April 26, 2012

Male bosoms and smoking skaters: a Met program book from 1936

For sale: your very own Sherman tank!!
Some time back, a friend of Virginia Opera presented me with one of those gifts one gets when someone cleans out their closet; in this case, a stack of opera librettos.  (Yes, I know the plural of the Italian libretto is libretti; I Americanized it, okay?  Geez, get off my back!)  While sorting through the titles, one slender booklet turned out to be far more interesting than yet another Carmen libretto:


A program booklet from the Metropolitan Opera's 1936-1937 season.

This is nothing less than a time capsule from a long-gone era of Old New York.  The featured production was, predictably, Wagnerian (the Met was noo-noo-bonkers for Wagner in those days), with an A-list cast: Lohengrin.  Don't you wish you had been sitting in the house to hear Lauritz Melchior in the title role, with Kirsten Flagstad as Elsa and Marjorie Lawrence as Ortrud?  Yeah, that might have been a bit of all right, I'm thinking.

*cough* I love *wheeze* to skate! *hack*
But of course, the opera and its cast are of secondary importance -- the real fun comes from leafing through the rest of the program, perusing the ads and other features.  So put your feet up, light up an imaginary Chesterfield cigarette (it's okay, they were good for you in 1936), and journey back with me to see "what was up" three-quarters of a century ago when Lincoln Center was not yet a gleam in anyone's eye.

Let's get right to the most smile-inducing detail in the whole shebang: the subject of the male bosom.  Now, understand this: we are NOT speaking here of what are indelicately referred to in 2012 as "man-boobs" among heavy-set men with no muscle tone.  Nope, I'm reading copy from an ad for Arrow dress-shirts, in which two young hard-bodies with six-pack abs are pictured all decked out in their best formal duds.  Here's the sales pitch:

For an example of Arrow perfection, behold the Lido shirt on the young man at the right.  It has the narrower, far more comfortable bosom developed by Arrow. $3.  His companion wears the Kirk.  Fancy piqué bosom, $3.

Sorry, Arrow: there's just only so "comfortable" I'm going to be if you're going to refer to my pecs as a "bosom", much less a "piqué" one.

Moving right along, I see another feature which could be Exhibit A for anyone wanting to prove that opera is an elitist art form intended for snobby rich people.  Would you believe there is a two-page article of gossip about which snooty rich people were in attendance and what they were wearing?  With the title Seen at the Opera (leading us to conclude that being mentioned in the article provided 99% of the motivation to attend for 99% of the audience), we read nuggets such as these:

Black (with red as a close runner-up) continued to hold its own as an undisputed Metropolitan fashion-leader at Monday's highly fashionable "Traviata" audience; camellias were the flower of the evening, both off and on stage; there was a sprinkling of chinchilla wraps and quite a good bit of sable; jewels flashed like fireflies all over the house in the half-dark, and headdresses were noticeably less elaborate than they have been to date.

Headdresses?  Say what? Did the 1936 list of season subscribers include a tribe of Apaches?  After a bit of identifying such trends, we get to the good part: name-dropping!

In parterre boxes at "Traviata":  Mrs. Casimir de Rham, sheathed in flashing red sequins from shoulders to heels; going out later, Mrs. de Rham wore a long ermine wrap over her brilliant and sensational gown.

A dozen other snooty rich people are chronicled, but hold on -- I'm troubled by something in the account of Mrs. de Rham:  how did the writer know what she was wearing later, after the opera, when she went out on the town?  Did they FOLLOW her?  Did the Met have paid STALKERS on staff?  Whoa - getting a little creepy now.

Of course, it's always fun to marvel at the prices of things from decades ago as touted in ad copy, and the Met program book offers plenty of low prices that fill the bill:  a pack of Pall Malls for fifteen cents; a Steinway Grand piano for $885; a "peach satin" Maidenform bra for $1.50 (yes, there was a brassiered lady pictured -- no, I don't think it probably was Mrs. de Rham); and amazingly, a six-week tour of Egypt with the Thos. Cook & Son Travel Agency for (get this!) $500.00.  That's five hundred dollars, Sparky.

Other random ads, mostly with price unspecified (meaning, of course, that only the de Rahms of the world could afford them): 
  • Helena Rubinstein, who "bids places at your service a group of advanced physiotherapists, gymnasts, dieticians and bio-chmists; gifted cosmetic stylists; artists in the creation of coiffures; specialists in skin culture and the development of personality."  (Gymnasts?  Really?  Why would I need my own gymnast, exactly?)
  • Dinner and entertainment at the Sert Room of the Waldorf-Astoria, featuring the song stylings of Eve Symington, with dances by "Mario and Floria" (not the Puccini ones - they didn't dance, unless it was to Scarpia's tune), and Leo Reisman's "famous" orchestra
  • A Chesterfield ad showing a figure-skater with a lit coffin-nail in her hand, nicely linking healthy physical activity with smoking; and
  • a Carnegie Hall recital by the beloved diva Lily Pons on January 12, 1937 at 8:30 PM.  It was Madame Pons' first New York recital in three years, and tickets were going fast despite the "exorbitant" prices ranging from $1.10 to a top price of $2.75.
Finally, I can't resist noting that in the spot that all opera program books reserve in modern times for listing donors, from "Patron" status down to "Friend" status, this program book listed Box Holders.  Just a list of boxes, and the name of the person who paid to be seated in that box, along with a diagram of the seating chart so that YOU, when you came to the Met, would be able to train your binoculars on the rich snooty society star of your choice because you would know exactly where they were.  "OOOH!" you might squeal, "there in #3 of the Parterre Boxes:  that's Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt!  WOWIE!  And over there, in box 49 of the Grand Tier Boxes: let's see, it's Wednesday, so that must be Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Loomis Harmon!!  ZOWIE!" 

With all this going on, how did anyone ever pay any attention to the actual opera?  I have to admit, I'm now wondering about Arthur Loomis Harman and whether his shirt had a piqué bosom...

My new book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online from amazon.com or at http://www.kendallhunt.com/operazoo or by phone from the Customer Service line at 1-800-344-9034 ext.3020.

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