“We need to put on a show,” Harry Gordon Selfridge purportedly told the staff of his grand self-named London store. And that’s just what the brash American retailer did, luring British shoppers with his lavish display tables, night-lit windows (a first), regal restaurant (with orchestra), rooftop garden (with skating rink!), and a wide array of fine luxuries on six glorious floors.
The colorful (and randy!) Selfridge is the one “on show” in the sumptuously produced Masterpiece Theatre series based on Lindy Woodhead’s engaging biography Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge. While the retailer’s self-indulgent personal life provides the drama (Oh, my!), his genius for equating shopping with entertainment – and entertainers themselves – interested me far more.
The forward-thinking Selfridge recognized early on the value of advertising celebrity tie-ins, ranging from in-store promotions (showcasing a French aviator’s record-breaking plane in the middle of his selling floor) to publicizing the shopping trips of glamorous stars. One of those luminaries was the iconic Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. Selfridge first saw the legendary dancer perform at a private soiree hosted by a wealthy British aristocrat in 1911. Though the television series implies Pavlova enjoyed socializing with her public, that was not generally the case. The star ballerina certainly welcomed generous gifts from admirers – and was always extravagantly and excessively over-dressed – but she actually “offered to reduce her fee [for performing in people’s homes] from £500 to £300 if she would not be obliged to take dinner with the guests,” according to Pavlova biographer Oleg Kerensky.
Though Alicia Markova would be compared to Pavlova throughout her career – they were remarkably similar in appearance and balletic style – the two couldn’t have been more different when it came to interacting with the public. Even at the height of her career, Markova (29 years younger than her idol) always made time to sign autographs and chat with fans. She was also far more adventurous when it came to choosing ballets, enjoying the challenge of dancing new contemporary works while Pavlova remained wedded to the classics. And though Pavlova recognized – and capitalized on – the value of advertising and promotions, Markova took marketing to a whole new level. That was something she had in common with Mr. Harry Selfridge, and in the 1930s, the two helped pioneer a newfangled medium called television.
It was Scotsman John Logie Baird who patented the first mechanical television system in 1923, spending the next several decades perfecting his rudimentary invention in a London studio. While many scoffed at the whole idea, Harry Selfridge thought it a great promotional draw when Baird was actually able to transmit live images in 1931. Selfridge not only put a large “televisor” set in the store’s Oxford Street window, but also took out newspaper ads and bus display banners to promote scheduled performances and transmission times.
Realizing that only the most compelling programming would lure customers to stand outside and watch (presumably followed by a shopping trip inside), Baird approached London’s most acclaimed ballerina, 21-year-old Alicia Markova. He knew Selfridge had been a big fan of Pavlova (there were rumors of an affair) and Markova was seen as the Russian ballerina’s successor after she unexpectedly died of pleurisy in January 1931. Although Baird warned Markova of the primitive and difficult conditions required for broadcast transmission, the young dancer literally leapt at the chance. Alicia Markova would become the first ballerina ever to appear on television.
Performing in Baird’s tiny transmission studio – a mere 12 x 12 foot room – was quite an adventure. Markova’s recollections from The Making of Markova: “It was the size of a postage stamp! The floor was covered in big black and white checks and we had to have a piano for musical accompaniment. Then there was this huge beam of light that used to flicker so it was very difficult to balance or focus. There wasn’t room for a partner, so I had to dance alone. For everything, you had to stay in one place. You really couldn’t move around because there wasn’t anywhere to move. The costumes had to be brought in ahead of time and all outlined with black ribbons. And the make-up – dead white – with a black mouth and purple eyes. And when I finished the little variation, to get off camera, I had to duck down, bend, and crawl out under the piano. But I so wanted to be in in the beginning.” Markova chose two ballets that required little side-to-side movement: Moods by Balanchine and the “Polka” from Ashton’s Façade.
Though many in the ballet world thought the whole idea of television completely beneath them, Markova immediately grasped its power to popularize classical dance. And while that was her goal, appearing “live” in Selfridge’s windows, with all the attendant advertising and publicity, made Alicia Markova a London household name.
Again, from The Making of Markova: “She could well have described herself as one of its [television’s] pioneers,” reported Ballet Today in a 1955 profile of Markova, “for she has made countless appearances on the screen, both in this country and in the United States. It is a medium in which she has expressed her faith by her very loyalty and devotion. She recognized it then as a suitable medium for ballet, which only recently has been universally accepted and appreciated. In the days before the war it was still treated in many quarters as a subject for derision and music-hall jokes.”
In 1953, Markova was asked to guest-host the comedy/variety program Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Thirty-million people tuned in and fell in love with the humorous, self-deprecating ballerina. Markova received so much fan mail, she was offered her own half-hour TV program.
Thanks Mr. Selfridge.