Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Two

The second chapter from Hollywood Undressed, a 1931 memoir attributed to the assistant of masseuse and health guru Sylvia Ulback, a.k.a. Sylvia of Hollywood, tells the story of how actress Marie Dressler became Sylvia’s first client from the motion picture industry. The book was actually ghost-written for Sylvia herself by newspaper reporter and screenwriter James Whittaker.

OUR FIRST LADY STRIPS FOR ACTION

Marie DresslerMARIE DRESSLER is the one woman whose name is in the date book as far back as 1925, who doesn’t give me a pain. I guess everyone likes her. Even these cats that come in here with gastritis every time somebody else makes a hit in a picture can stand the idea that Marie Dressler is knocking them dead with every release. Maybe it’s because Marie is nobody’s rival for a beauty prize. What really burns them up is having new cutie breeze into town hunting for a lap to climb on. Nobody got alarmed when Miss Dressler began squeezing through the doors of casting offices. And now it’s too late to do anything about it.
The nightly prayer of the Hollywood female is: “Please, Lord, don’t send us any more lookers.” Heaven heard them once, and sent Marie Dressler.
Sylvia was giving Dressler her daily tumble before Hollywood ever did. Back in 1925, in “The Callahans and the Murphys,” Dressler was just one of the supporting crowd—an aunt or something. Nevertheless, she was Sylvia’s first movie client and her entering wedge into the film colony.
Yes, if Marie Dressler hadn’t been loaded up with fourteen quarts of near-beer a day back in 1925, Sylvia might have gone back to Chicago. And me? I suppose I’d still be holding the towel for that dentist who couldn’t pay my wages. But for Marie Dressler, Sylvia might never have hung on in Hollywood.
The boss told me about that first call to Marie Dressler’s suite in the Ambassador Hotel. You see, in those days, being just a squareheaded immigrant, Sylvia knew no more about the Hollywood film world than you can find out walking down Vine Street at lunch hour, and reading the press blurbs. And what you see from that angle is all front—the big Hollywood front. It took her a couple of years to work around to the other side of Hollywood.
The call to attend Marie Dressler came quite unexpectedly. I don’t need to say I wasn’t yet on the scene. An unknown masseuse doesn’t need a secretary to handle the appointment book and the collections. One of her patients was a Chicago woman visiting Los Angeles and staying in the Hotel Ambassador. This same woman was getting treatment by the hotel doctor, who was an A-No.1 M. D. and was on the level. So when Marie Dressler called the doc to her suite in the same hotel and showed him the symptoms of gastritis, the doc recommended Sylvia.
And so Mae Murray and Alice White and Bebe Daniels and Mary Duncan and Ramon Novarro and Ronald Colman and Norma Shearer and Ruth Chatterton and Ann Harding and Norma Talmadge and Grace Moore and Connie Bennett and Gloria Swanson followed in rapid succession, and today Sylvia stands at the top of her profession and has an electric refrigerator and a hired girl in the kitchen.
Well, meanwhile, before going up to the Dressler suite, Sylvia stopped in to thank the hotel doctor for the boost. And she got to telling him how this was like a dream coming true—
“Because I worked a year in Chicago to save up enough money to come out to Hollywood,” she told him. “I doped it out, doctor, that the one thing they want out here is to hang on to their good looks, which they can’t do without some professional help. Now, this Marie Dressler—tell me confidentially, doctor. She isn’t so sick, as she’s afraid she’s lost her shape or her complexion. Isn’t that it?”
You see, Dressler was just a name to the boss, who hadn’t been spending much money or time on the movies. The doctor got wise that Sylvia thought she was to go to work on the alabaster surface of a piece of living Hollywood statuary. He let it ride.
“The poor girl’s a little overweight,” is all he said—with a poker face.
“Any bets I can’t take it off? said Sylvia.
“I’m not a betting man,” he replied.
So Sylvia went on up to suite A3 to get her first peek at Hollywood beauty languishing luxuriously in its lair.

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Hollywood Undressed, Chapter One

The first chapter from Hollywood Undressed, a 1931 memoir attributed to the assistant to masseuse and health guru Sylvia Ulback, a.k.a. Sylvia of Hollywood, discusses the services Sylvia provided to the stars who made up her client list. The book was actually ghost-written for Sylvia herself by newspaper reporter and screenwriter James Whittaker.

THE WHAM WHAT AM!

JEAN HARLOW is in the back room, where Sylvia is giving her a spanking she’ll remember—to judge from the howls. Three more of them are sitting around in the front room waiting their turns. The one who goes in next has already stripped and is sitting with a towel in her lap. Modesty? Modesty my eye! She’s trying to hide her misplaced tonnage.
Jean HarlowIf we could save and market what the actor bunch of Hollywood comes into this massage parlor to have slapped off, we’d put Armour out of business. … Well, I’ve got to turn on the radio—loud. Those are my standing orders. Whenever they begin to howl in the back room, cover up with music. I hunt over the dial until I get something with lots of music. … This tenor up in Oregon will do fine. There’s jazz for you!
Wham! And listen to that baby howl! Sometimes—even though I’ve been Sylvia a long time and I know they never die on the slab—sometimes I get scared and go in to see fi the boss isn’t getting too enthusiastic….
I looked into the back room just now. I might have saved myself the trip. It’s just the usual. Another talkie star (a moon, if you ask me!) is in there now, laid out face down on the slab, and Sylvia is going to take a pound of ham off her in the next fifteen minutes or know the reason why. Sylvia can do it, too. I’ve got to hand it to her. She’s only four feet eight inches high and there isn’t much meat on her—but what there is, it’s all power.
She stands off about three feet from the target and winds up like a baseball pitcher. No need to take any special aim. This home plate is as big around as a balloon tire. When Sylvia lands it sounds like a pistol shot. That’s because of the trick swat, reserved for the tough cases—the cases where the studio executives have gone into conference because the lady is bursting the seams in the gown for the ballroom scene.
That swat is something special. Sylvia cups her hand so that it shapes like a rubber suction pad, and when it lands it sticks for an instant and pulls away like a cork leaving a bottle. That’s what fits them to their parts. The fat comes out through the pores like mashed potatoes through a colander.
Sylvia is working to the music … One and two and one and two … The victim goes oof! at each sock and cries like a baby in between. When she is through and limps away, she’ll stop in the front room and hand over fifteen dollars for having been beaten silly.
I wish Sylvia would let me pinch-hit for her sometimes. On some of these motion-picture stars I’d do the job for nothing.
You gather that I’m not exactly sold on these world-famous beauties of Hollywood who have been hanging their Paris underwear on our parlor lamp for the past four years at an average rate of sixteen a day. When you see sixteen motion-picture stars a day troop in and strip down to sixteen different kinds of physical results of overeating and other forms of self=indulgence, you get sour on the whole lot of them. You wonder how they get that way.
As I figure it, most of them never ate regular until they landed their first Hollywood contracts and now a menu just goes to their heads—their heads and their elsewheres. Eat, drink and be stuffed, for tomorrow we may be fired.
The universal ailment is prosperity. In her date book, Sylvia has over a hundred film people catalogued according to the places on their physiques where their earnings show. They fall into one or more of five classes, one class for each place. There is such a thing as a film star who falls into all five. That’s Marie Dressler. No wonder … fourteen quarts of near-beer a day!

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Formerly Famous: Sylvia Ulback

The late Jack LaLanne may have been the most famous and longest-tenured of celebrity fitness experts, but he wasn’t the first. Syvia Ulback, known in her heyday as both Madame Sylvia and Sylvia of Hollywood, preceded him by at least a decade.

Sylvia’s beat was more beauty than fitness, but she knew full well that you can’t have the former without the latter, and she made certain her famous clients knew it, too. A masseuse by trade, Sylvia also advised her clients on proper diet and the importance of exercise.

Her client list amounted to a virtual Who’s Who of 1920s and early ’30s Hollywood, including Bebe Daniels, Ramon Navarro, Ronald Colman, Norma Shearer, Ruth Chatterton, Ann Harding, Norma Talmadge, Charles Farrell, Zasu Pitts, Constance Bennett, and Marion Davies.

Born in Norway in 1881 to artistic parents—her mother was an opera singer; her father an artist—Sylvia entered the field of nursing as a young woman. Having undergone massage training as well, she opened a studio in Bremen, Germany, when she was 18. In the early 1900s, she was wed to lumber dealer Andrew Ulback; the pair emigrated to the United States in 1921 when Andrew’s lumber business failed, settling first in New York City and Chicago before finally relocating to Hollywood in the mid-1920s.

Standing no taller than five feet, Sylvia once told The Hartford Courant that she had been inspired to pursue the reducing arts when she caught her husband eyeing a stenographer much slimmer than she. She adopted a painfully strenuous form of massage that she insisted would, when combined with proper diet and exercise, rid her clients of unwanted fat; though the claim may strike modern readers as dubious at best, the results she achieved were sufficient to ensure a quick rise for the ambitious masseuse.

Actress Marie Dressler was Sylvia’s first celebrity client, and her initial entree into that market depended entirely on garnering the approval of Dressler’s astrologer. Fortunately for Sylvia, she was given the okay.

Various stars came to so depend on Sylvia that they tried to monopolize her services. Mae Murray paid Sylvia to accompany her on a lengthy vaudeville tour (though Sylvia had to sue the actress for non-payment of salary upon their return to Hollywood—a suit she won), and Gloria Swanson was so impressed by Sylvia’s achievements that she arranged to have her hired by the Pathé Studio as the house masseuse at a weekly salary of $750, the rough equivalent of nearly $10,000 today. Joseph Kennedy, later patriarch of the famed Massachusetts political dynasty and then one of the studio heads at Pathé, hesitated to hire Sylvia at first, until she was able to diagnose his flat feet merely by watching him walk across a room.

In 1931, Brentano published a best-selling volume entitled Hollywood Undressed: Observations Of Sylvia As Noted By Her Secretary. It was thought by some that the masseuse herself penned the memoir, which is filled with juicy tales of the Hollywood figures who made up Sylvia’s clientele, along with diet tips and exercise recommendations. In fact, the book was ghostwritten by screenwriter/reporter James Whittaker, first husband to actress Ina Clare.

Though—or, perhaps, because—the book broke the rules by telling tales out of school, it sold very well, but at a price. Sylvia had bitten the hand that fed her, and it hurt her standing in Hollywood. But she managed to limit the damage by adopting additional avenues of influence and income.

Sylvia was soon writing syndicated columns on health and beauty for newspapers across the country and for Photoplay magazine; she also hosted her own nationally syndicated radio show, Madame Sylvia of Hollywood.

The radio show inspired a bit of a scandal when, in 1934, Sylvia, having aired an interview she said was with Ginger Rogers, was sued by the popular actress, who insisted that she had not taken part in any way in the broadcast. The case was settled out of court.

Sylvia also wrote three more bestselling books advising women on topics of health and beauty, this time with full author credit: No More Alibis (1934), Pull Yourself Together, Baby (1936), and Streamline Your Figure (1939).

On June 27, 1932, Sylvia, at the age of fifty, divorced Andrew Ulback. Just four days later, she married stage actor Edward Leider, eleven years her junior.

Sylvia abruptly retreated from the spotlight in 1939, enjoying a long life with Edward in relative obscurity. When she died, at age 94 in March 1975, just a month after Edward passed away, she was living in a small bungalow in Santa Monica. On her death certificate, her occupation was listed as “housewife.” Few, if any, publications noted her passing. Her influential career had been all but forgotten.

This story originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Zelda, the Magazine of the Vintage Nouveau. Watch this space next week for the first chapter from Sylvia Ulback’s Hollywood Undressed.

Goodbye to another glorious gal: Barbara Kent

Some years ago, we had the pleasure of viewing Lonesome, a silent-talkie hybrid that was released in 1928. It’s not an easy movie to catch; as far as we know, the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, has one of the few extant prints. (Someone seems to have loaded Lonesome up on YouTube, and we suppose that’s better than not seeing it at all, but just barely.)

Lonesome could not be more charming. Its appeal is based in large part on the fact that much of it was filmed on Coney Island, and any glimpse of that magical setting as it was in the 1920s is to be treasured.

But the plot of the picture is engaging, too. It tells the tale of two lonely Manhattanites who experience a chance meeting at Coney Island and go on to spend a magical day together before getting separated that evening, with neither having learned the other’s last name. In a city of millions, will they ever manage to find each other? (If you think we’re going to tell you how it turns out, you can think again. No blabbermouths, we.)

Lonesome was originally released as a silent picture, but with all the fuss over the new sound technology, it was decided to bring back all involved parties to film three scenes with synchronized music and dialogue. So it’s not quite a silent and not quite a talkie.

But it’s certainly delightful, in our opinion, and we encourage you, if you ever have the opportunity, to see it (in a theatre and not streaming online, if at all possible).

But you might well be wondering why we’re mentioning what is today a rather obscure picture now? Well, we’re sad to report that it’s because the movie’s leading lady, Barbara Kent, one of Universal Studios’ original contract stars and the final surviving WAMPAS Baby Star of 1927, died a week ago yesterday at the age of 103.

The Canadian-born Kent (her birthname was Barbara Cloutman) was not, admittedly, the biggest of names, even at the height of her career, but she made her mark, making eight or nine silents before successfully navigating the switch to talking pictures. She made 25 sound movies following her appearance in Lonesome, but retired from acting in 1935.

Among Kent’s most notable films were her screen debut in Flesh and the Devil (1926), with John Gilbert and Greta Garbo; a pair of starring roles opposite Harold Lloyd, in 1929’s Welcome Danger and Feet First a year later; a supporting role in Indiscreet (1931), which starred Gloria Swanson; and Emma, which featured Myrna Loy and Marie Dressler.

In the course of her nine-year career, Kent also worked alongside Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Richard Barthelmess, Edward G. Robinson, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Andy Devine, James Gleason, Ben Lyon, Gilbert Roland, Noah Beery, Victor Jory, Dickie Moore, Monte Blue, Wallace Ford, Ward Bond, Arthur Lake, and Rex the Wonder Horse. That may not qualify as a Hall of Fame roster of co-stars, but many an actress has done worse.

After retiring, Kent refused virtually all interviews about her years in Hollywood—one notable exception was the time she afforded author Michael G. Ankerich, who profiled Kent in The Sound of Silence: Conversations with 16 Film and Stage Personalities Who Bridged the Gap Between Silents and Talkies—as she settled into a successive pair of happy marriages—first to Harry Edington, a Hollywood agent, whom she wed in 1932, and then, some years after Edington’s death in 1949, she married Jack Monroe, a Lockheed engineer. Aside from evading would-be interviewers, Kent reportedly spent her free time in her golden years as a golfer and a pilot.

For more on Kent’s life and career, give this New York Times obit a look.

Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 12

In Chapter 12 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée finally gets around to providing some typical memoir material, sharing tales of his boyhood in Westbrook, Maine, and offering accounts of his experiences traveling west to Hollywood to make his first picture, The Vagabond Lover (1929).

Chapter XII

From Westbrook to Hollywood

IN EVERY interview that I have ever given I have been careful to state that my birthplace was a small town in Vermont called Island Pond. Most peculiarly, however, the interviewers have seen fit for some reason to omit this fact and to refer to me as a Maine boy. Probably this is due to the fact that i spent only two years of my life in Vermont. Although I grew up in Maine, I am very proud of my Green Mountain birthright, and the vacations that I have spent in Island Pond were some of the most wonderful days of my life.
However, it was during my boyhood in Westbrook, Maine, that I first began to dream of the theatre. I must have inherited a love for all things theatrical from my father who, though a druggist all his life, had been associated with several theatres in various small business ways. Anyway it was always in the back of my head, and even when I was in the early grades of grammar school I used to climb up by the door of the motion picture booth and peek in to watch the film with fascinated eyes as it went past the aperture plate, with the bright light from the arc lamp shining on it; and the hum of the machine as the operator cranked it by hand, and the smell of film and film cement meant as much to me as the picture itself.
My idea of perfect happiness in life was to be the manager of a theatre, who not only selected the films to be shown, but could sit in the theatre all day and watch them.
My last years of grammar school I knew I would have to help father in the drug store. I had grown into long pants and I began my first work in the drug store. Being rather dexterous with my hands and quick of mind I proved to be one of father’s best clerks, but I never liked the work. It was that I actually disliked manual labor; I never minded chopping eighteen pails of ice every day and bringing them upstairs and then packing the ice around the things that had to be kept cold (this was in the days before they had iceless refrigeration) nor did I mind opening the boxes containing countless small boxes and bottles which had to be put away in a thousand and one places in the store.
I enjoyed making the syrups, and usually gorged myself on them as I drew them from the large bottles in which they came—I was particularly fond of chocolate syrup and usually became sick from overindulgence.
But it was the fact that there was little of romance in waiting on customers who were slow in making up their minds, and who were cross and disagreeable at times; it made me miserable. Then again there was nothing fixed about the hours, we worked from early morning until late at night. Many a time father and I were just about to close the store when a street car would stop in front of our place filled with people coming back from a near-by dance hall and rust theatre, and again we would put on the lights, open the doors, and in a breathless rush serve forty and fifty people at the soda-fountain.
I had to rush out on cold days and pump gasoline, as we were one of the first drug stores to have a gasoline filling station. The only happiness I knew in the store was when father took on the sale of Victor photograph records and I had a chance to give demonstrations to possible purchasers of these records. After I had played them twice over, I usually knew all the good and bad features of the records and could invariably whistle and hum along with them. I knew the selling points of each and very rarely failed to sell a record when i attempted to do so. The thing lasted all too short a time but its effect upon me was profound and tremendous.
A small event of great future import took place a the beginning of school vacation when a disagreement with the head clerk affected me so that I walked out of the store and went out swimming with the boys.

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