Forgotten Australian Actors

Blanche Satchel – the Australian Ziegfeld girl

Above: Blanche Satchel, in a photo probably aboard the SS George Washington when she first arrived in the US, in September 1925. Bain News Service photograph collection, Library of Congress. (Enlargement)

The 5 Second version
Born in Sydney in 1906 as Blanche Schachtel, she had a long experience as a juvenile stage performer in Australia, encouraged by her mother. She travelled to London in 1925 but soon after went to the US to appear as a showgirl for Florenz Ziegfeld in his revues, including his Follies. Her final performance was in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 – a US career of only 7 years. She died in New York in 2004. She appears to have been the only Australian born Ziegfeld Girl.

Growing up in Australia

She was born at the family home (and business) in Liverpool Street, Sydney Australia on 30 September 1906, as Blanch Sybil Schachtel, to Montague Schachtel and Doris nee Polack. Montague ran a pawnbrokers for many years at 92-94 Liverpool Street, but he is sometimes also listed in documents as an importer and auctioneer. In her earlier days, Doris had appeared on stage in Australia and New Zealand as Dorrie Melrose, a member of the Princess Comic Opera Company. By 1924, the family were living in a comfortable house at 24 Watson Street Bondi, not far from the famous beach, while Blanche finished school at Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School. It is quite possible that accounts told later in life are true – these suggest she grew up the sporty, outdoors – loving, Australian girl, in the established traditions of Annette Kellerman and Beatrice Kerr.

Above left: Blanche – a photo showing her as a youngster. The Sunday Times (Syd) 6 December 1925, P12. Via the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Above right: An unmade-up Blanche, soon after arrival in England. Daily Mirror, 25 August 1925, P1. Copyright held by Reach PLC. Via the British Library’s Newspaper Archive.

Doris was to be an important force in her daughter’s success – and there is strong evidence she fostered her Blanche’s interests in a stage career from an early age. Blanche learnt dancing with Minnie Everett, one of Sydney’s well known ballet mistresses, and in early 1916, she was on stage in Sydney with Douglas Ancelon and Stella Chapman‘s College of Dramatic Arts, one of the best known Australian elocution and drama schools. As Desley Deacon has noted in her article on Judith Anderson, Sylvia Bremer and Dorothy Cumming, in the early twentieth century, elocution schools served a much broader purpose than just knocking off vestiges of an Australian girl’s colonial accent. It also taught girls marketable skills and instilled discipline.

Two years later, Blanche was on stage with Miss Ruby Davies’ Bondi-Waverley Players, appearing in the popular comedy-drama Little Lord Fauntleroy in the title role of Cedric. On one occasion the state’s Governor even watched a performance. Over the next few years, and now using the surname Satchel, Blanche also appeared in Davies’ pantomimes, including Snow White and Aladdin. She may also have performed in the chorus for Hugh Ward professional productions in the early 1920s. At some point, Blanche and her mother decided that she should try her luck as a performer in England. They arrived in London on the Orient line ship Ormuz in late May, 1925.

Launching an international career

Blanche’s quick success in London was remarkable. Soon after arriving she had a place in the chorus at the Prince’s nightclub cabaret, reportedly on £6 per week. However, by late August 1925, she had a new offer from none other than visiting US theatre impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932), to join his spectacular follies in New York. His trademark show was the annual Ziegfeld Follies, with its lavish numbers and hugely spectacular synchronized pageantry, performed with dozens of glamourous showgirls.

The story of their meeting and his offer to her got longer and more complex with each telling. This writer is inclined to the view that the earliest accounts were the most accurate, including this one which directly quoted Blanche; “My mother must really get the credit for this, as it was she who saw in the newspapers Mr Ziegfeld’s request for six girls, and brought me to him… Mr Ziegfeld thought I was a little too short at first and I waited in an agony of suspense until he finally said ‘All Right – you’ll do!’ “ (Daily Mirror, 25 Aug 1925). Of course she was not short at all – the very comprehensive US passenger manifest for the SS George Washington recorded that she stood a completely average height of 167 cm, or 5’6″. But she was good looking.

Above: Blanche, at her glamourous best and now a established Ziegfeld girl, in a US newspaper photospread. The Baltimore Sun (Maryland) May 27, 1928, P97, via newspapers.com

Described during his lifetime with a mix of gushing admiration – “his work of the last year is the work of genius” (Daily News 20 Mar 1928) and mock indignation “the acknowledged master of skin opera” (Austin American 18 Jan 1928), “Flo” Ziegfeld has been the subject of many biographies. Understandably, our appreciation of his work has changed over time. He might be best thought of today as a “man of his time.” In a 1994 article for The American Scholar, Michael Lasser has written “how strange it must seem to those under forty [today] that a theatrical producer could have become one of the most celebrated….figures of his day for his success at the public display of women…” Amongst the most recent biographies is Cynthia and Sara Brideson’s 2015 Ziegfeld and his Follies, which aptly introduces him as “a man of triple and quadruple personalities” (using his second wife Billie Burke’s words) and provides a masterful account of his life, including his reputation as the “Glorifier of the American girl.”

Above: Don Draper from the TV series Mad Men did not invent the Lucky Strike slogan “It’s toasted”, it has been around for many years. Here Florenz Ziegfeld appears with the slogan in 1928. Motion Picture Classic Jul-Dec 1928. Via the Lantern Digital Media Project.

Blanche was just one of many young women Flo chose as a performer and feted as a showgirl, not some special case. Lasser estimates there were more than three thousand girls selected up to the time of Flo’s death in 1932. Cynthia and Sara Brideson also cite Eddie Cantor’s view that “glorifying the American Girl… was an actual process invented by Zieggy”. Well-planted publicity stories made many of his girls stars off stage and the stereotype that all Ziegfeld girls married millionaires was well established. However, in Blanche’s case, there was also a real controversy accompanying her arrival in the US. Her London employers were not at all keen to let her go, and threatened legal action – claiming she was abandoning a contract. Today we can see why she left – the opportunities working in the US were much more attractive and it all came with a salary four times higher than she was receiving in London. Estimates are that the showgirls were paid the equivalent of $75 per week (approximately $1500 in 2021 money). Newspapers lapped the story up and it gave Blanche some much needed publicity, although there is no sign the dispute ever worried Flo Ziegfeld. Blanche was soon performing in a Ziegfeld chorus – in fabulous extravagant costumes.

Above: Blanche in costume and an unwieldy headdress from an unspecified show. The Journal (Connecticut)19 Feb 1929, P10. Via newspapers.com

In the interests of good publicity, from about 1916 Flo arranged for Alfred Cheney Johnston to photograph (the Bridesons suggest “glorify”) his showgirls – in time this included Blanche – usually the girls being in a state of genteel undress, occasionally nude. Most of the suggestive but less scandalous photos would appear in theatre programs – these were subtle and classical enough that Blanche’s mother could say she approved, as she did of a portrait painted by Howard Chandler Christy. However, these photos of the Ziegfeld girls remind us that no matter how kind Flo was as an employer, the girls were commodities, being employed for their looks, sex appeal and only sometimes their stage craft. Blanche Satchel was no different.

Above: Charcoal drawing of a painting of Blanche by Howard Chandler Christy, in The Oakland Tribune, 24 March 1929, P68. Via Newspapers.com. The Getty archive image here shows Christy posing with Blanche in front of the original painting.

The glamour publicity associated with the Ziegfeld girls extended to various alleged romances, often created for publicity purposes. In Blanche’s case, in October 1928 Time magazine associated her romantically with aviator Charles Lindbergh. There is no evidence this was the case, it appears the couple never met. But it is likely that in the early 1930s she had a short romance with “Cuba’s most eligible bachelor” – a certain Paul Mendoza.

In August 1928 Blanche took up a role with Flo’s competitor Earl Carroll, for his revue – Vanities. Carroll publicized Blanche in his program with more fanfare that usual, but by July 1929 she was back with Ziegfeld again – in the chorus of his new musical Show Girl. Blanche’s other performances for Ziegfeld included Simple Simon, Smiles, and the last Follies show before Ziegfeld’s death in 1932. For Blanche it was busy work, although like most of the girls, she was never singled out in reviews. If she appeared in Paramount’s Glorifying the American Girl – a 1929 film that romanticized Ziegfeld’s shows – it was merely as an extra. But in early 1933, newspapers reported she was about to take a film test in Hollywood.

Above: Made under the “personal supervision” of Florenz Ziegfeld, Glorifying the American Girl was made by Paramount Pictures in 1929. However, the film had spent several years in development. Here, it is announced as a forthcoming 1926 production by the Motion Picture News (April 1926), via the Internet Archive. The 1929 film, directed by Millard Webb, can be watched here. It is unclear if Blanche had a role in it.

Life after her career

The film test never eventuated. Instead Blanche married stockbroker Max Bamberger in June 1933, the ceremony taking place at the very quaint Pickwick Arms Hotel in Greenwich Connecticut, about an hour from New York. Blanche and Max then headed off for a holiday in Canada, and then spent some time in Bermuda. She had well and truly retired from the stage, aged only 26. About the same time, Blanche’s father Montague arrived in New York. He had been bankrolling some of his wife and daughter’s overseas lifestyle, and now, finally, he was permanently joining them. He and Doris set about becoming US citizens.

Above: Blanche, now a celebrity because she was a “former Ziegfeld Follies actress,” promises she won’t remarry. But two months later, she did. The Dayton Herald (Ohio), 1 Aug 1938, P10, via Newspapers.com.

Unfortunately Blanche and Max’s marriage was short-lived. In July 1938 she went to Reno, Nevada to initiate a “friendly divorce” on the grounds of incompatibility – she said she preferred living in the city while Max preferred the country. Only a few months after the divorce, Blanche married William B Yeager, an executive in the US government’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and soon after this, she became a US citizen. But this second marriage also failed sometime in the late 1940s.

Blanche lived in Beverley Hills for a time in early 1960s. She may have married a third time in later life, possibly living until the early years of the 21st century, as a person matching her profile died in March 2004 and was buried in the same cemetery as her parents in Westchester County, New York. This would make Blanche amongst the last of the Ziegfeld girls, although unfortunately she was never interviewed about her experiences. Doris Eaton Travis, who lived to 2010, is accepted as the last, and she left commentaries and appeared in several interviews.

In Sydney’s Bondi, the pretty house where Blanche grew up still stands, apparently little has changed.

Above: The beautiful Blanche – a photo that was regularly used through the 1930s, although she no longer performed. Daily News (New York) 4 Sep 1938, P128. Via newspapers.com

Blanche’s beauty competition?

Blanche was not a “Miss Australia” and did not enter any such competition – which did not start until the 1950s. The basis of the story appears to be this – in 1904 her mother Doris entered an “Australian types of Beauty” competition run by Sydney’s Lorne Photographic Studios. The photo she took, or arranged, or was in, won her the first prize – a piano. What the photo was or showed is now lost. It had nothing to do with Blanche, as she wasn’t born for another two years.


Nick Murphy
August 2021


References

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