The Daily Heller: Arthur Szyk and NYC Urban Archeology

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New York City is defined by archeology. Only instead of grand wonders of the ancient world, Manhattan’s wonders, although no less wonderful, are much less ancient and a bit more quotidian. Some of the grandeur remains while so much that is lost is also forgotten.

We remember the glory that was Pennsylvania Station, sadly lost to the developers’ wrecking ball. (Fortunately, it is well-documented.) Despite Times Square’s arguable digital devolution, there is still something majestic about this epicenter of spectaculars that brighten the Great White Way. We are blessed that this canyon of light and pyrotechnics has also been well-recorded through photos and films of the street and its urban artifacts (see here and here).

There remains an almost ceaseless flow of lost and forgotten monuments to, remnants of, and nostalgia for NYC’s commercial arts. One such document was recently discovered by Alexis Bullock, research/administrative assistant at Historicana, a repository founded by Irvin Unger for the preservation of all things Arthur Szyk, the extraordinary Polish emigre advertising, editorial, book illustrator and caricaturist.

Through her research, Bullock discovered a major billboard for the hit musical As the Girls Go, originally sketched by Szyk, but rendered by artists working for Artkraft Strauss, one of New York’s largest billboard firms.

Broadway producer Mike Todd commissioned the great Szyk to design a billboard above the Winter Garden Theatre marquee. It showed the stage-star Bobby Clark chasing two showgirls while “looking back coyly” at famous Broadway columnists. Each theater critic held a sign—appearing like a scorecard—with quotes from the reviews they had given As the Girls Go. “Todd knew the value of Szyk’s work and recognized his place in and influence over American culture,” writes Bullock. “After Szyk finished it, the small sketch was transformed into the 26-by-156-foot billboard painted by Robert Everhart and Peter McCall, making it the largest known rendition of Szyk’s work.”

The photograph (above) of the final rendering reminds this native New Yorker of the remains from a transitional Times Square era that is still vivid in memory. (Don’t miss the great store signage squeezed for attention, and those streamline autos, too.) It also underscores the power and glory of advertising as the centerpiece of Midtown. Read Bullock’s full essay here, not only for her admirable research but also as a fascinating tale about the state of commercial art then and now.