Times Square Tintypes: Florenz Ziegfeld

Sidney Skolsky was a former Broadway press agent turned columnist who made his living writing profiles he called “tintypes” of Broadway figures like Flo Ziegfeld (see below), Eddie Cantor, and Irving Berlin. In 1932, he moved west to Hollywood, where he continued as a columnist and became a movie producer as well (some claim it was Skolsky who first nicknamed the Academy Award “Oscar”).
But his book Times Square Tintypes, which was published in 1932, collected his Broadway columns, and like In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Sardi’s Hat Check Girl to the Stars, Renee Carroll, it’s a great time-capsule look at an exciting era in New York City cultural history.
The introduction that precedes the book’s first chapter below was written by Gilbert Wolf Gabriel, who worked with Skolsky at the Evening Sun. Gabriel went on to write for Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and many other publications. He eventually became a drama critic of some note.


I am not here to introduce Mr. Skolsky, the author of these subsequent sketches. Like all true biographers, Mr. Skolsky has a passion for self-effacement. He will hiss me for disclosing him in even the most general terms.
It is my theory that all good Broadway columnists—a race apart—are small of frame, soft of voice, racy with all the sophistication of the naïve-at-heart, with eyes that are incurably big with the wonder and glee of what they see in that fabulous district, the vicinity of Times Square. Mr. Skolsky is a favorite Broadway columnist, and he looks his likable part.
On The Sun, we used to leave Mr. Skolsky to his own sly devices. It would be better fun to wait and see what new personality he’d choose to lightning-sketch and pin up on the New York sky line each succeeding week. He was—still is, in his new-found quarters on The News—inexhaustible about that business. His world brims with possibilities for his peculiar sort of portraiture. His asylum of the great and the near-great will never run empty. He will always, I”m sure, greet every up-and-coming understudy with her literary tintype before she is six paces on her way to stardom.
The charcoal with which Mr. Skolsky draws is a native product. It can be made out of nothing else than Broadway’s compressed soot. And he wields it with a hand grown exceedingly quick and sure in the nervous racket of Broadway crowds. His wit has the telegraphic tempo which insures clean and telling strokes, and I have yet to see a single smudge of dirtiness in any of his shadows. More astounding still, he does without malice . . . in a territory where malice is both the coin and the curse of the realm.
I cannot remember that any of the ladies, proverbially famous for vanity, took exception to their Skolsky portraits. One, perhaps two, inordinately modest gentlemen did. Why, I can’t guess. He did them most merciful justice, and for his kindness was once imprisoned in a slowly descending elevator with a subject so indignant that Mr. Skolsky was momentarily expecting a shove to the bottom of the shaft. Broadway has its battlefields and its war crosses. Columnists must sign their ease and prepare to be first casualties.
But the larger, more constant embarrassment of this gallery of well-knowns must have been, not indignation, but, on the contrary, supplication. No sooner was Mr. Skolsky’s series a pronounced success—and it was such a success much sooner than it was a series—than the coy requests began to pour in. He was invited, advised, urged, begged to grow staccato concerning the semi-private lives of almost every semi-private person in New York.
He had me always wondering how he escaped wasting time and space on opaque and uninteresting third-raters. Until I saw that the fun lay all in Skolsky himself, and that he has his own happy way of turning kithen-maids into Columbines and dullest dogs into blue-ribbon wonders of the Broadway age.

*   *   *   *   *


Florenz Ziegfeld. That’s his real name. His father was Dr. Florenz Ziegfeld, founder of the Chicago Musical College. His mother, Rosalie de Hez, a French girl. He was born in Chicago, March 21, 1869.
His telephone bill is $10 a day.
Likes to munch sweets. Generally carries a small box of candy in his pocket.
Can’t sleep after six in the morning. Starts his day’s work in bed. With a masseur working on him, he dictates telegrams. Only one-third of the telegrams he writes are actually sent.
Talks with a nasal tone. Which is mimicked by some of his stars behind his back.
Whenever he goes on a long trip he takes along his own chef and his own food in a special car.
His theatrical fame and fortune really started on July 8, 1907. It was then he produced his first Follies. It was presented in the theatre now known as Loew’s New York Roof.
Knows more ways of escaping process servers than any other man in the world.
He can’t keep a secret.
Wears lavender-colored shirts, pointed perforated shoes, usually brown, and a hat that costs $40. In the winter he always wears a heavy beaver coat. He hates evening clothes and seldom wears them.

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In Your Hat, pt. 13

In the 13th and final chapter of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars Renee Carroll, she admits, after a dozen chapters spent glorifying the world of show business and the performers who populate it, that she finds the whole circus a bit depressing. It’s the has-beens, more than the wanna-bes, that sadden her, it seems, and she insists that she’s content to stick with the going concern that is her hat check concession. “I know that’s going to last,” Carroll writes.

She was wrong, of course. Hats have fallen mostly out of favor (though some of us still wear them), and many restaurants today don’t even offer a coat check service. But, for the most part, hats hung in there long enough for Ms. Carroll.

If you read to the end of this brief closing chapter, you’ll find some updates from throughout Ms. Carroll’s life, written in 1947 and 1951.

WELL, I’ve finished my fifth year at Sardi’s. The only thing that have increased are the measurements of my hips, the number of people I know, and the size of my tips! But I’ve never been happier in my life.
Broadway is a funny place. It means so many different things to so many different people. To those who had to fight their way up only to find, as the great Winchell puts it, “It’s easy enough to climb to the top of the ladder—the hard thing is to stay there”, Broadway is just a tragedy of shattered hopes. To those who are just starting out, with all their illusions still glittering brightly, Broadway is “the greatest community in the world.”
But to me, standing on the sidelines and watching the whole panorama unfold past my hat check cubby-hole, Broadway is just another street. It may have more mazdas, but it’s just as good a place to keep away from as the proverbial pool-room on the proverbial Main Street. It has its rewards, sure!—But so, too, have Broadway in Podunkville, and Metropolitan Avenue in Sqeedunk Hollow.
I wouldn’t swap my job for all the five-year contracts (with options) in Hollywood! I wouldn’t change places with all the girls Earl Carroll hopes he’s going to “discover” in the next five years! A few years of my face and figure might be enough for the theatre and movie-going public—but they’ll always want to have their hats checked. And as long as I don’t get their derbies mixed up, they’re going to need me. But show business—phooey! You fade quicker than a bleached blonde.

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In Your Hat, pt. 10

In Chapter 10 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars Renee Carroll, she shares tales of the various scams, cons, and rackets one was likely to encounter along Broadway back in the day and the characters behind them, including Harry, the Rose Seller, Dick the Bicyclist, and Angelo, the Newsboy.

KNOWING Owney Madden and Rothstein and thinking of them as racketeers of a higher order makes it just a little bit difficult to train your telescope down the line and pick up such characters as “Harry, the Rose Seller,” “Dick the Bicyclist,” “Angelo, the Newsboy” and the others who infest Times Square with petty rackets.

Still, for sheer ingenuity, Faginesque cunning with any of the harder criminal tendencies, these petty workers of the Main Stem take some kind of cake—and it’s probably sponge.
Because I know Broadway so well, from the tallest to the shortest, I’m also personally acquainted with the petty rackets, but maybe I’m exaggerating when I say petty, because if fifty dollars a night as wages is petty, then I’m Clara Bow and Rin Tin Tin was my favorite nephew.
I got to know Dick, who owns a bicycle and wants everybody to know it, because I used to pass him every night on his beat. After a while he came to know me, too, and would stop me and exchange stories, which was quite harmless.
Dick’s right name is Abie Marcovitch and he was born down on Allen Street. He was one of those kids who get wanderlust at the age of sixteen. So one day, bidding his father a penciled note of a good-by, he bought himself a bicycle with the money he had saved from his Saturday job and pedaled away towards New Jersey.
When he came to Harrison he got discouraged (who wouldn’t?) and decided that the great Wets would probably remain so, without any part of him. So he turned around and started to wheel home. But a few miles later he conceived a brilliant scheme. He was going into the petty racketeering business!
He stopped off in Jersey City and began to carry out his plan. First, he traded in his new bike for a second-hand one. It was a sturdy but dilapidated affair that had seen service on the velodrome floor. Then he visited an old bookstore that carried a sideline of curiosities. Here he selected a collection of used postal cards showing the sights of various countries of the world. The postal cards he pasted on a triangular cardboard which he has mounted within a frame and attached to the rear of his bicycle.
Then he bought a second hand aviator’s helmet, a pair of goggles, a windbreaker and a pair of puttees. These he splashed liberally with mud. Later he purchased a knapsack and filled it with a few essentials including a towel and soap.
With this equipment he proceeded on his interrupted journey into New York. Oh, I forgot,—in red ink he wrote across the postcards of his prowess as a wheelman. “New York to San Francisco in Fifteen Days”, “Paris to Rome”, “Moscow to Vienna”, and other phony inscriptions.
When he came to Times Square, he parked his wheel with a friend until nightfall and then went about his plan. He had it figured out that people are gayest at the time that the theater is over, for then the carefree usually start out on their merry-go-round of the evening.
Well, he parked up on Broadway somewhere, just outside the very busy zone but still in the theater district. All he did was stand his wheel at the curb and lean against it. He was a curious sight for Broadway. Spattered with mud and dust, his wheel was obviously the veteran of thousands of miles, his postcards testifying to his integrity. In five minutes a sympathetic crowd had gathered. Some read the postcards or the messages he had scribbled across them from the mayors of the towns he supposedly had visited. Some asked him questions which he answered glibly.
The racket, as he went on to explain to anybody he could buttonhole, was that he was trying to get to Japan and anything they could help him with would be like manna. After the first night’s work, some two hours of standing and talking, little Abie discovered that he had collected almost $25 for his pains. People were very generous and interested. To some he told stories of hardship and privation encountered in his fake travels; other learned of his proposed jaunt to the Orient—and everybody helped.
It seems that most people have a feeling that they’d like to travel and if they find they can’t but are able to help somebody else to do what they’d like to do by donating a dime or a quarter, more than likely they’ll come across. Besides, Abie was a quick talker, and knew whom to talk to longest.
This kept up for about a week, at the end of which time he discovered tat he was a rich man indeed. During that first seven days he had collected $225, more than he had earned in his whole life and more than his father could earn in two months. Unlike other kids of his age he kept quiet about it, stuck his money in a bank, and kept on riding his wheel up to Times Square every night.
After people got to know him they took him more or less as a joke. But figure out for yourself how much $200 a week is for a year and it’s no joke.
Abie kept it up for about fourteen months. He had to be careful. He was getting too well known to the cops and his spiel to the people about getting off to Japan on the next day was a little worn when the same people who slipped him a couple of dollars on more than one occasion came back to ask about it.
Finally, he rode off one night and I haven’t seen him since. As far as I can remember he worked that racket for about $10,000. I’m not sure but I think I saw him once after that on Broadway. He was dressed up in fine clothes and was escorting a nice Jewish girl. I said hello but he gave me a cold stare that froze my appendix to the spot, and the girl looked at him very suspiciously. If it’s his wife I hope he doesn’t try any petty rackets with her. She didn’t seem the type.

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In Your Hat, pt. 8

Here’s Chapter 8 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars, Renee Carroll, in which she shares tales of by the many celebrities she encountered while working at Sardi’s, among them George Burns and Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Norma Talmadge, George Raft, Wallace Reid, Ginger Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks, and many more.

     A STOOGE, in Broadway parlance, is the assist in the act. If you do an accordion routine and a heckler is paid by you to annoy your act from the box, then you’re probably Phil Baker and your stooge eventually becomes as famous as you are. Witness Sid Silvers of Take a Chance fame.
     Broadway is full of stooges, both in real life and on the stage. It may sound strange to you but the jester in the king’s court from the time of The Erl King (I don’t know why they insist on spelling Oil as Erl) has been brought down the years until now he is labeled “stooge.” His job is to take he hard knocks, furnish the opportunity for the gag to be sprung, and appear the perfect fool.
     When Phil Baker, who pumps a mean accordion, opened in a show in New York and had a stooge in the box doing the regular routine, Al Boasberg, the gagman who writes funny lines for a dozen or more comedians, wired Baker:


     Gracie Allen, of the famous team of Burns and Allen, is the stooge of the act, even though it is she who pulls all the funny lines. Recently she gave George Burns cause to laugh when she came to him with an idea.
     “Georgie, dear,” Gracie said. “I have an idea.”
     “Well, let’s forget it,” George answered characteristically, knowing it would bring on the usual headache.
     “I’ve thought of a line for our act,” she continued.
     “All right,” gave in George. “What is it?”
     “I can’t tell you until I’ve gotten a prop.”
     “What sort of a prop?”
     “A muff.”
     “What’s a muff?” George wanted to know.
     “It’s one of those things women used to carry around so that they could hold hands with themselves.”
     “All right, Gracie, get yourself a muff and let’s have the gag.”
     She went to the best furrier on the Avenue and ordered a muff made. It has to be matched sables, four skins, exquisitely sewn. The muff cost $250 and she charged it to Geroge Burns, her husband. She brought it to him one day.
     “Here’s the muff, George.”
     He examined it carefully. He approved.
     “I got it at a bargain, George.”
     George immediately became suspicious.
     “How much, Gracie? How much?” he pleaded.
     “Well—er—two hundred and—er—fifty dollars.”
     George felt around for support.
     “Two hundred and fifty smackers for that thing? Gracie, you’ll ruin me!”
     “But it’s a bargain, George, and the furrier let me have it at that price because there are two holes in it!”
     And she held up the muff to show him the holes in which one is supposed to insert one’s hands. Burns was nonplused.
     “But what about the gag?” he wanted to know. “Is the gag worth $250?”
     “Why, George,” giggled the she-stooge, “I just did it. You see, I come on with this muff and you ask me how much I paid for it and I say: ‘I got it at a bargain because it had two holes in it.”
     With which Mr. Burns fainted dead away. And that’s how jokes are born in case you’re interested.
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In Your Hat, pt. 7

Here’s Chapter 7 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars, Renee Carroll, in which she reflects on the early days of Sardi’s and how Vincent Sardi came to use the now-familiar caricatures of celebrities to garner attention for his eatery.

     IT’S surprising what you can learn from hats. There’s something about the way a man wears one that betrays him instantly. He may smile and joke and think he’s fooling the world—but just by watching him when he saunters or hurries up to my window, I can tell him things that ought to get me a tabloid columnist’s job. I can tell when he’s out of work, and when he’s in the money. When he’s playing the market and winning—and when he’s losing. And there’s nothing pseudo-psychic about it! Just observation—and experience.
     Take right at the moment when this ‘umble tome was being concocted. Broadway had been pretty hard hit, and there were hundreds of good actors as well as hams out of work. People who never tipped me less than a quarter before, now fumblingly left only dimes. And apologies were frequent, until I told the hardluckers that there were plenty in the same boat with them. Then, every once in a while, one of the new dime tippers would toss me a dollar bill and say nothing. I knew the answer. He’d landed a job! He was in the dough again.
     But it wasn’t all so simple five years ago when I started on this job, the day that Sardi’s opened. I didn’t know a soul among the big-timers, could barely recognize a few of them. The job had been a sort of birthday present to me, and that first day I was awfully scared—and terribly anxious to succeed. I never dreamed that I’d stick at it five years—and then want to keep it fifty more!
     Five years! It isn’t much when you say i fast—but a lot of things have happened since then. When Sardi’s opened, there weren’t any Broadway columnists, and a man’s biological secrets were his own. There weren’t any talkies, and the blonde and beautiful Tillie Awnertz could murder the king’s English without having to worry about losing her dear public. There weren’t even any nasal crooners—most of them were in college or short pants. Five years!
     A lot of kids of my own generation were just getting their first foothold in show business and thought they were lucky to be able to afford Sardi’s eighty-five cent luncheon. Today some of them are way up on top and never dream of going upstairs for cheaper food, or even looking at the price list when they order their daily delicacies.
     A Night in Spain was running at the Schubert Theatre just across the street, and Phil Baker, Ted Healy and Helen Kane were getting their first big chance. Today Baker and Healy are headliners, and Helen Kane has gained fame, fortune, notoriety and considerable poundage. She was getting fifty bucks a week then—now she gets over two thousand and works when she feels like it!
     Robert Montgomery was an adorable young juvenile who owed money to everyone in town and who frequently ate at Sardi’s on the cuff. He was trying frantically to woo and win the lovely Elizabeth Allen who was playing the lead in Broadway, but no one ever thought Bob would get her because it was doubtful if he could even pay for the license and ring. Today they’re happily married, Robert Montgomery is a screen name to conjure with, and his weekly pay check runs ever so high. And millions of movie fans find him every bit as charming as I did in the days “when.”
     Those first days at Sardi’s were a lot of fun—and a lot of worry too. There wasn’t a great amount of business, the restaurant was big, and the “nut” high. Like every café owner, Sardi wanted his establishment to be a rendezvous of-and-for celebrities. The little place near the Lambs Club had whetted his appetite for Big Names, and Sardi hungered to repeat his success on a larger scale.
     We were talking about the disheartening business one day when things were particularly slack, and Sardi began to reminisce about famous Continental restaurants. Somehow the conversation swung around to Joe Zelli’s in Paris.
     “Zelli’s is wonderful,” exclaimed Sardi. “No one would ever dream of seeing Paris without spending at least one evening in Zelli’s. It’s the rendezvous of all the celebrities. I guess they go there because their caricatures hang on the wall.
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