Mark Twain Wasn’t the Only Famous Person in Hannibal, MO, Part 3: The Unsinkable Molly Brown

To recap: a small local history museum in Hannibal, Missouri, introduced me to Hannibal-born celebrities who weren’t Mark Twain. Two were totally new to me. One I knew. Or at least I thought I did.

Margaret Tobin Brown was born in Hannibal, Missouri to poor Irish-immigrant parents in 1867.* And after that, it turns out that almost everything I “knew” about her was wrong.** She wasn’t even called Molly in her lifetime. Her friends called her Maggie.

Instead trying to tell her real story, I’m going to send you an episode of the What’s Her Name podcast, in which two of my favorite women’s history people talk to Jamie Melissa Wilms of the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver.  Believe me, it's a doozy.

 

*The three-room cottage where the Tobin family lived is now a museum, which we didn’t even try to visit. ( Like many visitors in Hannibal, we wore ourselves out on Mark Twain. ) Her much grander home in Denver, where she lived after the Brown mining interests made them wealthy, is also a museum. I’m putting it on the list.

**Which is something of a relief because I never liked the musical that claimed to be based on her life.

 

Mark Twain Wasn’t the Only Famous Person from Hannibal, MO, Pt. 2: Lester Gaba and the “Gaba Girls”

As I mentioned in my last blog post, a small local history museum in Hannibal, Missouri, introduced me to Hannibal-born celebrities who weren’t Mark Twain. One I knew. Two were totally new to me.

Next up, Lester Gaba, who parlayed a talent for carving soap into an unlikely career, and stumbled into celebrity in the process.

***

Lester Gaba was born in Hannibal in 1907. He was an artistic child and when he was ten he entered a soap carving contest sponsored by Proctor & Gamble.* He didn’t win, but he continued to carve soap.

After graduating from art school in Chicago, he went into the advertising business. His soap carvings began to appear on magazine covers and in ads. He wrote books on the subject. Soon he was making a living carving soap.

In 1932, Gaba took soap carving one-step further. He carved a lifelike, full-sized mannequin he named Cynthia for use in a Saks Fifth Avenue window displays. Based on New York socialite Cynthia Wells, she was the first of a series of mannequins known as “Gaba Girls,” each of which was modeled on a real life New York society woman. It was a game-changer for window displays. Mannequins had previous been made of wax—both creepy and prone to melting in the windows in the summer.

Gaba decided to use Cynthia as marketing scheme for the line of mannequins and his own career. He took her as his date to events. Visitors to his apartment would encounter her “hanging out” with a book or a cup of coffee. (Or a cigarette. Cynthia was definitely a smoker.) She began to show up in the society pages.

Cynthia took on a life of her own after Gaba posed with her (it?) in a humorous Life Magazine photo shoot with Alfred Eisenstaedt in 1937.  Suddenly she was a celebrity, and just like modern influencers, swag began to roll in Tiffany and Cartier sent her jewelry. Lilly Daché designed hats for her.** Courtiers sent her their latest designs and furriers sent her minks. Cynthia had a credit card from Saks, season tickets to a box seat at the Metropolitan Opera, a newspaper column and a radio show. (I assume Gaba did all the talking, but I don’t really know.) She appeared in a movie with Jack Benny in 1938

The joke ended in 1942, when Gaba was conscripted into the army. He shipped Cynthia home to his mother in Hannibal, with instructions that she continue to be treated like a “real girl”*** One day Cynthia accompanied Mrs. Gaba to the beauty salon, where she fell off a chair and shattered into a million pieces, give or take a thousand. The press reported that Gaba was distraught at her death. Gaba rebuilt her after the war, but the magic was over.

Gaba continued to be force in what the trade called visual merchandising.

*There is a certain brilliance to this as a merchandising campaign: Proctor and Gamble got “feel good” publicity and sold kids lots of soap.

**I must admit I had to look up Lilly Daché. Turns out she was a big deal in the fashion world of the 1930s and 1940s.

***Pinocchio reference, in honor of Ukulele Ike.

 

Mark Twain Wasn’t the Only Famous Person from Hannibal, MO, Pt. 1: Ukele Ike

At first glance, Hannibal, Missouri, is all Mark Twain, all the time. Even the the African-American history museum,* uses Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as a jumping off point. However, there is a small museum devoted to Hannibal history as a while. Like many local history museums, the hours are erratic and there is a homemade feel to the exhibits—particularly in contrast to the Mark Twain interpretive center. Like most local history museums, it tells the story of the town’s founders and the industries that kept it alive in its boom years—which is always interesting as far as I’m concerned. But the exhibits that captured my imagination were the ones dealing with Hannibal’s “other” celebrities. One I knew. Two were totally new to me.

***

First up, Cliff Edwards, known professionally as “Ukulele Ike.”* Who, you say? Stick with me. I guarantee that you know his most famous work even if you don’t know his name.

Photo by William P. Gottlieb from Library of Congress collection.

Cliff Edwards was born in Hannibal in 1895, and like Mark Twain he left early and traveled far. (Let’s face it, you didn’t become famous if you stayed in Hannibal.)

Edwards began his musical career in St. Louis, where he provided the soundtrack to silent movies. Because performing “illustrated songs” didn’t pay enough to live on, he also worked a lot of odd jobs, washing dishes, painting railroad cars, selling newspapers, and singing in bars. At some point, probably around 1916, Edwards discovered the ukulele, which had reached the United States mainland the year before thanks to the Hawaiian musicians and dancers who performed in the Panama-Pacific International exposition in San Francisco.

Over time, Edwards found his way into touring tent shows and traveled wherever the music took him. He became “Ukulele Ike” in 1917 at a gig at the Arsonia Cafe in Chicago, where one of the waiters, who couldn’t remember his name, called him Ike.

The Arsonia was the real start of his music career. From there he began to tour the vaudeville circuit—a serious step up from the tent shows. He made his first recordings for Columbia Records in 1919. In 1924, George Gershwin hired him to play in the Broadway show Lady Be Good alongside the young Fred and Adele Astaire. The show was a hit, and so was “Ukulele Ike”.

After performing in several other Broadway shows, including the Ziegfield Follies of 1927, Edwards moved to Hollywood where he introduced the hit song “Singing in the Rain”--20 years before Gene Kelly made it famous a second time. He worked on movies with Buster Keaton and sang in the kind of 1929 musicals that had big production numbers and no real story line.

In 1939 he played what would be his best-known role: Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio.  The role included singing “When You Wish Upon a Star" which won an Oscar for best song in 1940 and became the studio’s theme song in the 1950s. During the days of The Mickey Mouse Club, Disney received 2000 letters a week from fans asking for the name of the singer.

https://youtu.be/m4ifzcpMX18

Warning: clicking the video may induce an earworm.

* Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center.

*He got the name when he was working in a cafe on the west side of Chicago. One of the waiters, who couldn’t remember his name, called him Ike.