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…

 

Markey’s Road Trip

With the explosion of car ownership in the 1920s and 30s came improved highways across America, but if one were to undertake a long-distance journey, like the New Yorker’s Morris Markey, you were bound to find a wide range of conditions, from concrete highways to muddy dirt roads.

July 25, 1931 cover by Gardner Rea.

Markey wrote about his experience of driving from New York City to Atlanta for his “Reporter at Large” column, noting that stops at filling stations also offered opportunities to fill up on bootleg gin. Drunk driving, it seems, wasn’t a big concern in the early 1930s.

BLUE HIGHWAYS…Although the U.S. launched into major roadbuilding projects in the 1920s and 30s, rutted and muddy roads were still common in many areas of the country. Clockwise, from top left, Route 1 winds through Maryland in the 1920s; marker indicating the Mason and Dixon Line dividing Pennsylvania from Maryland, circa 1930; a 1930s dirt road in the Eastern U.S.; a policeman directs traffic in Richmond, Va., in the 1930s. (Library of Congress/fhwa.dot.gov/theshockoeexaminer.blogspot.com)
TIME TO GIN UP…James H. Brown (left), at the first of his four service stations in Richmond, Va., circa 1930. Some service stations offered Morris Markey bootleg gin during his journey to Atlanta. My use of this photo, however, does not imply that Mr. Brown offered the same service. (vintagerva.blogspot.com)

Unfortunately, Markey shared the sensibilities of many of his fellow Americans 89 years ago, and made this observation about drivers below the Mason and Dixon Line:

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Pale Riders

Since the mid-19th century Chelsea’s Tenth Avenue was known as “Death Avenue” due to the killing and maiming of hundreds who got in the way of freight trains that plowed through 10th and 11th Avenues in the service of warehouses and factories in the district. In the 1850s the freight line hired horsemen known as “West Side Cowboys” to warn wagons and pedestrians of oncoming trains, but even with this precaution nearly 450 people were killed by trains between 1852 and 1908, with almost 200 deaths occurring in the decade preceding 1908. Calls for an elevated railroad were finally answered with the opening of the High Line in 1934. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on the last of these urban cowboys:

WESTSIDE COWBOYS…Clockwise, from top left, a steam locomotive rumbles down 11th Avenue in the 1920s; a West Side Cowboy William Connolly rides ahead of a train to warn pedestrians in 1932; George Hayde led the final ride of the West Side cowboys up 10th Avenue on March 24, 1941; aerial view of the High Line from 18th Street heading north. Opened in 1934, the High Line lifted most train traffic 30 feet above the street. Today it serves only pedestrians, and is one of New York’s biggest tourist draws. (Forgotten NY/AP/NY Times/thehighline.org)

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Guys and Dolls

“The Talk of the Town” had some fun with a little-known aspect of a notorious gangster’s life; namely, the doll-filled house belonging to Jack “Legs” Diamond:

DOLL HOUSE…This house on Route 23 near Cairo, New York, once sheltered gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, his wife, Alice, and her extensive collection of dolls and other knick-knacks. (nydailynews.com/Zillow)

“Talk” also made joking reference to the number of times Diamond had been shot and survived to tell about it.

Diamond’s luck would run out at the end of 1931 — Dec. 18, to be exact — when gunmen would break into his hotel room in Troy, NY, and put three bullets into his head.

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Ziggy’s Stardust

Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932) had a knack for show business, launching the careers of many entertainers through his Ziegfeld Follies, which got its start in 1907 during vaudeville’s heyday. The advent of sound movies signaled the end of the vaudeville era and of Ziegfeld himself, who would stage one final Follies before his death in 1932. Gilbert Seldes penned a two-part profile of Ziegfeld under the title “Glorifier” (caricature by the great Abe Birnbaum). An excerpt:

GO WITH THE FLO…Broadway impresario Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld Jr with his Follies cast, 1931. It would prove to be his last Follies show. Revivals following his death in 1932 would prove to be much less successful. (Wall Street Journal)

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If Looks Could Kill

The New Yorker’s film critic John Mosher had a difficult time making sense of Murder by the Clock and its lead actress, Lilyan Tashman, who gave a tongue-in-cheek performance as the film’s femme fatale.

ARE YOU NUTS?…Irving Pichel and Lilyan Tashman in Murder by the Clock (1931). Tashman was known for her tongue-in-cheek portrayals of villainesses in films she made before her untimely death in 1934. (IMDB)

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Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Open-air performances of classical music and opera were popular summertime diversions in the days before air-conditioning. In 1931 crowds gathered in Lewisohn Stadium to hear the New York Philharmonic perform under the direction of Willem van Hoogstraten, who conducted the Lewisohn summer concert series from 1922 to 1939. Here is a listing in the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” section:

MUSIC IN THE AIR…Cover of the 1931 program for concerts at Lewisohn Stadium, College of the City of New York. Bottom right, signed photo of Willem van Hoogstraten from 1930. (digitalcollections.nypl.org/ebay.com)

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From Our Advertisers

Flo Ziegfeld’s 1931 Follies were lavish productions, but his advertising in the New Yorker was anything but as evidenced in this tiny ad that appeared at the bottom of page 52…

…no doubt anticipating the demise of Prohibition, the makers of Anheuser-Busch beverages ramped up the promotion of their non-alcoholic products to create associations with pre-Prohibition times…

…not to be outdone by the East Coast chocolates giant Schrafft’s, Whitman’s took out this full page ad to suggest how you might enjoy their product…

…which was in sharp contrast to the approach Schrafft’s took in this full-page ad featured in the April 25, 1931 New Yorker, which touted the health benefits of its candy…

…on to our cartoons, Richard Decker took us swimming with a middle-aged man who was anything but bored…

Barbara Shermund went en plein air with a couple of her ditzy debs…

Garrett Price also went to the country to find a bit of humor…

Helen Hokinson found a home away from home for a couple looking to take the sea air…

James Thurber continued to explore his brewing war between the sexes…

Harry Haenigsen gave us a novel approach to landing a trophy fish…

William Steig illustrated the wonders of the tailoring profession…

…and Alan Dunn aptly summed up the generation gap of the 1930s…

…on to the Aug. 1, 1931 issue…

August 1, 1931 cover by Rose Silver.

…”The Talk of the Town” mused about the advertising jingles made famous by the makers of Sapolio soap…

…Bret Harte actually did write jingles for the brand, once described by Time magazine as “probably the world’s best-advertised product” in its heyday. With a huge market share, Sapolio was so well known in the early 20th century that its owners decided they no longer needed to spend money on advertising. It was a poor decision, and by 1940 the product disappeared from the marketplace.

SEEING THE LIGHT OF DAY…A 19th century Sapolio sign on Broadway and Morris Street revealed after an adjoining building was demolished in 1930. (MCNY)
MONEY WELL SPENT…Sapolio ad from its heyday in the early 20th century. (Pinterest)

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Tough Love

As a charter member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, Heywood Broun was a friend to many of the founding writers and editors of the New Yorker. And so it must have been quite a task to review his play, Shoot the Works, which the New Yorker found wanting in a number of aspects. And because he was so close to Broun himself, Robert Benchley left the review writing to someone who signed the column “S. Finny.” I can’t find any record of an S. Finny at the New Yorker, and I don’t believe this is a Benchley pseudonym (he used “Guy Fawkes” in the New Yorker). At any rate, here is an excerpt:

SHOOT GETS SHOT…The New Yorker wasn’t crazy about Heywood Broun’s play, which ran for 87 performances at George M. Cohan’s Theatre. (Playbill)

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From Our Advertisers

The makers of the “Flexo” ice cube tray continued to tout the wonders of their product with these Ripley-themed ads. This might appear rather mundane to modern eyes, but electric refrigerators with built-in freezers were still rather novel in 1931…

…another way to stay cool in the summer of 1931 was to take an excursion to the Northern climes…

…this ad for the New York American featured an illustration by Herbert Roese, whose early work strongly resembled that of Peter Arno’s

…on to our cartoons, we have the latest antics of the Little King courtesy Otto Soglow

William Steig added levity to a heavy moment…

Barbara Shermund found humor at an antiques shop…

...John Held Jr continued his revels into our “naughty” Victorian past…

…and we end with Garrett Price, and a look at the ways of the modern family…

Next Time: An American Classic…