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…

 

Lights, Camera, Action

Comedian Ed Wynn began his long acting career on a vaudeville stage in 1903, and beginning in 1914 his giggly voice would delight Broadway crowds flocking to the Ziegfeld Follies. So when he stepped in front of a movie camera for a talking picture, it was something of a sensation.

September 27, 1930 cover by Sue Williams.

It was not an easy transition for the stage veteran. As you can see from Morris Markey’s account below in “A Reporter at Large,” the early talkies presented all manner of challenges and restrictions for stage actors accustomed to a bit more freedom of movement and expression.

SCANDALOUS BUNCH…Ed Wynn (in hat) portrayed a character he developed on Broadway — “Crickets” — in his film debut Follow the Leader. At left is actor Stanley Smith, and at center, holding Wynn’s hand, is a brunette Ginger Rogers, with chorus girls from George White’s Scandals. (IMDB)

PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE WINDOW…Noisy cameras were enclosed in soundproof boxes in the early days of the talkies. Above, Woody Van Dyke directs Raquel Torres and Nils Asther in 1930’s The Sea Bat. (Pinterest)
TINSELTOWN IN QUEENS…For his article, Morris Markey visited the set of Follow the Leader at Astoria Studios in Queens. The original studio building, at 35th Avenue, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Although Paramount moved its movie operations to Hollywood in the early 1930s, the studio continued to be used for both film and television productions. At right, a bit of Paris was erected in the midst of Queens for the filming of 1929’s The Gay Lady. (Wikipedia/Kaufman Astoria Studios)
FILM DEBUT…A December 1930 magazine advertisement touting Ed Wynn’s first motion picture. (IMBD)

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False Modesty?

In Morris Markey’s second installment of his profile on Charles Lindbergh, Markey suggested that Lindbergh’s aversion to publicity might be a pose…

NO WI-FI, BUT YOU CAN SMOKE…Top, the posh set take wing circa 1930; below, passengers prepare to board an American Airlines flight in 1930. (Pinterest/Daily Mail)

…and also wondered how much credit Lindbergh could take for sparking the aviation industry, given that flying was still an activity reserved for a very few…

…Markey also noted a “lively rumor” that Lindbergh wanted to be President…

…fortunately Lindbergh did not give truth to the rumor, or fulfill the alternate history created by Philip Roth in his 2004 novel The Plot Against America

HANGIN’ WITH A BAD CROWD…Top, Charles Lindbergh accepts a ceremonial sword from Hermann Göring during a 1936 visit to Nazi Germany; below, right, Lindbergh in Germany, 1937. Philip Roth’s novel imagined Lindbergh’s election to the Presidency in 1940 and its chilling results. (Reddit/New Yorker/Goodreads)

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Bad Moon Rising

In 1930 few, if anyone, were aware of Lindbergh’s proclivities toward nationalism and antisemitism. And lacking a crystal ball, Markey’s New Yorker colleague, Howard Brubaker, had little reason to be alarmed by the federal elections in Germany, which gave the Nazis the second largest number of seats in the Reichstag. In his “Of All Things” column, Brubaker quipped:

INCOMPATIBLE…As Howard Brubaker noted in “Of All Things,” the fascists led by Adolf Hitler, left, and the communists led by Ernst Thälmann (right) made big gains in the 1930 German elections. After gaining power in 1933, Hitler would arrest Thälmann and later have him shot. (Wikipedia)

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Gummed to Death

The New Yorker’s John Mosher took in the latest travelogue to exploit and misrepresent life on the African savannah. Africa Speaks included a scene depicting a fatal attack on a “native boy” by a lion —  an attack that was actually staged at a Los Angeles zoo and involved a toothless lion…

STRANGE INDEED…At left, movie poster for Africa Speaks; top right, Pygmy drummers in the film; bottom right, explorer Paul Hoefler getting closer to nature. (IMDB/Wikimedia)

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From Our Advertisers

When Paris unveiled is spring and fall fashions, large department stores were always quick to respond with “copies”…

…while the higher end boutiques offered originals to “poor little rich girls”…

…perhaps some of these “poor little rich girls” socialized at the Panhellenic, a “club-hotel for college women”…

…and here are some views of the Panhellenic House, circa 1929…

Center, The Panhellenic House, at First Avenue and 49th Street; at left, the solarium; at right, a ballroom. (Avery Library/Museum of The City of New York via the New York Times)

…the makers of Old Gold cigarettes had some of the weirdest ads to push their smokes, including this one…

…and one wonders what the world would be like (and especially the U.S.) if car buyers would have favored a more compact version of the motorcar going forward…

…on to our comics…we begin with parenting tips from the posh set, courtesy Garrett Price

Alan Dunn explored modern matrimony…

…one of Helen Hokinson’s ladies demonstrated a unique taste in furniture…

Otto Soglow continued to explore humor in a wavy fashion…

…and we close with this vertiginous view provided by Leonard Dove

Caption: “Beer at lunch always makes me drowsy.”

Next Time: Leatherheads…

 

 

American Royalty

Although the United States declared its independence from British Empire nearly 250 years ago, the royal family and all of its requisite trappings persist in the American imagination like a phantom limb.

Oct. 5, 1929 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

E.B. White observed as much in the “Notes and Comment” section of the Oct. 5 issue, in which he offered his views regarding the “pother” over the wedding of Calvin Coolidge’s son, John, to Florence Trumbull, the daughter of Connecticut Governor John Harper Trumbull

White could have looked no further than the pages of the New Yorker for further evidence to his claims. The bourgeois yearnings of its readers were reflected in countless advertisements laced with anglophilic pretensions. Here are examples from 1929 issues we have previously examined:

LIVE LIKE A BARON…Ads from the New Yorker of the 1920s often featured illustrations of regal, priggish types such as the couple above, deployed to sell everything from apartments and ginger ale…
…to no-frills automobiles and menthol cigarettes. No product was too pedestrian for the royal treatment.

Writing under the pseudonym “Guy Fawkes,” Robert Benchley commented further on the Coolidge-Trumbull nuptials in the “Wayward Press” column:

HEY CAL, IT’S A WEDDING, NOT A FUNERAL…The former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal” for good reason, given his reserved demeanor that rarely produced a smile (although he apparently had a dry wit). He poses here at the wedding of his son, John. Left to right are Grace Goodhue Coolidge, President Coolidge, Florence Trumbull Coolidge, John Coolidge; Maud Pierce Usher Trumbull, and Gov. John Trumbull. (patch.com)
NOT EXACTLY KING’S ROAD…Onlookers line the street near the Congregational church in Plainview, Conn., hoping for a glimpse of the bride and groom, who were united in a simple ceremony. (AP)
CUTE COUPLE…Florence Trumbull and John Coolidge during their engagement, 1928. (crackerpilgrim.com)

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Modest Mussolini

We go from famous faces to infamous ones, namely the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, aka Il Duce, who received the adoration of his public while trying to remain inconspicuous at the cinema. “Talk” recounted…

NOW PICTURE HIM UPSIDE DOWN…A 1929 postcard image of the once-revered Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Sixteen years later he would be shot by his own people and strung up by his feet from the roof of a Milan gas station. (worthpoint.com)

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Going Down

“Talk” also commented on the growing trend for high-rise apartments to provide swimming pools and other amenities below street level:

TAKING THE PLUNGE DOWN UNDER…Few indoor swimming pools were available to New Yorkers during the 1920s. Two of the nicer ones were found underground at the Shelton Hotel (above) and the Park Central. Sadly, both pools no longer exist. In 2007 the Shelton’s pool was removed and the cavernous space was divided into three levels. I’m not sure when Park Central’s disappeared, but it’s fate was doubtless similar to the Shelton’s.(daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/hippostcard.com)

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How About a Catch?

As I’ve noted on previous occasions, the New Yorker of the 1920s all but ignored major league baseball. The magazine gave regular coverage to seemingly every sport, from hockey and college football to polo and yacht racing, but regular coverage of baseball was nonexistent, even when the Yankee’s Murderers’ Row (Ruth, Gehrig among others) won back-to-back World Series titles in 1927-28.

Still no coverage in the Oct. 5 issue, but the sport did get a brief mention in Howard Brubaker’s “Of All Things” column…

…and the issue was filled with baseball imagery, including the cover…

The Oct. 5 issue was filled with baseball-related items, but no actual coverage of the games. Images from the issue included, from left, the cover by Theodore Haupt; a filler sketch by Constantin Alajalov; and a Johan Bull illustration of umpire Bill Klem for the issue’s “Profile” section.

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In a Sentimental Mood

Robert Benchley checked out George White’s latest version of his Scandals revue at the Apollo Theatre, and found the sometimes risqué show to be in a sentimental mood…

BETTER SENTIMENTAL THAN DEPRESSED…The chanteuse Frances Williams (pictured on the show’s sheet music and at right) likely provided the only spark to the 1929 edition of George White’s Scandals. (amazon/psychotronicpaul.blogspot.com)

Benchley also looked in on Elmer Rice’s latest, See Naples and Die, featuring veteran English actress Beatrice Herford and the up-and-coming Claudette Colbert

VETERAN AND ROOKIE…Veteran English actress Beatrice Herford and the up-and-coming Claudette Colbert headlined Elmer Rice’s See Naples and Die. Colbert (pictured at right in a 1928 Broadway publicity photo) would go on to massive stardom in the 1930s. (Alchetron/Wikipeda)

Benchley applauded the veteran Herford’s performance, but found the otherwise reliable Colbert miscast as a wisecracking, Dorothy Parker type (Benchley, as we know, was close friends with Parker, so he knew what he was talking about)…

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An (Ugly) American in Paris

Off to Paris, we find correspondent Janet Flanner joining with Parisians in deriding the behavior of American tourists, who were on a course to drain every last drop from the ÎledeFrance before departing for the bone-dry USA:

DRINKING IN THE SIGHTS…American tourists at a Parisian café, circa 1920s. (tavbooks.com)

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Party Pooper

With her infant child (Patricia Arno) at home, it is doubtful Lois Long was seeing as much nightlife as she did during her first weeks at the New Yorker, when “nights were bold.” And indeed, her nightlife column “Tables for Two” would end for good in June 1930. Her Oct. 5 column took a cursory spin through the various nighttime offerings, ending on this note regarding a fan letter and a message from comedian Jimmy Durante:

THE GREAT SCHNOZZOLA Jimmy Durante brought a smile to the face of Lois “Lipstick” Long. 

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From Our Advertisers

With the latest Paris fashions splattered across newstands all over Manhattan, retailers scrambled to get “replicas” to consumers…Macy’s had “couturier bags”…

…the Hollander Dressmaking Department was ready to make a perfect copy of Patou’s “Quiproquo”…

…and this Chanel frock could be had in misses’ sizes for $145 (roughly equivalent to about $2K today)…

…Philip Morris hadn’t yet discovered the “Marlboro Man,” and were still hawking their cigarettes through a “distinguished handwriting contest.” The latest winner was Edmund Froese

…who would go on to become a popular mid-century landscape painter…

Port of New York, by Edmund Froese (undated)

…another artist in the midst of our ads is Carl “Eric” Erickson, who created these lovely images for R.J. Reynolds that would induce people to take up the habit with a Camel…

…and then we have some rather unlovely ads from the back pages, including these two that would not go over well with today’s readers…

…or this from Dr. Seuss, still sharpening his skills with Flit insecticide…

…or this ad from Abercrombie & Fitch, wrong on so many levels…

…on to happier things, here’s an illustration by Reginald Marsh that ran along the bottom of “Talk of the Town”…(click to enlarge)

Alan Dunn found love in the air above the streets of Manhattan…

…and Leonard Dove revealed the hazards of apartment rentals…

Next Time: Race to the Sky…

Black Bottom & Other Scandals

The Roaring Twenties were all about fads and crazes, ranging from flagpole sitting to dances such as “The Shimmy,” “The Charleston,” or “The Black Bottom.” These dances were appropriated from Black culture, with many New Yorkers getting their first exposure in places such as Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.

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June 26, 1926 cover by Julian de Miskey.

The June 26, 1926 issue of The New Yorker was all abuzz over the Broadway debut of George White’s eighth annual Scandals. The Scandals were a long-running string of Broadway revues that ran from 1919-1939. Modelled after the Ziegfeld Follies, the Scandals launched the careers of many entertainers, including W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges, Rudy Vallée and Louise Brooks. Composer George Gershwin’s early work also appeared in the earliest editions of the show.

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Actress Louise Brooks got her start in the Scandals and later the Ziegfeld Follies. Here she portrays the “Duchess of Sidebottom” in George White’s Scandals of 1924. By 1925 Brooks would have a movie contract with Paramount, and go on to become a popular star of the late silent era and gain fame as the iconic symbol of the flapper. (flickr)

Like Flo Ziegfeld, George White must have been a master at marketing, since tickets for the Scandals opening sold for $55, which today would be the equivalent of about $725:

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The editors of “The Talk of the Town” were a bit skeptical of all the hype:

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The 1926 Scandals show featured “The Black Bottom,” danced by Ziegfeld Follies star Ann Pennington and Tom Patricola. In this dance-crazed era, “The Black Bottom” became a national phenomenon and even surpassed “The Charleston” in popularity.

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Tom Patricola & Ann Pennington dance “The Black Bottom” in 1926 as Scandals producer George White looks on (Wikipedia)
Ann-Pennington-and-Felix2
Ann Pennington “teaching” Felix the Cat how to dance “The Black Bottom.” Image scan from Photoplay magazine spread, January 1927.

“The Black Bottom” was popularized in New York by the 1924 Harlem stage show show Dinaah. Although the dance moves originated in New Orleans in the early 20th century, Jelly Roll Morton gave it a name when he wrote Black Bottom Stomp in 1925, referring to Detroit’s Black Bottom district.

In typical fashion, The New Yorker was less than impressed with the spectacle. In his theatre review column, Charles Brackett made this observation:

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On to other things, “The Talk of the Town” also featured this curious note about George Custer’s widow, reminding us that 1926 was a very long time ago. Here are excerpts:

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Elizabeth Bacon Custer in 1876, the year of the Battle at Little Bighorn (Nebraska State Historical Society)

The New Yorker editors continued to remark on the changing face of Fifth Avenue…

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…and on the progress of the city’s infrastructure improvements, as in this excerpt from a humorous piece by the Robert Benchley:

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New York Governor Al Smith and New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore shake hands at the state border inside the Holland Tunnel in 1926. (NY Daily News)

Next Time: Wild & Woolly…

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