Welcome to Vintage Powder Room Cinema! Tonight’s feature is LADY OF BURLESQUE starring Barbara Stanwyck, Michael O’Shea and directed by William Wellman. I think this film makes a nice companion piece for tonight’s post about the La Cherte face powder box.
Enjoy the movie!
In 1941, Lee authored a mystery thriller called The G-String Murders, which was made into the sanitized 1943 film, Lady of Burlesque starring Barbara Stanwyck. While some assert this was in fact ghost-written by Craig Rice, there are those who claim that there is more than sufficient written evidence in the form of manuscripts and Lee’s own correspondence to prove that she wrote a large part of the novel herself under the guidance of Rice and others, including her editor George Davis, a friend and mentor. Lee’s second murder mystery, Mother Finds a Body, was published in 1942.
During the late 1920s La Cherte face powder claimed to be “The World’s Most Exquisite Face Powder.” Its ads even promised “it will endure through hours of dancing,” and the woman on this powder box from my collection seems to be testing the veracity of the company’s claim by strutting across a stage beneath a single spotlight.
It takes a woman with uncommon panache to take the stage alone, and that is why the La Cherte face powder box reminds me so much of Betty “Ball of Fire” Rowland, one of the most famous burlesque dancers of her era.
Betty was originally known as the “littlest burlesque star” because of her small stature, but her spirited performances earned the gorgeous titian-tressed dynamo the nickname “Ball of Fire”. Betty wowed audiences for years at the New Follies Theater on South Main Street downtown in revues such as “Panties Inferno,” “It’s Wicked,” and “Julius Teaser”.
A few years ago I met the Betty Rowland and it was a treat for me. Of course I had dozens of questions for her but I didn’t want to overwhelm the fragile nonagenarian, so I settled on one I didn’t think she had been asked a thousand times before: Did she have a signature scent? She paused for a moment before she responded.
Betty told me that her favorite fragrance had been L’Aimant by Coty. L’Aimant debuted in 1927 and it was the first perfume created by Francoise Coty. The scent is elegant and sophisticated, just like Betty. She told me that she wore it in her daily life and also on stage as a part of her act.
Before each of her appearances Betty would spray a liberal amount of L’Aimant all over herself so that when she “worked the curtain” her perfume would waft over the gents seated in the first few rows. I was awed by the anecdote. To incorporate the power of olfactory memory in her act was sheer genius. A large number of men must have seen Betty perform and carried with them the memory of her perfume. I wonder how many wives and girlfriends received gifts of L’Aimant from those men over the years; and I also wonder if the men knew why they’d selected that particular perfume at a counter crowded with choices.
As my conversation with Betty came to an end she lamented that Coty had long ago discontinued her favorite scent, but if you know where to look you can still find a vintage formulation of the famous floral. I sent a bottle of L’Aimant to Betty, and I hope it transported her back to her glory days on the stage of the New Follies Theater.
Here is Betty in action:
NOTE: Betty ‘Ball of Fire’ Rowland recently celebrated her 100th birthday!
I’m always curious about the back story, if any, behind a product’s name. It makes good marketing sense for most product names to reflect either a tangible attribute of the product being marketed, or to evoke a desirable emotion for the end user. Cute little puppies make us feel warm and fuzzy about a product. In the case of the SALLY hair net I found that there was an extremely popular musical of the same name playing at the New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway in New York in 1920 – which corresponds to the date of manufacture of the hair net.
SALLY opened on December 21, 1920 at the New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway and ran for an incredible 570 performances! By the time that the show closed in the mid-1920s, it would be among the top five money makers of the decade.
I can easily imagine women making a connection between the hair net and the hit musical. SALLY boasted music by Jerome Kern, and lyrics by Clifford Grey. It was produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, and starred Marilyn Miller.
Marilyn Miller was an enormously popular stage and screen actress, and while she often played in rags to riches stories which end happily, her own life was marred by tragedy. By the 1930s Marilyn had become increasingly dependent upon alcohol, possibly to relieve some of the discomfort of the frequent sinus infections from which she suffered.
Marilyn checked herself into a New York hospital in March 1936 to recover from a nervous breakdown. While there she underwent surgery on her nasal passages. She succumbed to complications from the surgery on April 26, 1936 – she was only 37 years old.
There are a couple of interesting footnotes to Marilyn Miller’s story. Census records reveal about half a dozen “Marilyns” in the United States in 1900; by the 1930s, following Miller’s stardom, it was the 16th most common first name among American females!
In the late 1940s, Norma Jean Baker changed her name to Marilyn Monroe at the urging of Ben Lyon, a one-time actor turned casting director at 20th Century Fox, who said she reminded him of Marilyn Miller.
And in an ironic twist, Marilyn Monroe would herself become Marilyn Miller when she wed the playwright Arthur Miller in 1956.
Another inspirational SALLY, whose name may have drawn women to the hair net package, was WAMPAS Baby Star, burlesque queen and fan dancer extraordinaire, Sally Rand.
What was WAMPAS? It was a promotional campaign sponsored by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers which honored thirteen young women each year whom they believed to be on the threshold of movie stardom. They were selected from 1922 to 1934, and annual awardees were honored at a party called the “WAMPAS Frolic”. Those selected were given extensive media coverage.
Sally Rand was one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1927and her stage name, like Marilyn Monroe’s, was chosen for her by someone else. In Rand’s case the name was bestowed upon her by Cecil B. DeMille who was inspired by a Rand McNally atlas.
After the introduction of sound film Rand became a dancer, and she was best known for the fan dance which she popularized starting at the Paramount Club.
Her most famous appearance was at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair entitled Century of Progress. She had been arrested four times in a single day during the fair due to perceived indecent exposure while riding a white horse down the streets of Chicago, but the nudity was only an illusion.
She also conceived and developed the bubble dance, in part to cope with wind while performing outdoors. She performed the fan dance on film in Bolero, released in 1934.
Sally Rand with her artfully manipulated fans and bubbles became a part of popular culture, and in Tex Avery’s cartoon Hollywood Steps Out (1941), a rotoscoped Rand performs her famous bubble dance onstage to an appreciative crowd. A grinning Peter Lorre caricature in the front row comments, “I haven’t seen such a beautiful bubble since I was a child.” The routine continues until the bubble is suddenly popped by Harpo Marx and his slingshot, with a surprised Rand (her nudity covered by a well-placed wooden barrel) reacting with shock. Rand is referred to as “Sally Strand” here.
Rand also makes an appearance in the crime fiction of Max Allan Collins in his book TRUE DETECTIVE. If you like historical mysteries set in the 1930s-1960s, pick up one of Collins’ novels featuring the character Nate Heller. I’m a fan of all of Collin’s work (he wrote the graphic novel THE ROAD TO PERDITION), but I’m particularly fond of the Nate Heller tales because Heller mixes it up with the likes of Chicago gangster Frank Nitti, and other historical figures such as Eliot Ness, and Amelia Earhart.
In STOLEN AWAY, Heller becomes involved in the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. I’m looking forward to the first Nate Heller novel in about a decade – it’s entitled “BYE BYE, BABY” and it is due out in August. The novel will feature Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmy Hoffa, and even the CIA.
I’m always up for a historical thrill ride, which is why I’m cautiously optimistic about the release this week of Rock Star Video’s L.A. NOIRE game, which purports to be an accurate portrayal of the cityscape of Los Angeles in 1947. I have a compelling interest in 1947 Los Angeles for a few reasons. My friends (and fellow social historians) Kim Cooper and Nathan Marsak originated the seminal LA crime-a-day blog 1947project which undertook the mammoth task of the daily retelling of the crimes and human interest stories of 1947 in prose and in photographs. As a tour guide for ESOTOURIC I participate in THE REAL BLACK DAHLIA tour, which seeks to examine Beth Short’s life in the weeks before her murder (in January 1947), as well as exploring the lives of other young women during the post-war era in Los Angeles.
I was unable to make it to a preview of L.A. NOIRE a few weeks ago, but Kim and Nathan were on hand to critique the pre-release version from a historical (not game play) perspective. Nathan blogged about the experience HERE.
Unfortunately, Nathan’s free walking tour on May 29th, which will explore some of the locations used in L.A. Noire, is filled to overflowing; however, anyone may attend the free SUNDAY SALON that precedes the tour (noon-2pm), and Nathan’s pre-walking-tour presentation (2pm+) on the architecture of “L.A. Noire.”
I’m attending the Sunday Salon on May 29th, and I’m fortunate to have scored a place for myself on the walking tour. I’m looking forward to a day of Noir fun in Los Angeles.
I don’t normally write about perfume, even though I love it, because I don’t collect it. But this past August I had an occasion to discuss perfume and burlesque with a wonderful woman who knows a great deal about both. The woman I’m talking about is none other than legendary burlesque queen, Betty “Ball of Fire” Rowland. I met her because she was a special guest on Esotouric’s “Hotel Horrors and Main Street Vice” tour.
She began her professional dancing career as a Minsky’s girl in New York city; and she may have stayed there if it hadn’t been for a crackdown on the burlesque houses beginning in 1935. The citizenry and, perhaps even more importantly, Mayor LaGuardia, considered burlesque a corrupt moral influence. The mayor and the citizens groups couldn’t shut Minksy’s down without a good reason — there would need to be a criminal charge against Abe Minsky. At last, in 1937, a dancer at Minsky’s was busted for working without her G-string and the law stepped in. New licensing regulations would allow the burlesque houses in New York to stay open, provided that they didn’t employ strippers! Not surprisingly, that bit of legalese put a bullet through the heart of burlesque in the city.
Betty and her troupe of dancers headed west to begin a limited engagement at the Follies Theater on Main Street in Los Angeles. It may have started as a limited engagement but Los Angeles audiences loved Betty and she would continue to dance at the Follies for about 15 years.
Before she was dubbed the “Ball of Fire”, Betty was known as the “littlest burlesque star”. That appellation may have described her stature (she is very petite), but “Ball of Fire” captured her spirit. Is she still a ball of fire? You bet!
Because I had an opportunity to chat with her, I decided that rather than ask her to reminisce about celebrities she’d known, or places she’d worked, I’d ask her if she’d had a signature scent, particularly something she’d worn when she performed. She seemed a little surprised by the question, saying she’d never been asked that before, but she responded instantly. Her favorite fragrance had been Coty’s L’Aimant; and it was part of her act! She told me that before she appeared on stage she’d spray a liberal amount of the cologne all over herself so that when she “worked the curtain” the scent would waft over the first few rows.
I told her that I thought it was absolutely brilliant of her to have conceived of using a fragrance in such a creative way. There has been an enormous amount of scientific research done on olfactory memory; but you don’t have to be a scientist to know that certain aromas trigger powerful personal memories. I cannot smell leaves burning without recalling my midwestern childhood.
As far as I was concerned, autumn had officially arrived when leaves, raked into neat piles, were burned in nearly every yard in my neighborhood.
I’ll bet that there were men who saw Betty perform who subsequently carried with them forever the memory of her perfume. I wonder how many wives and girlfriends received gifts of L’Aimant from those men over the years; and I also wonder if the men knew why they’d selected that particular perfume at a counter crowded with choices.
Betty lamented that Coty had long ago discontinued her favorite scent — but if you know where to look you can still find a vintage formulation of the famous floral. I’ve ordered a bottle for Betty, and I hope it prompts her to relive some of her most precious memories.
If you’re interested in seeing one of Betty’s performances, all you need to do is to go to YouTube. I’ve also written a little different story about Betty for In SRO Land.