Lester Gaba, Michelangelo of the Bathtub

Lester Gaba Popeye Soap

I promise not to make a habit of showing items relating to non-Charles Mintz characters on Scrappyland. But the Popeye soap on a rope depicted above — which I recently found in an antique mall outside Seattle — isn’t just any Popeye soap on a rope.

Lester GabaIt was sculpted by Lester Gaba (1907-1987), the same fellow responsible for the wondrous soap figurines of Scrappy, Margy and Yippy. (Here’s the example in the Scrappyland collection, and here’s a photo of Scrappy’s pal Cora Sue Collins posing with the soap.)

Back in the 1930s, Gaba was everywhere. His soap toys, manufactured by a company called Kerk Guild, seem to have been very popular. And judging from how many of them survive today, many people treated them as prized collectibles rather than as cleaning products.

Here (from a Hake’s Americana auction) is his Shirley Temple(s).

Lester Gaba Shirley Temple Figures

And his Wimpy, Olive Oyl, and Popeye.

Lester Gaba Soap Figures


And a drawing from his patent for Dionne Quintuplets soap figures.

Lester Gaba quintupletsAnd here, from Gaba’s book Soap Carving, are some more of his figures — including Scrappy, Yippy, Wimpy, Shirley, and Charlie McCarthy plus a cherub and a little Dutch girl.

Lester Gaba soap figures

Gaba’s soap figurines also appeared on the cover of the old-old version of Life magazine, where they wore clothes fashioned from real fabric and posed in what amounted to three-dimensional cartoons.

Lester Gaba Life cover

Lester Gaba Life CoverBut Gaba’s greatest fame — and for a time, it was considerable — came from the Gaba Girls, the department-store dummies he designed. The next version of Life (the famous one) liked them so much that they devoted two extensive photo essays (and one cover) to them in 1937. (You can check out the stories here and here.)

The most famous Gaba Girl, and Gaba’s constant companion, was Cynthia, who he designed for Saks Fifth Avenue. In the 1930s, Cynthia went to fancy parties, attended shows, hobnobbed at nighclubs, and smoked and drank cocktails (or at least held cigarettes and sat near cocktails).

Here are Gaba and Cynthia at Manhattan’s legendary Stork Club, as photographed by Life‘s Alfred Eisenstaedt in 1937.

Lester Gaba and Cynthia

Cynthia also did radio and TV, and apparently appeared in at least one movie, Jack Benny’s Artists and Models Abroad (1938). Here she is in a publicity shot with Benny, Joan Bennett and a cop.

Artists and Models Abroad

Gaba may have been seen all around town with Cynthia, but latter-day scuttlebutt pairs him with another celebrity who, like Gaba, started out as a window dresser: Vincente Minnelli.

If you want to learn more about Gaba’s soap toys, read this spread from Soap Carving (click it for a larger version). Sadly, the man doesn’t seem to have been moved to carve a life-sized Scrappy…

Lester Gaba's Soap Carvings

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