REGINALD MARSH (1898–1954)
Tempera and pencil on gessoed panel, 35 3/4 x 23 3/4 in.
RECORDED: Fortune XVIII (September 1938), p. 71 illus. in color
EXHIBITED: Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin at Madison, long-term loan, 2006–18
EX COLL: the artist; to William Benton, Connecticut, until 1973, to his daughter, Helen Benton Boley (1938–2017), Madison, Wisconsin; to her estate, until 2019
Wednesday July 6, 1938 was a busy day in the life of working artist Reginald Marsh. The cryptic notes Marsh entered into his “Little Red Book” record “2 watercolors” for the morning, “Coney” [Island] for the afternoon and, for the evening, “to Casa Manana—for Fortune” (Reginald Marsh papers, “Diaries, 1912–1954, ‘The Little Red Book’ Engagement Diaries, 1935–39,” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution). The entry for Saturday July 9 indicates “Casa Manana—even[ing]”. By Tuesday the twelfth, Marsh recorded “paint and finish Casa Manana.” The painting’s subject, Casa Mañana, was a nightclub at 50th Street and Seventh Avenue, equidistant between Times Square and Carnegie Hall in the center of what is still Manhattan’s theater district. In 1938, the Club was owned and operated by the flamboyant entertainment impresario Billy Rose. Fortune commissioned Reginald Marsh to paint a picture of the interior during a performance for a full-page illustration in its planned article, “Put Their Name in Lights,” an examination of the very substantial business of the William Morris Agency, the “oldest theatrical agent in the U.S.” The article ran in Fortune’s September 1938 issue (pp. 67–72, 96) with Marsh’s picture prominently featured on page 71 in a color illustration that noted in small print at the bottom left of the picture “Painted for FORTUNE by Reginald Marsh.” Marsh was, without question, the ideal artist for this assignment.
Cabaret is the painting Marsh recorded as “Casa Manana.” Fortune accompanied the illustration in its September 1938 issue with a text explaining that vaudeville, “with its old-time acts has almost vanished. But variety as an entertainment form lives and thrives in theatre restaurants like Billy Rose’s Casa Mañana, pictured here for FORTUNE by Reginald Marsh, and in night clubs and hotel supper rooms all over the country” (p. 71). The subject matter could not have been more congenial for Marsh. In 1937, the administration of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia succeeded in erasing Burlesque in New York City, chasing it across the Hudson River to New Jersey. The departure of Burlesque left Marsh without a favorite pastime and also without a favorite indoor popular leisure subject.
Billy Rose (William Samuel Rosenberg, 1899–1966) was ready to fill the void. A flamboyant showbusiness entrepreneur and legendary Broadway character, Rose “pioneered in creating entertainment for people of moderate income” (New York Times, February 11, 1966, p. 1, “Billy Rose Is Dead; Showman Was 66”). By 1938, Billy Rose was an indefatigable self-promoter whose private life and public activities generated a steady stream of copy for gossip columnists and theater columnists. In 1929, he married comedian Fanny Brice, taller, older and more famous than her five-foot three-inch husband. The union was celebrated at City Hall with Mayor Jimmy Walker presiding. Rose made his name as a Broadway producer and nightclub owner, credited by the New York Times as the founder in late 1933, of “the theater cabaret craze” (January 19, 1938, p. 26. “Billy Rose Presents His Night Club Show”), with the short-lived “Casino de Paree.” Rose didn’t confine himself to New York City. In 1936, Amon Carter recruited Rose to Fort Worth to program a Broadway-quality show for an outdoor theater and restaurant as part of the celebration of the Texas Centennial. Located in a transformed cow pasture, the Texas-sized venue featured the world’s largest revolving stage with seating for 4,000 people. It was called the Casa Mañana, (House of Tomorrow), echoing the “World of Tomorrow” theme of the planned 1939 New York City World’s Fair. In summer 1937, Rose went to Cleveland, where, for the Great Lakes Exposition, he created his “Aquacade.” Five thousand patrons dined at lakeside and watched as Olympic gold-medal swimmers Eleanor Holm and Johnny Weissmuller performed in Lake Erie. In 1939 Rose moved the Aquacade to the New York World’s Fair.
Rose opened the Casa Mañana in New York in January 1938. With prices beginning at $1.00 for a show only and going up to $2.50 to include dinner, Rose, as always, aimed at the masses, not the classes. He identified his intended customer as “Mr. Forgotten Man (the guy who pays the check)” (Lewis, Erenberg, “Impresarios of Broadway Nightlife,” in William R. Taylor, ed., Inventing Times Square: Commerce and Culture at the Crossroads of the World [Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996], p. 173). The roster of artists who passed through Casa Mañana in its brief year-and-a-half run (it closed in May 1939) illustrates Rose’s ability to present the talent that the people wanted to see: Helen Morgan, Abbot & Costello, the Three Stooges, Jimmy Durante, Bert Wheeler, Betty Hutton, Louis Armstrong, and Millie Picon among many others with orchestras led, at various times, by Vincent Lopez, Louis Prima, and Paul Whiteman. The building that housed the Club was a well-known destination. The original site of Earl Carrol’s theater, it had been renovated into an elegant dinner nightclub in 1934. Named the French Casino, the Club featured a series of Parisan-themed shows with “Folies” in their title and was the most popular nightclub in town until it ran out of money in 1937. Billy Rose promptly took over the space, redecorated, and renamed it. Although the initial lease ran for six years, Rose closed the club in May 1939, partly the result of ongoing union troubles, but also because his attention was diverted. Divorced from Fannie Brice in October 1938, he was preparing to marry his new girlfriend, Aquacade star Eleanor Holm. Moreover, he had a new project, the supper club he called Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe, which opened at Christmas 1938 in the basement of Broadway’s Paramount Theater. Rose ran the Diamond Horseshoe until 1951.
Cabaret is a major Marsh tempera painting. Marsh uses the striking architectural elements of the interior of the Casa Mañana as a setting for his characteristic observations of Americans as they behave when they are not being observed. The picture is a study in chiaroscuro and grisaille. What looks to be a capacity audience sits mostly in the shadows, watching the performers on stage whose acrobatic dance is illuminated by a theatrical spotlight. The internal structure of the club reflects its previous incarnation as a theater with the former proscenium and stage area rendered in shades of grisaille. The stage was built out allowing for table seating going from stage side to the far rear. The old mezzanine and balcony were built out with rounded projecting terraces whose tables offered unobstructed on high views of the stage. Marsh painted these terraces red and grey in a curvilinear deco pattern echoing the shape of the terraces. The underside of the mezzanine is a deep decorative red, a dramatic architectonic shape in high contrast to the sketched-out sea of faces farther from the stage.
In classic Marsh fashion, the artist focuses his attention on a few figures of special interest. In the left foreground, a waitress leans over in conversation with a male patron. Behind her, a waiter makes his way through the crowd, holding aloft with one uplifted arm a tray with food and drink balanced high over his head, an acrobatic feat as much a part of the nightclub show as the activity on the stage. Two women and a man share a table near the stage, all watching the show intently. A bottle in an ice bucket sits adjacent to the table, the economic engine that made this whole scene a working business model. The patrons are dressed neatly in street clothing, the ladies with everyday hats. They are decent but there is no show of finery. While Billy Rose was famous for glamorous showgirls and as much bare skin as the law would allow, he also had an enduring fondness for vaudeville-style family entertainment. The two performers on the stage appear to be some version of acrobatic dancers, the excitement in their performance the result of breathtaking agility and grace with nothing to arouse either the libidos of the audience or the attention of the licensing authorities.
While the immediate circumstances of the Fortune commission remain unclear, in March 1938, Marsh received a letter from Fortune requesting that he update his contact information and send them samples of his current work. (Marsh papers, Archives of American Art). Marsh was not new to Fortune. In September 1932, the magazine used his work to illustrate its article, “No One Has Ever Starved.” In July 1935, Marsh supplied paintings to illustrate “King of Bottled Beer,” an examination of the resurgence of the Anheuser Busch brewing company after the end of Prohibition. Fortune, had been founded by fellow Yale graduate Henry Luce as “the Ideal Super-Class Magazine.” Proposed in early 1929, Luce was fresh from his success with Time. The magazine published its first issue in 1930, hardly a propitious year for an expensive publication examining and celebrating American business. Nevertheless, Luce persevered, and Fortune prospered. In the decade of the 1930s, Fortune’s roster of writers included James Agee, Dwight MacDonald, Archibald MacLeish, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Alfred Kazin. Led by art director Eleanor Treacy, the magazine commissioned the work of noted photographers Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke White, and the work of contemporary artists Diego Rivera, John Steuart Curry, Paul Sample, and Reginald Marsh.