For centuries, music was the main form of entertainment for families. To help facilitate the learning of songs, printing of sheet music began in the early 1800s. The business was disorganized and haphazard, with no great ballyhooing system to spread the word of new songs. By the 1830s and 1840s, sheet music began trickling out to other cities, mainly for big hits.
Publishing sheet music became a big business in the 1880s, leading to what we know as Tin Pan Alley. Publishers around the country, but particularly ones in New York City, bought songs or hired composers to write tunes, often based on the news of the day, fads, or popular personalities. To help promote their catalogs, they hired pluggers, men who combed beer halls, theatres, restaurants, burlesque shows, and variety outlets, to sell new songs and get them played frequently. This word of mouth business would lead to skyrocketing sales of sheet music.
Popular Broadway shows soon sold sheet music of their hit songs in the lobby after performances. Motion picture theatres joined the act by adding song slides to their programs around 1903. With the advent of film stars’ names appearing on marquees around 1910, a potent branding tool soon followed. Actor Francis X. Bushman supposedly wrote a waltz in 1913 and Kathlyn Williams, the star of the first action serial, Selig’s “The Adventures of Kathlyn,” appeared on sheet music promoting the film that same year. Studios soon learned that songs inspired by their films, and featuring stars’ faces on elegant covers, boosted sales and name recognition.
Film producer Mack Sennett eagerly joined the game of synergy when he began producing feature films. Recognizing that sex sells, his studio highlighted his sexy, young “bathing beauties” on covers for the 1919 film “Yankee Doodle in Berlin,” and particularly for the comic “Help, Help, Mr. Sennett, I’m Drowning in a Sea of Love.”
Though the cover says composer Ray Perkins was “dedicated to and inspired by Mack Sennett and the Bathing Girls,” a studio check actually bought creation. The Sennett Studios eagerly supplied a 1915 Sennett portrait by Hartsook and a bevy of stills featuring the cuties in slinky swimsuits. As the back of the music states, “That bevy of blooming blonde and brunette bathing beauties of Mack Sennett would make the Sultan swagger and Brigham Young yearn…. When these girls go into the sea the fish come in schools, and believe us, they learn something. The talented Ray Perkins saw them cavorting on the screen one day and he immediately sat down and wrote this dear and popular song about them. The pictures on this page are copyrighted by Mack Sennett.”
Perkins was experienced in writing songs to promote films. Wid’s Daily stated on January 26, 1919 that Captain Ray Perkins and Seaman Roy Turk had written a song called “The Heart of Humanity,” dedicated to Universal Studio’s Dorothy Phillips, the star of the film. The song would be introduced at the Broadway theatre that week in the the last week of the film ‘s run. “Help Help..” followed the same pattern, coming out just after the film opened to promote the new film and increase box office attendance.
Waterson, Berlin & Snyder published the song, which featured the following patter and verse:
I saw Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties,
Just the other day on the screen;
Of all the captivating cuties,
They’re the sweetest I have ever seen.
I saw them frolic on the seashore,
They stole my heart away;
And after the show, I met some fellows I know -
And they all back me up when I say:
Help! help! Mister Sennett help!
I’m drowning in a sea of love;
Just because those bathing girls of yours,
Have got me always thinking of ‘em,
Gee! I love ‘em!
Each peach, Strolling on the beach,
Won me when she winked and smiled;
If your need a life-guard just call upon me,
For I’d like to offer my services free;
Help! Help! Mister Sennett help!
Your bathing beauties are driving me wild.
The cuties were hot stuff in 1919, thanks to studio promotion and the film “Yankee Doodle in Berlin,” with the Sennett studio providing the Los Angeles Times a plethora of photos revealing shapely gams for standalone images in the newspaper. Cute babes appeared at least three times that year, on March 31, October 22, and November 6.
The Times March 31 review of “Yankee Doodle in Berlin” notes that the Kinema theatre program featured starlets’ photos on the screen as part of the show. “Pictures titled “Why Beaches Are Popular”–we discover why when Sennett’s famous Bathing Beauties are flashed before us.”
The studio diligently promoted their feature film with many promotions at the theatre. In an April 10, 1919 story, the author eagerly notes, “Oh, Boy! Phyllis Haver, she of the shimmering bathing suits, is to be a vamp at the Kinema this evening, where old Man Hindy is to meet another Waterloo…” Mack Sennett supposedly wrote a comic sketch for she, Bothwell Browne, and bathing beauties to perform that night, along with an original act called “Pipes of Pan” to be performed that Saturday with Charlie Murray and the girls as part of a huge midnight frolic sponsored by the studio.
The winsome women shocked audiences and brought scandal as well. On July 10, exhibitor Sol Lesser and nine bathing beauties were arrested at Coney Island when they were attempting to stage a photo shoot in their skimpy bathing suits. The Nineteenth Century Club of Oak Park, Chicago caused a ruckus in October when they forced the censor, Otto McFeeley, to eliminate the whole first reel of “Yankee Doodle in Berlin” because of the attentions caused by their short one piece bathing suits.
Sex continues to sell popular entertainment, though sheet music has virtually disappeared from shelves. While Sennett bathing beauties wore tight, one piece bathing suits, today, hot young babes pose nearly nude for major magazines or shoot risque music videos to help promote new films.