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!

 

Roll the Presses

You need not read far into Issue #1 before you realize how utterly distant this world is from our own. Launched in the midst of the Jazz Age, the magazine assumed its readers to be bourgeois (judging from the ads), cosmopolitan, Anglo- and/or Francophile, Ivy- or private school-educated and with enough disposable income to strike the disinterested pose of the cover mascot, Eustace Tilley.

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Issue 1, Feb. 21, 1925, cover by Rea Irvin

Issue No. 1, Feb. 21, 1925, opened with a section titled “Of All Things,” and these first words:

Right next door to the Follies, some young adventurer has opened a penny peep-show where you can see five hundred and fifty glorified young women for what Mr. Ziegfeld charges for his much smaller collection.

The section concluded with a manifesto by the magazine’s founder and editor-in-chief, Harold Ross, who famously proclaimed, “It has announced that it is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.”

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Harold Ross (theharlow.net)

There is scant advertising in the slim first issues (No. 1 is just 32 pages plus cover). In an article written for the 90th anniversary issue (Feb. 23, 2015), Ian Frazier explains how it was first funded:

After returning to the States, in 1919, he (Ross) edited a short-lived version of Stars & Stripes for veterans and became a New York night-life figure known for carrying around a dummy of his still unnamed magazine and talking about it endlessly. When he finally published the first issue of The New Yorker, ninety years ago, he paid for it partly himself. Nearly half the magazine’s original funding was a twenty-one-thousand-dollar stake put up by Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, and their friend Hawley Truax. Raoul Fleischmann, a baking heir and almost millionaire whom Ross had met through mutual friends, supplied another twenty-five thousand.

9780307829412_p0_v1_s260x420Harold Ross’s involvement in World War I figured prominently in the origins of the New Yorker. It was during his time at Stars & Stripes that he met Alexander Woollcott, who was already an established New York theater critic.

Jane_Grant
Jane Grant (Wikipedia)

At this time Ross also met Jane Grant, who was serving in the YMCA entertainment corps and was a frequent visitor to the Star & Stripes offices.

I highly recommend Thomas Kunkel’s Ross biography, Genius in Disguise, for a complete account of the magazine’s early days.

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It took a few issues for the editors to sort out regular features and their order of appearance. The opening section of Issue No. 1 featured the famous Rea Irvin masthead—flanked by Eustace Tilley and the night owl—and Irvin’s distinctive typeface that would introduce “The Talk of Town” for many issues to come. However in Issue No. 1 “Of All Things” appeared under the masthead, followed by “Talk of the Town” which was (for the first and last time) under this banner:

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The magazine’s second issue, Feb. 28, paired the Eustace Tilley masthead with “The Talk of the Town” for its opening section, but the March 7 issue paired it with “Behind the News” for the opening section.

With the March 14th issue, the editors decided to permanently install “The Talk of the Town” below the masthead in the lead section, relegating “Of All Things” and “Behind the News” to inside pages.

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For the sake of comparison, here is the current 2015 version:

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A number of short-lived regular features made their appearance in these early issues: “The Story of Manhattankind” offered drawings by Herb Roth and tongue-in-cheek accounts of early Manhattan life that featured cartoonish Indians and bumbling settlers. It is here where the magazine took its first of many shots at William Randolph Hearst, perceived rival and publisher of Cosmopolitan (more of a literary magazine in 1925, and not the sex tips and cleavage rag it is today).

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“Profiles” were established at the start, the first issue featuring opera maestro Giulo Gatti-Casazza, the second issue taking aim at “Princess” Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and the third issue probing New York Times managing editor Carr Vatell Van Anda. “In Our Midst” featured local celebrity sightings and gossip, such as actress Tallulah Bankhead and writer Edna Ferber in Issue 3 (March 7).

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New Yorker Issues 2 & 3, Feb. 28 (cover by Al Frueh) and March 7 (cover by Rea Irvin), 1925.

The cartoons from the very beginning were famously droll, such as this illustration by Alfred Leete…

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…but a few recall an earlier style in which the action is captioned (like old Punch cartoons) in a more formal manner. The first issue featured an Ethel Plummer cartoon of an “uncle” and a “flapper” (niece or a mistress?) looking at a theater bill for The Wages of Sin:

Uncle: Poor girls, so few get their wages.

Flapper: So few get their sin, darn it!

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A section titled “The Hour Glass” offered short, casual accounts of various local personalities. “Lyrics from a Pekinese” was another recurring feature by writer Arthur Gutterman, who was known for his silly poems.

Music reviews in early issues were almost entirely devoted to classical, live performances. Fritz Kreisler’s violin mastery was featured prominently in the first issue, while it wasn’t until the third issue that jazz was briefly mentioned (it was becoming “respectable” in some concert halls). It was reported that violinist Damuel Dushkin ended his performance with selections from George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The “Art” section featured an exhibition of British paintings at the Central Art Galleries, and a show by the Society of Independent Artists (paintings sell from 24 to 99 dollars), at the Waldorf Hotel (soon to be razed and replaced by the Empire State Building). Joseph Stella was at the Dudensing Galleries, described as a “gifted young American.”

017- Waldorf Astoria
Old Waldorf-Astoria, razed in 1929 to make way for the Empire State Building (nycago.org)

“Motion Pictures” looked at Greed (Frank Norris’s McTeugue transferred to the screen), which was playing on the Loew Circuit; The Lost World at the Astor (“Through camera trickery, dinosaurs and other beasts of the prehistoric past live again. Interesting because it proves that the camera is a liar”); the “splendid” German-made The Last Laugh by Carl Mayer (of Dr. Caligari fame) and The Salvation Hunters by Josef Von Sternberg. The magazine called it “deadly monotonous”…”the characters just sit around and think.” German actor Emil Jannings was a favorite, and would be lauded in subsequent issues.

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Still image from The Lost World, 1925 (Wikipedia)

The first issue closed with an ad from Royal Cord Balloon Tires. Later issues would depend heavily on advertising revenue from auto manufacturers.

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The early issues also featured two-page-drawings that illustrated some event described in the opening section. The Feb. 28 issue (#2), mentioned that Ciro’s opened with the Mary Hay and Clifton Webb dancing team:

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As this was the age of Prohibition, there was a notable absence of alcohol in ads and even in print articles, although references are made to “speakeasies” and later issues would report black market prices for liquor.

The second issue’s “Talk of the Town” further elaborated on the magazine’s manifesto:

And we won’t aim to please. If we happen to please we will not apologize, but we are not in the vast army of bores struggling frantically to give people what they want.

We may not do much for the magazine world. We don’t know that we’re aiming to. But of one thing we feel quite sure: if we ever run out of things to say, just for the fun of saying them, we expect to close up this little playhouse and go to work.

The “Theatre” section of Issue No. 2 featured James Joyce’s Exiles at the Neighborhood Theatre, while a section titled “And They Do Say” featured the first (of the many subsequent references) to Eddie Cantor’s various comings and goings. It was reported Cantor left for Boston in his “Kid Boot” and that altercations between Cantor and veteran stage actress Jobyna Howland “kept 42nd Street nervous for weeks.”

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Eddie Cantor and Jobyna Howland (Wikipedia, Travalanche)

Issue #2 marked the first appearance of a recurring column filler labeled “The Optimist.” It went as follows:

Pop: A man who thinks he can make it in par.

Johnny: What is an optimist, Pop?

“Books” featured a review of Ford Madox Ford’s “Some Do Not…” The reviewer Harry Este Dounce (under the nom de plume “Touchstone”) called it “as gratuitously black-biled a work of art as we ever saw.”

Under “Washington Notes” were the first of many humorous references to President Calvin Coolidge, his hayseed habits and his extreme frugality. Below, a drawing by Miguel Covarrubias (a regular contributor beginning with the first issue) in March 14 issue:

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Another Covarrubias illustration in Issue # 3 (March 7) depicted journalist Heywood Broun (old Ross friend and Algonquin Round Table stalwart) hard at work on his column for the New York World:

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Next Time: The Queen of Romania…