savvy to market it.

TOO MUCH FOR YOUR TICKER?…Mae West tangles with Barry O’Neill in this 1926 publicity still for Sex. The image came with a warning no doubt cooked up by West herself: “If you cannot stand excitement—see your doctor before visiting Mae West in Sex.” (Bettmann/Corbis)

In her profile, Winslow noted West’s marketing savvy during her incarceration, where she won many new friends along the way:

ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE…Mae West with Sex co-star Barry O’Neill during a 1927 trial for obscenity charges. During the trial the judge asked the defendant: “Miss West, are you trying to show contempt for this court?” West replied, “On the contrary, your Honor. I was doin’ my best to conceal it.” (gvshp.org)

Winslow concluded her piece wondering if West had peaked in her success, and would “fade out” along with so many other vaudeville stars…

…. In less than seven years, West at age 42 would become Hollywood’s highest paid star and second only to William Randolph Hearst as the highest paid person in America. Ninety-two years after Sex, West remains an icon of popular culture around the world.

ALL THAT GLITTERS…Drawing of Mae West that accompanied the New Yorker profile. At right, publicity photo for Diamond Lil, 1928. (Playbill)

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From Our Advertisers

The Nov. 10 issue featured this all American endorsement for Lucky Strike cigarettes from World Series winning pitcher Waite Hoyt…never mind that the New Yorker itself completely ignored the World Series and baseball in general.

…and Charles of the Ritz used a combination of vanity, snob appeal and class anxiety to promote their latest beauty ensemble…

The comics glimpsed the foibles of the upper classes, including this terrific entry by 22-year-old Ben Hur Baz, a Mexico-born artist who would go on to become famous for his pin-ups in the 1940s and 50s, many of them appearing in Esquire:

…and a game of blind man’s buff (or some say ‘bluff’) as rendered by Peter Arno:

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The Nov. 17 issue featured an unusual entry by E.B. White, who, like many of his New Yorker colleagues, found many reasons to be critical of the media, including the dumbing down of newspapers that increasingly favored trivia, sensation and promotion over serious discourse.

Nov. 17, 1928 cover by Sue Williams.

White skewered the news of the day in this two-page spread that parodied the look and language of contemporary newspapers (click to enlarge):

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The issue’s “Talk of the Town” featured a lengthy entry on Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, a figure greatly admired and generally lauded by the magazine’s sportswriters. A brief excerpt:

The Nov. 17 film reviews gave a rare thumbs up to an American movie, Show People, which starred Marion Davies.

HE LOOKS FAMILIAR…William Haines (left) and Marion Davies meet Charlie Chaplin in the 1928 Hollywood send-up film, Show People, directed by King Vidor. Chaplin made this rare appearance as himself, without his “Little Tramp” makeup. He was uncredited in the film, and asked to be paid the extra’s fee of only $7.50. (silent-volume.blogspot.com)

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From Our Advertisers

Although you couldn’t legally procure a drink in 1928, you could (unlike today) legally purchase of box of Cuban cigars for you special someone:

…or if you preferred, a carton Chesterfields. Apparently someone in marketing thought conjuring up the horrors of trench warfare would help sell some smokes…

And finally, Peter Arno found out what’s for dinner at the table of a great outdoorsman:

Next Time: What Santa Brought in 1928…

 

Dorothy Parker Goes to the Movies

Dorothy Parker turned her jaded eye to the latest big thing — talking pictures — and in the Sept. 1, 1928 issue she joined her New Yorker colleagues in a collective yawn at the technology that was dramatically transforming cinema.

Sept. 1, 1928 cover by Helen Hokinson.

In a feature titled “Out of the Silence,” Parker mused about the changes facing former silent stars…

…and seemed unconvinced that the talking pictures, at least to date, were any real improvement over the silents, including a performance by her Algonquin Round Table pal and New Yorker colleague Robert Benchley, who seemed but a talking simulacrum:

HIS SCREEN VERSION…Robert Benchley delivers his comedy sketch The Treasurer’s Report in a short 1928 Movietone film. Benchley portrayed a nervous assistant treasurer struggling to present an organization’s yearly report. (YouTube screen shot)

Parker attended a matinee at a jam-packed Warner Theatre, where folks paid a dollar apiece for standing room only to witness a series of shorts and a feature-length film, all presented with sound:


One of the shorts featured a performance by female impersonator George Francis Peduzzi, known professionally as Karyl Norman, “The Creole Fashion Plate,” followed by a performance from violinist Albert Spaulding:

WHAT A DRAG…Dorothy Parker was underwhelmed by Karyl Norman’s performance in a Vitaphone short. He is pictured here in a 1924 publicity photo, dressed as “The Creole Fashion Plate.” (queermusicheritage.com)

What Parker was subjecting herself to was the Vitaphone Varieties, described by North Carolina Museum of Art film curator Laura Boyes as “the last gasps of vaudeville.”

Boyes writes that many vaudevillians stepped off the stage to immortalize their acts on film in the early days of the talkies. They were produced in Brooklyn between 1927 and 1929 using the Vitaphone method (large recorded discs synchronized with the film) “at a time when the major studios hoped that the talkies were just a passing fad.” She notes that “talkies would eventually put this style of theater completely out of business, and Vitaphone shorts literally became the place where Vaudeville went to die. Many of the people in these short films were obscure at the time, and they are doubly obscure now.”

As for the main feature, The Terror, the only terror Parker felt was the fear of being bored to death:

SOUND AND FURY, SIGNIFYING NOTHING…Dorothy Parker found The Terror to be unexciting, its sound effects a “racket.” But for the record, it was the first all-talking horror film. (IMDB)

Parker concluded that “talking pictures are marvels of invention,” but “a bad show is a bad show, synchronize it how you will.”

Coming of Age in Samoa

Social critic and humorist Baird Leonard took the honors as book reviewer for the Sept. 1 issue, offering a brief, humorous endorsement of Margaret Mead’s landmark Coming of Age in Samoa, in which the famed anthropologist explored the link between culture and psychosexual development among the island’s adolescents. Leonard found much to like about the book, and particularly Mead’s observations on the separation of youth from adult activities in Samoan culture (it would enhance his bridge-playing enjoyment):

GOING NATIVE…Margaret Mead sitting between two Samoan girls, ca. 1926. (Library of Congress).

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Writer Cameron Rogers profiled American sculptor Paul Manship, who was an important contributor to Art Deco style, and is perhaps best known for his iconic Prometheus sculpture at Rockefeller Center in New York. Rogers made these closing observations about Manship, noting that the artist’s success netted him about $60,000 a year — close to $850,000 today (These days, someone like showman/artist Jeff Koons, who makes giant shiny balloon animal sculptures, among other things, has a net worth of at least $100 million).

PROMETHEUS, gilded cast bronze by Paul Manship, 1934, at Rockefeller Center. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

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From Our Advertisers

I find it interesting when one magazine advertises in another, especially when an older magazine like the Outlook (founded in 1893) advertises in an upstart like the New Yorker. But then again, the publishers of the Outlook were looking to breathe new life into their stodgy journal, and what better way than to announce that their “conservative girl” was now a modern, grown-up woman with a new Jazz Age look and an attitude to match. And it was no coincidence that they hired the New Yorker’s Rea Irvin to illustrate their point.

OUTLOOK magazine was first published as The Christian Union in 1870, changing its name to Outlook in 1893 when it shifted its focus from religious subjects to social and political issues. The magazine folded in 1935. (Pinterest)

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Our cartoon is by Peter Arno, who continued to explore the lighter moments of New York night life…

Next Time: Mussolini’s Romance Novel…

 

The Last Dance?

Before there was Fred and Ginger, there was Fred and Adele, and during the 1920s and early 30s Fred and Adele Astaire were brother-sister dancing royalty and the toast of Broadway.

April 21, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.


Fred and Adele Astaire were born a year apart in Omaha (she the eldest, born in 1898). Their mother wanted the siblings to learn professional dance at an early age, so in 1903 she moved with the children to New York City, leaving their Austrian-born father in Nebraska to work at the Storz brewery. By 1905 the brother-sister act were already popular on the vaudeville circuit, making their way to the Broadway stage by 1917.

EARLY BLOOMERS…Left, Fred and Adele Astaire in a photo taken around 1906, three years after they left Omaha and began their vaudeville career. At right, Fred and Adele in 1911. (Pinterest/NY Times)

Fred became friends with composer George Gershwin the previous year, and in December 1924 the Astaires headlined George and Ira Gershwin’s first full-length New York musical, Lady, Be Good!, in which Fred and Adele played a brother-and-sister dance team down on their luck. In real life, however, their star soared above Jazz Age New York. So when rumor had it that the duo was on the verge of a break-up, “The Talk of the Town” weighed in:

NO, THE OTHER ASTAIRE…At left, Adele and Fred Astaire in the 1920s. At the time the gamine Adele was considered the undisputed star of the duo. At right, the pair in a 1931 ad for Chesterfield cigarettes that also promoted The Band Wagon, their last Broadway revue together. (NY Times/atticpaper.com)

Today you would be hard pressed to find anyone young or old who hasn’t heard of Fred Astaire, his legend so firmly attached to our cultural memory. But at the time it was Adele’s fun-loving ways and mischievous charm that captured the hearts of reviewers and fans alike. Brother Fred, on the other hand, was more interested in devising the duo’s clever routines.

The April 21, 1928 New Yorker was correct in noting that Adele had plans to marry and leave the country, but happily the magazine was wrong on the timing; Adele and Fred would perform together nearly four more years, capping their 27-year partnership with the successful run of The Band Wagon on Broadway.

In 1932 Adele would marry Lord Charles Cavendish and move to Ireland, not England. Home would be Lismore Castle in County Waterford. The end of the partnership with Adele was traumatic for Fred, who was indeed interested in producing and race horses, but that was not his immediate future as the New Yorker suggested. Instead, his movie career would take off like a rocket in 1933 in a string of hits with Ginger Rodgers including The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936).

Fred Astaire briefly turned his focus to horse-racing when he announced his early retirement in 1946, but he would soon return to the screen with Easter Parade in 1948 and enjoy another string of hits in the 1950s. Though separated by an ocean, the brother and sister remained close through the years.

MY SIS IS A LADY…A reunion of Astaires in Ireland, 1939. Fred Astaire and his wife, Phyllis Livingston Potter, with Lord and Lady Charles Cavendish photographed on the day brother Fred and wife arrived at Lismore Castle from America to stay with sister Adele and her husband at their home in County Waterford. (Pinterest)
SOARING CAREER…Ginger Rodgers swings with Fred Astaire in 1938’s Carefree. (Flickr)
TOGETHER AFTER ALL THESE YEARS…Left, Fred and Adele honored by the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1972 (celebrity promotor Earl Blackwell is in the center). Right, Fred and Adele at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England, circa 1980. Chatsworth had been in the Cavendish family since the 17th century, so Adele, as Lady Cavendish, was a frequent visitor. In a recent article in The Cheshire Magazine (April 11, 2017) Duchess Mary recalled the family’s first meeting with Adele in 1932: “All gathered, like stone pillars, in the library… the heavy doors opened and there stood this tiny girl, beautifully dressed. We waited for her to approach us, but instead of walking, she suddenly began turning cartwheels. Everyone loved it.”(ATHF/thecheshiremagazine.co.uk)

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Not So Happy Feet

Frequent New Yorker contributor Morris Markey wrote several articles under the heading, “New York Interiors” (my last post featured his look at radio broadcasting). In the April 21 issue Markey took a look at the sad world of the “taxi dancers” in the ironically named “Happiness Hall.” This was the second time the New Yorker delved into the taxi-dancing world—Maxwell Bodenheim visited a Broadway dance hall in the June 12, 1926 edition of the magazine.

In both cases, the writers described a pathetic ritual for dancers and patrons alike, and both underscored a cruel illusion we still have today that the Roaring Twenties was an age of prosperity and good times for all. Excerpts:

NO FREDS OR GINGERS HERE…Taxi-dancers awaiting customers at a Broadway dance hall in the early 1930s. The image was scanned from an article in Weekly Illustrated (Oct. 6, 1934) that described new regulations banning the vocation.

Later in the article, Markey described a dance with a red-haired girl who showed him the ropes…

…and described the less than elegant environment of “Happiness Hall”…

NO FUN IN THE MOVIES EITHER…Footsore taxi-dancers including Barbara Stanwyck, third from left, in 1931’s Ten Cents a Dance. (imdb)

Markey concluded his visit by attempting to talk, rather than dance, with a graceful, yet hardboiled dancer:

In the 1920s Americans in general were poorer than they are today (money-wise) and lacked the safety nets that we have come to depend on in modern life. In 1929 economists considered $2,500 the income necessary to support a family. In that year, more than 60 percent of the nation’s families earned less than $2,000 a year—an income necessary for basic necessities—and more than 40 percent earned less than $1,500 annually.

For single women, such as the taxi dancers, the situation was just as bad or worse. Retail workers in U.S. faced long hours, poor working conditions and low pay, especially before the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. A clerk selling those beautiful clothes at Bloomingdale’s couldn’t afford those clothes herself, let alone make a living wage from the job. As Markey’s article made clear, taxi dancing was nothing but additional toil, 10 cents a pop.

From Our Advertisers…

We’ve seen cigarette advertisements featuring celebrity endorsements, but how about this one for Marlboro that suggested Christopher Columbus would have preferred their smokes…

…and then there were the ads for Fleischmann Yeast featured in nearly every issue of the early New Yorker magazine. According to Thomas Kunkel’s book, Genius in Disguise, Raoul Fleischmann was the wealthy scion of a New York yeast and baking family and a frequent guest of the Algonquin Round Table. He hated the baking business, so when founding editor Harold Ross pitched the idea of investing in his new magazine, Fleischmann obliged with $25,000. Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, together put up the other $25,000 (which included some IOU’s), but after the magazine was launched and struggled during its first months, Fleischmann was further obliged to pour in many hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the magazine afloat (and in spite teasing from his friends that he might as well dump the money in the river).

The magazine was actually killed as early as May 8, when Fleischmann called Ross and other magazine directors together after Ross lost a large amount of money in a poker game (money he’d plan to invest in the magazine). Fortunately, the following day was fellow Round Tabler Franklin P. Adams’ wedding, and in the convivial atmosphere Ross and Fleischmann agreed to give the magazine another go. If Fleischmann was going to pour money into the magazine, he might as well get a little “free” advertising for his product. Hence the ads in the New Yorker promoting the generous consumption of fresh yeast cakes as a laxative and health tonic…

…and with that background information, this cartoon in the April 21 issue by Peter Arno makes a lot more sense

And finally, Leonard Dove takes a look at life in a growing metropolis…

Next Time: Back to Broadway…

 

 

 

Mutt & Jeff

We close out November 1927 by looking at a hugely popular comic strip–Mutt & Jeff–that made cartoonist Harry Conway (Bud) Fisher both famous and wealthy.

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Nov. 19 and Nov. 26, 1927 covers by Rea Irvin.

The editors of the Nov. 26, 1927 issue of the New Yorker thought Fisher interesting enough to feature in a lengthy “Profile,” written by Kelly Coombs. A brief excerpt:

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According to John Adcock’s terrific Yesterday’s Papers blog, by 1916 Bud Fisher was the highest paid cartoonist on earth. The New Yorker suggested his annual income was $300,000 (roughly equivalent to more than $4 million today). In addition to the strips, created by Fisher and a team of ghost illustrators/writers, Mutt & Jeff were featured in vaudeville engagements, theatrical shows, animated cartoons, comic books and toys.

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DIE LAUGHING…Mutt & Jeff themed toys included this joke kit from Mysto Manufacturing. I don’t quite get the joke featured on the cover, depicting Jeff’s casually twisted approach to murdering poor Mutt. (melbirnkrant.com)
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IT’S A LIVING…Harry Conway (Bud) Fisher, drawing a likeness of the character “Jeff” at a Chicago Daily News event in 1915. (Chicago History Museum)

Fisher began his career as a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and started his strip about “two mismatched tinhorns” in 1907. It went into syndication the following year. Mutt and Jeff, originally titled A. Mutt, is regarded as the first American newspaper cartoon published as a strip of panels, making it the first “comic strip.”

There was obviously a time when American readers thought Mutt & Jeff hilarious, but I don’t quite get its appeal. In this strip from 1926, Jeff gets a pie in the face. The giant question mark was frequently employed by Fisher, as were the dotted eye lines and explanatory arrows like the one in the last panel. No, Jeff didn’t get his brains blown out by Mutt. It is only a pie! Hah Hah!

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Click on image to enlarge

Another visual cliché from comics of yore was the angry wife wielding a rolling pin. Apparently Jeff refers to Mutt’s wife as an “Old Buzzard” and assumes she is already in bed (sorry about the poor quality of the reproduction). Jeff subsequently gets whacked with the rolling pin, and Mutt takes it on the bean with a flatiron. That is quite a feat, throwing a grown man through a window while simultaneously hitting him on the head with a flatiron…

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Click on image to enlarge (Both strips courtesy University of Michigan)

The duo were also featured in more than 300 animated “half-reelers” produced between 1913 and 1926, including Mutt and Jeff: On Strike from 1920. The short film (which can be viewed here) even includes rare footage of Bud Fisher himself, since the story–sort of a film within a film–involves the penniless Mutt and Jeff going on strike after they see a movie featuring Fisher’s lavish home.

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STRIKEBREAKER…Still images from the silent half-reeler, Mutt and Jeff: On Strike. Fisher is shown at home discussing terms over the phone with his striking characters. They lose. (www.filmpreservation.org)

Coombs concluded the New Yorker “Profile” with these observations concerning Fisher’s personal habits:

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Fisher employed a number of assistants on the strip, including  George Herriman (Krazy Kat) and a high-school boy named Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are). When Fisher appeared to lose interest in the strip in the 1930s, assistant Al Smith took over and drew the strip for nearly fifty years (but Smith didn’t sign his own name on the strip until after Fisher’s death in 1954).

In Yesterday’s Papers, Adcock notes that Fisher “was the unlikeliest person you could think of to draw Mutt and Jeff…along with most of his contemporary cartoonist-journalists pals, (he) enjoyed fights, chorus girls, gambling, and saloons. Fisher liked to shoot up hotel rooms with his pistols, one of which was a gift from Pancho Villa, indoors when he was drunk.”

Heads in the Clouds

Thanks to the race to fly across the Atlantic, toy models of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and other planes were in high demand for the Christmas season, according to this item in the Nov. 26, 1927, “Talk of the Town:”

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BUILT TO LAST…A Metalcraft model kit (box, upper image, contents below) from the late 1920s. It was all metal in the days before plastic model kits. (eBay)

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At a Loss For Words

Jumping back to the Nov. 19, 1927 issue, we go from the low art of Bud Fisher to the high art of John Marin featured in “The Art Galleries” section of the New Yorker. Art critic Murdock Pemberton wrote:

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SAVAGE WORK…John Marin, White Horses – Sea Movement off Deer Isle, Maine, 1926. (Whitney Museum of American Art)

But perhaps “high art” is not an accurate description of Marin’s paintings, since Marin himself wasn’t into “highfalutin words” to describe his work…

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HAUNTING BEAUTY…John Marin, Echo Lake Franconia Range White Mountain Country, 1927 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.)

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In the previous week’s issue (Nov. 12) Marmon 8 was advertised as an ideal car for women. Not to be outdone, the folks at Buick shot back with this colorful ad in the Nov. 19 issue of the New Yorker:

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The Nov. 19 issue also featured this strange advertisement from the famed Wanamaker department store. Strange mainly because of the illustration, which features a fashionable woman departing a fanciful aircraft studded with mullioned windows(!) and a staircase that stretches to improbable depths…oh, and in case the reader might miss the snob appeal associated with French furs, the words Paris, Parisian or French are featured ten times…

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And finally, the ubiquitous New Yorker cartoon featuring the humorous mismatch of rich old duffer and ditzy young mistress, courtesy of Julian de Miskey…

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Next Time: More Funny Business…

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Fifteen Minutes is Quite Enough

Charles Lindbergh was all over the July 2, 1927 issue of the New Yorker, which reported that Lindy was a better a flier than a writer, and as a celebrity the press had to be inventive with a subject who would rather be alone in a cockpit with a ham sandwich than be feted at countless banquets.

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July 2, 1927 cover by Victor Bobritsky.

“The Talk of the Town” commented on the display at Putnam Publishing of a few manuscript pages penned by Lindbergh himself for his upcoming book, WE.

A draft of the autobiography had already been ghostwritten by New York Times reporter Carlyle MacDonald, but Lindbergh disliked MacDonald’s “false, fawning tone” and completely rewrote the manuscript himself–in longhand–using MacDonald’s manuscript as a template. Those early results were displayed in Putnam’s 45th Street window to whet the appetites of eager readers:

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FLYING THE ATLANTIC WAS EASIER…The dust jacket (left) for Charles Lindbergh’s WE. The ghostwritten first draft was disliked by Lindbergh, who in less than three weeks re-wrote the book in longhand. About a week later the book was published (July 27, 1927) and quickly became a bestseller. (Wikipedia)
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YEAH WHATEVER…Lindbergh appears less than thrilled during his ticker-tape parade in Manhattan on June 13, 1927. (Science Photo Library )

Nonplussed and often annoyed by all of the attention, Lindbergh was less than a colorful subject for the media. Philip Wylie (writing under the pseudonym “Horace Greeley Jr.”) in the New Yorker’s “Press in Review” column observed that reporters, seeking a more conventional image of a sentimental hero, decided to “supply him with emotions” he apparently lacked:

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Other reporters resorted to treacly tributes…

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…and if the subject himself isn’t very interesting, you can always resort to listing quantities of food and drink as a measure of the spectacle…

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WHERE’S MY DAMN HAM SAMMICH?…Invitation to the WE banquet at the Hotel Commodore (Wikipedia).

And if the reception at the Hotel Commodore wasn’t to your liking, you could go to the new Roxy Theatre and put in a bid for 300 pounds of home-made candy:

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We’ll give Lindy a break and move on to excerpts from Upton Sinclair’s “How to be Obscene,” in which he tweaks the Boston bluenoses:

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And then we have this advertisement for the Orthophonic Victrola, promising to bring the clear tones of racism into your home courtesy of the Duncan Sisters:

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The Duncan Sisters were a vaudeville duo who created their stage identities in the 1923 musical comedy Topsy and Eva, derived from the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The musical was a big hit.

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THAT WAS ENTERTAINMENT…Rosetta (left) and Vivian Duncan as Topsy and Eva. (silenceisplatinum.blogspot.com)
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Rosetta and Vivian Duncan in a promo photo. (silenceisplatinum.blogspot.com)

After a brief foray into movies in the early 1930s, the duo mostly entertained at night clubs and for many years continued to perform their Topsy and Eva routine even though appearing in blackface was considered impolite or offensive by later audiences. One of their final performances was on Liberace’s television show in 1956. The act ended in 1959 when Rosetta died in a car accident.

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STILL TOGETHER…Vivian (left) and Rose Duncan on Liberace’s television show in 1956. They performed their Topsy and Eva routine, without the blackface. (YouTube)

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And to close, a cartoon from the July 2 issue, courtesy of Julian de Miskey:

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Next Time: Summer in the City…

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