Is the TGI Friday restaurant corporation secretly a lover of history and architecture?
I ask this only because I could never fathom how the wonderful facade of the I. Miller Building on the northeast corner of 46th Street and Seventh Avenue just off Times Square has survived all these years, and not been covered over by the red-and-white billboard of TGIF, which occupied the ground floor space of the buidling.
Passersby who occasionally look up may know this building better as the former vainglorious shoe emporium which proclaimed in carved words still visible: "The Show Folks Shoe Shop Dedicated to Beauty in Footwear." Now there's a slogan. Below this motto stand four inset statues, all great women of the performing arts in their separate disciplines. They are, from left to right: Mary Pickford as Little Lord Fauntleroy; Rosa Ponselle in "Norma"; Ethel Barrymore as Ophelia; and Marilyn Miller in the title role in the musical "Sunny."
I doubt most of the swarming tourists eating their super nachos in TGIF know who any of these once-great stars are, with the possible exception of Ethel (that's her above), since Drew Barrymore has kept the name of that acting clan alive. (Actually, the "Ethel" in her name IS blocked by the TGIF sign, so folks might think that is Drew up there.) And silent film buffs will remember Pickford. Ponselle and Miller have suffered the greatest fall-off in fame. Miller (below) was once the preeminent musical theatre star of her day. She scored a hit with "Sunny" just four years before this statue was unveiled; she died seven years later.
It's a lovely and poignant frieze to gaze upon, a testimony to the fleeting fame of the performers that have tried their luck in the adjoining streets over the past 100 or so years. And a quick check in the AIA Guide reveals why it's survived. Apparently, the exterior was landmarked in 1999. (How is suffered through the Times Square boom years leading up until then is another question.) This is probably because the statues were all sculpted by A. Stirling Calder, Alexander's pa, and the same guy who carved George Washington under the Washington Arch. They date from 1929. So we'll be able to enjoy the visages of these four women for years to come. If only the landlord would polish them up a bit.
P.S.—Another weird fact: I. Miller hired Andy Warhol as its chief illustrator in the mid-1950s.