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Marilyn Miller as Peter Pan on the I. Miller Building? Not!

Statue of Marilyn Miller as Sunny by A. Stirling Calder on the I. Miller Building in N.Y.C.

In 1999, The New York Times published an article about the sculptures that were created by A. Stirling Calder in the 1920s for the I. Miller Building on Broadway and Forty-Sixth Street in New York City. The sculptures, depicting four women, selected in a poll as the most popular performers in the United States, feature stage actress Ethel Barrymore, opera singer Rosa Ponselle, film star Mary Pickford, and musical comedy star, Marilyn Miller as Sunny. The statue has Miller dressed in a costume from her second most successful Broadway musical, Sunny. Marilyn’s most popular musical was the 1920 Ziegfeld extravaganza, A Marilyn Miller Peter Pan FlyerSally, with a score by Jerome Kern, featured the evergreen, “Look For the Silver Lining.” After a lengthy run and tour Marilyn and Ziegfeld parted company and she was next seen on the boards in Peter Pan which was produced by Charles Dillingham in 1924. This time, Jerome Kern supplied two songs for J.M. Barrie’s play. However, the production suffered greatly from Marilyn’s portrayal of Peter as well as the competition from the new silent film version starring Betty Bronson, who received raves. The following year Dillingham made up for the failure of Peter Pan with the opulent Sunny which was yet another Sally/Cinderella story only with a circus background this time. Again, Jerome Kern composed the score which included “Who?” and “Do Ya Love Me?” and once again Marilyn Miller was in a mega-hit.

Marilyn Miller in costume as Peter Pan, 1924

It was perfectly understandable for sculptor Calder to depict the sculpture of Marilyn Miller in her latest Broadway hit.  And so, for the next seven decades New Yorkers and tourists could look up at these wonderful remnants of another era. Then, in 1999, prominent theatre historian Mary Henderson wrote to The New York Times stating that the sculpture of Marilyn Miller was not of the musical comedy star as Sunny but rather Peter Pan. It seems that a friend of Henderson’s had sent her a photograph of Miller as Peter with a costume that she perceived as similar to the outfit shown in the sculpture. Henderson elaborated in her letter that Marilyn Miller’s costume in Sunny was nothing like what was depicted on the sculpture.

Marilyn Miller in the other Peter Pan costume, 1924

When I read Henderson’s Times letter on the internet a few years later, I quickly searched through my files to find photos of Marilyn as Sunny and as Peter, as I did not remember seeing a Peter Pan costume that resembled what was worn on the statue. In fact, there were two distinctly different costumes in that 1924 production of Peter Pan while the Sunny souvenir program featured several costumes worn by Miller. I was able to secure Ms. Henderson’s phone number in New York and called her immediately. She patiently listened to my argument against Miller depicted as Peter and requested that I send the photographs, for which I complied. We exchanged emails. 

Marilyn Miller as Sunny. Notice that the costume worn in this 1924 photograph is almost identical to that depicted in the Calder sculpture

I did not hear from Ms. Henderson again, despite several emails. Finally, I wrote to The New York Times, sending the photos along with my letter. However, I never heard from the editor either. After a while, figuring that I did not possess the proper credentials, I let it go. Last year I included that information in my new book, Peter Pan on Stage and Screen 1904-2010. Then, a few days ago, I came across Robert Simonson’s obituary for Mary Henderson, who passed away on January 3, 2012. in Congers, New York. Apparently, Henderson had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease the last few years. I wondered if, perhaps, the reason I did not hear back from Ms. Henderson was due to her illness. Still, again the story about Marilyn Miller’s costume was featured, and again, it was presumed that Ms. Henderson was correct in her assumption. Here is an excerpt from Simonson’s obitituary:

Few bits of theatre history escaped Dr. Henderson’s attention. In 1999, she wrote a letter to the New York Times correcting a reporter’s assertion about a long-standing statue of early Broadway star Marilyn Miller that graces the I. Miller shoe store on W. 46th Street, just off Times Square.

“I, like millions of others,” she wrote, “have always assumed, as did your writer, that the figure of Marilyn Miller depicted by the sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder on the I. Miller building was of the actress in Sunny, one of her greatest successes. It only proves that even when engraved in stone, mistakes can be made and perpetuated. Some months ago, a friend of mine sent me a picture of Marilyn Miller in her costume as Peter Pan, one of her less successful roles, but obviously more appealing to Calder than her Sunny costume. So it is as Peter Pan that he immortalized her, not as Sunny as inscribed on the building below the statue.”

For this writer and Peter Pan fan, nothing could be more enticing than the idea of having Marilyn Miller immortalized as Peter in stone. However, for accuracy sake, the harlequin costume in the photo of

A 1924 portrait of Marilyn Miller as Peter Pan; "Sunny" in that role too.

Marilyn as Sunny features the same pom-pom buttons, the head cap, the frilly clown collar, and the large cuffs on the sleeves. It is indeed the Sunny costume and not that of Peter Pan which adorns the sculpture. Thus, once again, Marilyn Miller remains as Sunny as ever, etched in stone. 

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Marilyn Miller as Peter Pan on the I. Miller Building? Not!

  1. You set them to rights, Bruce! To anyone who has ever read or seen Peter Pan, it is quite obvious that Marylyn Miller’s costume bears no relation to him. You can bet anything though that this misattribution is going to have a life of its own from now on,,,

    Posted by Christine | April 2, 2012, 1:36 PM
  2. Sad but true, Christine. When I was doing research for The Peter Pan Chronicles, I did not know about these sculptures on the I. Miller building, despite having grown up in New York City. While searching for them in 1993, a friendly policeman came to my aid, not only with directions but also a full history of the sculptures and stories about the performers themselves. (Mind you this was just before the internet). The officer was enrolled in a course about NYC at a local college and was elated to put to use the information he had learned in class. I always wondered if he changed his story to match Mary Henderson’s.

    Posted by bkhanson | April 2, 2012, 9:15 PM

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